Against a backdrop of rows of ivy-covered cottages, tiny winding Yorkshire roads lined by impossibly close hedges, and the idyllic contrast of bleach white cricket uniforms on verdant green, that unmistakable pungent waft of yeast lets you know there’s a brewery nearby. You can see it from the road, but unmarked and austere it looks like any old industrial remnant in a small English town; one square, stone smokestack rising up like a Gulliver among Lilliputians.
You have to search a bit. First for a place to park in the crowded but lively square of Masham town, second for a sign that actually points you in the direction of the brewery. Down a side road, past some private residences. Through a stone alley with a slowly rusting black iron gate. Under a long pergola shaded in fragrance by thousands of budding, nascent hops. Finally to a little patio that welcomes you, cheerfully, to the “Black Bull in Paradise.”
Tucked back in a cozy alcove of the town like a beery nest for migratory drinkers, there’s an old cooper’s house grinning the same stone and wood smile (plus some minor dental work) it has had on its face since 1827. To the right, a darkened doorway leads into a room with a low ceiling, exposed beams, and a rough stone floor. To the left there’s an impromptu beer garden, framed neatly by a rainbow menagerie of empty casks (not kegs!), all awaiting their filled fate.
A brief stroll through a surprisingly stocked gift shop and past two green-clad employees, will drop you into the quaintest of pubs, half ripped from a Tolkien novel, half planted firmly in reality, all the English whimsy a beer-minded American could dream of. This is no modern, urban American tap house; only 6 pulls line the bar with perfect parallel panache, each connected to a classic beer engine, with nary of molecule of carbon dioxide to be found in the entire building. You overhear a patron mention malt between sips of his Black Bull Bitter; a cheery woman at the end of the bar waxes brewlific about the
protein of two-row barley, and how to combat inevitable haze. Her vocabulary has all the hallmarks of a brewer, so you gently inject yourself into the conversation. Lynne. She’s not a brewer, but your tour guide.
Lynne leads the small group, six plus your party of five, back under the hoppy pergola, down a different side alley, past freshly painted red windows and doors. As she walks she talks, giving a brief history of the nearly two hundred year old brewery, describing the founding, sale, merger, and eventually reacquisition of the facilities to bring it back “under old management” in 2003. It’s impossible to ignore the stark difference of the building – and its history – when compared to the contemporary breweries you’re used to, State-side.
Her green shirt like a green light to explore the premises, Lynne leads you up some worn stairs to a room piled high and wide with bags of Simpsons Malt. A large pulley-powered conveyor lifts the fifty pound sacks to the top floor of the building; the first in many steps to use gravity (not pneumatics) to move and brew beer in the classic tower-style brewery. Several winding red staircases later and you’re at the very top, in a room that smells like Sunday morning; toasted bread and sweet cereal. The mill cracks the grain at the apex so that it can be easily passed into the lauter tun, one room away and about 5 feet down. Before leaving, Lynne describes all the ingredients – from the pale and crystal to the Bramling Cross plugs. Each in the group takes turn cracking the malt between their teeth. Some smile at the surprise sweetness, others cringe after crunching too hard on some astringent roasted barley.
You stop at the sadly empty lauteur tun. It’s a behemoth, ringed by cast iron, topped with a braced and riveted wooden lid. Lynne explains that it’s almost original, and the cast iron bowl only had to be replaced once in 187 years of brewing. The wooden top, subject to hours and days and years of hot mashing, hasn’t managed the same longevity. Across the open room but one platform down, between two catwalks, the copper kettle gapes its maw at you, like it’s yawning out of boredom from not having any wort to boil. When you look back again, it’s physically unchanged, but this time it looks like it’s laughing, grinning, very pleased with itself that it gets to make beer soon, and you don’t.
Without much else to show, Lynne’s green shirt descends again, this time pointing out the tubes and valves that carry the wort from the kettle onwards, to the “basement” of the brewery. This basement turns out to actually be on the ground floor (but still lower than the kettle) where like massive pans of rising bread, the beer ferments in open top containers. You resist the urge to dive into the feet-deep krausen froth, but flash Lynne a cheeky smile. She laughs, like she can read your mind. As she moves the tour forward, you sneak into a side room to admire the neatly lined up samples of various beers; quality assurance turned art, accidentally.
Finally gravity’s natural decline brings you to the logistical heart of the brewery, where some more familiar processes and equipment greet you with shining brilliance. But while the stage may look the same, the actors play different roles; where an American brewery worker protects and primes kegs with shields of C02, these casks are filled with fresh, uncarbonated beer, giving them a shelf life of a few weeks, not a few months. The casks look fatter, jollier than their American counter parts, with a round hole that must be plugged and hammered to keep the beer inside from the harsh oxygen outside. The full casks travel down a conveyor to awaiting trucks, who, if everything goes to pubby plan, will return, empty, to the brewery in fewer than thirty days.
Back in the Black Bull, Lynne lets you sample the products of the mashing Masham marvel you just toured, pulling third pints into branded glasses, letting the creamy head settle, then explaining the recipe behind each. A pale, subtly citrus wheat beer plays guest this month, mainly in celebration of the large bicycle ride that passes through Yorkshire each summer. A roasted barley number called “Smooth Dark – Extra Cool” is not very cold compared to American beer, but that hardly matters as your head swims in the delicate balance of coffee, chocolate, and sweet grain. The rest of the line up echoes English brewing tradition; heavy malt melodies with very, very subtle hop accompaniment, smooth, low alcohol, all approachable, none too challenging for even a novice palate. You try to pick a favorite, but can’t really, because they’re all so exotic when put head-to-head against the 7% ABV, aggressively hopped IPAs of home. Each is very good, and you half-plan how to get a cask past those pesky TSA agents on your trip home.
Noting your fascination and legitimate interest, Lynne lets you pull some pints. She invites you back behind the bar, something you’ve never done before (especially not in a brewery taproom in England), and gives you a quick tutorial on the “two hard pulls” needed to first set the head, then finish filling the glass. The engines feel substantial and heavy, even sticky, and each satisfying pull connects the muscles in your arm to the beer itself, makes you feel like you earned that beer, didn’t just have some forced gas rush through a line and dump it into the glass for you.
You don’t really want to leave. There’s something in the whimsy, in the deliberate, old-fashioned methods that speak to you, remind you that every pint you sip carries with it ancient tradition. You thank Lynne, who oddly thanks you back, and make your way for the door. Before you leave, you grab two souvenirs – a pair of half-pint glasses with the Theakston logo printed on the side. The rules of the airline may not allow you to check a full cask of beer, but you’re pretty sure they’ll be OK with you carrying your memories on, 10 ounces at a time.
See below for a full gallery of the brewery tour.