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No ordinary Smith

Zak Avery goes behind the scenes at Samuel Smith's, Britain's most clandestine brewery.

There’s no getting away from it: Tadcaster smells.

Fortunately, the little North Yorkshire town, midway between Leeds and York, smells of brewing. The glorious aroma of warm moist grain hangs alluringly in the air on New Street, between the two Smith breweries (John’s and Samuel’s).

They are both of a certain era, but their paths diverged long ago. It’s not the industrial beer production facility that I’ve come to see, but the smaller Victorian tower brewery nestling in its shadow.

There has been a brewery in Tadcaster since the 1300s, although Sam Smith’s makes no claim to being that old. In 1758, on the site of the current brewery, a well was sunk, and The Old Brewery was founded. The Old Brewery was purchased by Samuel Smith in 1847, and a few decades later, John Smith’s was founded by another family member, drawing on the same water source, making beer in the same style.

It’s there that the facts start to get muddied by rumour and scuttlebutt; it was an acrimonious family row that forced the split; John Smith’s pay Sam Smith’s for every pint of water they draw from the well; John’s once tried to scupper Sam’s by trying to suck the well dry. I’m not sure there is another brewery anywhere that has such a mythology built up around it.

The simple fact is that as a privately owned company, what goes on behind closed doors is, in typically straightforward Yorkshire parlance, none of our business. The interface with the public is the beer in the glass. The beer says everything you need to know.

That’s not to say they are unfriendly; far from it. Chris Horton and Simon Poynton are the public face of Sam Smith’s. As such, they have become quite skilled in politely but firmly deflecting questions about gross volumes, percentage exports, and backroom gubbins; that is none of our business.

What we do know is that Sam Smith’s has grown over the years to become a determinedly independent family-run brewery, supplying around 200 pubs, and a steadily growing range of beers.

It’s a traditional model that has served the brewing industry well for centuries, and tradition is a big thing with Sam Smith’s. There can’t be many (if any) breweries which still provide full-time employment for a cooper, a signwriter, and an ostler, or “the horse guy” as he’s known at the brewery.

Collectively, their work is displayed in all its glory on the horse-drawn dray that is used for local deliveries.

If you’ve ever been into one of Sam Smith’s pubs, you’ll know that Old Brewery Bitter is famously good value, a classic, balanced, no-nonsense Yorkshire ale. The brewery also offers five other draught ales, all of which are produced in the famous grey slate ‘Yorkshire square’ system. This is a double-decker, open fermenter that at the peak of activity is full to the brim with undulating yeast foam, which moves from the lower to the upper chamber via a manhole-sized aperture.

This rise and fall of fermenting beer perhaps brings to mind the Burton Union system of fermentation traditionally used in another famed seat of ale brewing. It is said to produce a more rounded, robust style of ale, typical to Yorkshire.

The long room, housing the top halves of the squares, is an oasis of tranquility, permeated with the heady, bready smells of fermentation; on the floor below, the grey slate behemoths and their pipework fill an entire room, giving the appearance of the workings of an ancient submarine.

These are some of the last examples of their kind, and housed in the oldest brewery in Yorkshire. Consequently, Smith’s takes its upkeep seriously: “We just refurbished one of the squares. It was quite difficult and certainly not cheap, but it would be pitiful if Sam’s ceased with these traditions,” says Horton. “We want to restore and preserve the history.” As well as six draught ales, Smith’s also brews another six draught offerings; three lagers, a stout, a cider and a wheat beer. This all happens on site, which has capacity for lagering, kegging, casking and bottling all of its own products. Fans of Smith’s will recall that it used to produce a version of Ayingerbrau Pils, licensed from the classic Bavarian Ayinger brewery.

Horton explains: “When lager first became popular, we searched for what we thought was the best lager available in Germany, licensed it and produced it here in Tadcaster.” The licensing agreement ended when the brewery decided to expand its range of lagers, reformulating slightly in the process. It is still a classic Bavarian-style lager in the best tradition, and tradition is something Smith’s is clearly big on.

Walking the Victorian tower brewery top to bottom is to observe living heritage. From the Bodie mill at the top, making grist from malted grain, to the wooden-clad mash tuns, copper boilers and hop backs, down into the slate fermenters and down again into the racking room, where the wooden casks are filled, a sense of timelessness pervades.

The vast majority of Sam Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter is still distributed in traditional wooden ale casks, except where a pub’s cellar arrangements make it impractical to do so.

Impressed by the unchanging nature of production, I ask Poynton if the beers might have changed much over the last 100 years. He gives me a look that is clearly reserved for the feeble-minded and says, “The ideal would be for it not to change at all.” “We aim for quality and consistency,” adds Horton. “Once you set the benchmark, why would you change?” If that statement seems uncharacteristically bold, then perhaps we can turn to its bottled beer range for an explanation. The beers have been imported into the USA since the late 1970s, and at that time, were being distributed into a moribund market packed with bland beers. The importer probably helped to kickstart the fine beer market, and Horton says: “They made explicit links with food, and presented our beers as being equal to wine. I’m not saying they created the brewing revolution, but they certainly helped move it along.” When you look at its dozen-strong bottled range, with the Old Brewery Pale and Nut Brown Ale, and the Imperial and Oatmeal stouts that were added to the range in the 80s, it’s easy to feel a resonance with the current US craft brewing scene.

If this seems to be a bit of a reach, Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver confirms that there is something in this: “I consider myself a ‘Yorkshire brewer, once removed’. When I started brewing at home in the mid 1980s, I first brewed pale ales based on Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery Pale Ale. Then in 1989 I went to work for Manhattan Brewing Company, the first modern brewpub in the eastern United States. I apprenticed to head brewer Mark Witty, who had been a senior brewer at Samuel Smith’s.

There can be little doubt that our beers were much influenced by the Sam Smith’s beers.

Similarly, when I first brewed Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout in 1994, Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout was the touchstone for the style.“ Never ones to rest on its hop bines, Smith’s has always added new beers to its range. A range of fruit beers produced at Melbourn Bros’ Brewery in the ancient Lincolnshire town of Stamford has been distributed by Smith’s since 1992. Melbourn Bros’ Brewery was chosen for its traditional production techniques. “The brewery has retained much of its old brewing equipment including the 1910 steam engine driving the malt mill and mash tun rakes, an antique brewing copper and a Briggs vertical refrigerator to cool the hopped wort prior to fermentation. The brewery has a real timewarped feel,” says Horton. “In 2007 Melbourn Bros’ decided to switch to organic brewing. The three organic fruit beers are still produced using the old steam brewing equipment in Stamford, before being blended and bottled at The Old Brewery, Tadcaster.” Its newest beer, Yorkshire Stingo, is something of a departure for them. It’s an 8% ABV, wooden cask-aged, bottle-conditioned beer. The exact process of its conception and birth are, naturally, not for public scrutiny, but Yorkshire Stingo is the result of a “fairly long” period of experimentation. Many trial brews were rejected, but after exploring different techniques, they settled on the current recipe.

It is the product of months of ale-cask ageing (exactly how long depends on the atmospheric conditions), followed by temperature-controlled bottle conditioning. It receives around a year of maturation at the brewery, and is designed to be consumed on release. The best before date is conservatively short, reflecting it’s new and untried status. “There’s every chance that it may improve over time, but really, it’s meant to be drunk on release,” Horton says. Having tried it, I’m happy to report that it is a beauty; big without being brutish, bittersweet with a definite malt accent, some restrained woody notes, and a long sweetish finish.

It would have been easy for Smith’s to claim 2008 as its 250th anniversary, and use it as an excuse to make a big song and dance about themselves, and to trumpet the creation of Yorkshire Stingo as its celebratory release. But with typically self-effacing Yorkshire modesty, it just slipped out more or less unannounced, yet another great beer on the roster of a classic independent British brewery. It’s up to their devotees to celebrate the brewery’s commitment to the preservation of brewing tradition, and to their production of no-nonsense, effortlessly classic ales. It’s a celebration of which I’m happy to be part.

Contact THE OLD BREWERY High Street, Tadcaster, North Yorkshire, LS24 9SB Tel: +44 (0)193 783 222