Couple behind St Mars of the Desert reveal why they chose Sheffield as location for second brewing venture
The couple behind a Sheffield brewery that is gaining national recognition for its exceptional beers, travelled all around the world searching for a location to start their new venture before deciding on the Steel City.
Starting off in Massachusetts in the United States, Dann Paquette and Martha Simpson Holley’s first foray as a couple into the world of brewing saw them set up Pretty Things using another brewery’s equipment as part of a “cooperative situation.”
Pretty Things gained a reputation in the U.S for producing an eclectic selection of craft beers, and enjoyed critical and commercial success over there; but Dann and Martha called it a day in 2015.
From there, the couple went around the world together, and midway through their travels they began searching for a suitable location to start a brewery that was all their own.
They settled on Sheffield and opened St Mars of the Desert at Stevenson Road, Attercliffe on December 23, 2018, and their plan to start brewing again began in earnest at the beginning of 2019.
Boston-born Dann says that one of the things that attracted them to Sheffield was the friendliness of the people.
"I liked the proximity to other cities, the fact it’s so green and the people are so friendly here.
"We spent a year travelling around the world, and I can’t think of anywhere where the people were so nice and so welcoming,” Dann, 52, said.
When their round-the-world trip brought them to England, Dann and Martha also considered locations in Manchester and Leeds for their brewery but Sheffield won out.
Dann said: "I knew nothing about Sheffield at all, and as soon as we drove through, I thought: ‘why aren’t we looking at Sheffield?’ I started to read about it, and of course, the brewing heritage and the current scene.”
“I’m from a college town, Boston, and Sheffield is comparable in terms of the number of students but they’re actually old enough to drink here! I also liked the fact there were readily available industrial spaces in Sheffield,” he continued.
Beers from St Mars of the Desert, or SMOD as they are known to fans, first went on the market in 2019 in 440ml cans.
Since then, SMOD have become widely regarded as rising stars within the craft beer scene, both locally and nationally, which has exploded over the past few years.
This is in spite of SMOD being approximately 20 times smaller than Dann and Martha’s last brewing venture as Pretty Things.
Their best-known beer is Clamp, a delicious and crisp 5.4% New England India Pale Ale (IPA) with Mosiac and Waimea, and they continue to bring new beers onto the market all the time.
A new beer from their Koel It! series called Nectaron, which is named after the new, exclusive hop used.
“It’s only just been released for sale, and the hop seller got in touch with us and wanted us to use it,” said Martha.
Dan added: “We were pleased to use it, not every brewer gets the opportunity.”
A tart cherry beer, with a hefty ABV of 7.1%, called Confounded Mr. Sisyphus is another recent offering that sold out quickly.
Martha said: “It’s a fruit beer blend of several different beers, and all of them have spent time in various wooden vessels. All of them have spent a long time ageing and blending with fruit. Some people have said it almost tastes a bit like wine.”
SMOD have also become known for their Belgian-style beers, and everything they have produced so far has a unique taste that is difficult to describe, yet instantly recognisable.
Martha says that one of the things that makes the taste of St Mars’ beers so different to that of other English breweries is their use of a long, stainless steel vessel called a coolship, or koelschip, which allows the wort to cool quickly and creates a type of fermentation that helps to bring out fruity notes.
The use of coolships in the brewing process is more commonly used in European countries such as Germany.
"The coolship is mainly used for our more hoppy beers such as our IPAs (India Pale Ale),” she said.
The process allows them to extract the essential oils that are present in the hops they use.
"If you boil hops in a kettle the flavours you get will be very bitter, but if you add hops as it cools you begin to get these lovely fruity flavours,” added Martha.
For the most part, SMOD is a two-person-band, with everything from the memorable typeface found on SMOD’s beer labels to the brewing carried out by Dann and Martha.
“Dann’s very artistic and came up with the alphabet we use, and I did the drawing, so it’s sort of a team effort,” Martha said.
They have a person come in to help with canning, and are just in the process of hiring a bar manager to help with the taproom when it reopens.
Martha grew up in Teeside, and moved to Boston in the States to start her PhD, and met Dann two years after.
44-year-old Martha said: "There was a British beer festival and I dragged my house mates along to it. I met Dann at that was the end of that!”
The pair have spent much of their relationship working together.
"We have a sort of shared brain, and it’s hard to know where one starts and the other ends,” Martha said.
SMOD’s taproom in Attercliffe has proved popular with punters, and in normal times, is often bustling. Their gorgeous, nine-month-old dog, Grimbold, can often be seen making friends with customers at the taproom.
"He’s becoming the star of the show,” joked Martha.
SMOD has an outdoor area, but because of concerns about poor weather in April, Dann and Martha will be waiting for the introduction of Stage 3 of the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown to reopen, at which point indoor hospitality venues will be able to welcome customers back. This currently has a provisional date of May 17.
Martha says Sheffield Council categorise brewing as “heavy industry,” and that, coupled with the comparatively low rents, led to them choosing a site in Attercliffe; but they both believe the area has lots of potential and could see the sort of regeneration and gentrification experienced in Brooklyn over the last two decades.
Dann explained: “Where we first started going to Brooklyn it was very industrial, and to me, exactly like Attercliffe. The opportunities to develop Attercliffe are huge, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens there in the future. You’ve already got these young, interesting businesses moving there.”
Premium fashion brand, In-Grid, and bakery, Tower of Bagel, are two such businesses; both of which are doing some exciting things, say Dann and Martha.
When asked about their favourite Sheffield breweries, Dann and Martha recommended Lost Industries, Abbeydale and Heist, which is a new operation based in Neepsend.
Dann said their fellow brewers in Sheffield gave St Mars a very warm welcome when they were starting out in the city.
"I haven’t met everyone yet, but those I have met have been very nice. Any brewer that does visit us will definitely get the royal treatment. Meeting brewers is something I enjoy," he said.