Published on October 6, 2017 | by Alastair Gilmour1
Shedloads of potential
Our brewery special begins in a Northumberland garden and takes in an inspirational group of people, writes Alastair Gilmour
When a home-brewing fencing contractor builds a garden shed he’s not content to store posts, rails and mell hammers. He builds a brewery, just in case. And what a brewery Tom Smith has constructed near Haltwhistle in Northumberland – it has views across a deep valley, mature woodland, pine forest and big skies.
Muckle Brewery, started life in August 2016 by Tom and his wife Nicola, who is a radiographer at Newcastle RVI by day, but also bottles, delivers, fetches and carries. The brewing kit is neat and compact – 1.3-barrel brew length which produces five, five-gallon casks (firkins) at a time.
“We take the first cask off for draught and the rest go into bottles,” says Tom. “We supply about nine pubs now around Northumberland, including The Samson Inn at Gilsland, the Wallace Arms at Featherstone and Blenkinsopp Castle where we’re on permanently. We also have bottles on pub shelves, supply The Sill, Northumberland National Park’s new visitor centre, plus Glug and Centr-Ale in Newcastle and do Hexham farmers’ market.”
Tom Smith comes from the well-trodden home-brew tradition, leaning on his dad’s old recipe books for inspiration. His first attempt at a lager was a disaster and his brown ale was “chewy” but had all the makings of a decent beer, so he stuck at it. An American IPA went particularly well among friends even though he didn’t have all the ingredients to hand.
“I put in what I had and took 25 litres to a party,” says Tom. “I came back with an empty cask and have never changed it since.
“We bought the kit 18 months ago from a guy in Wales. It has two open-topped fermenters – there aren’t many of them around. Instead of numbering them we call them Tom & Jerry. We use both an English and an American yeast. I’m always amazed at the fermentation process and love to watch the yeast do its work.
“We’re brewing twice a week, producing seven beers. I look for layers of flavours rather than one big hit. When I get the hot liquor going and get that smell coming up I just love it.
“We’ll see how it goes for now then think about growth. At the moment it’s all about getting it out there.”
Muckle in northern dialect means big or great and the Smiths have great fun in naming their beers, such as Muckle Chuckle and Muckle Tickle. The labelling, based on images of Crag Lough and the snaking Hadrian’s Wall tells stories about the surrounding landscape. For example, Muckle Chuckle (4.2% abv) has been crafted with the sound of Haltwhistle Burn bubbling and chuckling away, while Muckle Buster (4.5% abv), a fruity red ale, is inspired by the sunsets over the Solway Firth where Hadrian’s Wall marches westward. “Pride of Park (3.5% abv), our first hazy beer, has the Northumberland National Park in mind,” says Tom. “It’s fruity and light and reminded me at first of Robinson’s Barley Water, and our stout is becoming popular with people who’d not normally go for a stout.
“Names make people smile. If you can make people smile at a pumpclip you’ve gone a long way to selling the beer. We have lots of fun with our Tickles and Chuckles which also work well on social media.”
Inside the shed brewery, Muckleberry Winter Ale is fermenting in Tom and Jerry topped with a crust that looks appetising enough to scoop off and eat – while gazing out over the amazing backdrop, of course. It’s Nicola Smith’s favourite spot, but she realises that success brings its own challenges.
She says: “Four days a week I’ve got an 80-mile commute to work in Newcastle or have eight steps from the back door to the brewery. We’re looking to upgrade what we’ve got and would love to have a new unit with a taproom and shop, but it would mean we aren’t at home doing it.
“We don’t really want to move from our garden brewery, it’s given us our unique selling point.”