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Classic Beer of the Month April 2017: Black Sheep Best Bitter

Black Sheep Best Bitter, 3.8%

Every cloud has a silver lining, they say, and Black Sheep is the brewing world’s living proof of that.

Black Sheep Best BitterBack in the 1980s, the future of the Theakston brewery in Masham, North Yorkshire, was constantly in doubt. At one time, there were three rival bids on the table to acquire the business but the company was eventually sold to Blackburn brewery Matthew Brown.

When Matthew Brown was then acquired by Scottish & Newcastle in 1987, all traces of the Blackburn company were soon eradicated. Theakston, however, was reprieved and £1 million was earmarked for refurbishment of the Masham site.

But, while some members of the Theakston family remained involved under S&N, for Paul Theakston, great-great-grandson of the founder, it was a step too far. He walked away from the business.

However – as I have discovered numerous times while writing about beer – brewing is in the blood. It didn’t take long for Paul to return to the beer scene, opening his own brewery in the same town.

Paul took over the site of the long-gone Lightfoot Brewery and equipped it with vessels acquired from other breweries, most notably the recently closed Hartley’s in Ulverston. Paul’s wife, Sue, then came up with a clever and appropriate name, and Black Sheep was born.

Sharper and Hoppier

The first beer that Black Sheep produced is celebrating its silver anniversary this year. Yorkshire beer writer Barrie Pepper tasted the company’s Best Bitter at its launch in 1992. He noted it was ‘much sharper and hoppier than Theakston Best Bitter and slightly darker in colour’.

To my mind, it is a splendid Yorkshire bitter, brewed the traditional way in Yorkshire square fermentation vessels that allow excess yeast to be easily skimmed, and crafted from the brewer’s favourite barley variety, Maris Otter.

Pale and crystal malt are combined in the grist, along with some wheat for head retention. In the copper, only English hops are used, four varieties in fact – Challenger, Progress, Golding and Fuggle, with Fuggle dominant.

The aroma has a gentle caramel note from the malt, and a soft floral, leafy fragrance from the hops.

That hint of caramel continues in the taste, part of a teasing maltiness that is soon overcome by a crisp, peppery bitterness from hops that have a light, hedgerow fruitiness, perhaps even a hint of gooseberry.

The flavours are big and bold, there’s solid body for the moderate strength and the finish, with yet more delicate floral and caramel notes, is slightly salty and moreish. With leafy hops notes well in evidence, it’s a pleasure to just sit and let the finish linger.

In this amber ale, there is no zesty grapefruit, no mango and no ‘air-freshener’ floral notes from US or southern hemisphere hops. Refreshingly – in more ways than one – this is a truly satisfying, old-fashioned British bitter that – in the perpetual clamour for something new and exciting – we really have taken for granted in recent times.

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