The cult of craft beer may have dominated conversation around the brewing and pub scene in recent years, but family brewers have much longer memories.

For West Yorkshire-based Timothy Taylor that heritage stretches back more than 150 years and the latest incumbent of the head office is all too aware that decisions he is making must be with a view to the next century and a half.

As he approaches two years as chief executive of Timothy Taylor, Tim Dewey is making moves to take on the craft brewers at their own game – with the introduction of a small-batch brewery with its own “awesome” innovations.

Not that the Canadian former Drambuie executive has any truck with the stance that real ale is not a product of craft.

He says: “I find it frustrating the way the term ‘craft’ is bandied about and the way it is accepted by the large grocery multiples.

“Given that we apply a lot of craft to the brewery, it is quite galling that because you’re over a certain size you’re almost discounted by the purists. Whereas it often seems that to be small – and perhaps to have a funky label – automatically gives you entry to the craft club.

“I think it’s fantastic that innovation is being celebrated and that we have competition in the beer market, but I also think pub operators overestimate the demand for the new at all costs. There are a lot of people out there that want a fantastic pint and want it regularly. It’s not always about constant rotation.”

For Dewey, the challenge has not been so much about encouraging people to choose Timothy Taylor at the bar but ensuring its pump clips are in front of its target audience.

He says: “We did some research shortly after I joined and it showed that we had the highest proportion of ale drinkers who said we were their favourite ale but when we asked them could they find their favourite ale where they drink, we had the lowest score.

“It’s been an interesting shift from my background in spirits. In that world there was never much of a problem getting your product stocked in a bar, but the challenge was to convince customers to pick your bottle over any other.

“But with the vertical integration model of the UK pub market, we know there are a lot of pubs where Timothy Taylor would be a big seller but we can’t get in there because the brewer has it wrapped up.”

Managed pubs

Pubs are a big part of the future for Timothy Taylor and not just as a supplier. The company, which last year acquired its first pub for seven years – the Devonshire, Grassington, North Yorkshire – is keen to add to its estate. And for the first time in many years, managed pubs are a target.

After a period of consolidation, it now operates 19 pubs, of which just two are currently managed – the Lord Rodney in the company’s hometown of Keighley and the Woolly Sheep in nearby Skipton.

However, Dewey says the likely outlay on sites in its target locations makes a managed model a more viable option.

He says: “We are just coming to the end of our financial year and while the previous year took in our Champion Beer of Britain win, which gave the brewing side a fillip in terms of the number of guest spots we were getting. This year, we knew we were going to lose some of that froth, but the pubs have really stepped in to fill the gap.

“Our two managed pubs have been particularly successful.

“We still want to orient towards tenanted pubs going forward, but there is a recognition that the managed pubs we have are doing really well and we have the capacity to manage one or two others within our existing resource. So, while in the past we may have ruled out further managed pubs, now it is a consideration. For a couple of key sites we are interested in, we recognise that the cost and the nature of those will require them to be managed.”

Long-term view

Dewey says the company has “some irons in the fire” and would “be disappointed if there wasn’t some action over the next six months”.

He adds: “It’s less about numbers and more about areas. I think we will always be a brewery with pubs as opposed to some brewers who have moved into being essentially retailers.

“Money has always been set aside with the idea of adding two pubs a year. I think it’s more likely we’ll do one a year but it’ll be a bigger one, then there might be years where we’ll get a few smaller ones.”

Ilkley, Harrogate and York are all cited by Dewey as key locations with a combination of a strong local market with a tourist element.

He adds: “The challenge, of course, is that there are a lot of people chasing after quality sites. We also prefer freeholds to leaseholds, so that makes it more complicated.

“But just as with the competition with other brewers, we won’t change the way we do things just because everyone else is.

“We have been in an environment for a while now that emboldens people to make decisions that might not necessarily be prudent long-term.

“They figure that they can borrow the money at a low interest rate so why not. But eventually interest rates will rise again and those investments are going to be tested. We have no interest in being in that position.

“One of our non-execs puts it well when he says that with every investment we make we have to think if, in 20 years, the family would be thanking us for doing that. That kind of long-term view is a great leveller when you’re making investments.”

However, this does not mean the company will be risk-averse – as its decision to launch a microbrewery proves.

Dewey says the decision is vital if the company is to find “the modern-day equivalent of Landlord”.

Commit to production

The main goal of the facility, which can brew between five and 20 barrels, is to drive innovation. He says: “If you think Landlord only came into being in the 1960s, my concern is where does the modern-day Landlord come from?

“When the Tour de France came through Yorkshire a few years back, we did a special beer called Le Blonde. It sold very well and it would have been good to carry on a bit longer, but the problem was that without a major customer we couldn’t commit to producing more.

“With the new brewery we can make something and put it into our own estate, and some friends nearby, and allow it to grow organically.”