Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis
Look closely at the label on a bottle of beer from Newcastle upon Tyne's Northern Alchemy. In the top right hand corner you'll see a little arrow within a circle that's pointing North East. It's pointing to a city that's referred to as the 'capital of craft' by its locals. It's no wonder that they're brimming with such enthusiasm, Tyneside and the surrounding area is teeming with talented young brewers and a plethora of excellent bars and bottle shops. Operations such as Anarchy, Almasty and Tyne Bank join Northern Alchemy in an impressive role call of forward thinking craft breweries. Bars and eateries such as The Free Trade Inn, The Cumberland Arms and Bierrex are providing exciting spaces with which to drink their beer in.
It might be in the long shadow cast by cities such as Manchester, Edinburgh and of course London but Newcastle is a city that should be on every beer lovers radar. Its breweries are doing all they can to bring it off the sidelines and Northern Alchemy are doing it in a way that's quite like no other brewery in the UK - from a brewhouse that lives in a converted 30-foot shipping container. Lovingly monikered 'The Lab', the container sits just behind The Cumberland Arms in the Ouseburn area of Newcastle. Here, Northern Alchemy craft what they describe as 'flavour led crafty beer' with increasingly interesting adjuncts adding their own personal spin to each style of beer they produce.
This passion to create flavour forward beer is evident in a collaboration brew with their neighbouring pub. It's an oatmeal pale ale, oatmeal being one way of increasing a beers protein content and improving mouthfeel and head retention. A traditional hop profile is complemented with mango, lime and cracked black pepper, flavours you'd expect from new world hops but in this case, Northern Alchemy aren't asking you to interpret hop flavours, instead using real-world adjuncts. It works in the aroma, you can smell the chunks of ripe mango flesh and zingy lime juice. It's exceedingly bitter as you'd expect but it's also borderline astringent with a prickle in the finish from the black pepper. I think I just prefer hops.
I didn't get on with the dark chocolate and mint milk stout. The aroma reminded me of Fry's Peppermint Creams but I found the flavour to be sadly lacking. The idea of a chocolate and mint stout really appeals to me, in fact I'm very keen on Ska Brewing's own Vernal Menthe stout but I didn't get the intensity of flavour I was expecting. I wanted big, bitter dark chocolate and lush peppermint but it was all a bit mute and the chocolate gave the beer an almost grainy texture.
On the other hand the Pineapple and Passionfruit Sour, brewed with Newcastle's own Andrew 'Sheriff' Mitchell was really enjoyable. It reminded me of the Berliner Weisse styles attempted by Brodie's and The Kernel. It had a damp cereal quality which I get in a lot of low ABV sour mash beers but this was backed up by juicy notes from the tropical fruit adjuncts. My only complaint with this beer was that I wanted a more intense acidity, a greater sourness and much more fruit. Still, this is a good start and I can only see Northern Alchemy improving on this style.
The final beer I tasted put a big smile on my face. It was another oatmeal pale, only this time infused with navel orange zest and Burundi Rugabo coffee. The nose had rounded coffee notes with a hint of pithy orange creeping around the edges. The flavours are blink and you'll miss them quick, a snapshot of intense coffee bean and zesty orange juice flavours that almost immediately leads into a clean, dry finish. It left me wanting more, so I immediately took another sip, then another and soon it was gone. I would have liked these flavours to be fuller, longer lasting and more rounded out but of the four beers this one was the one that made me wish I had a six pack in the fridge. I think we'll see a lot more pale beers infused with coffee over the coming months and Northern Alchemy, along with Weird Beard's Out of Office Coffee IPA, may have set an early benchmark.
Although I found this selection to be a little hit and miss it did greatly increase my curiosity and interest in the growing Newcastle upon Tyne beer scene. It's evident that Northern Alchemy are still learning their craft but they don't appear to be afraid of taking risks and this will undoubtedly get them noticed. I for one look forward to seeing how this North Eastern brewery develop over the coming months.