Sheffield was named the world’s best beer city in a report earlier this year. But what secrets do its seven hills hold to justify that title?
According to some of the city’s brewers, it’s a perfect mix of creativity, passion and tradition that come together to produce a bewildering array of beers to rival anywhere else across the globe.
A report published in April as part of Sheffield’s Year of Making named the city the best for beer in the world. There were several reasons for the title, but key was the number of breweries in the city and the wider region.
The report identified 23 breweries within Sheffield’s borders, and a further 34 across South Yorkshire and North East Derbyshire. Importantly, many of these are new, and most are expanding.
One, Sentinal Brewing, opened just this year, combining an in-house brewery with a bar serving food on Shoreham Street.
While the company is new, managing director and head brewer Alex Barlow has plenty of experience. He worked for Bass Charrington and Co both in Sheffield and elsewhere for many years, before setting up a consultancy educating companies on beer storage and use. He saw the drinking scene change, from factory workers enjoying a pint of Stones or Wards to today’s more diverse demand.
“From a time when there were four big breweries and a lot of local passion, that was all ripped out by big companies,” said Alex. “What was left?
“We have got a lot to be proud of in terms of the developed craft scene, but it will never reach the heights of what it used to be.
“But in a lot of ways, that’s a good thing because customers want things differently.”
Alex’s approach focuses on quality, and keeping as short a distance between production and consumption as possible. His brewing machinery is just yards from the bar.
“I wanted to give people that choice,” he said. “Do a whole range that would cover most tastes.”
The range includes a Czech pilsner, bitters, a stout, an IPA and a number of other guest and bottled beers.
This reflects the picture across the city, but Alex thinks more can be done to shout about Sheffield’s offer.
He said: “There are opportunities for a Sheffield Independent Brewer’s Association. For a much more united body as a result of the beer report.”
One of the city’s more traditional firms is Sheffield Brewery Company. It was set up in 2006 by Dr Tim Stillman, formerly a biochemist at the University of Sheffield.
Working with Eddie Munnelly, landlord of the Gardener’s Rest pub in Neepsend Lane, he took over a Victorian factory in Kelham Island dating back to 1850 and starting making real ale.
As an active member of the Campaign for Real Ale, or Camra, Tim was well aware of the Sheffield beer scene. He produced a real ale guide in 2000. When he opened the Sheffield Brewery Company it became the fifth microbrewery in the city, but that number soon rose.
“Since then it has really mushroomed into a large number,” said Tim.
“It’s a positive but there is not necessarily that big an increase in the number of free houses. So whereas you used to have your beer in a pub on rotation, now you join a queue.
“So it’s a bit more competitive.”
This is a huge benefit to the customer, who gets a bigger choice, and encourages brewers to be at their best. And although the craft beer revolution is sweeping the city and the world, Tim believes the traditional Sheffield drinker still has a soft spot for a pale, hoppy ale, such as his own Five Rivers.
“Our customers are not very forgiving, so we have to make sure it’s perfect all the time,” he said.
Sheffield Brewery Company is expanding, bringing in Nick Law, founder of Emmanuales, as brewery manager. Nick – who appeared on Songs of Praise on Sunday – doesn’t shy away from non-traditional flavours.
But the future in a busy market could be partnerships with breweries. Tim said: “The way it’s going forward is that breweries are taking on leases of pubs. In that was they can make sure their bar is stocked with their beer.”
One man who sees the appetite for Sheffield beer is Sean Clarke, who runs the Beer Central shop in the Moor Market. He sells a wide range of beers produced in the city, alongside those from across the world – ranging from traditional ales by Kelham Island Brewery and Bradfield Brewery, to more modern craft beers from Lost Industry and North Union.
“Perhaps not from a point of view of volume, but from a point of view of variety, imagination and accessibility, the beer scene in Sheffield is as good as it’s ever been,” he said.
Some of the more unusual flavours and colourful labels on the shelves of Beer Central undoubtedly come from Sheffield’s newer brewers. Hillsborough’s Lost Industry, for example, has come up with a rhubarb pie saison – with an actual rhubarb pie thrown into the mix to add flavour.
The firm stands out thanks also to its colourful labels and thoughtful names, which link into Sheffield’s heritage. There’s Hole in’t Road, named after the famous subterranean roundabout, or Lizzie Ward, named after the elephant that inspired the Herd of Sheffield trail.
Sean said: “It feels small but very creative and different to just knocking out a four per cent blonde beer.”
Plenty of people still come into Beer Central asking for Bradfield and Kelham Island ales, and the traditional real ale scene is alive and well.
“But there’s another group that perhaps has more of a loyalty to beer in general, more than a geographical area,” said Sean.
And if Sheffield continues to produce good beer, then it will have no problem marketing itself further afield.
“It’s all about quality,” said Sean.
Sheffield has a long history of brewing. Production grew to cope with mass demand created as the industrial revolution gathered speed, and consumption peaked towards the end of the 19th century.
But brewing began a slow and steady decline as consolidation took hold. Brewers began to acquire each other simply to increase their estates.
By the start of the First World War there were fewer than 20 breweries left in Sheffield, and that number continued to fall.
The industry did experience a resurgence in the 1950s, thanks in part to the Hope and Anchor brewery on Mowbray Street. The company struck a transatlantic distribution deal with Canadian entrepreneur EP Taylor, who agreed to distribute Hope and Anchor’s stout in North American while the Sheffield firm would sell Taylor’s Carling Black Label lager.
Taylor then bought the brewery and began expanding. He created Northern Breweries, which got bigger and bigger to become United Breweries, owning 2,800 pubs by 1961.
This expansion quickly overtook Sheffield’s breweries, with Hope and Anchor becoming a small part of Bass Charrington and Co, and famous Sheffield names such as Ward’s and Stones being bought by national companies and production being moved out of the city.
Stones beer itself at one point had huge popularity, and in the early 1990s was the best-selling bitter in the UK. But by 1998 the Stones brewery had closed, with Ward’s to follow a year later.
But the appetite for good quality beer had not disappeared in Sheffield. Dave Wickett, a lecturer, opened a pub in what was then a derelict Kelham Island known best as the city’s red light district. His plan was to focus on real ale when the majority of British drinkers were buying lager.
When Wickett’s pub The Fat Cat opened, there were queues down the street.
That was followed by Kelham Island Brewery 10 years later, inspiring a real ale revolution in Sheffield - well ahead of the national trend - and eventually leading to the flourishing brewing scene the city enjoys today.
Thanks to industrial historian John Hamshere.
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