With Yorkshire’s micro-brewery industry thriving, Phil Penfold meets a man giving craft ale lovers a glimpse behind the scenes.
It was while travelling around Oregon that Mark Stredwick had his Eureka moment. The west coast state is home to numerous micro-breweries and in capital Portland it was possible to hop on a tour to get a glimpse at some of the best in the business. “I wondered if I could get something similar running in the UK,” says the 46-year-old, who was born in Middlesbrough and went to university in Sheffield before heading overseas. “There are hundreds of distillery tours elsewhere in the world, and thousands of organised visits to vineyards, but very few places do the same for micro-breweries.
“I thought long and hard about where I could be based, but kept coming back to York. The city is surrounded by brewers large and small, and Yorkshire as a whole is blessed by so many people making really good craft ales. I decided that I had to get back to the UK, and to get things moving.”
It wasn’t easy. A new licence to drive to ferry his tour passengers around had to be secured, the company had to be registered and he had to get the various breweries on board. Now though, Brewtown tour company is up and running.
“The people on the tours come from all walks of life, male and female, young and old,” says Mark. “When we set out, to help break the ice I’ll ask each of the guests to tell the others about their first visit to a pub. Then I ask them what the last pint they had was – which brewery, and which particular ale. That’s when you start to find out what folk really like, and what their particular tastes are.”
There are various different tours, but we meet at the York Brewery Tap at the railway station. Guests were all introduced to each other and given name badges.
There are a trio of breweries to get to, and each will offer three or four of their best beers, but not as pints – the samples are about a third of a glass each. Mark, who doesn’t drink anything on the tour except a large mug of tea, has made sure that each of them is very different from the others.
The Half Moon Brewery in Ellerton, run by Tony and Jackie Rogers, is based in what was the old village forge, a business that saw the shoeing of the last horse back in 1968. The couple live next door in what was once, appropriately enough, the village pub. Tony’s family have been in the pub trade for generations – he was born and brought up in the Ferry Boat Inn at Thorganby.
“We were both made redundant within six weeks of each other,” says Jackie. “We took that as something of a sign. So, after a lot of discussion, we moved from another house in the village to here, and we gave it all we could give.”
Jackie is enthusiastic about pairing beers with locally sourced food. The cheese is from a local goat herd, the chutney is made by a friend in the village, and the speciality orange chocolate is produced in York. And there are little nibbles to illustrate her point.
The next port of call is the Hop Studio, on an industrial estate at Elvington. This is a vast unit of a place, and overseeing operations is 57-year-old Dave Shaw, who previously worked in local government.
“The inspiration for going into brewing came when I was on holiday in Bridport, and every day we’d walk down toward the sea,” he says. “On the way there were some delightful aromas coming from this little building we passed, and it turned out to be a micro-brewery. I thought, ‘I’d love to do that’, I went on a course, and here I am.”
The Hop Studio is larger than Jackie and Tony’s enterprise, and it can deliver 12,000 pints a week to big chains such as Wetherspoons and independents alike. One of its specialities is a delicious strong beer matured in Kentucky Bourbon oak barrels, which Dave recommends serving in a shot glass.
The final stop on the five-hour tour is Ainsty Ales, based at a farm in Acaster Malbis next to rolling fields of wheat. There is a small, and at the moment, experimental take on growing their own hops, as well. The owner here is 40-year-old Andy Herrington, a former marketing man and York police officer, who, after nine years on the force, decided to take not so much of a career turn, as a career swerve.
Andy loves local history, and this is reflected in the name of the brewery – which is inspired by the old York Wapentake, or Norse-Saxon administrative area – and of its beers. Among other outlets, Andy and his small team supply two of the city’s large hotels. “The tourists discovered the beers, loved them and keep on asking for them,” he says.
Each of the three breweries sends its beers to town and communities all over Yorkshire, but hardly anywhere over the county boundaries.
And so, it’s back into the vehicle, and everyone is dropped off at the York Tap, where there is a collective decision to have another pint.
“The funny thing is, until today I really wasn’t that keen on beer,” says Debbie, who has been on the tour with her husband. “But it’s been tremendous fun and it’s been educational in the nicest of ways.”
With that she is off to the bar, where she orders… a lager. “I know,” she admits, a little shamefaced. “I’m starting to enjoy beer – but it’s hard to break the habits of a lifetime!”
For more details visit brewtowntours.co.uk or call 07738 623862.