The truth is out there

24 April, 2009

Zak heads north to discover the stories behind some of the nation's best-loved brews


I hear myself taking about beer to a customer

and I think: "Christ, you should get out more."

A couple of weeks ago, I heard myself saying something along the lines of "it has a nice toffee-ish malt character that runs through the beer like a backbone, and the hops sit on top of it but never dominate" - and I thought, I need to get out of this shop and stop talking about beer.

Luckily, help was at hand. The Newcastle

Gateshead Initiative very kindly hosted a visit

by a group of food and beer writers, myself included, showing off the best of what the region has to offer. Believe me, it has a lot, from stag and hen party destination par excellence, to the truly European feel of the newly regenerated quays. Now, I know it seems a bit perverse to try and get away from beer by hanging out with a bunch of beer writers, but believe me, they take no prisoners when it comes to pricking pomposity.

A visit to the Maxim Brewery, wh ich

is keeping

various heritage brands alive (Vaux Double Maxim, Ward's Best Bitter

and so on), found me commenting on the fabulously nutty austerity of classic brown ales from the region. That was it - amid

much sniggering, everything that was eaten and drunk for the rest of that day was couched by the group in terms of its austerity, or lack thereof.

But the Maxim Brewery was a real eye-opener. Using a relatively modern brew plant, capable of

producing almost any style of beer from any ingredients, a small but dedicated team are determined to keep the heritage beers of the region

afloat, while building a portfolio of interesting beers around them. It's an odd

sort of progress, for sure, but it makes sense in the context of what the region is famous for.

The most famous brown ale of all, Newcastle Brown Ale, is now brewed on a scale that defies belief. I've seen it

and I still don't believe it. On the subject of huge and iconic, the region's most famous landmark, the Angel of the North, had its 10th birthday celebrated with an excellent ale from the Wylam

Brewery, a fabulous blend of Cascade hops and nutty crystal malt, taking the signature beer of the region and riffing around it until something new emerged.

Standing at the foot of the mighty metal maximus, drinking bottles of Wylam Angel, on a day blessed with halcyon skies, it was hard not to feel transported to a bygone era, when beer was real beer

and writers filed copy over the phone. Well, the A1 thundering by helped dispel the illusion, but there's no point in having a world -class monument and putting it where no

one can see it.

More beery fun was had at High House Farm Brewery, a fantastic modern brewery housed in a Grade

II listed barn

- another interesting blend of old and new (can you see a theme developing here?). The disastrous foot and mouth outbreak of 2003 forced a rethink on how the farm would operate,

so now

it grows all the barley needed for

its own brewing production

and makes great beer out of it to boot.

So, the beers of Newcastle

Gateshead and beyond are an emblem for what has happened to the region as a whole. The synthesis of past and present points the way to a happy future

and, best of all, that

future is populated with

beers that have a great back story. That's really something to tell the customers about.


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