The Theakston name lives on in brewing

01:21, May 14 2014
Black Sheep
REVIVED: One of the giant cooper kettles in the brewing hall at Black Sheep.

Mention the name Theakston's to any ale-loving Englishman and more likely than not you'll see a drop of moisture appear in the corner of his eyes.

Such is the regard held for this revered Yorkshire brewery and its fine ales.

Theakston's brewery is located in Wensleydale in the heart of the North Yorkshire Dales, in the appropriately named town of Masham (sadly for students of the brewing process the town's name is pronounced "Massam").

Having been acquired in 1827, the Theakston family ran the brewery for five generations until 1988 when it was taken over by Matthew Brown, a Lancashire-based brewer which, in turn, was later sold to Scottish & Newcastle Breweries, at the time the last remaining English-owned multinational brewing group.

The events that led to the loss of the brewery had rumbled on for almost 20 years when Paul Theakston finally broke ranks with the rest of the family.

"I wanted to stay in Masham, and to brew," he recalls.


The split was acrimonious, to say the least, but Paul was determined to maintain the family tradition and decided to open a new brewery in the town.

By chance an old maltings building which had once been part of Lightfoot's Brewery - Masham's "other" brewery which was purchased for Theakston's by Paul's grandfather in 1919 - became available.

After years of neglect as a semi-redundant grain store, this landmark building overlooking the River Ure had fallen in to disrepair.

Nevertheless Paul assembled a small team around him to fight the rats and build his brewery.

But what should he call the new business?

"Use of the Theakston name was irretrievably linked with the ‘old' company and anyway, we wanted to ensure that there was no confusion in the minds of the drinking public," Paul recalls.

"Also, there was trouble brewing over using the name of our hometown, Masham. Yes, you've guessed it, all of a sudden another brewery wanted to make it its own. So we were back to thinking about what the area is known for . . ."

Although sheep had always figured largely in the history of the area - Masham was once an important centre for sheep trading and famous for its sheep fair - to call the brewery Sheep Brewery seemed a bit tame. Fortunately, in a timely stroke of inspiration Sue, Paul's wife, came up with the name Black Sheep Brewery.

"Now we had a name that sat well with the area, spoke volumes about our maverick attitude to the multi-nationals seeking to dominate the brewing industry and captured the essence of the family struggle that led to our birth," Paul remembers.

Finally, in October 1992, the Black Sheep brewery opened.

Having raised a million pounds, three-quarters of it under a business expansion scheme, Paul had set about sourcing brewing equipment.

When another small country brewer, Hartley's of Ulverston, in Cumbria, ceased production, he snapped up its old cast-iron mash-tun and copper kettle. Three second-hand Welsh slate fermentation vessels of the classic, double-deck "Yorkshire Square" design were bought from Hardys and Hanson's brewery of Nottingham, after they'd been retired in favour of modern stainless steel vessels.

The unique Yorkshire Square system of fermentation is known to produce notably rounded beers, and Hardys and Hanson's were kind enough to supply their yeast to ensure the perfect partnership, Paul recalls. Another three square fermenters were subsequently added; "These were literally snatched from under the ball of the demolition contractor who was levelling Darley's Brewery at Thorne, near Doncaster to make way for a supermarket."

Another Paul, fellow Yorkshireman Paul Ambler, took on the role of Black Sheep's head brewer.

Having trained in the brewing town of Burton-on-Trent and brewed for more than 35 years, Paul Ambler was a stickler for tradition and specified the hard-to-find Maris Otter barley, malted in Yorkshire. He also elected to use Fuggles hops from Hereford and Worcester, and Goldings from the renowned China Farm in east Kent. Even the dipstick used to measure the height of the fermentation was the classic ash favoured by stone-square brewers.

Ironically a rare and welcome turn of events saw the Theakston family regain control of the old family brewery in October 2003 and nowadays small shipments of the brewery's legendary strong dark ale, Theakston's Old Peculier (5.6 per cent), occasionally reach these shores.

As for Black Sheep, just one of its bottled beers, Black Sheep Ale, is regularly imported into New Zealand, although tiny quantities of three other beers - Riggwelter (5.7 per cent), All Creatures (4 per cent) and Monty Python's Holy Grail (4.7 per cent) - also occasionally make the trip. All are well worth trying.

Packaged in the brewery's sturdy brown 500ml bottles, Black Sheep Ale weighs in at a modest 4.4 per cent ABV and is a classic Yorkshire best bitter.

Amber in colour, it pours with a deep, fluffy, white head and has a nutty, slightly woody aroma. In the mouth the beer is remarkably smooth and firm, very dry, with a nutty maltiness leading to a hint of fruity tartness and a developing, deep, resiny hop finish.

Try it in an English pint glass along with a cold pork pie and if you close your eyes it's easy to picture yourself in a Yorkshire pub.