How the love story between a Dutchman and a Geordie woman led to them setting up Little Valley Brewery near Hebden Bridge

A Dutch farmer’s son, a Geordie girl, two bicycles and a road trip by pedal power from Nepal to Jarrow were the ingredients that brought about a new countryside brewery in West Yorkshire 16 years ago.

Master brewer Wim van der Spek, a dairy farmer’s son from Rotterdam, and Sue Cooper, a former rural development officer for the Yorkshire Rural Community Council, came together for part of Sue’s journey home after she had worked in Nepal for two years.

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Sue said their romance started while cycling, blossomed in Germany and led to the launch of Little Valley Brewery on a former pig farm in Cragg Vale in 2005.

Wim and Sue met while travelling in Asia - neither is from Yorkshire but Sue had studied in Bradford

“I’d mapped out my route home by buying a map of the world from a bookshop in Kathmandu.

“My friend Ashley Hardwell from Leeds Mountaineering Club joined me from Kathmandu to Pakistan but before we set off I met this tall Dutchman with big blond dreadlocks who had just cycled from Holland to Nepal.

“A month later, while we were taking a day off from cycling, Wim appeared at Rajasthan on his way back home. We became a good little group and when Ash had to get a plane home it was just myself and Wim.”

Wim then had to fly home too as he had taken up a six-month appointment with a German brewery and Sue made the rest of her way back on her own but met with Wim again in the brewery in Bavaria where he was contracted.

Wim is a Dutch farmer's son who had worked for major breweries before setting up his own

Sue said the start of his own brewery was in Wim’s mind but that it was still to take another five years.

“Wim finished his contract and came to England. We decided to settle in Hebden Bridge as I’d liked the town and the area having worked here previously and having done a community studies degree at Bradford and Ilkley College. It had and still has a vibe to it.”

Little Valley Brewery began after Wim had initially taken employment at a brewery in Inverness and had spent a couple of years working for McVitie’s.

Sue said Wim’s MSc in food science and his brewing degree had seen him working for various food enterprises and brewers in Holland and then the UK, but that having his own brewery was always his goal.

He brews on Turkey Lodge Farm near Hebden Bridge

“Wim had always wanted to start his own business and he pretty much did everything himself for the first three years.

“I had been working with a community development organisation in Burnley and joined Wim in the business in 2008.

“We have been setting trends in a very understated way ever since Wim started. Our beers are organic and we were vegan friendly before it was cool to be vegan.

“Our water is straight from Yorkshire Water and a little of our malt comes from Muntons on the East Yorkshire coast, but we buy more from Warminster in Wiltshire. Our hops come from all around the world.”

Rather like Wim and Sue’s globetrotting cycling trips the focus at Little Valley Brewery is on the journey and Sue said their proud boast is that they are producing beers “that take you further”.

“To us beer is all about quality, taste and character. We now produce 11 beers with our three main lines being Withens Pale Ale, Python IPA and Tods Blonde.

"Wim brews four times per week and we bottle beers every day. We now have a team of eight and in 2022 we will be creating two new jobs with some new initiatives we have in mind.

“We have always produced more bottled beers than cask. We are roughly around 80 per cent bottled. We sell the bottled beers to a mix of independent stores, wholesalers, restaurants, cafés, visitor attractions and supermarkets such as Morrisons, Co-op, Booths, Tesco and Waitrose.

“We have good regional coverage and a couple of national accounts but our journey also takes our beers to Europe. Prior to Brexit and the Covid lockdowns we had built up our export trade to around 25 per cent of our sale.

“Denmark has been a really good market for us with a little into Holland and France.

“They are all on our doorstep and it was easy to export to them but there’s more red tape now and our proportion of export sales in the business is currently around 15 per cent.”

The pandemic altered many businesses and there were some breweries that capitalised on the online trade, taking up some of the slack that had come from pubs and the rest of the hospitality industry shutting down.

Sue said that Little Valley Brewery’s experience was different to those who were ahead on the social media and online sales.

“Nothing is as it used to be. Covid destroyed our trade overnight. We immediately lost the 20 per cent of our business that was cask trade.

“Our supermarket sales increased dramatically but our online sales didn’t explode and I think we could have capitalised more.

“We increased our online sales but we need to do some more work on that side.”

Wim has maintained his passion for cycling that brought he and Sue together and has cycled to the brewery every day since he started in 2005.

Sue said that their relationship in the business works well.

“I knew nothing about brewing or the brewery industry before joining Wim. My work had always been about working with and in communities.

“Wim is the water to my fire. I do the bits of the business that involve people. Wim does the bits that involve yeast and beer, process, production and, of course, the quality.

“We live on the hill on the other side of the valley to the brewery. Wim has cycled to work every single day and will do until he physically cannot. He is a proper cyclist.

“I’m more of what you might call a journey cyclist, although it was a different kind of way to choose to come home from Nepal.”