Two of Newcastle’s most celebrated beer businesses celebrate significant anniversaries this year. Alastair Gilmour digs into where they came from and where they’re going
Thirty years ago, the Ford Sierra was launched to replace the Cortina; Sony introduced the first consumer compact disc; Henry VIII’s flagship – the Mary Rose – was raised, and Culture Club topped the charts with Do You Really Want To Hurt Me? And, yes we do, beer was 62p a pint.
At the same time, a new microbrewery mashed in its first brew at a former undertakers’ on Westgate Hill in Newcastle – and Big Lamp has been illuminating the cask-conditioned beer sector ever since, adding lustre to the real ale cluster, so to speak.
Big Lamp, named in honour of the area that boasted one of the city’s first electric street lamps, has long since moved a few miles west to a Grade II-listed Victorian pumping station at Newburn on the edge of the Tyne Riverside Country Park. Its beers were good quarter of a century ago and are even better today.
The Big Lamp Brewery Company was formed in 1982 by five real ale enthusiasts, Terry Hanson, Tom Hanson, Norman Bell, John Tomlinson and Paul Needham, with a capital of £5,000. Following a difficult trading period in the late 1980s the company changed recipes and ownership.
It’s perhaps fair to say that the original business was run by enthusiasts who brewed what they wanted to drink – nothing wrong with that – whereas the present company has an acute nose for customer needs, an unshakeable regard for quality, and a passion for putting hops, water, malted barley and yeast together in very distinctive styles.
Lee Goulding joined the five founding Big Lamp partners in 1987 and George Storey, whom he knew from their days together at Joshua Tetley’s Cavalier Inns division, signed up a year later. The pair bought the business outright in 1990.
This was at the time when the Tap & Spile chain was starting to flourish and the brewery was putting out four 36-gallon casks (288 gallons) a month of Big Lamp Bitter for them which was a lot of beer in those days.
Big Lamp added the Keelman pub to its operation when Lee and George realised the potential of what was at first a cask-washing area handily situated through the wall from the brewery. Then came the six-bedroomed Keelman Lodge accommodation and the Salmon Lodge – eight rooms on two floors – just across the car park.
The brewery sits within the Engine House of the restored, rather austere, 19th century, former Newburn Pumping Station and is fitted out as a traditional tower operation. Simple gravity does most of the work – the grain is mashed at the top level and is sent into the copper to boil before it drops down a floor to the fermenters; then finally to conditioning tanks at the bottom where it’s delivered into casks.
It was originally built by the Whittle Dene Water Company in 1855 to serve the needs of industrial revolution Newcastle. The water supply from the tidal Tyne was subject to varying degrees of saltiness and though the pump house was fed from the river through a gravel filter channel it wasn’t particularly clean – the supply from the lower Tyne was the suspected cause of 1,527 deaths in a cholera epidemic in 1853.
The Engine House was dismantled stone by stone in 1996 to house the brewery. They were numbered and, when new foundations were laid, reassembled in their original positions. Substantial girders were inserted to support the weight of up to 12 tonnes of beer in the first-floor fermenting room.
Today, Big Lamp is something of a North East institution. Its core ales are Prince Bishop, first brewed in 1986 for the Durham Beer Festival, Sunnydaze, Summerhill Stout and the occasional but mighty Blackout (11% abv). The future is clear – more of the same with its finger firmly on the region’s beer pulse.
One of Big Lamp’s first customers was the Cumberland Arms in Byker, Newcastle, which sits high over the Ouseburn Valley. This year the Cumberland Arms has cause for two celebrations. The much-loved pub first secured a license to sell beer in 1862 and this summer marks 10 years of Jo Hodson taking over the business and nudging it along with – thankfully – one foot trailing 150 years in the past.
In the early days it was one of a number of pubs that opened around the Ouseburn to cater for the influx of working-class families attracted to the area in search of employment. It was owned at one time by entrepreneur “Jocker” Wood (who also operated the neighbouring Mason’s Arms and The Duke of York, both now demolished). He was a world champion quoits player, bagatelle champion, golfer, pigeon-fancier and noted cyclist who once pedalled from John O’Groats to Land’s End.
Nowadays, the Cumberland’s courtyard overlooks the Ouseburn Valley and far over the Tyne. The basic interior has stripped wooden floorboards, bench seating along one wall, timbered panelling, a large fireplace – very active in winter – well-stocked bookshelves and a dogs’ water bowl tucked under the brass footrail. The bar and gantry from the legendary Haymarket Hotel in Newcastle has been installed in the upstairs bar.
It’s been ten years since Jo Hodson arrived at The Cumberland Arms and even she couldn’t have anticipated the developments that have made it the place pub goers love.
She says: “It’s been a fantastic journey for me, the pub and the customers, and this summer we will celebrate 10 years of great music, beer, cider and food. It’s the love and passion that everyone has put into the pub, whether they’ve been performing or just sat back and enjoyed that has made it the place it is today.”
It has been an exciting decade. The Cumberland Arms now offers seven handpulled real ales rotating exceptional beer from breweries spanning the British Isles – a far cry from the one ale of 10 years ago. And, from serving no real cider to winning Camra’s Regional Cider Pub of The Year for four consecutive years, customers now have a great selection to savour.
“The Cumberland has developed some amazing relationships with breweries across the years and is continually looking for new and exciting beers to bring home to share with customers.,” says Jo Hodson.
“Our annual Beer & Cider Festival is a fantastic way to show these off and this years’ event on July 13-15 will be a real celebration of what is great about the past, present and future of British brewing.
“It’s not just been about the beer either; in 2009 The Cumberland opened its doors to a wonderful little gem – four en-suite bed-and-breakfast rooms with south-facing views over the Ouseburn, super king size beds, and with its relaxed atmosphere it has been a perfect addition to the pub, welcoming visitors from across the world to Newcastle.”
The Cumberland Arms will continue its reputation as one of Newcastle’s longest-standing music venues, from the regular folk sessions in the back bar – some with a heritage going back over 20 years – or to an upstairs gig featuring everything from acoustic and indie to rock and jazz.
Add that to some great evenings of poetry, ping-pong, comedy, and events such as craft markets and book fairs and you’ve caught the Cumby vibe.