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A whole world of flavour

Head brewer of The Stables Brewery, attached to the Best Western Beamish Hall Hotel, taps into centuries of brewing traditions.
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John, head brewer of The Stables Brewery, attached to the Best Western Beamish Hall Hotel, taps into centuries of tradition at the Brewery and Beamish Museum.

"The French have great wine, but here in the North East of England, we have great beer,” says John Taylor with the look of a man who can be relied on when it comes to delivering this kind of information. He’s right of course. The complexities of wine and the magical way it reflects the ‘terroir’ of its production have long been respected across the channel, and many other places the world over. In a process halfway between art and science fine wines use master craftsmen to capture the manifold flavours of the grapes and the very essence of their place of production. The air, the sun and the soil are expressed in every sip. But great beer does the same; the simple combination of pure local water, malted barley and hops can unlock whole worlds of flavour.

These days the British public are beginning to remember that, and you don’t have to look too far to find a self-confessed craft beer expert. But here and now, surrounded by the most breweries we’ve had in over a century, it’s easy to forget it wasn’t always thus. As recently as the 1970s British ale was in a bad place. Traditional breweries were closing and the national palate veered strongly towards the cheap and the mass-produced.

John, head brewer of The Stables Brewery, attached to the Best Western Beamish Hall Hotel, remembers the bad old days only too well: “In the first bar I worked in back in the seventies we had four pumps of the same fizzy export ale and one pump of cheap lager for the ladies.” For a country and a region with such an illustrious brewing history, these were sad times. Only a stone’s throw north of here, at the Roman fort of Vindolanda, archaeologists have found what they believe to be the very first evidence of brewing in the UK. The ancient handwritten tablets discovered in the mud there name ‘Atrectus the Brewer’ as responsible for the liquid fuel for the Roman’s fight against the tribes north of Hadrian’s Wall.

The history of British beer since then has been a long and fascinating story, from being little more than a disinfectant, to the addition of hops in the fifteenth-century and the explosion of styles and breweries during the Industrial Revolution. It isn’t just the beer that plays a fundamental part in this country’s history though; it’s the pubs that serve it. From market taverns to coaching inns, the pub has always been the beating heart of the community, and nowhere more so than in the old ship-building towns and mining villages of the North East. With thirty years experience as a publican, John knows this well: “Beer is very important here. You only have to look back to the hard working pitmen and shipyard workers. The pub was a place to catch up with what was going on. It was their Facebook.” It’s a surprising analogy, but a good one. Pubs and – by extension – beer, connected people and places the country over. And it’s starting to again.

Beer may be dyed in the wool of British society, but whether it was the two world wars, the Temperance Movement or something else entirely, by the early part of the twentieth-century, brewing had lost its magic. Fortunately in 1971 not everyone was happy to see centuries of tradition lost. The Campaign For Real Ale or CAMRA was founded and little by little real brewing returned. As John remembers: “About the same time CAMRA started, up here in the North East a few people were starting to realise producing quality beer didn’t have to be complicated or expensive. Off the back of two or three breweries opening, we now have between 30 and 40 microbreweries here and it’s continuing to grow.”

 

The Stables Brewery, housed in the beautifully restored eighteenth-century stable block of Best Western Beamish Hall is one of the most prestigious of those microbreweries. Living up to ‘micro’ tag it’s small but perfectly formed, located at one end of the converted stables, which also house the hotel’s bar and restaurant. The idea for the brewery was born out of John’s long friendship with hotel owner Dave Craggs, and a mutual love of good ale. John was well known in the area as a publican and brewer and when he heard the stables were being converted, suggested that Dave let him build a brewery inside. As John recalls with a laugh, Dave came back with a better offer: “He said, ‘how about I build the brewery, you come and work for me and I’ll give you a free dinner every day?’ That just about sealed the deal.”

The success of The Stables Brewery is in no small part down to John’s infectious character; he lives and breathes brewing and is in his element showing me around the stores, excitedly grabbing handfuls of pungent ‘cascade’ hops or bags of shining dark ‘Chocolate Malt’. There’s personality in the beers too with names chosen by John and the rest of the hotel staff to reflect the area. That’s why there’s ‘Silver Buckles’ written on a pump – a beautifully hopped IPA with grapefruit notes and a malted biscuit finish. The name comes from Beamish Hall’s most famous owner, the eighteenth-century MP and nautical man Robert ‘Bobby’ Shafto, with an IPA style fitting because of its own seafaring history as a beer transported abroad on the ships of the East India Trading Company.

 

Alongside it there’s ‘Beamish Burn’ – a classic North East brown ale; ‘Copy Lane’ – a traditional recipe Irish stout and ‘Old Miner Tommy’ – named for Tommy Armstrong, the ‘Pitman Poet’ of the nineteenth-century. The stand out though is the ‘Bell Tower’, a strong, dark ale brewed in the less-common style of ‘stock ale’, a stronger beer, meaning it can be kept in stock for longer. “It’s based on a traditional British recipe,” says John. “We use crystal malt, black malt and a whole variety of hop.” The process lends a long finish with powerful notes of coffee and dark chocolate, a savoury sweetness that surprises the senses. One of the barmen, Connor, leans across and confides that Bell Tower is his favourite too: “It’s got a rich bitterness,” he says. “So it goes perfectly with desserts. It’s something I suggest guests try after pudding.”

Whilst perfectly pitched at the contemporary palate, all eight beers at the brewery reference the past both in name and recipe – and perhaps none more so than ‘Beamish Hall Best’. The Best is a classic, old-time Yorkshire-style bitter, just the right balance between malt and hops, yielding subtle notes of toffee and a fresh green apple bite. It’s a low ABV at 3.8% and a very drinkable pint, so highly regarded in fact, that it was chosen to be the main beer at a pub called The Sun Inn, just down the road.

The Sun Inn is by far the best customer for The Stables Brewery’s range of traditional, simple brews, but there’s a very good reason for that. The Sun Inn isn’t your average pub. It prides itself on tradition and authenticity.

Next door to Best Western Beamish Hall Hotel is the most visited attraction in the region – the phenomenal Beamish Museum, the ‘Living Museum Of The North’. Walking across the road and into its fields I’m immediately entering a pastoral scene: a young man in a flat cap ploughs a field on a 1930s tractor. Rounding the corner I double take at a full-sized Edwardian train station before, a little further up the hill, an ornate fairground carousel. Lost in a kind of dream world, I’m woken by the sound of a bell and then the unmistakable clunk of a tram cresting the hill. This isn’t like any tram I’ve ever seen though – it’s a real, working tram line with a 1900’s tram on it, complete with a jovial, moustachioed conductor. The experience moves from excitement and awe to something more like actual time travel. If the train station made me stare, the sight of a thriving Edwardian high street invokes a full on Back to the Future moment.

Beamish was founded in 1971 by Frank Atkinson, a life-long museum curator and with a passion for preserving the past, especially rural life, in what seemed to him a fast-changing world. Inspired by the 1950’s ‘folk museums’ of Norway and Sweden, Beamish was a long time in the making and drew significantly on the local community for donations. Those donations ranged from teapots and sewing machines to whole buildings from across the North East. Every structure on the high street at Beamish Museum – from houses to shops – has been meticulously removed from its original position and reassembled on this spot, a staggering achievement that pays rich rewards. One of those buildings is The Sun Inn, a pub from Bishop Auckland that typifies the type of community hub that John referred to as the beating heart of every town or village. Starting life as ‘The Tiger Inn’ before becoming The Sun Inn around 1850, it served the miners of Newton Cap Colliery and surrounding area for a century or more.

Stepping over the threshold and I’m greeted by an open fire and a warm welcome from barmaid, Victoria. Instantly I recall something John said earlier: “Sit by the fire and have a pint of our beer at The Sun Inn and you could be sitting in 1913.” And for a few minutes, I’m right there, reading the antique newspaper, drinking in the history of the place. I’m thoroughly and delightfully transported.

Beamish might be a visitor attraction but it’s clear the locals see it more like a real town. Over 55% of the 600,000 visitors last year were local and there’s definitely a few characters tucked away in the dark confines of the snug during my visit. The other barman, Martin, beams away as he tells me about Bill, an 89 year-old who walks here every Tuesday. “If he arrives before midday he has a cup of Bovril; if it’s after that then it’s a pint of beer.”

While leaving the pub I overhear another patron excitedly exclaiming that they are definitely applying for a job here. And why wouldn’t you? The staff get to live and breathe the history; from the pub to the sweet shop, the bakery to the bank and even down to the coal-fired fish and chip shop in the Pit Village, job satisfaction clearly comes with the territory.

After a stroll back across the road and through the beautifully landscaped parkland of Best Western Beamish Hall Hotel, I’m talking to hotel manager, Kerry. Kerry and the rest of her team are just as excited about my trip to the Beamish Museum as I am, even though they’ve been ‘a million times’. “We’re so lucky to have all this living history on our doorstep,” she says. “Not only at the hotel but at the museum too. It surprises people, but there’s so much going on in this little valley.” I couldn’t put it better myself.

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