Spinning a yarn

A veteran of artisanal brewing in Yorkshire, Saltaire Brewery knows a thing or two about information, education, and the language we use to talk about beer


A hidden gem, nestled between Leeds and Bradford, the Victorian village of Saltaire, Shipley, embodies everything about West Yorkshire that I have so quickly become enamored with. Constructed between 1850 and 1870 by textile mill owner, Titus Salt, the village of terraced stone houses was purpose built to provide mill workers and their families with safe, stable accommodation, away from the surrounding slums. The mill ceased operations in 1986, and while the building was immediately bought over and underwent several years of renovation work, the surrounding village endured some decades of hardship until the mill reopened as a truly stunning and unique retail site. 

As you move up through the floors of the building you’ll find a range of shops selling everything from books and art supplies, to antiques, homeware, and products by local jewelers and designers. The top two floors act as a gallery exhibiting the work of world renowned, Bradford-born artist, David Hockney. Outwith the cultural hotspot Salts Mill has become, the mill itself was made a UNESCO world heritage site in 2001, and each building in the surrounding village has been afforded protected status. The only thing that could make Saltaire any better? A brewery, of course. 

Managing director of Saltaire Brewery, Ewen Gordon, jokes that the noise, smells and general mess of a brewery didn’t quite fit with the Hockney aesthetic. He never mentions whether or not the brewery actually put its name in the hat for a site at the mill, but he doesn’t really need to. Saltaire Brewery and taproom is just a 20 minute walk along the canal to Salts Mill, and is quite literally my idea of the perfect place for a pint in good weather. 

The site itself is interesting, encompassing far more than the original brewery building that’s visible from the taproom. Saltaire’s active brewery is actually right next door to it, in a building that looks like a storage facility from the outside, but contains multiple levels and platforms inside, all of which fit around its sizable brewhouse. Just across the adjacent road is yet another facility — this one much more modern — dedicated to brewing and packaging.

The brewery is of a size that it can comfortably accommodate contract work for lots of other brands, particularly when it comes to brewing, bottling and packaging, but it also brews the beer that’s used in a lot of supermarket food. For years, Saltaire has been brewing beer that the likes of Morrisons uses in its sausages and ale pies, and while Ewen mentions it casually — after all, it’s not a huge part of the brewery’s story — it does give you a small insight into the quality and compliance that’s fundamental to operations there. It’s no surprise that Saltaire was one of the first breweries that Northern Monk approached about a collaboration, when it was still a nascent cuckoo brewing brand. 

Saltaire was founded in 2005 by Tony Gartland, who, after a long and successful career as a lawyer and entrepreneur, decided he wanted to make something from scratch and sell it. Beer became his product of choice after a trip to the US exposed him to the burgeoning craft beer revolution underway there, and he returned home with ideas on how to break the mould in Yorkshire, a beer scene of which Saltaire is now a veteran. 

Tony’s big takeaway from what he’d experienced in the US, was how integral education and information is to a cultural awareness and appreciation of craft. “Something that used to make Tony really frustrated was that he could go into a pub and encounter cask beer that he’d never seen or heard of before, and no one knew anything about it, not even the bar staff,” says Ewen. 

“So, we were one of the first breweries to put tasting notes on the pump clips at the bar. We’ve shortened our descriptions down to read just about three words now, but when we first started doing it, we’d write a couple of lines about how the beer was made, and what it was made with. Tony was really passionate about education at the point of purchase.” 

Small disruptions to the norm, at least when it comes to a customer’s experience of ordering a pint, is what really helped the brewery find its niche as a craft producer operating in a market then still dominated by macro brands. “Saltaire Blonde [a golden ale now available across cask, mini cask and bottle] is the brand that kind of built our business. It was the right time, right place, right product. It's a very easy-drinking beer, and the concept behind it, back in 2008, was to give a cask option to people who might usually drink lager, it was always supposed to be something people could relate to.”

I found this interesting, given that, for me, “blonde” invokes something of Belgian, French or, more generally speaking, European styles when in reality, Tony was trying to make a beer for cask that was inspired by craft beer in the US. Ewen has a really wonderful response to this observation.

“When the Northern Monks of this world were getting started, super crafty beer was an emerging market, but what you have to bear in mind is that we were already ten years old at that point, which made us traditional,” says Ewen. He’s not so much implying that anyone else’s development or evolution has had an influence on Saltaire’s identity, but that we now speak about the beer world in a vocabulary that we’ve only really developed in the last 10 years. 

“You hear a lot of conversations happening now about style, because, of course, we have so many of them. There are purists who wouldn’t recognise a session IPA as a legitimate style, but the reality is that session IPAs exist, and why shouldn’t they?” Ewen says, at which point, I understand that what the term ‘blonde’ achieved in 2008, is very similar to what the term ‘session IPA’ achieves today; both simply signal to drinkers that a beer is approachable, relatable and easy-drinking. 

Whether you want to get into the dreaded ‘style conversation’ or not, the proof of Saltaire Blonde’s success is in its 100+ permanent lines across Yorkshire, and its 20-year career as a tried, tested, and always brilliant brand. 

Share this article