Bernard Ginns: Let’s hope that the town is big enough for two breweries

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WHEN rock bands split, members often blame “musical differences”.

The same expression was whispered to me when I learned of the departure of one of the co-founders of Ilkley Brewery.

Stewart Ross helped set up the award-winning young business with Chris Ives in 2008.

The pair both came from backgrounds in commercial property and left their recession-hit industry to pursue a dream of brewing great beer.

Neither had much experience of making ale, but this didn’t hold them back.

They just went on a course, got some kit and started brewing.

Five years on, Ilkley Brewery is ostensibly a tiny business, one of many microbreweries that have sprung up across the region in recent years.

But the company has succeeded in establishing a big presence through hard work, good products and even better marketing.

Its sales broke the £1m barrier last year, no mean feat in this low-growth environment.

Other start-ups might do well to study how the company made such a big name for itself.

Indeed, Ilkley Brewery has become one of Yorkshire’s best-known business success stories of recent years, particularly after winning the national Local Business Accelerators competition with the backing of the Yorkshire Post.

The Prime Minister, no less, was the latest high-profile figure to sing its praises, saying last week that the company “has gone from strength to strength, growing its sales by 140 per cent” since taking the LBA title.

So it was certainly a surprise when I heard of Mr Ross’s exit.

In a short statement, the company said: “Ilkley Brewery confirms the departure of director Stewart Ross from the business.

“Stewart co-founded the brewery in 2008 and has worked alongside its other directors to achieve his goal of re-establishing brewing in Ilkley following the closure of the original Ilkley Brewery and Aerated Water Company in 1920.

“As Stewart moves on to new challenges, Ilkley Brewery wishes him the best for the future and Stewart wishes the brewery continued success.”

I approached Mr Ross on Wednesday, but he did not want to elaborate on his departure beyond what was contained in the statement.

He did tell me about his intriguing new project though, which will see a group of local investors refurbishing Ilkley’s rather down-at-heel Albert pub and installing a microbrewery in the back.

The pub, a listed building dating back to 1709, will be renamed The Flying Duck in a nod to its former incarnation The Mallard while the beer-making operation will be named the Wharfedale Brewery, the third outing for this historic name.

The original Wharfedale Brewery was based in Wetherby, according to Bradford CAMRA member Malcolm Toft.

Mr Ross and his group of investors plan to spend £160,000 on renovation work. They hope to open the new venture by May or June.

It is a markedly different direction to the global plans for Ilkley Brewery set out by Chris Ives. As one of the prizes for winning the Local Business Accelerators competition, Deborah Meaden of Dragons’ Den fame, has been mentoring the business and suggested some ways that the brand might widen its appeal, particularly in London and the South East.

Mr Ives said the company is working on these at the moment, as well as advancing ambitions to start exporting the beer to the United States, Canada, Sweden and Brazil. (Imagine drinking a pint of Mary Jane on Copacabana beach.)

Mr Ives is due to meet with Ms Meaden again next month to discuss the progress of the business. Like Mr Ross, he did not wish to comment beyond the company statement.

Regarding the new venture, he said pub-based breweries only tend to produce enough beer to supply their own trade. This suggests it won’t be in direct competition.

He thinks the Flying Duck/Wharfedale Brewery will do “extremely well”.

This all reminds me a little bit of Masham, the North Yorkshire town famous for being home to two breweries owned by different members of the Theakston family.

Paul Theakston set up Black Sheep Brewery in 1992 following the controversial sale of the family firm T&R Theakston to Scottish & Newcastle. The publicity surrounding the family split helped to establish his business. T&R Theakston, meanwhile, has been back in successful family ownership led by Simon Theakston for several years.

Both continue to produce excellent beer, proving that the town is big enough for two breweries.

Time will tell if Ilkley is.