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Ale's well for Big Lamp brewery after 30 years

REMEMBER what it was like turning 30? If you don’t then let me remind you, as it only came a few months ago for me and the emotions are still pretty raw.

REMEMBER what it was like turning 30? If you don’t then let me remind you, as it only came a few months ago for me and the emotions are still pretty raw.

It’s a paradoxical moment. On the one hand, it’s a mini early-life crisis: a fear that your youth has ended, coupled with the startlingly obvious but hitherto ignored reality that you’ll actually grow old and die one day. Unlike Peter Pan, you’re not exempted from the rules.

On the other hand, it’s quite a liberating feeling – a fulcrum to tip you from directionless youth into confident, driven adulthood.

Big Lamp Brewery is also finding out what it’s like to turn 30, celebrating its anniversary this weekend. But unlike my angst-ridden loss of youth, Big Lamp’s big 3-0 marks a significant milestone in the life of the oldest microbrewery in the North East.

It’s an achievement to be celebrated, having survived the years of beer dearth, when many regarded ale with suspicion against the reigning keg beers. Big Lamp has viewed the changing scene in a way most other microbrewers haven’t.

We were born in the same year, Big Lamp and I, but I expect that’s where the similarities end. In 1982 hobby brewers and pioneers Norman Bell, John Tomlinson, and Terry and Tom Hanson decided they wanted to drink something other than Scottish and Newcastle beers and began brewing about five barrels a week in Summerhill Street, Newcastle.

While my relatives called me ‘Thingy’ for the first few weeks of my life as they couldn’t decide on a name, the four brewers named their early brew Big Lamp Bitter ... a success to this day. They initially sold to the Red House and the Cooperage on the Quayside.

Lee Goulding, 54, who took over with George Storey, 48, in 1990, says: “Most of the beers at the time were pretty bland but when Big Lamp started they got to do more distinctive beers. It wasn’t mass appeal, but it was niche.”

Big Lamp was all grown up, selling through its own pub (the Wheatsheaf in Felling) when I was still grappling with my first few days at school; or rather, when I was grappling with radiators, carpets, my mum’s coat and every door frame I passed through as I latched on to anything that might delay my inexorable progress into the classroom (I seem to remember it took a team effort from my mum, teacher and headteacher before they succeeded).

While my education continued in the junior school, Lee and George were getting an education of their own. Both only knew the pub trade with Joshua Tetley restaurants, and learned brewing on the job when they took over.

“We did everything ourselves,” says Lee, “learning what to do and what not to do. But we got help from the Federation Brewery labs with the chemistry side of it. They provided yeast and checked our beers. But the most difficult thing was trying to get the barrelage up. People were sceptical – most beers were keg even in 1990. But we did a lot of business through Sir John Fitzgerald pubs who’ve always been good.

“At the time, when you’re a bit younger, you just go into these things without fear. At the time it seemed like a great idea and really interesting, and luckily we managed to make a living out of it.”

In 1993 I moved up to big school, and three years later Big Lamp also moved up – to a bigger brewery in Newburn, along with the Keelman’s Lodge.

Lee says: “We would have been happy in the old brewery and just having the Wheatsheaf. But you get to a stage where you need to expand because you’re not providing enough of the beer people want. And as we were selling people were saying they wanted something new so we felt as if we needed to be providing different beers.”

My life has been an immensely enjoyable but haphazard patchwork of passing fads, hobbies that come and go almost monthly with everything from car maintenance and gardening to baking and homebrewing; but Big Lamp’s 30 years have been marked by consistency – which Lee feels has been the key to their success.

“In those days people almost expected ale to be different every time they drank it because it was like a novelty. But through the years landlords know Big Lamp beers will be fresh and good quality.”

What does the future hold?

“I would expect a return of dark beers,” says Lee. “People have been using a lot of citrusy hops and perhaps they’ll return to strong, dark beer at some stage.

“There are fewer pubs now but more brewers. I just hope that people don’t start undercutting each other. It’s difficult enough out there, and everyone has the same attitude about the duty we pay. So you have to charge a certain amount to make it pay.”

From its small beginnings, Big Lamp has expanded to employing about 50 staff across the brewery, pub, restaurant and accommodation at the Keelman, Newburn. It’s a true North East success story and has made the most of its first 30 years. I could learn a lot from Big Lamp.

Despite our rather different experiences as we’ve marched through the first three decades of life, here we find ourselves: our paths converged, united in comforting beer. Happy anniversary Big Lamp. I’m looking forward to growing old together.

Big Lamp is celebrating with a beer festival on September 7, 8 and 9. Call 0191 267 1689 or admin@biglampbrewers.co.uk

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