Sisters come back to Yorkshire to help run award-winning family drinks business

Growing up on the family farm, little did sisters Kate Balchin and Jenni Ashwood know they would return as adults to help lead the third generation business through a pandemic and into the future. Catherine Scott reports.

Sisters Jenni Ashwood and Kate Balchin have both come back to work in the family business at Wold Top brewery and the distillery where Yorkshire's first single malt whisky is made near Filey. Picture Tony Johnson

Kate Balchin remembers she and her sister working on their family’s farm during school holidays and at weekends when they were little. “We couldn’t even open our Christmas presents on Christmas Day until we’d picked the vegetables. And when we were older we’d drive the tractors – that was a pretty good childhood.”

Kate, 33, and her sister Jenni Ashwood were born two years apart on the family’s third generation farm high on the Yorkshire Wolds. The siblings’ great grandparents had relocated to Hunmanby Grange on health grounds from industrial West Yorkshire in 1945 and started the mainly arable farm.

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Elder sister Kate was doing GCSEs when her parents Tom and Gill launched Wold Top brewery in 2003 as a diversification project to safeguard the farm for future generations. Both girls recall school holidays mucking in at the brewery, doing everything from painting to working on the (then) antiquated hand bottling line.

Kate and Jenni grew up on the third generation family farm at Hunmanby near Filey . Picture Tony Johnson

In 2005, Kate went to Oxford Brookes to study French and Spanish and in 2007, Jenni began her degree in English Literature and Creative Writing at Warwick. Their holidays were spent helping out at the brewery that was beginning to gain a reputation for the quality of its beers brewed from homegrown barley and chalk-filtered water from the farm’s own boreholes. It was during this time that Tom and Gill saw the future in gluten free beers and launched Against the Grain, after brewing it under licence for The Fine Ale Club.

Kate met her future husband, Alex, at university. “I had planned to do something with my languages,” explains Kate. “But Alex, who was then my boyfriend was applying for the RAF, but he didn’t get to where he wanted to go.”

The couple spent time travelling before heading back to Yorkshire in 2010. “Mum and dad had suggested we could be more involved in the brewery as they really wanted to have some more family involvement,” says Kate.

Alex joined the production team in the family business, while Kate looked after accounts and used her language skills to develop export markets. “We really wanted to start at the bottom and get to know every aspect of the business. We didn’t want people to think that there was any nepotism or ask people to do something we wouldn’t be prepared to do ourselves.”

The next generation: Kate and Jenni's children Beth, Arthur and Tilly spent lockdown together on the farm

In 2010, the pair also set up and still run Agricola Bottling, a specialist beer bottling business, to serve both Wold Top and other, independent brewers.

While Kate headed north after university, Jenni went south first, doing a degree at Warwick University and then getting a place on the graduate scheme at advertising, marketing and PR behemoth, Ogilvy. “I was the opposite to Kate. I was desperate to move to London. I had grown up on a farm in the middle of nowhere and I really wanted to live in a city,” says Jenni.

For four years she worked on brands including Diageo, where she gained experience that was to be more valuable than she appreciated at the time.

Kate and Alex got married in 2013 and held their reception on the farm at the first of many weddings for the farm’s events business, Muddy Souls Events.

Beth and Tilly Balchin in the brewery Picture:

In late 2014, confident in the knowledge that their daughter and son in law had the necessary expertise and ambition to drive the brewery forwards, Tom and Gill handed over the reins to Kate and Alex, so that Tom could concentrate on his next venture: Yorkshire’s first single malt whisky company – the Spirit of Yorkshire.

Jenni, meanwhile had met her future husband, Nick, and had moved to a much smaller agency, Keko where she worked with prestige brands like Bentley. They married, again with a reception at home on the farm, in 2017.

Dad, Tom, meanwhile was following his dream to build a field to bottle whisky distillery, along with his friend of 30 years, David Thompson and their respective wives, Gill and Rebecca. After several years of planning and learning from the experts, Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery was launched in 2016 and the visitor attraction and Pot Still Coffee Shop were opened a year later as the distillery team waited patiently until 2019 when their maturing spirit could legally be marketed as single malt whisky.

Kate had twins Beth and Tilly in 2016, and like the sisters, they enjoy playing on the farm.

Wold Top Brewery saw a massive drop in on trade busines with the closure of pubs during the pandemic but saw a big increase in sales of its bottles Picture: by Chris Manson Visuals

Roll on to autumn 2018. Wold Top, Agricola Bottling and Muddy Souls events were thriving under Kate and Alex’s leadership and Jenni, pregnant with her first child, returned to her roots to head up the marketing at Spirit of Yorkshire and to advise Wold Top on marketing strategy, including inter-company collaborations like barrel-aged beers and joint tours.

They weren’t quite ready to embrace the rural life in Hunmanby and so bought a house in York and commuted. An exciting future for both girls back in thriving family businesses lay ahead, but then the pandemic hit. “On March 23, suddenly 40 per cent of our business was gone,” says Kate. “We had to furlough 11 of our 18 strong close-knit team.”

They worked on an online strategy to keep the business afloat when it lost all of its on-trade business.

“Although we lost the pub trade literally overnight, as we had the bottling plant we saw an increase in the sale of our bottles of beer. We went from selling ten boxes a week to selling 400 boxes. It meant we could keep the brewery open.”

Across at the distillery, tours had to stop and the cafe and shop closed although they did reopen outside. But as well as being a challenge for the business it was a challenge for the sisters personally.

As both had young children and with the nurseries closed, they all moved in together so that they could share looking after the three children and work. “We had a good system depending on the hours we worked,” recalls Jenni.

Three generations of the Mellor family

One of the sisters would do 8am to lunchtime and then they would swap and the other would do lunchtime to teatime. “The cousins absolutely loved spending time together,” says Kate. “It was so interesting watching them being together over such a long period.

“When we moved in Arthur still wasn’t walking and was crawling everywhere, but spending time with his older cousins saw him come on in leaps and bounds. His speech has come on so much.”

You might have thought having all the family under one roof might have had its problems, not at all, say the sisters.

Although they were able to return home in July, Nick and Jenni are now planning to move to the countryside sometime next year.

They both say being in business with family works for them. They admit that business can dominate family gatherings, but there is nothing wrong in that.

Although the pandemic has been a headache for the sisters and their parents, it is Brexit that is at the forefront of their minds. “We export a lot of beer and also whisky on a smaller scale to five or six different European countries,”says Kate. “Brexit has huge implications for our labelling and other areas.”

It looks like 2021 will be a challenge for Kate and Jenni, but one they will no doubt rise to.

Kate and husband Alex Balchin at Wold Top Brewery Picture by Chris Manson Visuals