Wednesday 18 July 2018
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A household name among craft beer lovers in the North East, Kirkstall’s influence is arguably much wider than that. Back in the days when Beavertown, Cloudwater and Magic Rock were more likely to be locations in a children’s storybook than cutting edge breweries, the guys behind Kirkstall were already hard at work trying to bring the American beer revolution to UK shores. Managing director Steve Holt had fallen in love with the big hoppy beers he found in the US, and effectively stalked the founders of breweries such as Sierra Nevada, Odells and Oskar Blues until they agreed to help establish an import route to the UK.
Having introduced the first top-quality, cold-transported American beers to thirsty British palates, Steve turned his attention to a brewery project of his own and, in 2011, Kirkstall opened its doors.
John Kelly, Kirkstall’s general manager, recalls: “At the time there was a great market in the UK, but it looked completely different to how it is today. We already had the experience, contacts and route to market with our existing business, so starting our own brewery was a natural next step. It was great working with the big US names, but we wanted control of our own destiny really, and not to rely on someone else’s seasonal schedule. That’s what we’ve done with Kirkstall.”
Taking its name from a brewery just down the road, which closed in the 1970s, Kirkstall represents revival of a brewing tradition in the town which dates all the way back to the order of Cistercian monks who made beer near the site hundreds of years ago. This is reflected in Kirsktall’s branding, and the brewery is clearly hugely proud of where it comes from; particularly for Steve Holt, who is an avid beer historian and passionate about the region’s brewing heritage.
That said setting out with a US-style craft brewery in 2011 was, John freely admits, a bold move in the heart of northern cask and real ale country. But he also argues the quality of Kirkstall’s American ales struck a chord with the traditional British beer lovers.
“The initial beers we put out were very cask focused,” he recalls. “The brewery we had at the time was made to brew cask beer and we were very lucky to develop a strong local following in the community quite quickly.
“Because we were already shipping in US beers refrigerated, we could use the same channels to bring in our own US hops, so we knew we were using the best ingredients that anybody could get hold of in the UK. We reached capacity on our 8-barrel kit within a couple of months and couldn’t do anything else, so we eventually started looking for a new site and a new kit.”
Kirkstall moved into its current site, a much bigger space on the Kirkstall road, around three years ago, and made a large investment (“far too much money!”) in a brand new 50-hectolitre brewhouse with greatly expanded fermentation capacity, so the team could brew more of the beers that inspired them.
“A lot of breweries around were using very primitive methods and making very good beer from it. But if you want the consistency and the level of scientific knowledge that was so important to the American scene you need to put a lot of attention into the lab and be absolutely fastidious about quality control. So we had to take that step up and invest.”
Today, that looks like a shrewd move, as all of the brewery’s fermenters are full, a couple of years before they expected that would be the case. Kirkstall has also invested in new packaging equipment, including a kegging line and in-line carbonators, and sophisticated new lab equipment. All of this will support its plans to expand beyond the north of England and really ramp up its export sales.
With its relatively long track record, I’m curious whether Kirkstall feels like its ‘first wave’ US craft styles are being overtaken in a market now awash with NEIPAs and confectionary stouts.
“You’d be stupid to ignore the trends, but we don’t chase them,” says John thoughtfully. “If something comes along that’s new and interesting, and that we haven’t played with before, then we’ll do it. We still keep the old 8-barrel brewhouse for specials and seasonals, so there’s still flexibility to experiment. For example, we just collaborated with Magic Rock on a verdita sour; we’re launching that at Seshfest and it’s absolutely delicious. Collaboration and experimentation are great if you’re doing it for a reason. If it’s just for its own sake though, we’d rather focus on getting our core beers absolutely perfect every time.”
It’s good to know that, for all the magpie tendencies of today’s craft scene, a brewery like Kirkstall – which prioritises quality and attention to detail over novelty – can still achieve such success. We look forward to seeing what the team can achieve on a national and international stage.
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