Tuesday 23 May 2006

Elbow power

Like many people who live near - but not in - Alnwick, I was a bit surprised when Country Life pronounced it the best place to live in Britain. If one happens to live in that big place with the battlements on the northern edge of the town, its attractions must be pretty obvious. But I’m not so sure about those rather grim inter-war council estates that constitute most of the local housing stock.

If one tries to make a checklist of things that the perfect town ought to have, Alnwick scores highly for its fairytale castle, and having superb beaches within a shorter drive-time than most Mediterranean resort hotels. There’s an excellent butcher, an enterprising theatre, a well-stocked pet shop and an implausibly large number of hairdressers, the best of which manages to make even me look reasonably presentable. On the downside, there are rather more charity shops than even the most kind-hearted of us would surely consider necessary.

There is also one very crucial gap. Maybe it’s because I’m the great-grandson of an Alnwick maltster, or just the last in a long line of epic boozers, but I’ve always felt that a proper English town needs a working brewery at its heart. Places like Southwold and Lewes are such a pleasure to visit precisely because they have family breweries quietly steaming away, serving chains of proper pubs.

The Alnwick Brewery Company gave up the ghost in 1986, though it had ceased brewing long before that and supplied Drybrough’s ales to its 20 or so pubs. As one of the first members of the Campaign for Real Ale, I was most interested to know what I was missing. So shortly after I moved back to the area 20 years ago, I asked an elderly gent in my local if he remembered Alnwick ale. I quickly established that he minded it fine, and it was the work of minutes to pose the supplementary question: what was it like?

He took a draught of Drybrough’s and pulled a face (not an uncommon reaction, as I recall). After considerable thought, he answered me in two words, one of which was ‘horrible’ and the other is unsuitable for publication. His companion then ventured that it appeared to have had close contact with the digestive system of a gnat.

Which might seem to present a challenge to Mr Ian Linsley, who has come up with a £2.5 million scheme to bring brewing back to Alnwick. However, his track record gives me confidence that he is the man to pull it off. He has already resurrected Alnwick Rum after a 20-year gap, and the fine product he is selling bears no resemblance to the one that disappeared in the 1980s. I once gave a glass of that to a rum connoisseur, who had travelled widely in the West Indies. He suggested that I should donate the rest of the bottle to NASA for powering one of their rockets.

The trick has been to revert to the original recipe, rather than the one in most recent use. Food and drink companies are notoriously subject to a process of product degradation through tiny ingredient changes, usually for reasons of economy. Each is insignificant in isolation, but in a few years you end up with a product that bears absolutely no resemblance to the original.

Mr Linsley aims to take Alnwick ale back to its roots, and I for one say: more power to his elbow. A reborn brewery could be a great source of local pride, not to mention jobs. Good news for potential suppliers and customers alike. It’s as simple as ABC, as the company’s pubs used to be badged. I only regret that the current focus on responsible alcohol consumption may well prevent him from using the finest possible advertising slogan: ‘Alnwick Ale: it makes you believe you’re in the best place to live anywhere, and forget where it is.’

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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