Bitter Sweet Success

A forward-thinking Yorkshire brewery has successfully switched to online ordering and food delivery during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whilst many businesses held back and waited with bated breath for Government advice, the Black Sheep Brewery in Masham took heed of what was happening in other European countries and gained a four-week advantage on setting up its new offering.

The independent brewery was founded by Paul Theakston (of the famous brewing family). In 1992 Paul broke away from the main family brewery in the town, thus becoming the “black sheep”. The brewery makes cask and keg ale plus a wide variety of bottled and canned beers, including obscure beers, such as pineapple milkshake IPA and raspberry and white chocolate beer, which are sold all over the world.

There’s also a visitor centre offering brewery tours, a shop and a bistro, with average weekend visits topping 300 people.

“The bistro has become a destination in itself,” says Jake Humberstone, visitor centre manager. “Although I’m not keen on the phrase, I would describe our offer as ‘posh pub grub’, things like steak and Riggwelter ale pie, fish and chips, and Drayman’s sharing boards.

“We do all our own smoking in-house and make everything fresh on site.”

Everything was going swimmingly until coronavirus struck earlier this year, and the brewery team had to act quickly to save their livelihoods.

“COVID-19 put a stop to the industry that I have spent the last 18 years in,” continues Jake. “We have five sites on the estate and there was a lot of uncertainty. We stopped everything in its tracks and set about mothballing the sites for lockdown.”

The team also introduced a food delivery service three or four weeks before lockdown. “We looked across Europe and, instead of sitting with our hands in our pockets, we got ahead of the game,” adds Jake. “We put a very simple menu in place, things like homemade kebabs, curries and pizzas. The pizza bases are made using Country Range Doughballs – I used to run an Italian restaurant and I know a good pizza! The dough is brilliant.”

400 meals a week are delivered within a four-mile radius, or picked up via click and collect. The Sunday roast sells out every week so customers are advised to pre-order to avoid disappointment.

Jake continues: “We’ve had some fantastic feedback and I think it will have a long-term effect on how we are held in our community.

“Our mail order business has gone up by 2000% too. Buying habits have changed but I don’t think it’s a short-term thing and the industry will need to adapt to the new way of living.”

Whilst some food businesses are planning to re-open this month (July), the brewery is holding fire.

“50% occupancy in our bistro is going to be a challenge,” says Jake, “and there will inevitably be a second wave. The thing for us is, if we re-open to full capacity, get the beer casked and kegged then had to close again, that would finish us off realistically, so we are better waiting longer.”

In the meantime, the team are busy planning their Christmas menus and looking forward to the day when they can reintroduce their “legendary” Christmas parties…