The Black Sheep Brewery, Masham UK
   The Black Sheep Brewery will always be special to me.  I first stumbled upon their ales back in 2004 when I'd get together with a few friends, pick up a few random pints at a local beer store, and play poker into the wee hours of Friday morning.  I got the chance to tour the brewery back in 2005 with Paul Jonas on a University of Minnesota study-abroad program in York, England.  Sadly, that day I didn't have my camera with me, and I didn't really know much about the brewing process.  But when my wife and I returned to England for our honeymooon, I did, and I do :)  
   Like my first trip in 2005, we were there in late May 2011, but this time the weather was gorgeous, warm and sunny.  We drove down from the Riding Farm just outside of Gateshead and took the quick drive down the A1 to Fountains Abbey.  After a few hours at the abbey ruins, we took the 35 minute drive through some of the narrowest, most winding and thoroughly terrifying roads in the whole of Yorkshire, but we finally got there (gorgeous countryside, by the way).  Though we were a bit later than we'd planned, we managed to catch one of the last tours of the day.    
     The tour started off with a brief video which sketched the history of the brewery, which opened in 1992 when Paul Theakston broke with his family (Theakston's of Masham, brewers of the delightful 'Old Peculier') when they sold their brewery to the giant brewery conglomerate Scottish and Newcastle.  Paul wanted to brew authentic English ales his way, and wanted to do so independently.  Hence, the 'black sheep' moniker.  Our tour guide was a spirited/snarky woman of 50ish who guided us through the brewery, providing a ton of fascinating information along with a good bit of cheek.  While the brewery has just recently finished a large new addition, we toured the old half of the brewery, which is still in use as well.       

Left: Large conditioning tanks outside the brewery.
Below: The picture I'd waited six years for.

     The old brewery is quaint, rustic, and welcoming.  Below, you can see the old brewing copper (boil kettle), and the grist hopper and mash tun (insulated old-school style, in wood) in the background.  Black Sheep's offerings reflect this traditional approach and a taste of their ales instantly transports you back to the north of England.  They do a number of low-gravity cask bitters (Black Sheep Best Bitter, a golden bitter called Golden Sheep, and Black Sheep Ale)as well as a strong brown ale, Riggwelter, which is phenomenal.  They also produce a number of bottled offerings (bottled Golden Sheep, for example, is stronger in gravity and more aptly described as an English pale ale than a bitter), but all are traditional (if rather hoppy) English ales.


Copper (i.e. boil kettle)

Old Grist Hopper (above) and Mash Tun (below)
     One of the coolest thing about the brewery (other than their beers, which are, as far as I'm concerned, pretty near the pinnacle of Real Ale in Britain) is that they are one of the very few breweries that still use the historic 'Yorkshire Square' fermentation system. While they still have a few of the traditional, slate, square 'squares' in use, they've mostly switched over to stainless steel, round 'squares' that function exactly the same, but are a lot easier to service and keep in good repair.  Below, you can see the corner (we were on a catwalk which went directly over the vessel) of one of the brewery's three remaining slate stone squares, christened Faith, Hope, and Charity, in which tehy brewed their first-ever Russian Imperial Stout, a cask of which was recently shipped to Russia for a competition.

(Viewed from Above) Corner of Original Slate 'Yorkshire Square' Fermentation Vessel
     I should note that the fermentation room is possibly the best-smelling I've ever been in my entire life, and my wife agreed.  One thing that I found really interesting is that all of these fermentors were completely open to the air (at least under the thick layer of krausen from the fermentation).  The fact that their brewing process is so spot-on that they can do this with getting infections makes my tracking record as a homebrewer brewing in a closed system look downright shameful.  Below, you can see a simplified schematic of how the Yorkshire Squares (or rounds, for that matter) actually work, as well as one of the round stainless steel 'Squares'. 

Diagram of the Yorkshire Square Fermentation System
Round 'Square' at High Krausen
   After the tour, we picked up some sweet swag in the gift shop and then grabbed a quick pint (a half-pint for me, since I had to drive back on those ridiculously scary roads) in the cafe.  I had the Best Bitter (3.8% abv) and it was awesome.  Nice mix of yeasty flavors, very lightly toasted malts, and earthy English hops.  Dead drinkable, and so very tasty.  Jess had the cask version of Golden Sheep, which is something like a summer bitter, brewed with First Gold hops, and much to my surprise, she really liked it.  She also got a half of the Russian Imperial Stout on cask; that's right ladies and gents, a once in a lifetime opporunity. 

Brewery Tours are Hard Work...

All in all, this is probably the best brewery experience I'll ever have. So glad we got the opportunity and yes, if I'm fortunate enough to find myself back in North Yorkshire at some point, I'll definitely be going back!

Boulevard Brewery, Kansas City, MO

Schlafly Bottleworks, St. Louis, MO


New Glarus Brewing Company, New Glarus WI

   In August of 2009, my (awesome!!!) wife let us take this little detour up to New Glarus, WI on the last day of our honeymoon (which had been in Galena, IL).  I'd been a fan of New Glarus' beers since one of my friends from Latin class at ISU had brought home a bottle of their Wisconsin Belgian Red.  It's a lambic-style ale, brewed with wild yeast and a ton of (Door County, I believe) cherries that has one of the most concentrated fruity palates/aromas that I've ever encountered in a beer.  It's wonderful stuff.  The brewery only distributes its beer in Wisconsin, so if you want it, there's only one way to get it.  
   Our GPS took us to the 'old' brewery; we didn't know that New Glarus had recently moved to their new 'hilltop' location. 
   I'm not exactly sure what I was expecting, but the kinda kitschy appearance of the old brewery (which doesn't really translate in the above picture) was sorta surprising considering the high-class nature of New Glarus' brews.  After we got a bit of information, we headed up to the brand-new brewery, up on a high wooded hill, which can be seen from miles around. 
   The new brewery has a bit of the kitsch of the old brewery, but it's also a lot classier and really pretty impressive. 
   The doors you can see in the bottom right corner lead into a sort of beer cave, where the brewery has an immense amount of beers for sale, both current offerings, and nicely-cellared past specialties and one-offs (of the latter, I got an Iced Barleywine, Imperial Saison, a Berliner Weiss and their R/D Golden Ale with Brett).  The brewery was new enough that they didn't have guided tours set up yet, but we did get to walk through the place on our own and take a look at everything.  It was an ultra-modern, really impressive brewhouse and smelled PHENOMENAL.  The equipment was equally fact, I think I'd like a kettle like this...
   Walking around was cool, as was the beer cave.  The souvenier shop was awesome, and we got some cool stuff, and we finished off the afternoon with a couple of sample brews on the tasting-room porch.  I tried the R/D Golden Ale which was REALLY Bretty, and the Crack'd Wheat, a cross between a German Hefeweizen and a dry-hopped American APA, which was interesting and way cool.  Before we left, we set the camera up on top of the car and snapped a cool pic. 
   All in all, great end to a great trip.  Thanx babe!