Microbreweries are on the rise and with Yorkshire benefiting from a resurgence in real ale, Sarah Freeman raises a glass to a very British success story.
One is based in a former pie factory, another operates out of an old boiler room and a third enterprising Yorkshire brewery markets its wares in an art gallery specialising in nudes. In Todmorden at the appropriately Barearts Brewery, bottles of ale sit alongside the paintings of life models.
“I don’t suppose it’s an obvious combination, but it seems to work,” says Kathryn Cook, who set up Barearts with husband Trevor seven years ago. It’s her artwork which adorns the gallery just half a mile down the road from the brewery. “We like to say we are the only licensed nude art gallery in Todmorden.”
While the couple have recently expanded opening another shop in nearby Rossendale, Barearts remains a small scale production. The Cooks’ brewery turns out a maximum of 3,000 bottles a month and they specialise in vintage ales, more akin to Belgian beers than a typical Yorkshire bitter.
“When we started out, back in 2005, we were one of the few breweries in the country producing these kind of beers,” says Kathryn, whose real fondness is for Barearts barley wines, two of which are to be featured in a new edition of Roger Protz’s 300 Beers To Try Before You Die. “I’ve always been a beer drinker, but it does seem that more and more people are developing a taste for beers which pack much more flavour than your average pint of lager.”
It’s a theory backed up by latest figures from the Campaign for Real Ale. While many pubs are facing an uncertain future, the number of breweries in the UK has risen to its highest level for more than 70 years. The country now boasts around 1,000 craft and micro breweries – twice as many as a decade ago.
It’s a trend recognised by rural regeneration company Pennine Prospects, which has just launched a new website to champion the breweries in the South Pennines, an area which runs from Ilkley to Holmfirth.
Hereforthebeer.co.uk is part a celebration of the county’s entrepreneurial spirit, but it’s not entirely altruistic, the team behind it hopes it will also encourage visitors to stay in the region for longer and spend more.
For firms like the Salamander Brewing Company it’s also a way of raising their own profile. The brewery in a former Bradford pie factory was set up by set up by Daniel Gent and Chris Bee. The pair had carved out successful careers in the brewing trade, but over a few drinks in the late 1990s they had an idea to go it alone.
“We were both working in London and met by chance at the opening of a restaurant run by a mutual friend,” says Chris, who previously ran two breweries for Scottish and Newcastle. “It was an oriental place with its own micro-brewery. I know it sounds a bit odd, but it was a bit of a trend back then and it got us thinking. By the end of the evening we were already starting to think that we were going to become business partners.”
With both having family in the north of England, Daniel and Chris began looking for potential sites and having secured space in a former pie factory in the heart of Bradford, Salamander Brewing Company was born. More than a decade on, they turn out 30 barrels a week for pubs across the country and the pair’s Golden Salamander was recently guest ale at the Strangers Bar in the House of Commons. While the economic downturn has strangled many small businesses, the micro-brewery industry has proved surprisingly resilient and at Salamander business has continued to be steady.
“We read the papers and watch the news, but it’s strange, we just haven’t seen the impact of the recession,” says Chris. “Our regular customers always resist any attempt by us to raise prices and you have to be careful not to price yourself out of the market, but it does seems as though people are willing to spend more on quality craft beers.”
Daniel and Chris’s brewery is one of 38 featured on the new website. It sits alongside profiles of Ilkley Brewery, set up by Stewart Ross and Chris Ives almost 100 years after the town’s original brewery closed, and Halifax Steam, housed in a Hipperholme Portakabin, which in a former life was the changing rooms for engineers working on the Channel Tunnel. Run by two Daves, Earnshaw and Herron, the company has taken to naming its beers after ‘strange men and beautiful women’. As a result, past brews have included Siouxsie Sioux and the Childcatcher, named ominously after the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang character.
“You can tell a lot about a place by its beer,” says Rebecca Yorke, Pennine Prospects’s local distinctiveness co-ordinator. “If you call into one of our local pubs, the chances are you’ll find a distinctive local brew produced just down the road and supported by a landlord who is passionate and knowledgeable about the product.
“Over the last few years, breweries have been cropping up in the most unlikely places, often set up by enthusiasts who decided to turn a passion into a profession and who are now making beers which consistently triumph in competitions.
“That passion fuelled the idea for the website. Documenting the work of these breweries and the pubs that support them has been a real labour of love. We didn’t want it to just be a directory, we wanted to give visitors a real flavour of the people who make these businesses work.”
Russ Beverley is typical of those heading up Yorkshire’s micro-breweries. Evangelical about the beer he produces under the Empire Brewing label, he spent the early part of his career in the pub trade and brewed his first pint while managing a pub for Punch Taverns. While regulars approved of Russ’s addition to the pumps, when the company got wind of his enterprising sideline it wasn’t as impressed. Threatening not to renew his lease, Russ and Punch parted company and in 2006 he decided to see if he could make his hobby pay the bills.
“At the time it felt like a bit of a disaster, but if I hadn’t had my hand forced I might never have started my own business,” he says.
Based in an old boiler house in Slaithwaite Mill, Russ now produces 36 barrels a week filled with the likes of Moonraker’s Mild, Golden Warrior and Empire Strikes Back. He’s even adopted the Latin motto, ‘usque ad mortem bibendum’, which loosely translates as, ‘drink until you drop’.
“Our customer base is mainly in the north, but our beer travels from Hull to Liverpool,” he says. “At first our most popular lines were the pale ales, but as people have acquired a taste for real ale they have become much more willing to experiment. Slaithwaite Mill is a great location. It’s right on the towpath of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal which means barges can moor up outside and pick up a bottle or two. There has definitely been an explosion in micro-brewing in recent years and I think part of the reason is that people like to buy products that they know have been made with care and passion.”
While food and drink fads come and go, according to Protz, who is also editor of the Good Beer Guide, the micro-brewing renaissance is here to stay.
“The real ale revolution goes on in spite of all the problems facing the brewing industry, from the anti-competitive behaviour of the large pub companies to the heavy and continuing rise in tax on beer, grossly unfair competition from supermarkets and the smoking ban in pubs.
“Yet against all the odds, craft breweries continue to sprout like mushrooms at dawn. The main reason is a simple one – craft breweries are responding to a genuine consumer demand.
“A double dip recession has done nothing to halt the surge and the small brewing sector is surely one of the most remarkable UK industry success stories. In fact the boom has in many cases made the term ‘micro’ obsolete, with some small brewers having doubled production just to keep up with demand. That’s something we should all raise a toast to.”