ON THE ROAD: Brinkburn St. Brewery, Newcastle upon TyneJan 31, 2022
(Originally posted summer 2021) Nick & Ash, founders of the Fellowship Of Beer venture up to Newcastle upon Tyne to check out a thriving working brewery in the heart of the Ouseburn Valley, and speak to Dr. Lee Renforth, owner & director.
"It is impossible to tell any story of Brinkburn Street Brewery without telling the story of my friend Dr Lee Renforth. He loves a good tale himself, and so I hope this does him justice…" ~Nick Smith, Co-Founder of Steam Machine Brewing Company LTD
The entrance to Brinkburn Street Brewery is – confusingly – on Ford Street opposite a large scrap yard, and nestled in one of many Victorian industrial buildings of the Ouseburn. We arrive late Friday afternoon, and already the takeaway queues for growlers of beer and gourmet burgers are growing along the graffitied red-brick walls. We enter from the side street and spy Lee Renforth the owner. He calls us over, a welcoming smile on his face.
“Here lads, try this new pizza! Our brown-ale shredded beef and blue cheese!”
His smile widens into a grin as we wolf it down appreciatively. We are stood in Maling Hall. Once the home of Newcastle pottery, but like many buildings in the Ouseburn Valley of Byker, it has been abandoned over the decades, only to be re-purposed with a fresh lease of life. This is the top level of Brinkburn Street Brewery, and in fairer times is home to their ‘Big Pub’, as well as many a fantastic music and beer festival events. As we speak, Lee is debating with himself where to best position a set of vintage 12-ft oars. To the outsider looking in this may sound strange, but to those in Brinkburn, and those close to Lee, it’s a pretty standard day...
“As restrictions ease, we are re-opening! Only a few days to sort this lot out!” The Big Pub is billed as Newcastle’s largest indoor sit-down pub, and always reminds me of the Portobello Road scene from the musical Bedknobs & Broomsticks. For within its depths any treasure can be found: An authentic tiki cocktail bar, a yurt decorated with reindeer furs, century-old leather ice-skates, life-size 70s pop art portraits, a collection of jubilee beers, and a whole lot more.
For me, this is a place of many fond memories, and familiar staff scuttle past with excited greetings, whilst preparing for a busy Friday service. It feels like coming home. For Ash, this is a strange and mythical place. He hasn’t seen it since it was a building site three years prior, and wanders about wide-eyed, commenting on the many curios of this beery-wonderland.
The dream of Brinkburn Street has been a long time in the making. Building his own community and local-focussed brewery had been an idea of Lee’s since he was a young man. In a previous life he was an electrical engineering consultant, and whilst studying for his PHD in Manchester, he had created and patented a nifty solution for detecting partial discharge from high voltage plant. He took his idea on the road, growing his own company, and working with massive multi-nationals such BP, Shell, and Chevron. He helped these corporations save money, and in the process experienced a life of adventure all over the world where he did business in over 100 countries over 20 years.
A lover of beer since he was of legal drinking age (at least that’s the official story), Lee saw the craft beer revolution in the USA first-hand in the 90s and 00s, and in a country so devoid of family-friendly pubs, local breweries were fast filling that niche.
He was always so happy to discover one of these bustling breweries and taprooms after a hard day’s graft abroad.
“I remember in the 90s walking into a brewpub in Fort Collins, Colorado and was blown away by the variety and quality of what was on offer. Big West Coast IPAs that were an absolute taste experience, that were a phenomenal assault on the taste buds, and as someone who loves big robust flavours, I just knew that this was the way forward. When you compared that to the bland mass-produced sterile offerings in most UK pubs at the time, and there was nothing else to say.”
As we move down to the bar and kitchen level, where the brewhouse is situated too, we are provided with tasting flights from both traditional cask beers and more modern keg offerings. It’s a wide range of beers. They are all delicious, and provide something for everyone.
“It’s taken us 15-20 years to get that same diversity and taste of beer here in the North East of England, and now we are making it ourselves! But as a brewery, we still hold a lot of traditions to heart, we still produce English bitters and brown ales. It’s about providing for an array of customers, and making them feel at home, and being part of that community.”
Lee knows the importance of community all too well. After a messy divorce that saw his previous life shattered, and pushed out sideways from the very engineering company he had founded, he packed his bags and returned to his native Newcastle – a place he hadn’t lived since the 80s. He had plenty of his Byker family around, but most of his friends had moved on. He wandered his old stomping grounds, seeing the working industrial Ouseburn of his childhood was becoming more gentrified. The area just streets away from where he was born had changed so much.
The wheels were already in motion in founding Brinkburn Street brewery, and Lee took advice from his contacts in Marble and Magic Rock to get it off the ground. Determined to carve a new path, he piled all the personal funds he had access to into the company. It was going to be a big job...
He spent the next couple of years readying and converting his chosen location in the Ouseburn into a functioning brewery, taproom, and kitchen. He rented a cheap home, readily housing members of his staff as and when they were between accommodation. But he stuck to his vision, and despite setbacks, planning permission adversities, and the joys of building contractors, Brinkburn’s fantastic brewery, taproom, and kitchen finally opened in the summer of 2018 to resounding cheers of success, and became an instant hit with locals and students alike.
There are many wonderful things that make up Brinkburn Street: secret rooms with bagatelle boards and other vintage games, a creepy and poorly lit Victorian tunnel that was used as an air-raid shelter, upcycled furniture, a shipping container housing a concrete bar, and taps protruding from a piece of quayside timber, a selection of re-enactment and film prop helmets, signed Newcastle United football shirts, and a mix of hundreds of other mismatched pieces of furniture and local relics; and it’s this living museum that makes for such a convivial environment, but it’s the wonderful regulars, and the even more wonderful staff that make this such a welcoming and unique location. And if that wasn’t enough, then the excellent range of beer, and mouthwatering food adds even more to the experience.
The kitchen has been headed by Gaz, who over the past few years has turned northern classic dishes into delicious gourmet tapas, utilising the beer in every stage of the cooking. In the pandemic Brinkburn moved to a more takeaway-friendly menu, but Gaz and his team’s unique stamp are still all over every delicious morsel, including an array of exquisite and naughty vegan and vegetarian dishes.
The road hasn’t always been easy for Lee and Brinkburn Street Brewery, with toxic jealousies from other local bars spilling into the streets. Some of his wonderful team have been threatened, and he has been told to his face by one bar owner that “he doesn’t belong here.”
Ridiculous, of course, for if he doesn’t belong in the streets he was raised, then where does he belong? I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the slogan for Brinkburn Street is ‘Born & Brewed In Byker’… The pandemic has been a real make or break moment for the brewery. They missed out on the vast majority of grant money made available, due to their spectacular building having a rateable value just over the required threshold.
“If we had done as others had, to just roll over, see our overheads and furlough paid by the government, then we would have been out of business last summer. Financially it just wasn’t an option. I have a responsibility to those who work here. We are all in this together.”
Instead, Brinkburn Street worked with what they had: A great community, a loyal fan-base, a wide range of beers, some fantastic chefs, and a core of staff with a can-do attitude. They diversified their offerings, and tentatively re-opened to the public; albeit amidst criticism from other local businesses.
Now, seemingly on the other end of this pandemic, it is wonderful for Ash and I to share beer and food with Lee and his team. There is a buzz of excitement as we talk to each of them on this busy and bustling Friday evening, and I am so proud of my friend. I know that I will remember this moment for many years to come.
Once I walked with him through Tynemouth market where he affectionately described the local traders as ‘his people’, and recalled when he moved back to the area, he found solace and friendship in their stories and curios. As we passed by, one of the stallholders called his name out in glee. One said he had something for Lee and produced a strange African root ornament from beneath his table. “How much?” Lee asked, but the stallholder wouldn’t hear of it. “Nah man, it’s a gift! Stick it in your brewery!” He did so. I spied it on this visit, right next to the cask ale bar, and smiled to myself at the memory.
Lee is very much a man of the people. Whilst we are there he puts some rubbish in the bins, and hides for a cheeky cigarette. A homeless man approaches, and the two chat for a few minutes. It ends with a joke about football, and the man carries on his way. He spoke to him no differently than he would anyone at the bar, ready to spin a yarn, ready to discuss science, politics, or history. It’s this attitude that makes Brinkburn Street Brewery such an inclusive and welcoming environment for any who want good beer and good conversation. There’s no snobbery here, just accessibility, and pure Geordie passion.
As we finally leave, Ash sums up our visit perfectly: “That was awesome.” It was. It is. We encourage you to get there to see it for yourselves… And if you see Lee at the bar, open your ears for a tale or two, and make sure you have good one to tell in return.
Brinkburn Street and the BIG PUB are now back open to the public Find out more by checking out their website www.brinkburnbrewery.co.uk where you can also get their social channels and address so you can visit them in person!