God’s Own County
Yorkshire is a county which boasts a larger population than the whole of Scotland, New Zealand or Ireland. It contains three of the ten largest cities in the UK – Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford, as well as a number of other major towns and cities. It’s also the home (according to the latest CAMRA Good Beer Guide) to an astonishing 144 breweries (probably more at the time of going to print).
Now, being Yorkshire born and bred, it may be that I have a particular bias towards beers brewed in the region. But as a Beer Sommelier, I try to remain impartial to regional favouritism and personal preference. But the more I travel with work, the more frequently I get asked the question: why do so many great beers come from Yorkshire? And how they have stood the test of time?
I genuinely didn’t know the answer, other than to waffle vaguely about the softness of the water. Researching this article, I felt quite humbled by the responses from various brewers and became acutely aware of how little I knew of my own county’s long association with beer and why so many great brands have survived well into the 21st century. What makes Yorkshire beer so great?
First of all came a history lesson. Simon Theakston, Executive Director at the beautifully picturesque T&R Theakston brewery in Masham, North Yorkshire, eloquently explained the history of how the brewing industry flourished in the county, along with a geography tutorial.
“It has its roots in history of the British Brewing Industry and relates to the cost of production and the duty tax rates. The key to it was the ability to source hops.
“Hops were first introduced into the UK from continental Europe in the late middle ages where ideal growing conditions for an abundance of hops combined with the blandness of flavour created from lager yeast meant that continental lagers had to contain a high proportion of hops in order to have any character.
“British ale traditionally contained no hops and the incentive to brew with hops was that by doing so a brewer would not need to brew ale to a very high gravity because the hops provided an abundance of flavour in addition to acting as an antioxidant. Thus, in the absence of alcohol they provided an acceptable product at a lower duty price - and were therefore more profitable.
“Beers in the south became noted for their very hoppy and flowery content and typically a lower ABV of around 3.4% ABV. In contrast however, in northern Britain, where hops were very much harder to source, the only possible way of sustaining quality was by brewing to a higher alcohol content, as alcohol acts as a preservative. So plenty of barley was required, and indeed grown.
“Typically therefore, ale from the northern parts of Britain tended to be more malty and alcoholic. If one were to assume that the central belt of Scotland was the northern most limit of the most populated parts of the UK and then draw a line half way across the country between the central belt and the south coast of England, one would have a line which today is nicely represented today by the M62, the corridor from east to west of England straight through the heartland of Yorkshire (and Lancashire).
“This is where historical beer production became the half-way house in style to the north and the south, the perfect balance between malted barley and hops”
Phil Saltonstall, owner and brewer at one of Yorkshire’s newer breweries, Brass Castle in Malton, put this in its simplest terms: “The history and geography of hop growing in Britain meant that while southern beers carried too much hop character and Scottish beers carried very little - just enough hops made it North to Yorkshire, where the beers are just right”.
Simon Theakston continues, “Heavy industry in more recent centuries ensured a demand for medium strength ale with a sufficiently subtle hop characteristic to encourage significant personal consumption of ale. Overly hopped ale tires the taste buds too quickly. In the south there were also other competing products for the same purpose, such as wine from the continent, and cider from the West Country”
Tim Dewey, Chief Executive of the renowned Timothy Taylor’s brewery, reinforces this theory. “Yorkshire is an area that was formed on the traditional heavy industries: industries such as mines, mills, and foundries. This was thirst-inducing, relatively low paid work and thousands upon thousands of workers needed their throats clearing, rehydrating and a bit of ‘stress release’ before heading home. Beer, as a nutritional salt replacing elixir, fitted the bill perfectly, so with these hard working souls creating the demand, the breweries supplied in large volume, which led to the creation of so many breweries. With the advent of so many breweries, came competition, and competition forces quality”
So is it all about Yorkshire’s ‘millstone and grit’ background? Surely other counties went through similar industrial upheaval and produced equally great beers for the masses?
Well maybe Yorkshire is lucky in having a valuable resource right on its doorstep: the water quality. Tom Fozard, from Rooster’s Brewery in Harrogate told me: “Soft water is ideal for brewing pale ales and we are fortunate that the seven rivers that run east off the Pennines provide the county with different water profiles, most of which is soft. Famously known for producing bitters, more recently Yorkshire has been producing some of the best pale ales in the world”.
Tim Dewey agrees: “If we turn to Timothy Taylor’s, where does it sit in the brewing landscape? Right in the centre or sweet spot, where the water and therefore the beer’s sweetness and balance push everything towards fantastic beers”
Amongst a county of people renowned for being ‘tight’ with money, its breweries have been adamantly reluctant to cut corners with production techniques and cheaper ingredients. This is a badge of honour for brewers in the county to ‘produce the best beer, not the most beer’, comments Dewey.
So, there’s a grand heritage, great brewing liquor, attention to quality ingredients, but it still doesn’t answer my question. Why is Yorkshire beer world renowned to this day, in a highly competitive industry? What differentiates its breweries from those around the world?
This is where things start getting interesting. A common thread started emerging about the desire to create better beer than any other county or country, a strong streak of competition.
Denzil Vallance (who always delights me with his maverick title of Supreme Overlord of Great Heck Brewery in Selby) put it in no uncertain terms when talking about how great Yorkshire is at brewing beer. “This doesn't happen by accident any more than Australia being good at sports is an accident. We compare what we do with what others do. If it isn't better, we're not happy, so we do something about it until it is.
“A few years ago our Citra beer was very popular, it had just won the Market Town Taverns beer award and everyone was always telling me how great it was. One day I had a pint of a similar beer from a North Eastern brewery and it was better than ours. I had a second pint, subjecting it to analysis, then went back to the brewery and re-did the recipe so that ours was better.
“The Aussies do something similar on the rare occasions they get beaten at cricket”.
Coincidentally, and quite independently, Tom Fozard from Roosters, used the cricket analogy as well… “There is a genuine desire to improve on what already exists – acknowledging tradition and heritage, but continuing to produce the best beer we can, regardless of style. In cricket, they say that if Yorkshire is strong, then England is strong. Perhaps the same can be said for beer?”
So if it’s in Yorkshire’s genes to be better at brewing good quality beers than anyone else, can this be passed on to future generations and sustained? I’ll leave the last word to Phil from Brass Castle: “True or not - the fame of Yorkshire beers has spread worldwide. It's well known that Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn, one of the drivers of the US craft ale revolution, values Yorkshire beer ‘nous’ above any other. He trained under Mark Witty (of Samuel Smiths) from Harrogate, son of Bill Witty (of Big End and later Daleside breweries). Plainly, Yorkshire was at the heart of the US beer renaissance”.
My lesson over, I’m far more well versed in explaining why Yorkshire’s beers are world-renowned.