A fact repeated to wide-eyed and beer-loving freshers is that York has a pub for every day of the year, and one to spare. While this isn’t strictly true (CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale and all-round beer aficionados, put the number at about 270), there can be no doubting our city’s penchant for the amber nectar.
It is perhaps surprising that, unlike the walls and buildings that have survived in York for centuries, until 1996 there hadn’t been a brewery within the city walls for 40 years. Thankfully those dark days continue to be kept at bay as the York Brewery celebrates its 20th Anniversary.
Set up by a group of friends who quit their jobs to pursue a shared passion, the Brewery benefited greatly in 2001 when the EU made provisions for
member states to adjust their tax laws. International fiscal laws might seem a little dry (pun intended) for such an industry, but with this provision came the ruling from the British Government which allows microbreweries (like the one in York) to pay just 50 per cent of the tax that larger commercial ones owe.
This was a major step towards breaking up the monopoly held by companies such as Heineken and Greene King, which had until that point been rather successful in buying up emerging competition and either forcing it to brew their brand or simply closing it down indefinitely.
After the founders retired in 2008, they sold York Brewery to Mitchells of Lancaster, a well known pub and brewery chain. This was perhaps a contentious move considering the two cities’ history, but the name and location remain under the white rose, for the time being at least. If nothing else, at least the people of Lancaster got the chance to drink some decent beer.
Even despite the scale of its owners, the Brewery remains classified as a microbrewery, and produce (only) two and a half million pints per year, in twenty barrel batches, with each barrel being 38 gallons or 288 pints. While the scale may seem enormous for a single building, the biggest brewing company in the world, Anheuser-Busch InBev, brews around 30,800,000 pints per year and controls 25 per cent of the global market share.
The Brewery produce (only) two and a half million pints per year
While the scale of beer production can vary wildly, the brewing process and ingredients are very similar indeed. The same four ingredients – water, malted (soaked then dried) grain, yeast and hops – have been used practically since beer’s inception, possibly as early as 12,000 years ago, although what was drunk by the Egyptians would hardly be recognised today. Each separate ingredient’s source, composition and ratio contributes to the overall flavour. Water is far and away the biggest ingredient, and actually the least varying. In the UK and in many places around the world, gypsum is added to brewing water in a process known as ‘Burtonisation,’ designed to make it similar to the waters of Burton-on-Trent, which have long been considered especially good for brewing.
While malted grain is the most common, the important thing is to have a starch source — this can then be broken down into sugar, which is then fermented by the yeast to make alcohol. Malting grain for different lengths of time and at different temperatures can affect the taste and colour of beer. Combining hot water and malt in a ‘mash tun’ is the first stage of the brewing process, and causes enzymes in the malt to break down the starch in the grain, creating a thick sugary liquid delightfully named ‘wort’.
After washing all the grains (called ‘sparging’), the wort is boiled in a large tank called (and once made of) a copper, at which point hops are added. Hops are a (relatively) new addition to brewing, first mentioned by a Carolingian Abbot in 822 AD as an ingredient. The flowers and leaves of this bitter plant are dried and crushed before being added to the mixture to add the characteristic bitterness and flavour, while the whole mixture is boiled at length. The boiling evaporates the leftover water and concentrates the sugars for greater efficiency. Once everything has boiled and cooled, the wort is moved to yet another tank and the yeast is finally incorporated. Depending on how strong one wants one’s beer, the mixture can be left anywhere from a week to a few months to ferment, allowing the yeast to feed on the sugar and release alcohol and carbon dioxide.
At the York Brewery, they brew this stage in open-topped vats, allowing the yeast to form a protective crust on the surface to keep out bacteria which might spoil the flavour or compete with the yeast. Once everything is fermented, the yeast and other small particles that may be left in the beer are allowed to settle before it is packed into bottles, kegs or casks. Real ales continue fermenting in the cask, while lagers are pressurised in custom kegs.
While this process seems very involved and long-winded (not to mention chock-full of rather quaint anachronisms), York Brewery makes up to two batches per day, four days a week. This impressively fast turnover rate has allowed them to create an eclectic array of brews across many different styles and seasons.
There are, of course, many different types of beer, created by using different ingredients and adjusting timings and order in the brewing process. The type of malt used is a main influence on the colour of the beer, and also affects the taste, making it stronger and richer in the case of dark beers like stout or lighter and crisper for lagers or pilsners. The amount of hops and how long they are boiled for will affect the aroma and bitterness. The longer the hops are boiled, the more bitter the final beer will be, but there will be less flavour and aroma from the hops itself.
The ambitious York Brewery uses a wide and diverse range of malts to create different flavours and colours, and imports hops and ingredients from all over the world. These range from the original Yorkshire Terrier, a 4.2 per cent golden ale, to the stronger ruby ale Centurion’s Ghost, at 5.4 per cent. For the more adventurous, they teamed up with The Chili Jam Man to produce Mostly Ghostly, a version of Centurion’s Ghost with ghost chilli added.
Alongside these permanent fixtures, seasonal beers like the incresingly prolific Nordic Fury, created for the wintertime Viking festival are created each quarter, and a different beer for each month also rotates (June’s is Cascadian Summer, which uses Cascade hops from America). And, of course, two birthday ales were created for that special weekend in mid-May.
Despite (or perhaps because of) its size, the brewery is no stranger to awards, with several beers placing in the top three or winning the annual ‘Champion Beer of Britain’, at times even in more than one category.
To a city like York, which itself seems to be undergoing the fermentation process if one dares venture within the walls on a Saturday night, the brewery looks to remain a fixture. Long may it and our hundreds of pubs continue. Cheers!