Theakston's brewery comes home

By Roger Protz

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Theakston Beer Simon theakston

Protz: welcomes Theakston's back home
Protz: welcomes Theakston's back home
Success can be a doubled-edged sword in the brewing industry, says Roger Protz. If you get too big and your beers achieve acclaim, there's always...

Success can be a doubled-edged sword in the brewing industry, says Roger Protz.

If you get too big and your beers achieve acclaim, there's always the lurking risk of takeover. All too often, takeovers lead to brewery closures and the neutering of once fine, independent brands.

T&R Theakston is a classic case. In 30 years of turmoil, the brewery in the Yorkshire Dales market town of Masham managed to survive. But the biggest brand, Best Bitter, had to be rescued from the clumsy hands of accountants and marketing departments run by a giant national brewer.

The cask-beer revival in the 1970s thanks to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) turned the spotlight on regional and family brewers who had stayed true to the holy grail

and had refused to go down the route of keg beer. If there was a "first among equals" in the family brewery sector it was undoubtedly Theakston's, best known for its potent dark beer, Old Peculier.

Theakston's, founded in 1827, faced a problem common to many small brewers in the 1970s: it struggled to meet the demand for its beers as CAMRA created enormous interest in real ale. In spite of the international acclaim for Old Peculier, Theakston's Best was the main brand and the Masham plant couldn't cope with the rising volumes.

In 1974, when the Government sold off the state-owned Carlisle Brewery, in Cumbria, Theakston's bought the site and moved production of Best Bitter there. But Carlisle stretched Theakston's finances to the limit and the family looked around for fresh investment. It came from the large Blackburn brewing group, Matthew Brown, which took a controlling interest in the Masham company.

Cracks in united front

Simon Theakston, who joined the family brewery in 1981, went to work as an area manager for Brown, but cracks were beginning to appear in the Theakston family's united front as some queried the path the brewery was taking.

They were proved right. In the manner of big breweries, Brown started to rationalise production. It closed Carlisle and transferred Theakston's Best to its subsidiary plant in Workington, also in Cumbria.

The game of pass the parcel took on a decisive twist in 1987 when Scottish & Newcastle (S&N) bought Matthew Brown. S&N proved its lack of interest in the Brown beers by closing both Blackburn and Workington. The national combine had seen the sales graphs for Theakston Best and it wanted that successful cask ale in its portfolio.

You might have expected an intelligent company, which knew the importance cask-beer drinkers attached to the authenticity of brands, to invest in and expand Masham. But S&N, with stunning insensitivity, took Best Bitter off to its Tyneside factory, best known for Newcastle Brown Ale.

The cracks in the Theakston family broadened to the size of the Grand Canyon. Paul, Simon's cousin, jumped ship, licked his wounds for a few years and then returned with a rival brewery in Masham, Black Sheep. Meanwhile, S&N had done little to improve the credibility of Theakston's Best. In 1995, it reduced the strength from 3.8% ABV to 3.5% ABV, which saved a small fortune on duty, but did little for the beer's standing with consumers.

Then at last came salvation. In 2003, S&N's waning interest in cask beer allowed Simon Theakston and his brothers Edward, Nick and Tim to buy the brewery back. The company was once again independent and family-controlled.

But there was much to be done to revive both the brewery's fortunes and its good name. Production of Best Bitter moved temporarily to John Smith's in Tadcaster, but the aim was bring it back home as fast as possible. That aim has been achieved and the marvellously drinkable beer, a superb balance of juicy malt and tart hops, has been restored to its proper strength of 3.8% ABV.

The brewery has had the investment it had been crying out for since the 1970s. New fermenters and conditioning tanks have been added and the regular brands — Mild, Best, XB, Black Bull and Old Peculier — have been joined by a number of seasonal brews. Theakston's doesn't reveal production figures, but, as it doesn't qualify for progressive beer duty, it's comfortably making more than 40,000 barrels a year. The site, with a centre that includes a cooper's shop where Jonathan Manby still fashions casks from oak, attracts as many as 12,000 visitors a year.

The White Bear

Theakston's is busy in the world of art and literature. It supports the Swaledale Arts Festival while the annual crime writers' convention in Harrogate is sponsored by Old Peculier. It's been attended by such leading practitioners of the dark arts as Colin Dexter, Val McDermid and Ian Rankin.

The brewery is now a freetrade company, but it owns one pub that is an important flag-bearer in Masham. The White Bear, when it was owned by S&N had, Simon Theakston says, lost its way to such an extent that the national brewer planned to turn it into holiday cottages. Fortunately, the brothers were able to buy it back. They closed it for four months and spent £1.5m on a major upgrade. It now has 14 elegant bedrooms, offers excellent food as well as ale and is run by a welcoming and hard-working team led by landlady Sue Thomas,

As I ate breakfast in the White Bear's comfortable restaurant, Louis Armstrong favourites were playing quietly in the background. How fitting. "Well hello, Theakston's, it's so good to have you back where you belong."

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