A Conversation with Sam Smith of the Samuel Smith Brewery
Several years back, a prominent U.S. brewer and his staff were touring around Europe, spending days visiting breweries and pubs on a vacation. Through a third party, they put in a request to Samuel Smith’s brewery in Yorkshire for a visit and the reply had been a blunt ‘no’ followed by the phone being placed swiftly back on the receiver.
Such eccentricity has long marked out the Tadcaster-based brewery as akin to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. There is little dispute that some mighty fine products exit through the brewer’s iron gates but it is rare that outsiders make it through them to see the process in action.
Its ownership—the Smith family—looms large in Tadcaster but is rarely seen and for a generation has largely shied away from interviews and appearances. It’s chalked up to a combination of Yorkshire bluntness and individuality combined with a genuine ability to produce high quality beers that speak for themselves.
So, when this reporter unexpectedly bumped into Sam Smith, the fifth generation of the family behind the Samuel Smith brewery, it was a happy surprise to find he was surprisingly willing to chat.
“We love being unique and quirky and hate the idea of being boring. We’re also not interested in what other people say about us, that’s just other people’s views. Just judge us by what we do, with our beers and pubs,” Smith told me this past November in the upstairs room of The Cock Tavern in central London.
This is a stance that has been held for some years—maybe dating back to the early days when The Old Brewery was established in 1758. It took on the name of the Samuel Smith Brewery in 1886 following some early family ructions that ultimately led to the odd situation of two breweries operating in the same small town—the other being John Smith’s Brewery.
While John Smith’s has suffered a slow decline while under the ownership of various large organizations, Samuel Smith’s has continued to do very much its own thing. It has resolutely stuck to producing the beers it wants to produce.
While other breweries abandoned traditional British styles it maintained the production of the likes of Oatmeal Stout, Nut Brown Ale, Pale Ale, Winter Welcome, Imperial Stout, Taddy Porter and barrel-aged Yorkshire Stingo. Many of the beers are certified organic, and were long before such distinctions became fashionable.
Having made its first shipments of these classic styles to the U.S. as far back as 1978, it has had a major influence on the craft beer phenomenon. “Craft beer in the U.S. is a concept which came about due to beers imported from the U.K., Germany and Belgium,” explained Smith. “We started selling our beers there long ago and we were instrumental in providing them with inspiration, introducing them to good beer. We have always been very well appreciated in the U.S. We are now seeing British brewers who’ve been influenced by the U.S. and so it’s gone full circle.”
But as well as continuing with tradition it has married this with ground-breaking innovation under the stewardship in the modern era of Sam’s father Humphrey and his brother Oliver (who recently retired).
“We’ve continued to expand the range. Many [U.K.] regional brewers brewed just cask ale and rode the real [cask] ale wave but are now feeling the pinch due to increased competition. However, we’ve never been like that and instead we innovate,” says Smith, pointing out that in the 1960s the brewery took the extremely unusual decision to brew a Great British lager.
Because the brewers didn’t actually know how to brew this style of beer it sought out the necessary skills in Germany’s Bavaria. “The Ayinger Brewery brews Helles and Export—sensational beers and we got them to teach us how to brew it in Yorkshire, with all natural ingredients and a long maturation period. To begin with lager was a niche product but now lager is the British national beer,” suggests Smith.
Wheat beer was next up on the program of brewing different styles of beer in the U.K. and again they relied on the skills of Ayinger to get them up and running. “We discovered it in Bavaria and thought let’s brew this too. It was unheard of a British wheat beer but we got in there way ahead of the game,” he says, adding that such innovations are what excite the brewery. “There’s no point in resting on your laurels. It would be boring. Let’s have some fun. You need to try things and we’ve the skills at the brewery to do it. We’ve been great admirers of fruit beers so we said let’s have a crack at it. We experiment.”
But don’t think it has thrown all the traditional ways out. It still puts its cask ale into oak barrels that are made by its in-house cooper (it has just taken on an apprentice to continue the tradition); this cask beer is called Old Brewery Bitter in reference to its historical Tadcaster site; it still uses shire horses to deliver beer within the local area; and it continues to use the traditional Yorkshire Square method of fermentation.
When you combine all this history, ahead-of-the-curve developments, and downright eccentricity you end up with a unique combination that is beguiling to outsiders. It is why brewers and beer fans alike continue to find this quiet Yorkshire brewery of great interest.
Glynn Davis is a London-based writer covering the European brewing scene and a regular judge of beer awards in the U.K.
During the last week of January, many beer spots will honor Samuel Smith’s with the Samuel Smith Salute. Learn more here.
Sam Smith’s Pubs Worth Visiting When In London
The Angel (61-62 St Giles High Street, London WC2H 8LH)
A rare two-bar pub, which requires drinkers to walk outside in order to pass from one bar to the other. Also unusual for central London, it has a dart board.
Princess Louise (208 High Holborn, London WC1V 7EP)
The pub underwent a dramatic 18-month renovation that has brought it back to its original multi-room glory with tiling on the floors and walls as well as etched mirrors aplenty.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (145 Fleet Street, London EC4A 2BU)
One of the city’s oldest pubs—it was rebuilt after the Great Fire of London in 1666—and has had a few famous literary regulars over the years including lexicographer Doctor Johnson, Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and P.G. Wodehouse.
Cittie of Yorke (22 High Holborn, London WC1V 6BN)
It might look old but it is not. However, do not let this deter you from visiting this baronial hall-like pub with an unusual black and white ceiling with open rafters and separate cubicles for dining.
The Champion (12-13 Wells Street, London W1T 3PA)
Worth a visit to admire the stained glass windows that wrap around the entire pub and celebrate past sporting heroes.