Richard Croasdale gets very over-excited about one of his brewing heroes
Saturday 11 March 2023
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Haworth high street is about as Yorkshire as it’s possible to get; vertiginously steep, with slick black cobbles narrowly separating jostling, mismatched shops and houses. The kind of street you want to run down in your short trousers, a loaf of Hovis tucked under your arm.
Keen to give us an authentic taste of the countryside at the brewery’s heart, the team at Timothy Taylor’s has kindly put us up at The Fleece, one of its tenanted pubs, about half way up the high street. With traditional flagged floors, its rooms are warm and welcoming on a chilly January evening, the staff super friendly and – of course – the pint of Landlord that appears on the bar is the best I’ve ever had (closely followed by its two friends, enjoyed in short order). Asked if I want any sauce with my fish and chips, I take the earlier advice of a Yorkshire-born colleague and reply “gravy”. This culinary shibboleth seems to go over well, and I’m soon tucking in.
The next day, we’re up and out (after The Fleece’s famed Yorkshire breakfast, naturally) bound for Timothy Taylor’s itself. Despite having enjoyed tremendous growth over the course of its 165-year history – particularly recently – the brewery still occupies the site where it all started, in the town of Keighley, thanks to its position over a famous spring well, from which it draws all its brewing water.
“The brewers here describe it as being like melted snow,” says marketing manager Jane Jenkins, as she shows us round. “It gives that crisp, clean mouthfeel that is so distinctive for Landlord and our beers, because it comes from the Pennines, filtered through layers of Black Rock and limestone. We tried using city water, from the transport depot less than half a mile down the road, just as an experiment. The beer that came out at the end couldn’t have been more different – it just wasn’t Landlord any more.”
Total reliance on such a unique water source has its disadvantages too though, of course, most obviously the fact that the brewery is hemmed in on all sides by the town, confining it to a relatively small site. Consequently, every available space is worked to its limit, crowded with pipelines, conveyors, vessels, and labyrinthine packaging lines.
The result is a setup that looks quite unlike anything else you’ll find in the craft world or even among other traditional breweries. Adding to the wonderful unfamiliarity is Timothy Taylor’s use of traditional Yorkshire Squares, squat, square, open-topped fermentation vessels, into which we can peer and observe the quivering peaks of yeast froth, like a relief of the Himalayas wrought in meringue. These distinctive vessels aren’t just for show; inside, the wort is exposed to the air and periodically circulated with a ‘rouser’, keeping the fermentation vigorous. It’s an unusual environment that is perfectly suited to Timothy Taylor’s fiercely-guarded house yeast strain, and is as much responsible for its beers’ distinctive crisp profile as any individual ingredient.
Such is the reverence in which Landlord in particular is held, that this and every other seemingly insignificant aspect of the brewing process is observed almost as a religious rite, with no corners cut and few concessions to modernity.
Overseeing all of this is head brewer Andy Leman, who we meet in his lab, peering intently at a row of glass flasks filled with beer samples – something I’d genuinely assumed brewers only did for press photoshoots.
“There’s an art to brewing, especially with more tradition beer styles,” he says. “It’s all natural materials, so you need to really understand what’s happening when you brew… We’ve added capacity, but there’s no more automation than when I started 35 years ago.
The brewing is a one-man job, but it’s still very manual in terms of control – it’s more of a skill that way, because you can adjust things mid-process; for example if the run-off needs to be speeded up or slowed down, there’s a valve you can turn by hand.”
This level of understanding comes from training, but also from hard-won experience, and a profound feeling for the raw materials. For example, the day we visit, Andy has taken delivery of the first batch of last year's barley harvest. “We know that it's going to be slightly different from the previous year,” he explains. “It was a dry year, so we expect the grain sizes to be slightly smaller, which will affect how the mill grinds them, which will affect the run-off in the mash tun, so we are still guided by our natural materials.”
The same is true of Timothy Taylor’s hop supply, particularly in years (like this) when sections of the UK’s hop harvest have been hit by environmental problems. Again, in keeping with its historical practices, the brewery uses exclusively whole-leaf British hops – most these days come in pellet form – purchased on contract, rather than ad-hoc. Each autumn, farmers come in with their hops for a kind of beauty parade. Andy sniffs them, rubs them, and uses his decades of experience to select the very best, which are then stacked up in Timothy Taylor’s chilled, environmentally-controlled hop warehouse.
As much as I admire Timothy Taylor’s absolute dedication to the craft, honed over the past 150 years, I’d hate to give the impression it is stuck in time. Brewing moves on and, happily, commercial success brings fresh challenges.
In addition to extra brewing capacity to meet demand outside its home turf, Timothy Taylor’s has dramatically expanded its quality assurance in recent years. We are gowned in sterile white ponchos and disinfected safety boots before we’re allowed anywhere near any brewing kit; the outward signs of a hygiene regime that is now baked into every part and every level of the business. These changes have resulted in the brewery receiving the very highest food safety ratings, and more importantly ensuring that every cask, keg, bottle and can that goes out the door is free of any nasties that could spoil the beer.
“Alongside everything that’s happening inside the brewery, we're doing a real push on quality in our outlets, because with cask beer that’s often where things fall down,” says Jane. “After lockdown, we found a lot of the skilled cellar staff had left the industry. Combine that with less throughput because customer numbers are down, and you’re left with beer not being kept properly or being kept too long, which translates to some fairly underwhelming experiences at the bar.
“So we decided to really invest in quality and training. All of our sales team have been through the Cask Marque training, so they can now do CAT tests [clarity, aroma, taste] when they go into outlets. We’re careful to always do that in the right way, because you never want to undermine a publican who's been looking after Landlord for the last 30 years. We’re just there to help troubleshoot, and usually it's a cellar temperature issue, or other products being stored in the cellar with the cross-contaminating flavours, which are pretty easy fixes.”
The flip side of this push is a celebration of the publican’s skill in delivering a perfect pint. This is doubly relevant to Landlord, whose vigorous secondary fermentation in-cask makes it a notoriously tricky (but rewarding) beast to wrangle in the cellar.
“A lot of our advertising is around celebrating the skill of the landlord,” continues Jane, as we walk. “We’ve also launched our Champion Club, which has been very popular. We hand-pick the membership from outlets that really showcase our beers at their best. Members get various benefits, including automatic entry into a competition where one of the prizes is to brew your own beer here on our pilot kit. They get to spend a day with the brewers, the recipe is theirs, they get their own pump clip, so there’s a lot of pride when they pour it at the bar.”
The final part of our tour takes us deep into the noisy bowels of the brewery, along the cask washing and filling line. As we’re used to visiting more modern craft breweries, where cask is at most an afterthought, Timothy Taylor’s setup seems staggeringly high-tech. Conveyor belts and huge robotic arms do the labour, with the only points of human intervention being a chap doing a manual check using a kind of LED light sabre, and another at the far end of the line, who hammers spiles into the filled casks with a flourish, sealing them for their journey.
At the end of this magnificent Heath Robinson contraption, we find ourselves disgorged into the brewery courtyard along with a steady stream of casks, still somewhat dazed. In many ways, Timothy Taylor’s has been exactly what I’d expected it to be. Yet this doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for a brewery that is clearly sticking to its principles not out of complacency or inertia, but because of a passion for good brewing that remains undimmed 165 years later.
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