How do you raise your spirits on a dreary, rainy day in Yorkshire?
Drinking beer is the obvious answer. The Black Sheep Brewery in Masham runs an entertaining hour-long tour which is the perfect antidote to a lack of Yorkshire sunshine.
Although I visited because it was a ‘rainy day’, it wasn’t long before I’d become a huge fan of the brewery and its craft beers.
Black sheep of the family
The Black Sheep Brewery Tour is a fun way to spend a couple of hours. It starts with a brief talk by the tour guide plus the obligatory film. Both are well done and our entertaining female guide whizzed through the history and background to the brewery with plenty of fun facts.
We found out that Black Sheep is named after Paul Theakston who broke away from the famous Theakston family brewery to create his own distinctive independent company in 1992.
The name ‘Black Sheep’ was the idea of Paul’s wife Sue, who came up with it in the kitchen of their family home.
Twenty five years later, the family have created an impressive business as well as a popular visitor attraction with bistro, shop and guided tour.
Paul Theakston’s vision was to create the pioneering brewery as an antidote to the growth in bland, mass-produced beers.
A true ‘black sheep’ of the family, Paul and his sons have developed a distinctive range of craft beers including cask, keg and bottled varieties.
On the tour, I discovered that beer making is a labour of love and an art involving all the senses.
We were invited to taste the different varieties of barley and smell the pungent hops. One of the barley strains tasted almost like cocoa or chocolate, another was crunchy and malty.
It’s easy to forget how much science goes into selecting the correct barley to obtain the distinctive colour and flavour of the beers. A strain called Maris Otter attracted my attention. It is designed to give maximum flavour and an extra ‘hit’.
Feast for the senses
It’s not long before we’re off on the tour though the brewery which is predictably noisy and steamy. As we move around the brewing rooms, your senses experience the smell, sight and sounds of the beer making process.
Once inside the tank room, we can see why making craft beers is a traditional art with impressive machinery and hi-tech equipment, calibrated to the finest level.
Rather like modern vineyards, the brewer’s attention to detail is staggering, from the copper-clad tanks to the traditional slate Yorkshire squares, a special production process.
I also learn some intriguing facts – how pine is the best wood to clad the cathedral-like interior with because it absorbs steam better than other woods. No doubt, this is the reason it is used in Swedish saunas.
I developed a surprising interest in brewing techniques on the tour. Perhaps this is because we’ve lost touch with so much industrial production in Great Britain as our industries have vanished.
It’s fascinating to watch the production process from start to end, rather than simply buying the finished product in a bottle from a shop.
We find out how the beer is stored, put in barrels and sent for bottling at a specialist plant.
I’m also delighted to discover where many pub names derive from – The Tap and Spile , The Hogshead and The Firkin. The firkin and hogshead are types of brewery cask whilst the spile is the tap from a barrel.
You may think I’ve gone mad at this point but I find all this historic background strangely fascinating.
At the end of the ‘shepherded’ tour, there’s the chance to see the frothy circular tanks full of fermenting yeast and smell the beer in the making. The distinctive ‘nose’ of the fermenting beer is mind-blowing.
After the tour, there’s the best experience of all – tasting the beers in the bar.
There’s no better way to decide which is your favourite tipple than trying out the brewery’s flight of beers with six tasting glasses of Black Sheep ales.
The burning question is which is the best of the bunch? And would we fall over after knocking them back quickly?
The popular Black Sheep Golden Ale is a thirst-quenching and refreshing light beer, ideal for “quaffing”. It’s slightly fruity, dry and with a clean finish.
Another easy drinking beer is the classic Black Sheep Bitter, the first ever brew in the Black Sheep flock of beers. At 3.8% alcohol, this beer is light and moreish, making it easy to forget how much you’re downing. I could drink quite a lot of that!
It’s ideal for ‘session drinking’ – something working men used to do – but today it’s the choice of anyone who enjoys several pints on a Saturday night. Perhaps a bit too much drinking for me then?
It’s also the official beer of the Yorkshire Country Cricket Club although I don’t recommend playing the sport and drinking beer at the same time.
For those who like something slightly stronger there’s the Black Sheep Special Ale, darker in colour, fruitier and with a slightly bitter-sweet aftertaste.
Working my way up the alcohol scale, I was on a roll. My favourite tipple proved to be the Riggwelter, described on the tasting menu as “a powerhouse of a beer with real strength and depth”.
This is definitely not a ‘session beer’ or one for the faint-hearted or amateur drinker. It packs one hell of a punch after more than a pint.
I was amused by the story of how Riggwelter Ale got its name. Riggwelter is a Yorkshire Dales farming term which has Norse roots – “rygg” means “back” whilst “velte” means “to overturn”.
A sheep is ‘riggwelted’ when it has rolled onto its back and can’t get back up without assistance. A bit like anyone drinking more than four pints of this ale!
I loved its slightly sweetish, hoppy flavour with weird coffee undertones and roasted malt flavours. Some folk say they can detect the taste of banana and liquorice, and its complex palate cannot be denied.
At 5.9% alcohol it’s one of the brewery’s stronger beers but even this pales in comparison with Black Sheep’s Imperial Russian Stout which weighs in at a mind-boggling 8.5%.
The Russian Stout was made specially for a huge beer tasting competition in Saint Petersburg. Although it didn’t win, the stout was highly commended and became a firm favourite with UK beer lovers.
The stout uses the traditional ‘Yorkshire Square’ fermenting technique, which visitors can find out about on the brewery tour.
This involves a complex process involving square, slate tanks – which gives extra alcoholic strength and ‘umph’ to the stout.
After the tour, I’d learned a lot about beers and realised that the whole process is more complicated than simply blending together the three key ingredients – hops, barley and water. This is a true craft.
War of the breweries?
But why stop at one brewery tour when you’re in Masham? The town is a mecca for beer lovers with a choice of two brewery visitor attractions.
Down the road there’s the older and highly popular Theakston Brewery and Visitor Centre which also runs brewery tours several times every day.
Theakston’s most famous beer is Old Peculier. You’ll discover how it got its strange name. Apparently, Masham was given to the Minster of York in medieval times. The tale goes that the Archbishop disliked making the arduous journey to oversee the town’s affairs so designated the parish as a Peculier with its own ecclesiastical court, governing its affairs.
The Peculier lives on in the famous Theakston Beer of the same name.
You can compare how the Theakston Brewery beers fare against those of Black Sheep – both have their selling points. The final choice of ‘best brewery’ is yours.
The tours can be surprisingly thirsty work so after the Theakston’s tour, you’ll be invited to have a pint in the brewery tap, warmed by a real fire.
Masham is a beer lovers’ paradise. For a small town built on sheep farming, it’s remarkable that it boasts two internationally renowned breweries making some of the best beers in the world.
The great crystal clear water in the town has made it a world beater in brewing… and Black Sheep continues to innovate and evolve. There’s even a new beer called My Generation, designed for clubbers and the next generation of beer drinkers.
Whatever your taste in beer, what a great way to spend a day out in the Yorkshire Dales. I’ll raise my glass to a return trip.
Tammy’s Top Tips – Masham
The Black Sheep Brewery is located close to the town centre in Masham (pronounced Mass’em), near Leyburn in north Yorkshire. England. Masham lies a few miles from Ripon and is an easy day trip from nearby York.
The brewery is open 10:00-17:00 daily with extended hours on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturday nights when the complex is open till 23:00. Tours take place at set times so check ahead of your visit and book a slot on busy days. I’d advise calling the tour desk on 01765 680101 to book a place before you start your journey.
Ticket prices are £8:50 for adults and concessions for children and students. The ticket includes the price of a flight of beers although non boozers can opt to have a coffee or soft drink if they prefer.
There’s plenty of parking within the brewery complex. If you’re early, pop into the lovely restaurant and bar, or down a pint in the pub next door.
Don’t miss the Black Sheep shop which has a selection of great gifts. I couldn’t stop myself buying up the beers, sheep-themed drinking glasses and a Black Sheep baa… (bar) towel!
If you’re staying in Wensleydale for more than a couple of days, it’s also worth a trip around the original Theakston’s Brewery in Masham. There are six tours daily in August at 11:00,12:00,13:00, 14:00, 15:00 and 16:00, reducing to four in the winter and spring seasons. Book in advance during busy times.
Masham’s town centre is small but worth a quick walking tour. Highlights include the 18th Century Georgian market square, St Mary’s church and Masham market which takes place on Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the year. The traditional Sheep Fair is held every September.
History lovers will enjoy discovering the intriguing story of Masham’s ‘Lost Cemetery’ which is commemorated by a plaque on the front of the tourist information centre.
Back in the 1980s work men discovered 58 human skeletons dating from around 679 and 1011 AD during building work.
The skeletons have been reburied at St Mary’s Churchyard in Masham which lies at the far end of the village’s market square. It is thought that many buildings in the historic centre are built over the early Christian burial ground.
Looking for somewhere to stay? There are plenty of holiday rentals, B & Bs and caravan sites in Wensleydale and Bedale. We stayed at nearby Crakehall Water Mill which has cottages and a small but picturesque RV & caravan site (no hardstandings – grass pitches).