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Black Sheep in big push to boost cask

Added: Wednesday, March 2nd 2022

Charlene Black Sheep

A major regional brewer, Black Sheep in the Yorkshire Dales, is launching a major campaign to boost the fortunes of real ale – and young people are firmly in the brewery’s sites.

Charlene Lyons, Black Sheep’s chief executive (above), says she aims to recruit new and younger drinkers to the cask beer sector. She will embrace all forms of social media, including Tick Tock, Instagram and podcasts, to get the message across. 

But older drinkers are not forgotten. “There are a lot of lapsed cask drinkers out there,” she says. As well as social media, videos in pubs, brighter pump clips and visits to the brewery will attempt to draw people to the pleasures of living, breathing beer. Tours include a view of traditional Yorkshire “Squares”, slate fermenting vessels that give cask beer from the region its lively head and smooth mouthfeel.

Charlene was a management consultant who ran her own business for 10 years. She did some work for Black Sheep in Masham that resulted in her being asked to join the brewery as chief executive in January 2020. It helped, she says, that she loves beer and Black Sheep’s IPA in particular. 

She had a baptism of fire with the Covid pandemic and the lockdowns that followed. But she and the brewery team threw themselves in to a frenzy of activity. This included direct delivery of beer in their immediate trading area allied to a massive switch to bottled beer that was promoted online and through increased national sales in supermarkets.

“Our e-commerce sales grew from zero to £1 million,” she says. While other brewers retracted and even closed, Black Sheep recorded a profit of more than £1 million in 2021 with online sales income growing from £108,150 in 2020 to £741,951 last year.

But now as life returns to something like normal Charlene says the brewery is returning to what it does best – cask beer. 

“It’s the heart of what we do,” she stresses. “Cask has been in decline for years. We have to reposition it and drive it into growth.”

She dares to use the dread word education as she feels too many drinkers don’t understand how real ale is brewed,  looked after in pub cellars and then drawn to the bar free from gas pressure.

“We have to explain the process and say it’s the freshest beer you can buy, made with the finest malts and hops,” she says. 

This year is a special one for the brewery, marking 30 years since Paul Theakston launched the company. He left the neighbouring family brewery when it was taken over by Scottish & Newcastle and set out on the risky path of selling beer to the free trade and supermarkets, without any pubs of his own.

He succeeded and has handed over the brewery to his sons Rob and Jo, with Charlene at the helm of a brewery with an impressive capacity of 70,000 barrels a year. To celebrate the anniversary, the regular cask beers – Best Bitter, Special Ale and Riggwelter – will be joined by a series of monthly specials. They will include a pale ale, two IPAs, a blond ale for spring, a chocolate porter for the autumn and Blitzen for Christmas.

Charlene Lyons says the brewing industry post Covid is not out of the woods yet. “We face rising costs of fuel and ingredients and we still have very high rates of excise duty,” she says. “There’s too little government support for brewing and drinkers aren’t happy when the price of a pint goes up.”

She agrees that beer quality is vital to the appreciation of cask ale. Black Sheep runs cellar training courses for publicans and the brewery has a technical support team to help with problems.

“Our draymen also do a great job in talking to publicans when they deliver beer,” she adds. “As a result you will rarely find a poor pint of our beer.”

Black Sheep bought the York Brewery when it went into administration in 2018 and brews its beers, including Guzzler and York Terrier, for its three pubs. Black Sheep now has a small estate of five pubs but Charlene says firmly she’s not planning to add to that number as “pubs are too capital intensive.”

At present all her efforts, along with Jo, Rob and the brewery team, is going into boosting the appreciation and consumption of Britain’s unique contribution to the world of beer.

•Black Sheep’s mission to change the perception of cask beer has been strengthened by collaborating with young creative people in the region to tell the story of real ale.

The brewery has partnered with Matt Abbott, an artist, poet and educator from Wakefield, who has written a poem detailing the history, tradition and relevance of cask beer.

The poem has now been performed on a video featuring Bradford artist Chantelle Pierre (pictured below).

Throughout the course of its 30th anniversary year, the brewery will work with more local talent, including artists and comedians, on a series of projects.


Chantelle Black Sheep