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County Durham brewer pulling plaudits with new pints

Sonnet 43 Brew House in Durham is a relatively new kid on the brewing block, but has already made its mark

Michael Harker and Mark Hird of Sonnet 43
Michael Harker and Mark Hird of Sonnet 43

Quite a few pints have been raised to Sonnet 43 Brew House since the craft beer business launched in the autumn of 2012.

Indeed, an estimated 16,000 casks have rolled out of the microbrewery based at Coxhoe in County Durham in that time.

But it’s likely that none of those many glasses of amber nectar will have tasted as sweet as the one the Sonnet 43 crew hope to be lifting in 10 days’ time. On March 25 they will find out if they can add Best Microbrewing Pub Company to the growing number of awards that have been coming the fledgling firm’s way in the past 12 months.

They’re up against fierce competition in this always hotly contested Publican Awards category, aimed at companies pro­­d­­­­ucing less than 10,000 barrels a year and with at least one quality, beer-focused pub; Hampshire’s Brewhouse and Kitchen run by a former executive at Greene King and Leeds Brewery, aptly enough founded in the Yorkshire city of the same name.

Yorkshire breweries – of which there are a good many – have an impressive history of taking home this prestigious national prize. Last year’s winner was West Yorkshire’s Ossett Brewery, a larger and longer established operation than Sonnet 43, producing around four times the amount of beer and with more than 20 pubs to its name.

But with Sonnet having already, in 2013, picked up two influential Great Taste Awards – the equivalent of a food and drink industry Oscar – for their Bourbon Milk Stout and American Pale Ale, as well as adding three brewery taps to the company’s portfolio, founder and restaurateur Mark Hird says he will be heading to London in a positive frame of mind.

Michael Harker of Sonnet 43
Michael Harker of Sonnet 43
 

With some justification. As part of the rigorous judging process, Sonnet 43 has already had to successfully jump three major hurdles, the first being the paper application and the second a site visit when renowned beer writer, Peter Brown, explored the achievements highlighted in their entry.

This was then followed by mystery visits to Sonnet 43’s brewery taps – The Lambton Worm at Chester-le-Street, The White Lead at Hebburn and The Clarence Villa at Coxhoe, before Mark was grilled by a six-strong judging panel of experts.

And, while Mark, 41, admits Sonnet 43 is up against “two other strong contenders,” he adds: “I think we’ve shown the judges that we’re passionate about great beer and what is really different about us. All we can do now is wait with fingers crossed.

“But with Sonnet 43 still being a relatively new business it is a great achievement that we have got this far.”

If the award does find itself heading up the A1 to Coxhoe then Mark, who runs the microbrewery with wife Nicola, 42, plans to toast the success with a well-deserved pint of Sonnet 43’s American Pale Ale, although ironically, since launching into the world of beer, he says he has cut back on his alcohol consumption.

“It’s bizarre really, isn’t it? But I think I can allow myself a pint of American Pale Ale.”

The ale is one of Sonnet 43’s six core drinks. However, intermittently, the brewery also puts out a guest ale inspired by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43, after which the brewery is named.

The 19th Century romantic poet was born and raised at Coxhoe Hall, and Sonnet 43, which begins with the immortal words “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”, is probably her most famous and evocative work.

Sonnet 43 beer
Sonnet 43 beer
 

Each beer in the range, which in a twist on the first line of Sonnet 43 is collectively called How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Beers, uses new ingredients and brewing techniques based on different aspects of Elizabeth’s prose and personal experiences.

The latest – which is 12 of a planned 43 – is called Better After Death and is an unusual smoked porter. Other limited edition brews in the series have included Hope End, a rum-infused ginger pale ale inspired by the Barrett family’s history of owning sugar plantations in Jamaica and named after the estate in Hertfordshire which they bought out of the proceeds.

Mark estimates they have enough Sonnet 43-driven recipes and ideas to keep them going for at least the next two years.

Not that either he or his team, which includes head brewer Michael Harker, are sitting on their laurels. There are big plans for the future.

They include expanding the brew house at Coxhoe, increasing brewing capacity and introducing craft kegging, doubling the workforce, taking the number of brewery taps to 12 and growing turnover to an impressive £10m in the next five years.

Not bad for a business which only came about after Mark’s wife bought him a beer course at Sunderland’s celebrated Brewlab as a Christmas present.

That gift was itself instigated by Mark’s first venture, 11 Tavistock Place – his other business interest, although separate from Sonnet 43, is Tavistock Leisure which runs bars, hotels and restaurants.

He takes up the story: “The Darwin Brewery was at the back of Tavistock Place and every now and then I would run into one of the chaps, Arthur Bryant, who went on to lecture at Brewlab.

“As my business interests expanded, Arthur kept saying ‘you’re mad. You have all these sites and you’re buying in beer. Why don’t you start your own brewery?’.

Sonnet 43 Brew House, The Clarence Villa Bar
Sonnet 43 Brew House, The Clarence Villa Bar
 

“Then Nicola bought me the training course at Brewlab which gave me a great introduction to brewing. In one of those mid-life crisis moments I realised that it was definitely the way to go.”

He and Nicola bought a rundown pub called the Kicking Cuddy in Coxhoe, which happened to have a large warehouse tagged on the side. Taking it back to its original name of The Clarence Villa, Mark persuaded Michael Harker, who he had met via his Brewlab course, to come on board, and together the pair began developing Sonnet 43’s traditional craft beers.

Demand soon began to outstrip expectations, with the beers now being sold in more than 300 outlets across the North East and Yorkshire and Sonnet 43’s limited edition Insular Art ale with its signature notes of herbs and honey last year officially representing the Lindisfarne Gospels Durham exhibition.

The beers have certainly hit the right tasting notes with the public.

But why does Mark believe Sonnet 43 has managed to achieve so much in such a short time? “The care and the passion we are putting into what we offer our customers,” is one reason, he states.

He and Michael spent a lot of time ensuring the core offering of six beers with added craft ales appealed to the differing markets.

“We have hit the ground running in terms of our beers for the mass market, while also trying to pick up the craft beer and special edition drinkers too. We have a range of six core beers as well as the specials every month and we have ensured we are giving drinkers what they want.

“We also opened three pub/restaurants last year and are giving people a reason to leave their home and come out. We are big advocates of local produce – field to fork – and traditional British dishes. They are out of town venues too, and wherever we open we are sympathetic to both the area and its history.”

The brewery’s rapid expansion – which includes the introduction of online sales – puts it in a good position to break into the wider UK market and invest for the fut­ure, with Mark hoping to bring bottling on site at Coxhoe.

A win on March 25 would certainly bring Sonnet 43 to wider notice and undoubtedly help them gain a foothold in the lucrative London market too, where there has been a huge surge of interest in craft beers.

And that would certainly be worth Mark raising a pint or more of American Pale Ale to.

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