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Black Sheep's Jo and Rob Theakston: returning to brewing with "cautious optimism"

Black Sheep restarts cask beer production 

As the UK pub trade increasingly anticipates reopening in July, brewers are returning to cask beer production.

Among them is Black Sheep Brewery. Orders from pubco customers have given the Yorkshire firm confidence to make the move, according to managing director Rob Theakston.

“We are proceeding with cautious optimism as we wrestle our way through the trials and tribulations of Covid-19,” he said. “Pubs will face a real challenge in getting back on their feet, but some will open and we want to be prepared to provide our usual service to them.

“That means we need to be getting beer into the system now. It’s a gamble but we think it’s worth it. The raw material costs are relatively low.”

Two hundred barrels of flagship ale Black Sheep Best Bitter have already been produced and that will be followed by a batch of Twilighter IPA specially for pubs giant Mitchells & Butlers.

“We’ve been talking to customers, mainly wholesalers and multiples who will order the bigger volumes, and we’ve had requests to provide cask beer for them from late June,” Theakston continued. 

“It’s an encouraging from the pub companies and we’re looking forward to the lockdown easing and the defibrillator jump-starting the UK economy.

“The question is, what are people’s appetite for pubs? We’re getting very little sense of that. It’s FOGO – fear of going out – that makes my nerves jangle. There will be an element that says, sod it, we’re going out. But I worry that the government restrictions have been so onerous that a lot of people will continue to stay indoors.”

While Black Sheep has been able to strengthen is sales base among supermarkets through the weeks of lockdown and develop direct deliveries to households with online sales up 2,000% year-on-year, the loss of the on-trade continues to depress production. 

It’s brewing on three or four days a week, instead of five, and 80% of staff have been furloughed leaving a flexible core team to do all the work.

“Now we’re just gently bringing people back in,” said Theakston. “But it’s baby steps.”

The brewer has some big plans for later in the year, though, as it installs its own packaging lines for bottles, cans and kegs.

“It’s a big investment but with our supermarket sales on the up it will be nice to have that side of things in our own hands.”

Brewers are being given the chance to play with some new recipes, too.
“It’s not the most creative of periods for beer, but we’re working on products in the background, delving into the low/no-alcohol area and doing an own-label for a supermarket. So we’re not standing still.”

Theakston concludes, “We’ll be fine, but we can’t rest on our laurels and we’re being very proactive as we take the business into the future.”

Meanwhile, at the other end of the country, St Austell Brewery also started brewing cask beer again last week, producing 440 barrels of its Tribute pale ale.

It will be followed by the rest of the core cask range including Proper Job, Cornish Best, Trelawny and Hicks, while Gem and Prophecy are being brewed at sister-company Bath Ales.

“Cask beer is an integral part of pub culture in the UK – there’s nothing quite like it,” said Andrew Turner, managing director of St Austell’s beer and brands division. “It’s been months since we’ve brewed draught beer – the longest time since 1851 – so we’re delighted to see production up and running again.”

Sales through supermarkets are up 32%, while the brewer’s online shop has seen business soar 10-fold.

Phil Mellows
16th June 2020

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