Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Features; Stout beer with a bit of Dutch courage

Calderdale is home to a thriving industry of small, independent breweries that have bucked the trend of decline in the UK’s alcohol industry.

Little Valley Brewery at Cragg Vale near Hebden Bridge has found success in the export market, shipping its organic vegan beers to countries across Europe and Asia.

The brewery was founded in 2005 by Dutch master brewer Wim van der Spek and is managed by his partner Sue Cooper.

The couple met in Kathmandu, Nepal, in December 1999. Sue had been working in the country for the previous two years and decided she wanted to cycle home to England through Asia and Europe.

“Four days before I left, a friend of mine said they’d just met a Dutchman who’d cycled from Holland to Nepal,” says Sue,

“I thought he could give me some good tips on where to go and what to avoid travelling though Asia - we met up, had a chat and went our separate ways.

“We bumped into each again a month later purely by chance when we were both travelling through India.

“So we travelled together for a while and again ended up going our separate ways.

“He had a six month contract to complete in Holland, and in December 2000 he moved over to England.”

Wim found work at a brewery in Inverness for two years and then the couple moved to Hebden Bridge.

After working at a factory in Halifax, Wim drew up a business plan for Little Valley Brewery.

“We thought let’s come up with a name that would link us to the locale, but wouldn’t place geographical limits on us in the future,” says Sue.

“We live together, work together, go on holiday together - you’d think we’d be sick of each other.

“People always say never work with your partner, but it works really well for us.

“There are lots of little valleys around - not just in Calderdale, but across Yorkshire - and it’s symbolic of Yorkshire’s heritage and countryside.”

Indeed, it was names and places in surrounding Calderdale that inspired the breweries first line of both cask and bottle-conditioned beers.

Withens Pale Ale takes its name from Withens Clough reservoir, on the hills above the Calder Valley.

Cragg Vale Bitter takes its name from Cragg Vale - the home of Little Valley Brewery.

Stoodley Stout is named after Stoodley Pike, Tod’s Blonde after Todmorden and Moor Ale draws its inspiration from Yorkshire’s moorland.

And Hebden’s Wheat which takes its name from Hebden Bridge.

“We wanted to name the wheat beer after Hebden because wheat beers tend to be little bit different, a little bit quirky, a little bit odd, and that’s exactly what Hebden is,” says Sue.

Little Valley now produce ten lines of beer including, most recently, the introduction of a light ale inspired by Britain’s first Tour de France competitor, Brian Robinson.

“We wanted to create something that was light, that you could drink when you’re out in the summertime,” says Sue.

“It’s a nice addition to the range that’s completely different to all the others - so we do expect it to continue beyond the Tour de France.

“Brian’s a big fan of the brew - he describes it as ‘quaffable’, so he’s given us his seal of approval.”

By expanding its range, Little Valley has found drinkers who might not have traditionally considered themselves to be real ale drinkers.

“Traditionally the beer range of a brewer in the UK might have been a bog-standard bitter,” says Sue.

“For a lot of people a traditional bitter just doesn’t taste that nice - it can be quite an assault on the taste-buds which can put people off.

“If you’re introduced to beer through lighter styles like the ginger pale ale, it has a different appeal.”

“More and more, women are becoming important figures in beer so the choice of style is becoming broader to reflect the people buying it,” she says.

“When you broaden what’s available on the market, you tend to appeal to a broader audience.”

In recent years, the brewery has made inroads into exporting its bottled beers to Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Finland and Hong Kong, with export sales making up almost a quarter of its total.

“At the end of 2008 we went to a business conference called Going Global encouraging businesses to export,” says Sue.

“When we went in we thought surely we’re not big enough to export, but we came out of it thinking we can - we bottle our own beers, we do an interesting range and they do travel.

“And with Wim’s continental background, it means he knows the type of beers to send out - so we send our Hebden’s Wheat out to quite a few countries.

“We got an email last year from a guy who said he was originally from Yorkshire and had been living in Norway with his family for more than 20 years,” she says.

“He said he went into a little shop in the middle of nowhere in Finland and a bottle of Withens Pale Ale caught his eye.

“He couldn’t believe that a little Yorkshire brewery had made its way into a remote part of Finland.

“It’s absolutely fantastic to think that they’re drinking our beer over there.”

Although many of the larger breweries produce an organic line of beers, fewer than one per cent of brewers in the UK are certified as wholly organic.

“On a personal level, we’re green-friendly and we’re always very conscious about what we do to our environment - I wouldn’t call us fanatics, but it fits for us to do something organic,” says Sue.

“There are very stringent rules about being able to trace all of our ingredients, which is good news for people after the horsemeat scandal - you won’t find any horsemeat in our beers.”

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