SALT to taste
Story of a giraffe destined to feast on the highest leaves in the craft beer kingdom
Saturday 08 May 2021
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Most breweries evolve over time, from garage hobby project, to railway arch cult, and hopefully onto all-conquering global brewing titan. This process takes years, and usually involves heartache, drama and missteps. When Salt launched in 2018 however, it was like watching a baby giraffe being born: its legs were a little ungainly for the first few seconds, but it was still undeniably a giraffe, destined one day soon to feast on the highest leaves in the craft beer kingdom.
Its taproom in Saltaire is as bold a statement as any fledgling brewery could make. A turn-of-the-century tram shed, this long Victorian building is about one-third brewery and two-thirds taproom, and patrons have the option to either sit in the swish front section – with its chandeliers, mezzanine level and pizza kitchen – or to head back to relax among the neon-lit shadow of the impressive brewhouse itself.
Despite being closed for everything but takeaway, managing director Nadir Zairi is there to welcome me, and explain how this extraordinary place emerged seemingly from nothing.
The story begins in the early 2000s, when Bob Lawson founded Osset Brewery - a relatively modest enterprise with a focus on traditional styles. His son, Jamie Lawson bought his first pub in 2003, and naturally enough stocked it with his dad’s beer. Shortly after, a second pub followed, with more Osset beer. Eventually, Jamie was able to buy his dad out of the brewery and start building it as a combined business.
Fast forward 18 years and the estate is 28 pubs and bars, through which Osset sells more than 4 million pints every year. But, ever the entrepreneur, Jamie has his eye on Yorkshire’s thriving modern craft scene, and sees an opening for a new brewery, separate from Osset, brewing super-accessible, craft-style beers for a wide audience. At this time, Nadir was “filling time” working at one of Osset’s bars, when he and Jamie met and found they were very much on the same wavelength.
“Jamie loves to know his employees - there’s like 500 of them, but he always takes the time. So he asked me what I was doing, shared his idea for Salt and pretty soon I was working for him. This place was like a building site, but we put all of this together, with the idea of making it ‘the ultimate brewery experience’, that’s what we called it.”
One of the myths about Salt, to which I must admit I subscribed at the time, was that it was lavishly resourced from Day One. In reality though, it was Nadir, a brewer and a brewing assistant, working phenomenally hard to embody the kind of slick, high-volume brewery they knew Salt could become. “No matter how grand this place looks, it was from humble beginnings, and the brewing game’s hard; scaling up while maintaining quality and consistency is tough,” says Nadir.
The ‘fake it ’til you make it’ approach clearly paid off though, as suddenly Salt was big news across the UK craft community, other breweries were lining up for collaborations and the orders came rolling in. Crucially, very shortly after it had opened its doors, the recipes were fully dialled in, and the beers coming out of Salt were everything Nadir had promised.
“We started off with big ambitions, but it actually turned out they weren’t big enough,” recalls Nadir. “The nine tanks along this wall are the ones we opened with, so there used to be a lot more space for customers down there. By the time we got to summer 2020 though, we were already over capacity, so actually the lockdown gave us an opportunity to bring in the nine addition vessels that are now in the middle. That meant taking the side off a Grade Two listed building, again.”
The secret to Salt’s success isn’t much of a secret at all: “The purpose of beer is to create pleasure” is scrawled in red neon across its two foremost fermentation vessels. And everything the brewery does flows from this simple ethos. This is a brewery that unashamedly wants to be liked by as many people as possible. Yes, it cares about the beer geeks and caters for them with big, dank DIPAs and barrel aged stouts. But it also wants to bring a much wider section of ‘ordinary’ drinkers into its tent, with highly drinkable hop-forward beers, with education, and by providing an experience through its bar. “We don’t want to be really cool and niche; we want people to walk in off the street and enjoy our beer,” summarises Nadir.
The local presence is definitely important for Salt, and has become more so over the past year. Nadir is up front about his ambition to make the brewery an international force, but at the same time is proud to be in Yorkshire and Saltaire.
“In a weird way, the pandemic has been good for us, because it’s also given us more time to engage with the local community. We’ve obviously gotten a lot of pubs round here in the estate, and obviously we try to tell the story of where we’re from, whether it’s through the name of the brewery itself or naming our core beers after locally produced textiles. Yeah, so we’re really proud of where we’re from.”
Everyone at Salt is clearly itching to get people back through the door as soon as possible, and that includes other breweries. Salt has proven to be a prolific collaborator over the past couple of years, and Nadir sees this continuing even as production ramps up again.
“They’re also genuinely great ways to increasing knowledge all round,” he says. “Brewers love to get together and be very open about how they’re working with this malt or those hops, or treating their water in such a way. So the result is definitely better beer, and I think consumers find the idea exciting too. Most importantly though, they’re great fun - and I think if we’re having fun making beers we love, we can’t go too far wrong.”
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