Birth of a brewing icon

There are certain landmarks around Yorkshire that carry more than their fair share of nostalgic baggage. These are places so culturally important that the very air around them seems slightly thicker with ‘concentrated Yorkshireness’.

Tim Dewey, MD of Timothy Taylors
Tim Dewey, MD of Timothy Taylors

The cricket ground at Headingley is one such place. The Shambles in York and the top of Whernside might be others. But one which few who have visited it would dispute is Timothy Taylor’s Knowle Spring Brewery in Keighley.

Founded in 1858, Timothy Taylor’s has been brewing some of Yorkshire’s finest ales ever since – ales which command a following almost as fierce as the county’s football clubs.

True, its clientele has developed a little – in the 1960s its ales were advertised as being “For Men of the North”; nowadays, everyone’s allowed to enjoy them.

Even Madonna admitted her weakness for its iconic Landlord pale ale when she appeared on the Jonathan Ross show in 2003 (during her “English housewife” incarnation).

Even so, such is the company’s tradition of continuity that it came as a surprise to many last year when the family-owned firm did what it had never done before and appointed someone from outside the family as chief executive. Not only that, he wasn’t even a Yorkshireman. More jaw-dropping still, he was an American.

Tim Dewey took over from industry stalwart Charles Dent in 2014 following a headhunting process that had zoomed in on his extensive industry experience.

He had been global marketing director and UK commercial director at Drambuie for the previous four years and before that had been global brand director for Pilsner Urquell at SABMiller, the London-listed South African brewing giant and international marketing director at William Grant & Sons, the family-owned business famous for Glenfiddich whisky.

One thing he’d never done, though, was helm a small northern brewer, and he certainly didn’t know as much about the company’s beers as fellow Michigander Madonna did.

“If I’m honest, when I was approached by the recruitment consultancy I’d never heard of Timothy Taylors,” he says, before turning his former lack of knowledge into a positive.

“I think that’s an interesting insight to bring, because of course people here are so proud of the brand that there’s the assumption that everybody has heard of it,” he says.

“Subsequently, we’ve done some research to actually quantify how many ale-drinkers nationwide have heard of us and how many haven’t. It’s something like 60 per cent awareness, but that still leaves 40 per cent who haven’t heard of Timothy Taylors. And that’s not consumers – that’s ale-drinkers – so it just shows there’s still a long way to go.”

Certainly, having thrown himself into the job, the initial signs are that things are going well. Last year, the company, whose Boltmaker ale was named Champion Beer of Britain, saw pre-tax profits double to £2.4m in the year to September 30.

And that headline figure will keep heading north if Mr Dewey has his way.

“We’re having a very good year. I think because unlike a lot of brewers nationally we focus on value rather than volume. I think one of the challenges in the ale industry, and in the beer industry more generally, is that it’s very volume-oriented – ‘pumping it through the system’.

“If I compare it to the spirits industry or even the lager industry, it’s a very flatly-priced structure to the consumer.

“In any category if something’s small and more handmade and more crafted you’d expect to pay a premium for that effort, but that doesn’t generally work through in the ale market. So I think that’s the biggest challenge facing the ale industry at the moment.”

It’s exacerbated, he says, by the Small Brewers’ Relief, a tax-break introduced by the Brown government that has been widely credited with lighting the touch-paper of the microbrewery boom.

“It has been very positive in terms of creating vitality in our industry – new breweries, new styles of beer, getting a new generation of legal-drinking-age consumers into the category,” says Mr Dewey, who also holds British citizenship.

“But the pernicious side of it is that because they’re paying virtually no duty and maybe when they’ve started up they’re paying no VAT, they’re able to go in with very low prices.

“So where the craft movement would normally be expected to add a premium to ale and help this kind of value growth as well as volume growth, because of the way the duty’s structured and the incentives are set up, the craft brewers are potentially dragging the market down.”

So if he had his way, might there at some point be a ‘breakaway group’ of premium beers that get away with upping their prices to create a less flat market?

“For us it’s less about us increasing our prices for the trade and more about the trade recognising that they’re paying more for Timothy Taylor beer because of the effort that we put into it and the fact that we want a fair return for that effort,” he says.

The effort that Timothy Taylor put into their beers is a recurring theme, and little wonder. The Golden Promise barley is horribly difficult to grow and is cultivated only by a few farmers in northern Britain.

Unlike most other breweries, the company always uses full-leaf hops. The water comes from a spring on site. The fermentation process is an old one, and takes longer than other firms.

The results, however, are sublime, and while for the consumer it may be cause for a toast that a bottle of Landlord costs no more than a bottle of mass-produced lager, Mr Dewey surely has a point about its fairness.

Whether he’ll get his wish for a more nuanced market remains to be seen, but in the meantime, he’s working on other strategies to boost the business. The coming year will see a UK marketing campaign, an export drive and an increase in the company’s pub holdings.

And just in case any Timothy Taylor devotees still harbour any lingering doubts about Mr Dewey’s beer credentials, rest easy – he’s one of us.

“As soon as I got approached for the job, I said to my wife ‘you’d better see if they’ve got bottled Landlord in the supermarket’,” he says.

“And she brought some home and literally my first thoughts when I drank it were: ‘This is nectar!’.

“I said ‘I don’t care what happens with the job, but we’re going to keep getting this in!’ So clearly I’d become a convert.”