Sheffield city guide
Barnsley’s favourite beery son Pete Brown sets out his stall for Sheffield: the Cinderella of modern UK brewing
Saturday 11 March 2023
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Long ago, back in the olden days, there was a beer civil war happening across England’s north-south divide.
Britain, with the arguable exception of Scotland, was pretty much the last country to hold out against the tide of lager drinking that had swept the world since the late 19th century. When things began to change, they did so first in the south. The lager ads of the late 1970s and early 1980s may be crass, vulgar and sexist by today’s standards. But at the time (this is how bad it was) they were witty, cool and urbane. Therefore, so was lager, and so were the people who drank it.
This idea caught on quicker in places where you could go out for a drink straight from work, because work didn’t leave you covered in filth that you had to wash away before you could go into a pub. So when I was a young teen in Yorkshire, ale was what real, rough-handed men drank, while lager was the drink of southern softies. (Except not “softies”, but a variety of expressions no longer acceptable in progressive society.)
This may all seem a long time ago, now that lager makes up 80% of beer drunk across the UK, but it’s an important historical wrinkle that helps explain how Sheffield became the best beer city in the world.
While the lager wars were happening, I was a young teen growing up in Barnsley. When I’d saved up enough money from my paper round, I’d get on the train to Sheffield to go and buy records and Dungeons & Dragons stuff – an experience akin to getting the Eurostar to Paris today. By 1983, the steelworks to the north of the city were deserted, their windows all smashed. One great industry had gone, but another remained: every single time we trundled along that railway viaduct, a strong, almost overpowering cereal smell filled the draughty train carriage. Even today, whenever I catch the aroma of a brewhouse mashing in, I still see the ruins of Sheffield steel in my mind.
When Dave Wickett arrived in Sheffield 25 years earlier, the city greeted him very differently. “Wherever you are in Sheffield you see millions of streetlights and they are all twinkling,” he told me in 2010, shortly before his death. “And then you go past a steelworks. They chuck out these enormous blocks of steel, probably twice, three times as big as my house, and they were just there on railway trucks just cooling down. You wound the car window down and you could feel the heat. You never saw anything like that in North London, you know. This was life!”
The Londoner made Sheffield his home. And as the big ale breweries of Wards (pronounced as in ‘car’ rather than in ‘boards’) and Stones eventually followed the steelworks into oblivion, he kept its brewing tradition alive.
In 1980, Wickett opened The Fat Cat, a real ale-focussed pub in Kelham Island, which had by now gone from industrial heartland to run-down red light district. The pub was such a success that ten years later, he opened a brewery next door. Kelham Island was the first new brewery in the city in over 50 years.
Dave Wickett wasn’t always easy to get on with. Sometimes he would sack his brewers. Other times they would leave of their own accord. But something extraordinary happened; whether they left on good terms or bad, brewers would set up on their own, just down the road. By the late 1990s, Sheffield boasted a dense cluster of small, independent breweries around the Kelham Island district.
When the history of the British craft beer revolution is written from a safe distance, it will likely be traced to London and 2010-12, when an explosion of new breweries hit the capital. But many other towns and cities were years in front. By that golden boom time, Sheffield – a city less than a tenth the size of London – boasted over thirty breweries.
And yet, as mainstream journalists began compiling lists of craft beer destinations and city guides, Sheffield was never mentioned. In 2016, I was commissioned by Sheffield’s City and Cultural Engagement team to write a report that changed this. We demonstrated that beer was a part of the long tradition of Sheffield as a “City of Makers,” that steel had been replaced by music, art, film and crafts, all produced by small-scale, independent businesses, all characterised by a steely belligerence one brewer summed up as “the awkward squad”.
These different creative strands seem to blend seamlessly in the city. Beer creeps into the work of beloved local artists such as Joe Scarborough, Kid Acne and Pete McKee. Recently, when local musician Richard Hawley was asked how he developed his rich, velvet baritone, he replied with typical Sheffield bluntness, “fags and ale”.
By 2016, Sheffield boasted one brewery per 32,000 people, compared with London’s one for every 112,000. Real ale never faded from view here – most pubs stock at least one pale ale in what has become the city’s defining style: below 4% ABV, hop-forward on the aroma, but clean and balanced – the kind of beer you end up drinking four pints of when you only went in for one.
If there’s a “but” here, it’s that Sheffield, like many South Yorkshire towns, can be quite insular. Many of its most popular beers are little-known outside the city, and for a long time, that ubiquitous pale ale hid a dearth of other beer styles, particularly given the number of beers and brewers around.
Since 2016 this has changed. The number of brewers continues to increase. Abbeydale, founded in 1996, has seamlessly transitioned from a brewer of traditional cask ale (which it still does, beautifully) to a craft brewer as modern and inventive as anyone, anywhere. The wonderfully named Brewery of St Mars of the Desert (SMoD to its many friends) is nationally celebrated for its breadth and quality of beer styles. Brewery owners Dann and Martha show that Dave Wickett’s infatuation with Sheffield was no one-off: they moved here from Boston, Massachusetts, after falling in love with the city.
Jules Gray is another leading light of the Sheffield beer scene who chose the city as her home after university and now seems like she was born here. She runs a popular beer shop called Hop Hideout, and in 2015, pretty much on her own, founded the first Sheffield Beer Week. “I really loved the Sheffield beer and pub scene but was getting increasingly frustrated about people in the wider network seeming to ignore it. I was also inspired by Norwich City of Ale and American beer weeks. It has its challenges financially as it’s very grassroots, but we’ve been creative and we’ve always kept it free to get involved. The ethos is championing the Sheffield beer scene, but also recognising the global beer landscape.”
The 2023 edition of Sheffield Beer Week runs 6-12 March, and is preceded by Indie Beer Feast, a weekend-long festival in the old Abbeydale Cinema. With events across the city, core strands are Beer and Food and Community and Heritage, with additional strands including International Women’s Day events. Brewers including Tapped Brew Co, Little Critters, Heist, Loxley, Abbeydale and True North are planning special beers for the week, with more announcements to come.
But in a year when the overall theme is “Going Back To Our Beer Roots,” it’s likely that Kelham Island will be greeted with particular fondness. In spring 2022 Kelham announced its closure, ravaged by the pandemic and with nothing left in the tank. Months later, the brewery was saved by a consortium including Thornbridge Brewing (whose foundation, inevitably, was inspired by Dave Wickett) and key figures from Sheffield’s art and music scene. Once again, the City of Makers is working together across its various industries, blurring the lines between them.
“The pandemic has hit the sector really hard. A number of the nano breweries have now shut,” admits Gray. “But Sheffield remains very much a beer city. There’s lots of great pubs selling quality cask ale, a nice range of places to buy good beer, from beer shops to butcher’s and restaurants. You often see folks doing beer trails and ale trails around different parts of the city. You can even catch a train and find a pub and a brewery at the station!”
Sheffield isn’t just a city with lots of breweries in it. It’s a city that has always had beer running in its blood. Because beer is a thing you can make that brings joy, and like all the things Sheffield still makes, it can be made by one- and two-person operations who stubbornly go their own way. It’s often said that Britain doesn’t make things any more. The people who say that need more Sheffield in their lives.
Cover photo © Gary Butterfield | Header photo © Benjamin Elliott
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