Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis
It's 2002 and I'm nineteen years old, my Dad is driving me to Middlesbrough where I'm to begin a three year stint at the University of Teesside studying Music Technology. During my first year I was to be staying in student halls of residence with five other young lads all studying similar creative degrees. We arrive around mid afternoon and after I collect my keys we head to the house, I'm the second resident to arrive, I know this because the first resident was making some weird and wonderful sounds using a Korg MS-2000 synthesiser (which, incidentally I now own) and once my dad had left I went and joined the creator of those sounds, my new house mate Alex. We chat until the wee hours and he tells me how his dad Paul owns and runs a brewery, I was more interested in quantity rather than quality when it came to beer at this point of my life but the beer geek kindling was gradually being laid inside my mind and so I still found this interesting. After university Alex and I remain good friends and both end up taking ourselves to London but as is often the case with friends our lives take different directions and we gradually drift apart.
Fast forward eleven years, bar the last two months and I'm heading to Willesden, it's the first day of my new job which incidentally is in Music Technology distribution so it seems that finally those mountainous tuition fees are finally paying back their dues. Who should be sat at the desk opposite me but Alex who does the marketing at my new place of employment. Alex soon learns that I've become an active beer enthusiast and one day I arrive at work to find a bottle of his family brewery's latest beer All Creatures sitting on my desk. It describes itself at a 'Yorkshire Pale Ale' and is brewed in tribute to Yorkshire's famous fictional veterinary character, James Herriot. It's brewed with the classic British hop trio of Fuggles, Goldings and Bramling Cross which do their thing over a delicate backdrop provided by Maris Otter malt. Maybe this doesn't sound that appealing to a modern beer enthusiast like yourself, it's certainly not what I would normally look for in a beer these days but put into the right context this beer has its place, more on the beer later though, there's more story to tell first.
You've probably guessed from the title of this post that the surname of my friend Alex is Theakston and that his dad is Paul Theakston who founded Black Sheep Brewery in 1992 after Theakston's was purchased by Scottish & Newcastle (now Heineken UK). Paul sensibly decided to locate the new Black Sheep Brewery right next door to the Theakston's brewery in Masham, North Yorkshire and the first Black Sheep was poured in October 1992 which doesn't seem that long ago really despite it feeling like Black Sheep have been around forever, to me at least. To put this in perspective for my American readers Sierra Nevada Pale Ale had already been in existence for twelve years by the time Black Sheep was first brewed but if you held a glass of each in your hand which would you consider the most contemporary and current?
The Black Sheep Brewery is still located in it's original Masham facility although now has a greatly expanded brewing capacity and it is now run by Alex's brothers Rob and Jo so this is still very much a family affair. The most exciting news is that they've just installed a 5 barrel pilot plant and plan to brew some more experimental small batch brews, I for one am looking forward to tasting what they come up with. Black Sheep have weathered some pretty tough times for the UK brewing industry and with the new boom in 'craft' (I've really developed a deep loathing for that word as it divides and beer is about bringing people together) beer there is an incredible amount of new competition for more traditional breweries such as Black Sheep. I'm guilty of propagating this myself, if I walked into a bar and saw Black Sheep on cask and say, Magic Rock Cannonball on keg I'd go for the Cannonball each and every time. I still enjoy a sheep on occasion, for nostalgia's sake, in fact I can remember about two weeks into my university career Paul dropping off a slab for us to enjoy over the weekend that most definitely did not last us the weekend...
Anyway, it's funny how life has a way of bringing these things back around and I'm a firm believer that they happen for a reason... so what did I make of All Creatures pale ale? Well I pour it into a pint glass and a sparkling pale gold beer emerges from the bottle and produces a pleasing fluffy white head. On the nose I get blackberries and nettles, aromas which I would usually associate with the classic British hops used in this brew. These aromas follow through nicely onto the palate and there's a little orange marmalade and a very light, bready malt flavour underpinning the whole thing. The finish is my favourite thing about this beer, there is a sudden intense bitterness which is gone in less than a second leaving your palate dry and refreshed and all importantly ready for the next sip.
I enjoyed this beer, it's the kind of beverage you'd want after a couple of hours spent yomping across the Yorkshire Dales before finally deciding that your legs have had enough and it's time for a pint and a ploughman's. It's not my go to kind of beer but if I wandered into a local North Yorkshire watering whole and had a 'reet thirst on it's probably the sort of thing that I'd be in the mood for. Drinking Black Sheep beers will always generate a certain nostalgia within me and I think it's important for hop obsessives to drink well made, balanced and refreshing beers such as this to remind them that life's not all about massive, over the top flavour, sometimes it's just about a nice pint.