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Xmas cheer as Dales tradition beats big business

Friday 10 December 2004

Countryside commentator John Sheard welcomes some good news as one of the oldest businesses in the Yorkshire Dales - the famed Theakston's brewery at Masham - comes back into family hands

THERE was the usual good news, bad news mix for country folk this week but, for once, the good outshone the bad. So with Christmas approaching, let's concentrate on the positive and drink a toast to one of the most famous products in the history of the Yorkshire Dales: Theakston's bitter.

Now I have to declare an interest here (although, sadly, not a financial one): I have been a Theakston's lover for more than 40 years, choosing a pint of the bitter as my regular tipple whenever it was available and, on celebratory occasions, a glass of Old Peculiar, their traditional winter ale which, beer-wise, is the nearest thing to dynamite in a glass produced in this ale loving land.

At the same time, however, I have these past two decades or so been in deep shock over the way these unique brews have been buggered about (sorry - it's the only appropriate phrase) by big business.

Back in family hands.
Back in family hands.

And now, the Dales have struck back. Back in the hands of the Theakston family, who founded it 176 years ago, the company this week announced that it is about to increase production at its ancient brewery in that archetypical Dales town, Masham - which is great news for real ale drinkers, the family, its employees and the town itself.

This, in turn, is good news for the Dales for there are many small towns like Masham which desperately need jobs for local people who don't want to be driven from their home towns and villages by rocketing house prices.

These have made some locals with a cottage or two to spare very rich - but haven't created a single job. And it is only thriving local businesses that can ensure that the Dales continue with living, breathing, vibrant communities rather than a museum for rich folk, preserved in aspic and old photographs.

I first came into contact with Paul Theakston almost 20 years ago, when he was the fifth member of the family to be managing director of the brewery. But it was a sad time...

Shares had been sold to Matthew Brown, another family brewery based in Blackburn, which had agreed to allow a Theakston to continue running the Masham plant. But in 1987, Matthew Brown itself was acquired by the Scottish and Newcastle brewing giant - and Paul found himself out on his ear.

He did, however, have a trick up his sleeve. He had personally owned a small corner of the old brewery site and, putting up two fingers to S&N, he started brewing a new ale there which, mischievously, he called Black Sheep.

Now Dales folk are a canny lot and love a fighter, particularly when he is one of them. When an old Tetley's pub in Skipton was made over to become the Woolly Sheep, they put on Black Sheep and within a month (with some help from me, I might admit) it was outselling Tetley's. This triumph of the little man over Big Business was celebrated in similar fashion throughout the Dales.

Whether or not this rebellion was noticed by S&N I cannot say - it certainly must have embarrassed Tetley's - but for some reason, they sold the brewery - and it's illustrious name - back to the Theakston family a year ago, a move greeted with genuine joy by the people of Masham and real ale drinkers nationwide.

And although the bitter will now be brewed in Tadcaster, the family this week announced a big increase in the production of other beers in Masham.

Said Director Simon Theakston: "We are determined to brew as much of our beer in Masham as is possible. Historically we have always been restricted by the sheer lack of space in the brewery but by adding additional fermenting capacity we will have made significant progress towards addressing the problem. The announcement today is part of that overall plan and underlines our commitment to brewing traditional English ales in Masham for the long term."

So let's raise a glass this Christmas to the Dales Family Theakston. Their name, and their beers, are one of the most famous products of the Yorkshire Dales. It's not often we get the chance to put one over on the city slickers but when we do, and we're not driving, it's worth a pint or two!

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