Newcastle – Go With The Flow

(Alan Hull. Where art thou?)

It’s been a long time since I last visited Newcastle. Vague recollections of training courses at the TUC spring to mind, but that’s at least 10 years ago. And times have changed.

Certainly, Newcastle has changed.

The genesis of this weekend was in the immediate aftermath of a weekend last year in York. The four who went wondered out loud “where next?”

Accommodation was booked a day later. 6 months in advance. In August. And once the four of us booked, others jumped in. This was a team outing.

Newcastle has that kind of pull.

Viewing from afar, the beer scene in Newcastle looked great. Almasty, Anarchy, Box Social, Northern Alchemy, Wylam to name just a few. Drooling was the order of the day. Even 6 months in advance.

Plans were made. Maps created.

I like a good plan.

I also like to swim against the tide. It is almost instinctive to set myself against prevailing orthodoxy and shun the popular, the lauded and head elsewhere. But swimming against that tide can be tiring.

So. Trusting the experts (ie : local drinkers and local social media contacts), I let myself – generally speaking – go with the flow.

Another great (collective) decision, was to avoid the herding of cats. This was a group of 10 travelling up, each with their own priorities. So each have their own story, their own memories.

These are mine. And I won’t be forgetting them in a hurry……

_______________

Walking from the station to our Quayside base, I’d forgotten one of the general characteristics of river cities. Slopes.

Fortunately, pit stop #1 was a mere 50 yards (uphill) from the hotel.

The Bridge Tavern (Akenside Hill)

Handy. And welcome.

If this was a taste of things to come, we were in for a good weekend.

Exposed brick, wood, open plan yet nicely subdivided. This works.

A Brewpub. Associated to Wylam in that respect. It was a good start to see mostly local breweries on the taps – me being a firm “When in Rome” kinda fella – and our initial group split between different locals.

The Cascade by Wylam was delicious. As was the Northern Alchemy sour. Winning.

The pub self identifies as a gastro pub. If that kind of thing deters you ordinarily, don’t let it. This is a belting spot, located directly between the Newcastle side stanchions of the Tyne Bridge.

I just wish I’d tried the food (as others also wished – the next morning!)

That thing about slopes. It means you don’t want to walk too far.

Good job that an icon was close by.

Crown Posada (Side)

And the only pub I’d previously visited. To me, I wouldn’t care if the beer was rubbish. Because architecturally, this place is simply stunning.

Fortunately the Bad Co Milk Stout was lovely rich, roasty and creamy.

But this is about the pub.

To not go here would have been tantamount to criminality.

Narrow, single roomed with seating areas either end of a magnificent very long bar that’s almost half the length of the pub.

I should have taken more pics.

Busy, intimate with friendly and witty bar staff. We’d have stayed longer – and we DID return on Saturday with a different group – but we had friends to meet elsewhere.

?

The Box Social (Forth Street)

From the old to the new. And just my kind of spot.

A Micro Pub. And true to the designation, it is indeed wee. But fits quite a lot into that small space with a mezzanine above the bar almost doubling the floor space.

Being effectively the taproom for the eponymous brewery, the accent on their own beers was welcome, but there was plenty of variety from elsewhere with 10 keg and 4 cask lines.

“When in Rome….” dictated a Box Social beer and the “New Trumpet Joe?” Micro IPA was a spot hitter. Refreshing and tasty.

With plenty to go at, I’d have loved to spend more time here, but the lovely Mr Jones from that there Brighton had tipped me off about another special little space.

So myself, TLO and Chris formed the first “splinter group” of the trip.

A bit too far to walk. (My Uber app took some stick this weekend….) But I wouldn’t have missed this place for all the beer in Newcastle….

Coppers of Gosforth (Brunton Park, Gosforth)

From the outside (and even from the inside!) this looks like a supermarket. That’s because it is precisely that. A supermarket.

But….. What’s that? There. Down that corridor?

It felt like a beery version of Hansel & Gretel….. Ah…. More liquid breadcrumbs….

Trust me, happiness this way lies….

6 or 7 taps. Local and otherwise. Impressed. But something was missing.

Mike mentioned a fridge door leading to beer Narnia. But….

Ah… What’s that?

And there we were. Hop Secret. The “not so secret” outside bar at the rear of the shop. With a little closed off warm room for the less hardy.

This place is ace.

You have to go to understand. In a manner of speaking…

Ever had that moment when something just GRABS you? You can’t explain it, it just does? Well. That. That’s how Coppers got me.

We met Charlie here. The other reason we jumped that Uber. We chatted beer and other stuff, he introduced me to that LOVELY Scotch Egg / cheese platter. He’s a lovely fella (even TLO said so – she’s hard to please!) and it was so nice to meet up.

Hopefully he’ll pop South at the end of October….

I had my first beer from local brewery Two by Two (it was lovely) and I caught a #ISBF5 Beer that I’d missed! Northern Alchemy Cola Sour. Oh my that was good!

Even on a chilly Newcastle evening, I could have stayed all night. But… We had friends to go back and see. So, saying farewell to Charlie (and grabbing a fistful of Northern Alchemy bottles) it was Uber time – having checked where the Manc hordes had relocated…

The Mean Eyed Cat (St Thomas St)

“6 cask, 8 keg, a load of bottles and the furniture doesn’t match….”

You simply HAVE to adore a place that doesn’t take itself too seriously!

“Expert Level Photobombing”

A big square room. With rackety furniture. And a whole shit load of charm. It was here that I really started to fall for this city.

Beer was ace, people were chatty. It’s a proper nice place (enjoyed it so much that we came back on the Saturday (well, some of us did)

Wylam “Hickey The Rake”, Out There “Mojito Sour” and (the coupe de grace) Kernel “Export Stout”.

I retired hurt. But what a way to go.

Well, we went to The Town Mouse. But I’ll save that for the next day. A tasty North Riding“Mini Citra”.

Hold that North Riding thought……

Some of us made it for breakfast in the morning. Some stayed out until two.

It was a marathon, not a sprint.


Newcastle revealing it’s charms in daylight (OK. Gateshead. But…..)

This was the morning of the great divide, with several (most of the group) heading towards Exhibition Park. And Wylam Brewery. Criticise ME all you like, but I had friends to meet.

And a surprise.

At…

The Free Trade Inn (St Lawrence Road, Ouseburn)

A gentle 15 minute stroll, as lazy as the gently flowing Tyne was just reviving enough to make a beer seem attractive at 11.30am.

In what is arguably Newcastle’s most vaunted pub.

That view though……

The location is killer. And an excellent beer list to go at too. The Almasty “Echelon” was the “house beer” and did a right number on me. It lifted me up and renamed me Lazarus.

Now I’m not prone to much in the way of fanboydom, but I did get a surprise when Karen & Stuart walked in with Malcolm and Niamh. Stuart sporting his usual levels of sartorial bombast….

He IS delusional you know!

This was where the day was just allowed to flow its own way. Chatting. Fun. Being with friends.

A few beers were had here and I tried to “place” The Free Trade and struggled. It reminded me of pubs from my youth. Except this looked untouched. Preserved. Not messed about. And that’s truly a good thing.

Just to sit, looking through that enormous window, enjoying exceptional beer. It’s a pleasure worth paying for.

I jealously eyed up Malcolm’s samosa….

Then – on Stu’s suggestion – we walked back up the Tyne and crossed over The Millennium Bridge. And sat under The Tyne Bridge

By The River Brew Co

Never have shipping containers been so imaginatively recycled!

Quite a sight.

Just. Yeah. I don’t know how. But it’s bloody good.

Tried 2 of the beers made in the venue (overseen by Wylam apparently) – well, like I said, “when in Rome….”

The Heedhunter Pale may well have been my favourite beer of the weekend. But then, I’m a Centennial fiend. And the aroma was like snorting lemon sherbet. Just…..

It was exceptional. The Brown Ale “Broon” was a bit tasty too.

Inside, the place was open, modern and light and I just forgot the construction. A real surprise. I’m a bit of a traditionalist with pubs and bars. But I just “got” this. It was certainly a beautiful day to sit on the bank of the North’s greatest river, looking up at the Tyne Bridge, eat great pizza (Courtesy of Scream for Pizza) and just relax.

Back over the river though.

And a revisit to a few places from the previous night – cue pics….

Scary….

The Town Mouse (St Mary’s Place)

I DO like a subterranean micro pub. Apparently.

We came in on the Friday evening. And even after several beers, could still taste how exceptionally good the North Riding Mini Citra was. That’s good cellar work.

Stuart let slip (once we’d crossed the bridge), that Mocha Porter was on here. And the catnip called…

The pub was busy. It was their Second Birthday weekend. It’s cosy, warm and open with a kind of two – roomed feel.

Intimate. My kinda place.

I’ll be back.

Retreating via Lady Greys and The Bridge Tavern again (excellence never gets boring), bed called.

The fog descended the next morning like visual poetry.

I’ve always been a “Lady Eleanor” man myself though….

Gluttons for punishment, we “strolled” through the hordes crowding the Quayside market.

Slowly. Bodies pummelled by local beer, it felt like Napoleon’s Retreat From Moscow.

I know. I know. But….

Back to The Free Trade. Northern Alchemy “Small IPA“. Delicious.

All good things come to an end however….

Just two things left to do.

That i “Sublime Chaos” lived up to the first two syllables! (TLO loved the Smash…)

And, back “home”

The idea to go to The Marble Arch for Sunday lunch really WAS my daughter’s.

Honest. (And I didn’t have a delicious Petite or Lagonda. 🤞)

So. Newcastle. How do you sum it up?

I wish it was nearer for a start! There’ll be more beers from round here at #ISBF6 for sure.

It’s just a beautiful city. A city of bridges. A city with some simply ace people (had a great yak in The Mean Eyed Cat on the Saturday night!)

It’s a great beer city. With lots of great places to drink that beer. I get the feeling that I merely scratched the surface.

Like I said, the others will have their own stories to tell. But mine tells me one thing for certain.

We’ll be back.

The Vultures Are Circling – “The Squeezed Middle”

Jesus Wept.

I thought I’d heard it all. But obviously not. Not yet. Not by a long chalk.

Communication tip. If you want to sound sincere, don’t deploy the “cut & paste email”.

Progressive Beer Duty. Launched by Gordon Brown in 2002 to support Micro Brewers and to give them the financial wherewithal to compete. Big Beer UK hates it. They think they’re “The Squeezed Middle”, between the international behemoths of Heineken, ABInbev, Molson Coors & Diageo.

And the little guys. Making the beer I love.

They are obviously struggling to make ends meet, whilst Micros deliver beer from the boots of Bentleys. You think?

Whilst Micros are working out what this Treasury review of Progressive (remember that word) Beer Duty actually means, Big Beer UK has not been resting on its arse.

Oh no. They’ve been mobilising.

And Micros – be it via SIBA or some other entity or grouping – need to do the same.

Enter the IFBB.

Who???

The Independent Family Brewers of Britain. That’s who. Check that membership list! (click the hyperlink) And they are gunning for Progressive Beer Duty. Alongside the SBDRC and BBPA

BBPA? Who???

The British Beer & Pub Association. AKA Big. Beer. Business. UK. That’s who. Check that membership list! (click the hyperlink)

More then. You may (and I encourage you vigorously to do so) have checked each membership list. It’s certainly worth while. There are certain discrete similarities.

Bollocks. They’re a lift and shift. With exceptions of the multinationals and the Pubcos, they’re virtually identical.

Then, THEN compare with the list from last year for the SBDRC…… Oh, go on. Please. It would be amusing if it wasn’t so sinister.

Noticed any similarities yet?

OK. We’re at base camp now.

So. You have 3 “industry bodies”, jointly and severally lobbying The Treasury, to review / reform Progressive Beer Duty.

In their favour. And their memberships are practically identical.

Collaboration is ace innit!

Now then, where was I? (Even I’M getting muddled here!)

Let’s look at the IFBB in more detail.

Richard Fuller. Secretary of The Independent Family Brewers of Britain.

Hang on. Fuller. As in that brewery that is no longer “Independent”? Hmmm

And…..

Yup. That’s him. A director of a pub and hotel company having sold the brewery business. Acting as the Company Secretary of an organisation representing “family breweries”. I trust he’ll relinquish that role soon.

The company as a whole (Fullers) is doing alright. And was only declaring 8 months ago that they had “solid plans in place” for the brewing business…..

Sounds like a sales prospectus…..

However you cut it, £43M Profit isn’t shabby.

Another member of the IFBB, BBPA & (last I saw) the SBDRC is J W Lees

Later results for 2017 & 2018 dip slightly on profits with the dip between 2017 & 2018 attributable to higher investments expenditure.

If I’ve got the figures wrong, please advise, I’m a bit thick at the moment.

Now. Like a lot of the family brewers, they’ll say – with some justification, no doubt – that a sizeable proportion of this profit is due to the tied and managed estates. Sales, rather than simply brewing. But this is still profit.

The tied estates of the family brewers have been acquired over hundreds of years. The Micros of this current period won’t get the chance to gain ANY tied estates – however small – if these 3 (almost identically comprised) pressure groups get their way.

I could go on. I’m told that I do. But this whole Independent breweries sector feels like “family” to me. These people have helped me through some ******g dark times.

If – in whatever small way – I can have an input into fighting off these vampires (don’t forget that comment on SBDRC website about Mergers & Acquisitions), I could hold my head high.

And – to The Small Brewers Duty Reform Coalition – if you want a proper debate, come out into the light. Where we can see you.

As I’ve said, I’m no writer, this is emotive to me. I give a toss. Others can – and will – put it better, more eloquently. I can’t wait to read them.

And one more question. There are a lot of professional journalists writing about beer, for a living.

Where are their voices on this?

Big beer is mobilising its troops. Little beer (and those of us who care) ought to do the same.

Before it’s too late.

The Vultures Are Circling. Again.

“Just when you thought it was safe…….” Here go the Small Brewers Duty Reform Coagulation. Again.

Forget the ABInbevs, Molson Coors of the world. In a UK context THIS is Big Beer. Big Beer with all of the PR and spin merchants that it can throw money at. All with the aim of increasing market share. In a declining market.

And using their access to the ear of Government to state their “case”.

If I hear the phrase “level playing field” one more ******g time I might just howl.

You have to admire “Big Beer 2019”. With its pretty websites and finely “crafted” phraseology. All with the ultimate aim – openly stated or otherwise – of closing down the competition. The small guys. The Micros that you and I know and love.

In the name of shareholder dividends and balance sheets.

This is about Progressive Beer Duty. And Big Beer UK’s simultaneously shadowy yet naked attempt to grab a bigger piece of the pie. At the expense of – what I regard as – the golden age of choice and beer diversity.

So. Let’s look at the Small Brewers Duty Reform Coalition

You’ve got to admire their transparency….. Oh. Hang on a minute……

When this all kicked off last year, there was a list of breweries that signed up. Very quickly, some of the breweries who signed up – not knowing the full agenda – quickly withdrew. Recognising the effect that “pulling up the ladder” would have on others (including many friends) who were on the rung that THEY were on not too long before.

Then I saw a list. A copy of which is in this post.

Having been privy to the letter at the top from H M Treasury (received by brewers this week), I thought I’d have a look on the SBDRC website, just to see who the members were now. Now that their true colours are revealed.

Nothing.

So. Being a cheeky wee scamp, I followed the trail of breadcrumbs to a contact email address….

As you can imagine, I can count the number of replies on 0 fingers. That’s almost 3 weeks later.

(Just double checked – to avoid embarrassment. Still zero)

Some of their PR /Propaganda is quite shameless and – to put not too fine a point on it – so far from the truth to be actually l… (am I allowed to say “lies”?)

“Its unfair to ALL small brewers…..” (I left the apostrophe out)

EH? WHAT???

SIBA published a study in 2017 (sponsored by them but independently researched and written) by CEBR

I don’t mind saying that this is a right dry bastard of a read. (If you – like me – are an insomniac, type “Small Brewers Duty reform report” into Google, you’ll find it. Sleep well!) But my inner stats geek loved an hour staring at pretty graphs and tables….

In essence, this table demonstrates the cost of making beer relative to the size of brewery. And demonstrates the economies of scale that larger brewers have. That it still costs more – even including the reduced duty rate – for small brewers to produce beer.

But no. Our friends in the “Coalition” won’t, can’t, say that. That would demonstrate a levelling of the playing field. Precisely their argument, but thrown back.

Last year, the “Coalition” were talking about reducing or removing the relief from duty for brewers above 1k hectolitres – a hectolitre being 100 litres. Or 2 1/2 9 gallon casks.

Do the maths with me here.

If an average (let’s say 6 or 7bbl) brewer brewed 3 times a week at full cap. Giving a 4 week break (yes brewers, I know that it’s dreamland in terms of hols, but…) that equates to just over 1612hl. If that brewery brewed 4 x per week that is near 2200hl.

Under those terms, that brewery would be paying 50% more duty on those 1200hl above the original SBDRC level.

Take a 10bbl brewery. 3 brews per week… Christ! That’s 2304hl…..

Now they talk about the differences between 500hl and 5000hl. 500hl!

Let’s be clear. Some breweries that YOU know, will be at THIS moment, clinging on. Getting beer into pubs is NOT easy, especially in a market dominated by big pubcos that demand beer at the lowest possible prices. Prices that “Big Beer” can (and do) supply at. Just look at any Wetherspoons bar….

This relief was introduced by Gordon Brown (as Chancellor) in 2002 in order to provide a boost to growth in the Micro Brewing sector. The stats don’t lie. And we have all seen the explosion in numbers of breweries in the last 6 or 7 years. This growth of numbers would not have been possible without SBDR. I quote the CEBR report again….

But that net growth has slowed massively.

I must confess that I worry about new market entries in brewing. It’s very difficult to make a “splash” in this market. For every standout opening like Pomona Island, there are many who don’t make that reputational impact.

And making a reputational impact is all well and good. You still have to sell beer. And compete at the bar, with those very breweries that are seeking to “do your legs” with their ability to sell beer cheaper into the chains and into wholesalers.

And I’ll never forget looking at a young enthusiastic and ambitious brewer in Manchester a few years back – one that was seeking to expand – and asking “Why would you do this?”

I hated not being more positive. I truly did.

I’m not a writer. “I’ve never took a paper or a learning degree” I’ve got no stake in any brewery, other than emotional. The only self interest I have (if any) is the ability to source fabulous beer from the best available independent breweries in the UK for #ISBF6….. #ISBF7…… But be under no illusion, by their own words (re “mergers and acquisitions….”) the Vultures of “Big Beer UK” are Circling.

If the Vultures of the SBDRC get their way – and the Treasury reduce or remove the level of relief for those breweries below that magic 5000hl – the brewery landscape that YOU now love and treasure, those breweries whose excellence allows me to put on #ISBF, will be picked clean to the bone.

What I, WE, love, this “Golden Age” of beer, is under threat.

Them Damn Vultures. Circling. Again.