Published on February 20th, 2015 | by Alastair Gilmour0
Raise a glass to a real character
The passing of one of the region’s best-loved publicans reminds us how lucky we were to know him, writes Alastair Gilmour
One of Northumberland’s most popular landlords and brewers has died. Geoff Brooker, 67, owned the Dipton Mill Inn and award-winning Hexhamshire Brewery near Hexham with his wife Janet for more than two decades, building an enviable reputation for the quality of their home-cooked food, superb ales and genuinely hearty welcome.
Geoff was a great supporter of North East beer festivals and more often than not would be awarded a certificate in some category or other for the likes of Blackhall English Stout and the specially-formulated Lightside. In fact, the stout gained so much popularity in the pub he had to make Guinness redundant.
Geoff was invariably described as the perfect country pub landlord. If you asked anyone to draw the stereotypical pint-pulling publican they would illustrate somebody rotund and bearded. He’d be a jolly soul, a slight eccentric who chuckled at his own jokes. He’d drape a tale in wit and whimsy. Customers would join the laughter; they’d heard the stories before, but that was half the fun.
That was Geoff Brooker. He didn’t just laugh, he guffawed and hooted, giving vent to great cackling peals of the stuff. And it didn’t go unappreciated; a framed poem hanging in the pub commemorates the couple’s 20th anniversary in charge and is recited to the tune of The Kinks’ 1968 hit Village Green Preservation Society. One line goes: “God save the Brooker laugh to keep us from anxiety”. He used to roar at that.
Geoff and Janet took over the Dipton Mill Inn just before Christmas 1989, with Geoff starting Hexhamshire brewery three years later. The Dipton Mill Inn is the quintessential English country pub – ivy-covered, middle-of-nowhere, sitting by a stream, woods and farmland. A mill race loops round the building and its enchanting, sun-trapped beer garden. There has been a corn mill and a fulling mill – for the treatment of animal skins – here since the 1300s and licensee records show it has been a pub since 1820. Again, if you had to draw a coaching inn, this would be it.
There are normally four Hexhamshire beers on the bar – such as Devil’s Water (4.1% abv), a slightly fruity, copper-hued best bitter; Devil’s Elbow (3.6% abv), a hoppy, dark amber brew with a bitter finish; Shire Bitter (3.8% abv), an easy drinker with a delicious hop and fruit balance, and Whap Wheasel (4.8% abv), hoppy with slivers of citrus and a long bitter finish. All are named after local beauty spots. Geoff also brewed Old Humbug (5.5% abv), a winter ale. “That one’s named after me,” he would say.
Hexhamshire Brewery uses a Thomas Bewick 18th century woodcut as its logo, a charming device showing two men in hats and breeches with a wooden barrel suspended on ropes between them. It was in use for quite a while before an elderly female visitor referred to Hexham’s once-thriving leather tanning industry and that what they were lugging wasn’t beer as Geoff had been given to understand.
“It’s urine,” she said. Needless to say, he laughed long and loud at the revelation.
Geoff was a lovely, lovely man and a real source of inspiration. The North East pub and beer community will miss him enormously. Losing Geoff is terribly sad, but when we think of him now we just have to join in his laughter.