The beer they're drinking faster than we can brew it

One of the newest enterprises on the Yorkshire brewing scene has 'bottled out' of one potentially lucrative branch of its business. At least so far, because at the time of writing, you can enjoy the result of their labours only by searching them out in a cask in a pub. The bottles for 1883 Best Bitter, 86 Golden and 84 Indian are all stacked up and ready to be filled. The labels are printed and waiting. The orders are coming in. So what is the problem?

Friday, 9th September 2016, 3:08 pm
Updated Thursday, 15th September 2016, 4:26 pm
Simon Cockerill (left) with Mark Lockwood, from Westfield House Farm, Wold Newton, Driffield, in a field of barley

Well, the problem is that there just isn’t enough to go around. Appreciative drinkers of Isaac Poad’s range are quaffing it back so quickly that demand is far outstripping supply. The brewery, which is based in the village of Cattal, near Knaresborough, won’t compromise on quality, so it is taking things slowly and expanding gently into new markets.

The firm is one of the oldest in the county, established, somewhat ironically, by an ardent Methodist when Victoria was on the throne. The date of the first of the trio of brews tells you precisely when Isaac set up as a trader in York, although very little is known about his background. He came from the north of the county, showed himself to be a shrewd businessman and became so wealthy that he could afford his very own private railway carriage.

When he died, his will bequested that the family firm, which traded in grain, fertiliser, feedstuffs and potatoes, should pass to his sons, but it ended up being run by one of Isaac’s trusted workers. And it has remained in that family ever since. As they proudly put it themselves, “six generations over three centuries”. The boss of the small team at Isaac Poad today is Simon Cockerill, the great-grandson of the man who succeeded the Poad dynasty and it was he who decided, in the spring of this year, to branch out into brewing. What would Isaac have thought?

Simon Cockerill with his children Tabitha, 13, Angus, 16, and local farmer Mark Lockwood, next to his son Edward, 13.

“I think that he would have said ‘Well done, lad’,” says Simon. “Because looking back over our records – which we have, in the wonderful old ledgers that they used back then – he was a man who always kept ahead of the trend. He was always looking out for fresh business opportunities.

“Back in Isaac’s day, the business was hugely geared towards the supply of seed potatoes, and they were grown up in Scotland, and then shipped south. That doesn’t happen any more. You go where the requirements are.”

When Isaac first set up the firm in York, location was of prime importance. The main business was conducted from offices in the busy Walmgate area. “It was close to the river, where boats and barges still used the waterway for both receiving the goods and for deliveries, right next door to the cattle market and only a short distance to the railway,” says Simon, who began his own association within the firm in those very offices. “It was a sad day when we eventually left those old familiar surroundings, but you just cannot afford to be sentimental. You have to move with the times.

“Back in the day, if you wanted to discuss a deal with a farmer, about supply and prices, you had to either be up at the crack of dawn to meet him at 
the farmhouse, before he went out into his fields, or you’d be aiming to catch up with him as dusk fell. Nearly everything these days is done by 
laptop, by e-mail, and by mobile phone. Far more efficient, of course, but the personal touch is almost gone”.

Simon Cockerill with his children Tabitha, 13, Angus, 16, and local farmer Mark Lockwood, next to his son Edward, 13.

What Simon doesn’t tell you is that, for several years now, he has personally hosted a late spring lunch at the Durham Ox in Crayke for Poad’s farmers, suppliers and buyers. Formal proceedings are kept to a minimum and the talk ranges from local cricket teams to upcoming fetes, the coming harvest and the current situation with the European Union.

At this year’s event the new Poad brew was offered to the guests. Much to Simon’s relief, it went down well and the Ox, which also happens to be how own local, will occasionally stock one or two of the beers as a guest ale. “Actually, I find that all a bit embarrassing, really. Wherever I go for a pint and find ours on sale I don’t announce ‘We made that!’ I just prefer to sit in the background, and see how it goes down – if the customer asks for another I know that we’ve done something that we can be truly proud of.”

Today, Poad deals with many scores of farmers across our region, nearly all in Yorkshire but one or two in Lincolnshire and a couple over the Pennines. The firm employs six full-time staff (although this might go up as the brewing enterprise expands slightly) who spend much of the day trading on the phone.

Most of the farms they deal with have been in the same family for generations. And the maltsters to whom the grain is sold have been around for quite a while as well. “We are great friends with Thomas Fawcett and Sons, in Castleford, and we have been dealing with them since day one,” says Simon. “If you think that our firm has a long pedigree, they’ve been doing deals since 1801.”

Simon and the Poad people are fiercely proud of both their independence and their history, but they also are very much at the cutting edge of technology. The firm’s laboratory provides state-of-the-art analysis of grains.

Best of the malting barleys is Maris Otter, which has been around for quite some while. New barley varieties have established themselves in recent years, but it is Maris Otter that Simon swears by as the “premium quality malting barley”.

Was going into beer producing a leap in the dark? “Not at all”, says the 48-year-old. “I’d had it in my mind as a logical extension of the business for quite some while, and I had read up about it a lot. It is, I know, a rapidly expanding marketplace these 
days, but I think that the lesson that you have to learn is to not get too big for your boots, and not to think that you can take over the world in a year or so.

“You have to realise that you can only supply a few pubs and other outlets, and that they can only be within a very defined radius. There would be no point at all in us getting an order from, say, Southampton, and saying ‘Yes, we can do that’, because it simply wouldn’t be cost-effective. So we are very much a local brewery, delivering to specified Yorkshire outlets.”

Simon’s right-hand man in all of this is Chris Dearnley who he headhunted from a car dealership. “He sold me my latest car, and the way that he did it was wonderful. Confident, persuasive, honest and informed. I thought ‘If I start up the brewing business, Chris is the man I want on board. I made him an offer, and he accepted.” That decision has already paid off, since Chris is already branching out, and getting impressive sales from some of Yorkshire’s Student Union bars.

Married to Danielle, and with two teenage children – Angus, 16, and 13-year-old Tabitha – Simon is now looking forward to this new chapter for the business. “Our team all work very hard indeed, but our reward is that we have satisfied customers. Whether they be farmers, maltsters or the folk with a glass of our beer in their hand,” he adds.

“Whether either of my children succeeds me in the firm is completely up to them. It would be lovely if they did. But my dad never pushed me, and it was a few years before I made my mind up, and joined him. As long as they are happy in what they decide to do in life, that’s all you want, isn’t it?”