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Brewery Visit - UK

Masham, North Yorkshire:
Black Sheep Brewery and the Black Sheep Bar & Bistro

Friday 6th December 2013

Black Sheep 1Bob Thompson

When I last visited Masham the Black Sheep Brewery was yet to come into being; Theakston's being the only game in town. The story of Black Sheep is inextricably linked to that brewery. The story probably begins when Theakston's obtained the Carlisle Old Brewery in 1974 to boost their capacity as Best Bitter was very popular at the time. However the company got into financial difficulties because of this move and were taken over by Mathew Brown of Blackburn, Lancashire in 1984. They closed the Carlisle operation in 1986 and transferred the brewing of Best Bitter to Blackburn.

Black Sheep 2The real catalyst in the formation of Black Sheep occurred in 1987 when Mathew Brown was taken over by the predatory Scottish & Newcastle Brewery who were after the Theakston name. Very quickly they cynically closed the Blackburn brewery and transferred the production of Theakston Best Bitter to the Tyne Brewery at Newcastle, the home of the insipid Newcastle Brown Ale. All the Mathew Brown Ales were lost.

It was this acquisition by a national brewer that led to the resignation of Paul Theakston in 1988, after twenty years as the Managing Director.

Although he was off the brewing scene he certainly wasn't inactive as from the moment of his resignation he was planning to open his own brewery. The major stumbling block appeared to be the lack of premises as he wanted to remain in Masham.

Black Sheep 3Finally a location was found but it had to remain secret because of its situation. It was the former maltings of the erstwhile Lightfoot Brewery yet there were access problems as there it abutted on to Scottish & Newcastle's White Bear pub. At this time, they were the owners of the Theakston Brewery and the pub and were most unlikely to be co-operative if they knew that the buildings were to be occupied by a rival brewery.

To emphasise the secrecy required, S & N registered the name of Lightfoot Brewery. It was Paul Theakston's first choice of name for his new venture, so someone knew something about his plans. The building was semi-derelict and leased to a grain company, and there was a severe rat infestation. I noticed in an old photograph that the sign on the outside of the building read "The North of England Malt Roasting Company". Whether they were the last occupants of the old maltings is something I have been unable to confirm.

Black Sheep 4The problem of obtaining access was resolved by it being leased by a third party who sub-leased to a fourth party who then permitted the fledgling brewery the necessary permissions to take vehicles and allow pedestrians to get to the building. At least I think that's what happened, as there is still a certain amount of secrecy involved if my researches are anything to go by.

Now that the site was secured it was time to equip it and that was achieved by purchasing materials from various breweries that were closing or re-equipping around the early 1990s. For more details of these please see below.

The Copper, Mash Tun and Hop Back were from Hartley's Brewery, see photograph above right. Three fermentation vessels of the Yorkshire Square type came from Hardy & Hanson's Brewery and another three were from Darley's Brewery. These were acquired by Paul Theakston and Paul Ambler, who was the new brewer.

Here are some brief notes on the three major breweries that provided the plant of the first Black Sheep brewery. Hartley's were established in Ulverston, then in Lancashire, now in Cumbria, in 1755. It was purchased by Frederic Robinson of Stockport, Greater Manchester in 1982 with 54 pubs. They closed it and the last brew was on 8th November 1991.

Black Sheep 5Hardy & Hanson's, of Kimberley, Nottinghamshire, with over 250 pubs, were taken over by Green King of Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, in June 2006. The brewery, which dated from 1861, was closed just three months later. Darley's of Thorne, South Yorkshire were taken over by Vaux of Sunderland back in 1978 along with its 88 pubs. There were founded in 1837 and the brewery rebuilt in 1927. It remained in service until September 1986. Whilst it was being demolished in 1991, Paul was just able to save the vessels from destruction.

Black Sheep 6Having lost the Lightfoot name he looked around for a new title. It was not possible to use his family name in any shape or form because of the existing brewery. As sheep farming was one of the main uses of the land in the Dales and is always associated with the area, he began to think along these lines and his wife came up with the Black Sheep name. It is good because it covers the geographic reference and also the situation in connection with his previous brewery.

All was eventually in place and the brewery opened in October 1992. These were early days but there was always going to be a Visitor Centre on site and room was set aside for this. This eventually opened during May 1996.

Early 2004 saw the beginning of a program to extend the capacity of the brewery. It was completed in October 2006 and meant a 65% increase in the amount of beer produced.

The rebuilding involved creating a new stainless steel brew house (photo second above left) and the (almost) permanent replacement of the old Yorkshire Squares.

The new versions, also in stainless steel, are actually round to facilitate easier cleaning. The vessels have false bottoms in the traditional way and the equipment used to rouse the beer is built-in rather than portable as it is at Theakston's. There are three days of intermittent rousing and the beer is then conditioned in tanks that were also installed during this expansion period. Please see photograph, second above right.

Black Sheep 7Almost unbelievably there is now a third brewery in this building as the company has installed a Pilot brewery for development and research work. And, of course, it is extremely useful for small batch brewing. It is of five barrels capacity, see photo below. It was during the period of expansion that a new cask cleaning and filling line was installed, photograph above right. Paul has two sons working with him nowadays. Rob is his Joint MD and Jo is Off-Trade and Marketing Director.

Black Sheep 8I entered the building via the pedestrian route that is closest to the town although does require one to descend and then ascend. Once inside I realised I was in the office accommodation but a sign directed me up some more steps to the main floor. I was surprised by the size of the room I was in. It was sub divided into several areas. On entering I saw the bar and the tables in front of it I noticed were more for drinkers.

Above the bar was a balcony with more seating. On the left of the bar I noticed the kitchens in a separate room. The main dining area was separated by a small screen. The service was by waiter / waitress and as this was lunchtime there were a number of them scurrying around. I felt it was a bit like a modern continental brew pub. Beyond this there was an extensive office all sorts of gifts and bottled beer.

At the beginning of the brewery tour I, and the other four visitors, were shown a video about the brewery. This area looks over the new brew house with its wood-clad stainless steel Copper and Mash Tun.

After looking at this we were taken to the old brew house with the burnished Copper and wooden-topped Mash Tun from Hartley's. Looking down two floors I could see we were directly above the Pilot brewery where a brewer was working.

Black Sheep 9We were then taken to look down on the cash cleaning and filling plant. The next main room was where the round Yorkshire "Squares" were located. From this elevation they looked just like circular open fermentation vessels of the normal type although the fan shaped nozzles on top of tall pipes were a bit of a give away that there was much more going on underneath. I could see that there were three original vessels in one corner that looked a bit unloved and unused, although I am told they were used for the bottled Christmas beer.

On the way back there was an area described as "The Museum" where there was some old pieces of equipment displayed in an attractive manner, but no museum!

Black Sheep 10
At last, time for a beer! On offer at the bar were the four members of the regular range: Black Sheep Best Bitter (3.9%) the session bitter; Black Sheep Ale (4.4%), a premium bitter; Golden Sheep Ale (3.9%), which is a light golden ale and Black Sheep Riggwelter (5.9%), strong ale. There was a seasonal offering in Ruddy Ram (4.0%), a porter and there was a beer from the micro brewery: Batch #5. I believe this was 4.1% in abv and I thought it was a brilliant beer, being a Golden Pale Ale in the American dry style.

I received three one-third pint tokens and used them on Ruddy Ram, a new beer for me, that I quite liked. Then I had Riggwelter, a beer I had previously seen but not consumed. I would describe it as an Old Ale and it is quite a classic. Saving the best till last, I had the Micro Brewery #5, which I have already described. It was so good I bought another even though I didn't have a lot of time.

So a great place to visit, if only for a beer.

Important Information:

Black Sheep Brewery Bar and Bistro, Wellgarth, Masham, North Yorkshire HG4 4EN
Tel: 01765 680101

Open Sunday to Wednesday 10.00-17.00; Thursday to Saturday 10.00-23.00
Private events may affect the evening opening times.

The small town of Masham is isolated in the Yorkshire Dales but its lifeline comes in the form of the 159 bus. It is a useful but infrequent route that connects Ripon with Masham and then Leyburn and Richmond.
There are only five journeys a day on Monday to Saturday that run about every two hours.
There is a Sunday service of four buses but at infrequent times.