Published on March 3rd, 2016 | by Alastair Gilmour


Touring with the brews band

The brewery visitor experience means following the entire beer-making process from start to finish, throwing in a touch of magic and anecdote. 

The bigger breweries employ dedicated guides but more than often it’s the person who actually makes the beer who will be showing you round. Either way, you can chat to the people who make the beer in an atmosphere of malty, hoppy headiness.

These days, it’s not enough to simply point prospective visitors in the direction of the nearest pub where they’ll find your beers; you have to excite and entertain, you have to educate and inform. And, in the process, you can even earn a little bit of money and, most importantly, raise profiles all round.

We present a snapshot of how some of our northern breweries present their beers to the public:

Nowhere is the brewery tour and visitor centre regarded as integral to the business than at Wylam Brewery. During the course of 2016 it will undergo another metamorphosis in its 16-year beer journey. The establishment of new brewing premises at The Palace of Arts in Exhibition Park in Newcastle is an exciting prospect and planning is well under way for the installation of a new 30-barrel brewhouse that will sit in perfect harmony with a brewery tap and events space in a stunning location. If you can’t wait till later this year, tours and tastings continue to be well catered for at the current Northumberland site.

Keswick Brewery is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year with 10 new beers and 10 tasting events. Beer aficionados are invited to visit the stone-built premises in the centre of Keswick and enjoy a brewery tour, taste one of the new beers on a Tasting Day, and join the beer members’ club where discounts and special offers in the brewery shop simply add to the pleasure.

The brewery visitor area boasts an original sandstone flagged floor, solid beams and a wood-burning stove – a delightful way of enjoying beer where it is brewed.

The Keswick Brewery Company’s first beer in 2006 was Thirst Run (4.2% abv), a golden pale ale which has become a best-seller and introduced the Thirst range through a misunderstanding when the graphic designer commissioned to design the pumpclip misheard First Run over the phone.

Keswick Brewery also offers a sheep to drive as part of a visit. Its two-seater Twizy vehicle is called Thethera (“three” in Cumbrian dialect), one of 10 buzzing around the area as part of a See More project which encourages visitors to enjoy the region’s tremendous landscape.

From the foundation of Black Sheep Brewery, giving visitors the opportunity to see the beers being brewed and to sample the ales at source was always a high priority. Founder Paul Theakston understood perfectly the wider business implications, so in May 1996, the doors were opened to a newly-transformed visitor centre – now a major year-round attraction in the Yorkshire Dales.

Like many visitor centres, Black Sheep is an alternative day out, this time involving a great North Yorkshire beer experience, such as “shepherded” tours that can start and finish in the Bistro with a quick snack, a leisurely lunch, or a full dinner – then a sample of the award-winning ales in the Baa…r.

Visitors can’t seem to get enough of seeing the traditional brewhouse in action, beer bubbling in the fermenting rooms in Yorkshire Squares developed 200 years ago, the selection of ingredients that produce distinctive tastes and aromas, and learning about the science behind the brewing process. Even the Sheepy Shop is a “ewe-nique” experience.

Durham Brewery’s head brewer Steve Gibbs is a firm believer in the fact that beer is a fascinating beverage which is deeply embedded in our culture.

“On a brewery visit, you will learn about beer history, beer culture and the way we make it,” he says.

It’s true to say that Durham Brewery has a beer for everyone. It was a pioneer in the mid-1990s of the light-hoppy style of bitters that have now become an industry standard and consistently grown its portfolio through light bitter to dark stout and wheat beer to Bavarian lagerbier.

Steve takes pride in demonstrating that all beer styles are made authentically, cutting no corners, how diverse they can be, and how constantly renewing plant and machinery for the highest quality end-product is a must. Then, of course, there is the opportunity to sample draught and bottled beers in a tutored tasting – and to buy some to take home.

You can join a two-hour tour on Saturdays and occasionally Fridays and Sundays by checking for available times and dates.

Camerons Brewery Visitor Centre is on the site of the former Stranton pub adjoining the huge plant in Hartlepool. It not only offers a remarkable and educational insight into beer production, but is also a fascinating story of entrepreneurial activity, innovation, social history and political manoeuvring. Interactive displays trace brewing through the ages and the rise of the present company from its origins in 1865 when John William Cameron first entered the Lion Brewery.

The Italian marble-lined brew hall is a sight to behold on its own. The invitation extends to the relaxing, atmospheric, fully-licensed bar to enjoy the likes of award-winning Camerons Strongarm, the flagship beer which is as distinct as Hartlepool itself.

Business-wise, the visitor centre offers three meeting rooms ideal for conferences and private functions. Souvenirs are always a great reminder of a “different” day out and there’s none better than the history of Camerons’ Lion Brewery by Marie-Louise McKay which is a fascinating, 96-page appreciation of more than 150 years of brewing at the iconic site.

As a measure of the importance to the core business and the success of Hawkshead Brewery’s Beer Hall, it won Best Business Development at the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) business awards last year. The main focus of the Beer Hall is public access – how the brewery has opened its doors – all the time, not just during a brewery tour – to a brewery and the brewing process.

The Beer Hall has turned out to be the brewery’s single biggest customer, selling eight per cent of all the beer it produces – which is a lot of beer. It is light and airy, with plenty of space spread over two floors, a long bar made for leaning on, and sofas for flopping into.

The kitchen was opened in 2010, with the help of consultant chef Steven Doherty (formerly Albert Roux’s head chef at Le Gavroche) offering down-to-earth, hearty, classic food – tapas or main meals. A long, beery lunch is positively encouraged.

Most recently, the Beer Hall has been voted Pub of the Year by the Westmorland branch of the Camnpaign For Real Ale (Camra).

The natural step for Maxim Brewery was that once the brewhouse was up and running and orders were coming along nicely that a programme of beer tours, tastings and hospitality would follow. A bar that would grace any pub, anywhere, has been installed and groups are entertained on a regular basis and introduced to the future of  fiercely independent brewing with a slice of history thrown in for comparison.

Maxim’s 20-barrel brewery at Houghton le Spring, County Durham, was previously the Canongate Brewery located on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. This was Scottish & Newcastle’s pilot plant built to a very high specification and is probably the best equipment of its size anywhere in the UK.

Double Maxim Beer Co bought all the plant and equipment in 2006 and spent most of 2007 commissioning the brewery. Success has led to further success and visitors will quickly understand why Maxim has won several supermarket contracts and been awarded the British Bottlers Institute Gold Medal for its Maximus brew. Best-seller, however, is Swedish Blonde (4.2% abv), named after the brewery’s own Anna Goransdotter – and yes, she is blonde and Swedish.

When you’re sitting on a 200-acre working farm in the picturesque Hadrian’s Wall country like High House Farm Brewery is, you’ve got a head start when it comes to visitors. Brewery tours include a little history of the farm, a detailed explanation of the brewing process, and tutored tastings in the bar.

There’s even a bracing three-mile farm walk to build up a thirst or an appetite for what’s on offer – daily specials, evening meals, Sunday lunches and light snacks – in the restaurant and tearoom, plus a gift shop. But apart from some fine ale to sample from a 16-strong portfolio, the big advantage of High House Farm is that it’s licensed for weddings. The setting is beautiful, rural and traditionally Northumbrian with the extra knowledge that your big day is actually a bliss-up in a brewery.

It all started when Robert Theakston leased the Black Bull Inn and brewhouse in Masham, North Yorkshire. In 1875 his son Thomas built the famous brewery that stands on an area of the town known as Paradise Fields – hence The Black Bull in Paradise Visitor Centre.

A brewery visit allows you at first hand to experience the flavours and aromas of malted barley, hops and yeast and to follow the entire brewing process from blending the ingredients through to filling casks and the fascinating craft of the cooper as straight pieces of oak are formed into curved staves to create a perfect cask.

You can chat to the people behind the beer, ask any questions, or simply soak up the atmosphere of the traditional Victorian tower brewery (everything starts at the top and is thereafter moved by gravity). Then you’ll be invited to have a pint and enjoy the taste of English beer at its best in the brewery tap, warmed by a welcoming real fire.

About the Author

Alastair Gilmour

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