The Old Brewery (now Sam Smith’s) was founded in 1758 by Backhouse and Hartley. In 1852 John Smith bought the brewing premises of the deceased Jane Hartley (the founder’s heir), bringing in his brother William to help him. The timing proved fortuitous; pale ales were displacing porter as the beer of choice, and Tadcaster’s hard water proved to be well-suited for brewing the new style. The prosperity of the 1850’s and 1860’s, together with the arrival of the railways, realised greater opportunities for brewers. By 1861 John Smith employed eight men in his brewing and malting enterprise. The excellence of his ales paved the way for what has become Britain’s most popular ale brand.
In 1879, John Smith died and he left his personal estate (which included such items as the barrels and brewery equipment) in equal shares to his brothers, William and Samuel (a tanner from Leeds). His real estate, mainly the Old Brewery, went also to his two brothers. On the death of either, the property was to go to the successor, but after that, was entailed on the heirs of Samuel, since William was not married and had no descendants.
Consequently, in 1884 William built a new, bigger brewery next door. He hurried on to complete the building of the new brewery and as soon as possible he transferred the stock, equipment and trade name from the old brewery to the new.
Thus, when William died in 1886, Samuel Smith junior inherited the Old Brewery, an almost empty building, while the new brewery (John Smith’s) was left to Willam’s nephews, the Riley brothers. The New Brewery flourished under the management of the Riley brothers, who as a result of a clause in their Uncle’s will had changed their name to Riley-Smith.
Samuel Smith Junior took legal advice as to whether William had been entitled to remove the trade name from the Old Brewery, but the advice went against him. Nevertheless, such was the buoyancy of the brewing trade at that time that Samuel was able to re-equip the Old Brewery, open it under his own name in 1886 and run it in competition with the established firm of John Smith’s.
The Riley-Smith’s had the advantage of the larger brewery and traded under the name John Smith’s. The operations became sizable during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In 1907, the company began to bottle its own beer and in 1912 the company owned over 250 horses, 41 of which saw service during the First World War. The last of the company’s dray horses was retired in 1947. In 1953 the firm became a public company with fixed assets of around £5 million, 1,000 licensed premises and around 1,100 employees. In 1959 the company began to bottle imported Alken lager in response to growing customer demand. In 1961 the company also began to bottle Carlsberg lager.
Slate Yorkshire Square brewing vessels were used at the brewery from 1913 until 1975. Stainless steel Yorkshire Squares were in use by at least 1953, but were removed in the 1980’s, and the brewery now uses conical tanks.
Wooden casks were still in use in the 1960’s. The cask beer line was removed in 1976, but restored in 1984.
In 1984 the original brew-house was converted into a brewery museum. In November 1985 a new £5 million brew-house opened. Production of Foster’s Lager began in 1987. By 1989 the brewery had a production capacity of 1.2 million barrels per annum. Scottish and Newcastle used the John Smith’s brewery to brew many of its ale brands. In 2004, a new £24 million bottling facility opened, described as the most modern bottling facility in Europe.
The brewery is now owned by Heineken and brews 3.8 million hectolitres annually (1.8 million of which is John Smith’s beer), and employed around 300 people in 2008. John Smith’s Extra Smooth and Original are produced at the Tadcaster brewery, as well as a range of Heineken products including Kronenburg 1664 and Newcastle Brown Ale. The brewery is one of the largest in the country.