Published on December 4, 2018 | by Alastair Gilmour0
Determination flows from a new recruit to the region’s brewing scene, as Alastair Gilmour discovers
The new senior craft brewer at Sonnet 43 Brew House is getting to grips with the peculiarities of language. It’s not that a young Texan has to shout to make himself understood at the County Durham base – or vice-versa – it’s more the terminology that has the tendency to cause crossed wires.
“It’s all very different,” says Alex Rattray who has been hired to bring a new dimension to Sonnet 43’s portfolio and, one suspects, to do a bit of shaking in the wider beer community.
“A US gallon is different to a UK gallon and I’ll be working in celcius, grams and litres which are all new to me, so it’s like translating between two languages.
“I’m really looking forward to working alongside head brewer Michael Harker, learning and developing new hop-forward recipes. I’m also new to working with whole-leaf hops and couldn’t believe it when I first looked inside a tank to see it a foot deep in spent hops. What? You dig this out? Every day?”
Alex Rattray’s role is to infuse Sonnet 43’s beers with the boldness of American craft brewing. His Hercule Poirot-style moustache and natty bowtie might point to non-conformity or even eccentricity, but there’s definitely a steely determination lurking there. And, as one of his relaxations is playing chess, problems are merely obstacles to be worked around and eventually eliminated. Rowing is a passion too, so expect energy, drive and persistence.
Alex and his brother set up Freetail Brewing Co, a brewpub in San Antonio, Texas (also home to Lone Star Brewing) and developed a love for and skill with barrel-ageing and blending sour beers. This apprenticeship will stand him in good stead as he helps Sonnet 43 gear up from what has been (it’s fair to say) a period of marking time.
Completely unavoidably through illness, Mark Hird, managing director of Tavistock Hospitality, owners of Sonnet 43 Brew House, Poetic Licence gin distillery and a dozen bars, restaurants and hotels across the North East, has not been around very much over the past couple of years to oversee change and challenge. But now he’s back at his desk and facing the future with a lot more positivity.
“I’m involved again,” says Mark. “We acknowledge that at Sonnet 43 Brew House we haven’t progressed at the speed we would have liked to – however, we have an impressive strategy plan in place for the next 12 months that includes rebranding, allowing the brewery to remodel.”
Alex has already started to change the brewery structure around with some new kit soon to arrive from China and is adapting another vessel into a whirlpool. There will be collaborations with sister company Poetic License Gin which should be interesting – distiller Luke Smith has a great love of beer. Alex believes there is still so much UK brewing can learn from the US.
The self-titled Yeast Wrangler says: “A British ale in America doesn’t taste like a British ale here. I was known in the brewery back home for my love of drinking big, high-strength beers after work, like barley wines and imperial stouts while the others were enjoying relatively low-strength pilsner-style beers.
“Getting the maximum flavour and mouthfeel out of a relatively low-strength beer is a really difficult thing to do, a challenge to any brewer. Something like Timothy Taylor’s Landlord has so much happening in it; its crispness then its biscuity flavour coming from a relatively low alcohol brew has all the hallmarks of a great beer.
“I’ve also got some great ideas about the different times during a brew when dry hopping is at its most effective. I’m willing to accept there may be a better way of doing things – I’ll just try it. I’ll walk the line of science and creativity, but if you go too much towards science you can lose the heart of a beer.”
Even getting here from Texas was a challenge. He was offered the job last May, then his wife Leah announced she was pregnant, but thought there was loads of time to prepare before starting in October. However, there were so many delays in the process that it was getting near the time when Leah wouldn’t be able to fly – so many that Alex had to book the whole journey again.
An added complication was that the couple’s two pugs couldn’t fly with them direct to the UK, so they accompanied them – along with six suitcases – from Austin to New Jersey to Oslo to Amsterdam then by train, bus and ferry to Newcastle, taking 48 hours in total. Leah gave birth to Griffin Alastair Rattray in early November.
When Sonnet 43 brewery manager Alan Brown heard the tale, he thought: “If this is what he has gone through to start a new job, this is the guy I want.”
Alex and Leah had already visited the UK on holiday – he was actually born in Leicester when his parents were working in the ministry in churches across the country and spent his early life in London, so he already felt a kinship. They also visited the village of Rattray in Perthshire, considering it the family’s ancestral home. It’s what you do when you have a curious mind, isn’t it?
“We visited all these old pubs, distilleries and breweries,” he says, “and the beautiful weather we had tricked us – but we were ready for a change anyway. I had developed a love for cask ales which you don’t get a lot of in Texas. It’s too hot for a start. I wanted to be somewhere I could brew real ale and drink it.
“I was at a kind of transition point in my career. The brewery was only small, so I was running the restaurant side of the brewpub. There was just me brewing and I wasn’t learning anything new and felt topped out. My mind was already in transition.”
It’s going to be the end of January before the first of Alex Rattray’s beers leaves the Sonnet 43 premises, with him being allowed time to study what’s required and where the gaps are in the marketplace. Thereafter, it’s two new beers a month which is a fairly punishing regime when there are core beers such as Seraphim, Abolition, Impressment and The Raven to be brewed as well to satisfy the public thirst.
“It’s a vision but one with loose edges,” he says. “I’ve been told ‘do what you do and be creative’ so I’ll also be doing some stuff that doesn’t work, but if you’re worrying all the time about screwing up, you’ll screw up.
“You’ll never learn everything there is to learn. Sometimes we’re experimenting and don’t know why the beer’s doing what it’s doing.”
There is no doubt – an absolute certainty – that one young Texan in Coxhoe, County Durham, knows what he’s doing.