Published on April 2nd, 2019 | by Alastair Gilmour0
The joy of shed
Tom and Nicola Smith are taking advantage of building an extension to the brewery in their Northumberland garden – they’re having the house completely renovated at the same time. Either that or they’re making the most of the domestic building work to add more production space to Muckle Brewery.
In any case, they are about to spend the next few months in a caravan parked on the drive at Park Village, near Haltwhistle. Making beer should not be affected too much – Tom is a fencing contractor and built the impressive brewery himself (with the help of a few friends) and working around problems is his stock in trade.
“When I thought about brewing I knew it couldn’t just be a shed you can buy from anywhere,” he says. “The new extension is going to be curved, like the bow of a ship. We’re brewing three days a week then packaging – bottles have taken over massively from cask – and selling at markets, food fairs and online.”
Nicola is a radiographer at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary working four days a week, then, bottler, label-sticker, sales person, fetcher, carrier and oft-times brewing assistant on the other three.
She says: “It’s been three years now; it’s something you wouldn’t do if you didn’t like it. We get a community buzz from the likes of Hexham food market and it’s great meeting customers and building relationships with them.”
The Muckle shed (although the word ‘shed’ doesn’t do this magnificent structure justice) measures 26 feet by 12 and build from Siberian Larch, a particularly hardy timber with an aesthetic beauty, and long lifespan. The walls are laser varnished and the floor sealed for hygiene and ease of cleaning.
The brewing vessels (named Tom and Jerry and Eric and Ernie) are fitted with wheels which means they can be easily shifted around and cornered off and clad separately depending on their function – boiling or chilling – at any one given stage.
“Some breweries have separate fermenting rooms but we have to make best use of the space we have,” says Tom. “It took us a while to get used to it and we have our own way of working.”
Nicola agrees. “We had to learn it all,” she says. “But you always find a way round everything.”
The Muckle Brewery shed, perched on top of an 80-foot cliff, overlooks mature woodland with the Park Burn running through it way below. On the horizon is Hadrian’s Wall country.
Sitting sipping your own beer on a brewery verandah on a balmy evening while pheasants cackle and other birds swoop below you must surely be one of life’s great joys. Without sounding hippy, something of that landscape has simply got to be absorbed in beers such as Muckle Chuckle, Muckle Tickle, Whin Sill Blonde and King’s Crag.
“We do cask to order, but have made a rod for our own backs by having a range of nine beers,” says Tom. “It’s funny, what sells well in one place doesn’t in another. We supply all around Northumberland and The Samson in Gilsland all the time. Our low-strength beers are the best-sellers.
“The shed was originally going to be a summer house, well, half brewery and half summer house. It’s great to be able to walk out into the back garden to work. It’s normally a constant 20º in there so it’s a pleasant temperature to work in.
“It took us a while to work out what makes us unique – having a brewery in the garden in Hadrian’s Wall country. There aren’t many places like this. We’re not about taking over the world – the local market is what we’re after.”
An acute sense for inventiveness has lead Tom to use whinstone (normally found as railway track ballast) in the kettle when brewing Whin Sill Bitter. He was a bit wary at first and asked a geologist friend about the likelihood of it exploding in the heat. He assured him that as it had originally come out of the Earth as molten lava, a bit of a boil would make no difference.
Beers in cask and bottle are often delivered in the Smith’s VW campervan to a collection of highly-regarded Northumberland pubs, plus The Sill (Northumberland National Park’s visitor centre) and specialist beer shops around the region. Drops often double as nights away, so it’ll come in handy when the house and shed building work gets under way.