Long ride to Little Valley

How did a German-trained Dutch brewer and cycling fanatic settle in a corner of Yorkshire? Chris Berry meets Wim van der Spek.

THE Little Valley Brewery made me think of a river valley, perhaps with an old watermill, all very quaint and Constable-like.

Having climbed from Mytholmroyd, off the Hebden Bridge road a delightful smaller road led down to a church at the foot of the valley.

Ten minutes later, and having passed twice through the village, I gave up and resorted to my mobile phone for directions.

Little Valley Brewery may well be little, but it's not in a valley. It is at the top of the hill that overlooks this corner of the county, two miles short of the Yorkshire border.

Up here, where the wind blows hard, a long-distance cycling Dutchman called Wim van der Spek is making a name for himself by producing organic beer.

Wim's story is one of vocation, vacation and romance. Beer has always been one of his great passions.

"During college in Rotterdam I became interested in beer and how it was produced. Some of my school friends and I formed a tasting society.

"I went on to university and studied food science. My university didn't have a course specifically for brewing so I took the nearest thing to it."

Wim spent time with a Dutch brewing family before joining a brewer in Graefelfing, near Munich, to undertake a master brewer's course.

This served him well, but none of it might have turned out as it did if he hadn't taken a year out in his mid-30s and cycled from Holland to Tibet.

"I had always wanted to go to Tibet from being a boy. Being Dutch, where everything is flat, I had always found mountains to be mysterious and exciting.

"It took me four months to get to Tibet, but I particularly enjoyed cycling in a non-western world and found everyone very hospitable."

Thousands of miles from home, love began brewing. A long-term relationship had been sundered before setting off on his expedition, and on the trail he met his partner-to-be.

"Susan had just finished a two-year VSO project in Nepal and had decided to cycle home. I had entered a mountain bike race in Kathmandu and a friend of Susan's had also competed. We met after the race. By coincidence we met up again while visiting a bird sanctuary in Jaipur and the three of us cycled together for a month before going our separate ways."

And that could have been that. "I had arranged to start work again with a brewer in Germany when I came back and Susan visited me for a week, before going back home to Jarrow."

Subsequently, Susan found a job in Burnley and Wim finished his contract in Germany. Wim moved in with her in late 2000, but fairly quickly he was many hours away once again.

"I had always been interested in organic beer and I had found a job with the Black Isle Brewery in Inverness. I spent two years there."

The combined yearning to have his own brewery and the toll of travelling between Burnley and Inverness, led to the eventual decision to start up Little Valley Brewery last year.

"We researched it all and found these premises, which although I was very sceptical of them at first have now proved to be very suitable. I'm now doing what I had wanted to do for the past 15 years."

The buildings, which will house other small companies, were once turkey, chicken and pig sheds. Organic food, whether livestock or arable oriented, has gradually made its mark in the UK, but what about organic beer? Wim is in no doubts. "Real ale is a very big market in this country and the market for organic beers is another niche area. The organic market is growing by about 30 per cent per year, with bottled beers and small brewers' real ales continually on the up.

"Our beers are very clean tasting and we have already become established as regular beers in half a dozen pubs in the area and occasional guest beers in 100 or so more. Our bottled beers are also now available in many outlets too."

Wim uses malt from Warminster and hops from New Zealand, Kent, Belgium and Germany – but the water is from Yorkshire.

"The water here is very suitable, that's why there always used to be so many breweries such as Websters and Whitakers around here."

Picking up on Yorkshire's brewing traditions is another of Wim's passions. "I would love to have 'squares' in the future as some of Yorkshire's brewers once used. They are very useful in the spreading of the yeast."

Nonetheless, Wim and his Little Valley Brewery are already making an impact. Their Yorkshire place-named beers, including Cragg Vale Bitter, Stoodley Stout, Hebden's Wheat (a wheat beer), Tod's Blonde, Moor Ale and Withens IPA have wowed the local beer festival judges and Wim has picked up four awards in a year.

And Wim hasn't lost touch with his beer-tasting friends from college either. "They come over here now. Holland doesn't have as many festivals as we have here in Yorkshire and the rest of the country."

At present, Wim is making 10-20 barrels of beer a week, up in the land of sheep and beef cattle. And yet his thirst for both cycling and brewing remains unquenched.

"The road from the foot of the hill in Mytholmroyd to Cragg Vale is said to be the longest continuous ascending road in the country. It's five and a half miles. I cycle it every day and it takes me 35 minutes. Of course the ride home takes much less time."

It looks like Wim's climb to the top in the brewing world is also well under way, although much-like his Tibet expedition he'll take it steadily.