At a time when the economy has only just come out of recession, when manufacturing is only just in growth again and Britain needs all the success stories it can muster, there are some prime examples of star performers among the nation’s food and drink producers – none more so than Yorkshire’s now iconic Black Sheep Brewery which is currently celebrating its 20th Anniversary.
If any brewery has helped light the path for cask ale in recent years; and has a great story to tell about its extraordinary beginnings, its distinctive ales and its contribution to the rural and British economy; it is the Black Sheep Brewery in Masham, North Yorkshire.
Founder Paul Theakston joined the Masham-based family company T&R Theakston, training as a brewer and at the young age of 24, when his father died, was left having to fight for the survival of the brewery. The only way to assure his own job and the brewery’s future was to take over its management, which he did. The transformation that took place over the years under his leadership was so remarkable and his building of the Theakston brand so successful that, in 1988, the brewery became the subject of a take-over by Scottish & Newcastle. Unwilling to uproot from his beloved Masham – home to the Theakston family since the 16th century – to join the new owners in Scotland or anywhere else, Paul dug his heels in and stayed put in his hometown. But although he had lost his job, and the brewery had lost its independence, he was not about to give up his first love – brewing.
And so it was that, regardless of the decline in British manufacturing and the dim prospects for the ale market, and undaunted by borrowing rates of 15%, Paul put his money where his mouth was, sealed the deal and bought a disused maltings in Masham. With the support of top class local builders and engineers, he painstakingly converted the maltings into a stunning brewery. The Black Sheep Brewery, as it was named, brewed its first beer in Autumn 1992.
Some 20 years on Black Sheep Best Bitter is one of the top 10 cask ales in the country and Black Sheep Ale is one of the top 10 bottled ales – and birthday celebrations are under way with Black Sheep Progress Ale, a special anniversary brew of 4%abv with the classic Black Sheep dry, bitter finish. It can be found in good pubs across Yorkshire and the North – and in some lucky pubs further South. It is a single hopped ale, produced with full flower ‘Progress’ hops, the highly sought after Maris Otter malted barley and water from the springs below the brewery. It is brewed using the extraordinary and unusual “Yorkshire Square” system of brewing. A stylishly boxed, “Progress” is also available in limited edition bottles. It is a10%abv super-premium ale in a 750ml swing-top bottle.
As Rob Theakston, the new managing director says, “Progress is a tribute by our head brewer Alan Dunn to my father, Paul, who created the Black Sheep Brewery when no-one was investing in production, let alone in brewing; when ale was in decline; and when borrowing rates were over 15%. A seemingly strange move at the time, but one which has paid off in a multitude of ways, not least in terms of creating employment; growing tourism in the Dales; driving demand for proper ale and helping to grow the market for real Yorkshire food and drink brands.
“Progress” is single-hopped with whole-flower “Progress” hops which have sweet grass and floral mint aromas, and which, together with the use of the renowned “Maris Otter” malted barley and yeast that propagates in the Yorkshire Square system, help make this a rich, complex ale bursting with flavour. “It is,” as Rob points out, “the ultimate expression of our Yorkshire Square fermenting system and with its dry and bitter finish it’s distinctively Black Sheep.
Paul Theakston, who recently stepped away from his management role to become chairman of the Brewery says, “It has been my privilege and my pleasure to have created the Black Sheep Brewery, but I have not done it alone. The 20th anniversary is a great opportunity to thank all those who showed faith in the idea at the beginning, who trusted me to turn the idea into a reality and who have supported the venture along the way. I’d like to pay tribute to everyone involved, and especially to the amazing Black Sheep team who continue to help meet the growing demand for our beer; the brilliant pubs, off licences and supermarkets who buy our ales and keep us in business, and to our terrific suppliers who ensure that we have what we need to keep Black Sheep brewing!”
He adds, “I recently handed over the reins to my eldest son Rob, who now leads the company as managing director, and next in line, Jo, is the marketing and take-home director. Although I’m keeping my hand in by chairing Black Sheep, looking after the export side of the business and promoting quality within the cask ale market, I’m leaving it to the next generation to ensure that the business survives the huge challenges of the economy and keeps providing pleasure to people up and down the country as well as jobs for people in our great county.”
Further information and photographs : Frances Brace, firstname.lastname@example.org