In a regeneration area of old factories and warehouses, relics of Leeds’ 19th-century industrial might, a hooded monk looks down upon a makeshift beer garden from the top of a Grade II-listed mill. Inside, the scent of hops and malts laces the air. This is Northern Monk, one of dozens of craft breweries bringing new life to a Yorkshire beer tradition that dates back centuries.
The cloaked emblem of Northern Monk brewery is a nod to the fact that it was the monks of the 12th and 13th centuries who first brewed beer on a large scale, and you only have to take a look at the dozens of medieval abbey ruins in Yorkshire to see why brewing is so engrained in the culture of this region of England. If British brewing has a homeland, Yorkshire is it.
According to the Good Beer Guide 2018, published by Britain’s Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), Yorkshire now has just shy of 400 pubs and 174 breweries listed for their excellence in traditional ale. But award-winning craft breweries are also experimenting with new-world hops, and rules have been flouted with anything-but-traditional ingredients such as tonka beans, chocolate and local rhubarb. Today, the choice of brews is astounding and tasting rooms run the gamut from quaint pubs to trendy exposed-brick warehouses. For those interested in beer travel, Yorkshire has become the best place to see England’s transition from a producer of warm, flat beer to flag-bearer for some of the world’s best craft brews. Tours, tasting flights, international collaborations and laymen brewing days are all here for sampling, if you know where to look.
The Theakston dynasty
Before Northern Monk, or any of Yorkshire’s other craft breweries, there was Theakston's, Tetley's, Samuel Smith, John Smith and Black Sheep – all Yorkshire-based global real-ale brands and bastions of traditional cask-conditioned beer. Beer travel in this region should start with their 19th-century origins. Pretty little Masham may be the most singular village in British beer history for the fact that it’s still home to two hugely successful independent family breweries, Theakston and Black Sheep. Check in to one of Masham’s pubs with rooms, then seek the breweries out on foot from the village’s cobbled medieval square – it won’t be long before the tang of hops and malts can be found wafting down the lanes.
The Theakston brewhouse was built in 1875 but, after five generations of beer-making, two branches of the family parted ways and new kid on the block, Black Sheep, was set up by Paul Theakston in 1992. Both breweries use traditional brewing methods and British barley and hops, but Black Sheep, freed from the shackles of tradition, invested in a five-barrel microbrewery for experimentation in craft beers such as a gooseberry sour and even a lager, named 54 Degrees North for the latitude of Masham. The saga of the Theakston family feud is a highlight of Black Sheep’s brewery tour, as is the Black Sheep Baa – a casual bistro restaurant and bar where tour tokens can be redeemed for tasters and classic British dishes with a Black Sheep twist, such as homemade steak and Riggwelter ale pot pie.
Theakston's, on the other hand, is staunchly traditional and it’s worth touring this brewery to see its 19th-century, gravity-fed equipment in action. There’s also a quaint tasting room in the style of a traditional English pub, surrounded by the accoutrements of Theakston's production plant. The brewery’s most famous ale, Old Peculier, is named after Masham’s 12th-century ecclesiastical seal.
At the other end of the spectrum, Yorkshire’s appetite for brewing has led to a new generation of beer-makers that operate virtually out of their backyard, producing quality small-batch brews that rarely leave the county. A good way to access some of these is on a chauffeured day trip with Brewtown Tours, which depart from Leeds or York on different days of the week. The Leeds tour visits Mike Quirk who runs Quirky Ales. ‘He’s got this tiny unit on an industrial estate in Garforth and he’s put a wall down the middle with a little brewery on one side and and a tap room on the other. He does more business than the local village pub now,’ says Mark Stredwick, who runs Brewtown. Near York there’s Dave Shaw, who used to work in local government and has a small tasting bar in the rafters of his Hop Studio brewery plant. Dave supplies a porter to the House of Commons and produces an astonishing 8.5% abv white chocolate stout that’s aged in bourbon barrels and tastes like Milkybars.
Then there’s dry-witted Tony Rogers with a thick Yorkshire drawl that matches the North Yorkshire village where he’s converted his outhouse – the old blacksmith’s forge – into a 5.5-barrel brewing plant called Half Moon Brewery. Tony’s parents ran a pub and, like many Yorkshirefolk, he was once a homebrewer. Now Half Moon’s ales are stocked in respected pubs across Yorkshire. Tony can wax lyrical about British hops that remind him of ‘hay and summer meadows’, and likes to go off piste with seasonal brews featuring local elderflower and honey. A visit with Brewtown includes local food pairings, challenging the preconception that only wine should be on the table at mealtimes. Beer lovers can also come and brew with Tony for the day from £50pp.
Yorkshire’s progressive craft breweries are easier to visit independently and all run frequent tours. Playing on the region’s industrial heritage, many places have urban taprooms in old buildings with exposed brick walls; this is where hop-heavy beers are served to the North’s beards-and-skinny-jeans brigade. Small-batch experimentation, international collaborations and bold American hop flavours are central to these breweries.
Some of the best new-breed operations lie in smaller towns. In Malton, a North Yorkshire country town with a thriving monthly food market, award-winning Brass Castle finally opened an understated taproom in a Georgian house in 2017, serving artisan coffee and vegan pies alongside its hoppy brews. Its beers are all vegan-friendly too, and gluten-free. Magic Rock Brewing, in the West Yorkshire town of Huddersfield, has been a pioneer of heavily hopped beers since it launched in 2011. Its first, now signature, beer was Cannonball – a 7.2% abv hop-drenched IPA that knocked traditional Yorkshire brewers off their bar stools. Though Huddersfield is not a tourist town, it’s worth catching a train here from Leeds for a tasting flight, weekend food trucks in its courtyard, and regular festivals. Inside the tap room walls are crawling with monsters penned by the brewery’s in-house artist; murals match the beasts on Magic Rock’s cans, which are all modelled on brewery staff members.
Even amid historic York’s timber-framed houses and narrow lanes there’s room for progressive craft beers to make their mark thanks to York Brewery and Brew York. The latter occupies a vast hanger inside the old city walls with bar tables facing brewing tanks and a tiny terrace overlooking the River Foss. A chalkboard advertises their ‘Viking DNA’ smoked porter, harking back to York’s Scandinavian heritage, alongside the hoppy and brilliantly named ‘Brew York, Brew York’ American pale ale. That’s the Yorkshire brewing community to a tee: traditional, forward-looking, seriously local and always having a laugh.