Looking back over a quarter of a century of making beer with Sheffield's Abbeydale Brewery
A quarter of a century is a long time in brewing.
When Abbeydale Brewery was founded in 1996, the tastes and expectations of customers was very different to what they are now.
They have weathered a number of storms such as the smoking ban which was introduced in 2007, hitting many pubs extremely hard and coinciding with a recession, as well as the advent of the internet and online sales.
In addition, the craft beer movement has revolutionised the tastes and pallettes of punters, forcing many breweries to adapt in order to keep up.
Sales Director for Abbeydale, Dan Baxter, came on board 14-years-ago and has been at the coalface for many of the changes that the brewery has experienced. He was just 26 when he was made an Abbeydale company director.
His introduction to the company came in 2006, when he began working in the kitchen and behind the bar of The Office pub on Upperthorpe Road, Upperthorpe, which was called The Moon while it was run by Abbeydale.
Dan says he quickly began to enjoy the creativity that comes with making something with your hands such as food, and sending it off to be enjoyed by others.
"If you’re making something with your hands, it can be really enjoyable,” said Dan.
When Abbeydale took the decision to give up The Moon in 2007, Dan was redeployed, spending some of his time working in their other pub, The Rising Sun on Fulwood Road, Nether Green and the rest in sales for Abbeydale’s brewery.
"We were quite small at the time,” explains Dan, who says Abbeydale were selling around 70 barrels a week, compared with the 250 – 260 a week they currently sell.
"I’ve seen Abbeydale grow a lot,” he said.
Because he was keen to get back to creating, Dan says he would volunteer to fill in for Abbeydale’s brewers while they were off on annual leave.
He says he picked up a lot of what he knows by watching brewers such as Abbeydale founder, Pat Morton, at work.
"I quickly realised it was a lot like cooking. You’re making something with your hands, and you send it out. And when you get good feedback on something you’ve made it can be really quite nice,” explains Dan.
Dan then began splitting his working time between sales and brewing in 2008 and 2009; and says he found the relationship between the two roles to be a symbiotic one, because if he had a successful week in sales he could be called upon to help out with the extra demand in the brewery.
Dan split his time between selling and brewing for around 18 months until Abbeydale recruited John Parkinson as a production director, allowing him the time to focus on sales.
It was also around this time that Dan began working towards a General Certificate in Brewing with the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, with Abbeydale’s backing, and took around a year to complete.
"It teaches you the science behind brewing and fermentation and the cross-section of barley and cross-section of hops,” says Dan, adding that having a greater understanding of brewing is an asset when it comes to most aspects of the business.
Dan has been at the helm as Abbeydale’s offering has expanded from a core range of beers such as Moonshine, which is arguably their most famous beer, and Deception to a range of craft beers such as Heathen and Voyager IPA, to their acclaimed Funk Dungeon sour range which was created by Abbeydale brewer Jim Rangeley.
The multi award-winning Moonshine is Abbeydale’s flagship pale ale, which was created in 1996 and remains extremely popular today. The distinctive blue Moonshine pump clip remains a permanent fixture in many of the city’s pubs.
Despite the diverse and progressively more experimental range of beers being served up by Abbeydale, reflecting the ever-changing palette of punters, Moonshine still makes up about 50 per cent of the brewery’s sales.
Dan says the popularity of Moonshine led to them being approached by Mitchells and Butlers; Heineken through Enterprise Inns; Greene King and Carlsberg through Punch Taverns.
It got to the point where they could become a brewery that makes and sells Moonshine day-in, day-out, or they could keep things as they are and continue to update and diversify the beers they brew, and they chose the latter option.
"We wanted the opportunity to do more interesting things, and to embrace the craft beer movement. In 2014, with keg beers, and hoppy beers, and your more out there, experimental beers becoming popular we bought some kegs,” explains Dan.
He added: “We’ve got around 800 or 900 customers on our books, and we’d rather supply to 900 small customers than to 15 big ones..we’ve never supplied to Wetherspoons. Free trade is where we’re putting our efforts.”
It was also around 2014 that they decided to try brewing some “light, hoppy keg” beers, which they called Pale Ales 1 – 7.
They decided that the best of the seven new beers was Pale Ale 6, the recipe for which was created by Dan and John Parkinson, an American pale ale using Mosiac hops, and guava.
After initially naming it “Mosaic” after the hops used, they thought better of it, and changed its name to Heathen; which is currently Abbeydale’s second most popular beer.
Heathen was followed by Abbeydale’s Brewers Emporium range, and marked a shift towards the brewery becoming more experimental and prolific, and during that time they were producing a new beer a week.
"We went to the brewers and said we want you to make a new beer every week...we said: ‘We want you to make the beer you’re most proud of,” explains Dan.
One of the first beers made by the brewers after being given the challenge of coming up with new recipes was Voyager IPA.
And a tour of North Carolina with director Jon Conroy in 2016 whetted the team’s appetite when it comes to sour beers and experimental stouts.
"We did a series of beers called Salvation. They’re stouts with different flavour profiles, so we’ve got a Coconut; a Rocky Road; Coffee and Doughnuts,” says Jon.
Like most businesses, the last 16 months have not been easy for Abbeydale.
Their landmark Sheffield pub, the Devonshire Cat, was one of the casualties of the first national lockdown.
Abbeydale took over the pub in January 2014, and refurbished it during 2016 and 2017.
But the enforced Covid closure, coupled with more people going out in Kelham Island and moving away from West Street and Division Street, became “too much for us and we had to close,” Dan explains.
Lockdown has seen the popularity of their online shop soar, and has also meant that Dan and the team have got to know some of their customers through making deliveries.
Dan recalls making a delivery on Taplin Road, and seeing residents participating in an outdoor aerobics class when he drove up in his vehicle bearing his homemade Abbeydale signs.
"I was driving past and heard all these cheers, and everyone was running up to the car, just because I was delivering some beers!” recalls Dan.
Looking ahead, Abbeydale are in the process of bringing out a number of beers to mark their 25th anniversary, including cans of their discontinued Brimstone beer, as well as a double Deception, which will have an ABV (alcohol by volume) of 8.2%; a Doctor Morton’s Birthday Beer and a “Cryo” Heathen, using Cryo hops, which will have an ABV of 5%.
Abbeydale operates both a delivery and a conveninent click and collect service for their online shop which you can access via their website at: https://www.abbeydalebrewery.co.uk/