Trouble brewing as black beer looks for a tonic

Gavin Davies working on the Mathers Black Beer bottling line at CWF in Huddersfield.  Picture: Tony Johnson
Gavin Davies working on the Mathers Black Beer bottling line at CWF in Huddersfield. Picture: Tony Johnson
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Captain Cook was among its early advocates, but with its future once again under threat, Sarah Freeman reports on the fight to save a Yorkshire tipple.

There are some things which will always remind me of childhood. Friday night fish and chips...cucumber sandwiches – I had early delusions of grandeur and for a while they were the only thing I would eat...Mr Kipling’s Fondant Fancies, which under the rules our house could only be eaten with Sunday tea.

Black Beer is another. My gran was a fan of the syrupy liquor and a bottle always on her sideboard on top of a crochet mat. On Saturday afternoons as she prepared to watch the inevitability of Big Daddy triumphing over Giant Haystacks, like clockwork gran would reach for her Black Beer. She mixed it with lemonade and the result – a kind of adult version of Dandelion and Burdock – would be handed out in small glasses to me and my brother. She swore by its medicinal qualities and while we didn’t really understand what a tonic was, it didn’t matter, it tasted good.

I haven’t thought about it much since. I assumed it must have gone out of production, my gran the last of the drinkers, but then recently I spotted a bottle at my brother’s house. He’d been ill the week before and remembering our gran’s words of wisdom he’d gone out and bought himself a bottle.

I haven’t told him yet, but it seems there are some who don’t hold Black Beer quite so close to their hearts and if those in the Treasury get their way it could spell the end of the Mather’s name and its 100 year history.

Last week, the Government’s brand new Office of Tax Simplification produced a report which suggested scrapping various historic and sometimes bizarre tax reliefs. Normally attempts to cut bureaucracy and red tape are to be applauded, but among the list of 100 or so products which could now be liable for excise duty was Mather’s Black Beer – brewed in West Yorkshire and the only drink of its kind in the world.

The news quickly spread around the Huddersfield factory where twice a year they cook up another batch of the ancient recipe – a heady mix of roasted malt extract, barley syrup and sugar – and the calculators were got out. Mather’s has enjoyed tax relief for years because those responsible for such things agreed with my gran’s belief in its medicinal qualities. If it’s stopped, a bottle which currently costs just over £2 would rise by a £1, a rise that would put its production in jeopardy.

However, at Continental Wine and Foods, the company which bought the brand in the 1990s and moved its production down the road from Leeds, the staff are not ready to throw in the towel just yet. Mather’s Black Beer, which still sells 35,000 bottles a year, has survived various previous attempts to impose crippling duty and the family owned firm is already mustering the troops for this latest battle.

“Going back to the early 20th-century there were various black beer breweries in Yorkshire, but Mather’s is the only one that has survived,” says Vicky Lee, CWF’s marketing manager, who has become reacquainted with the joys of Black Beer and lemonade in recent months. “It’s part of our heritage and needs protecting. It’s high Vitamin C content meant it was popular with mining communities. During the Second World War when rationing was brought in there was a move to stop its production, but because miners were so important to the war effort and needed their supply of Black Beer it was saved.

“In the 1970s when Britain joined the Common Market there was talk of ending its tax relief. Bottles were sent to Brussels and while we are not sure what the Europeans made of it, the petition was successful.”

Black Beer may not have caught on with our Continental neighbours or even spread much beyond Yorkshire, but it does have history on its side. Its origins can be traced back to the mid 16th-century and a drink made from the mashed leaves of the Spruce Pine. A 100 or so years later, and with the addition of a little barley and malt, the story goes that Captain Cook became one of its greatest advocates believing that a large daily dose kept his sailors free from scurvy and setting up a brewery in New Zealand to ensure they had enough supplies for the long journey home.

“We should be proud of heritage brands like Mather’s,” says Vicky. “We all understand the Government has to find ways of raising money, but the amount they would make from taxing Mather’s would be such a small drop in the ocean, yet a big rise for our customers and it could well put supermarkets off from stocking it. Everyone has to be conscious about pricing and when a product suddenly rises by a third, it doesn’t make it particularly attractive. Neat, Black Beer has an eight per cent alcohol volume, but it’s made to be diluted with five parts milk or lemonade which in effect reduces the alcohol volume to just over one per cent. It’s not an alcoholic drink in the traditional sense.”

No one at CWF knows when a decision over Mather’s will be made. It could come in this month’s Budget and with the Office of Tax Simplification keeping tight lipped they know that time may be running out. They are currently looking at how they can make the drink more popular with younger audiences – should Sir Alan Sugar be looking for challenges for his next lot of Apprentices the rebranding of Mather’s would make interesting viewing – and they are also looking to promote the liquor as an essential kitchen cupboard ingredient.

“We’ve sent bottles out to Australia before to people who want to use it in their Christmas pudding mix,” adds Vicky. “A little Mather’s goes a long way and it could easily sit alongside something like Marsala Wine as a cooking ingredient. Products like Wensleydale Cheese have rightly earned protection and we are just asking for a little commonsense to ensure the future of another great Yorkshire product.”

Certainly, if CWF is moved to launch an advertising push, they would have no shortage of glowing testimonies and not just from my gran. Since production moved to Huddersfield they can only remember one complaint.

“I once got a letter from a man who had drunk an entire bottle neat,” says technical manager Steven Swallows. “He wrote to say that he didn’t think the young would or should be able to handle the alcohol content. I had to tell him that he should probably have added a drop of lemonade.”