The Star’s round table debate: Realising Sheffield’s potential as the real ale capital

Real Ale round Table
Real Ale round Table
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When a report earlier this year staked a claim for Sheffield as the world’s real ale capital, it stirred up a lively debate.

For some, particularly those living in the city, it presented hard evidence confirming what was already suspected – the beer scene is booming locally, new breweries are opening at an accelerating speed, and spreading the word further could be the key to Sheffield becoming a premier ale destination.

The Sheffield Real Ale Trail..Trevor Wraith the Landlord of the Kelham Island Tavern, pictured outside the pub.20th April 2016 ..Picture by Simon Hulme

The Sheffield Real Ale Trail..Trevor Wraith the Landlord of the Kelham Island Tavern, pictured outside the pub.20th April 2016 ..Picture by Simon Hulme

The findings made headlines nationally, too, attracting genuine curiosity as to what the city can offer, as well as outright opposition from rival beer-producing hotspots such as Norfolk and, curiously, The Guardian newspaper, which branded the report ‘nonsense’ and ‘triumphalism’.

Either way, the study demonstrated that challenges remain around realising the potential of Sheffield’s brewing prowess – so The Star brought together some of the key players responsible for promoting the city’s beer industry, hosting a round-table discussion in a bid to identify new paths to success.

Taking part in the meeting, chaired by The Star’s Editor Nancy Fielder, were beer writer Pete Brown, the report’s author; Professor Vanessa Toulmin, who commissioned the paper as director of city engagement at Sheffield University; Wendy Ulyett, tourism manager at Marketing Sheffield; James Merrylees, the university’s external relations manager and Jules Gray, chief architect of the Sheffield Beer Week, who conducted research for the study.

Vanessa agreed the report had ‘captured the national attention’ by revealing the city has 23 breweries, one for every 23,991 people – nearly five times as many as in London – and on a typical day around 400 beers are available in the city’s pubs.

One of the things that people asked me for is a list of every beer that is produced in Sheffield

Professor Vanessa Toulmin

The professor said: “When I asked Pete to write the report, I said: ‘I’m not asking you to write something you don’t believe in’ – and he said it was true, we just hadn’t got the evidence.”

An ‘awful lot of debate’ was prompted by The Guardian’s stance, Pete said. “The point about the report is that Sheffield doesn’t shout about its achievements, it’s so understated.”

An important point raised by The Star’s readers was a perceived lack of information around where to find the best venues and key events, explained Nancy: “That’s a bit of an obstacle in itself, if people want to get involved but they don’t know how to.”

Jules said she produced maps for beer week, and that another was provided by listings website Our Favourite Places.

A new report commissioned by the University of Sheffield has named the city as the real ale capital of the world, many of the region's best beers are available from the Sheffield Tap

A new report commissioned by the University of Sheffield has named the city as the real ale capital of the world, many of the region's best beers are available from the Sheffield Tap

“I do think it would be good to have a showcase of breweries. Some might not want people to turn up on their doorstep, but on the beer week website I’ve listed the breweries but not really gone into detail about them, which I think is a bit of a miss on my part. There’s a lot more information about pubs and shops, and places selling good beer, but not much on actually breweries themselves.”

“One of the things that people asked me for is a list of every beer that is produced in Sheffield,” said Vanessa. “What is a Sheffield beer? How do we find out? We make hundreds.”

Pete began estimating the number of beers made in Sheffield by consulting The Good Beer Guide, then ran a survey of pubs and brewers.

“Based on the fact that we had a 50 per cent return on our survey, I basically doubled the numbers we got – so you get to about 1,000 beers in Sheffield,” said the writer.

Wendy accepted that measures were required to ‘steer’ visitors to the best pubs. “That’s what creates a memorable impression of the city.”

“You do have to know where they are,” Pete confirmed.

“I walked up from the station and didn’t pass a single decent pub. They’re just hidden around the corner. The Rutland Arms is one of the best pubs in the country.”

Vanessa said: “If you turn left and go down Arundel Street, you’ll see loads of great places. If you turn right and go into the city centre you see Wetherspoons and drunks.”

The council was well-placed to ‘facilitate’ promoting Sheffield as the beer capital, the professor added, while Pete said any controversy around condoning drinking could be easily sidestepped.

“If you start running into problems about promoting alcohol, you just change tack and start talking about pubs instead,” he said.

“In response to the nonsense about new minimum safe alcohol limits and all that stuff, there’s a lot of research coming out that shows if you’re recovering from a heart attack, the biggest single metric that determines your hopes of survival is not whether you’re a smoker, or obese, or anything like that, it’s how big your friendship network is. And pubs are the places where those friendship networks still work.”

There was ‘lots of positive feedback’ from the second annual beer week in March, Jules responded.

“We had four beers that were brewed and launched specifically for the week, which was massive. Me and Pete were at the Norwich City of Ale launch and they have great support – this year they got 45 pubs involved and in year two we had 40, and they’ve been going for about five or six years. So the momentum that we’ve got after two years is comparable.”

Vanessa agreed: “We’ve got to try and create better knowledge, better support and better funding for the Sheffield Beer Week.”

“What characterises Sheffield breweries is there are so many, and yet they are so small,” said Pete.

“That’s kind of an attraction, as well as a problem – it’s a limiting factor. Thornbridge are massive, Abbeydale and Kelham are big, and then you’ve got everybody else. The problem for them is they are making some fantastic beer, but they do not have time to step outside the business and think ahead. This is where they need that help from outside.”

Wendy concluded by outlining how beer could be used specifically to drive tourism, after James raised the idea of running exchange trips with Munich, Bruges and Portland.

“Beer is one of those things that is always mentioned, like the Peak District,” said Wendy. “What we’ve never done is concentrate on beer as a kind of product or campaign for the city. When you look at the pubs around Kelham Island, they’re absolutely packed, and if you look at the hotels, there are definitely groups of people coming to the city just for the beer. And that’s without any promotion, or any marketing campaigns.

“It can be far bigger – the job we’ve got to do is embed beer into the wider campaign strategy.”

* Breweries – what’s being made in Sheffield today, the history and future: see tomorrow’s Star

Clockwise from left: Prof Vanessa Toulmin, Nancy Fielder, James Merrylees, Wendy Ulyett, Jules Gray and Pete Brown. Picture by Marisa Cashill

Clockwise from left: Prof Vanessa Toulmin, Nancy Fielder, James Merrylees, Wendy Ulyett, Jules Gray and Pete Brown. Picture by Marisa Cashill