Discover Kirkstall's backstory from the early days of the UK’s own craft beer revolution


It’s a quirk of history that one of the most important figures in the early days of the UK’s own craft beer revolution is someone you almost certainly wouldn’t have heard of at the time: Kirkstall Brewery founder Steve Holt. This was long, long before he opened a brewery of his own though, back when he was still setting up his import company, Vertical Drinks, and had the lucky opportunity to bend the ear of Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman on a moving bus. Some things are just meant to be.

“I first discovered Sierra Nevada back in the 1980s on a trip to San Francisco, in a shop somewhere on the waterfront,” says Steve. “The bottles were very dusty, which suggested they weren't selling a great deal at the time. I rediscovered it in 2001, when a friend and I decided we wanted to go to the Great American Beer Festival in Colorado. Purely by chance, I met Ken Grossman on a bus to the venue and started a conversation about importing his beer to the UK – I was already in the business by that time, selling a range of British beers.

“We exchanged a few emails after the event, but nothing was really happening, so I got on the plane to San Francisco, drove up to Chico and kind of knocked on the door. Ken explained they’d had a lot of interest in people wanting to buy the beer, but that they didn’t want to do export because they couldn’t control the quality in shipping. So we went back and forth, agreeing to refrigerated containers, agreeing to pay up-front; all these obstacles to put us off, but eventually we got our first container of Sierra Nevada Pale in October 2003.”

It was a strong start to Vertical Drinks’ US import portfolio, to which Steve quickly added an Alaskan smoked porter and in time beers from the likes of Dogfish Head. For those of us who hadn’t travelled to America to try these beers, Vertical Drinks first exposed us to true US craft brewing, and arguably lit the fuse for a generation of brewers and beer lovers, which eventually led to an explosion.

Steve took this passion for American craft with him when he founded Kirkstall Brewery a decade later, even doing so to the extent that he used to buy whole-cone hops from Sierra Nevada, and have them packed into the refrigerated containers around the crates of export pale ale. Its DNA is still clearly evident in the brewery’s style today; yes, Kirkstall still brews a hazy, fruity IPA, but it’s clear the brewers’ hearts belong to the bitter, resinous west coast numbers like Spokane, in this month’s box.

The brewery’s managing director John Kelly says: “There's no way to hide in a really clean West Coast IPA. If there's any flaws, they'll be shown up straight away. West Coast IPAs take skill and consistency, and obviously Sierra Nevada are the godfathers, so people really respect their craft.

“Spokane was definitely inspired by Sierra Nevada and those other California breweries, but it’s not a clone by any means. We adapted it to the UK palate by brewing out some of the sweetness that Americans look for, getting rid of the crystal malt, the caramalt that you'd normally find in small quantities in West Coast IPAs. Ours is a very clean malt bill, which lets the hops shine more, so we still have the citrus but not the sweetness.”

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