Star Interview: Sheffield Beer Week director brings women to the fore to celebrate change in industry
Five ale experts are peering into a steaming drum of brewing beer that is filling the air with a mellow, fruited aroma.
One of the group, Jules Gray, takes a glass and sips a little of the wort: cloudy, sweet liquid from the mashing process with a funny similarity to Horlicks.
She gives the thumbs-up and passes the drink to her fellow brewers – all bar one of whom are women. And if that seems unusual, it really shouldn’t.
Jules is the director of Sheffield Beer Week, which is now in its fourth year. Seven days of events and activities are planned from next Monday, and for 2018 there is a special theme celebrating the role of women in beer.
“I want to smash the stereotypes people have,” she says determinedly.
A collaborative ale is being prepared for the occasion, which is why we’ve met at Lost Industry Brewing, tucked away in a nondescript unit on the Nutwood Trading Estate in Wadsley Bridge.
It’s a cold morning; Jules, Lost Industry’s Lesley Seaton and her son Jimmy, Neepsend Brewery’s Hannah Bolton-Tite and Kara Sangha, from the Devonshire Cat pub, are warming their hands by gripping cups of tea. Beside them is a pile of peeled pomelos, a type of large citrus from southeast Asia that is giving the new beer its distinctive scent and flavour.
The industry has changed. Where once the ale culture in Sheffield might have been dominated by thirsty steelworkers, downing pints after a day’s work at the forge, now a more inclusive, creative, craft beer scene exists, where the drinks are enjoyed by women and jobs aren’t just for men.
“It’s something I feel passionate about,” says Jules, who runs Hop Hideout, a bottle shop on Abbeydale Road, with partner Will as well as helming the yearly festival. “It’s nice to be able to share what we do and then inspire other women to get into the beer industry and see there’s lots of different roles, from bar work to setting up a brewery and running a company. There’s a lot of opportunity there and it’d be nice to inspire the next generation.”
The choice of theme is timely, too. International Women’s Day is on Thursday and 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act that extended the right to vote to (some) women.
More than 60 individual events are happening at about 35 venues. Beer tastings, ‘meet the brewer’ sessions, tours, exhibitions and food matching menus are lined up, bolstering Sheffield’s reputation as the world’s real ale capital – a title bestowed upon the city by a university-commissioned report two years ago.
“I’ve already heard of about four or five new bars and venues and pubs opening that sound like they’re independent. There’s so much work going on in Sheffield at the moment in terms of regeneration, it’s just phenomenal. I feel like the next five years is going to be transformational, I genuinely do.”
Jules – Julia – was born in County Durham. Her parents separated when she was young, so she and her sister were brought up single-handedly by their mother, a doctor.
“She had a good job, she’d studied medicine. It could have been a lot harder. She has inspired me, in a way, hugely.”
She came to Sheffield to study communications in the late 1990s, and thought of becoming a journalist, but was put off by the idea of moving to London. Instead she took various jobs, including a position in a retail supplier’s warehouse and spells at several record shops, among them Fat City in Manchester.
“I served Jazzy Jeff records. You can imagine the type of people who were coming to Manchester. Rio Ferdinand used to buy his records from us. I’m a big record nerd, I’ve always collected vinyl.”
Jules then tried, as she puts it, ‘the big corporate company thing’ by working in the technical services team at multinational brewer Molson Coors, eventually joining their head office at Burton-upon-Trent, commuting from Birmingham.
But the job started to chafe against her ideals – beer had been a ‘constant’ in her life, and she’d worked in bars from the age of 18, but the drinks she liked were made by independent outfits and were ‘what people would now call craft beer’.
“I wasn’t that excited or genuinely passionate about their biggest beers. It did become like a product. I thought I had to follow my heart, I was so excited by this crafty scene and seeing all these little breweries popping up, thinking ‘I want to be involved in that’.”
Jules, 38, moved back to Sheffield in 2013 with photographer Will, 40, and they launched Hop Hideout together soon afterwards. “He was living in Manchester and we were looking for that in-between place.”
Their shop stocks hundreds of beers and ciders from across the world, but the emphasis is very much on quality, not quantity. “You’ll read some stories that say the overall beer market is in decline, but in terms of the craft beer market that’s in growth. I don’t think a true picture is always being painted. I don’t want to see this thing that I love, and an industry, die out.”
Jules feels a duty to be a good role model. “They’re saying millennials might not be interested so much in drinking or beer. It’s not just about drinking beer – it’s fostering community, and the heritage of brewing in this country. It’s more than just a glass of beer, it’s the wider, positive economic aspect of it as well.”
Has she found her niche in life? “I think so, yeah. I still like music a lot, though.”
Visit www.sheffieldbeerweek.co.uk for details and a full list of events.
Going back to beer's basics
Parts of this year’s Sheffield Beer Week will concentrate on the components of a good beer, which Jules Gray says can often leave drinkers bamboozled.
‘Ingredient hubs’ are being set up at venues, looking at malt, yeast, water, hops and ‘adjuncts’ like gingerbread and blackberry. Jules says the aim is to take beer ‘back to basics’.
“You’ve got enthusiastic consumers, who do their own research, and then everyone else who likes beer, and does want to know more, but feels uncomfortable asking questions or they just get lost in the science. Sometimes when I’ve been to beer industry events you can see people switching off. It sounds terrible to say, but you’ve got to find the right way to pitch it.”
In previous years the festival has coincided with the Society of Independent Brewers' Beer X trade show in Sheffield. This time the conference is being staged in Liverpool, but Jules thinks the move will have little impact on her venture.
While the week itself runs from March 12 to 18, festivities start on Saturday with the Indie Beer Feast, a one-day, ticketed celebration at the Abbeydale Picture House. The same day The Rutland Arms is hosting a ‘brewsters’ tap takeover’ serving ales produced by women, as well as two bookable tasting events, one of which is open to women only.
Pictures of Yorkshire breweries and beer businesses taken by photographer Mark Newton will be exhibited on a trail, and a partnership has been struck with Norwich, where Britain’s first beer week was started in 2011. “I thought if they can do it, why can’t we.”