Timeline 40: Big Lamp Brewery, Newcastle
Spotlight on Endurance
A Newcastle brewery celebrates an impressive anniversary in 2022, writes Alastair Gilmour
We were a little unfamiliar with the term “microbrewery” in October 1982, at the time a small band of beer lovers created Big Lamp brewery in Newcastle. Sure, microbreweries venturing into “real ale” across the country were tiny enough to be dismissed by the likes of Scottish & Newcastle, Bass and Courage as mere inconveniences that would soon disappear down their own plugholes.
But where are Scottish & Newcastle, Bass and Courage now? Taken over, bought out, absorbed, appropriated, sunk or swallowed, that’s where.
Big Lamp has now been brewing great beer for forty years. It’s a fantastic achievement which should perhaps be put into context with that year’s other events to appreciate its longevity fully.
Big Lamp brewery sits by the Tyne Riverside Country Park at Newburn, Newcastle
In 1982, the first Next store opened; an Argentinian scrap metal merchant raised his country’s flag over South Georgia in the South Atlantic, precipitating the Falklands War; The Eurovision Song Contest – as it was known then – was held in Harrogate, North Yorkshire (won by Germany); the 20p coin was introduced; train drivers from the Aslef union withheld their labour for a fortnight (strikingly familiar with 2022); the Ford Cortina was replaced by the Sierra; Sony introduced the first consumer compact disc (CD) and Culture Club topped the charts with Do You Really Want To Hurt Me? Oh yes, ache away – beer was 62p a pint which means you could get pretty wasted on Big Lamp Bitter (3.9% abv) for a fiver and still have the bus fare home.
Big Lamp, originally based at a former undertakers’ on Westgate Hill in Newcastle, is named in honour of the area that in 1880 boasted the world’s first electric street lighting (Mosley Street, further down Westgate Hill, was the first street in the world to be lit in this fashion).
The bar at The Keelman pub promoting Big Lamp beer
Beer production moved a few miles west to a Grade II-listed Victorian pumping station at Newburn on the edge of the Tyne Riverside Country Park in 1997.
Its beers were great forty years ago and remain excellent today. It’s perhaps fair to say that the original business was run by enthusiasts who brewed what they wanted to drink – nothing wrong with that – whereas the present company has an acute nose for customer needs, an unshakeable regard for quality and a passion for putting hops, water, malted barley and yeast together in very distinctive styles. And they brew beers that they want to drink themselves.
Current co-owner Lee Goulding joined the five founding Big Lamp partners (Terry Harrison, Tom Harrison, Norman Bell, John Tomlinson and Paul Needham) in 1987 then George Storey, whom Lee knew from their days together at Joshua Tetley’s Cavalier Inns division, signed up a year later. The pair bought the business outright in 1990.
“The original owners ran it more like a hobby and we took it a step further,” co-owner George Storey said in an interview with me in 2009, published in The Journal, Newcastle. “We were treated like robots at Tetleys and I met Lee again when he mentioned Big Lamp needed someone on the brewing side. Brewing really got to me. We used to brew the beer, deliver it and serve it on a night (in the company’s pub, the Wheatsheaf in Felling, Gateshead). They were tough days.
“It was at the time when the Tap & Spile chain was starting to flourish. We were doing four thirty-sixes (288 gallons) a month of Big Lamp Bitter for them alone which was a lot of beer in those days.
“The industry is very competitive now – at one time it was just us plus Hadrian Brewery, Mordue, Hexhamshire at the Dipton Mill Inn and Durham Brewery. It's great to be still running. We've had some great brewers in the region in that time, but if I had to choose I'd tip my hat to Durham.
“Steve Gibbs (company founder, now retired) is one of the people in our business who I look up to as one of the top guys. He holds the crown.”
George is immensely proud of a 2022 Campaign For Real Ale (Camra) award. “Lee and I are always hands-on and just get on with it,” he says. “We still won an award for Prince Bishop at this year's Great British Beer Festival. That's what pleases us, we're still brewing and winning awards at the age we are. We're not being left behind.
“Michael Webster at the Victoria in Durham has been a terrific supporter all the years and I'm always amazed at the amount of Prince Bishop Ale we sell in pubs in Haltwhistle (Northumberland) – it’s beyond belief at The Comrades Club, The Milecastle and The Jubilee.”
The Keelman’s Salmon Lodge accommodation
The Keelman pub with Big Lamp brewery to the side
In 1997, Big Lamp added The Keelman pub to its operation, handily situated through the wall from the brewhouse, plus the six-bedroomed Keelman’s Lodge accommodation and the Salmon Lodge – eight rooms on two floors – sitting just across the pub car park. The rooms are fitted out to top hotel standard and have enabled the company to win tourism awards for initiative and customer service. The Hadrian’s Wall National Trail and Coast To Coast cycle/walking route runs past and a high percentage of custom comes from repeat business. The pub’s huge conservatory and popular beer garden give the impression of peaceful isolation.
The brewery sits within the restored 19th Century building and is fitted out as a traditional tower operation. Simple gravity does most of the work – grain is mashed at the top level and is sent into the copper to boil before it drops down a floor to the fermenters; then finally to conditioning tanks at the bottom from where it’s delivered into casks.
Lee Goulding admits they took a bit of a gamble when they decided on the Newburn spot.
“It was a real dead end at first,” he says. “The first 18 months were slow but we were thinking five to eight years ahead. We thought The Keelman would make a good brewery tap.”
George recalls those clock-ticking evenings. “Some nights there were just the two of us sitting in the bar saying, ‘Oh, my God...’ But in the second year it just snowballed.”
Swipe forward forty years and despite Covid-era trading difficulties, economic woes and spiralling raw ingredients costs, Big Lamp is still trading well.
“Production is steady at about 72% of capacity and we're doing OK,” says George, “and like other businesses and households we have seen big increases in our utility bills. We've won and lost a few accounts but the occupancy rate at The Keelman's Lodge and Salmon Lodge is around 92% which is huge.
“The Keelman pub is doing pretty well. It’s a big project and operates on value for money, but it’s not hitting the heights of summer 2019. The pub we own in Felling, Gateshead – the Wheatsheaf – has new tenants. We sold it a year ago, and they're making it work – it's back to where it should have been. Running a business nowadays is more challenging than it's ever, ever been.”
As always with North East pubs and breweries, you don’t have to look very far to discover all sorts of bizarre connections.
In 1982, the year of Big Lamp’s birth, the blockbuster movie Ghandi was released on its way to winning eight Academy Awards. A sequence in the film focused on a P&O passenger ship captained by Northumberland-based Robin Leighton. Robin, an accomplished home-brewer – along with beer enthusiast John Boyle, created Wylam Brewery in 2000. Robin’s wife Sarah and daughters Fiona, Kirsty and Corinna featured in one scene in the film, no doubt at Robin’s insistence.
Congratulations Big Lamp. May you continue lighting the way for another forty years.
*Big Lamp beers include:
Sunny Daze (3.6% abv)
Big Lamp Bitter (3.9% abv)
Lamplight (4.2% abv)
Summerhill Stout (4.4% abv)
Prince Bishop Ale (4.8% abv)
Keelman Brown (5.7% abv)
Blackout (11% abv) is a special ale that makes a rare appearance at beer festivals.
RUBY CHOOSE DAY
A weekend of Big Lamp 40-Year celebrations is scheduled for The Wheatsheaf (Carlisle Street, Felling, Gateshead NE10 0HQ) from Friday November 18 till Sunday November 20 with a specially-brewed Ruby Red Ale (4.0% abv) being sold at £1.50 a pint. Served in commemorative festival glasses, the beer has hints of chocolate, rye malt and toasted chocolate. The hop regime is Fuggles and Goldings. “We still stick to the English hops we've always used,” says George Storey.
Festival details from the Wheatsheaf on 0191 857 8404.