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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Enigmatic Samuel Smith's

I have been to ancient lands--India, China. It's not uncommon to encounter a building that has stood witness to fifty generations of us evanescent beings. The effect is telescopic--events in the rear-view mirror appear closer than they were. This happens with families, too--that, say, pass along the Rig Veda father to son for centuries. In the town of York, Romans run around the countryside and Vikings still adorn buses. On Sunday, I stood on the ancient wall in the city while the cathedral bells rang and in that dense moment was able to feel the dimmest tingling in my spine of the antiquity around me.

In Tadcaster, the keepers of the Vedas are brewers and their names are Smith. The lineage goes back to one family and it's still obvious the Smith name is an important one when you drive into town. At one end, the one named for John rises magnificently above the village much like Greene King stands over Bury St Edmunds. But while J Smith may own a larger market share, it's the other line, Samuel Smith's, where the true family lineage resides. (John Smith's is an industrial plant where Newcastle Brown--now mostly an export--and other supermarket brands are brewed.)

The street front for Samuel Smith's is a kind of metaphor for the brewery: its tiny face is as pleasant as it is inscrutable, and conceals everything about the brewery, which sprawls quite impressively, out of sight. Smith's is a fiercely private company, and they apparently don't open their doors often for visitors--so it was a real pleasure to have the opportunity to see it for myself.

So, how traditional is Smith's? Except for adopting a few technical innovations that have come along during the past century (a lab, for instance), almost everything is unchanged. Steve Barrett, the long-time head brewer, took us to the stable first, to meet William. Standing 18 hands tall, he's one of two immense work horses that deliver the cask beer every day. That set the tone of the tour.

We went to the base if the old Victorian brewery to where the well is located--and which still draws us the hard, gypsum-rich water the brewery uses. We passed the coal bin, next to the boiler that steam-heats the brewery. A bit sheepishly, Steve nodded to the soaring smokestack typical of breweries this age--except Smith's was still sending a thin smudge of smoke into the air. (The brewery has used a bit of technological advancement there to make the coal fire compliant with environmental law.)

At each step, I grew more and more amazed. This wasn't a brewery that couldn't be bothered to move into the 21st century--it was a brewery spending a great deal of bother to maintain the practices of the 19th. The brewery proper was a classic tower, and we hike up the five stories to the grain and mill room and worked our way down. (Smith's was a pioneer in organics, even using organic hops, and when I mentioned this to the shadowy figure, he said, "yes, but organic is very traditional, isn't it?") The mash tuns and coppers are beautiful and huge, and the India Ale even flows over and old chilling contraption that dribbles the wort from a trough over a vertical stack of coils with cold water running through them. It's collected at a second trough and heads off to the fermenters. (This was when I learned there was a lab--even Steve is a little wary of the system. But the lab says it comes out bug-free.)

Of course the beer then goes to the famous Yorkshire squares--though they aren't actually much different than other systems still in breweries around the country. (Caledonian's, though made of modern stainless, are identical.) Square fermenters, in various configurations remain, if not the norm, at least quite common.

In fact, the most remarkable part of the brewery comes after the squares--when it's time to put the beer on cask. Some goes in regular casks, some in bottles. But the Smith's Old Brewery Bitter goes into actual wooden casks. Even more remarkably, the casks are made and maintained on-site by the brewery's cooper, whom we visited next. The casks are built to last, and Steve said there are staves in some of the older casks that go back decades.

(Which raises a question, doesn't it? I asked Steve about it, but he says no wild yeasts have moved into the wood--though this seems incredible to me. I was left to wonder; was this the last extant example of true mild ale--young beer, drunk too quickly to pick up any funk? If so, I can confirm that served in the lovely old pub next door--coal fire burning in the hearth--it exhibits nothing but freshness.)

Finally, the tour was over and we were graciously bid adieu. There has been some talk lately of the old "gentlemen brewers" of the old times. These were very proper men who wore suits and ushered the activities of the brewery in a formal elegance. As the old guard of this generation were just getting started, there were a few of them left. Except that I felt that way about Sam Smith's too, and its formal, proper brewer, Steve Barrett. He retires next April, and someone new--although maybe not new to the Smith family--will take the reins. I feel doubly fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet Mr. Barrett.

There's a lot more I could say to lend texture and detail to the visit, but I've rattled on long enough. I'm finishing this post in Belgium, where I've somehow managed to arrive without incident. Although the drive over was a little shocking: what the hell are all these Belgians doing on the right side of the road?

More to come from the Low Countries--


  1. What a great experience! I love the imagery in the writing, as well as the images you included. You are fortunate, indeed, to have met these fine folks and toured their enigmatic operation. Nice work (if that's what it is).

  2. Jeff,
    I was just in Cologne and Dusseldorf, and many of the Kolsch and Alt brewers are using old wooden cask as well. I think the beer is consumed so quickly, the bugs don't have a chance to take hold.

  3. I was lucky enough to take a tour with Zak A. and a couple of other colleagues a couple of years back, the pictures bring back some fond memories. I say I was lucky because I had heard a tale of when Michael Jackson rocked up for an unannounced tour with a couple of other writers, he was refused entry!
    Were they still really secretive?
    "Can we see the bottling line?"
    - "No."
    "How many pints do you make in a week?"
    - "Can't say."

  4. Pete, thanks. I wrote it on my phone in the airport and on the plane, so it has a few issues here and there. Nice to have a long stretch to think on it, though.

    Ritch, that's my thinking, too.

    GD, Ah, you were with Zak when he visited--I know of that famous visit. (And I heard the rumors of the Jackson refusal, too, though in the version I heard, there was a whole pack of famous writers. Of course, they apparently didn't have an appointment. What barbarity was that?) I wouldn't say secretive, no. They would have shown us the bottling line, I think, but I'm generally not too interested in packaging so I was happy to skip it. They seemed open about everything else at the brewery and I never had the sense that we were walking past secret doors behind which secret things happened. But yes, they are not keen to discuss their business. They did not wish to divulge how many pubs they owned or what their annual barrelage was. But I have encountered reticence on that score by other breweries. I would allow eccentric, but it didn't seem to rise to the level of secretive.

  5. Great write up... That horse is huge!

  6. Very nice write-up. Your description reminded me of the tours I took at Young's Ram Brewery in Wandsworth in 2000. It broke my heart to hear it had been closed in 2006. Enjoy your time in Belgium!

  7. I loved reading this. It actually brought tears to my eyes. The world is better because places like this still exist.

  8. That "old chilling contraption" sounds as if it could be a "Baudelot cooler" - seems to have been a pretty commonly used piece of equipment for wort cooling in US pre-Prohibition era breweries, and I've seen references to them being used in the US into, at least, the 1940's.

    I've often thought I'd like to have seen one "in action". I toured SS back in the mid-1980's, so now I find I might have. Sadly, 25 years on, about the only thing I remember about Samuel Smith's are the Yorkshire squares.

  9. Lovely stuff - great insight in to one of my all time favourite breweries... Now, let's see if I can arrange a staff trip...