DRINKING beer can warm the cockles of the hardest heart. It’s one of life’s great pleasures. But there’s no getting away from it, brewing beer is usually a cold business; it’s invariably wet around the feet and it’s not exactly a spectator activity.
So, here we are on a chill, foggy Friday morning at an hour that only milkmen have on their watches – milkmen and head brewers, plus, maybe the odd footpad on his way home from nefarious nocturnal goings-on – and a nosy journalist.
We’re at Hadrian Border’s new brewery at Newburn on the western fringes of Newcastle.
After a decade of brewing in Byker, the company had for long enough been running at capacity and new enquiries for beer simply had to go to the end of a long queue. Consequently, a unit at The Preserving Works – formerly Ross’s Pickle Factory – has taken on a new role as a centre of brewing excellence.
By the time we arrive, head brewer Martin Hammill has already heated 440 gallons of water ready for the malted barley to be stirred in and steeped. But the heat from the huge, stainless steel “kettle” doesn’t travel far enough to keep the cold blast at bay from a wide open door.
“There have been a few minor problems, but the testing and the sterilising have been done and the water heated,” says Martin.
“This is Newburn No1,” he says, lifting the lid of the vessel and appraising a mass of brown, bubbling Horlicks. “I’m pleased with it so far, it’s looking a bit like a big bowl of porridge – and it smells glorious.”
Martin is an absolute enthusiast where beer is concerned and we recall a series of phone conversations around 18 months ago on the progress of the Tyneside Brown Ale he had formulated and had just set away – much like today’s Newburn No1.
“It looks a great colour already,” he said, mobile-to-mobile from his vantage point on top of a ladder.
A day or two later he was back on, reporting on his “baby”: “It’s got a ruby hue, it’s very rounded and quite full-bodied with a nutty, biscuit flavour which makes it quite a challenging drink.”
Next day: “Just what I expected, with a lovely bitterness in the finish. It looks like we’re onto a winner.”
Hadrian Border managing director Andy Burrows takes a look under the lid and he, too, appears pleased. A lot of the pressure is off; the kit is doing what it’s supposed to do.
“If this goes OK, we’ll have done our last brew at Byker,” he says. “There are going to be a few issues to sort out as we go along but I’m very happy so far.”
In between times we wander round and think of pickles. In 1918 the enterprising James Robertson Ross created his own special blends of vinegar that his friends and family agreed brought out the best flavour in pickled onions, beetroot and other vegetables. He and his wife Bessie began pickling onions in their Newcastle kitchen which they then sold around the local pubs and clubs.
This early success led him to create the now famous range of Ross’s Pickles which soon became well known and so highly sought-after they became a major part of the North East’s culinary fabric.
Some may have called Ross’s a regional institution, and that so many of the Ross family were involved in the business only added to the romance.
In 2004, however, a crossroads was reached in the Ross family relations and the company brought in its first-ever, non-family board member as managing director (an executive who had been previously at Black & Decker and Fisher Price).
This was swiftly followed by three other senior appointments from outside the family.
New products, fresh packaging design and bold marketing initiatives followed, but sadly the Newburn production facility was closed in 2007 when Ross’s was sold to Yorkshire rival Greencore.
“Everything in Ross’s old unit had been ripped out by vandals,” says Martin Hammill. “We had to put a new roof on, there was no water and no gas. But it’s been a great project to be involved with.”
There were still a few hiccups along the way – you wouldn’t really expect enormous stainless steel vessels delivered in the worst blizzard for 40 years to be a piece of cake.
“The kit came from Italy at the back end of the year,” says Martin.
“I had to clear the yard to get the artic in. Then we couldn’t get the conditioning tanks through the doors, so I got the Stihl saw out and widened them. This was all going on at midnight – it was freezing.
“The Italian engineer arrived with only an adjustable spanner and a screwdriver.”
Fast-forward to foggy March and there’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing going on from office to brewhouse, with furrowed brows, followed by cheek-puffing relief. Everything seems to be going well; no leaking valves or joints, no burst hoses or crazily-flickering dials.
Consultant engineer George Thompson has also been making notes. He is working something out using pi.
“You need to look at all your statistics,” he says. “Two point five four five seven,” he murmurs to himself. “I wanted to be here for the first brew to address any niggles. I needed to satisfy myself.”
His next brewery job is near Stirling at Traditional Scottish Ales.
“They’re also running at capacity up there and need to look at where to go next,” he says.
“There are so many things to check when you’re dealing with new kit.”
He consults his laptop once more and goes out the door repeating “1,743 litres” a few times. He returns looking happy.
“Once we’ve brewed two or three times on the new equipment we’ll be fine,” he says.
“As long as you keep your records. Doing it for the first time you have to go back to first principles.”
We take a break for breakfast; coffee and a comparison between Caramel Wafers and Rocky Bars. Caramel Wafers come out on top. But Rocky Bar for breakfast? At least Andy can manage a banana.
Martin surveys the past two hours. He says: “It’s a steady fermentation and it’s been absolutely perfect. It’s gone not too bad at all – actually I’m delighted.
“You’ve got to get the first one out of the way, haven’t you? We’ll brew Centurion next – then it’s all go after that.”
Rocky Bar. We could murder one of George’s ps.