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  • JULIE WHITE

The Visitor Centre today is ... Black Sheep Brewery

A maverick brewery, with a true independent spirit, fighting for survival.

It is a bittersweet guide from me today, as it has just been announced that Black Sheep, one of the country's most famous brewers, has gone into administration. It is such a shame as I visited them just last month and really enjoyed my experience and their beer. Black Sheep Brewery has a great range of products, a compelling brand story, a retail space selling quality merchandise, friendly, welcoming and knowledgeable employees, all based in a flagship brewery offering tours, a lively bar and restaurant. So, I write this with a heavy heart, hoping that there is a positive outcome for the brewery and its employees, and encourage you to check out their brewery experiences and products, while you still can.


The COVID-19 pandemic and rising costs have had a significant impact on the beer industry in the UK, particularly on small and independent breweries such as Black Sheep.

One of the biggest impacts of the pandemic was the closure of pubs and restaurants for extended periods, which resulted in a significant decline in the demand for beer. Breweries lost on average 80% of their business overnight and the most affected were those that relied heavily on the hospitality industry. But for breweries, the end of restrictions was not the end of their woes.


The war in Ukraine, dubbed the “granary of Europe” and the fifth biggest barley producer in the world, has resulted in limited exports of grain. Add that to the sanctions on Russian aluminium and gas imports, climate change, rising fuel costs and the huge hike in the cost of energy, glass, paper, and other raw materials, beer production is now not easy and, increasingly, not always profitable.


And, to make matters worse, there is a global cost of living crisis, with inflation ballooning, which is pushing consumers to make considered purchases and switch to essentials rather than luxuries, or to defer bigger spending entirely. We are all tightening our belts.


Most breweries have had to increase their prices to cover the additional costs of production and small and independent breweries, such as Black Sheep, which are already operating on tight profit margins, are doing everything they can to adapt and survive.


Many breweries in the UK have adapted to the changing circumstances by pivoting their business models to focus on direct-to-consumer sales through online channels. Some have relied on trade brought through the doors of their visitor experiences, tours and events businesses. Many have brewpubs and restaurants, though there is a huge issue with the lack of quality hospitality workers, exacerbated by Brexit. Some have collaborated with other breweries or diversified their product lines to include other alcoholic beverages, such as cider or gin.


The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), the UK’s leading consumer organisation for beer drinkers, reports a dire situation, with thousands of businesses, including breweries and community pubs, under threat and in significant financial distress.


“Nearly 400 pubs closed for good in 2022 in England and Wales and the number of them in the UK has fallen 25 per cent since 2000. The UK also lost 160 active breweries during the pandemic and in 2022 80 small independent breweries closed for good.” (CAMRA)


Overall, the beer industry in the UK is facing a challenging period and we could be faced with losing some true legends of the beer world.


The brand history

Black Sheep Brewery is a family-owned brewery business, located in the delightful small town of Masham, North Yorkshire, England. They operate not just a brewery and tour experience, but four dedicated pubs in York and Leeds. The area has been home to breweries for centuries, since the days that the monks inhabited the abbeys dotted around the Yorkshire Dales, who made beer from the waters of Wensleydale and barley from fields in the Vale of York.

Black Sheep was founded in 1992 by Paul Theakston, a fifth-generation brewer, who had previously worked for his family's brewing business, T&R Theakston Ltd, based half a mile away in the same town. The Theakston Brewery has a long and storied history that dates back to 1827, but like many family businesses, its history is filled with ups and downs. It's a story of divided loyalties, family power struggles, success and failures and eventually, in the late 1980s, Theakston's was taken over by the brewery giant Scottish and Newcastle (now owned by a consortium of Heineken and Carlsberg) against the will of Paul, who had been running the brewery since the 1960s. The bitter family dispute even took the family to the High Court. Paul walked away from the business, but he was far from done with brewing.

After a year off, the prospect of establishing a pioneering new brewery in his home town, built on traditional values and rescued equipment, excited him. He first had to find suitable premises. A short stroll across Masham from his previous family firm, a contender emerged, in the shape of the former Lightfoot maltings, owned by a local milling company I’Ansons. The maltings were for sale, but there was a catch. Access to the buildings was through land owned by the White Bear pub, owned by rivals Scottish & Newcastle. Paul eventually secured adjacent land which enabled him to build a new entrance and in 1991 he started to ponder what he could produce. He knew that his beer had to have a distinctive Yorkshire flavour and a crisp finish, that could only come from using Yorkshire squares, two-storey fermenting vessels in which fermenting beer rises from the bottom chamber to the top, where some of the yeast is retained. Paul wanted traditional squares made of slate, not steel ones that were making the slate versions redundant, and rescued them from Hardy & Hanson’s brewery in Nottingham, which had been bought by Greene King and was due to close. Another rescue was a cast-iron mash-tun and copper kettle from Hartley's of Cumbria, which was also closing down. Add in some government funding for a few years, and all Paul needed now was a name.


His wife, Sue, hit upon the name, a tongue-in-cheek remark made over breakfast that stuck. She told him that when he produced his beers he would become the 'black sheep of the family.' But, it also references Masham’s history in the wool trade and the surrounding hills filled with black-faced sheep. Growth was rapid, with supermarkets, local on-trade, wholesale and sales to pub chains keeping the accountants happy. But in recent years there were changing fortunes, in the face of the rise in the microbrewery trend and changing consumer habits. It took Paul’s sons, Rob and Jo, to stabilise the brewery and return it to profit, developing a five-barrel micro plant for new beer creation and introducing seasonal ales.

The brewery is best known for its flagship beer, Black Sheep Ale, a traditional English bitter made with a blend of pale and crystal malts and English hops, known for its distinctive taste, which balances the sweetness of the malts with the bitterness of the hops. In addition to Black Sheep Ale, the brewery produces a large range of other beers, including Riggwelter, Holy Grail, and Pathfinder, a variety of seasonal and limited edition beers throughout the year and supplies beer to grocery giants such as Aldi. The brand has picked up international recognition over the years, collecting five medals, including one gold, at the 2022 World Beer Awards.


The brewery offers tours and tastings for visitors, where they can learn about the brewing process and sample some of the brewery's beers. The onsite Black Sheep Brewery Tap & Kitchen serves a variety of food and drink, including Black Sheep Ale and other locally-sourced products.


Based in the countryside, the brand care about sustainability and in April 2022 launched its first carbon-neutral cask beer called Respire. All of their organic brewing waste, as well as the Visitor Centre waste, goes off for anaerobic digestion, to produce bio-gas and renewable fuel, with nothing going to landfill. All of their malt is sourced in the UK, and they take out plastic wherever possible.


The Visitor Centre design

The Black Sheep Brewery was built inside the old maltings and the visitor centre blends the traditional architecture of the brewery's historic buildings with contemporary elements, creating a modern and inviting space for visitors to learn about the brewery's history, brewing process and products. The centre features a tour, tasting areas, a gift shop, a games room, a beer hall and restaurant.

The brand first opened its visitor centre in 1996 and since then rarely had time to shut the doors to update the space. In early 2018, Black Sheep used local tradespeople and several of the brewery’s employees, to carry out renovations that included a new kitchen, a craft keg beer wall, a revamped seating and lounge area and an expansion of the retail area, the Sheepy Shop. Two large, bottle-filled light boxes containing clear Black Sheep bottles were installed as a unique photo backdrop. The mezzanine lounge area was also created and the bistro was refurbished at the same time. The overall vibe is warm, comfortable and relaxed.


Entrance

There is a simple reception desk in the retail space and super friendly staff manning it. The history of the brand is displayed on the wall, alongside the brewing process.

The Tour

The tour is not complicated and lasts an hour. We start with Peter, our guide, telling us the history of the brand, followed by the obligatory welcome film, featuring Paul and Rob Theakston, really emphasising that this is a family-run business. The film worked a treat and is short and emotive.

Our guide rattled through the history and background of the brewery and the family disagreement in great detail, which could have been slowed down a little, to allow the details to resonate a little deeper. I'm not sure how many heard or understood every detail, as the space is quite large and Peter's lilting accent could have done with a microphone. It's also hard to throw facts at people without visuals and expect them to stick. It got much better when we had something to interact with. Out came some Tupperware boxes.

Peter explained the brewing process and which grains they use and the malting process, done off-site. He passed around the different toasted malts they use so we could taste and smell them.

We also got to touch and smell the hops, which they import from around the world.

Peter then went on to give everyone a breakdown of the products they sell. There is a lot of them, so it took a little while and I was itching to get to see some actual production.

Some of their beers are used on Jet2 airlines, some are brewed in ex-rum casks and there are even beers based on Monty Python sketches and films. We are told that the milk stout is the second highest selling bottled beer they make and then we're told all about the craft beers they make for supermarkets such as Sainsbury's, Morrison and Aldi and how to spot them on the shelves. This first part took half an hour, which was a little too long in my opinion and could have done with less about every variety they make and more on the family story, which is definitely more engaging.


We head off into the production areas, up plenty of stairs. They brew five days a week, except for bank holidays such as Good Friday, which is when we visited, so the brewery was not in production mode. They normally start the first brew at 7 am and then another at lunchtime.


We arrive in the old malting house, with quite an interesting shape, to see the old gravity-fed equipment. The equipment is over 100 years old but still works perfectly. Check out that copper. Someone has been busy polishing.

Peter explains more about the brewing process, but as we have the equipment in front of us, his words have more impact. However, it would have been better if he had referred to the graphic on the wall or made use of a laser pointer to identify the pieces of equipment he was talking about. A simple fix. On production days I hope they use a microphone here.

Off we go through passageways and past pipes.

We pass the stainless steel mash tuns and arrive at the fermentation vessels and thankfully Peter is now wired up to a microphone, though it's still a tad quiet for my liking and I am sure those with hearing difficulties would appreciate a louder volume, due to the ambient noise. We are guided through two rooms full of the aroma of beer making. Delicious.

There are some handy graphics along the way, though we don't have too long to interact with them. Maybe a handout would have been useful. You could have taken that home too.

We see the cask filling area. Bottling is done off-site locally.

We end our tour being shown casks and some historic artefacts. They use stainless steel casks, not wood, and we get to see different sizes of historic barrels and butts. We even get to look at Isinglass, a gelatine-like substance made from the swim bladders of the sturgeon, that is used to clarify the beer.

I do like the door handles made from old casks.

As all tours should, you end up at the bar, where you can sample a range of their beers. There's plenty on offer, so don't worry.

Using tokens from our tour, we chose a flight and started with a Respire, originally launched on Earth Day 2022. It is hopped with Citra and Chinook hops, and is a refreshing session IPA at 4% abv. Then we plumped for their core range Best Bitter, first brewed in 1992, at 3.8%.

Our final choice was the Riggwelter, named after a Yorkshire Dales farming term which has Norse roots, “rygg” meaning “back” and “velte” meaning “overturn”. Sheep are ‘riggwelted’ when they have rolled onto their backs and can’t get up. It is a powerful, dark and full flavoured ale and 5.7% abv.


The Bar & Kitchen

The bar was too full of guests for many decent photographs, and that proves how popular it was. Every table was full and there was standing room only at the bar.

The space is full of warm wood tones and copper. Here are the two glass bottle wall art pieces that were popular with visitors, who used them as backdrops for the obligatory selfies.

The wall is adorned with a poem from award-winning rapper/comedian Jester Jacobs, which highlights the challenges that face the cask beer category. Definitely topical under the circumstances.

The restaurant area was quieter than the bar, but we were too late for lunch and too early for dinner, so it was to be expected.


The Retail Space

The Sheepy Shop is a simple affair, but charming. There is plenty of upcycled furniture on show and comfortable chairs. We found everything to be of great quality and well-priced. You have to wait here for the tours to start, and it is here where the tour ends, so it gives the brand a captive market. It worked for us, as we bought a few items on the way out.

They have a bottle shop area made simply from scaffolding boards and pipes. The Flock Box mixed case was very popular when we visited. We brought a few home with us.

Brewed for the brand's 25th birthday, the limited edition 8.5% abv Legacy 25 is the only beer Black Sheep currently has in 75cl sharing bottles.

The bottled black IPA, Cry Wolf, is a 5% ABV brew that you can also find in Tesco supermarkets. Brewed with black malt, chocolate malt and flaked oats, it is made with North American hops Cascade, Columbus, Citra, and Chinook.

You can also find a premium, small-batch craft lager, 54 Degrees North, a 4.5% ABV premium Helles-style lager named after the line of latitude that passes through Yorkshire and the town of Masham.

For all those Lord of the Rings nerds, Shapeless Malice is a full-bodied and complex stout coming in at a whopping 7.2% and part of the 5 Barrel Project, Black Sheep’s craft brewing arm. The beers are brewed on a 5-barrel pilot kit in limited editions.

There's a range of branded glassware that we found to be very well made and sturdy.

It's not all beer, they also stock their gin, costing £43 and with a blend of 14 botanicals and a dash of malt barley and hops. Their small batch vodka, at £41.50, is single shot distilled in a copper alembic still over an open flame.

But there's more than drink on sale here. The bright retail space has something for everyone.

The store sells a range of clothing, with some great cycling tops, ideal for all those two-wheeled warriors tackling the Dales. They even came with a free pair of socks. The area is known for its scenic and challenging routes, including climbs such as Buttertubs Pass and Fleet Moss, which have been featured in the Tour de France and other professional cycling events.

There is a range of quality ceramics too and this jug certainly took my eye, and the tea towel featuring the brewing process is now proudly displayed in my kitchen.

There are also books from local literary legends such as James Herriot. The TV series All Creatures Great and Small, produced by Playground, has global reach and, in the United States, where the show is broadcast on PBS, the first series averaged more than 10 million viewers over its run. I've certainly watched it in Denmark and Japan. It definitely showcases the stunning countryside.


In conclusion

It's not often that you start to write a guide and find events take over, giving what you write more weight and urgency.


When we visited a month ago, we got the impression that the brewery and its bar and grill were thriving. The car park was full, there were plenty of us on the tour and milling around the shop and the bar was packed with locals and tourists alike. This was where the walkers mixed with the youngsters and there was definitely a younger vibe, compared to Theakston's up the road. The whole design was more modern and akin to many quality brewery taprooms and tour experiences we have experienced around the world, especially in the States.


The retail space had a well thought out line of quality products, many with quirky designs and nice graphics, all of which were well priced. They were so well priced that I bought several items, as well as a few cases of beer and even told the staff member that the prices were a tad cheap, much to his surprise. Compared to Theakston's though, and other tours we have done, their prices could easily have been increased by the odd pound here and there and no one would have noticed or complained. You pay for quality. I have a very nice throw adorning one of my sofas at home thanks to their shop and my son gets to drink their beer to celebrate his birthday in a very nice branded glass.


The tour was informative and although I admit that I would have tweaked it here and there, there was plenty to see. There was nothing that a simple change of emphasis or the addition of a microphone couldn't fix. There was even plenty of scope to make more of the tour and tasting, to target true beer aficionados or other markets, events, weddings, music, beer trails and more. If you consider the impact of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival or the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, on tourism and the local economies, then a beer tourist trail in Yorkshire and beyond could have been designed to support these struggling independent breweries, driving trade to them and their wider communities. It's not just a brewery that you lose when one closes, it's jobs and wages and people. in what are often rural areas or places where other industries have declined.


So it came as quite a shock when we saw in the news that the brewery had gone into administration.


This is a venue of some regard, well known to tourists in the UK. and Masham is a real beer destination, surrounded by the beauty of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. It's a walker's paradise and with a few notable attractions so close by, the visitor centre will be a huge loss to the community and beyond if it has to close.


If a buyer is found, then I am not sure how involved the family will remain to be, which is a true shame. They went out on a limb, and as one black sheep to another, I know how hard that can be. The brewery exudes a family-owned spirit and you get swept up in the comforting ambience and true Yorkshire welcome.


I wish them well and really encourage you to visit them if you can.


How long was the visit?

We got stuck in tailbacks on the M6 motorway on the day we were supposed to visit the brewery, so we missed our tour slot. We did arrive 20 minutes late, and although we couldn't take part in the tour that day, we were booked onto one the following afternoon. That gave us some free time, so we stayed for a few drinks in the bar on our initial visit and did a bit of shopping in the Sheepy Shop. The following afternoon our tour and tasting lasted for over 2 hours and we only left as we had another drive to do, to Harrogate for an overnight stay there. There's enough to do here after the tour, with a games room and a bar and grill, so you could easily spend much longer.


How much are tickets?

We paid for our own tickets and this was not part of any advertising.


It is always worth checking with the venue as prices can vary throughout the year.

Adults: £12

Seniors and students: £10

Children: £5.50


Opening times

It's always worth checking with the venue for their current opening times, as they can vary. There are different opening times for tours and for the brewpub and shop. We visited on a Friday in April 2023, when they were open 12 pm to 10 pm.


 

Where we stayed:

We were on a 3 day Easter weekend road trip through Yorkshire and the Dales, and stayed in Masham itself, as it had not just the Black Sheep Brewery, but the Theakston's Brewery too, and we planned to visit both. It's great to have experiences within walking distance and both were only a five-minute walk from the hotel.

We stayed in an 18th-century Georgian inn, the King’s Head Hotel, situated directly on Yorkshire’s largest market square, but in easy reach of the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

We slept in a twin room, chosen as I liked the beams and needed a quiet room. They offer 27 en-suite bedrooms and are dog friendly. Our room was situated in the rear of the hotel, in converted barn-style buildings, and was very quiet.

We had dinner and breakfast in the hotel and received a very warm Yorkshire welcome. The members of staff were extremely friendly and the food was pretty good too.


Getting here:

Masham is a great base, with all the beauty of the Yorkshire Dales on the doorstep, and only a 20 minute drive from the A1. Harrogate and Darlington are only 40 minutes drive away while York, Leeds, Newcastle and Teesside are all about an hour by car.

The nearest train stations are Northallerton and Thirsk. Public bus routes stopping at Masham include the 138 from Ripon, 159 Ripon to Richmond and 144 Bedale to Masham buses.


What else is there to see close by:

Wensleydale Creamery in Hawes is home to Yorkshire Wensleydale cheese and is a 45 minute drive from Black Sheep Brewery. It uses traditional methods to handcraft award-winning cheese, yoghurt and butter, using milk from local farms, and also has a thriving visitor centre, a guide to which we will soon publish on this site.


York is an hour by car from the brewery and is one of my favourite cities in the UK. It has numerous attractions, such as a horse racing course, a chocolate factory tour, York Minster (one of the world’s most magnificent cathedrals) and lots of Roman history displayed in places like the Jorvik Centre. It is well worth spending a few days in the city to soak up the history and atmosphere.

There are two ruined Cistercian abbeys close by, Jervaulx Abbey and Fountains Abbey. The latter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also includes a Georgian water garden with elegant ornamental lakes, canals, temples and cascades.


You could try tractor driving at Farm Adventure Yorkshire or take the kids to the small theme park Lightwater Valley.


But the best thing to do by far, is to grab your walking shoes or your bike and get out into the stunning Dales. You'll never be disappointed.



Visited: April 2023

Photographs: ©Julie White unless noted otherwise


Disclaimer - The views and opinions expressed are solely my own. I paid for the tours in full and any comments reflect my personal experiences on that day. Please drink responsibly. Please visit and garner your own thoughts and feel free to research the brand and the visitor centre in question.



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