This northern English city is quietly forging a reputation as the UK’s beer capital. If there is a British version of Portland, Oregon - albeit without the cool factor – this is it.

It is rather hard to leave the station in Sheffield, England after the train pulls in. The long bar at the Sheffield Tap – a beer cornucopia on Platform 1 that lures weary travellers into its hoppy embrace -- is studded with 10 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 the old railway buildings that had been closed since 1967. But owner Jamie Hawksworth admits he underestimated this northern city’s appetite for craft beer. “We thought we would sell 10 barrels a week – but we were selling five-and-a-half times that in the first two weeks of opening,” he said.

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 is 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. In doing so, it will join a ballooning microbrewing scene that has emerged in and around the city over the last 15 years.

Much of this activity is focused around the formerly industrial Kelham Island area, to the north of the city centre. Many of the steel mills that made Sheffield’s world famous cutlery were based here, but they began to close down in the 1980s and Kelham Island became a run-down red light district.

“Sheffield has a strong industrial heritage and a manual labour tradition that fosters a residual drinking culture, which didn’t die out, even when the industry did,” said Pete Brown, author of the book Man Walks into a Pub.

So it is in this inauspicious setting – in a now gentrified Kelham Island -- that the thriving brew scene was born. Today, the Sheffield Brewing Company sells its broad range of traditional British ales through the Gardener’s Rest pub, which became a spruced-up version of a traditional British boozer after a flood-enforced renovation in 2007. Meanwhile, three breweries -- Little Ale Cart, Steel City and White Rose -- share equipment at the back of the spit-and-sawdusty Wellington pub, supplying many of the cask-conditioned real ales that have cropped up around Kelham Island.

Brown attributes the city’s beer revolution to “the singular influence of Dave Wickett”, who opened the Kelham Island Brewery in the garden of the Fat Cat pub in 1990. The small brick shed where the operation began still stands, even though the brewery has since moved to bigger premises over the road.

“Wickett kept the flame alive,” Brown said. “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.”

Sheffield’s beer revolution can also be seen in Thornbridge, a brewery that Brown described as “the most interesting in the country”. Since its first brews in 2005, Thornbridge has rapidly expanded and gathered scores of awards worldwide -- particularly for its powerful but expertly rounded Jaipur IPA.  

Thornbridge’s chief operating officer Simon Webster said cherry-picking brewers from as far afield as Italy and Australia has been part of the success. “We want consistent quality and we spend a lot of money on the science side,” he said.

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, including The Greystones, a shabby, unloved suburban pub that Webster described as “the haunted house on the hill”.

Thornbridge refurbished The Greystones in November 2010 and now serves a large range of their own beers alongside a carefully chosen selection from other British breweries. They also 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,” said Webster. “[But] pubs stopped competing [and now] there has to be a reason to go there. [Offering] beers that you can’t get down the road or in the supermarket is just part of that.”

Even the popular city centre bars are joining in Sheffield’s craft beer embrace. Ten to 15 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 all serve at least one locally-made ale. It seems opening a bar in Sheffield without selling the likes of hoppy-but-mildly-citrusy Abbeydale Moonshine, award-winning pale ale Kelham Island Pale Rider or the summery Bradfield Farmer’s Blonde would be commercial suicide.