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Still Peculier? The Relaunch Of T&R Theakston

Added: Monday, November 1st 2004

T&R Theakston, the famous brewery based in Masham, North Yorkshire, has re-launched its brands a year after the company was restored to independent ownership when Scottish & Newcastle sold it back to the family.

New pump clips and labels have been designed for Mild, Best Bitter, Black Bull Bitter, XB and the legendary Old Peculier. The most significant change has been the increase in strength of the top brand, Best Bitter, from 3.6% to 3.8%. The beer's strength was cut when it was controlled by S&N.

Director Simon Theakston (right) said: "We are delighted that the restoration of the strength of Best Bitter coincides with the anniversary of our buying back ownership of the business. By raising the ABV [alcohol by volume] from 3.6% to 3.8% we are restoring the strength of the beer to where it was nearly five years ago and enhancing the full flavour of the ale, which should appeal to beer drinkers who are well accustomed to this satisfying pint. And the great news for licensees and their customers is that there will be no price rise as a result of this development." Theakston's dates from 1827, when Robert Theakston started to brew in the Black Bull inn in the market town of Masham. In 1875, Robert's son Thomas built a new brewery on the aptly-named Paradise Fields in the ancient Dales town. In 1919, Theakston's bought the rival Lightfoot Brewery: according to a local legend, this was done on the grounds that Lightfoot's always won the annual cricket match against Theakston's.

The company grew steadily over the following years and its fortunes were given a massive boost by the arrival of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) in the 1970s. Theakston's beers, Old Peculier in particular, acquired cult status. In order to meet demand, the Theakston family, led by the late Michael Theakston, bought the Carlisle State Brewery for 114,000. The Carlisle brewery and its pubs had been nationalised in World War One in a bid by the government to stop munitions workers drinking too much and endangering the war effort.

Carlisle proved to be a drain on Theakston's finances. Outside investors were bought in while Michael Theakston and his cousin Paul tussled over the future of the company. In 1984, Theakston's agreed to merge with Matthew Brown, a large regional brewery based in Blackburn. Brown's was then stalked by Scottish & Newcastle, which had a poor ale portfolio. S&N finally bought Brown's in 1987 and subsequently closed the Blackburn site: its aim all along had been to acquire the Theakston's brands. At this stage, Paul Theakston resigned and subsequently set up his own Black Sheep Brewery, based in the former Lightfoot maltings.

Theakston's volumes soared, with most of the production carried out at S&N's Tyneside plant. But the company's image suffered when CAMRA criticised it for allowing all production of Best Bitter to be based at Tyneside. In the autumn of 2003, S&N announced it was selling the brewery and the brands back to the Theakston family, though the bulk of production will still be carried out by the global brewer at its John Smith's Tadcaster plant when Tyne closes early in 2005. S&N's interest in ale has declined in recent years. It owns the leading European lager Kronenbourg and also has large interests in Russia and the Baltic States, where it runs the biggest brewing group Baltika in a consortium with Carlsberg.

The main Theakston brands re-launched on 7 October are:

Theakston Traditional Mild, 3.5% Mild has 15 colour units and 22 bitterness units. It's brewed from ale, crystal and black malts, with wheat maize and cane sugar. The hops are Challenger, Fuggles and Progress. It is comparatively dry for the style, with a pleasing nose of dark fruits, rich grain, chocolate and coffee with a good underpinning of spicy hops. The palate is bitter-sweet with cappuccino coffee notes while the short finish is dry, dominated by dark malt and fruit, bitter chocolate and gentle hops.

Theakston Best Bitter, 3.8% 15 colour, 24 bitterness, brewed from ale and crystal malts, wheat and maize, with Bramling Cross, Challenger, Fuggles, Progress, Styrian Goldings and Target hops. The complex hop recipe gives the beer a rich hop resins and citrus fruit nose and palate, balanced by biscuity malt. The finish is long, hoppy, fruity and quenching.

Theakston Black Bull Bitter 23 colour, 29 bitterness, brewed from ale and crystal malts, wheat and caramel. The hops are Challenger, Goldings and Target. Caramel [burnt sugar] gives a luscious dark malt note to the beer, balanced by a powerful tart, tangy and peppery hop note. It is full on the palate with a fine balance of malt, fruit and hop notes.

Theakston XB, 4.5% 26 colour, 26 bitterness, brewed with ale and crystal malts, wheat, maize and cane sugar, with Bramling Cross, Challenger, Fuggles, Progress and Target hops. XB was formulated when Theakston's was brewing in Carlisle: its name derives from the old habit of branding casks with Xs and Bs to denote strength, X for mild and B for bitter. XB is therefore something of a hybrid beer, a strong mild-cum-bitter. Its rich malty and toasted grain appeal is reminiscent of a Scottish Heavy. There is a strong hint of dark blackberry fruit but the malt and fruit notes throughout are balanced a solid underpinning of spicy, peppery, resinous hops.

Theakston Old Peculier, 5.6% 95 colour, 29 bitterness, brewed with ale and crystal malts, wheat, maize, cane sugar and caramel, hopped with Challenger, Fuggles and Target. In spite of its strength, this famous Old Ale has a pronounced peppery hop note from Fuggles, its signature hop. The nose and palate are rich and full, with raisin and sultana fruit, dark grain, liquorice and molasses. The finish is long and lingering, with spicy hops underpinning the rich dark malt and fruit.

The Old Peculier legend The beer's name had nothing to with oddness but comes from Norman French and means "particular". It refers to a Peculier, a medieval parish outside the control of a bishop. In the 12th century, a knight called Sir Roger de Mowbray was captured and held prisoner for seven years during the Crusades in the Holy Land. When he was freed he expressed his gratitude by giving the living of the church at Masham, where his family lived, to St Peters in York. But the Bishop of York wasn't prepared to make the arduous journey to Masham, where he risked attacks by footpads and vandals. He freed Masham of "all the customs and claims of his archdeacons and officials" and set up the Peculier Court of Masham to deal with the local church and local law. The chairman of the original court had a great seal made to mark his power. The seal, with a kneeling figure of Sir Roger de Mowbray, is used today as the symbol of Theakston's brewery and its famous strong ale. The Peculier Court still sits, with 24 "good men from the parish" presided over by the vicar.