Meet the Brewery - Ilkley Brewery
How did Ilkley brewery come about?
So there was a brewery in Ilkley back in the 1800s, but sadly it stopped brewing in 1920. Then in 2009 a couple of local businessmen set up a beer festival as part the Ilkley Round Table. They enjoyed it so much that they decided to quit their jobs and bring brewing back to the town! They enrolled on a brewing course and started on a small scale, making it up as they went along, but with a focus on growth through quality and consistency. It didn’t take long for them to settle on a formula that worked, and it grew from there. Fast forward 10 years and we’ve brewed over 13 million pints, won 100+ awards and export our beers around the world.
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Why did you decide to start brewing a non-alcoholic beer?
We’ve always prided ourselves on brewing little beers that taste big. Our flagship pale ale, Mary Jane is just 3.5% but is full of flavour, but it wasn’t until 2018 that we really started exploring entering the low and no space. To be honest, we didn’t think that we’d be able to do from a technical point of view at the time, with the kit we had. But then we appointed a new Head Brewer, Alessandra Confessore, who joined us from Brewdog and everything changed. In fact in her interview we asked for her views on alcohol free and how she would change our set up to produce it and she was thoroughly prepared and enthusiastic about the project, showing us how it was possible, even on our kit! We started with low not no beer, Limbo, a beer “in-between” which was really tasty, and this gave us the confidence to go to 0.5% and design Virgin Mary.
What is unique about your beer?
We wanted to be part of the movement to dispel the myth that no alcohol = no taste. We wanted a pale ale that if tasted blind would quite easily be enjoyed as a “regular” pale ale. And we did. In fact, when I tried my first sample from the tank, the brewer told me it was our summer special (4%) and I believed her completely! More than being a standalone alcohol free beer though, we wanted something that fit within our family, and our story. We wanted it to be a version of our Mary Jane, just as our dark beer is “Stout Mary”. And so Virgin Mary was born.
What has been the most difficult challenge in producing a non-alcoholic beer that tastes good?
The lower the abv the less wiggle room in terms of the nuances of flavour, and the more accurate you have to be from a technical point of view. Our kit may be designed with traditional cask ales in mind, but the quality control we have invested in, and technical expertise of our team meant that we had confidence in the process. Brewing at a different temperature than “normal” has its challenges too, in terms of the behaviour and interaction of the hops, so we knew that getting the balance right would be key.
In your opinion what does the future of the non-alcoholic beer category look like?
The future is bright, the future is sober! I think the biggest challenge though, isn’t the desire of drinkers for low and no, it’s how to get the message of taste and quality across. In a market dominated (in a sudden and loud way) by the multi-national brewers all rushing to be the brand associated with alcohol free, but who are all ultimately trying to replicate calibre in terms of taste (and cost), it’s so important to show a new generation of drinkers that there is no need for compromise. Indeed, convincing established drinkers that if they like beer, why have an orange juice when you can still have a beer. It seems like it should be an easy conversion, but old habits die hard.
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