Published on July 5, 2018 | by Alastair Gilmour0
Yard of ale
Moving a brewing operation from a shipping container into a massive space with enough height to put in two floors presents its own problems. Not in the least the working practices you’ve built up over the past few years – a spanner is always within armslength, the measuring cylinder is where you left it and the pail is convenient for tripping over.
There’s a whole new regime of working, as brothers-in-law Carl Kennedy and Andy Aitchison discovered when they moved their Northern Alchemy brewery into new premises earlier this year.
“Everything is bigger and more than anything else we’ve got loads of space,” says Andy. “It’s taken a long time for us to get over that challenge of space. Since we came to The Old Coal Yard in Byker we think a lot now about where things are and take our tools everywhere with us because everything in the old place was close to hand. But we’re making good use of the space and getting more efficient at it.”
Northern Alchemy’s new home deliberately retains all the trappings of its former railway and industrial past when coal would be unloaded from trains on to wagons for coal merchants to cart away. Exposed brick, steel girders and an amazing partly-cobbled floor spell traditional workplace. Outside, East Coast Main Line trains whoosh by when you least expect them to.
“We’re doing very well and have ramped up production,” says Carl. It’s a case of managing everything in terms of growth, economies of scale and cash flow which is always a challenge. It’s nothing we weren’t expecting – but expecting and managing are two different things.”
Being creative chaps themselves, Andy and Carl’s motive for moving into The Coal Yard (aka Potts Yard) was to create a community of makers and do-ers; people who wanted to rent spaces for their creative endeavours whether it’s printing T-shirts or running a café.
“This is coming to fruition,” says Carl. “We have a welder here already and Block & Bottle (butcher and bottle shop) have decided to proceed with their next project here – drying, curing, smoking and salting meat. It’s part of reason we moved here.
“We’re creative people surrounded by creative people so we’re always looking at things in another way. Like foraging for elderberries – we go out and pick the fruit, stick it in the freezer and say ‘know what… that’s a beer later’.
“We’re also very conscious of the environmental impact of a brewery and are working with Stu Brew from Newcastle University on sustainability.”
Northern Alchemy doesn’t have a core portfolio of beers but a seasonal range of some 15 styles. The experimental and trial kit will shift from the old place soon which will be used to test what might be commercially viable by sending them across the counter at the Cumberland Arms (the family-owned pub) and selected, trusted outlets to gauge the response.
Andy says: “We’re now getting into a regime of week-to-week, month-to-month jobs. But it’s quite nice to take a moment to look around the place to see how far we’ve come; it’s just so nice to be here.
“We’re eventually moving into canning our own beer. We can bottle quite fast but canning will be a much better use of our time. We’ll focus on cask and keg fifty-fifty so we’re doing a lot more cask than we have done. Managing the return of casks is quite a new thing for us, but we’re prepared for that.
“And our unitanks are amazing; there’s so much less cleaning to do. We’ve now got much better consistency and much better extraction – similarly with the dual-purpose ones we built ourselves.
“We’ve been working together for five years and the new brewery has been a year in the planning but despite the challenges and stresses we’re still two brothers-in-law who have not killed each other and who can still go for a pint together.”