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Brewery Visit - UK

Masham, North Yorkshire:
Theakston’s Brewery and the Black Bull in Paradise

Friday 6th December 2013

Theakston 1Bob Thompson

I had pre-booked a trip around this famous brewery and turned up at their Visitor Centre which is a shop with all manner of things on sale, on one side of the building and a little lovely pub on the other. This is the Black Bull in Paradise and I will explain the name later in this article. I hope that clarifies the rather ponderous title of this piece.

There were just five people including myself as we were led around the boundaries of the property to the brewery entrance. Before I mention what I saw there, can I give you a history of Theakston's Brewery?

Theakston 2It started in 1827 when Robert Theakston took on the lease of the Black Bull in Silver Street which I believe is the present day Post Office. He brewed beer in the pub and this proved to be popular. So much so, that he constructed an independent brew house at the rear of the pub in 1840.

A bit further up the hill behind the pub was an area named Paradise Fields and he purchased this in 1850. The brewery we know today was eventually completed and opened on that site in 1875.

Theakston 3This was the year Robert Theakston died and the business passed to his two sons, Robert and Thomas. They registered the brewery as a Limited Company in 1905 as T & R Theakston Ltd.

Most of the men in the family served overseas during the Great War and in 1918 three sons of Robert were made Directors of the company. They were Robert, Edwin and Francis. The Lightfoot Brewery, also of Masham, was taken over in 1919 and things continued more or less as before. Yet the buildings of the old Lightfoot Brewery were to play a pivotal part in the later history of brewing in the town.

In 1974 the company acquired the brewery of the Carlisle State Management Scheme in its namesake city. I won't go into too much detail of this early example of nationalisation but it does need some explanation. Carlisle and Gretna were centres of munitions manufacture in the Great War and the workers were well paid with disposable income. They spent it in Carlisle City centre with much excessive drunkenness. In 1917 the Government stepped in and brought the brewing, pubs and beer distribution in the area under its control.

Theakston 4There were 113 pubs then, a year later only a half remained. There were four beer producers: the High, Queen's, New and Old Breweries. Only the later survived with the other three being closed. Model pubs were built and it became illegal to buy a round of drinks and also to buy a whisky chaser. There were no tenanted pubs and the managers were given no incentives to sell beer but were for soft drinks and food. I remember it well as and law wasn't changed until 1970. Breweries and other companies purchased the pubs.

At first it was thought the Carlisle brewery might merge with Jennings of Cockermouth who bought a number of the pubs but this was not to be. During the early 1970s Theakston was getting a very good name for its Best Bitter and Old Peculier, yet could not expand on its existing site, so in 1974 the Carlisle Old Brewery was purchased and production of Best Bitter was transferred there. The other beers remained at Masham. However there were problems as the Old Brewery certainly lived up to its name as the equipment was time expired. It caused a drain on Theakston's resources and they fell into financial difficulties. This was solved, albeit only briefly, when they were taken over by Mathew Brown of Blackburn in 1984.

Theakston 5During 1986 the new parent company closed the Carlisle brewery (it had opened in 1756) and the production of Best Bitter was transferred to Blackburn and along with the Mathew Brown beers, with the remainder of Theakston's beers still brewed at Masham.

However this was not to last, as national brewer Scottish & Newcastle then took over Mathew Brown in 1987 and quickly closed the Blackburn operation. Best Bitter production was then moved to the Tyne Brewery, home of the Newcastle Brown brand. S & N were not interested in Mathew Brown but purchased the company to obtain Theakston, whose beers still remained very popular amongst cask ale drinkers; the Mathew Brown beers were lost.

At first Theakston's beers were supported but then the multi-national company, as it had become, fell out of love with cask ale and pubs. Early in this period Paul Theakston, who was the MD since 1968 and during the two previous takeovers, decided he'd had enough and left the company in 1988 to plan the establishment of his own independent brewery. It took a lot longer for S & N to eventually agree to sell the brewery back to the Theaskston family but it was eventually done in 2003.

Theakston 6The first objective of the newly independent brewery was to increase capacity to enable Best Bitter to be brewed at Masham again. This was achieved in 2005 when the fermentation room was extended and re-equipped. These enabled the potential output to increase three-fold. They now export to many countries including the USA and Canada.

The brewery is of the traditional tower type where the malted barley is hoisted the top of the building and the process then works by gravity downwards.

Theakston 7So, we climbed to the top leaving the sacks of malt on the ground floor where they were stored pending use. At the very top there was a malt crushing mill that is driven by belts on wheels. The primary power was once steam but nowadays is electricity. The mill was constructed by Porteus of Leeds in 1913.

Looking at the sacks on the ground floor the malt comes from Fawcett's of Castleford, West Yorkshire. After crushing the malt falls in to a large red painted upside-down conical vessel. It is then fed to the mash tun for the initial mix.

Theakston 8Almost unbelievably this piece of equipment was installed when the brewery was built in 1875. The wooden-clad vessel is still performs the same function almost 140 years later, quite remarkable!

The lower half of the mash tun is in the floor below so it is an easy transfer to the copper on the same floor. I'm sure most readers of BeerVisits are aware of the brewing process and know this is where the wort from the mash tun is boiled with hops added at various stages. Although the copper looks quite old I don't know exactly when it was built.

After this process the liquid drops to the hop back, made of copper, see photo above right, where the beer partially cools and the spent hops are filtered out before it goes through a modern heat exchanger to one of the square fermentation vessels. Although these were installed in 2005 they are of traditional design and are one of the few existing examples of the "Yorkshire Square" method of beer fermentation. The leading exponent of the system was Tetley's of Leeds but the owning company Carlsberg closed it in 2011 and it was mostly demolished in 2012. They had a mixture of original slate and newer stainless steel vessels. As far as I am aware, the few remaining examples are at Black Sheep, also in Masham, Cameron's of Hartlepool, Co Durham, and Sam Smiths of Tadcaster, North Yorkshire.

Theakston 9The square vessels are quite unusual as there is an upper and a lower section. The beer ferments in the lower section and the yeast in the form of froth created by the process comes through a small opening to the upper level. Over the first three days beer is pumped from the lower section and sprayed through a fan-shaped nozzle onto the top of the yeasty foam.

The system is called rousing because it is used in breweries when the yeast was not working hard enough, hence "to rouse the yeast". Here, traditionally, it is the standard method of working. As the equipment is modern, it is done by using a portable electric pump that moves from vessel to vessel as it is not a continuous process, yet does occur over the first three days of fermentation. There is a further three days of fermentation which is performed in the normal way. They were rousing when I visited but sadly, I was unable to take a photograph, reason not given.

Theakston 10Unfortunately the whole visit took just 25 minutes; I wished we had been given longer to appreciate this historic site. Anyway, despite this disappointment, there was still the Black Bull in Paradise to visit. As mentioned earlier, the first Theakston brewery was at the Black Bull and the brewery we were in was built on Paradise Fields, hence the name.

Although its primary function is to service the visitors to the brewery; you get a voucher for a pint or three thirds, it has a very nice old pub feel.

Theakston 11It is very beautiful looking and very atmospheric with many old and interesting features. It seems quite remarkable that it only came into being during 1983. The building was constructed as stables for the dray horses and after they were phased out it was used for general storage. By the early 1980s it had fallen into disuse so the idea was conceived for it to be a visitor centre, one of the first for a brewery in the UK, and it opened in 1983. The shop sells an amazing range of goods that are very decoratively displayed. I like the outside sign with its depiction of a grumpy-looking black bull with the brewery on a hill in the distance

This leads to the Bull in Paradise, a lovely small bar room with an additional drinking area on a balcony. I don't know if any of the fittings have come from pubs, but the bar and the bar-back are of varnished hard wood with some back mirrors and garlands of tumbling hops; the effect is stunning. There are many prints and paintings on the wall, some of the directors, past and present. One is of the company's former Historian, John Todd, dressed as the Old Peculier. There is an outside seating area with views of the brewery yard.

Theakston 12All of the regular range of beers was on offer plus two seasonal offerings. The normal range is: Best Bitter (3.8%); Black Bull Ale (3.9%); Lightfoot (4.1%); XB (4.5%) and the world famous Old Peculier (5.6%). The two seasonal beers were Christmas Ale (4.7%) and the massive Masham Ale (6.5%).

Best Bitter and XB are two beers I've often had in the past so I passed on them. Four of the remainder I'd never tried before so, using my vouchers first, I had a third each of Black Bull Ale, Christmas Ale and Masham Ale, and this is what I thought.

Black Bull Bitter is a normal bitter that is dryer than the more fruity Best; I liked it considerably. Christmas Ale evoked all the tastes of the season and was a good example of its type. I didn't realise the strength of Masham Ale when I ordered it but it certainly tasted like a 6.5% beer. To my palate I thought it was reminiscent of a German Maibock, being very malty in body with a minor bitter aftertaste.

Theakston 13I then reacquainted myself with Old Peculier, which was especially good. To me it is like having strong brown ale mixed with strong bitter, lovely. Worthy of note is that the brewery is one of a very small number that still employ a cooper and the wooden barrels are mostly filled with Old Peculier for local distribution. My final tasting was Lightfoot which I discovered was a hoppy Golden Ale. I thought it was fantastic; smooth and bitter, just as this modern style should be, but often isn't. So good that it was consumed later at the White Bear (see separate report), Theakston's only other pub. Whilst researching this article I amazed at the vast range of seasonal beers the brewery presents nowadays; no less than sixteen!

The tour offers a wonderful insight into what a Victorian brewery is really about. Should you not be able to do this but are in the area, why not pop in to the Black Bull in Paradise, you won't be disappointed and I doubt if there is a better range of their beers anywhere else.

Important Information:

The Black Bull in Paradise, Masham, North Yorkshire HG4 4YD. Tel: 01765 680000

Open: Monday-Sunday 10.30-16.30, except Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Years Day
Note: Brewery tours may be offered on different days.

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.