Beer maestro Simon Theakston talks about his criminal past

PUBLISHED: 08:33 21 July 2010 | UPDATED: 17:36 20 February 2013

Simon Theakston

Simon Theakston

The boss of one of Britain's most celebrated breweries talks to Chris Titley about beer, families and his criminal pastime

Offences dealt with by the Peculier Court included carrying a dead mans skull out of the churchyard and laying it under the head of a person to charm them to sleep. Sounds like the opening to a novel by Caroline Graham, whose Chief Inspector Barnaby series inspired ITVs Midsomer Murders (one of the Barnaby books was nominated for a previous Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award).

Throw in another imaginary detective with a passion for real ale, Inspector Morse, and you see there are more connections between beer and detective stories than many realise.

Cleverly Theakston has combined the two by turning its bottles of Old Peculier into crime novels you can drink. It asked six of the UKs leading crime writers to pen a crime story in 10 words, and the results of this pint-sized fiction, by the likes of Mark Billingham and festival chair Stuart MacBride, are printed on the labels.

PD James, Lee Child and Morse creator Colin Dexter have been guests in the past and other famous writers appearing over the four days of this years festival include Ian Rankin and Val McDermid. Simon says: Weve now become the biggest crime fiction festival in Europe and possibly the world. We have dozens of world-acclaimed crime novelists beating a path to Harrogate. Its a great carnival where fans, publishers and authors all mingle.

The Theakston story itself, part family saga, part parable of our times, would require a thickish volume to do it justice.

In a nutshell, Simons great, great grandfather Robert started the brewery at the Black Bull pub in Masham and it remained in the family until it fell into the hands of Blackburn brewery Matthew Brown, in 1984, following ructions within the Theakston family. Three years later Scottish & Newcastle bought up Matthew Brown and T&R Theakston with it.

Simons cousin, Paul, another great, great grandson of founder Robert, left to set up his own brewery, Black Sheep, in another part of town, while Simon stayed with the old family company and sought his fortunes within S&N.

But 16 years later Simon and his brothers Nick, Tim and Edward, regained control of Theakstons through a buy-back, unique in the industry. What was particularly great was that our father lived long enough to see the company return to family control once again, said Simon.

And relations between him and Paul are on a personal level very cordial and mutually supportive, but professionally we are completely independent of each other. Id describe us as friendly rivals.

Theakstons rebirth as an independent Yorkshire brewer became even more important when Carlsberg moved production of Tetleys, the historic Leeds brewer, to Northampton.

Simon believes theres something almost sacred about the relationship between the brewer and drinker, particularly in our neck of the woods. He describes it as a communion.

To me it is a very solemn moment when any consumer in the country takes a glass of Theakstons beer to his lips. He expects certain things quality, integrity, authenticity.

Nowhere is it more important than in Yorkshire. Yorkshire cask ale beer drinkers expect that of their supplier.

After an ingenious expansion of the Masham brewery, with three new fermenting vessels squeezed into a long-abandoned kiln room, all Theakston cask ale is brewed on the site. Anyone looking for a fine beer need not look any further. Thats partly due to the quality of ingredients involved a mix of bitter and fruit hops and malted barleys combined with an ancient and noble yeast culture and water purified through layers of Yorkshire limestone.

But its also geographical, says Simon. Southern brewers historically produced light and hoppy beers, and Scottish brewers strong and malty beers, but that middle band of the country 20 miles either side of what is now the M62 produces Britains most favoured ale brands Theakstons, Tetleys, John Smiths, Boddingtons, Websters, Timothy Taylors which over time have developed a beautiful balance and blend of both different types of ale.

What of the future? Simon hopes the brewery will take advantage in an upsurge of cask ale sales in Britain. And theres every chance of it staying in the family between them, the Theakston brothers have eight children.

More immediately, theres the July crime writing festival and the following month sees the Air New Zealand Golden Oldies Cricket Festival come to Harrogate district. Chaired by Sir Thomas Ingilby of Ripley Castle, the festival will bring veteran cricketers from across the world to North Yorkshire. Theakston, as a sponsor, will host a reception for them on the opening day.

Cricket, a crime novel and a pint of Yorkshire beer. Its not bad is it? says Simon. Thats what its all about.

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Simon Theakston is in his office, for many years the maltings of the venerable brewery he runs, musing on the parallels between a great beer and a cracking crime novel. Neither should be rushed, he says. When that pint arrives, you have to think about it and contemplate it. With a good crime novel you dont get the whodunit on page one. Likewise Old Peculier is a magnificent beer, and you dont get the full experience instantaneously.

So here is one good reason why this dark, sustaining ale sponsors the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival which opens for its eighth murderous year in Harrogate on July 22nd.

Theres another: Masham, home to Theakstons brewery since 1827, was long part of the see of York. But so dangerous was the journey between the two, the Archbishop established the Peculier Court of Masham to prevent his tax collectors being mugged on a visit to the town peculier being the Norman word for particular.

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