David Whitley discovers a real ale revolution that arguably making Sheffield the best place in the for craft beer.
It’s rather hard to leave Sheffield’s station after the train pulls in. On Platform 1, a beer cornucopia lures weary travellers into its hoppy embrace. The long bar at the Sheffield Tap is studded with ten hand-pulled cask ales, eight keg beers, four lagers and a cider. Behind it are fridges filled with high quality bottled beers sourced from all over the world.
When it opened in November 2009, the Sheffield Tap was considered a huge risk. A £450,000 investment was required to refurbish old railway buildings that had been closed since 1967. Owner Jamie Hawksworth admits he underestimated the city’s appetite for craft beer. “We thought we would sell ten barrels a week – but we were selling five-and-a-half times that in the first two weeks of opening.”
Hawksworth’s pub is a drool-inducing introduction to a city that is quietly forging a reputation as the UK’s beer capital. If there’s a British version of Portland, Oregon – albeit without the marketing nous and cool factor – this is it.
In September, the Sheffield Tap is due to open its own brewery inside the station’s former first class dining rooms. It will join a ballooning microbrewing scene that has emerged in and around the city over the last fifteen years.
Much of this activity is focused around the newly gentrified Kelham Island area to the north of the city centre. The Sheffield Brewing Company sells its own beers through the Gardener’s Rest pub, whilst three breweries share the equipment at the back of the Wellington. Little Ale Cart, Steel City and White Rose all supply the trail of real ale pubs that have cropped up around Kelham Island.
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The area was once industrial. Many of the steel mills that made Sheffield’s world famous cutlery were based here, but they began to close down in the 1980s. Kelham Island became a run-down red light district.
It’s in this inauspicious setting that the current thriving scene was born. Beer writer Pete Brown says: “Sheffield has a strong industrial heritage, and a manual labour tradition that fosters a residual drinking culture that didn’t die out, even when the industry did.”
However, Brown attributes much of what’s happening now to “the singular influence of Dave Wickett”. In 1990, Wickett opened a brewery in the beer garden of the Fat Cat pub. The small brick shed still stands, although the Kelham Island Brewery has since moved to bigger premises over the road.
Pete Brown says: “Wickett kept the flame alive – for a time, Kelham Island was the only brewery in Sheffield.”
“But he didn’t suffer fools gladly, and a lot of people who worked with him left to set up their own breweries. Some went on good terms, some under a cloud, but they had been inspired to make good beer.”
Sheffield’s beer revolution is spreading across the city. This is partly due to Thornbridge, the brewery that Brown describes as “the most interesting in the country.” Since its first brews in 2005, Thornbridge has rapidly expanded and gathered scores of awards worldwide – particularly its Jaipur IPA.
Thornbridge’s Chief Operating Officer Simon Webster says cherry-picking brewers from as far afield asand has been part of the success. He says: “We want consistent quality and we spend a lot of money on the science side.
“I don’t want worldwide domination – but I DO want a worldwide reputation.”
The brewing operation is based just outside Sheffield in the Derbyshire town of Bakewell, but Thornbridge has taken over a number of pubs in the city itself. The Greystones offers the best example. It was a shabby, unloved suburban pub that Webster describes as “the haunted house on the hill.”
Thornbridge refurbished the Greystones and put a large range of their own beers on alongside a carefully chosen selection from other breweries. It wasn’t all about the beer, though. They opened up the back room for live music gigs and comedy nights, then invited the local community to stage meetings and events.
“The reason people historically went to pubs was that they’re warmer and nicer than your own house,” says Webster. “Pubs stopped competing – there has got to be a reason to go there. And putting on beers that you can’t get down the road or in the supermarket is just part of that.”
The growing collection of Thornbridge-owned pubs is dotted across the city, but the real sign of Sheffield’s embrace of craft beer comes in the popular city centre bars. Ten to fifteen years ago, bars such as the Old House, Bungalows and Bears and the Forum would have focused largely on wine, cocktails and generic mass-market beers. Now they’ll all serve at least one locally-made ale. To open a bar in Sheffield without selling the likes of Abbeydale Moonshine, Kelham Island Pale Rider or Bradfield Farmer’s Blonde would be commercial suicide.
This story was originally written for BBC Travel.