Always shaping the future: the history of Ossett Brewery

July 2017 sees the first steps taken in the latest expansion of Ossett Brewery. Ceiling panels are being lifted, tanks re-located and pipework re-directed. It is not the first time the organisation has shrewdly invested to pre-empt or catch up with demand, but this time a phased 18-month programme of development will leave the brewery in a strong position for the future. And given the relatively recent birth of the organisation, that the astonishing rise in popularity of real ale has been suitably served from the same humble area of land in the small market town of Ossett, goes to show how skilful management, honest dedication and an uninhibited vision can take you an awful long way.

A new cold storage warehouse will be the ultimate fruits of the 8,500 square feet of extra space created by the current work. This is to facilitate demand for 200 brewers’ barrels a week from 24 pubs, third party accounts and wholesalers, and it is hard for anyone to believe that only 20 years ago Ossett Brewery was a tiny, two-man operation in the back room of a local pub.

But that is exactly where the story began; as an extra-curricular pastime to scratch an itch of a brewing industry veteran. When you have spent your working life making one thing very well for other people, you face a daily mental challenge to fight the urge to do it for yourself. In 1997, Bob Lawson decided to give in to the urge, and as we sit here today we should be thankful that he did.

Bob Lawson worked in the brewing industry for 50 years, which included spending 25 years at Joshua Tetley’s in Leeds in various positions, ending up as Senior Brewer. In 1994 he moved to the Kelham Island Brewery in Sheffield; a pioneering independent brewery and a famous name in the north, but most importantly one of the very first free spirits that showed you could brew and market great beers without needing the financial muscle of the brewing giants. Kelham Island was perhaps one of the first microbreweries and a big player in engendering a DIY punk ethos into the brewing industry, and clearly Bob saw something there that triggered a lightbulb moment.

In 1997 Bob partnered with a colleague and started his own revolution at the back of the Brewer’s Pride pub in Ossett; a traditional local pub in an old industrial area at the bottom of a steep hill on Healey Road. Yards from the banks of the River Calder, Bob feverishly toiled away and came up for air in August 1998 with Ossett Brewery’s first beer; “Bobby Dazzler”. Production increased and was all sold through the Brewer’s Pride pub, but gradually other pubs in the area became interested and, accordingly, the range of beers increased with Silver King and Excelsior first appearing on bar tops to set up a permanent residence.

By this time, Ossett Brewery’s flagship beers were winning numerous awards at beer festivals, word was spreading and the tiny back room brewery was churning out 40 barrels per week. There was a suggestion that the brewery had outgrown itself and fundamental change was required in order to navigate what looked like a very promising future. In 2001 two events combined to ensure that happened.

Bob’s business partner left to present him sole ownership of the brewery, while Bob’s son Jamie returned from working in Japan and, seeking a new challenge, joined his Dad in the brewery twelve months later. Jamie was very hands-on in the brewery at first but his natural tendencies to think both ‘big’ and ‘laterally’ ensured he was very quickly jotting down ideas as to how the brewery could extend its empire, and the instillation of a business and commercial brain meant the direction of the company was going to take a dramatic turn and the sky was the limit. Jamie set himself the challenge to find pubs to bring into the Ossett family, and it was that decision which is the true origin of the vast brewery and pub chain that we see today. It was a road to Damascus moment, and when the Black Bull at Liversedge was purchased, refurbished and opened in 2003 as the first Ossett Brewery-owned pub, it was easy to imagine a wealth of establishments throughout the West Yorkshire region, all Ossett-themed and stocked with Ossett beers and brimming with atmosphere, great décor, amazing food and a friendly welcome. 14 years later and that is the reality, but not without some serious forethought, hard work and key decisions at key times.


In 2004 the decision was made that the organisation could no longer meet the demand for Ossett beers from the microbrewery at the Brewer’s Pride. With one eye on the possibilities open to the company, new premises were sought, and as luck would have it a site was located just 80 metres away from the birth of the company. Kings Yard was a collection of buildings that became the headquarters of Ossett Brewery; housing offices, warehousing and the entire brewing process. The first brew was made in April 2005 and the new site grew to host 100% production by August the same year.

It is fair to say that Ossett Brewery hasn’t looked back since. On the back of Jamie’s insatiable appetite for growth and creativity, The Hop concept was born in 2008. Starting as a venture between Jamie, ex-Virgin Japan MD Mike Inman – who later joined Ossett Brewery as MD - and ex-Embrace drummer Mike Heaton, The Hop offered a real ale hospitality, combined with modern décor, traditional pub food, an intimate atmosphere and regular live music. Now there are four Hops around Yorkshire, in Wakefield, Leeds, Saltaire and York. The bold idea bolstered confidence and the Ossett estate has now grown to 24 pubs across West Yorkshire, including key ventures such as the Old Peacock at Elland Road, Leeds and three bars in the up-and-coming Granary Wharf area of Leeds city centre, cannily built and located to pre-empt the Rail Station Southern Entrance, which has increased passing footfall almost immeasurably.


Ossett also aided brewing demand by outsourcing production of more experimental beers to three sister micro-breweries; the Riverhead in Marsden, the Rat & Ratchet in Huddersfield and Fernandes in Wakefield. The Rat in Huddersfield is the only facility through which Ossett can brew keg beers, and these smaller facilities also allow for more hand-crafted brews and different styles to be experimented upon, which helps feed the dizzying pace of expansion that the craft ale market is currently experiencing. At the same time the Kings Yard brewery was undergoing almost constant change; a 2500 square foot cold store was added in 2008, an automated cask washing facility was added in 2013 and additional fermenting capacity was installed in 2014. Across the four brewing facilities within the Ossett umbrella, there is now production capacity for 240 barrels per week, and the adaptability of the sites means that up to 18 different beers can be produced each week. But it is still not enough to satisfy a thirsty and demanding market, which is always seeking something new or different.  

Head Brewer Paul Spencer joined the company in 2001, and he has overseen all the evolution of the core beers, while also developing more experimental full-flavoured seasonal beers. His passion for the job has been critical to how Ossett Brewery have kept a pace with the surge in interest in the colour, taste and aroma of beers from a much broader market in terms of age, passion and expectation. Ossett Brewery are famous for light blonde beers that are perfectly clear and offer a range of flavours. You could say we were early pioneers of the current style of delicate flavouring and brewing techniques, and Paul has been central to that. 

 

These investments over the years have seen Ossett speculate wisely on the future, and become key players in a huge market for real ale, craft beers and a whole experience that seeks to be better than you expect. It is why today we stand on the verge of another new era at Ossett Brewery. Somehow we will maintain capacity, consistency and our very high standards, while expanding the plant and bringing in changes that the market demands, such as a canning facility. It’s all about having an eye on the future and managing the now; a concept which 20 years ago, when the real ale revolution was just a pub landlord’s pipedream, Ossett Brewery followed to the letter. So keep an eye on us for what happens next. 

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