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Timeline 30: Black Sheep 

Ba-a-ck to the future

Has there ever been a brewery success story quite like Black Sheep, asks Alastair Gilmour, while knowing perfectly well what the answer is.

It’s the lot of the black sheep of the family to go against the grain. Black sheep regard themselves as different from the others; the others, in turn, also see them as poles apart. They belong but don’t belong; they’re rebels, mavericks, renegades, individualists and nonconformists, yet behind their backs there are whisperings about wastrels and ne’er-do-wells. Each to their own.

Paul Theakson, right, with sons Rob (left) and Jo

Paul Theakston, part of the North Yorkshire T&R Theakston brewing dynasty, never thought of himself in black sheep terms, but the description stuck from the moment he broke away from that family business in 1992 and founded his own beer company. A Black Sheep he was – called everything from maverick to ne’er-do-well, depending on your allegiance.

As a sixth generation brewer of his family’s company, he chose to leave T&R Theakston following its sale to the giant Scottish & Newcastle. Instead, he chose to champion independent brewing and built his own brewery business in the same town, Masham, set in the former Lightfoot Brewery maltings that overlook the River Ure, using kit sourced from various redundant breweries plus heaps of heart and soul and great dollops of secrecy and subterfuge. 

Thirty years on and the same equipment is still very much in use, brewing an award-winning range of Black Sheep beers in an eclectic mix of classic and modern styles, balancing innovation with traditional roots.

Black Sheep’s beers are full of character derived from the best possible brewing materials – water, for example, is extracted from the brewery’s own Yorkshire Dales borehole – tempered with time and patience using special Yorkshire Square fermenters (open topped fermenting vessels). Yorkshire Squares are now made in stainless steel but in the past have been stone or slate constructions – and they don’t even have to be square in shape. Confusingly, Black Sheep’s are now round. The system is now rare, but beers fermented in them are renowned as full-bodied and often fruity in character.

Black Sheep Best Bitter is now one of the best-selling cask session beers in the UK but it’s not left at that with the overriding ethos fully embracing what is an exciting, dynamic and diverse world of beers that continue to excite drinkers whether in cask, keg, bottle, can or mini-keg.

The iconic Black Sheep pumpclip on show at The Black Bull, Corbridge, Northumberland
Yorkshire Squares are a method of open-top fermentation – and they don’t have to be square

In 2018, Paul Theakston stepped down from the board to take up an ambassadorial role as Black Sheep founder, remaining a vital part of the company. However, Black Sheep continues to champion its independence while his sons Rob and Jo (Jonathon) play key roles in the brewery’s daily operations. 

The Black Sheep Visitor Centre has developed into an award-winning attraction with tens of thousands of people flocking to Masham each year to sample a menu of locally-sourced Yorkshire food, a range of award-winning beers, and tours of the iconic brewery.

Also in 2018, Black Sheep announced the purchase of York Brewery, which included the acquisition of four pubs in the business and key cask brands that include Guzzler and Yorkshire Terrier.

At 30 years old, Black Sheep is a brewery full of soul with a rich history, an innovative future but undoubtedly still has that maverick individuality woven through it.

Rob, left, and Jo Theakston at Black Sheep's brewhouse
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