Leader of the flock
Richard Croasdale shares his ‘first craft beer’ story
Saturday 08 May 2021
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Everyone has their ‘first craft beer’ story, but after five years editing Ferment, I’m finally getting to tell mine. The year is 2003, and I’m on a walking holiday in the Yorkshire Dales with my pal Dan Elkington (hi Dan); I’ve brought a premium lager and Dan has bought a cloth cap and some bottles of an ‘old man beer’, which he’s inexplicably keen for me to try.
The beer has been cooling in a stream by our tents, and, after a long day of walking, the first sip of that Black Sheep Ale is… transcendental. There’s a sweet, soft wash of malt, tickling effervescence and then a lingering, dry bitterness that has me reaching for another mouthful before I’m even aware of it. I’m into my second bottle by the time the tinned sausages and beans are warmed up, and my career as a financial journalist is - although I don’t realise it immediately - quite doomed.
18 years later, I’m exchanging pleasantries with the man responsible for that beer. On the way back from our walk across the moors, Jo Theakston and I quite by chance run into his father Paul, who left his family brewery T&R Theakstons in 1988 to set up Black Sheep, and who is today out in Masham walking his dogs. I try to tell him the story about Dan, but as I’m speaking I realise it’s something he probably hears an awful lot. He’s very gracious about it though.
The brewery itself occupies the old maltings building previously belonging to Theakstons’ arch rival, which it later acquired. After leaving the family business, Paul bought the former maltings from Theakstons to set up Black Sheep, although the other half of the building - which originally housed the rival’s brewhouse - still belongs to Theakstons. Clear? Well, welcome to Masham.
Even on the spectrum of old brewery buildings, Black Sheep’s home is enchanting. It twists and turns through old wooden ladders, levels and mezzanines until you’re no longer sure which way you’re facing. The kettle is a beautiful patinated copper dome, reaching up to a steeply pitched, almost spire-like wooden roof, which is blackened by the maltings’ kiln fire. Up another twist and you’re looking down on the traditional Yorkshire Stone Square fermentation vessels (on which more later). Follow Jo through this doorway and up that set of steps and you’re in the crowded loft, where relics of the maltings’ former occupants lay gathering dust amid the industrious hum and clatter of the brewery below (“Dad’s a hoarder”).
This place isn’t just part of Jo’s family, it’s part of him; he helped build it at 16, alongside his elder brother Rob, now the brewery’s managing director. “Every moment outside of school was spent here, building something or cleaning something,” he says. “In the old days we’d have to take our shirts off and jump in the mash tun to dig out the mash. We’ve got these blades that push it out now, which is much better really.”
Some things though, are not improved by modern techniques, and Black Sheep is now almost unique in using traditional Yorkshire Stone Squares for its brewing. These distinctive square stone platforms – made of two-inch thick Welsh slate – which sit on top of the fermenters aren’t just for show, but make a material difference to the character of the beer, Jo explains.
“Three of these were salvaged from old breweries, the other we’ve built, but they’re all to exactly the same proportions - that’s very important. They were originally built like this to make it easier for brewers to take the yeast off the top. But because it has a deck on it, it cuts off the oxygen, which you need for good fermentation. So you’ll notice there’s a nozzle that rouses it every few hours; it pulls the beer on the bottom and sprays over the top. That extra oxygenation gives you really robust fermentation, which leads to that characteristic flavour, that dry, crisp bitterness that you associate with this specific style of beer.
“They’re also a bloody nightmare to clean of course… all those corners.”
As a relatively new brewery, albeit with deep roots, I’m curious whether Jo and the rest of the team feel any itch to move forward with more modern beer styles and trends. I’m aware of the lager that it launched a few years ago, which was a pleasingly dry affair with good, biscuity malt and herbal bitterness, but Jo confirms there’s always experimentation going on with limited releases and seasonals. “It’s honestly amazing what you can get out of a Yorkshire square,” he says.
There’s also a new bottling line currently being installed, which will allow Black Sheep to do bottle, keg and cask all under one roof, and which Jo sees as being increasingly key to the brewery’s future.
“We’ve never wanted to let anything out of the brewery that wasn’t perfect, so our Best Bitter for example has only ever been available in cask,” he says. “Well, obviously there hasn’t been any cask over lockdown, so the only way we’ve been able to sell Best Bitter is in bottle, and we’re so pleased with how that came out. We only started with a small batch, but it sold out immediately and everyone loved it.”
The brewery has even started distilling its own range of craft gins, ranging from a straight up London Dry style (though, Yorkshire Dry, of course) to a beer lover-friendly Chocolate Malt Barley gin, with more varieties on the cards.
We’re sad to bid Jo goodbye, but Yorkshire’s a big place and we’ve only a few short days to cover an awful lot of ground. We do promise to return in the summer though, when the brewery and pubs are back open, to share a pint of traditionally brewed Yorkshire ale with as many Theakstons as we can round up. I believe 2003 Richard would be satisfied.
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