Vocation, Vocation, Vocation

A catch-up with Vocation

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The first time I came across Vocation Brewery I was at one of my favourite pubs, and their striking black and white pump clips stood out a mile.

Life & Death. Heart & Soul. Bread & Butter.

The owner of the pub had enjoyed their beers so much on an outing to Hebden Bridge that he’d decided to do a tap takeover, unofficially. He hadn’t even asked to link up in a modern collab-type fashion. This was a few years ago mind, but even so, it sticks in my memory. Who gives up all five of their cask pulls to one brewery? You’d have to be mad, or just seriously in love with the brewery in question.

I fell too, and so did everyone else. From the sessionable thirst-quenchingness of Bread & Butter, to the deceptively drinkable, heftily-hopped, 6.5% ABV IPA Life & Death, Vocation became a mainstay at this particular pub, and my life was better for it. Proper modern cask. Absolutely delightful.

Since then, the brewery has grown and grown, expanding production across a larger site on top of Crag Vale, a cyclist hotspot (and the longest incline in Europe, apparently). Vocation beers have nudged their way into supermarkets, sharing shelf-space with global craft beer brands like Brewdog and Thornbridge. So what’s new for Vocation Brewery? And what are the next steps in its plans for world domination? I spoke to Katie Smith, the brewery’s marketing and events manager, to find out more.


“When I started three years ago there were four of us. There are 14 desks around me in the office right now. It’s going to be so mad when everyone comes back once lockdown is over. I’m really looking forward to it.

“I mean, we now have a webshop team, and the brewery and packing teams are working six days a week. We never would have expected to have been so busy this past year. Exponential is the word.

“We’ve had 24 new tanks put in in the last seven months. And Idina, who came to us from Magic Rock, has doubled the size of our lab and done absolutely loads for us. It’s, literally, unbelievable.”

Vocation Brewery’s advancement into the supermarket beer aisle has been one of craft beer’s most successful, and has helped keep it busy during the pandemic. I wondered how the brewery felt about being known as a “supermarket” beer to many people who might not have heard of it otherwise. After all, your average drinker in Slough, Penzance, Fort William or Barry Island isn’t necessarily going to be familiar with Yorkshire-perfect pints of Heart & Soul.

“We’re in Tesco, the Co-op, Asda, Morrisons, Booths, Waitrose, M&S... Everywhere,” Katie confirms. 

“People do sometimes assume that we’re a supermarket brewery, but the amount of special releases we do goes against that –we had 35 last year. We’re not only brewing for supermarkets. We’ve had a new beer a week so far this year.

“Saying that, we do want people to be able to pick up a four-pack of Life & Death when they’re shopping. That would never have happened a few years ago and we’re proud of that. We want to be accessible, and produce really great beers people can grab. But on top of that, you can have our barrel age series, you can drink us in the pub, and you can find our special editions in bottle shops and on our website.”

Those special editions have been changing the face of Vocation for a couple of years now. Where once there were consistent English IPAs and bitters, there are now dozens of styles, brewed, from an outsider’s point of view, by people who’ve started looking outside of the traditional.

“Our International Women’s Day brew was hugely influenced by our brewer Georgia Hollis, who was actually the person who suggested we brew a hefeweizen in the first place. We’ve always wanted to do something like that, but we didn’t have that experience. Georgia does, and by coming here to work with us, she’s shown us new ways to brew.

“Matt Howgate our head brewer has been here for the past three years and he’s totally driven new styles over that time: bringing in 440ml cans, encouraging brewers to come up with new recipes — like from our brewer Gary [Vincent Farlow] who loves stouts and barrel aged beers, so lots of those recipes have come from him.

“It all comes from random conversations. Last week we were talking about Crunchies - I love Crunchies, I think Stuart here has bought me about 70,000 of them since we started working together… Now we’re doing a honeycomb beer and barrel aging it and… it really is a collaborative effort, even down to the beer names. The special releases show us as we are in the team.”

So after a hectic year of supermarket and online sales, what’s next for Vocation?

“When I tell you all about what we’ve been doing, it does sound like a mad year,” Katie says. “We have our bar in Manchester opening in May, right on Deansgate on the water, where Pitch and Piano used to be.

“Honestly, I just can’t wait to go back to planning events and enjoying drinking in beer gardens.”


WHAT'S IN THE BOX?

Vocation’s Chocolate Stout, Naughty & Nice

Naughty & Nice was on the original line-up of Vocation’s beers from the core “something” & “something” beers, and retains that original naming convention. Roasty and deep with a satisfying chocolatey character that never knocks over into bitterness, over the years it’s had a few ABV changes and recipe tweaks, but Katie reckons they’ve nailed it now. She explains:

“It’s been reduced to 5.5% because stout can often be written off as a seasonal beer. This is for when pubs open again in Spring, so that people can enjoy it by the pint all year round. Who doesn’t love a stout in any weather?”


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