Published on June 5, 2019 | by Alastair Gilmour0
A ship-shape life in brewing
When brewers retire, do they still wake at dawn ready for a 6am mash? Do they take up a new business idea they’ve harboured for years – or do they sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labours?
It’s a bit too early to gauge which way Michael Hegarty will lean – latterly the brewer at The Ship Inn Brewery at Low Newton by the Sea in Northumberland – as he’s still not quite used to being around the house every day. One thing, though, he’s left brewing for good.
“I’m six weeks into retirement and I can say it’s the best job I’ve had in my life,” he says. “But the first couple of weeks were strange.”
Michael had been brewing the likes of Ship Hop Ale, Sandcastles At Dawn and Dolly Day Dream at The Ship Inn for the past 12 years. His beer-producing career is extensive, having been an accomplished home-brewer for decades – starting on a Geordie brew kit – before setting up Font Valley Brewery at Netherwitton, Northumberland, and Barefoot Brewery, which eventually settled at Whitehouse Farm Centre near Morpeth.
“Fifteen years and three different breweries, but I don’t miss it at all,” he says. He describes himself as a traditional North East character – “worked down the pit, chased jobs, drank proper beer”.
Following a 15-year spell as an electrical engineer underground at Whittle, Shilbottle and Ellington pits – which reaches seven miles out under the North Sea – after redundancy, he went off to Lemington Brick Works, Newcastle, in 1992 where a colleague who had sampled his home-brew loved it so much he advised him to do it for a living.
Federation Brewery, Gateshead, came next on the Hegarty career ladder as a pub and working men’s club technical services engineer (“another eye-opener I tell you”), which wasn’t exactly the happiest time of his life. Dealing with club stewards and committee men was to him going back in time while he was looking to the future.
He says: “It was the end of an era but I’m pleased I did it, meeting amazing people like Arthur Bryant who went on to pass on his skills to students at Brewlab in Sunderland.”
Five years at a Cramlington biotech company where he was employed in fermentation processes came in very useful for an electrician who had designs on being a full-time brewer.
“I jumped ship to start a brewery,” he says. “I had been running a couple of small tanks while at The Fed which I had bought from a farmer in County Durham. I got them for £50 with all the fittings.
“My seventh brew at Font Valley got a bronze at the Newcastle Beer Festival which I was delighted with. In those days you could just ring up a pub and they’d take two nines (casks). I could get a lot of beer out of a 2.5-barrel kit.”
“We used to supply the Ship Inn when I had Barefoot Brewery and I got chatting to owner Christine Forsyth who said ‘do you fancy bringing your brewery here?’. Having put it together myself, all run by electricity, it had become part of me. I did 1,015 brews at the Ship Inn and never lost a pint, not one.”
Despite his beer awards and peer plaudits, Michael never liked tasting his own products, saying it was too much like looking for perfection and that he’d never be happy until he found it. He has never taken the craft revolution on board with its mango and passion fruit, grapefruit and coffee concoctions and now prefers to seek out the beers he cut his teeth on such as Newcastle Exhibition (the Trent House, Newcastle) and McEwans 80/- (“to die for at the Joiners Arms in Morpeth”). Draught Bass is another lure, while Shepherd Neame Spitfire he reckons is a better English version of an American IPA than anything he’s tasted. “It always reminds me of the fabric of an Elastoplast.”
Now in early retirement with his National Coal Board pension easing things along, Michael has time to reflect.
“The Ship Inn was a lovely place, but when you’re at work all the time and it’s all a bit of a rush, you don’t see the benefit.”