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Festival’s focusing on the best of the region’s beers

Get ready for the month-long ‘Best of the North East’  festival where you’d be hard pressed to say the beer list was anything but exciting

Graeme Oswald, publican of Oddfellows pub in North Shields
Graeme Oswald, publican of Oddfellows pub in North Shields

Sometimes it’s good to keep things local. Not everything, of course; gene pools, for instance, are an example of something that benefits from casting the net slightly wider. But often – from shopping, to food, to friends and family – local is best.

It’s not, however, something that always applies to beer. For a lot of the ticker community, the more exotic the better as they search for hard-to-find beers from the corners of the country. It’s great that there are shops and pubs that move heaven and earth to source the world’s most exciting beers for us, but with the rise of an outstanding local beer scene in recent years, keeping it local no longer means drinking the same old beers.

This month, the ever-inventive Head of Steam chain is hosting a ‘Best of the North East’ month-long festival where you’d be hard pressed to say the beer list was anything but exciting. Established yet innovative breweries such as Durham and Allendale stand side by side with the newer scene breweries such as Anarchy and Sonnnet 43.

But there’s a pub that’s been showcasing – quite literally – the North East’s breweries since last November. This week is the first that the chilled cabinet in the back room of Oddfellows in North Shields has lain empty – and that’s only because of a beer leak that needs to dry out.

Graeme Oswald’s bold plan more than six months ago was to stock every new beer produced by a North East brewery, and the idea has continued to go strong.

Since starting the project, his dedication to supporting the local scene has even seen him buy five of his own pins. The four and a half gallon size is something not every brewery uses, so if he hears of a new brew, he can simply supply his own container and ask them to fill it.

“The cellar at Oddfellows is tiny so I have to serve it from the back bar,” says Graeme. “I think people like the local stuff . They like to support local breweries.

“It always has to be about something different though and we have beer festivals with 20-odd beers and it’s a ticker’s paradise.”

One argument sometimes mooted when producing beer festival lists is that people like to drink things they can’t usually get, which precludes local beers. But the beauty of Graeme’s scheme is that it is by its very nature always new, always innovating. And although it might be fairly small scale, drinkers seem to respond to the concept, too, with the pub getting through two to three pins a week from the six-pin bespoke chiller cabinet built by local stalwart Dick Atlee from Real Ale Technical Services.

Similarly, the gravity dispense of the cabinet gives a different aspect to the beers than the more usual handpull system, and gravity dispense is a treat that’s often hard to find; only places such as Three Wise Monkeys in Alnwick made a habit of specialising in it.

It’s ironic that Oddfellows is being different by keeping it local. It also stands as a testament to the strength of local breweries that the cabinet has pretty much remained filled in the months it has existed.

It’s also an interesting way to view a microcosm of people’s drinking habits. Although Graeme says he sees little if any pattern in the styles of beers that do the best – everything from a 2.6% pale ale to the unfined hard-hitters from Anarchy have sold out – it is a method of dispense that divides people.

“There’s definitely two camps. The people who are willing to drink gravity are more concerned about condition and quality, whereas the people who drink off handpulls play it safe,” says Graeme. “People definitely have their favourites and don’t go for the adventurous stuff on gravity.”

How long will the project go on for?

“It’s built in so it’s indefinite,” laughs Graeme. “The cabinet’s fitted, so there’re no plans to get rid of it!”

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