God’s Own County

It has an economy worth £80bn. Its five million inhabitants call it God’s Own Country. Its colloquialisms are virtually impenetrable to strangers. Ireland? Norway? Greece? Singapore? ’Appen as not, it’s Yorkshire.

Absolutely everything in Britain’s largest collection of counties is referred by its natives as “best in’t world” – its landscape, tea, cities, cricketers, puddings, you name it. So it’s probably a good idea to agree that its beer is, too.

But great beer is not just the product of its location, it’s the plant that brews it, the water that supplies it (plentiful in Yorkshire where even deluges are best in’t world) and the vital ingredient, the people who brew it.

Though not a brewer, Yorkshireman Jonathan Manby does speak a language of his own. His is a world of stave, jigger and flogger. Auger and knocker-upper are also everyday names. It’s not some lost tongue, Jonathan is one of only a handful of brewery coopers left in the land, making wooden casks from these tools in various sizes from firkins holding nine gallons to butts rejoicing in 144 gallons of ale made by T&R Theakston, the legendary brewery that produces Old Peculier and Black Bull Bitter.

“This is my computer,” he says, holding up a short stick. “The size I’m making here is between nine gallons one pint and nine gallons two pints. It’s pretty exact – rough, but it works. It’s surprising what you can do with a bit of string and a bent nail.”

It’s little wonder that when Jonathan was being assessed for standard operational procedures as part of ISO 9002 all that the inspectors noted was: “Start off with timber and make a watertight cask.”

“They just missed out the whole lot in the middle,” he says. “When I explained what I was doing, they said, ‘I’m not even going to start writing that.’”

Virtually next door is that other North Yorkshire powerhouse, Black Sheep Brewery, which in 1992 was little more than an empty rat-infested warehouse.

Accelerated investment over the past three years have seen a huge new brewhouse and cask-handling facility assembled across three floors inside the picturesque stone building in Wensleydale. This new facility, running in parallel with the original, has increased capacity to 80,000 barrels and an enviable business with an annual turnover in excess of £10m.

The Black Sheep range – from Best Bitter to Riggwelter – owes its characteristics to people such as the brewer who leans precariously out of an open window, pointing to two copper pipes which are building up a head of steam.

“When that one drips every second and the other one drips intermittently, I know my temperature’s just about right,” he says, heaving himself back in. “It’s what traditional brewing is all about,” he adds, now waving his thumb in the general direction of a flickering clock face.

“And anyway, I don’t trust that gauge.”

Whimsy aside, customers seemingly can’t get enough Black Sheep beers. Its Fanatics Club has more than 3,000 members who catalogue sightings of “Sheepy” delivery wagons and submit photographs of themselves wearing Tshirts at locations from Mount Kilimanjaro to, appropriately, belching geysers in Iceland. Even Pope Benedict XVI comes into the equation. He was presented recently with a bottle of Holy Grail – a particular export success – by Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York.

Article continues in issue 21 of Beers of the World Magazine

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