HIS IS probably the most famous surname in Yorkshire Brewing, and Simon Theakston still admits to a small sense of pride when he sees his beer being drunk in pubs across the county.
Yet when we met at his Masham brewery recently he seemed reluctant to talk about the divisions which saw one branch of the family set up the town’s Black Sheep brewery in direct competition.
He prefers to let those bygones remain so, and talks instead about the importance of bringing Theakston’s back into family ownership after two decades under outside control. And besides, the recent turbulent history is only a small part of the story: “The brewery is celebrating its 185th anniversary this year, and there have been plenty of ups and downs in that time.”
Having first worked for the Financial Times and for Guinness, Simon joined the brewery in 1981 just a few years before it slipped out of family ownership – first to Lancashire brewer Matthew Brown who were then swallowed whole by the giant Scottish and Newcastle: “They just wanted the Theakston name,” he says.
By 1995, S&N’s focus changed following their purchase of the John Smith and Courage brands. Simon soon joined the much smaller Edinburgh concern Caledonian, helping develop Deuchars into the nationally-known ale it is today.
But he remained keen to wrest back control of his family heritage and along with his brothers and a colleague, hatched a plot to buy the brewery back. In October 2003 those plans finally came to fruition, along with a deal to keep Theakston beers in S&N pubs: “What’s lovely is that our father lived long enough to see it come back into our control.” One of the first people he called with the news was his cousin Paul, boss of Black Sheep.
These past nine years have seen a comprehensive programme of renovation, refurbishment and expansion. “We’ve really invested in the brewery which now has three times the capacity of before.”
Yet much here is determinedly traditional, based on the “tower brewery” system, where the process starts in the top of the building, gravity bringing the liquid gradually down to ground floor through its various brewing stages. An engine used to hoist the raw materials to the top of the building was installed in 1913, “we replace the belts every 40 years,” says Simon. The mash tun – the very start of the brewing process – dates back to 1875. “All of our beers go through this, it will outlive all of us.”
One copper vessel is a relatively new addition, having been installed in 1936: “Mind you, it was second hand then,” says Simon.
I also meet Jonathan Manby, 17 years a cooper at Theakston’s and the last to have served a barrel-making apprenticeship anywhere in Britain. In his dark and dusty workshop, stacked with mighty blocks of oak, he is making 36-pint wooden casks for Christmas. It’s amazing to watch.
Through this commitment both to tradition and to expansion, Theakston’s has become the second largest family brewery in Britain, behind only Kent’s Shepherd Neame, and while Yorkshire remains his heartland, Simon is determined to sell his beers much further afield.
“We’re really starting again to look overseas,” he says. “The USA is our biggest market, but we are really seeing signs of interest from new markets like Russia, China and Brazil. Old Peculier is our flagship export beer, but importers have begun to ask what else we have.”
One new beer on the Theakston roster has come about through a very happy accident. “I started getting emails last December from people asking where they could buy Theakston’s Christmas Ale, but we had never sold one.”
It turned out that US crime series NCIS had closed their festive episode with a character tapping a cask of ale and saying: “This is Theakston’s Christmas Ale, flown all the way from Yorkshire in England, and brewed like it was in Charles Dickens’ time.” Never slow to miss a marketing opportunity, Simon has brewed a special Christmas Ale for 2012!
This joins the brewery’s five regular beers – subtle and sessionable Best Bitter (3.8 per cent ABV), sweet and spicy Black Bull (3.9), golden and summery Lightfoot (4.1), dark and fruity Old Peculier (5.6), strong and cherry-ish Masham Ale (6.5).
To meet demand, brewing starts at 3am daily: “There are people here who get up every morning and think about cask ale,” says Simon. “You can’t help but get swept up by their enthusiasm.
“Our customers – the pubs – want consistency for their consumers. We do everything we can to make sure it’s perfect each time and every one of our beers is checked 100 times before it leaves the brewery.”
He believes the growing popularity of his beers reflects a deeper knowledge of real ale among the general public: “Over the past three or four years, customers have really begun to understand what we mean by cask ale.
“We make things with British raw materials – people like the idea of something grounded in something real. Beer is a gift from the farmers to the cities.”
And though Theakston’s own just one of their own, the excellent White Bear in Masham, Simon is an eloquent supporter of the great British pub. “We hear lots about pub closures, but we have seen far worse times for this, such as in the years after the First World War. What we are seeing now is an adjustment.
“We don’t have shipbuilding, coal mining and the mills any more. Those industries all employed thousands of men who needed refreshment at the end of their working day. So the pub is changing to reflect the needs of its customers. But it’s still the place where you can stand next to a doctor or a dustbinman and sort the world out.
“When you engage with a pint of beer, it’s like holy communion. It’s a solemn contract between me and my customer.”
And Simon sees himself as guardian of 185 years of heritage: “The brewery was founded by my great-great-grandfather. I have come in and done my bit, but I am merely a custodian, the carrier of the Theakston legacy.
“I am so proud to be a part of that.”
Beer of the Week
From its peculiar spelling to the town’s seal of a crimson-clad Roger de Mowbray kneeling in apparent supplication, Theakston Old Peculier is every inch a Yorkshire legend. To taste it is to commune with history.
Its vigorous fermentation means that the brewing process for Old Peculier is one day longer than for the others.
At 5.6 per cent ABV it is a sturdy, full bodied beer, packed with dried fruit tastes and the woody, grainy, almost nutty nature of the malts and caramels in the brew. Some surprising smoky sweetness emerges in a long an interesting aftertaste.