BUILDING UP A FIRST
A new brewery in Northumberland has Alastair Gilmour intrigued
Soul funk singer Barry White wasn’t the inspiration for Northumberland’s newest brewery; it’s more down to earth than that. First & Last didn’t spring from the lyrics, “You’re the first, the last, my everything”, but depending on which direction you’re approaching the attractive village of Elsdon where it’s based, it’s the first brewery in England – and the last going the other way into Scotland.
First & Last is tucked into outbuildings at the Bird In Bush pub – currently being renovated in an ambitious programme which will reveal an absolute gem in Northumberland’s already impressive pub culture. The brewery, owned by husband and wife team Sam and Red Kellie, produced its first beer in April, following 18 months of “cuckoo” brews at the likes of Twice Brewed Brewery, Allendale Brewery and Stu Brew, the Newcastle University brewing facility that Red helped set up.
First & Last Brewery's husband-and-wfie team Red and Sam Kellie. Photo: Peter Skelton
“It’s great to be finally brewing on our own site,” says Red. “The Bird In Bush buildings are late 1700s, grade II listed, and we’re in the Northumberland National Park in Redesdale which means you need planning permission for absolutely everything. But we’ve been happy to jump through hoops.”
Both Red and Sam have come through the home-brew tradition, while she is also head brewer at Twice Brewed on the B6318 Military Road near Bardon Mill where she brews two and three times a week.
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 less about the children and more about “the system”. He moved on to work for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award organisation.
He says: “We looked at different sites for the brewery, including other pubs and industrial units, all of which had their merits and their drawbacks. An industrial unit has all the three-phase electrics and drainage built in, but when we talked to Steve Shaw and Katie Bland at the Bird In Bush and listened to their plans we knew this was the place.
“We all come from completely different backgrounds and they have been brilliant supporters.”
The Bird In Bush – when fully functioning in July – intends to capitalise on the burgeoning Northumberland visitor experience – as does First & Last. A state-of-the-art kitchen is being installed and three letting rooms plus a bunkhouse will cater for cyclists, walkers and local and foreign visitors.
Innovation and provenance lie at the root of First & Last’s mission and full use is made of locally-foraged ingredients – water avens roots, elderflowers, spruce and ground ivy.
A core stout forms the base of a series that contains either cocoa nibs, chocolate, chilli peppers, vanilla pods or cardamom, while the straightforward – by comparison – Equinox Pale Ale (4.2% abv) and Reiver (4.2% abv) are beers with sublime aromas and flavours.
First & Last Brewery's best-selling Equinox Pale Ale
“We want to keep our beers interesting,” says Sam. “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. And we’re really keen to put a Kölsch out this summer (pale golden Cologne-style beer) and we’re keen to produce a lager for RedeFest community cultural and music festival in August.”
Red admits her heart and soul are in porters and has recently produced an eight-malt expression at Twice Brewed.
She says: “The brewing community in the North East is such a lovely family. Redesdale is where we live and where we want to live; it’s such a gorgeous landscape here which feeds the creative aspect of the brewery. Anyway, without doubt there would have been brewing going on here at the Bird In Bush 200 years ago.”
The brewhouse itself was commissioned from Oban Ales in Scotland, a five-barrel plant that fits neatly into the stone-built space. A neighbouring farmer takes spent grain for his Belted Galloway cattle and a fruit and vegetable producer collects hops to use as a mulch and for composting. Sam and Red have also been working closely with the Environment Agency on sustainability issues – for instance, water used for cleaning and contains chemicals is held in a tank and treated before it goes into the main sewage system.
“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.”
First & Last; it’s their everything.