On the map: Ilkley
Colin Drury's monthly tour of the UK’s lesser-known beer hotspots continues in a spa town on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales
Saturday 11 March 2023
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When The Sunday Times named the West Yorkshire spa town of Ilkley as the UK’s best place to live last year, it was exuberant in its praise.
“A magical combination of convenience, countryside and community,” the newspaper declared, listing the stone houses, busy high street shops, independent theatres and surrounding landscapes as reasons for the town’s top spot.
What (inexcusably) it didn’t mention, however, was that Ilkley – located on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales – happens to be one of the country’s most wonderful little beer utopias.
In this town of just 14,000 people, there are three independent breweries (Ilkley, Wharfedale and Bini), two annual beer festivals, a family-owned bottle shop (Fuggle & Golding) and a whole host of wonderful bars such as Bar T’at and Friends of Ham. Even the cinema here sells locally made craft brews to enjoy with its films.
“If it’s a good tipple you’re after, I’d say there’s nowhere better in the world,” says town mayor Mark Stidworthy. “Historically, the town had a strong brewing tradition, and over the last decade or so that’s really taken off again. It’s something we’re very proud of.”
This beer renaissance was arguably sparked in 2009 when – almost a century after the last brewery closed here – two entrepreneurs opened Ilkley Brewery.
The pair, Stewart Ross and Chris Ives, had been helping organise the town’s then burgeoning beer festival when they got talking about how it was a shame there was no Ilkley drop. “So, they basically set up a brewery to make it,” says Luke Raven, the employer-turned-owner who took over in 2015.
Today, Ilkley Brewery – which began life as a five-barrel kit in a town centre lock-up – produces 50,000 pints a week and employs some 20 people. There is considerable delight in the town that the beer made here is drunk across the planet. Until last year, one of its most popular markets was Russia. “We actually had more beer taps in Moscow pubs than we did in [neighbouring] Leeds,” says Luke, who lives a five-minute walk from the brewery. “There is a real passion for good, western beer out there.”
Ilkley - located on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales - happens to be one of the country's most wonderful little beer utopias
Over its 14-year life span, the brewery has produced some 300 different beers and won multiple awards: its wonderful Mary Jane session pale (named after a character in the famed folk song On Ilkley Moor Baht ’at) has been repeatedly honoured by SIBA.
Yet, perhaps more than that, the enterprise has led the way for others in the town to do something similar.
“I think we’ve all looked at Ilkley and been inspired by them,” says Richard Thackray, founder of the Bini Brew Co which opened in a 19th century industrial building in the town centre in 2020 and which does a blackcurrant gose called Eric The Seagull that is pure chef’s kiss.
“There’s definitely a sense of community [in the beer scene] because, at the end of the day, you’re all passionate about the same thing,” continues the 35-year-old. “There’s a lot of cooperation because if one’s doing well, everyone benefits.”
‘Community’ and ‘cooperation’ appear to be the exact right words, indeed. That’s because, above all else, Ilkley’s growing status as a Yorkshire beer capital may be down to the fact that everyone connected to booze here knows – and often helps – everyone else. As often as not, they have worked, played and drank together.
So, Richard himself regularly DJs at Ilkley Brewery’s monthly tap events, while his Bini co-owner James Rudge previously had a Saturday job at the aforementioned Fuggle & Golding. Both Ilkley and Bini, meanwhile, have permanent taps at the Flying Duck pub – which itself is home to the town’s third brewery, Wharfdale (opened in 2013 by… Stewart Ross and Chris Ives).
There is considerable delight in the town that the beer made here is drunk across the planet
“Local beers fly out,” says Kyle Hamilton, operations manager at the Duck, a converted 18th century, farmhouse (the brewery is in a repurposed barn out back). “That’s partly because there’s a real passion for local here anyway. People want to keep their money in the town. The Ilkley pound, they call it. But it’s also because the beer being made is so good. I would say this but people see Wharfdale and they know it’s going to be quality. And that’s the same with Ilkley and Bini.”
Those beers fly out, too, at the Bar T’at (also named after that song).
This pub (“purveyors of fine craft ale”) is just across the car park from Bini. It means that, on a Monday morning, Richard or James themselves will roll the barrels across. “You can’t get better than that for no food miles,” says Natalie Smith, assistant manager at the bar.
On one especially busy night over Christmas, she recalls, the place was so busy staff started to fear running out of beer. “So, we rang Richard and 15 minutes later he was literally rolling some more across,” she says. “Just being able to do something like that – you know you’re somewhere brilliant.”
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