Thursday, November 12, 2015

The sanctuary

It was a last minute decision.  My plans to rent a car and drive around the Dales had fallen through and I was frantically trying to find something to do to avoid wasting one of my Saturdays in the UK – an all too common predicament unfortunately.  You might say I am a bit overwhelmed with the self-imposed objective of experiencing all that the UK has to offer and becoming an expert in the English beer culture.  The options are limitless, the experiences infinite.  Already almost 5 weeks in, I feel like I have only begun to understand North Yorkshire; and the more I understand, the more it opens up intriguing aspects of the area that I want to check out.  I am working full time in a brewery and only have the weekends to travel and experience other parts of the country, and after working all week, waking up every morning at 4:30am, if I were completely honest, it takes a lot for me to muster up the energy to fill my weekends with travelling and making sense of a new destination.
So, with my naïve plans of traveling all over the UK taking in all the sights and tastes seeming a little too ambitious, I reconsidered my options for this particular Saturday.  I thought a destination a little closer to home was fitting; a brewery perhaps.

Prior to coming to the UK, my understanding of English beer and brewing was pretty general.  Sure, the uninformed person may have considered me quite knowledgeable, but I tend to hold myself to a pretty high standard, so I only saw through the lenses of what I did not know.  The things that I did not know definitely outweighed what I did know.  And what I did know was usually just based on a conjecture – actually, true of most things in life, until you experience it for yourself, most things are just based on a conjecture.   So my trip to the UK was chockfull of things that I wanted to learn – but three things had definitely risen to the top: 1) tasting proper cask beer, 2) experiencing proper pub culture, and 3) seeing a brewery that used open fermentation, more specifically Yorkshire squares.  I had become well versed in the first two, but up until last Saturday the third had eluded me.

Black Sheep Brewery in Masham
I knew of two independent breweries in the UK that still used Yorkshire squares.  One was Samuel Smith Brewery in Tadcaster, the UK’s closest thing to Willy Wonka’s factory – a place that makes some fantastic beer, but a place that is virtually closed off to the outside world.  I had tried every possible option to get a tour of their facility with absolutely no success; in fact, I was told that the brewery had not been open to the public for over 10 years.  The other brewery was Black Sheep in Masham – a relatively new brewery, opened in 1992 – a brewery steeped in tradition, founded by a sixth generation brewer in Masham.  Considering that Masham was only 20 miles from Harrogate, my plans for Saturday quickly fell into place. 

A little background on Yorkshire squares may be necessary at this point.  There is not much that differentiates the way that breweries brew beer.  Obviously the ingredients change from beer to beer, each brewery’s process will have its particular nuances, cleanliness cannot be overemphasized, but at the end of the day, all breweries are basically just steeping malt in a kettle, draining off the sugary liquid, and boiling it with the addition of hops.  What comes next is often the secret in a brewery’s recipe – the fermentation – because, in all actuality, this is the stage that actually makes beer.  Most modern breweries use closed top cylindroconical fermenters – for good reason – they are easy to clean, they produce consistent results, and their closed construction eliminates any risk of unwanted things getting into the beer.  Yorkshire squares, on the other hand, are a traditional open top fermentation vessel, originally made with slate, but now modernized to be made of stainless steel in a round shape.  During the fermentation, the yeast bubbles up onto a shelf positioned over the beer, and the beer is repeatedly sprayed onto the yeast sitting on the shelf to recirculate the beer and rouse the yeast.  Breweries that use them claim that they allow the yeast to produce flavors during fermentation and gives the beer a distinct full, rounded palate that cannot be produced in cylindroconical fermenters.  However, the benefits of cylindroconical fermenters are often too enticing for a brewery to consider using Yorkshire squares, and now their use is primarily relegated to the diehard traditionalists.  But tasting a beer fermented using Yorkshire squares is a beautiful thing – actually, to replicate this flavor and feeling in a beer is my aspiration for Present Tense – like I have said before…nothing that is worthwhile in this world comes easy.

I scheduled a tour for 3:30 at Black Sheep.  Even though Masham was only 20 miles from Harrogate, it was not an easy trip without a car.  A bus ride from Harrogate to Ripon and a taxi from Ripon to Masham ended up taking over an hour, but I was welcomed into Masham with a rainbow arching from one end of the sky to the other – a sure sign that I had made the right decision for my Saturday destination.

What welcomed me in Masham
I arrived with about a 20 minutes to spare before the start of the tour.  I perused the brewery shop a bit and then thought it appropriate to grab a pint to take with me on the tour – a chocolate oat stout suited me just fine.

The tour started off with a video explaining the history of the brewery – an interesting story involving the all too common path of most of England’s historical breweries – being bought out by a corporate conglomeration of breweries when times were tough for breweries in the mid-20th century.  Paul Theakston, the founder of Black Sheep and the sixth generation of a brewing dynasty in Masham, just so happened to be the victim of this buy out.  The namesake brewery, Theakston, was bought out, and instead of giving into the corporate life, he quit and started his own brewery to continue brewing the way that he believed in ( – and, thus, the name of the brewery – Paul being the “black sheep” of the family.

Following the video was the obligatory explanation of the brewing process and then the requisite show and tell of the ingredients that go into beer – probably the 500th time I’ve hear that spiel - at least I had a pint to get me through it.  The presentation eventually ended and the tour commenced - we made our way through the doorway into the brewery.

View of tower brewery at Black Sheep
Climbing the stairs to a little platform overlooking the brewery, a tall wooden roof peaked high above us.  From this vantage point, the original brewery, a traditional tower brewery, could be closely examined.  The grist hopper, the mash tun, and the copper kettle – none of the typical stainless steel of modern breweries could be seen anywhere.  This was all original brewing equipment purchased from a defunct brewery and dropped through the roof into place – a good indication of this brewery’s adherence to tradition.  We then moved onto the adjacent room, the second brewery, a more modern set up with more of the familiar stainless steel vessels.  Even though some modern conveniences had been added to the setup, the brewery was full of character, not similar to any other brewery that I had seen.  It had been set up in a repurposed malt house formerly owned by Lighthouse Brewery, and had made particularly efficient use of the unconventional space.  There is definitely something to be said about the character of an old brewery compared with the well laid out and standardized configuration of most modern breweries – they are definitely more unique and intriguing, however, I am sure much less convenient.

After listening to the tour guide give a thorough explanation of the brewery, we finally made our way around the hop back, the mash tun, and the grist hopper, and opened the door in the back corner of the brewery to discover the purpose of my visit to this brewery – the fermentation room…the sanctuary of Yorkshire rounds.  It was a gorgeous sight!  Six large, round stainless steel vessels – three lining the left side of the room and three lining the right side of the room.  On display for all to see, resting on top of the round vessels, was the yeast; the magical creatures, the mysterious creators of alcohol, the enigmatic sources of flavor and character in beer.  No need to hide inside a closed tank, the yeast was able to receive the proper attention it deserved.  Completely exposed to the surroundings, open to all the elements for all to see, with people walking directly above the vessels, the risk of infection seeming imminent, however, the yeast, kings of this sanctuary, maintaining the sterile condition of the beer and warding off any unwelcome guests.  A perceived nightmare to most other brewers, Black Sheep proudly displayed their fermenting beer in their patented Yorkshire rounds – an unapologetic symbol of the six generations of brewing that lives on through this tradition.

Yorkshire round at peak of fermentation.
The sanctuary.
Yorkshire round toward end of fermentation.
I was the last person from the group to leave the fermentation room – it had become quite obvious throughout the duration of the tour that my interest in what was on display was on a completely different level to everyone else.  With only myself left in the room, I snapped several more pictures, I breathed in the air, I took mental notes, I stared deeply into the fluffy, bubbling surface of the yeast – dreaming of one day making Present Tense beer in these vessels. 

I returned to my sense and found my way back to the tour.  After a short summary from the tour guide, the tour was over.  The once elusive Yorkshire square that had been but a picture in a book and a vague entry in Wikipedia, was no longer just a conjecture.  I had seen it for myself.  I had witnessed it in operation.  I had observed its dimensions and construction.  It was now real to me…and the only appropriate thing to do at that point – enjoy a pint!

Enjoying a pint

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