Visiting one of England’s Smallest Breweries – Hill Island Brewing

As many of you know I’ve temporarily relocated to the north of England, where I’ll be spending the next eleven months on sabbatical at Durham University.  Obviously, my ability to cover beer goings on in the Buckeye State are going to be limited during this period, and believe me I’m already missing the great beer and people of Central Ohio. At the same time, it’s an amazing opportunity to explore venerable breweries that inspired the craft beer movement in the states and to see how the American approach to craft beer is now influencing European brewing.  I intend to take full advantage of it, and I hope you will get a little vicarious pleasure from my reports from the field.

Hill Island Brewing
Durham’s Hill Island Brewing.

Durham

We are going to start this journey into the old world with a story from my base of operations.  Durham is a compact city with a population of roughly 50,000 set in the verdant green hills of northeast England, about 20 miles south of Newcastle.  The city center sits on a rocky hill that impedes the flow of the River Wear in such a way that the river loops around the hill creating a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the river.  The skyline is dominated by the soaring Durham Cathedral and the neighboring castle where the Bishop of Durham lived and ruled over this part of the country for eight centuries.  Given the city’s geography it’s easy to understand why the Normans chose this location as their seat of power in the north soon after conquering England.  As Unesco World Heritage sites both the cathedral and the castle are a draw for many visitors.  The other key feature of the city is Durham University, one of the oldest and most accomplished universities in England.  Classes are not yet in session, but when the 15,000 students arrive later this month I’m sure the bustle of the place will increase considerably.  I could go on, but that gives you a sense of the place.

River Wear Aug Morning
The river Wear on the west side of the Durham peninsula.  The front towers of Durham Cathedral are visible on the upper right.

Real Ale

Warm and flat are two adjectives that Americans tend to associate with British beer. An exaggeration to be sure, but British beer and cask ale are deeply intertwined.  For those not in the know, cask ale refers to beer that undergoes secondary fermentation in the keg, the CO2 produced in this process serving as the only source of carbonation. In Columbus, several breweries serve cask conditioned ales but none that I know of always have cask ale on offer.  Barley’s are the pioneers in this regard, serving up a special cask conditioned version of one of their beers every Friday. Smokehouse, Staas, Lineage, and Land-Grant are some of the other breweries that serve cask ale in Columbus.

In Britain cask ales are far from an oddity, most pubs serve beer from smaller, independent breweries predominantly if not exclusively on cask.  This method of serving beautifully showcases the delicate flavors of sessionable British bitters, milds, and IPAs.  In my short time here, I’ve found that even a fresh bottle of bitter doesn’t quite measure up to the same beer poured from a beer engine at the pub.

Real ale is another important term in the lexicon of British beer.  According to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), real ale is defined as beer brewed from traditional ingredients (malted barley, hops, water, and yeast), matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.  Obviously, cask ales fall under this classification, as do bottle conditioned beers, but your favorite DIPA from Vermont likely would not be considered real ale.

CAMRA was launched in the 1970s and played a key role in saving traditional British ales from the severe declines that many indigenous beers styles suffered in the last decades of the 20th century. Their influence on British craft beer scene is still very much alive.  The topic of cask vs keg will undoubtedly be the subject of a future post, but for now suffice it to say that it’s not uncommon to find styles that might benefit from a different method of dispensation being served on cask.  Since arriving I’ve tried chocolate vanilla stouts, peanut butter porters, and American-style IPAs on cask.  While I applaud everything CAMRA has done to protect the indigenous beers of Britain, I find it peculiar to make such a strong connection between the definition of good beer and the method of serving.

Durham Beerfest taps_cropped
The Durham Beer Festival featured 80 cask ales and no beers served from a conventional keg.  

The Station House

It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon, my wife is taking a nap, and my daughter has already had enough parent time to last the whole day. Sunny weekends are not something to be squandered in these parts, so I grab a £20 note, my camera, my tasting notebook and head out for a look around the city.  My first stop is a wee pub called The Station House that sits under the spectacular railway viaduct that carries the trains on the main northeast line. Despite its small size I’ve heard good things about the beer selection here.

The Station House
The Station House Pub just down the hill from the Durham train station.

The main seating area is small by any measure, with two communal high-top tables and a few comfy chairs arranged around a small circular coffee table. I take a close look at the menu board and find five beers, three ciders, and a perry on offer [1].  The bartender, who may also be the owner, sits at one of the communal tables because there is no bar to speak of, just a door that opens into a cooled room where a dozen or so firkin sized kegs sit on a rack [2].  Since all of the beers are new to me, I ask the bartender for a recommendation. She’s partial to a dark ale called Wolf from Windswept Brewing in the Scottish highlands, but then adds that it’s a bit early in the day for such a strong ale.  It is after all 6.0% abv, a strength that many Brits consider devilishly strong.  Given my years of training on 7.5% IPAs I’m undaunted by the “high gravity” scottish ale, but it is only 2 pm, so I order a half pint and take a seat at the other communal table which is currently unoccupied.  While the British have opted to promote responsible drinking by making most of their beer in the vicinity of 4% abv, as a scientist I have to point out that reducing portion sizes is an equally valid approach.

Most pubs serve cask ale using a beer engine, a handpump that pulls the beer out of the cask using a mechanism similar to an old-fashioned water pump.  In addition to dispensing the ale, the beer engine also pulls in some CO2 and air from the cask producing a cascade of bubbles. I find ale poured from a beer engine has a really smooth mouthfeel, not unlike a beer served on nitro, for the first few minutes anyway.  I suppose that makes sense because as the beer is drawn out, air enters the cask through a hose in bung to take up the vacated volume, and as we all know air is 78% nitrogen.

At The Station House they eschew even the level of aeration that a beer engine provides, opting to rely only on gravity to push the beer through a spigot inserted into the firkin.  The bartender tells me that she prefers this method because it presents the beer in its purest form, with nothing to hide any mistakes by the brewer.  I suppose that’s true, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to start letting the beers I drink at home sit out for 20 minutes to degas and warm up just so I can assess the skills of the brewer.

The bartender is spot on with her recommendation though.  Wolf is a delicious malt-forward ale, featuring rich chocolate flavors from the specialty malts, accented by fruity esters from the yeast, and subtle earthiness from the British hops.  It skillfully walks the fine line between cloying sweetness and roasty bitterness.

Station House Kegs
The temperature controlled pouring room at The Station House.

Hill Island Brewing

Not wanting to get carried away on my first visit, I stop after my half-pint of strong Scottish ale and head back out into the sunshine.  I follow the River Wear downstream for three quarters of a mile, before heading back into town for the next stop on my random walk.  My plan is to cross the peninsula to try out a traditional pub called the Victoria Inn, but as I approach the central marketplace I see a sign pointing the way to mini beer festival at someplace called Hill Island Brewing. I’m in a spontaneous mood so I head down a narrow flight of stairs between buildings to investigate.

Pop up beer festival

It doesn’t take long to reach a long brick building by the river with a sign that signals you’ve arrived at the mini beer festival.  Looking around I see a small pop up shade tent and a few tables dispersed around the edge of a parking lot (see photo at the beginning of the story).  There’s a couple at one table and a small group at another casually drinking beer from plastic pint glasses. Six people and two tables doesn’t make for a beer festival in any recognizable sense, but it seems clear that the origin of the beer is somewhere inside the brick building.

I’ve been to more than my share of small breweries, but never one quite like Hill Island.  Once I enter and my eyes adjust, I see that the space is roughly 20 feet wide and maybe 30 feet deep.  The “taproom” is on a loft that is level with the entrance door that sits about 15 feet above the floor of the building where the brewing is done. Due to the pitch of the roof, there is a sweet spot maybe 6 feet wide where I can stand fully upright.  A middle-aged, bearded man with a receding hair line and a pony tail sits in one corner of the loft, behind a makeshift bar.  The “bar” consists of two tables arranged in the shape of a L in the corner just right of the entrance.  Four plastic carboys of beer are sitting on the table to the left of the bartender, while the second table has two stools for patrons to belly up to the bar. Behind the bar is a stand that supports two beer engines.

Hill Island BarThe beers are £2.80 per pint or £5.50 for a flight of all six beers. In the spirit of investigative journalism I opt for the latter.  The bartender, a man I later learn is also the brewer and sole proprietor, fills six smallish plastic cups with beer and places them in a no-frills plastic tasting board.  I take the beers and retreat to a small table that is pushed up against the railing of the loft, which also happens to be the only other place to sit inside the taproom.

It seems a waste to squander the bubbles and head on the two beers poured with handpumps, so I start with those. The first, Neptune’s Golden Trout, is a bitter that quite frankly is a little too bitter and dry for a palate still adjusting to British ales.  The second, another bitter labeled XV, is more to my liking—nicely balanced, hoppy without being overly bitter, and of course sessionable. I later learn that it took 3rd place in the Best of Britain competition at the Durham Beer Festival two days earlier.  The “carboy beers” include a pale ale that nicely showcases the fruity fermentation profile of British yeast; a flavorful amber ale that may be the best beer of the flight; a stout with a prominent coffee-forward malt profile; and an ale made with cherries, a departure from the world of traditional English ales, but surprisingly well done.  If drinking the beer at room temperature with minimal carbonation is really the best way to assess the skills of the brewer, then Hill Island passes the test.  Though if I’m being honest I think the beers would be even better if all poured from a beer engine at slightly cooler temperatures.

Hill Island Tasting Flight
The tasting flight at Hill Island Brewing.

Every now and again someone walks in, buys a pint or tasting tray, then disappears back outside.  I seem to be the only one foolish enough to sit inside a dimly lit loft on a sunny day. After a few minutes, an older gentleman comes sit down at the bar stool and orders a pint.  Like me he’s out for a Saturday stroll, but when he comments that his fitness tracker tells him he’s already burned over 2000 calories, I realize he takes his walking more seriously than me.  Given the fact that there are just three of us sitting in an area the size of a large camping tent it’s not too long before I get into the conversation. When I tell the man at the bar that I’m from Ohio, he tells me he once spent an afternoon in Cleveland while on business, and recounts seeing a Devo concert many decades ago.  If people here think of Ohio as the land of Devo, I think I will get a good reception as I travel the country.

I learn that the brewer/owner’s name is Michael Griffin, and Hill Island Brewing is far from a struggling startup, today is a 15th anniversary celebration.  Michael studied brewing at nearby Sunderland University.  After graduating he worked for Durham Brewery and a now closed Durham brewpub before opening Hill Island.  Because the brewery/taproom has no toilets his license only permits him to sell beer directly to the public at special events. That’s why what would be called Saturday taproom hours in Ohio is a mini beer festival in Durham.  He is limited to 30 special events per year, and the next one won’t come around until September 30 when the university students are back in Durham.  I know I’ll be back for another visit to this quirky Durham institution.

Hill Island Mash Tun
A view of the brewing kit from the loft taproom.

[1] Perry is a drink not dissimilar to cider made from fermented pear juice.

[2] A firkin is a specific size of keg that holds 9 imperial gallons (10.8 US gallons).  In the US, a cask and a firkin are often used as interchangeable terms, but the former is a method of dispensing beer and the latter is a vessel that holds beer.

DSC08418
Durham Castle as seen from the Framwellgate Bridge.  Hill Island Brewing sits not far below this bridge a few yards from the river Wear.

2 thoughts on “Visiting one of England’s Smallest Breweries – Hill Island Brewing

Add yours

  1. Interesting post especially so because of the perspective of someone new to the beer scene in Britain. Also never been to Hill Island Brewery – clearly an amateurish omission on my part!

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