The QT

Tuesday 18 June 2024

Foraging for the perfect pint

The opportunity to get grounded with the natural world — while brewing beer — has Alastair Gilmour intrigued
Northumberland’s landscape is perfect for producing beer from foraged ingredients

Huge business decisions invariably come drenched in a bucket load of ‘have we done the right thing?’

But it was the sight of a roe deer munching contentedly on fresh spring leaves before summoning her two fawns that husband-and-wife brewers Sam and Red Kellie decided they had chosen the right location for their First & Last Brewery. They simply downed tools, nodded, and let the experience wash over them.

First & Last moved lock, stock and cask from Elsdon in Northumberland the 15 miles to Bellingham in 2022 and have yet to look back.

“Northumberland inspires us,” says Red, filling a wicker basket with spruce tips foraged from a huge tree on the fringes of the Northumberland National Park. It’s a serene and surreal experience in an almost primaeval landscape. 

I’ve joined her in what is surprisingly hard work — my sole role developing into kicking tussocks of boggy grass, tripping over long-fallen branches and avoiding hidden ditches. “The brewing community in the North East is such a lovely family,” she says. “It’s such a gorgeous landscape here which feeds the creative aspect of the brewery.”

First & Last taproom offers the brewery’s complete range

That creativity knows few bounds with an emphasis on producing amazing beer from ingredients foraged from the native woodlands and flowering grasslands that surround the brewery — a former ambulance station that’s settled nicely into ‘the right thing’.

Those spruce tips — “we need to pick them while they’re nice and soft and at their peak of lemony notes before they harden” — will join a seasonal programme that includes gorse flowers, plums, elderflowers, damsons and elderberries. “This is very much where our real drive is, our collaboration with nature”.

Sam Kellie emphasises Red’s ‘why we are here’ approach. “Hedgerow beers are unique and that’s what makes us part of Northumberland,” he says. “Using foraged ingredients has become our USP, part of who we are. 

“Our best-selling Session IPA, Mad Jack Ha’, and Equinox Pale Ale pay our bills — we could make them anywhere from Ireland to Devon — but foraged beers are part of our landscape. Different weather conditions and growing variations mean that next year’s will be different from this year’s and this year’s were different from last year. We don’t add anything to the beer or take anything out to balance it.”

Sam is a former science teacher who worked primarily with disengaged youths, but like so many in modern education, felt disillusioned when it became less about the children and more about ‘the system’.

He is now warming up his pet theory. “The world is getting more ‘beige’,” he says. “It’s what I call the Amazon effect where you shop at Amazon, click a button and it’s delivered to your door. It’s also a bit like watching Netflix; it’s all there ready for you. You can’t just ring up and ask someone to give you some meadowsweet for beer, there’s not really a document for that.

Taproom chalk board ready for another function

“It’s also essentially about mental health. I can’t believe how much time I spend in front of a computer screen, banking, ordering, selling, so when you’re physically among the beer’s ingredients it makes you feel part of it all.

“We’re always looking for ways to reduce our impact on our immediate surroundings and the wider environment. It’s no good just going through the motions, you’ve got to brew with love, passion and care and we hope that’s what comes across.”

I’m getting this ‘back to our roots’ notion as I try to avoid delicate woodland flowers on the forest floor while I’m learning that mere yards away we could encounter badgers, otters, red squirrels, shrews, seven species of bat, curlews, skylarks and, especially in spring, birds of prey. (“Is that a buzzard? I’m sure it’s a buzzard.”)

Purple fingers from handling soft fruit is a forager’s ‘given’ and the back of the First & Last van is often strewn with petals. 

A rare First & Last Brewery tea break. Left to right Ric Lee, Red Kellie, Sam Kellie

Sam says: “When we’re picking the likes of elderberries, there’s normally a group of us chatting away, laughing. It’s what mental health and craft and artisan means. And I like the fact that it challenges us as brewers.”

But modern-day pressures are rarely far away. Fresh ingredients can perish quickly and there’s apparently an optimum picking timescale.

“It’s got to be a sunny day to get the best flavours out of foraged ingredients and to get the quality of the beer how we want it,” says Sam. “With the more delicate flowers we’ll add them at different stages to build up a full flavour.

“We like to keep it interesting for people and it’s nice to play around with ingredients, such as elderflower and meadowsweet. Two brews and they’re gone and we won’t get another chance till next year, but you can freeze plums and damsons.”

Spruce tips are best foraged while young and soft

Pricing is also a challenge with often three times the manual labour going into a foraged beer than for standard, off the shelf ingredients. They’re premium products at the end of the day with often a half a day’s driving and picking to factor in plus half a day preparing and de-stoning fruit. 

“The profit might be a lot less, but it’s done for pleasure,” says Sam. “Of course, we have to be profitable but it’s the passion that drives you. I get really excited about it.

“I want to make a honey beer — I used to keep bees and I’d like to get back into it. Sea buckthorn is another one. It grows on the shore and the berries have an amazing orange colour. I see a lot of it in Northumberland when I’m driving around. I make a note of what is growing where. You start to see things differently. We’re a microbrewery, not a factory.”

Sam and Red — with invaluable help from Will Rideau and production brewer Ric Lee — have converted the former ambulance drivers’ restroom into a taproom — de rigeur for a brewery these days as it can offer an extra income stream. It’s paying for itself in a variety of functions such as tastings, open days and festivals. I note this evening’s is a charity presentation by a Newcastle adventurer who rowed across the Atlantic. As you do. Of course, a commemorative beer — Rowers Pale Ale — was commissioned.

Ongoing projects include a couple of outdoor areas earmarked for sun-trapped picnic benches to be edged with soft fruits and vegetables. And Sam Kellie knows where his beehives will sit.

The region’s beer lovers are building up a First for ‘the right thing’.

To find out more about First & Last Brewery, visit

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