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tct 12: ilkley brewery

tct 12: ilkley brewery

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In mid-April Ilkley Brewery passed a significant milestone; and they are celebrating in typical style – by experimenting.

“We’ve just done our 1,000th brew since I set the business up five years ago,” says Chris Ives, founder and Head Brewer, “and we’ve done a very unusual beer – Mash Tonne, an English brown ale infused with Darjeeling Black Tea and blackberries.”

Not all of Ilkley’s beers are as unusual as their fifth birthday treat, but Mash Tonne contains all the elements that have made Ilkley Brewery’s beers stand out from the crowd, at home and abroad; successfully combining traditional British beer with American-style brewing techniques, to create great tasting beer that also tells a story.

“We’re a British brewery that is taking inspiration from America, but brewing in a traditional British way,” says Chris. “It’s about innovation and using unusual ingredients and trying to break down the barriers of what people think British beer is traditionally all about. We use fruit, spice, different types of yeast, we use all sorts of different things in our beer to give it a unique profile and a unique offering to a very busy market. We’re getting very good reviews for our beers because they’re easy to drink but still full of character and very different.”

A lot of those reviews are coming from the United States, where Ilkley Brewery have found success in a crowded market that always has space for brands from Britain, still seen all over the world as a source of premium quality produce. Ilkley Brewery doesn’t only have Britain on its side, though, but the storied folk history of Yorkshire: the brewery’s flagship, and its breakthrough beer, is Mary Jane, named for the woman in Yorkshire’s unofficial anthem who should under no circumstances be courted if you’re not wearing a hat – the consequences are well known to all Yorkshire folk.

“I’m always surprised,” says Chris, “probably about half the people I talk to have heard of Ilkley but they don’t know why. Then when I describe where it is and what it is, what they’ve heard is the Yorkshire anthem On Ilkla Moor Baht’at – that’s what they remember.

Mary-Jane-IPA_keg

“When we set the business up we knew we had an established brand in this Yorkshire Dales spa town of Ilkley, but I have been surprised at how recognised the song is, and how strong the Yorkshire brand actually is around the world. That’s been a great help, and winning the Tour de France Grand Départ has helped a lot as well, it just builds that momentum behind the Yorkshire brand and the British brand.”

Chris tries to avoid singing the song, though. “Only if I’m asked, because I don’t have a very good voice! But we talk about it a lot when we do presentations to beer buyers and bars and restaurants, and meet the brewer events in the UK and in the States and elsewhere. It is all about the story, so I explain why the beer’s called Mary Jane, talk about Yorkshire, talk about Ilkley, and talk about the song – and they remember it. We’ve been very careful with how we select our beer names, so they reflect the Yorkshire heritage but also capture the imagination.”

In recent years the Chris and Ilkley Brewery have been taking that story far outside the Dales, and export sales have become one of the biggest areas for growth at a brewery which expanded by a third in October to meet demand. Thanks to support from UK Trade and Investment Ilkley beer can now be bought in Scandinavia, and they are working with the Santander bank to enter the market in Brazil; but the United States has been the biggest success so far.

Photography by Shang-Ting Peng

Photography by Shang-Ting Peng

“We didn’t think that was a possibility for us, because the country is vast and effectively you’re dealing with fifty different countries with different labelling requirements and taxation laws in each state, and all sorts of hurdles. But we were approached by a guy from a US based company who had heard of us through our social media, and tried the beer when he came to the UK and liked it. He offered to take all the hassle away from us by just buying the beer at a reasonable price and distributing it for us, so it was a hassle free transaction and I’m going out regularly now to help him promote it. We started in two states and we’re now in six; we’ll probably go to eight by the summer, and the way the interest levels are growing we’ll end up in 15–20 states by the end of next year, which is fantastic.”

The export market has many attractions for a brewery business, avoiding margin-reducing factors like UK duty and VAT and the cost of wholesale distribution partners. The success Ilkley are having abroad comes with its own potential pitfalls, however.

“We can’t do everything, and we want to keep growing in the UK as well. With the export markets we are in danger of doing too much too quickly, particularly with things like China, which is a bit of a toe in the water – we’ve only sent 1,000 bottles over, but if they sell well the distributor is talking about taking a huge volume which we simply can’t brew. So we’re going to be very cautious about expectations and export markets because we don’t want it to damage the brewery. We’ve seen examples of other brewers and other industries where you try and do too much too quickly and you end up falling over, and that’s certainly not what we’re going to do.”

What Ilkley Brewery are going to do is keep brewing innovative and delicious beers. “In May we’ve a new beer called Derby Day which is a mint stout – very subtle mint in the background of an easy drinking stout. And we are about to launch our unique beer for the Grand Départ called Marie Jaune – Yellow Mary – which is a version of Mary Jane made with French hops and French yeast. It’s effectively our first real attempt at a genuine lager, and that’s going to go into Booths supermarkets as their Tour de France beer for the duration of the race.”

Ilkley now have a beer calendar on their website, to help drinkers keep track of what’s coming up, as the brewery surges past 1,000 brews. “I think I’ve done about eight hundred of them,” says Chris. “So I’m knackered! But it’s a great business to be in. Brewing is hard work and stressful, but the brewing community are incredibly friendly, we all share information and it’s good fun and we’re all doing reasonably well. It’s a nice place to be at the moment.”

Mary-Jane

What Ilkley Brewery are going to do is keep brewing innovative and delicious beers. “In May we’ve a new beer called Derby Day which is a mint stout – very subtle mint in the background of an easy drinking stout. And we are about to launch our unique beer for the Grand Départ called Marie Jaune – Yellow Mary – which is a version of Mary Jane made with French hops and French yeast. It’s effectively our first real attempt at a genuine lager, and that’s going to go into Booths supermarkets as their Tour de France beer for the duration of the race.”

Ilkley now have a beer calendar on their website, to help drinkers keep track of what’s coming up, as the brewery surges past 1,000 brews. “I think I’ve done about eight hundred of them,” says Chris. “So I’m knackered! But it’s a great business to be in. Brewing is hard work and stressful, but the brewing community are incredibly friendly, we all share information and it’s good fun and we’re all doing reasonably well. It’s a nice place to be at the moment.”

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Originally published in The City Talking Leeds: Issue 12

 


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