From major to minor it’s back
to basics for brewer who once
slaked city steelmen’s thirsts
IN some ways life has turned full circle for Mike Parker. He has returned to his old profession of brewing but on a very different scale this time.
Just over a decade ago Mike was head brewer at William Stones, in Sheffield, responsible for the production of over a million gallons of ales a year with a workforce of more than 50.
Things are a little different at the micro brewery in the picturesque Cumbrian village of Hesket-new-Market where he is settling in as the new manager, certainly so far as the numbers are concerned.
“The monthly duty cheque to Customs and Excise from Stones in 1991 was up to £1.5 million a month while here it is around £2,500,” said Mike. “I have one assistant who is currently helping me get to grips with things and my duties cover all aspects of the business, from brewing to maintaining the building.
“I am likely to be laying down my saccharometer one moment and taking up a paintbrush the next.”
Hesket-new-Market’s brewery is housed in a converted barn behind The Old Crown public house in the centre of the village. You find your way there via a winding grassy lane between houses, ignoring country aromas from a nearby farmyard, and passing assorted free ranging hens and ducks which have learnt to be in the vicinity when brewing mash is being disposed of.
The assistant brewer, Arthur Walby who has something of a name in northern folk poetry circles as “The Bard from the Valley of the Roe” is also the delivery man and the overall sense of self-sufficiency is emphasised when the Ford Transit van is out of action and Arthur brings along his elderly, but faithful, Morris Minor pickup.
Small and quaint it might be, but Hesket-new-Market brewery, created by a former landlord of The Old Crown in 1988 and now owned by a village co-operative of 60 or so enthusiastic local people including mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington, produces one of the widest ranges of real ales in the country.
Annual output is between 350 and 500 barrels of cask conditioned beers a year (in brewing a barrel is an expression for a volume of 36 gallons), an amount that a large brewery would produce before lunch on any Monday morning.
However, small is beautiful at Hesket-new-Market and although the new manager’s background is in the higher echelons of the industry, he is not planning any great revolution, just a polishing up of the brewing process to keep the ales popular and consistent in taste and quality.
Mike, who lives at Lazonby, is a chartered chemist, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a Diploma Master Brewer Member of the Institute of Brewing. He began his brewing career in Sheffield in 1963 as an assistant chemist with the then independent William Stones Limited, later taking charge of the laboratory which provided the brewery’s technical support. Stones were the brewers for the steelworkers of Sheffield, with an estate of 250 pubs and working men’s clubs. They sent beer out directly to the furnacemen and several pubs had 6am licences to cater for workers coming off night shifts.
Mike later became chief chemist at Tadcaster Brewery where he became closely involved in the brewing process and made a bit of name for himself in application of new research on yeast nutrition which helped to produce good beer that was metabolically stable. He was also involved in the development of a major new brewery at Runcorn before becoming quality control manager for two Sheffield breweries, Stones and Hope and Anchor where a famous Jubilee Stout was produced and Carling lager, a brand of Canadian origin, was established in the UK.
“I got lots of experience in bottling, canning and kegging beers which went all over the world. I had four labs under me and was on the management committee of Bass Brewing Sheffield,” he said. “In 1980 I became head brewer at Stones, returning to the brewery where I had started, to become involved in the development of the local Sheffield beer into a national brand.”
However, in 1991, after the Monopolies Commission changed the rules on brewery ownership and control of public houses, Mike and his wife Carol decided to follow an ambition to live in Cumbria and they bought the Joiners Arms at Lazonby, running the pub for seven years. His chance to return to brewing came when the Hesket-new-Market co-operative advertised for a new manager.
“I like brewing and this was a chance to return to it,” he said “It’s back to basics in the way things were at the first brewery I work at, in Tadcaster.
“Jim Fearnley, the former Old Crown landlord who started this business in 1988, had no professional training, but by reading a few books he was able to produce some sturdy, wholesome beers which have stood the test of time. In brewing terms some of the methods were fairly unorthodox, but the brewery has ended up with a portfolio of superb beers which sell remarkably well. By coincidence, Helvellyn Gold bears an uncanny resemblance to Stones’ best bitter.
“I am seeking to enhance the good points and tidy up some of the more variable aspects a bit of polishing which means bringing good husbandry to apply so that variability in each product is kept to a minimum. I will be seeking to improve the yeast husbandry, the use of hops and keep an eye on the water which is shortly going to come to this area from a different source.”
Real ale or cask conditioned ale as he prefers to call it is Mike’s particular area of expertise. In addition to his brewing job, he will continue to be an assessor for Cask Marque, an independent accreditation scheme jointly funding by pub owners and brewers, which involves him making unannounced visits to pubs to check the quality of cask ales.
The Hesket-new-Market range of eight beers, which sell all over Cumbria, have won a clutch of awards over the past 10 years at Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) and other beer festivals. There are outlets in faraway Norwich, thanks to climbing and mountaineering connections. Boxes of beer, similar to wine boxes, are produced for people staying in local holiday cottages.
Ingenuity is essential in a small operation and assistant brewer Arthur has produced a clever idea for cafes and other outlets which have small demands for beer an adaptation of the domestic fridge which keeps a beer box cool and has a hand operated beer pump fitted for dispensing!
“It’s certainly different from the great Bass Charrington empire I used to work for and the times when you had to look in the financial columns of the morning paper to see who your owners were that day,” said Mike.