The story of how Yorkshire brewers Smiths, Theakstons, Black Sheep and Timothy Taylor's perfected their craft over hundreds of years

They have perfected their craft over centuries and have overcome family disputes, faced almost financial ruin and pioneered brewing techniques - while always ensuring there is a tasty tipple for their loyal drinkers.

Simon Theakston, T&R Theakston Ltd's Executive Director
Simon Theakston, T&R Theakston Ltd's Executive Director

Now the stories of four Yorkshire brewing families have been told as part of a new book exploring the contribution made to British brewing by family brewers from the earliest days of commercial brewing through the Industrial Revolution and Victorian innovations, to the advent of the craft beer revolution.

Author Roger Protz has used his decades of experience in the brewing industry to shine a light on the brewers that shaped Britain’s beer scene, and reveals how Yorkshire brewers seem “especially prone to punch-ups”, with fearsome rows affecting the Smiths of Tadcaster in the 19th century and the Theakstons of Masham a century later.

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The story of the Theakstons and the emergence of Black Sheep in the same Yorkshire Dales market town is one that is not unfamiliar to the pages of the Yorkshire Post, but features heavily in the new book.

Simon Theakston, T&R Theakston Ltd's Executive Director

Theakstons was founded in 1827 and remained a small country brewery until the 1970s when production grew heavily as real ale found a new generation of drinkers. But expansion led to financial difficulutes, and 1991 saw Paul Theakston split from the long-established family brewery and form the aptly namedBlack Sheep brewery in an old maltings plant just yards from Theakstons.

“It’s the stuff of which TV soaps are made,” said Protz. “Both sides now say relations are cordial, but I’m told the annual cricket match between the two breweries is not for the faint-hearted and makes bodyline bowling look like rounders.”

“These family brewers are remarkable people. They have overcome daunting problems that would have left ordinary mortals throwing in the towel. Their commitment to brewing good beer is awesome and means our national drink is in good hands for years to come.”

For Simon Theakston, “heritage is everything”.

Author Roger Protz

Now executive director of the company founded by his great, great grandfather founded almost two centuries ago, the fact that Theakstons is still so popular is “proof that we brew beer that people love”, he said, and the loyalty of their costumes keeps them “on the straight and narrow”.

“There is a sense of responsibility, to listen to what our customers have to say, and that allows us to develop new products, now brands and new service - it keeps us relevant.”

It’s “pride and passion”, he said, that keeps him and his brother Nick, Tim and Edwards, brewing.

“I’m the fifth generation - and it's a matter of huge importance to me, and my brothers, that we pass the company on to the next generation in a better shape than we found it,” he said. “It’s almost not a business, but an obligation. Brewing beer is what we do.”

In the book, The Family Brewers of Britain, Protz also explores the history of Timothy Taylor’s in Keighley, which was founded in 1858 and continues to produce more than 80 per cent of its 70,000 barrels in cask form.

Protz, who has written dozens of books about beer and brewing, added: “These Yorkshire breweries represent some of the best of Britain's brewing history and are a credit to Yorkshire. It is a testament to the continuing quality of their beer that they remain relevant and popular in the modern day and continue to meet the demands of today’s consumers.

“Our family brewers are often overlooked flag bearers for real ale and have fascinating stories to tell. These breweries have centuries of fascinating history under their belts, and it was a delight to research and compile their stories in this book.”

The history of Samuel Smith’s Tadcaster brewery is one of “true Yorkshire grit”, Protz writes.

He tells how the purchase by John Smith of Leeds of a brewery in Tadcaster in 1847 led to a split in the family. John left the brewery to his brothers William and Samuel on the proviso they would leave it to their families, but being a bachelor, William arranged for his shares to be left to his sister Sarah Riley, and her children.

They changed their name to Riley-Smith and, with William, built a new brewery next to the old one and took all the brewing equipment with them.

Samuel Smith III inherited an empty shell with no trade - but had the last laugh. After buying a brewing kit he began to supply local pubs, and it remains a staunchly independent brewery while John Smith’s has had the misfortune to be bought three times: by Courage, then Scottish and Newcastle and finally Heineken UK.

The Family Brewers of Britain is published by CAMRA and available at its online shop.


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James Mitchinson