The first the last my every tin
A focus on its surroundings has helped one Northumberland brewery double in size, writes Alastair Gilmour
After-hours business meeting. A lot to discuss. Two company owners have been pulled in all directions for what seems like forever. “We have to decide a load of stuff by tomorrow.” So no phones, no iPads, children at home, staff finished for the day.
The conversation goes: “Right, let’s get started, you put your clothes over there, I’ll sling mine here. That looks good… ready?
“Woa ohoh fff ahahah aah ohgodohmygod fff woawoa aahh haaaaa haaaaaaa…”
There’s a bit of paraphrasing going on here but the scenario wasn’t too far removed from one July evening at First & Last brewery in Northumberland. Owners Sam and Red Kellie are in the process of moving from the rural idyll of Elsdon to… the rural idyll of Bellingham.
Sam Kellie explains: “We had a wild swimming business meeting tonight. Ridiculous idea. So cold I just agreed to everything. I think my body’s shutting down...”
Red Kellie is a member of a loose collection of female wild swimmers called The Bluetits who get inspiration, invigoration and motivation from dips in Northumberland’s cold river waters. It might be Sam’s first and last.
First & Last is owned by Red and Sam Kellie. Red was instrumental in setting up Stu Brew at Newcastle University in 2013 – Europe’s first student-run microbrewery – as a Student Community Action Scheme.
Decisions made at business meetings tend to concentrate the mind when you’re wild swimming
It’s part of the School of Chemical Engineering and Advanced Materials and not only involves students in academic and business studies, but in brewing, label design, sourcing raw ingredients, online promotion and bottling. Red then helped set up Twice Brewed brewery near Bardon Mill in Hadrian’s Wall Country. Following that, the pair converted a couple of 18th century grade II outbuildings into a microbrewery at the Bird In Bush pub in Elsdon, near Otterburn.
First & Last is now moving lock, stock and cask from its Bird In Bush nest to Bellingham’s former Ambulance Station where brewing is scheduled to begin next month. The old five-barrel equipment has been sold and a new ten-barrel brewhouse fitted out with kit from Two By Two brewery in Newcastle which is itself doubling up.
Both Red and Sam graduated through the home-brew tradition. Sam is a former science teacher who worked primarily with disengaged youths, but like so many in modern education, he felt disillusioned when it became to be less about the children and more about “the system”. He left to work for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme.
“The move from pub buildings to ambulance station is going really, really well,” says Red – unquestionably one of the North East’s most accomplished and creative brewers.
First & Last (the first brewery you encounter on the road from Scotland to England and the last on the return leg) is deeply entrenched in everything Northumberland; it’s part of its DNA, its USP and its raison d’être. Its distinctive pumpclips feature the abbreviation F&L, which is often the reaction of drinkers new to the likes of Damson Plum Porter. “F&L, this is good” is a common comment, or words to that effect.
The First & Last crew, from the left, Will Rideau, Sam Kellie and Ric Lee.
Front, Red Kellie with Jacob Lee on her lap, plus Meg the dog
Sam Kellie says: “As a family-run business, we believe in living life to the full and contributing to the community we live in. We also like having as much fun as we can along the way.
“Northumberland inspires us. We’re always looking for ways to reduce our impact on this wild landscape and the wider environment. It’s no good just going through the motions, you’ve got to brew with love, passion and care and we hope that’s what comes across.
“We don’t want to get pigeonholed in the traditional market, but we brew to our market which is Northumberland. There’s no point in me doing a heavily-hopped cloudy DIPA which I love drinking anyway. Northumberland isn’t like that. I like working with the customer – the pub and the consumer – else we don’t have a sustainable relationship.
“We like to work with other brewers in Northumberland, although I don’t like the term ‘collaboration’; it’s more boardroom than brewery. I prefer ‘in cahoots with’. We love bringing in new ideas and it always interests me how other brewers work.”
Alongside bringing expertise and equipment ten miles from Elsdon to Bellingham, Sam and Red have packed Continuity F&L not only to keep the transition as smooth as possible, but the contacts and custom they have built up are far too valuable to abandon.
A farmer neighbour at Elsdon takes spent grain for his Belted Galloway cattle and a fruit and vegetable producer collects hops to use as mulch and for composting. Sam and Red have also worked closely with the Environment Agency on sustainability issues – for instance, water used for cleaning and containing chemicals was held in a tank and treated before going into the main sewage system, so that will no doubt continue.
Under Red Kellie’s watchful eye, the brewing process at Stu Brew used a highly energy efficient hot water and cooling system. The student brewers send spent malt to Cockle Park, one of Newcastle University’s farms, for pig feed (the Kellie family keep pet pigs) while hop residues are composted and spread around the allotments.
“The students conduct their own market research, secure trademarks and design the labels themselves,” says Red. “It’s also about sustainability, giving students as much experience as possible while understanding the input of chemicals and waste management.”
Using spent grains as animal feed alleviates the environmental impact of the brewing process – and contain enough protein and fibre to make them a suitable supplement. Plus, it is environmentally and economically responsible to make them available to agriculture.
Innovation and provenance lie at the root of First & Last’s mission and full use is made of locally-foraged ingredients – elderflowers, spruce and ground ivy.
“We’re not a nine-till-five business, this is a real passion and we’re not out to make millions,” says Sam, his mind already doing a slight rewind. “Don’t get me wrong on that, it would be nice. Our brewery and our beer are from Northumberland for Northumberland.
“We want to keep our beers interesting. Basically, beer is a science experiment you can drink. Northumberland and The Borders are our main targets, though not all pubs in these areas are used to the weird and wonderful range of beers you find in the likes of Newcastle.
“We like to experiment but we’re also in business and know what sells.
Foraging is hard work but definitely worth the effort
But ingredients are exciting to us and everything like bog myrtle is seasonal and traditional. Rowan, damsons, gorse flowers – it’s all about what’s around at the time.
“Hedgerow beers are unique and that’s what makes us part of Northumberland; why we are here. Seasonal foraged beers such as Gorseflower, Plum, Elderflower, Damson and Elderberry are very much where our real drive is; it’s our collaboration with nature. All are available in cask and can and are sold out in pre-orders.”
Red says: “The brewing community in the North East is such a lovely family. It’s such a gorgeous landscape here which feeds the creative aspect of our brewery.”
Design work for can wraparounds and bottle labels are the domain of Colin Hagan of Northern Design. He studies plants’ colours and textures in their natural habitat, observing at close quarters, sketching and taking photographs to take back to his Newcastle studio.
You can almost guess what are the flavour influences by the colour of the can.
An emphasis on seasonal fruits is at the heart of First & Last’s philosophy
Colours and textures used on cans and bottles reflect the origins of their contents
At Bellingham, First & Last are involved on a project with the Rural Development Agency, working on alternative energy supplies such as solar panels and air source heating plus the clever positioning of brewery equipment to mitigate heat loss when beer is transferred from one vessel to another.
Sam says: “We’re looking at environmental issues and not just about our carbon footprint. Should we plant a tree for every cask of beer produced? There’s a lot of ‘greenwashing’ by people who plant the wrong trees in the wrong place, but we’ve got to address consumption somehow.”
First & Last supports local good causes such as a beer called Ratty Pale Ale which raised money to help the reintroduction of water voles into Northumberland’s rivers and streams; a contribution from every pint sold totalled more than £3,000.
And, as the new brewhouse was once a “responder” headquarters it made sense to raise money for a project along those lines, so North Tyne Rescue Service – run by volunteers who support the police and ambulance service in the area – will be the next to benefit once brewing is up and running next month.
Bellingham is a popular stopping-off point for tackling the Pennine Way, the 268-mile national trail and, as an offshoot called Hareshaw Linn passes by the front door, it should give ramblers an extra reason to rest their weary boots over a pint. This Site of Special Scientific Interest is designated for its rare ferns and lichen and more than 300 different types of moss, liverwort and lichen.
Oak, hazel, elm and ash trees here are wonderful for wildlife – red
Through the looking glass
Being close to the natural world with the likes of regular visits by roe deer have convinced Sam and Red Kellie that they’ve chosen the right spot for their brewery
squirrels, great spotted woodpeckers, redstarts, dippers, badgers and Daubenton’s bats. It was the sight of a roe deer munching contentedly on leaves then returning later with her two fawns that confirmed they had chosen the right location. Sam and Will simply downed tools to let the experience wash over them.
A tap room – de rigeur for a brewery these days – will be fitted out, as are a couple of outdoor areas earmarked for suntrapped picnic benches to be eventually edged with soft fruits and the likes of green beans. Beehives are very much a ‘maybe’.
“We’ve effectively doubled our production space here,” says Red. “Straight away it felt like the right place and the right size for us. We’ll be brewing four times a week and needed the flexibility to produce our core range – Equinox Pale Ale, Reiver Bitter. Mad Jack Ha’ Session IPA, Red Rowan Irish Red Ale, Amarillo Extra Pale and Stell Session Stout as well as our speciality range.
“We’ll have a brewery shop with all our seasonal beers available and we’ll sell to local businesses without taking trade from them. We’re not into running a late-night pub.” (We’re talking in early July in the vacant ambulance bay, some weeks before the new equipment arrives.)
Sam Kellie and Will Rideau take time to study the next move
Former chef Will Rideau – and now brewery hand, construction supremo and delivery driver – has revealed his genius side working with wooden pallets and other salvaged timber. Benches, fences, tables and doors are top of his refitting list. He has also built an amazing workshop at home, all constructed from pallets, naturally.
“If I see some wood on a skip I’ll stop and ask if I can have it,” he says – his French accent barely sandpapered from years in Northumberland. “The answer is always yes; people are only too keen to pass it on.”
Along with Will Rideau, Sam and Red have taken Ric Lee aboard – formerly of Allendale Brewery who comes armed with experience in kegging – and as he lives a minute’s walk from the old ambulance station it’s a sight more eco friendly than driving two or three valleys away every day. Plus, as Sam Kellie puts it “building the team is crucial”.
They’ve joined a Give Back Box scheme where recipients of a First & Last beer package are encouraged to use the empty box to fill with unwanted items of clothing, shoes, etc, then attach a free shipping label and send the lot to charity. It’s recycling and supporting good causes at the same time.
Sam Kellie says: “We’re keen to contribute to the local community, treading as lightly as possible.”
The First & Last core range of beers contains either cocoa nibs, chocolate, chilli peppers, vanilla pods or cardamom, while the straightforward – by comparison – Equinox Pale Ale and Reiver are beers with sublime aromas and flavours.
As the man sang:
The first, my last, my everything
And the answer to all my dreams.
First & Last Brewery, The Old Ambulance Station, Foundry Yard, Bellingham, Northumberland NE48 2DA
07757 286 357