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The Feathers Inn is tickled by the rise of the brewsters

The achievements of women in the food and drink sector will be celebrated at a popular festival in Northumberland

Pictured from left Laura Jayne Burlison, Pia Castleton Annie Ball and Helen Cradock
Pictured from left Laura Jayne Burlison, Pia Castleton Annie Ball and Helen Cradock

International Women’s Day may have been on March 8, but the fight for female equality and recognition across the globe is a year round struggle.

Here in the UK women still face many work prejudices and it’s no secret that the glass ceiling to corporate career advancement is hard to break through.

Few industrial sectors are more male dominated than food and drink. While there’s a famous saying that “a woman’s place is in the kitchen,” many male chefs have convinced themselves they make the best cooks, professional or otherwise.

It’s not a view shared by all men working in catering. The Michelin-starred restaurateur and former MasterChef: The Professionals judge, Michel Roux Jnr, has publicly said: “There are, unfortunately, some places that are living in the Dark Ages and think the kitchen is a male bastion.”

He believes there should be more females working in professional kitchens, and practices what he preaches. The kitchen at his famous Le Gavroche restaurant in London’s Mayfair is very female-focused. His second in command is Monica Galetti, herself a co-judge on MasterChef: The Professionals.

According to Roux there are “plenty of very good female chefs” around. Unfortunately, few are working at the top level.

It’s the same in the world of brewing. These days it’s seen as a bearded boys’ club. But once it was brewsters – the term for a brewer brewer – who led the way.

Helen Cradock at The Feathers Gastro Pub, Hedley on the Hill
Helen Cradock at The Feathers Gastro Pub, Hedley on the Hill

Indeed, in ancient Egypt ale was traditionally brewed by women, while the Greeks viewed wine as a man’s drink with beer made and consumed by the fairer sex.

Even Jane Austen brewed – and drank – beer as part of her household duties when she wasn’t writing romantic fiction.

But as social and economic changes saw beer production taken out of the home and into factories, women began to lose their hold on making and drinking it.

Almost overnight beer was being made by men for men.

The clock is slowly being turned back, however. Brewsters are on the rise again in the UK and are being credited with helping reinvigorate the world of beer.

There are no official figures for how many brewsters are currently working professionally, but Emma Gilleland is head of the supply chain at Marston’s in Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire, which produces 60 ales.

Sara Barton, who set up Brewster’s Brewery in Lincolnshire in 1998, was the first woman to win the British Guild of Beer Writers’ Brewer of the Year title in 2012.

And here in the North East, Mikaela Finnigan became the country’s youngest brewster at just 19. She is now head brewer and brewery manager at Jarrow Brewery, set up by her parents, Jess and Alison McConnell, in 2002.

It’s this wealth of female talent that The Feathers Inn at Hedley on the Hill, in Northumberland’s Tyne Valley, is applauding at its annual Easter Beer and Food festival, on until April 6.

Pictured from left Laura Jayne Burlison, Annie Ball, Helen Cradock and Pia Castleton
Pictured from left Laura Jayne Burlison, Annie Ball, Helen Cradock and Pia Castleton

The multi-award-winning hostelry (current Good Pub Guide Northumbria Dining Pub of the Year) run by husband and wife team Rhian (the chef) and Helen (front of house, ideas woman and mum of two) Cradock has been holding its now keenly anticipated Easter event since 2007.

It’s been going in one form or another for more years than anyone cares to remember, however. It started out as just a beer festival, but when Rhian, 34, and Helen, 37, took The Feathers Inn over eight years ago, they quickly added food to the mix.

It’s always been a celebration of real ales and the freshest local seasonal ingredients, climaxing in an Easter weekend farmers’ market, barbecue, bonnet parade and the glorious North East tradition of egg jarping (for the uninitiated, it’s like conkers, but with hard boiled eggs).

There’s also the famous barrel race to look forward to on Easter Monday, where teams of three carrying an empty nine gallon beer cask race over a one-and-a-half mile course, through fields and up a steep hill, for the prize of 72 pints of real ale!

Given the slant of this year’s festivities, there’s every chance the winning team’s thirst quenching reward for their gruelling efforts will have come from the hands of a brewster, with more than 20 female-inspired real ales currently on tap.

Centring this year’s festival on the achievements of a crop of talented women making their mark in food and drink was a joint decision by Rhian and Helen.

It started off with Helen’s desire to mark International Women’s Day. “I have always had a feminist political outlook and been supportive of women’s events and other rights groups as well.

“I had suggested we do something at the pub for International Women’s Day and then Rhian proposed we get beers brewed by women in for the food and drink festival.

The Feathers Gastro Pub, Hedley on the Hill
The Feathers Gastro Pub, Hedley on the Hill

“I thought it was a great idea and the whole thing grew from there.

“We’ve now got female chefs and suppliers involved and on Good Friday we will have women judges blind tasting the 20 or so real ales we’ve got.”

Helen says she has been inspired by the remarkable successes of the growing number of female food and drink trail-blazers, both regionally and nationally, who are refusing to sit back and let men have it all their own way.

“I had thought we would struggle to find any brewsters, but we have got 15 different breweries who have female brewers involved, including Jarrow, which is the only North East one.”

Among the other brewery names are: Dancing Duck from Derby; Triple fff from Hampshire; Dark Star from West Sussex; Mallinsons of Huddersfield; Loch Lomond from Alexandria, Scotland; Suffolk-based Adnams; Bath Ales of Bristol; Prospect in Lancashire; Ilkley Brewery based in the Yorkshire spa-town; and Marston’s.

There has already been a special dinner in association with Jarrow Brewery where their beers were matched with seasonal dishes cooked by Rhian and his team – including trainee chef Lucy Holmes – and presided over by Alison and Jeff McConnell.

Another highlight to come is a guest chef night on March 31 at The Feathers which will see forager and professional cook Pia Castleton, 32, teaming up with pianist Annie Ball for a dinner matching seasonal food and music.

They will be joined by Kate Young, a fiddle and acoustic player, whose five-piece band, Kate in the Kettle, has been getting rave reviews for its debut album, Swimmings of the Head.

The event is themed around Ostara – the goddess of spring who gave her name to Easter – and, like the rest of The Feathers’ beer and food festival, it takes its inspiration from International Women’s Day.

Beer at The Feathers Gastro Pub at Hedley on the Hill
Beer at The Feathers Gastro Pub at Hedley on the Hill

Pia – who runs The Wild Orchard, offering bespoke catering as well as foraging and cooking workshops – has sought female suppliers. These include Dorothy Dryden, who keeps a small flock of Herdwick sheep at Hedley on the Hill, and Ann Gray, a pork producer of Ravensworth Grange.

She is excited to be involved in The Feathers’ festival. “I’m really proud to be a part of it. There are a lot less women involved in food and when I worked in a kitchen the majority of the chefs were male.

“But there are some inspirational women out there working very hard in the food and drink area and I think it is important to highlight that.

“I think what The Feathers is doing is a brilliant idea. There is this presumption that brewers, especially, are all men, but it’s great to look beyond the stereotypes.

“Sometimes it feels sexist to highlight women. Why should it matter? You are, after all, just doing your job. But because it is so male dominated, something like this is more visual and highlights the lack of female involvement in the industry.”

Helen certainly felt the time had come to sing the praises of those women who are paving the way for their sisters to become future catering industry high-flyers, even more so as the mother of Luke, five, and Grace, two.

Her dream is that if Grace should want to move into the hospitality industry, doors will open for her. “Definitely. The history of cheffing seems to be that it’s male dominated and testosterone driven, but it doesn’t have to be like that. Our kitchen isn’t.

“I would hope that Grace wouldn’t feel there is any stigma attached to working with food and drink and that by the time she grows up there won’t be any negative connotations.

“While our festival is obviously for everyone, I’ll be really happy if it gets people thinking, inspires them and in the future helps balance out the masculinity.”

The Feathers Inn Beer and Food Festival runs until April 6 with a host of events, from pop-up dinners to Easter weekend activities including a farmers’ market, the Hedley Barrel Race, egg jarping and a barbecue.

For more information and to book tickets go to www.thefeathers.net

The Feathers Inn, Hedley on the Hill, Stocksfield, Northumberland, NE43 7SW, 01661 843 607

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