Richard Croasdale enjoys a pint in the sunshine with the team behind one of his favourite breweries
Tuesday 06 August 2019
This article is from
Share this article
Cracking beer and lovely people, spitting distance from the Peak District and Sheffield; it’s probably fair to say that we’ll take any excuse to visit Thornbridge. So as soon as I heard we’d be basing an entire Beer52 box around its annual Peakender festival, I was straight in the car, ensuring room in the boot for a couple of carry-out cases.
For those not already familiar, Thornbridge was established in the grounds of the grand old house with which it shares its name. While the production brewery has since moved to more spacious accommodation a short distance away, the original kit is still up and running, and features from the house can be found on every bottle and can it produces. Since its garden shed foundation back in 2005, Thornbridge has deservedly gone on to become one of the UK’s most respected and successful craft breweries, whose flagship beers can be found all over the country.
It’s never been great at sitting still though, and the past couple of years have seen a lot of change, including more expansion, new breakaway beers and a massive investment in (shock horror) a state-of-the-art canning line.
It’s a glorious day in Bakewell when I meet with head brewer Rob Lovatt and co-founder Simon Webster, so we pull up a couple of benches outside the brewery taproom, keg-laden forklift trucks trundling industriously past us in the sunshine.
I opt for a cold half of Green Mountain, Thornbridge’s big, juicy New England IPA. This beer has been one of Thornbridge’s big success stories over the past 12 months, overtaking long-standing favourites to become its second-best selling beer. It really is excellent too – juicy without being too sweet, with just the right amount of bitterness in the finish to make it sessionable.
“It’s a beer I was reluctant to brew, because I felt it was a faddy style and saw a lot of NEIPAs being brewed badly, particularly in the UK. I also had concerns about shelf life; you never want your beers to be sitting about, but if it tastes awful after a few months that’s just unacceptable. So I insisted on a six-month shelf life and the whole team put our heads together to come up with a technique that allowed us to be completely consistent. We got there in the end and I’ve come around to be really proud of it.”
“We’re 15 years next year, which is nothing really, but in brewers’ years it’s about 138. So we always have the classics, but we also need to stay relevant, for our own interest as much as for commercial reasons. So if there’s a beer style that the brewers are drinking, that we see people enjoying out and about, then Rob and his team generally have a go and will generally nail it. That’s how Green Mountain came about.”
The launch of Green Mountain coincided with Thornbridge’s new £1.5m packaging line coming online, kicking off one of the most significant changes in its history. It’s been a roaring success with Jaipur in a can almost instantly becoming the brewery’s best-selling product. Given the obvious appetite for cans, does Simon feel he was a little late to the party?
“We’re late movers and take our time – this wasn’t something we wanted to move into quickly, because we wanted to be capitalised enough to buy the best canning line available, to protect the beer. Because that’s what we do; the beer comes first. It’s been great though, people are really happy to be drinking Jaipur in cans, even though it’s been in bottles for the past 10 years!”
For every Jaipur, Green Mountain and Lukas though, there is what Simon describes as the ‘long tail’ of smaller batch brews. In fact, while Thornbridge’s four top beers account for about 60% of its volume, the remaining 40% will be split between around 15 different beers, encompassing the traditional and wildly experimental.
One brew that’s grabbed a lot of attention lately is Necessary Evil, originally brewed for the Firestone Walker invitational and inspired by that brewery’s Parabola stout. A 13% bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout, it’s Rob’s first stab at a big black beer, and as a big fan of the style my opinion is that he’s absolutely smashed it. The bourbon comes through in vanilla and coconut notes, but without the treacle sweetness you sometimes find in barrel aged stouts, and it wears its high ABV very well.
Naturally, this being Thornbridge, it was launched in May. “We like to launch our beers when people least want them,” jokes Rob. There’s actually only a handful of the 9000 bottles left.
The taproom has moved since I was last here, and is set to move again at the start of next year, into a purpose-built space for 300 people, complete with kitchen. This will accommodate the fact that the brewery itself is becoming a real destination for beer lovers, despite being a little way out of town.
This is undoubtedly in part thanks to the ever-growing popularity of Thornbridge’s Peakender festival (where you may very well be reading this magazine, in which case we hope you’re having a ball). Now in its sixth year, Peakender has quickly become a permanent fixture in the UK beer calendar; like Fynefest and Beavertown Extravaganza, it feels like it’s been around for ever.
As has been the case for the past couple of years, Peakender is taking place at the Bakewell Showground, and features more than 100 beers from 17 breweries, with a comedy tent, food trucks and talks from the likes of Firestone Walker’s Matt Brynildson and Emma Inch. This year will also include a ‘fringe’ event, spread across Thornbridge’s pubs, where even more breweries will showcase their wares.
“The growth of beer festivals in the past two years has just been incredible. I think people are seeing them as a fun alternative to music festivals, which are expensive and the beer tends to be pretty terrible. A lot of people say ‘I just don’t want to put myself through that any more’,” says Rob.
Simon continues: “There’s a lot of young people that don’t realise it wasn’t always like this, where you could stand in a field with a hundred different beers! Generally, the explosion in the last ten years has been phenomenal. You expect to have decent beers wherever you go now, or at least to have choice. Go back 20 years, you were lucky to have three beers to choose from.”
While there’s undeniably a lot of choice on offer, Peakender is and has always been a pretty relaxed affair in beer terms. It’s more about enjoying a brew in the sunshine with family and friends than hammering untappd with 50ml samples until you can’t feel your legs. If you want to stick to Jaipur all day, that’s absolutely fine with Simon.
Being family and community oriented in this way has always been a key part of Thornbridge’s ethos, and can be seen clearly in its eight pubs throughout Sheffield. Most of these were existing pubs that the brewery took over and built up for the community, as Simon explains.
“Yep, eight pubs, and none are more than a £7 taxi ride from my house,” he jokes. “It’s our beers, but they’re not craft beer bars, they’re community pubs. The Greystones was one of the first – it was about to close, so it gave it back to community. It’s in a nice area, but the pub had a bad reputation. People ran past it. So taking it on was a bit of a gamble, and people thought I was mad. But my thinking was that, if it was a cleared site, you’d build a pub there… There’s some great pubs in the suburbs – it’s not all about the city centre.”
Dedicated to the communities it calls home, but also on a mission to get its delicious beers into hands far and wide, Thornbridge keeps on growing while keeping its heart firmly in the right place. I don’t know what fresh excitement the next couple of years might hold, but I do know I’ll be at Peakender, looking for clues. And probably drinking Jaipur in the rain.
Share this article