Behind the scenes at the new £8 million Thwaites Brewery site in Mellor Brook
PUBLISHED: 00:00 06 June 2019
A Lancashire family business with its roots in the Georgian era operates one of the north’s most sophisticated breweries But this is no soulless beer factory.
Entering the new Thwaites Brewery site in Mellor Brook, even before the buildings are in view, it's evident this won't be some characterless big-shed development. Artist Andrew Kay's striking depiction of the company's celebrated shire horses pulling a dray, a 2.5 ton sculpture made with 600 pieces of steel, signals that heritage, quality and continuity really matters.
That view is confirmed with a visit to the stables where the real animals are housed. 'The building is fantastic,' says head horseman Richard Green. 'The brewery give us amazing backing, they've spent a phenomenal amount of money. You still have to pinch yourself a bit when you come to work at the level of investment here, and all the work that's gone into this site. It's a dream job working here.'
The building where he and the other two horsemen work is proof positive of his statement. Outside it's elegantly modern, while inside the thick beams of American oak, pegged in traditional fashion, speak of true craftsmanship. The four shire horses, each shining black with white flashes on the nose and white feet, are stabled there in comfort, and the three brightly-coloured drays they pull at upwards of 100 events a year are kept and cared for out of the elements.
A similar attitude to artisan skills is in evidence at the brewery itself too. Testing began in August last year, with the first casks produced for sale in September.
'This is a modern brewery, but a craft brewery,' says Mark O'Sullivan, one of the five brewers who between them have 135 years of experience in the art. 'We've got increased capacity now, but there are hardly any computers. We're totally focused on brewing cask beers for our own pubs and hotels, and it's all hand-crafted, which we feel shows through in how the beer tastes.'
With a huge picture window enabling visitors to the site to see into the light and airy brewery, the company is clearly demonstrating the same pride in that craft as it has in the shire horses.
Head brewer Brian Yorston designed the layout. 'We wanted to get the flows right, and stick to the philosophy that this is a proper craft brewery - my laptop is probably the biggest computer in the building, everything is done by scales and through the skill of the people working here.
'We'll brew around one and a half million pints in the year, and are on track for that already. We're really busy, doing twice as much as we were doing last year in the old premises.'
He and his team have a lot to live up to, the company having established its traditions more than 200 years ago, and not slacking of late either. 'Two years ago we entered the International Beer Competition, the Oscars of the brewing world,' says Brian. 'It's judged by professional brewers for professional brewers, and we won with 13 Guns (an American IPA-style beer), and then won it again for the second time which was unprecedented.'
There is, of course, some strategic thinking behind the investment in the new site, as Andrew Buchanan, Thwaites' Director of Pubs and Brewing, explains. 'It is now sized for our pub estate. We did do a wide range, but are now focusing on a core range, brewed on a small batch scale, with all our beer done for our own pubs. We don't sell to anyone else, so if you want a pint of Thwaites original you have to go to a Thwaites-owned property.'
Operations further down the line have been taken into consideration too, with a huge training room, stylishly decorated with Thwaites memorabilia, and in the listed house - parts of which date from 1540 - at the centre of the development there's a cosy bar area where anyone new to pulling pints at Thwaites pubs is taught how to do that properly, and how to manage a cellar to keep the ales at their best.
It's the first time that the company has had its offices, brewery and stables on the same site, and for those working there it's a very pleasant environment, the ancient woodland to one side, some part of the Thwaites holding, offering a lovely place to stroll at lunchtime, with the occasional opportunity to observe the horses being put through their paces in the yard by their stables.
But some of us may be more jealous of an alternative way to spend some time here. 'Staff are offered the opportunity to do some beer tasting every week,' says Brian Yorston. 'It's obviously important to get the beer right, to try out anything new being done, and to make sure the quality of our range is being maintained. And it's a nice thing to do.'
THWAITES IN NUMBERS
The Mellor Brook site investment was £8,000,000
It is designed to brew 1,500,000 pints a year
It is already producing 400 casks a week
Founded in 1807, the business is now run by the sixth generation of the Thwaites family