Eight beery days in Sheffield gave me a good tourist’s feel for why many in Britain consider this city to be one of the best beer scenes on the island. The third annual Sheffield Beer Week provided the backdrop for a full agenda of companion events and sub-events that was impossible for me to keep up with.
City of Steel
Sheffield is located on the southwest border of the region of Britain called South Yorkshire. The region (county/shire) of Derbyshire wraps around to the south and the west. With a population of 570,000, Sheffield is the fourth largest city in the country — the metro area has a population of about 1.5 million.
Sheffield takes its name from its location on the River Sheaf which flows in from the South before joining the River Don near the city center. There has been a settlement here going back nearly 13,000 years. The Romans were here in their time. Sheffield eventually became a noted center of metallurgy, steel production, and innovation. Crucible steel and stainless steel were invented here. The steel factories made the city a target for German bombing during World War 2 that resulted in widespread destruction. Large scale manufacturing scaled back during the past fifty years and is a shell of its former self. An impressive tribute to the steel history is “The Cutting Edge”, a huge sculpture made from Sheffield steel that is prominently displayed in front of the rail station.
Sheffield seemed more of a university town to me. There are two universities: the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University. The two combined enroll about 60,000 students and give the population a youthful bent. Built on seven hills, more than half of the land in the city is parks, forests, and green belts. I was proudly told that Sheffield has the highest ratio of trees to people of any city in Europe. A third of Sheffield is situated within the Peak District National Park which covers much of the Pennine Mountains that begin just to the west of the city. There is a good deal of public art scattered about — both formal and informal. I enjoyed walking in the city, even with the formidable hills, and the bus and tram systems made it easy to get around
Kelham Island Beer Walking
The beer culture and history of the city is told at a small museum that is part of the Kelham Island Museum. The major focus of the museum is the steel industry, but when left to my own devices I found the back corner that is devoted to beer. Imagine the 1800’s and a time when people worked hard in the steel factories all day
only to come home to what might be a small, dark, chilly abode. Public Houses — pubs for short — became the warm parlors where a person could relax after work, catch up with friends, and (oh yeah) enjoy a beer or two.
Beer became popular as a healthy alternative to gin and contaminated water that was supported by tax and regulatory policies of the government. The Beerhouse Act of 1830 made beer cheaper and allowed any householder to get into the brewing business in their home. Many, if not most of the brewers in those days were women.
It turns out that Kelham Island is a great place for a beer walk and the Museum was a fine starting place. Kelham is a man-made island dating back hundreds of years to channel the River Don’s water into mill races. The neighborhood has been converting from worn out factory buildings into a gentrifying area with condos and factory conversions. It hasn’t gone so far that there isn’t alot of remaining character, and the neighborhood is home to multiple breweries and interesting pubs. I only made it to a few. I often heard Kelham Island Brewery mentioned as the place that kicked off the current independent brewery renaissance in the area back in the 1990’s. The Fat Cat pub (next to the brewery) is their face to the world and is also frequently the first pub that would come up when people were giving me suggestions about where to go. Their flagship cask ale has the cool name, Pale Rider, and is a nice pour.
My favorite stop on Kelham Island had to be the Sheffield Brewery Co. They are housed in a vintage industrial building that once served as a factory for polishes and pastes. The names of many of their beers are taken from those products and their marketing speaks of “finely polished beers.” Although they host monthly and special events at the brewery, they aren’t set up for drop-by tours so I was grateful to be welcomed and shown around by Nick Law. They feature a range of six mainstays from blonde to porter and Nick told me that the flagship is Seven Hills, a dry, hoppy pale ale.
The Riverside, a comfortable pub on the River Don was a fine lunch stop. They are owned by True North Brew Co. and serve the True North range as well as many other casks. Tunes by Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple were playing in the beer garden that overlooks the river.
Shakespeares is a pub that has alot of character that I stopped in on while walking back to the city center. You are greeted by a sign the says, “Tasteless, Fizz Free Zone” which speaks to the pub’s commitment to real ales. The friendly bar keep took me through a variety of interesting cask ales.
Sheffield Beer Culture
There was a lot to learn about the beer culture in the city and country during the week. Much of it was brand new to me. Some highlights: Although kegged ales and beers are certainly popular, I found myself attracted to the huge variety of cask ales found everywhere. A ‘cask ale’ is different from kegged beer in that it is conditioned in the cask or firkin it is served from and is not served under pressure (no CO2 … only natural fermentation). The beer is pumped from the cask by pulling a pump handle multiple times per pour. Where in the U.S. the attention is on “craft” breweries and beers, in Britain it is on what are called “real ales” which include cask ales and bottle conditioned ales. As you might imagine, serving cask ales can be a bit tricky given their shorter shelf life so there are a whole set of standards for pubs to follow to ensure the quality of the beer for the customer.
My guess is that more than 90% of the beers I drank while in Sheffield (and in Britain for that matter) were cask ales and I rarely drank the same beer twice. Not that I couldn’t if I wanted to, but I was drawn to the opportunity to try alot of different beers and it took no effort to do that. I guess I became part of a subculture known as “beer tickers” although not in any disciplined sense. A beer ticker is someone whose hobby is to try as many different beers as possible. As a Sheffield Beer Week event, I went to a screening of a movie called Beer Tickers: Beyond the Ale and learned that there are beer tickers who have individually ticked off tens of thousands of different beers. I had the good fortune to sit and share a beer with Andy Morton, a top ten beer ticker who appears in the movie. He likened the practice of beer ticking to “trainspotting for beer nerds” which is a great description as long as you know what trainspotting is. The heyday of this hobby sounds like it was in the mid-nineties although I got the sense that plenty of people are still at it.
There are a couple of organizations I encountered that are important in the Real Ale world. The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) is a big consumer membership group that very successfully pushed back on the trend toward mass produced beers beginning back in the 1970’s. CAMRA was often cited to me as a primary driver of the re-emergence of small, independent brewers in the U.K. They are also big into supporting traditional pubs that serve real ales and have an excellent online catalog of pubs throughout the country. Another organization I encountered was the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) which is the trade association for small, independent brewers. SIBA was holding two events in Sheffield during the week that I was able to attend — BeerX (a big trade show and conference) and BeerAlive (a large beer festival and award ceremony featuring real ales from throughout the U.K.) More about that later.
More Pubs and Breweries
Sheffield has a load of pubs (more than 200) spread out through every part of the city. West Street is a main route running from the West End district to the city center and is home to many pubs and bars. I tried to check out as many as I could — Fagans, the Grapes, Dog and Partridge, the Red Deer, the Bath Hotel, the Three Tuns, the Devonshire Cat, the Red Lion, the Greystones, Brew Dog, the Broadfield, the Banner Cross, Portland House, the Beer House, the Prince of Wales, the Lescar Hotel, the Beehive, and Porter Brook were all places I managed to stumble across and stumble into in addition the the places mentioned earlier and I still felt I was just scratching the surface. There were also interesting beer shops like Hop Hideout and Turner’s.
Hop Hideout is the business of Jules Gray, a key organizer of Sheffield Beer Week, and her partner Will. They have hundreds of bottled beers available, five taps in their tasting room, and hold many beer launch and meet the brewer events.
In addition, my visits with other breweries and brewers in Sheffield included True North Brewing, Sheffield Tap, and Sentinel Brewing. True North was particularly interesting and welcoming. The brewery is in vintage, garage-like space in the heart of the city. I poked my head into the big garage door to see if I might pay a visit and I was welcomed in by head brewer Dean Hollingsworth, who was busy filling and sealing casks. Dean told me that True North operates ten pubs and that their beer production is pretty much earmarked to supplying their needs. They also distill Sheffield Gin and make a number of infusions as well as roast their own coffees for the pubs. Dean was gracious to show me each of these operations. After tasting a couple of infusions I have decided to pay more attention to gin in the future — really interesting. True North has a half dozen beers in their core range including an excellent pale ale.
Sheffield Heritage Pub Walk
Another Sheffield Beer Week event was a “Heritage Pub Walk” organized by the local CAMRA chapter. CAMRA evaluates pubs for their historical significance and there are seventeen pubs in Sheffield that are considered to be in this category. Dave Pickersgill of CAMRA led a small group on a walk to visit a few of these and talk about the history of pubs here and in the U.K. in general.
The group met in the early evening at Fagan’s, a pub dating from the late 1700’s. There is a giant mural on the outside of one end of the building called “The Snog” by artist Pete McKee, famous here for his comic cartoon paintings. Pub is short for public and the interior of Fagan’s (and the other traditional pubs we would visit) have the feel of a public lounge or living room — comfortable seating, cozy hearths, warm lighting, and large windows. A “snug” – an isolated, quiet lounge for people who don’t want to be part of the bar scene is another common feature. Over a beer, Dave told us about how pubs historically have been generally owned by breweries to serve as captive outlets for their beers. There are pubs known as “free houses” that tend to be operated independent of brewers, but these are less common and there is no law against any pub calling itself a free house.
As we departed Fagan’s, Dave pointed out a sign above the exit that is rendered in Japanese calligraphy. It translates to say, “We install and service hangovers.” Fitting.
As dusk descended, the walk took us by and in and out of several of Sheffield’s pubs that hold the distinction of historic status conferred by CAMRA. CAMRA’s heritage efforts have been important in an environment where the numbers of traditional pubs in the U.K. have been declining. Dave told us that a variety of factors have resulted in the loss of hundreds of pubs per year in the U.K. — some of them historically significant. A reporting team from the local radio station was along and recorded some of the thoughts — have a listen (my interview starts about three minutes in).
Sheffield Beer Week
Sheffield Beer Week was an ambitious agenda of beery events and activities including the SIBA (Society of Independent Brewers) trade show BeerX and BeerAlive, their Festival of Beer. I came for an affiliated conference held at the same venue called BeerNow which is an international beer bloggers conference. The trade show featured more than 200 exhibitors of everything from brewing ingredients, to equipment, to packaging, to consultants and marketing. It was interesting roaming. The beer festival was a public event held in large tent structures and featured food, entertainment, and eight “regional bars.” The regional bars were busy draft stations each serving multiple award-nominated beers from every part of the United Kingdom.
The bloggers conference was the first event like this I have attended and it was great connecting with people who share an interest in talking about beer and beer culture. One of the activities called Live Beer Blogging provided each of seven participating breweries eight minutes to pour a beer, talk about their brewery, and answer questions from small groups of bloggers who were posting their reactions real-time via social media and blogs. Participating breweries included Twisted Barrel Ale, Sentinel Brewing Co., Abbeydale Brewery, Sharps Brewery, The Ilkley Brewing Co., Lost Industry and Thornbridge.
Related stories on Prime Passages: Rails & Trails & Ales on the Backbone of England, A Hike & Two Breweries in the South Peak District, Farm to Cask: A Hike & a Farm Brewery in the Peak District, — See all the stories about beer, hiking, and travels in Great Britain.