First & Last Brewery – Northumberland

On a spring day with friends in Yorkshire, we lit the barbecue ahead of the FA Cup Final and opened up a can of First & Last Brewery’s Hedgerow Gose beer. Gose, a sour and salty beer originating on the banks of the river of the same name in central Germany, is a beer type we discovered for the first time a few years ago at a beer garden in Leipzig. But what made this can special was not only what was in it, but who made it. 

The First & Last Brewery, founded in Northumberland in 2016, is the work of Red and Sam, two people Paul went to school with in another century. The trip to England this spring was the first chance we had to try their beer, and it is safe to say we loved it. The taste of their hedgerow-foraged Gose will always remind us of spring sunshine, the landscapes of the North of England, and of course, a Liverpool victory on penalties.

To find out more about the story of First & Last, we spoke to Red and thought we’d share her words about beer, place and the landscapes of Northumberland with you…

To start with, can you tell us a little about yourself and how you came to brewing?

So Sam and I began fermenting country wines and beers at home around 20 years ago. We developed an interest in brewing beers with wild and foraged ingredients, and over time decided to replan our lives to move out of our previous careers and attempt to make a living out of this interest. I was working at Newcastle University in sustainability projects around 10 years ago, and as part of that role set up Stu Brew, a student-run brewery as a collaboration between the Students’ Union and the Chemical Engineering Dept. Then both Sam and I trained with Brewlab, and I went on to become Head Brewer at another North East Brewery. It took us a good 5 years to establish our own brewing business and raise enough money to buy our own commercial brewkit.

We tried and loved your excellent Hedgerow Goses. Can you tell us a bit about where you are and why a sense of place, and Northumberland in particular, is important to your beers?

First & Last Brewery is very much rooted in the landscape in which we live; the uplands of Northumberland – we’re based very close to the Scottish Border, hence the name The First & Last. It’s a pretty wild and rugged landscape of moors and river valleys, its sparsely populated by people, but rich in wildlife and wild spaces and we’re really proud to have settled here. We were keen to make our business as rural and outdoor-focussed as our home life, and this came with challenges – like having to install our own water and electricity supply for the brewery, but we are very happy not to have to commute to a city industrial estate in order to produce our beers. 

We use a lot of locally foraged ingredients in our specialty beers such as sloeberries, woodruff, elderflower, gorseflowers and wild damsons, and a significant amount of the barley we use is grown just over the Scottish border in Jedburgh.

So glad you enjoyed the Hedgerow Gose! It’s an unusual style of beer that we love. We were really pleased to be able to team up with another local business, and brew this beer with Lindisfarne Seasalt, harvested from the North Sea. We also picked masses of wild sloeberries, blackberries, blackcurrants and raspberries for the brew, and their tart fruitiness complements the slightly sour and tangy style of this soured wheatbeer style. 

We plan to brew this beer each year like we do with our Gorseflower Pale and Damson Porter – they’re very seasonal beers which come and go from our range through the year, but I think the Hedgerow Gose will vary each year depending on which fruits are more or less plentiful – last Autumn we had an absolute bumper harvest of sloes, but this year, the hedgerows may be heavier with brambles; we’ll see I guess!

We’ve also seen how important both your local community is to you, and the wider environment in general. Can you tell us a bit about how you attempt to make a positive impact with the brewery (and minimise the negative)?

Sam and I are both motivated by a responsibility to act in socially and environmentally positive way, and as First & Last is an intrinsic part of life, we’ve got a great opportunity for our business to make a positive impact. We currently brew a beer called Ratty which raises money to support a project to reintroduce the watervole to the rivers and burns of the Kielderwater catchment area; and we’re about to launch a new beer to raise funds for the local Mountain Rescue team. 

Our business is intertwined with many community projects locally from schools to cultural events, and as the business grows and our team expands, we hope to build that ethos further. For example, we currently offer events including ‘Bats & Beers’ alongside an organisation called Wild Intrigue, and the taproom at our new site will help us to offer more events bringing local beer and wildlife experiences to people living in and visiting the area.

We are always looking for ways to reduce our environmental impact – from simple things like using all-recyclable packaging materials, cornstarch can labels and minimising use of plastics, to re-using as much of the brewery waste as possible. Our spent grains go to feed a herd of local Belted Galloway cattle, spent hops go to the grocer who uses them for mulch and compost, and our waste yeast gets mixed with silage as a high-protein animal feed on a farm up the hill. We also treat and neutralise all of our waste chemicals and work with 100%-renewable electricity for the brewing. Our next challenge at the new brewery site is to look into how we can generate our own power on-site, and further reduce our carbon usage – there are some interesting technological developments in carbon dioxide recapture which we are following closely.

We can’t wait for our next trip to Northumberland, and we’ll certainly be stopping by for a visit, a catch up and a drink, but how can our readers get their hands on your beers?

We offer free delivery across Northumberland, Newcastle and Gateshead, and for those living further afield we offer a courier delivery service. Folks can order through our website.

And plans for the future?

Well, an exciting move of site, and an expansion of both the brewhouse and F&L team is imminent! We are moving from Elsdon to Bellingham, Northumberland; purchasing an old Ambulance Station, and are on the cusp of offering a shop, taproom and beer garden. Exciting times for all of us at First & Last!