A couple of miles south of Hexham, in an achingly lovely spot, sits the Dipton Mill Inn. The Inn is an old farmhouse dating to the 17th century. The Mill (actually two mills) of the name, dating to the 1300s, burned down in 1783, though the mill-race still circles the grounds of the current inn.
This little gem of an inn is also home to the Hexhamshire brewery, founded in 1993 and currently operating from Ordley, less than two miles away up Dipton Mill Road. There are plans to move the brewery to the Inn itself in the near future.
The first impression of the inn is of a picturesque, almost chocolate-boxy looking pub, quintessentially English. Unfortunately, it was too dark to take a useable photograph when I was there, but see their website (address below). Inside, the pub is snug. Low-beamed ceilings, panelled walls and half flagged/half carpeted floor all add to a sense of cosiness. There are only a few tables, and the bar is compact but bristling with handpumps, most dispensing the Hexhamshire beers.
The atmosphere is friendly inside, each time a local walks in, cries of greeting hail them. I was standing at the bar, ordering a couple of sample jars and the landlord, Geoff Brooker, was standing next to me. He spends as much time leaning on the punters’ side of the bar as he does behind it. “So,” I started, “you brew this beer then?”
He shook his head emphatically. “No, no, no!” He pointed at a chap sitting at a table behind us. “He does it.” The chap looked up from his beer. “No, no, no I don’t!” he said. Puzzling. “Unless you like it,” he added. Ah.
As it happens, the gentleman pointed to was actually the brewer, John Henderson. After a couple of pints he came over and sat with Lady Alebagger and myself in the way that friendly locals do in these places. Warms your cockles, so it does. John does the actual brewing, following recipes devised by Geoff. The beers have been very successful, with Hexhamshire Lightside winning an award at the Newcastle Beer Festival in 2010.The brewery’s stout, Blackhall English Stout, goes down so well that Geoff has taken Guinness off the bar (this momentous event has also taken place in my regular watering hole, where Titanic Stout (from a keg, no less) has replaced Guinness).
We chatted for some time with John, who seemed only too pleased to talk about his brewing. His own favourite is Whapweasel, which is the only Hexhamshire beer I had tasted before. The brewery mainly supplies to local outlets, but with some leakage into Yorkshire and Lancashire, where my local got some in March 2011.
So, what of the beers themselves? I’ll start with the Hexhamshire Whapweasel, a 4.8% brew described as a bitter by the brewer, but I would class as a best. It’s a mid orange colour, just about right for type. The first flavour is fairly sweet, redolent of caramel. A nice overlying hoppiness grows throughout the taste to finish with a satisfying bitterness. I’d be happy to drink this any day of the week.
Hexhamshire Shire Bitter is a 3.6% bitter (no argument over this one). It’s a pale orange, again, just right for the type. The beer is clear and bright and packs a good deal of refreshment. Having said that, all the flavours in this beer are very slight, and I had to concentrate a bit to discern what they are. Caramel is in there, as in Whapweasel, but much fainter, as is the bitter hops. This is a very popular brew and is the pub’s regular bitter.
The next brew I tried was Hexhamshire Devil’s Elbow, slightly stronger than the Shire Bitter at 3.8%, but what a difference! The mouthfeel is really smooth. The flavour is rich and full-bodied, with toffee dominating, and just a hint of bittering hoppiness at the end. Given the choice, I’d have this over the regular bitter any time.
I then moved on to the famous stout, Hexhamshire Blackhall English Stout. 4% and a deep black, it looked very inviting. I took a small sip. John looked at me closely. “What do you think?” he asked. I sat still, letting the beer give me its full complement of flavours. “It’s exceptional,” I said, and I wasn’t exaggerating. During my trip to the North East, I spent over two weeks sampling beers from pubs in Northumberland, County Durham and Yorkshire, and out of all of them, this was to be the best. It’s simply gorgeous. Velvety smooth with flavours of coffee, cream, almond and a hint of smoke at the back of the mouth.
I returned from the bar with a Hexhamshire Devil’s Water, a 4.1% ale with an orangey red colour. “Now I don’t like that one,” confessed John. Neither did I. It was vinegar. However, Geoff was good enough to take the trip down to the cellar to connect up a fresh barrel for me. I’m afraid I still didn’t like it. It tasted quite harsh and not very pleasant. Ah well, can’t win ’em all.
I was persuaded (quite easily, now I think of it) to have a jar of Hexhamshire Old Humbug, a dark orange, slightly hazy beer, weighing in at a very respectable 5.5% and named after the landlord. “Do you know a beer called ‘Old Peculier’?” asked John. Do I! “Well this is better!” he declared. Throwing down a challenge to my favourite beer? Bring it on! Old Humbug is sweet and malty with distinct spirituous overtones and a thick mouthfeel. Almost a meal in a glass. It is very, very good, but better than OP? Weeell…
I must also mention the food at the Dipton Mill, prepared and served by Geoff’s wife Janet. I had minced beef with dumplings and vegetables, whilst Lady A had haddock with tomato and basil. Both were utterly superb.
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