People live in them, use them for emergency shelters, mobile classrooms, guest accommodation, glorified garden sheds and in the case of food blogger and pop-up dining queen Anna Hedworth, open cafes in them.
Metal shipping containers have come a long way from doing the job they were originally designed for – transporting huge volumes of cargo across the world by sea.
When Anna, a self-taught chef who made her name holding supper clubs in an old shipping container, resolved to become a full-time café owner and opened the Cook House in Newcastle’s trendy Ouseburn cultural district, rather than overstretch her budget by buying or renting out a shop unit, she instead opted to transform two of the big metal boxes into a novel kitchen and dining space.
Situated behind the Hotel de Vin, the Cook House has quickly become a fashionable and unconventional place to eat out since opening earlier this year.
But Anna is not the only food and drink entrepreneur to have seen the value of basing themselves in a specially converted shipping container.
Just a stone’s throw from the Cook House and nestling in the shadow of the historic Cumberland Arms which looks benignly over the old industrial centre of the Ouseburn Valley, stands the home of the new craft beer firm, Northern Alchemy.
Run by brothers-in-law Carl Kennedy, 37, and Andy Aitchison, 36, Northern Alchemy pulled its first pint five months ago.
The pair work from a converted, graffiti strewn (with their permission) 30-foot shipping container affectionately known as ‘The Lab.’
The artisan beers they produce and are selling to an increasingly appreciative audience (The Broad Chare, Pleased to Meet You, The Free Trade Inn, The Bridge Tavern and, of course, The Cumberland Arms, are just a few of the Tyneside outlets taking their kegs) are as whacky as the location they are dreamed up in.
Flavours so far have included Mango, Lime and Cracked Black Pepper Pale (4.2%); Raspberry and Mint Dark Saison (5.1%); Coffee and Orange Oatmeal Pale (4.2%); 60 Minute Continuously Hopped Pilsner (5.6%); Lime and White Pepper Saison (3.5%); Late Hopped Pale (5.2%); Lemon and Vanilla Oatmeal Stout (6%); Gooseberry and Ginger Wit (5%) and Lapsang Souchong Black IPA (6.5%).
For generations of drinkers brought up on mass produced, often tasteless lagers and beers, Northern Alchemy offers a truly different imbibing experience.
The brewery’s emergence marks both a change in drinkers’ expectations and the beer scene as a whole – not just in the North East but the UK.
It is food, Carl believes, that has, and still is, playing a major part in this transformation.
“In the last 30 years the world of good food has really opened up in this country. The quality has improved and now you can get amazing foods at almost any shop or restaurant.
“People now want the same quality that is seen in our food in their drinks. There is a move away from the mass produced and, at times, tasteless drinks that have for so long dominated the UK’s drinking culture.”
Just take a look at how both the wine and spirit markets have changed over the last few years. Long gone are the days when the Teutonic whites Blue Nun and Black Tower and the Portuguese Mateus Rose were the most popular, and virtually only, wine choices on British restaurant menus.
Now Britain is the world’s biggest importer of wine with supermarkets and off licenses regularly stocking vintages from 20 different countries or more.
New world wines from Australia, New Zealand and California account for almost half the UK market with countries like Brazil, Mexico, Morocco and even India now getting in on the act.
The choice of flavours has never been wider and buyers spend more time than ever tracking down innovative new varieties.
The competition has forced established wine producing countries like France, Italy and Germany to up their game.
The spirits market has undergone a similar makeover. Who would ever have thought that vodka, gin, rum and bourbon would become trendy drinks? But the UK is currently undergoing a spirits revolution too, with gin proving especially popular.
There has been a revival of small craft producers, like the North East’s own recently launched Durham Distillery which makes both gin and vodka in small batches.
Similarly, times are getting exciting on the beer scene too.
Small artisan breweries have been mushrooming for a number of years now as lovers of the hop repelled by the way the industry was dominated by just a handful of big players, decided to take things into their own hands.
But there is now a revolution within a revolution with brewers like Northern Alchemy taking a new and exciting flavour approach to beer.
The craft beer renaissance has allowed innovation and never before envisaged taste pairings to emerge and opened people’s minds to accepting non-traditional ingredients.
Where once it was considered distasteful in this country to brew with anything other than yeast, water, hops and malt, you’ll now find un-beer-like ingredients’ such as chocolate or chilli creeping in.
It’s recognition that like wine, the right beer goes well with many foods, Carl says.
“Taste is an amazing thing. We all have the most astonishing sound systems at home so we can get the most out of our music, so why aren’t we making the most of our taste?
“That is what we are doing; Andy and I are exploring the range of flavours and putting them together in new and exciting ways.
“As a drinker and a brewer these are bloody exciting times.”
Carl and Andy are not ‘career’ brewers. Andy was a civil engineer while Carl is an actor and core member of The Suggestibles improvised comedy team.
It was at a Suggestibles show that Carl met his wife Jo, who happens to be the owner of the Cumberland Arms. The couple have a six-year-old daughter.
Andy is married to Jo’s sister Frankie and they have two sons aged three and one.
Both Carl and Andy have worked in the Cumberland Arms, and it was six years ago as they were sitting putting the world to rights over a pint that they began discussing the mysterious art of brewing and wondering how beer is made.
They knew about the hops, yeast, malt and water bit, but wanted to get to the heart of the subtleties that make a really good beer as opposed to the “bog standard stuff.”
So Andy got a day’s paid work a week at the Hadrian Border Brewery. This quickly turned into two days a week, then three and eventually full-time as a brewer.
He stayed for over three years learning the business before moving on to work with Morpeth-based Anarchy Brew Company. Now he and Carl are the brains behind their own brewing operation making the kinds of beers they like drinking but which rarely seem to be seen in the region.
Recipe ideas can come from anywhere. As an example, the Gooseberry and Ginger Wit came about after an allotment owning friend had a glut of the fruit.
“He had more gooseberries than he knew what to do with, so asked if we could find a use for them,” Carl explains. “So we took them off his hands and came up with the gooseberry beer.
“We have just developed a special seasonal pumpkin beer and we are in the process of pulling together a Christmas beer too.
“We are always exploring what we can do with beer, from the variations available in the malt profile to the incredible choices in hops from around the world.
“Then there are the flavours that beers can be conditioned with.”
Surprisingly – or perhaps not given Andy’s background – Carl says they have managed to avoid any recipe gaffes.
But while they are producing the beers they want to drink, they have no intention of getting stuck in a rut, mainly because both Carl and Andy’s tastes are constantly changing.
Carl says: “I can taste a beer one day and love it, drink it the next and not. That may be because the night before I ate a curry for tea or have just brushed my teeth.”
Taste in the flavour as well as the aesthetic sense is always evolving.
It means Northern Alchemy won’t be sitting on its laurels and will always be striving to surprise and keep drinkers interested.
It’s an approach that seems to be working. Northern Alchemy is a growth business. Carl and Andy avoided having to take out any loans or approach investors to get going, so they aren’t beholden to anyone but themselves.
“What we do, we do on our terms,” Carl states.
And while the fledgling venture is a long way off making a profit, and the brothers-in-law are paying themselves a pittance, break-even is approaching.
They are taking a cautious approach, but with the craft beer industry growing at 79% a year here in the UK, Carl and Andy are inevitably thinking of expanding.
Which is where being based in a shopping container comes in handy.
Carl says: “The beauty of shipping containers is that they are a wonderful building material, relatively inexpensive and very flexible.
“As Northern Alchemy grows so can our workspace. All it takes is a bit of cutting and welding.”
So, where do Carl and Andy envisage Northern Alchemy being in a year’s time? They hope to soon have their own in-house bottling system which will see their beers available in more regional outlets, and there is interest in what they’re doing in Scotland, Yorkshire and the North West.
“Where will you find out beers in a year’s time? Who knows?” Carl says. “But if they like what we are doing and they sell good beer, it could be anywhere.”
Ultimately it will be the public that decides. Artisan food and drink is often accused of being over-expensive and pricing itself out of the market.
But as Carl explains: “If you’re happy with buying a bog standard, cheap whisky or a mass produced beer, then that’s fine. But there are a growing number who would rather spend more and drink less on a handcrafted single malt or beer.
“They’re produced with more expensive ingredients and handmade by someone who loves what they are doing. That’s the difference.”
And it’s that difference that a rising number of drinkers are prepared to say ‘cheers’ to.