Would you believe it? Italians love the taste of Yorkshire bitter

Cheers! Owner Dave Hughes and commercial director David Broadhead raise a glass at Acorn Brewerys Ol

Cheers! Owner Dave Hughes and commercial director David Broadhead raise a glass at Acorn Brewerys Old No 7 pub - Credit: Archant

Italians can now enjoy a taste of Yorkshire thanks to a Barnsley brewery

There’s probably a grateful Italian propping up a bar in Verona right now saying ‘Grazie al cielo per Barnsley Bitter!’ while knocking back a frothy pint of South Yorkshire’s finest.

Acorn Brewery, established by Dave and Judi Hughes in 2003, shipped its first 1,000 pints of Barnsley Bitter to Italy in September last year to supply bars, shops and restaurant across the north of the country as part of a £10,000 order that also included Barnsley Gold and Old Moor Porter.

This is the latest in a long line of successes for what looks at first glance like a modest micro brewery on a not terribly attractive industrial estate in Wombwell just outside Barnsley. But appearances can be deceptive.

In a little over a decade, Acorn has won no less than 50 regional and national awards, including Yorkshire Pub of the Year for its flagship bar, Old No 7, in Market Hill, Barnsley. It currently delivers direct to more than 400 pubs and 50 retail outlets in the north and Midlands, delivers across the UK via wholesalers and supplies all the major supermarkets to the very catchy tune of around £1.2m a year.

So how did this little acorn become such a mighty – if micro – force in the brewing industry? Well, as is the case with a great many success stories, happenstance played a pivotal part.

Dave, a trained chef who’d worked in major chain hotels like the Savoy and Imperial in his native Blackpool, was tempted to London by a job in a Pimlico restaurant. The proprietor also owned a micro brewery in Elsecar, six miles south of Barnsley, and, in 1999, invited his sales manager to come down to Olympia for the Great British Beer Festival. The sales manager was Judi.

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‘We just clicked,’ said Dave. ‘After six months of travelling, we knew things had to change, and that meant me moving to Yorkshire.’

His boss offered him a job as a trainee brewer at Elsecar and, while it was tough starting at the bottom again, he soon discovered a new calling.

‘I realised it’s a very similar job to being a chef, with recipes to follow and a basic set of ingredients to work with,’ said Dave. ‘But the flavours you can produce with just water, malt, hops and yeast are magical.’

When the Elsecar business folded, Dave and Judi made the bold decision to buy a secondhand brew plant, giving them ten 36-gallon barrels (known as brewers’ barrels). And when it came to brewing their first beer, it was a no-brainer – traditional Barnsley Bitter made using the original 19th century strain of yeast, Maris Otter malt (an old English barley) and Challenger hops from Little Lambswick in Malvern.

‘We targeted a number of local pubs, including the Kelham Island Tavern – the most popular pub in Sheffield,’ said Dave. ‘Our beer was a hit with customers from day one and the publicans really bought into our ethos and recognised our passion.’

Next came Barnsley Gold, a light session beer, and Old Moor Porter, named after a local nature reserve.

‘We brewed our first Christmas special that year too; the First Noel,’ said Dave. ‘We’re now up to the Thirteenth Noel, with each beer 0.1 per cent stronger than the last.’

In that first year, Acorn Brewery produced 20 brewers’ barrels a week. Now, anything under 100 a week is disappointing.

The 12-strong team produce six permanent beers plus a range of seasonal and special editions, including an amazing long-running series of single-hop IPAs.

‘We’ve done 83 so far and are aiming for 100, which we think will be a world record,’ said Dave. ‘They’re really popular with beer-tickers (the trainspotters of the alcoholic beverage world). They send us loads of SAEs asking for pump clips.’

Acorn has recently restocked its cold store with hops from around the world, including New Zealand and the US, to expand its menu of beers yet further. Just don’t expect a raspberry light beer anytime soon.

‘Some brewers have chosen to add fruit or chocolate to their range, but that’s not for us,’ said Dave. ‘We have one with a subtle hint of ginger and lemongrass, but it’s still very much a beer, not a fruit punch.

‘There’s a trend at the moment for big, hoppy beers full of tropical grapefruit and passionfruit flavours. In Yorkshire, though, we find people like dark brews best.’

At Acorn, it’s the quality of the ingredients rather than their novelty value that matters. But what else would you expect from a brewery run by a former chef?

‘Quality ingredients shine through when it comes to flavour,’ said Dave. ‘Challenger hops give a real pineiness, whereas Fuggles’ are more grassy and the American-style Bramling Cross are quite blackcurranty.’

The business has trebled its capacity in the last seven years and is currently producing around 100 barrels a week, with scope to produce up to 170. But Dave is mindful of his company’s micro status and doesn’t want to get so big that quality control becomes an issue. That doesn’t mean, however, that Acorn is rooted to the spot.

‘We’re expanding the workplace, adding a lab and more cold storage, but that’s about making life easier for us and our team,’ said Dave. ‘We’re just starting to keg our own beer and are looking at buying a canning plant. There’s a massive boom coming in cans. They’re air-tight and aren’t affected by light pollution so keep the beer better than bottles. They’re also light to transport and are a much greener option.’

For now, hand-pulled cask ale still accounts for around 90 per cent of Acorn’s production and, with Italy firmly flagged on the export map, the team has now turned its gaze on Spain. So, when the rest of Europe is happily drinking Barnsley Bitter, where’s next on the list?

‘I’d love a pub in Blackpool,’ said Dave. ‘It’s my home town and it would make me very happy indeed.’