Published on March 4th, 2020 | by Alastair Gilmour0
Going for gold
Beer has an amazing capacity for creativity
The notion that the best ideas come from sitting at a pub table drinking beer is certainly true when it comes to Wylam Gold Tankard. The hugely popular beer has now been relaunched simply as Wylam Gold, complete with new livery – 20 years after it was conceived.
Back then, Cheers editor Alastair Gilmour had been named British Guild of Beer Writers writer of the year and, having been presented with a gold tankard to mark the feat, his thoughts turned to a celebratory ale.
The venue was the Boathouse in Wylam, Northumberland; the company included John Boyle and Robin Leighton – the enterprising duo who had set up Wylam Brewery a few months earlier in September 2000 – with the conversation starting, “I know this might sound stupid, but what if…?”. Once more, after a couple of pints, Alastair asked, “What if someone asked you to brew a beer specially for them?”
The reasoning was that it seemed a shame to consign his handsome, heavy, hallmarked gold tankard to idleness on the mantelpiece when it could be out in the wild, working for itself. The answer he wanted arrived around pint number four. Gold Tankard was born with fair locks and a strength of 4.0% abv. The rest was up to the two brewers – Daddy had done his bit, suggesting that all Gold Tankard’s ingredients should have “gold” connotations, such as Golden Promise, an early-ripening spring barley much prized among malt whisky producers and malted by Simpson’s of Berwick. The added bonus is that it’s grown in Northumberland and around the Borders, an area famous for its barley. The soils are based on glacial drift which gives the lightness necessary for the growth of high-quality malting barley. The region also enjoys a maritime climate, perfect for producing plump, fine-skinned kernels, rich in starch and low in protein. Even the name Berwick means “barley town”.
They then came up with Golden Naked Oats, at the time a new development from Simpson’s which was predicted to have a bright future in the food industry for bread and biscuits.
“They’ll give the beer that deep golden colour you’re after,” said Robin (who sadly passed away in 2005). “Anyway, we only brew beers we like to drink ourselves.”
Next on the ingredients list was First Gold hops, a (then) fairly new variety with extremely exciting prospects. First Gold has excellent aroma qualities and produces a well-balanced bitterness and fruity, slightly spicy notes. Robin was keen to introduce a floral, citrus aroma to balance the beer’s character and suggested using Willamette hops as well. It’s an American variety with, as you’d expect, its own assertive nature.
They discussed bitterness levels, mouthfeel, aroma, head retention, aftertaste, sweetness and maltiness – and just about the only topic not covered was the state of Alan Shearer’s knee which was at the time the cause of much concern around St James’ Park.
Golden Promise barley, Golden Naked oats, First Gold and Oregon-grown hops, plus yeast cultured from the original Whitbread strain – eureka. Gold Tankard was starting to shine and ind it was off and running shortly after The Boathouse session.
Robin’s brew book reveals that Gold Tankard was Wylam Brewery’s gyle number 52 (gyle being a brewing batch). A lot of neat figures are written against terms such as Liquor Treatment, Initial Wort, Boil Time, Yeast Pitched. They could be Swahili love poems for all they meant to the layman, but the finished brew couldn’t be closer to burnished gold if they’d matched it to a paint chart.
“I love its bouquet,” said John Boyle on the initial tasting. “It has an interesting bite as well. It hits you right here.” He waved his free hand somewhere under his chin.
Gold Tankard is fairly bitter with a digestive biscuit touch and a curious pinewood aftertaste. It was entered into the 2001 Camra Newcastle Beer Festival – and came away with the “best beer” title.
These days, Wylam Brewery has changed out of all recognition, having moved from its former cowshed beginnings to the magnificent 30-barrel brewhouse, taproom and entertainment and conference venue at the Palace of Arts in Exhibition Park, Newcastle, in 2016.
Brewery director Dave Stone enlarges on the decision to give Gold Tankard – a long-term best seller – a facelift and a new push.
“Nothing ever stays the same and change is inevitable except from vending machines,” he says. “Gold has been the only beer we have continued to brew constantly across the 20 years we have been brewing – and we are still as proud of it today as we were on Gyle 001.
“If anyone takes a look at photo of themselves from 2000 and a photo of themselves now they will see change. Similarly if you look at haircuts, fashions, league tables, shorelines and, of course, beer art you will see change. So we have given the artwork a makeover to bring it into line with the changes we have made across the rest of our beer portfolio.
“The beer is as delicious as it was two decades ago and we feel bringing the artwork into line will help it reach the lips of more thirsty beer drinkers – which is a positive.”
Au revoir Tankard, hello Gold; here’s to another 20.
*Wylam Brewery is celebrating two decades of brewing with events taking place all year. Keep an eye on wylambrewery.co.uk for updates.