Published on May 2, 2017 | by Alastair Gilmour0
On the brink of adventure
One of Newcastle’s most progressive breweries has built a reputation for ‘canny lush beer like’, writes Alastair Gilmour
Shovelling spent grain and endless cleaning aren’t perhaps something that Natasha Allen had in mind when she joined Brinkburn Street Brewery in Newcastle. Hand-in-hand with the finance and admin role she was expecting to fill came a pair of white wellies – very useful for her “other” job as apprentice brewer.
“I only applied for a job in the office,” she says.
That scenario illustrates the “all in it together” approach at Brinkburn Street – everybody mucks in and if there’s a pair of white wellies that fit, you’ll be expected to pull them on. More than that, however, you’ll be given the opportunity to develop and expand your knowledge.
Brinkburn Street Brewery (“pushing it at eight barrels”) started brewing in September 2015 by high-voltage engineer Lee Renforth after nine months of set-up and trial brewing. He had met former Boddingtons head brewer Richard Bazen at the Marble Arch Inn in Manchester and outlined his plans. Richard, who had also been involved in The Star Inn in Salford, a co-operative known for the quality of the ales it produced on a tiny kit, listened and was intrigued.
“He’s a brilliant brewer and he’s brought his knowledge to the table,” says Lee. “We needed someone with that experience and level of beer appreciation. Now he and his wife are coming to live in Newcastle.”
Lee also acknowledges the help that Marble Brewery in Manchester; Magic Rock, Huddersfield, and Newcastle brewery Northern Alchemy have happily given.
At Brinkburn Street (the actual road runs a few metres from the brewhouse at Hoult’s Yard in Byker, Newcastle) the brewing vessels are clad in black-and-white livery, a reflection of the team’s Geordie roots. In fact, Lee Renforth often jokes with Ross Holland of Box Social Brewing that they’re the only Geordie owners of Newcastle breweries.
He says: “Ross is from the West End of Newcastle and I’m from the East End and traditionally the two didn’t get on. We always have a laugh about it.”
Theirs is a down-to-earth approach with a strapline – thought up over a kebab and a pint, of course – that describes Brinkburn Street as producing “Canny Lush Beer Like”. The Brinkburn Street approach is also one of thoroughness, from test-marketing new products (there are now more than 20 beers in the portfolio) targeted at three distinct beer-drinking sectors, and involving the right people. For example, Lee Dolman was invited to join the company following a spell in London. Regardless that he and Lee Renforth are cousins, he is highly qualified in food safety and formerly a trainer at Greggs. Stew Southern is a builder who has turned his hand to brewing under Richard Bazen with amazing dexterity; wellington boots don’t scare Natasha Allen, and Paul Ging brings years of media experience to marketing and communications.
“We think it’s important to have beers that fit into different parts of the beer-drinking fraternity,” says Lee Renforth. “Forty percent of what we produce is blonde and pale ale – stable session beers – but it’s still important to go top-end speciality to keep your reputation high. We’ve started using 330ml bottles for our beers at 5.6% abv and over, such as the ultra-hoppy Hop Gremlin and Groovy Juice, a super-fruity high-puncher.
“What we see at present is a largely three-tier market. These main demographic groups as we see it are the session beer drinkers who prefer the 3.6% abv to 4.2% abv beers; the mid-strength drinkers who like the 4.2% abv to 5.0% abv ones, and the hop head drinkers – 5.0% abv and above – who like to drink stronger and higher aromatic hop content beer.”
One of those high-strength beers is an 8.6% abv porter ready to lay down in former sherry casks which will be available at Christmas. It’s part of a continual improvement programme – the “kaizen” approach adopted by successful corporations across the world. The team is dedicated to making beer better.
“We’ve improved every beer we’ve brewed by looking at it and seeing what can be done,” says Lee Renforth. “I always think it takes three brews before any beer is right and you’re happy with it. Adapt and improve, that’s us.
“We’re in all the best pubs and the bottle shops like Glug, Rehills, Fenwicks and Coppers and have a house beer at the Tyneside Cinema, Fitzgeralds and Trillions. We’re very, very busy at the moment and pretty much at capacity – and at the stage where we need extra space.”
A vacant unit next door has been earmarked for a brewery tap. It’s what breweries these days need – Tyne Bank and Wylam being prime examples – and a ready outlet that works on several levels.
“We’ll also have other people’s beers on, we think that’s important,” says Lee. “We’re developing our wholesale outlets so we can expand out of the area and benefit from the repeat business it brings.
“It’s a great feeling making a great pint of beer; it’s a sense of achievement. The cask ale market is still very strong – 45% of our output is in cask and more and more people are drinking our niche range with food, plus we’re seeing a lot more women making the decisions on choice.”
So today Natasha, is it a white wellie day or a spreadsheet one?