Weekend Feature: Spreading The Spirit Of Yorkshire Far And Wide
(L-R)Co founders Tom Mellor and David Thompson
"If Tom and I had not gone and made Yorkshire whisky, we would have gone to our graves regretting it”
Those prophetic words from David Thompson proves it’s good to follow instinct.
It made sense to start the distillery, following the success of the brewery, (see the side panel on The Wold Top Brewery) as the initial process for making whisky is identical to that for beer in its simplest form.
So, for co-founder of Wold Top Brewery, Tom Mellor and long-standing friend, David Thompson, setting up Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery in May 2016 was logical.
The Wold Top Brewery
The family run business started brewing beer in May 2003 with a brewing facility at Hunmanby Grange to encapsulate the values of sustainability and diversity. The sustainability credentials of the farm are reinforced by Kate Balchin, who runs Wold Top Brewery and is Tom’s daughter, discussed the merits of home grown barley and the wind turbines that provide energy. It is an example of the circular economy, using barley in more than one way to create employment and products that reflect the area. Except for a little filtration of nitrates nothing is done to the water except softening it slightly.
The two wind turbines have been serving the farm well for 10 years generating 98% of the energy used on the farm. The next stage is to work on storage of excess energy and to become more self-sufficient such as running electric vehicles. Biodegradable plastic is also used when the bottles are packaged.
Asking about the effects of the past 18 months Kate says: “It’s interesting. Covid has changed everything completely. All our beer was predominantly cask related going to pubs, bars, and restaurants. We had a monthly special cask beer every month on top of our core range of about five or six, that we were constantly brewing. However, with Covid, the bottles took off because people were buying online or at supermarkets to drink at home during lockdown.
“We’ve brought out more in bottles and instead of the monthly cask beer, we added a bottled beer during lockdown We have released about 13 new bottles this year compared with previous years where it would have been one bottled beer every couple of years. It’s kind of gone crazy.”
Kate has a lovely way of describing the way hops subtly change the flavours: “Think about it like making bread or a cake. There is a standard way you start. You use the same base materials of flour and eggs and then you might be making a chocolate cake or carrot cake, so the difference starts there. It’s the same principle for brewing; we start with the ingredients grown on the farm and vary the quantities, interspersing them with distinct kinds of malts, such as roasted, toasted or lightly malted. So, like adding cocoa powder or coffee flavourings to a cake mix."
Another metaphor Kate drops nicely into the conversation is to explain how hops give the bitterness to the beer and impart the aroma and taste.
Kate and Alex Balchin
“Think of hops like the different flavours of tea leaves. Earl Grey has citrus notes, and Yorkshire Tea is more robust, likewise with golden hops that might give lemony, citrus hit so we vary the ingredients.”
The hops are bought as Hunamis too exposed to the elements and they would have to be sheltered from the winds coming straight from the sea. Historically, the British hops come from farms in Kent, Gloucestershire and around the Worcester /Malvern Hills area. The availability of British hops has dramatically improved over the last six to seven years.
Some are imported from Europe, America, Australia, and New Zealand.
“Wherever we can, we use British but occasionally we want a flavour you can’t just get from hops in the UK. The hotter temperatures in California produce hops with more intense aromas and flavours compared with the British ones which are milder in aroma and taste.”
To make the basic liquid it takes eight hours then for hand pull beers they need a week to ten days and for a bottle another week on that. The minimum process from start to finish and having a pint pulled at a bar is about a week and a half, sometimes two weeks depending on strength and how long it needs to ferment.
Yeast is added to react with the sugars in the malty liquid, those sugars are converted into alcohol. For alcohol free beer Kate says it’s about balancing how much grain and yeast is used.
“Beer in a cask still has some live yeast, it is still conditioning and maturing. We don’t have to do much to that other than putting it in a cask and sending it to the publican who will leave it to settle before serving. Bottled beers need to be stabilised to get the right condition, then chilled as that process helps the yeast and anything that is living drop down to the bottom. We can then filter off the clear beer at the top, carbonate and bottle.”
In 2007 Hunmanby Grange invested in a bottling plant to give control over the quality of the product and they bottle 1 million own brand beers and further 1 million of other brands a year.
As I sup a beer it is great to hear the family story and the importance of sustainability to the family and how those values are instilled into future generations and how much it means to support the local community.
The farm where Wold Top Brewery is based is called Hunmanby Grange close to Filey, is a traditional fourth generation Yorkshire arable farm on the Wolds that has been growing wheat and barley for decades. In the early 1990s the crop was not yielding as much money and so Tom decided to start looking for new routes to business.
Any farming crop can have dry or wet seasons and so choosing the right variety of barley is essential for malting and making beer and whisky.
“As farmers you first choose a variety that is recognised for that purpose coupled with the growing characteristics that fit the land type. We looked at the resources on the farm and two that struck us were: our own water supply and our crops of malt and barley,” David told me.
The duo researched UK whisky production and it was evident that no one had thought about it in Yorkshire, which is unusual as the Yorkshire Wolds is a particularly good area for growing malt and barley.
“We have some of the best malt and barley in the area, so it made absolute sense to use the resources we had at our disposal.
“Everything we do we aim to learn from the best. The late Dr Jim Swan a world whisky guru, who helped distilleries all over the world from Taiwan to Japan and Scotland plus a few English distilleries, gave us his sage advice. We wanted new thinking and to up our game to be able to do things a bit differently.”
Having set up Wold Top Brewery in 2003 and seen its exponential growth over the last 15 / 16 years, the logical progression 2011 proved to be great decision.
After Tom broached the tantalizing idea to make Yorkshire’s first single malt whisky with David, he couldn’t refuse. Legally, whisky can’t be called whisky until it has spent three years in a cask. So, the pair quickly got their plan to fruition and launched, getting the stills going in preparation in 2016, with the first whisky being launched on 5th October 2019, after the requisite three years of maturation.
The next step really was to create the brand behind the story.
“As we are based 10 minutes down the road from the biggest gannet colony in the UK, we used the gannet as our mascot because it represents a lot of things about the business: tenacious, graceful and full of spirit. We felt it represented us very well,” David said.
The Yorkshire water is particularly good for malt and barley and at Hunmanby Grange comes through the chalk aquifers. That is one of the reasons “we think our beer has been so consistent over the last 18 years.”
The first part of producing whisky is making something resembling beer - called wash. This is done by using barley from the farm and sending it down to Muntons in Bridlington, which supplies brewing and distilling malts and malted ingredients, where it is treated and comes back as a malted barley. This is then steamed in hot water to make a very sticky sugary solution and from that yeast is added and it starts to produce alcohol.
The next step is to end up with an 8% alcohol wash which is then transferred into copper stills and that is the start.
Chatting with David it’s clear the Yorkshire provenance is hugely important.
“We were incredibly proud we’re a fully-fledged field to bottle distillery. We've got absolutely everything we need here on the Yorkshire Wolds to produce an excellent whisky. One of the things that is important to us is knowing exactly that it is our barley that goes into our bottles. It gives us a degree of consistency that a number of brewers and distillers don’t have because our malt is effectively one big batch.
“That gives us great traceability. We can rewind the liquid back to a field. Any bottle can be put through our records and traced to the field where the barley was grown. There are only a handful of distillers around the world that claim to be field to bottle producers. The food miles are also quite small fitting the ethos of field to bottle. That is why the sustainability of the farm is important. It underpins everything we do, and the farm can continue to be a legacy for the future.”
Even the bespoke bottles are made by Allied Glass at Castleford and the labels in Bradford.
'In order to be more sustainable, the company has moved to a predominantly 'no till' farming system, direct drilling crops straight into the earth, rather than cultivating it first. This means the soil is undisturbed as the seed is sown into the top few centimetres of soil, which keeps the carbon in the ground rather than the air, and keep the soil structures intact which can help with flooding According to David, current thinking in agricultural circles is that by ploughing the land it releases a lot of carbon into the atmosphere that doesn’t need to be released.
“It’s our responsibility as land users to make sure we don’t take too much out of the soil or land and not leave enough for the future. It is about safeguarding future years with the best current thinking.”
From the first 6000 bottles being released in November 2019 it was obvious that the Spirit of Yorkshire was going to be a big hit. The brand is growing globally, particularly well in Poland, Germany, France and Italy and shipping to the US has just begun.
So, what next? “We are continuing to look for different casks to do our finishing, we have the red wine and peaty finishes plus a couple of unusual ones like the rare IPA addition from the brewery. We are looking for niche casks that add something different. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel, but we also want to bring new whisky to the market. We have also grown a crop of rye in the hope to produce the area’s first rye whisky but that is three or four years away. But it is there - in casks maturing.”
Some of the SOY team amongst the stills
David is proud that along with Tom they stood the investment themselves; there was no crowdfunding and no local grants. Let’s hope that Yorkshire understands this industry and can see the value it brings to the tourism industry and the potential tax income.
The slogan that Spirit of Yorkshire has adopted is: ‘Respect the tradition but do things our own way.’ The whisky represents the founders’ love of the coast and the sea, and they didn’t want to just replicate scotch they wanted to put a distinctive Yorkshire stamp on it, which according to sales proves the point as they created a whisky with a great fan base.
Whisky casks in the warehouse
A lesson too, if you have an idea go for it have no regrets that you didn’t start an entrepreneurial idea.