Today’s brewer has to cope with more than the daily commute, as Alastair Gilmour discovers
Click on to any music festival website and you’ll discover an encouraging crossover of international acts – with British ones involved at every beat. Similarly in sport; Team Sky’s Michał Kwiatkowsk is inspired by Geraint Evans and vice-versa. Tennis is even more eclectic. Twenty-time grand slam winner Roger Federer’s current coach is Ivan Ljubicic.
Brewing is no different. We in the UK learn from the US, they in turn lean on Europe for inspiration; brewers from Ecuador to Osaka learn how to make beer in Sunderland; Manchester develops friendships with Leeds, and Liverpool enjoys a healthy relationship with Newcastle.
Which brings us to Ben Wilkinson, Wylam Brewery’s head brewer in Newcastle and hands-on top cat at Gateshead-based sister brewery By The River Brew Co. Ben’s passport is probably floppy with use and he’s covered more miles in the UK than a train driver’s sandwich. And it’s all in the name of beer.
Ben and the team at Wylam and By The River – two separate companies but united by abv – are in constant demand across the country and internationally for brewing collaborations, tap takeovers and meet-the-brewer events. It’s an exhausting schedule (remember, they all have day-jobs) but a modern brewer’s phenomenon.
Ben Wilkinson, head brewer,
By The River Brew Co, Gateshead.
Photo: Peter Skelton
Take Ben’s recent “ordinary” week. Monday, a Northern Monk collaboration in Leeds for By The River Brew Co, then off to work with Track Brewing in Manchester. Tuesday, left Manchester for Deya Brewing in Cheltenham. Wednesday, from Cheltenham to Bristol and Left Handed Giant, one of the country’s most highly-rated outfits. Thursday, home and overseeing brewing at Wylam.
Before our chat for this article, Ben, Lee Howourth and Chris Lee have been brewing a Farmhouse IPA at Wylam alongside visiting Browar Stu Mostow craft brewery from Wrocław, “the Polish capital of good beer”.
“We’re being represented at De Molen’s Borefts festival in Bodegraven, the Netherlands, in September,” says Ben. “It’s great to be asked. There are only twenty breweries invited and that’s it. I met the great Menno Olivier in Sweden last year although I’ve been a huge fan of his beers since 2009…. It was like meeting your hero!
“They hand pick breweries and keg beers to pour at the festival. Menno personally requested that we include some of our cask beers which is great to know – cask is still important for us.
“We’ve been asked to do a return collaboration with Anchor Brewing, so it’s possibly San Francisco early in the new year. Brewmaster Scott Ungermann and myself developed a recipe for an IPA which we brewed at Wylam, then I’ll brew exactly the same beer in San Francisco with their yeasts, malts and water profile to see how differently they come out. So, its Kill Phil Volume 1 and Volume 2.
“The beer went out there in August completely under cold chain storage arriving within eight days – with the help of James Clay (the West Yorkshire-based independent importers and distributors of specialist craft beers). “I think some people tend to forget what James Clay has done over the years for the beer industry, through representatives like Bruce Virgo in the North East.”
There’s also a collaboration with Alefarm, a brewery in Copenhagen where Ben produced only the second brew on their new kit. Alefarm brew craft beer with a focus on modern hoppy offerings and a wide array of unique, flavourful mixed-fermentation farmhouse ales.
Ben is also experimenting with Belgian styles and brewing with British heritage malts such as Chevallier, a long-neglected British barley variety that fell out of favour when higher-yield varieties came along.
“It’s good to travel to new places and get to a new country, town or scene, meeting people who you have been following for years,” he says. Judging by his international profile, they’ve also taken note of the Wilkinson effect.
Preparations are well advanced for Craft Beer Calling in October – Wylam Brewery’s special home game is simply one weekend dedicated to an assembly of some of the world's leading craft breweries all under one roof.
Ben’s passport is back in action for Gothenburg, Sweden, in November and the All In Beer Fest which is about quality over quantity. Invited brewers here tend to be smaller establishments from Sweden, Denmark and the US and the selection of brews they bring to the festival is world-class.
Ben says: “We also kept our word to take beer to Beavertown’s Extravaganza Festival in London (despite the uproar from some other brewers and the general public after the company sold a stake in the business to Heineken for a reported £40m). It’s not our style to back out of anything.”
Berlin is also on the horizon – the craft brewing sector in Germany has been slow off the mark with many brewers wary of producing beer that doesn’t conform to the Reinheitsgebot, the country’s purity laws.
Ben mentions Brlo Brwhouse, a small-batch container craft brewery, in glowing terms, and has brewed beer with Fuerst Wiacek a brewery in Berlin-Spandau.
“They produce great beers and are really good guys,” says Ben. “They’re coming to Wylam to brew with us at some point soon.”
With all that in mind, should we moan about paying a little bit more for the national and international influence on our Newcastle and Gateshead beers? No siree.
As Ben Wilkinson says: “People now appreciate what goes into their beer and recognize they can be expensive for a reason. It’s not about taking a slab back home to skull.”