The light at the end of the darkness
Matt Curtis celebrates some plucky new entrants
Saturday 11 March 2023
This article is from
Share this article
“We're a small brewery in the middle of Manchester, making beer for people to enjoy.”
James Campbell seems relaxed about the difficult state of things, but that might have something to do with how long he’s been in the beer industry. The founder and head brewer at Sureshot Brewing – which commenced brewing in 2022 – has been brewing for over two decades, including stints at Manchester stalwarts Marble, before becoming the head brewer at Cloudwater when it launched in 2015. After some time at equipment supplier SSV (which manufactured the shiny, stainless steel fermenters sitting in his brewery) he decided to take the plunge, and launch a brewery of his own design.
Situated on Sheffield Street, beneath the many platforms of Manchester Piccadilly Station, and occupying a railway arch that was formerly home to Track Brewing Co. (before it moved to the industrial estate around the corner), Sureshot is a brewery I would define as ‘post-craft’. I mean this sincerely. While the brewery chases more obvious sales through the release of hazy, juicy pale ales and IPAs, it also brews styles beloved by the jaded: helles lager, and imperial stouts with absolutely no sweet adjuncts whatsoever.
There’s also a playfulness (combined with more than a hint of irreverence) to its beer names. ‘Bring Me the Head of John the Accountant’ is an obvious reference to the rising cost of ingredients used in this heavily hopped DIPA, while ‘Dunblobbin’ references chaotic 90s TV character, Mr. Blobby. I am unsure what ‘Small Man's Wetsuit’ – a pale ale – is named in reference to.
“We're a group of seasoned industry professionals trying to make the best beer we can with what we have available,” Campbell tells me. “Brewing has always been tough and lately more so. Realistically though, the country has been lurching from one crisis to another since 2016, so waiting for a good time to launch a business may involve relying on reincarnation.”
Campbell sounds optimistic when he tells me that, in some ways, it was advantageous opening in 2022. It meant Sureshot could begin trading with “fresh, open eyes” rather than having to make changes to an established business model; with the energy crisis already in progress, they were able to fix their tariff for as long as they could. That’s not to say it hasn’t been affected by the rising cost of literally everything, with Campbell telling me his malt prices have already increased by 35% in the few months his business has been trading.
Still, there's confidence in his tone, which is refreshing to hear. He’s also thankful to other breweries such as Track and Vocation for their support, citing how important collaborating with like minded businesses has been in getting Sureshot’s name out there.
“Of course, we haven't got the resources of a larger business, but every business growing from a small start does that,” Campbell says. “The focus has to be 100% on quality – it's the only advantage a small brewer has available.”
If Sureshot opening amid current circumstances is one reason to be cheerful, then the fact that another brewery – Balance Brewing and Blending – is opening just five doors down the street should be the basis for jumping around in rapturous celebration. In fact, despite the closures we saw in 2022, and will continue to experience this year, Manchester welcomed no less than five new breweries to the fold over the past 12 months.
Established by Will Harris and James Horrocks – formerly brewers at Track and Squawk breweries, respectively – Balance aims to set itself apart from other beer makers in the area by concentrating solely on wild and mixed fermentation, oak aged beers. Despite only recently securing the lease to their space, it’s already filled with former wine barrels, and an impressive pair of oak foeders. With beers such as these being so niche, however, I was curious how the pair felt opening such a specialist operation during an ongoing financial crisis.
“Our first year was a bit of a struggle as we were holding down full-time jobs while brewing, blending, packaging and heading to various events up and down the country to get the word out,” James tells me. “Despite the cost of living crisis we have managed to establish a good reputation and sold out of all our releases. We like to believe that quality things can thrive even in adversity.”
Balance’s blends all stem from a base beer known as ‘Saison de Maison’ and through various different fruit additions (and, sometimes, mushroom additions – yes, really) they release new bottles every few months. Recent highlights have included Jam, and Bramble, which contained damsons and blackberries respectively. What makes Balance’s beers stand out for me is that the sourness is restrained, showcasing a textured balance between fruit and acidity. In fact they’re something that might have as much appeal to a wine or cider drinker as much as they do for someone who enjoys these kinds of beers.
With Sureshot recently acquiring its neighbouring arch and opening a taproom, Balance has seen an opportunity: with plenty of footfall in the area it should have its own tasting room open sometime in spring 2023. It’s proof that there’s still glimmers of hope buried in the mire. Hope that’s worth seeking out.
“Manchester is a pretty incredible city for beer, particularly independent breweries, but there isn't really anyone focusing on the style of beer we produce,” James says. “[Our] beers are unique, and the experience of the tap room is going to match that. Being in such a large city and opening up with purely mixed ferm, barrel-aged beers on tap is going to offer something totally different to the beer scene here.”
The North West isn’t the only region of the UK with a beer scene keeping its chin up, despite the circumstances. Edinburgh and the surrounding Lothian region has also seen a number of new entrants to the brewing sector over the past few years, including Vault City, Moonwake and Newbarns. In December 2021 they were joined by Otherworld Brewing, based in Dalkeith, a few miles to the southeast of the Scottish capital.
Amid a range of beers that feel conventional for a modern brewery – there's a DIPA and a Czech-style pilsner in the core range – there are a few beers in the range where the team, including brewer Theo Barnes, really get to express themselves. Take its smoked Scottish lager, for example, which doubles down on the phenolics by using smoked Scottish malt, before being aged in ex-Islay whisky casks. The brewery's play on Scotch traditions doesn’t end there either, with its barrel aged, raspberry and oat Cranachan “dessert beer”, practically invoking the ghost of Rabbie Burns himself.
“We have a slightly fluid approach to how each beer is made,” Barnes tells me. “We took in some Islay whisky casks before our brewery had even arrived and were trying to fit their slightly challenging dry peat smoke to any style of beer, but matching that with a classic German Rauchbier gave us our Scottish Smoked Lager, which now has a strong fanbase.”
There’s no question that if you want to open a brewery at present you’ve got to be a little bit mad – it's a lifestyle choice, not a money spinner – and from the evidence above, you’ve got to find your niche if you want to stand out in today’s market. Take Sureshot, with its impertinent-yet-fun take on the state of beer generally, Balance with its tart, acidic blends, and Otherworld, which channels both a contemporary Scottishness, and the desire to make beers that they really want to drink. Beers like its Amalfi Lemon Meringue pale ale.
“The positivity with which bars and bottle shops we love have received our beers has been validating, and also the affirmation from people who have drunk our beers,” Barnes says. “It’s hard for us to get downbeat with these things buoying us up.”
Another brewery finding its own way by doing things a little bit differently is Ideal Day Family Brewery, which was set up by James Rylance and his wife Nia in 2022. Based on a farm in Cornwall’s Tamar Valley, the brewery will be focusing on using local ingredients, with a big focus on heritage barley varieties, and English hops.
“The beers we make are focused on the providence of the ingredients, especially the grains and the impact of the agriculture that grew them,” Rylance tells me. “We're brewing with a lot of regeneratively grown grains from our farm as well as locally.”
Rylance has quite the CV, beginning his brewing career at none other than London’s The Kernel, before becoming Beavertown’s very first head brewer and co-developing a beer called Gamma Ray. After Beavertown, he moved to Redchurch Brewery in East London, where he flexed his mixed-fermentation muscles and produced some quite remarkable fruited sour beers. Eventually James moved to Cornwall where he headed up another wild fermentation project at Harbour Brewery, before finally stepping out on his own (with the support of Nia, and their two young children, who he hopes will one day want to become involved in the brewery.)
Things will get better and we want to be there with lots of other independent breweries
“When I'm struggling I try to remember that the thing I make is the best bit of someone's day,” he tells me. “Things will get better and we want to be there with lots of other independent breweries, bars, bottle shops and pubs when it does.
“It's always darkest before the dawn and it's bloody dark, hopefully soon we'll start seeing the first light of day.”
Back in Manchester, I’m standing in the middle of North Brewing’s new taproom, located in a new development called Circle Square. You wouldn’t think there’s a cost of living crisis going on, as the long, rectangular space – decorated in North’s typical industrial chic style – is packed to the rafters. Pints are being slung and bao buns are being consumed with abandon (along with the tequila and verdita shot combos the brewery’s bars have become synonymous with).
North began life in Leeds as a bar on the Yorkshire city’s Briggate high street, and it can argue that it was probably the first craft beer bar to open in the UK. After a few years opening more sites around the city, in 2015 owners Christian Townsley and John Gyngell decided it was time to establish a brewery of their own. In a few short years it’s grown significantly, to become one of the most well-known independent breweries in the UK. In late 2022 they opened their 9th bar in Birmingham’s Snow Hill, before (bravely) launching their first Manchester site on the 3rd of January 2023.
“The past three years have taught us that you cannot predict what’s next. Sometimes you just have to go for it,” North’s head of marketing Sarah Hardy, who’s worked for the brewery for over five years, tells me.
“The decision to open the taprooms helps to protect our business from the impact of the cost of living crisis,” she adds. “[They] increase our brand recognition in new cities – we have already seen growth in our Tesco sales in Birmingham since the taproom opened in November. The taprooms also help our cashflow: no waiting 60 days from invoice for a customer’s payment for their schooner of Transmission!”
There’s no denying the outlook for much of the brewing industry is grim. The reality is that the brutality of brewery closures will not cease this year. We will lose a lot of good beer makers, each one representing the flame of a dream that has been snuffed out. It also means a loss of jobs, and a loss of consumer choice at the bar.
But this does not mean that good beer is going anywhere, and it does not mean that all those who dare to dream of running a brewery of their own are heeding an untimely wakeup call. There’s still plenty of evidence to remind us beer will always persevere, and that is something worth celebrating.
Share this article