Published on April 5, 2017 | by Alastair Gilmour0
Beer gonna work on Aggie’s farm
A new microbrewery is capitalising on its sense of place, as Alastair Gilmour discovers
An hour on a farm can teach a visitor a thing or two about physics, chemistry, politics, economics and topography, as well as “simple” agriculture. So, for a self-confessed “city boy” like Theo Howie, marrying into a third-generation Northumberland farming family and setting up a brewery in a former milking parlour, it has been a lifetime’s education concentrated into a few months.
The Howies have farmed at Acklington Park Farm, Morpeth, since 1962 and when Theo married Pippa Howie (conversely but sweetly taking her surname) the dream of brewing beer commercially came one step closer.
Rigg & Furrow Farmhouse Brewery was founded in January of this year, but a mere four brews later there were more than 40 pubs on the delivery sheet. The pumpclips feature some of the farm pets – Aggie the Highland cow appears on the Pale Ale pumpclip, while the IPA features ducks, which is obvious when you’re told the variety is Indian Runner.
Theo, originally from London, was also self-employed music teacher after leaving university, but decided teaching wasn’t for him, so with then girlfriend Pippa, he relocated to the North East.
“We wanted a better quality of life and it was a good time for a change,” he says. “We got married in a field overlooking the River Coquet which runs through the farm. When we came back from honeymoon in January we put our plans for a brewery into motion which was something we had been talking about for some time.”
That field is distinguished by a rig and furrow surface – a wave-like pattern of ridges and troughs formed over the years by ploughing action – so the brewery name has particularly personal connotations.
Theo, an accomplished home-brewer, says: “I started brewing at UBrew in London, an ‘open’ brewery where you can book up to use their kit, then I cut my teeth at Wild Card Brewery in Walthamstow. They’ve been really supportive since and always ready to answer questions.”
Rigg & Furrow operates on two floors of a former milking parlour – the 10-barrel brewhouse is fed from the malt store upstairs in much the same way as the dairy cattle were before the bottom fell out of that particular market.
Next door are fermentation and cold rooms and beyond those sits an empty area crying out to be converted into a tasting room and bar for visitors. Before that however, bottling and filling mini-kegs will be the next step, but with only a handful of brews under his belt, Theo is conscious that the need for quality and consistency is paramount. Fortunately there is plenty of room to expand on 350-acre farm buildings.
A start-up grant enabled them to set their sights on more ambitious equipment straight away – a Northumberland Coast and Lowland Leader project delivered through Northumberland Council, a scheme that helps the county’s communities through EU funding, creating jobs and growing the rural economy.
“It was hard work but really worth it in the end,” says Theo. “It’s still early days, but we actually ran out of beer after the second brew which we weren’t quite anticipating. Pubs were ringing up for more and we hadn’t any left.
“Our beers are in The Northumberland Arms in Felton, the Railway Inn at Acklington and The Left Luggage Room at Monkseaton Station, while the Bacchus in Newcastle has got a standing order for any new releases.”
Plans include growing Golden Promise barley on the farm – the northern variety used in the Scotch whisky industry. Spent grains fed to the beef cattle on the farm (“they love it”) and their manure spread on the fields as fertiliser. Experimenting with wheat and oats is also being thought out.
“Golden Promise is a beautiful grain, it’s hard to grow and is low-yielding, but the flavours are outstanding,” says Theo. “I like the biscuit quality and it has more oomph than Maris Otter.
“We’re also looking at using wild yeast strains – we want our beer to reflect our surroundings, making the most of what we’ve got in this beautiful area, so we’re going to do things like use yeast from sloe berries for a cider-like effect.
“We’re about crafting beers that have a sense of place, a terroir. A longer-term goal is to grow our own hops – once we find a variety that will grow this far north.
“And, it’ll be a long-shot that the water on the farm is from the Coquet but we’d like to think it is and we’ll be investigating that.”
Aggie the Highland cow will lap it up.