The romantic notion of a microbrewery is similar to the one we have of pubs. There’s honeysuckle round the door with low beams inside, horse brasses, and an old codger and his dog sitting in the corner.
The reality can be somewhat different, and by choice or out of necessity, your lovingly-crafted ale comes out of a unit on an industrial estate. That way, of course, the facilities are up to date and every modern appliance available makes sure the beer in your hand is as perfect as you deserve it to be. You can then simply close your eyes and dream of romance.
Michael Hegarty, brewer at The Ship Inn Brewery, Low Newton by the Sea, Northumberland, doesn’t have to dream – he brews in a former garage with whitewashed fishermen’s cottages as neighbours, the renowned Ship Inn next door, Newton Bay’s glorious beach to eat his packed lunch on, and rugged rocks to rascal round.
“I often have a 6.30am start when there’s not a soul around,” says Michael, who has been brewing at The Ship Inn for four-and-a-half years. “Every morning when I come over that hill and see that view I have to pinch myself.”
Michael previously operated Font Valley and Barefoot breweries with business partners, but now he’s on his own, producing beer exclusively for the pub. Not a drop goes anywhere else, despite regular requests from other publicans and beer festival organisers.
He says: “It’s a cracking place to work, there’s no hassle and no Monday morning ‘hello do you want to buy some beer?’. Every drop of beer is spoken for by the pub – and it’s village life at its finest; all gossip and stuff like that.”
The whole square at Low Newton – cottages, green, pub and microbrewery – are owned by the National Trust who bought it from landowner Lord Sutherland in the 1980s. The Ship Inn has been run by Christine Forsyth since May 1999 after she spotted a “pub for sale” advert in Dalton’s Weekly, a classified advertisement publication. Arriving with three dogs, two cats and daughter Hannah, who had just finished university, she set about creating a reputation for brilliant food, terrific ale and live music. An invitation to Michael Hegarty to bring his skills, kit and caboodle along for the ride was too tempting for him to resist.
“The hops may be something completely new. They are growing happily in the sand and might even have a saline edge to them.”
“The garage next to the pub was full of garage things and I spent six months clearing it and putting the equipment in,” he says. “I’m brewing 7.5 barrels (2,160 pints) a week on old Federation Brewery vessels – all 316 stainless steel stamped 1976. It’s indestructible, top grade, and still looks like new.”
But the main reason we’re tramping the dunes of Newton Bay is for a delve into history. On one of his mooches around the area, Michael discovered what he thought were hops growing in a wooded, sandy hollow. Ever the inquisitor, he asked a few questions and discovered the cottage along the lane was formerly The Fishermen’s Inn. Two and two made hops from discarded beer.
“The pub landlord would probably have slopped out his casks here,” he reasons. “None of the old people in the village remember the house as being a pub but it’s on a map from about 150 years ago as The Fishermen’s Inn.
“I think the hops might be Bramling Cross and Fuggles varieties but they’ll more likely have mutated into a completely different strain. Who knows, they may be something completely new. They’re growing happily in the sand and might even have a saline edge to them.”
Like most North East microbrewers, Michael has a strong relationship with Sunderland-based Brewlab, where he honed his considerable home-brew skills on a Start-Up Brewing course. He contacted business and training manager Arthur Bryant to take his discovery one step further.
“We just picked a spade up and took some samples back to Brewlab and put them in a pot,” says Arthur. “We thought it would be a good project for a biotechnology student at Sunderland University to trace the genetics.
“There’s no real gain for us other than finding more about the history of brewing by tracing the lineage. What’s probably happened is that someone from the pub has just poured away what beer’s been left and as it would have been dry-hopped and not boiled, any seeds would still be alive.”
Cheers will follow the genetic fingerprinting exercise and report on its findings. Hops are an essential ingredient in beer and provide nature’s solution to its bittering, flavouring and preservation. In common with other varieties, the Newton dune hops are perennial climbing plants which can remain productive for 20 or more years. They would be constantly renewing themselves if the old wood coiled round the trees and shrubbery is anything to go by.
“We thought it would be a good project for a biotechnology student to trace the genetics.”
Michael’s enquiries have also thrown up a North East version of Whisky Galore! The rocks offshore Newton Bay are particularly treacherous and many’s the ship that has foundered there.
Apparently, particularly in the 1940s and 50s, local fishermen would go out and “rescue” cargoes of cigarettes and tea and store them in their attics. When excisemen came around to investigate the wrecks, they were met by blank looks, shaking heads and staring at feet.
The humble hop is distantly related to hemp and cannabis. Michael Hegarty’s mutations may have opened a can of worms.