THERE is, it seems, a natural link between brewing and farming. Like so many farms which were affected, rather than infected by the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, High House Farm, near Matfen, close to Hadrian’s Wall, in Northumberland, had to make some big decisions about the future, according to owner Steven Urwin.
“We’re just six miles from Heddon on the Wall, where it all started,” he said. “We weren’t taken out with the original cull but it made life very difficult. It led to us being crippled for a long time because we couldn’t move anything.”
The difficulties caused by the disease “lockdown” led Steven to look at other ways of making a living from the 170-acre lowland farm which had, until then, been a traditional mix of beef, sheep and arable.
Steven decided to make use of some of the traditional 19th century buildings so typical of this type of farm.
He said: “I had an interest in making my own home brew, and that developed from there. I went on a Brew-lab brewing course at Sunderland University.
“I met a brewing consultant called David Smith who came and had a look at some redundant farm buildings. He thought it was a fantastic idea, growing the malt on the farm, brewing the beer, using all English ingredients, and selling the beer.”
The buildings were a mixture, used in the past for all the different food that the farm produced, both for the animals and for the food that they needed in the winter.
These buildings were a part of the production cycle.
“They’re not practical for modern farming now, but they are amazing grade II stonebuilt listed buildings,” said Steven.
“They would have been granaries, with byres underneath. The feed was literally just dropped down from here (from the mill now used as a cafe at the visitor centre).
“I was brewman, I was drayman, and I was salesman. It was very difficult to start with, particularly the sales side, because as a farmer it’s not something you normally have contact with, the customer.
It was a very steep learning curve.”
The brewery was completed in March 2003, and after a very successful launch Steven was able to take on staff, and opened the visitor centre in 2006.
In 2009, he decided to rent out the brewery and visitor centre to the chef at the time, Heather Scott, and her husband, who now provide income for the farm through the rental they pay to Steven. It has been run this way ever since.
High House Farm brewery and its visitor centre are now fully licensed for weddings and civil partnerships. This has proved so popular that Steven said the visitor centre is booked up for weddings until 2014.
The tie-up between a farm and a brewery makes sense to Steven.
“It’s still quite ‘hands-on’, and it’s seeing the whole process through.
It’s nice to see the crops growing in the field, the crops harvested, and then turned into beer, and the best bit is enjoying it at the bar.”
Steven admits that the heavy land at High House Farm makes growing malting barley difficult, which is why he grows spring and winter crops.
High House Farm has a roster of three regular beers which Steven produces all the time, and special ales which are brewed from time to time.
“We have three core beers which we produce here. There’s Old Hemp which is a session bitter, then we have Nell’s Best which is a malty, award-winning beer, and then a premium bitter which is Matfen Magic.”
Old Hemp and Nell’s Best are named after animals on the farm.
They have run out of names of dogs, so some of the occasional beers are named after cats. With the success of the brewery, and the arms-length relationship with the farm, Steven has succumbed to a need to be more involved.
He realised some woodland on the farm was not being utilised but which is now the centre of his next project – a firewood supply business.
Steven says that with the current emphasis on green energy, and the rising cost of oil, this is a good time to be starting up a woodbased diversification.
“There’s a lot of businesses looking to install bio-mass boilers,” he said. Steven is using existing woodland, rather than planting new areas, but will introduce a loyalty scheme where trees which are sold as firewood will be re-planted.
Mr Urwin says the diversification projects are vital to the future of High House Farm.
“I don’t think we’d be farming today without it.Yes farming, and agriculture in general, has picked up, but so have costs and to make enough money off a small unit such as this is very difficult.”
He says that keeping the livestock is an important factor in the future of the farm, as the manure they produce is important for crop rotation, and being in a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone, they are restricted over the use of artificial fertilizer.
High House Farm was originally given grant funding to set the brewery up through the Rural Development Programme for England scheme. It has also helped to fund the firewood diversification.
The High House Farm Brewery visitor centre is open every day except Wednesday. For more details, visit highhousefarmbrewery.co.uk.