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
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
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