Thursday, 22 October 2009

Iconic move raises stink

THEY say smells evoke memories. But one story this week evoked an avalanche of memories for me, including a pungent stink.
Strangely the smell was foul: vomit, stale bar towels and sickly sweet beer. But the memories were mostly pleasurable.
The story was the announcement by Scottish & Newcastle (S&N) that it wants to close the Federation Brewery, Dunston, Gateshead, with the loss of 63 jobs by the middle of next year, because of falling beer sales in the UK.
More poignantly that means switching the production of Newcastle Brown Ale nearly 90 miles down the A1 to Tadcaster and the same brewery where John Smiths is produced.
Having been brought up in Newcastle, and weaned on Broon’s sister brew, Amber Ale, the first time I ever got drunk was by quaffing three bottles of the real thing.
It was at a party where the only record was the Beach Boys’ greatest hits album, when they were just a fun surfing band, before the pretentious and over-rated Pet Sounds.
Later associations with Pop music included a Lindisfarne LP, and memorably Bonnie Bramlett, of Delaney and Bonnie (in the days when Eric Clapton was a heroin befuddled second guitarist), staggering off Newcastle City Hall, unable to cope with the effects of drinking Brown Ale on stage.
The famous bottled beer, with its iconic blue star label, first went on sale in 1927. The day after ''Broon's'' launch, it was said the local police appealed to the brewery to make it weaker because the cells were full of drunks.
The ale was also dubbed ''dog'' by drinkers, as they would make the excuse of going to ''walk the dog'' when nipping to the pub.
Like many Geordies, which I am not, I still remember with affection the sweet yeasty smell rolling across the city from the plant in Gallowgate where it was brewed next to St James's Park football ground until 2005.
In the mid-1970s, when I was resting between jobs as my theatrical family taught me to say, I actually worked behind the bar at the working men’s club owned by the brewery workers.
It was opposite the plant, and I remember with a mixture of emotions the huge draymen coming in with bottles of Brown Ale secreted in their dungarees and obviously nicked from the assembly line.
They handed these in as “payment” for their pints of Scotch or Exhibition Bitter. The club steward was delighted with this corrupt arrangement as the Brown Ale was worth more than the keg beers, although what it did to his stock-taking is hard to imagine.
Years later Newcastle Brown won Protected Geographical Indication status from the EU, meaning the Ale had to be brewed in the city, but that became a meaningless gesture with the shift a couple of miles across the River Tyne to Dunstan in 2005.
Now, Federation Ale and Dunstan, where the River Tyne was so polluted in those bad old days that anyone falling in was dead in seconds, conjured another set of memories, again accompanied by a none too pleasant smell. But that's another story.
The Gallowgate plant was finally demolished last year to make way for a science park.
The brand continues to be popular abroad, particularly in the US, but S&N say the decision was forced by falling beer sales, which have created general over capacity in the UK brewing sector.
This smacks of big business making decisions to please the stock market and financial institutions rather than customers and workers.
But then we are so used to this mind-set that it doesn’t even raise a stink these days.

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