Published on November 4th, 2013 | by Alastair Gilmour0
Theakston’s – Family favourites
Microbrewing is the new rock ’n’ roll with their beer sales seemingly rocketing – but what steps does a more traditional brewery take to hold onto its market share? Simon Theakston shares his thoughts with Alastair Gilmour
Theakstons is a very traditional brewing company with nearly two centuries of heritage behind its name – how do you cope with an ever-changing market?
We’ve been doing this for 187 years and in that time we’ve got to understand the drivers of the marketplace. We’re not complacent, but in that time you build up a degree of confidence about how it all works. We know we have a very strong – and indeed growing – band of loyal customers who enjoy our beer and in many ways we actually reflect the marketplace. We have a portfolio of permanently available tried and tested beers that everybody loves and they go to the pub because they know the beer’s going to be there. But equally we have a very exciting range of seasonal beers that we produce on a monthly basis to appeal to consumers who want to try something different.
So, are we worried about what’s going on elsewhere in the trade? Exactly the opposite. The market is increasingly appreciating serious quality ale brewed with the finest ingredients there are. I think consumers are astonished by the flavours that can be created from relatively few raw materials.
You have a well documented link with Heineken – does that mean you have given up some of your independence?
We’re completely independent. We unashamedly use Heineken as our route to market – it works very well for us. Our issues are that we’re a long way from a lot of our customers across the country so it’s physically impossible to get beer to them. The benefits of using Heineken is that they’re delivering (to those customers) anyway so we piggy back on their drays and technical services. It’s a modern-day solution for a permanent problem across the brewing industry.
Does tradition mean you always have to stand still?
We’ve got some exciting plans for investment in the brewery to increase capacity and improve quality and consistency which is part of a rolling programme of investment that my brothers and I embarked on when we bought the company back (from Scottish & Newcastle) ten years ago.
As for our beers, the seasonal ales we have introduced have really taken off. We’ve also had a huge amount of fun with them and it just encourages me to do more – and more interesting things.
For example, Theakstons Masham Four & Twenty was massively successful and sold very well up and down the country. We saw a demand for unusually flavoured beers and we’re up for the challenge. Theakstons Smoked Lapsang Souchong tea – made with China tea and mandarin oranges – was extraordinarily popular and a great example of that approach. It’s all about the delight of a kaleidoscope of flavours and basically we’re constructing things that people will enjoy the flavour of.
The Theakston story is punctuated with takeovers and family splits – cousin Paul went off and started up Black Sheep under your nose – and the inevitable acrimony that goes with them. Do you ever wish things had run more smoothly?
It’s been a funny old journey, really. Would we change anything with hindsight? The answer’s no, because we might not be sitting here today. We’re delighted with Black Sheep – they’re a very successful and prosperous cask ale brewer and that’s also the marketplace we’re in. We want the market to do well and we want everybody to do well, it’s a collective thing. Our competition on the bar is with the big international lagers and ciders. If cask ale is united as an industry, so much the better.
You couldn’t make the Theakstons-Black Sheep story up. To be honest we’ve all had to endure very difficult times, but they were a long time ago now, yet we’re collegiate and mutual supporters in the marketplace. And long may it continue.
Two renowned breweries within a short stroll of each other – is there something in the Masham water?
There’s something about Masham and that’s not just hearsay. It might be something in the DNA as well, but I know there’s a very proud tradition of enterprise among people here. There has always been an immensely strong regional pride in everything like farm produce, beer, cheese – everything.
How does Old Peculier sit with hugely hoppy – and popular – American-style IPAs?
The market changes. One could argue that yesterday was all about golden ales and today it’s different ales. We’ve got a range of ales that covers all the bases and within that Old Peculier continues to go from strength to strength – so much so that I would say it is one of Britain’s greatest beer brands. People drink it with great reverence, which is lovely. People say they feel relaxed and at peace with the world with all those wonderful flavours going on. It’s one of the reasons Old Peculier sponsors the Harrogate Crime Festival – you don’t get who done it on page one, you have to wait till the end of the book. You get all sorts of things going on throughout the glass but you have to wait until the end to get the full magic.
The Theakston brewing dynasty started in 1827 with Robert Theakston – how do you see it continuing?
I’m defined by this industry, it’s completely in my blood. My brothers Edward, Tim and Nick are non-executive directors, not involved in the day-to-day running of the brewery – there’s only me does that. But we are all very proud of our family business. We have eight children between us so I very much hope that out of that team we’ll extract one or two of them to come and work in the brewery.
*Simon Theakston is managing director of T&R Theakston, one of the nation’s leading independent family brewers.