Creating culture, through beer, people and place


It was early August, 2022, when I last spoke to Kirkstall’s brand manager, Chris Hall, about the potential of beer festivals to embody a brewery’s ethos, and represent its heritage. Kirsktall was then on the cusp of Leeds International Beer Festival, which it played a major part in organising, and later also ran its own event, The Rando, on which it collaborated with neighbouring bike business, Restrap, to combine two of Yorkshire's most loved activities; cycling and beer drinking. “We learned a lot from running those events, and that’s informed a lot of the things we want to do this year,” says Chris. 

At the end of May this year, Kirstall will be combining that experience with its already expert understanding of how space and setup can both influence ideas and represent a brewery’s identity. The Great Exhibition of Prize Ales has invited participating breweries to do what Kirkstall has done with Prize Ales, a series of “revival beers” that draw on recipes wfrom the old Kirkstall Brewery Co that operated between 1833 and 1983. All breweries featured have been challenged to brew a beer that speaks to something that's either local or historic to where it's from. 

“This should be a festival that feels like it’s from the past”, says Chris, “and not like anything festival goers have experienced before. I think the timeline is working out so that it’s happening just a few weeks after Hop City, which is a great example of a very cutting edge, modern, hoppy beer festival. The Great Exhibition of Prize Ales should stand in contrast to that. It’s going to be a Citra free zone.” We laugh. Chris is joking… or is he?

The fact that this festival is happening, and that Chris has received such a resoundingly enthusiastic response to it from modern and traditional breweries alike, speaks to a trend taking the UK’s craft beer industry by storm; a return to its roots. Kirkstall has a track record of what Chris refers to as a “sort of duty of care towards the heritage of the brewery and, more widely, British brewing culture”. “We wanted to revive an interest in those things,” he continues. “A lot of what the industry thinks about these days is what suits the modern palate, and a lot of trends are driven by that. 

“Some would argue this has kind of led us a little bit down the rabbit hole that doesn't necessarily have a lot of variety within it. So our aim with this festival, if we can capture people's imaginations, is to show people that there’s not just history in these older beer styles, but that there are actually some amazing flavours and ideas in the past. There might be a future for us there.”

The extent to which our industry is quietly investing in the idea of there being a future for craft in beer’s past, can be observed in The Great Exhibition’s lineup; expect Alpha Delta next to Adnams and Allsops, and oak casks of Sam Smith’s bitter next to Siren, Verdant and Thornbridge. All, of course, will be there for their own reasons, and put unique twists on what this seismic shift towards traditional or historic styles means for them specifically. 

Kirkstall has obviously always had this connection with its local history, and through the brewery’s lifetime, built consideration of this heritage into the pursuit of modern styles. For all this is the case, I don’t spare Chris any annoying questions concerning why he thinks this movement is beginning, or has already begun. We cover topics ranging from costs to sustainability, but among the many insights and opinions we exchange concerning what role the past is playing in the craft industries construction of the future, one in particular stands out for me. 

“I think there's always a more general appreciation and turn towards nostalgia when times are tough,” says Chris. “It makes people feel safe. I mean, even Burger King and KFC have started using their ‘70s logo again. There’s something safe and comforting in the past, people there aren’t worried about the pandemic, or the cost of living, it’s a space we can tap into when we need the space and strength to regroup and move forward.” We catch ourselves in a moment of deep reverie, then laugh. We agree it’s pretty depressing chat for discussion of a beer festival, events we know and love for the community, connection, excitement and innovation they champion. We leave it there, deciding the years to come will be brighter than those behind. 

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