Tastings School - 200 Years of history

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200 Years of history

Daniel Thwaites is celebrating its 200th anniversary but as Dominic Roskrow reports, the company's keener to look forward than to look back.

After 200 years of successfully making and selling beer Daniel Thwaites must have a pretty good idea as to what does and doesn’t make a great beer. But everyone likes a pick-me-up from time to time, so even after two centuries the following review from a local paper of the brewery’s celebratory Double Century brew will have made highly satisfying reading.

Beside a top score five stars for presentation, for aroma, for taste and for aftertaste the critic wrote: “The beer’s good too. There is a malty perfume to the aroma, though the taste balances this beautifully with the significant bitterness generated by the double hopping process, and there’s a surge of dried fruit to it as it heads for the throat.

“Hints of yeasty marmite even creep in to a long and warming aftertaste. I may be wrong, but I suspect Thwaites Double Century is the first ever beer to get straight fives in this column. I’m sure Daniel would be quietly delighted.” Certainly the brewery’s staff are. For what made this review even more special was the fact that the local paper was not local to Blackburn where Thwaites is based, but to Leeds, across the border in white rose country. Evidence if ever there were any needed that Thwaites is moving forward in to the future.

The success of a Lancashire beer with drinkers in Yorkshire shouldn’t be under-estimated.

Thwaites is Blackburn through and through. Its sponsorships start at the grass roots of the town and stretch up to Lancashire’s county cricket team. Its beers reflect the tastes of a traditional community built originally on cotton, and it has turned to the region’s history for inspiration as it celebrates 200 years since Daniel Thwaites first built a brewery just a few metres away from the current site.

Wainwright, for instance, is a delightful refreshing blonde ale that started life as a seasonal ale but has now become a permanent fixture on the bar. It is named after Alfred Wainwright, who was born in Blackburn but became famous for his intricate and detailed pictorial guides to the Lake District, reproduced lovingly in a box set these days and still used as a bible by walkers.responsibly. And a brand such as Wainwright is attracting completely new drinkers to us because it appeals to lager drinkers and it seems, to some wine drinkers as well.” Ironically the globalisation of the market place by the bigger companies has given local brewers an opportunity to exploit a demand for local beers where other local beers have been left unloved and neglected by their national owners.

In this part of the world, and across the Pennines for instance, Boddingtons, Wards, Mansfield and Stones are all cases in point. With a lagerproducing facility, contract brewing for among others the Co-Op, and a bottling and canning plant that packages for a range of customers including some local microbrewers, Thwaites is a jack of all trades and it has a bustling and busy brewery site to prove it.

It’s set right in the heart of Blackburn and it’s huge, every last centimetre of space in use.

Indeed, it’s been expanded several times since the site was first opened in the ‘60s and three years ago a depot was opened off site three miles away.

“We were strangling ourselves,” says Fielding. “The brewery was originally built in a tower system but there is no room to expand anywhere now except up again.” There’s nothing backward about the operation, either. State of the art equipment, much of it doubled up to avoid loss of production due to break downs, indicates that the family owners of the brewery have not been shy when it has come to reinvestment. The centralised computer control room, once the most advanced of its type anywhere, will have technophobes in palpitations. It’s a long, long way from the horse and dray image that sits so comfortably with this sort of brewery.

And everything here is on a big scale.

There are 31 conditioning vessels to allow the beers to settle and marry, 16 conical fermenters for lager production alone, and an impressive yeast propagator that cost more than £100,000 and which is used four times a year to recreate pure yeast for bitter production whether it’s needed or not, and six times a year for lager yeast. Each brew will use 6.8 tonnes of malt and 16,000 litres of water, and the brewery is doing up to four brews a day, a total of more than 5,000 barrels a week or 300,000 barrels a year.

The challenge for Steve Fielding is to meet the demands of the modern environment without compromising on quality. That means partially evolving through choice, and partially making the most of the market as it presents itself. He points to the raw ingredients of beer making to illustrate his point.

“Like all brewers we’re having a tough time of it with regard to barley. Last year was a poor year and this year isn’t looking too good either, but we have a number of suppliers on the east coast of England and have always been prepared premium prices for the best quality available.

“And we switched to hop pellets some years ago when the hop separators needed replacing. We weighed up carefully the benefits against the costs. Hop pellets are a lot more robust and stable. There is no spillage, they are easier to handle, and they are more consistent to use. We don’t think there has been any compromise in our beers.” Indeed, Thwaites can boast the best range of beers it has ever offered its customers, and after 200 years of serving its heartland, it’s well placed to spread its reputation further afield.

“We like to talk about our beers having drinkability,” says Fielding, and that’s exactly what they have. Thwaites has had a lot to be proud of over the last two centuries. But all the signs suggest that the best is yet to come.

And this autumn the company will launch Flying Shuttle, a wonderfully rich and tasty dark beer named not in reference to the railways but to the piece of equipment that converted cotton making in to a worldwide commercial industry and put the towns from this region at the forefront of the industrial revolution.

So far, so local. So how does such a quintessentially North Western brewery go about ensuring that it is a relevant concern for today’s cosmopolitan market place?

The folk at Thwaites will be the first to tell you that it’s not easy. Like so many regional brewers the brewery faces stiff competition from the national and super regional companies cherry-picking the best outlets across the country while shaking off the microbrewers snapping at their heels.

To survive in such an environment takes extraordinary skill and business know-how, and Thwaites has it in droves. And the first clue to its continued success lies in its portfolio of beers.

For a start, Thwaites isn’t embarrassed by its range of smooth and keg beers, far from it.

These are its bread and butter and no-one knows more about meeting the demands of the people of Blackburn than Thwaites does. A number of beers on offer have an alcohol content of less than 3.5%.

“This is session drinking country,” says brands marketing manager Lee Williams. “Traditionally people worked in the cotton mills and came out with big thirsts. They wanted to be able to drink their gallon of beer and still get up for work the next day. That tradition has survived.

“And these days it’s not just about one type of beer or another. The whole keg versus cask is so yesteryear. Now it’s about giving people different choices for different occasions and the smooth beers fit in to that. We have regions here with lots of chimney pots, we have a lot of political, social and sports clubs. There is a place for those brands.” Going forward, though, Thwaites realised that it had to adapt. Its challenge was to keep its core market contented but to provide beers that would open it up to new markets. As it passes its 200 year anniversary Williams says the brewery is well placed to do just that.

“It’s great having a year like this one to celebrate all that the brewery has achieved because it is a milestone,” he says. “But this year has been about building a platform for the future.” The key to building new brands has been intensive customer research.

You’d think after 200 years of success a company like Thwaites would be quite assured about its ability to give the drinker what he or she wanted. Not a bit of it.

“You should never underestimate the customer,” says head brewer Steve Fielding. “They have a habit of surprising you.” Lee Williams agrees and says that success for a brewer such as Thwaites hinges on monitoring trends very carefully. So alongside some of the more traditional beers there has been a refocusing towards cask beers.

“A few years ago if we’d tried to sell our beer in Yorkshire it just wouldn’t have worked because we just didn’t have the range of beers.

“But it’s seven or eight years since we first started targeting Yorkshire and in that time we have launched Lancaster Bomber (4.5%), Thoroughbred Gold (4%) and Wainwright (4.1%).

“We are seeing a polarisation in the on-trade [pubs and bars] to 4%-4.5%.

That’s where customers feel increasingly comfortable with this sort of strength. It delivers on taste but it still lets people be aware of drinking responsibly. And a brand such as Wainwright is attracting completely new drinkers to us because it appeals to lager drinkers and it seems, to some wine drinkers as well.” Ironically the globalisation of the market place by the bigger companies has given local brewers an opportunity to exploit a demand for local beers where other local beers have been left unloved and neglected by their national owners.

In this part of the world, and across the Pennines for instance, Boddingtons, Wards, Mansfield and Stones are all cases in point. With a lagerproducing facility, contract brewing for among others the Co-Op, and a bottling and canning plant that packages for a range of customers including some local microbrewers, Thwaites is a jack of all trades and it has a bustling and busy brewery site to prove it.

It’s set right in the heart of Blackburn and it’s huge, every last centimetre of space in use.

Indeed, it’s been expanded several times since the site was first opened in the ‘60s and three years ago a depot was opened off site three miles away.

“We were strangling ourselves,” says Fielding. “The brewery was originally built in a tower system but there is no room to expand anywhere now except up again.” There’s nothing backward about the operation, either. State of the art equipment, much of it doubled up to avoid loss of production due to break downs, indicates that the family owners of the brewery have not been shy when it has come to reinvestment. The centralised computer control room, once the most advanced of its type anywhere, will have technophobes in palpitations. It’s a long, long way from the horse and dray image that sits so comfortably with this sort of brewery.

And everything here is on a big scale.

There are 31 conditioning vessels to allow the beers to settle and marry, 16 conical fermenters for lager production alone, and an impressive yeast propagator that cost more than £100,000 and which is used four times a year to recreate pure yeast for bitter production whether it’s needed or not, and six times a year for lager yeast. Each brew will use 6.8 tonnes of malt and 16,000 litres of water, and the brewery is doing up to four brews a day, a total of more than 5,000 barrels a week or 300,000 barrels a year.

The challenge for Steve Fielding is to meet the demands of the modern environment without compromising on quality. That means partially evolving through choice, and partially making the most of the market as it presents itself. He points to the raw ingredients of beer making to illustrate his point.

“Like all brewers we’re having a tough time of it with regard to barley. Last year was a poor year and this year isn’t looking too good either, but we have a number of suppliers on the east coast of England and have always been prepared premium prices for the best quality available.

“And we switched to hop pellets some years ago when the hop separators needed replacing. We weighed up carefully the benefits against the costs. Hop pellets are a lot more robust and stable. There is no spillage, they are easier to handle, and they are more consistent to use. We don’t think there has been any compromise in our beers.” Indeed, Thwaites can boast the best range of beers it has ever offered its customers, and after 200 years of serving its heartland, it’s well placed to spread its reputation further afield.

“We like to talk about our beers having drinkability,” says Fielding, and that’s exactly what they have. Thwaites has had a lot to be proud of over the last two centuries. But all the signs suggest that the best is yet to come.

Tasting notes

ORIGINAL BITTER (3.6%)
A hoppy bitter taste up front and then a smooth and easy follow-through. Very easy to drink and a fine session beer

DOUBLE CELEBRATION (5.2%)
Hops and malt in balance and nice fruity body. Again, no real hint that you’re drinking a beer with a strength over 5%. Very more-ish. The draught version is slightly weaker

DANIEL’S SMOOTH KEG (4.1%)
Blonde smooth beer, lemony and soft, delightful when served chilled. No hint of the higher alcohol content, a soft purring beer ideal for warm evenings

FLYING SHUTTLE (4.9%)
Personal favourite. Deliciously sweet and mouth filling dark beer with robust but not cloying body and wonderful lingering after-taste. The Co-Op does a 5% version of this beer branded in the Thwaites name

WARSTEINER (4.8%)
(brewed under licence)
Bright golden lager with no sharpness at all but plenty of nutty flavour. Easy to drink and in danger of giving lager a good name

Contact
DANIEL THWAITES
BREWERY PLC
PO Box 50, Star Brewery
Syke Street, Blackburn
Lancashire, BB1 5BU
www.thwaites.co.uk
Tel: +44 (0)1254 686 868