IN contrast to the general pub trade and the beer sector as a whole, cask-conditioned beer - or real ale - is in right rude health. And the North East is the rudest and healthiest of the whole country.
A recent research project commissioned by the Campaign For Real Ale (Camra) found that North East drinkers are the tops for having switched to real ale from other beers and lagers over the last two years. But we didn’t really need a survey to tell us that.
The likes of Wylam Brewery in Northumberland and Hadrian & Border in Newcastle are bursting at the seams with orders – to the extent that the latter is shortly to move across the city to a custom-built plant in Newburn formerly occupied by Ross’s Pickles. Wylam has installed additional conditioning tanks because the 10-strong staff just can’t keep pace with demand. Similar stories are repeated region-wide.
North Tyneside-based Mordue Brewery recently opened an on-site beer shop and has launched a new distribution company, while Allendale Brewery in Northumberland continues its steady progress and Durham Brewery prepares to expand into a larger unit next door to its current one.
Pubs with a real ale focus are bouncing along nicely, too. The Boathouse at Wylam, Northumberland, can boast 15 handpulls with a different beer on each, and the Barrasford Arms, near Hexham, may be a more modest beer house but owner/chef Tony Binks reports that real ale sales in the freshly-spruced bar have never been better.
Two handpulls serve a choice of local beers from either Allendale Brewery, Hadrian & Border, Wylam or High House Farm.
“The local beers have never been as popular,” says Tony. “Nel’s Best from High House Farm flies out – and I’d say the lunchtime trade with diners is our busiest session.” Wylam Brewery celebrates ten years of brewing this month (August) and even its keenest supporters could never have imagined the leaps and bounds the brewery would have made and the reputation its beers have gained.
The enterprise may have started off with little more than enthusiasm, goodwill and a 4.5-barrel (162 gallons) capacity plant but it has now reached 20 barrels (720 gallons) and regularly reaches production levels of 100 barrels a week.
“Actually, we exceeded that for the first time in mid-July with 110 barrels,” says brewery business development manager Matt Boyle. “One hundred and ten barrels-worth of beer is a lot. We sell 30-odd barrels (1,000-plus gallons) of Gold Tankard a week alone.”
Just across the Northumberland and Cumbria border, little Geltsdale Brewery is also doubling in size; Mithril Ales, a new micro-brewery near Darlington, was set up in June; the Bacchus in Newcastle keeps on offering more choice, and this summer’s Tynedale Beer Festival at Corbridge was a complete sell-out with sponsorship deals snapped up straight away by regional companies eager to be associated with real ale.
We can’t help being upset about the number of boarded-up pubs that blight the region. Many of them weren’t serving the needs of the customer, but as real ale shows no sign of slowing down, it’s obvious what the customer wants. It’s a paradox and we really ought to have equilibrium, but when even more people see that real ale is a completely natural product with no artificial colourings or preservatives – and tastes fantastic – perfect balance will just have to wait.