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Published on March 10, 2017 | by Alastair Gilmour


Voyage of discovery

Gaining a certificate in brewing competency is one thing and all very well, but the real learning starts when you’re making beer on your own equipment. The emphasis is on getting it right, getting it consistent, and also allowing some room for experimentation. But – as Victoria Thompson firmly believes – the priority has to fall on quality.

Victoria is head brewer at Darwin Brewery in Sunderland, a facility first set up in 1997 as part of Brewlab which has since developed into one of the world’s leading providers of training and analysis services for the international brewing industry, now based in purpose-built premises in Sunderland.

Darwin’s equipment is possibly the most gleaming, highly efficient set of vessels anyone could fine anywhere – and it’s an obvious source of pride for Victoria.

She says: “I did a three-week course in practical brewing two years ago and was offered a job on the last day of the course. I suppose I was in the right place at the right time.”

Victoria hadn’t come from the hobby-brewing side which many microbrewers have; it was while taking business studies in Belgium that started a fascination with beer.

“I had actually bought a home-brew kit after applying for the course,” she says. “I certainly didn’t want to work in an office after university. It was a surprise I hadn’t got into beer before.

“But the real challenge for me now is to get Darwin Brewery functioning on its own rather than being a facility for Brewlab courses.”

As the Darwin name suggests, discovery and investigation is very much part of Victoria’s brief.

“We’ve been helping Peter Briggs at Autumn Brewing Co to develop a range of gluten-free beers which were then brewed at Castle Eden Brewery,” she says. “It was really interesting to be part of that and to see right from the beginning how beer could be brewed from the likes of millet and quinoa.

“We also brew a lager for The Ship Inn at Low Newton by the Sea in Northumberland which sells really well, particularly in the summer.”

Darwin Brewery’s flagship beers are – understandably – Flag Porter (5.0% abv) and Extinction Ale (8.3% abv) with the likes of Galapagos Stout (6.0% abv), Beagle Blonde (4.1% abv) and Rolling Hitch IPA (5.2% abv) in a more-than-capable supporting role.

Flag Porter was developed from bottles discovered in an 1825 shipwreck in the English Channel. DNA analysis at Brewlab identified the yeast in the sediment which has now been cultured and stored for further use, while the malt used in the beer was identified as from the Chevallier variety of barley which ceased being used around 1920.

Similarly, Extinction Ale rose from the analysis of bottles recovered from a house cellar on the North Yorkshire Moors and dated 1928. At first thought to be champagne, it was discovered that it was a strong ale from the now closed Scarborough & Whitby Brewery – a “coming of age” brew laid down to mature for at least 21 years.

Darwin Brewery is also offering groups the chance to brew their own craft beer using its advanced specialist equipment.

Victoria Thompson says: “We supply the ingredients, equipment, recipes and, most importantly, the support for you to experience a proper brewing session, and the end result is yours to pick up a few weeks later.”

Darwin Brew Crew experiences are priced at £65 per person for a half-day which includes the brewing session, beer tasting and light refreshments – available regularly throughout the week and on selected weekends. For information, call 0191 549 9450 or email

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Alastair Gilmour

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