In the 85th anniversary year of Newcastle Brown Ale, The Journal speaks to former Newcastle Breweries chairman Gavin Reed. In the first instalment, Gavin discusses both his and Newcastle’s links to the beer – and a crisis that put the Newcastle Brewery into a panic
SAY ‘brown ale’ and, usually, a missing word springs to mind. Given there are several types of brown ale, let alone hundreds of styles and brands of beer jostling for drinkers’ attention, that’s quite an achievement for Newcastle’s eponymous drink.
It’s a phrase that has formed a blood-tie between the beer and the city; Newcastle the only name when people think of broon, and the distinctive bottles being a symbol of the North East.
“Where in the UK are you from?”
“Ah – like the beer!”
It’s an achievement in marketing, in longevity (some might say ‘survival’ in these straitened times for the industry), and expansion.
And a lot of that happened under the watch of Gavin Reed. The former chairman of Newcastle Breweries and vice-chairman of Scottish and Newcastle is keen to lay the success at the feet of his team, and also shies away from discussing the industry today, feeling he’s been out of touch since stepping down in 1994.
But he was in charge during some of the most interesting moments in Newcastle Brown Ale’s life, from takeovers, to cracking the US.
Earlier this week he was at his former company’s former offices, now a hotel, to loan some rare bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale to mark the beer’s 85th anniversary. The hotel is holding an exhibition as the Canadian bosses realised the significance to the city; a bottle commemorating Newcastle United’s promotion in 1992-3, for instance, shows they were right.
‘Success’ might not be a word some loyal Geordies would want to lay at the feet of Broon after the move away from Newcastle.
“I’ve been slightly sad as an observer when the big breweries here and in Scotland closed, with demand further south and overseas,” says Gavin, now 77, from West Woodburn in Northumberland.
Gavin started work there in 1958 as a management trainee. Incredibly, his first job was to set up the Thistle Hotels chain.
The early 1960s: Newcastle Brown Ale was evolving. At the time, the bottles were recycled on average 14 times, but the porcelain screwtop with a rubber washer was a pain to clean.
“With all the returns coming back it became a nightmare because we had to wash everything,” says Gavin. “So the product brains said we’ll make three changes.”
They changed it to a brown bottle to protect against UV damage to the beer; introduced a straight, champagne neck on the bottle; and stuck a crown cap on it. Geordies said no.
“Sales didn’t decline but they stopped, because Geordies said this isn’t Brown Ale,” says Gavin. “There was a panic in the brewery. We were going round the pubs asking what was wrong. They said it didn’t taste the same.
“So we got a group of them into the brewery and showed them it was brewed in the same way – then had a tasting session with this bottle and the old bottle. And they could tell every time! We worked out it was the shoulder on the bottle – as you pour it agitates it and brought out the flavour.”
It was a first, if accidental, delve into the world of glass and bottle shapes to maximise beer’s flavour – a science that is now gaining popularity in some quarters. Newcastle Brewery bosses quickly brought back the clear glass and shoulder. Of the changes, only the crown cap remained.