Is Steel City still world’s real ale capital?
Beer writer Pete Brown is revisiting his 2016 BEER report, with an updated version to be launched during Sheffield Beer Week 2024 (4-10 March). The original report said: “Sheffield is the real ale capital of the world and can also stake a claim to being the birthplace of the UK craft beer revolution.”
At the time, I wrote: “I read the report while en route for a few days in Lambic Land (Belgium). It generated considerable discussion with both colleagues and also a number of local brewers. At Itterbeek, we had a long beer-related conversation with the Flanders region minister of culture. He expressed more interest in the Sheffield beer scene than seems to emanate from Sheffield Town Hall. The Sheffield region needs to up its game regarding exports. The Sheffield Beer Report suggests that a local canning/bottling plant is an essential.” (Beer Matters, 464, June 2016).
Since then, the world has changed: Brexit, Covid, lockdowns, international uncertainty and continued inept UK government. However, almost eight years on, does Sheffield continue to justify the claim of the best real ale city in the world? My answer would be an undoubted “yes”.
The local beer range has grown dramatically over the last decade with several innovative new cask brewers coming on stream, for example, Grizzly Grains, Loxley and Triple Point. Innovative collaborations occur several times a week, and several long-established brewers, including Abbeydale, Lost Industry and Steel City have taken up barrel ageing, with the Abbeydale Funk Dungeon project of particular note. Heist, despite its focus on keykeg, recently won the gold award at the 47th Sheffield Steel City Beer Festival for its cask hazy session IPA The Bad Part of Gnome Town (4.6 per cent ABV), while last year Triple Point won World’s Best Gluten-free Beer at the World Beer Awards for its Trivergence DIPA (8.5 per cent). In addition, Fuggle Bunny, Stancil, Tapped and Toolmakers are celebrating a decade of brewing while brewSocial has recently completed its first year in operation.
Sheffield is also attracting well-respected brewers from elsewhere. For example, after seven successful years managing the Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project in Boston, Massachusetts, Dann Paquette and Martha Holley spent two years travelling. In 2018 they relocated to Sheffield, and, in deepest Attercliffe, established St Mars of the Desert (SMOD). Their aim is to “brew adventurous beers for interesting people”. In this, they have succeeded: their Secret World, is hidden behind old industrial units in a currently unfashionable part of the city. Here an exciting range of beers are produced and may be sampled in the taproom. On RateBeer in 2020, SMOD was among the top 10 new breweries in the world. A second example is Mike Pomranz. Mike moved from Brooklyn, New York, to Sheffield in 2016 and continued his interest in cidermaking. In September 2021, he opened the Cider Hole – an urban microcidery, bar, and bottle shop – where he made and served his own Exemption Ciderhouse cider. Having become the 2023 Sheffield and District CAMRA Cider Pub of the Year, the Cider Hole closed in June, with Exemption relocating to become part of the Old Shoe, a new bar located in the city centre.
My suggestion regarding export has happened. Stimulated by lockdown, there has been an almost exponential increase in the range and variety of small-package products. Beers from many Sheffield breweries are now widely available in both bottle and can. For example, Abbeydale, Bradfield, Little Critters, Neepsend and Triple Point can be found nationwide. It’s also worth noting that the beer of Sheffield Home of Football is brewed at Meadowhead by Little Mesters. There has also been a growth in high quality bottle shops, for example, long-established favourites the Dram Shop and Small Beer have been joined by the likes of Beer Central and Hop Hideout, both of whom recently celebrated their 10th anniversary.
As for pubs, Sheffield does not seem to have experienced the dramatic loss suffered by many other parts of the UK. There have been closures but also many openings, especially of micropubs. We seem to have more micropubs than any other UK city of a comparable size. Local beers continue to be seen across the city with cask-only brewer, Blue Bee, a particular favourite. Beer tourism provided more income to the city than the annual World Snooker Championship. This was recently illustrated when CAMRA held its annual Members' Weekend, Conference and AGM at the University of Sheffield. Apart from one negative comment regarding the hills, almost 1,000 attendees gave very positive feedback on local beers, pubs and importantly, their friendly welcome.
Sheffield also continues to be the only UK city with its own detailed Pub Heritage publication. Originally produced in 2018, this 120-page book is now in its fifth edition and is available as both a printed copy and a free download.
In short, since 2016, the Sheffield beer scene has vastly improved: more innovation, more choice, more venues and more information – it remains the undoubted beer capital of the world.
Pictured Dave Pickersgill