How Yorkshire’s microbreweries are leading the fightback after years of decline for pubs

Pubs are closing at an alarming rate, yet new microbreweries seem to be opening almost daily. Beer writer Simon Jenkins begins an exploration of this apparent contradiction at an event supporting smaller brewers.

Ossett Brewery's new visitor centre and taproom. With MD Alex Minett.
Ossett Brewery's new visitor centre and taproom. With MD Alex Minett.

A mile south of Leeds city centre, New Craven Hall sits on an industrial estate overlooking the M621, close to where Dewsbury Road begins its journey to Beeston, Tingley and beyond.

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From here, a short walk offers an appropriately sobering insight into the decline of the suburban local. The Mulberry on Hunslet Road and the Junction on the corner of Moor Road both stand empty and unloved.

Steve Hemingway from Mill Valley Brewery, Liversedge. Picture by Simon Hulme

Saddest of all, across the motorway is the decaying hulk of the Blooming Rose, once a thriving local, much frequented by Leeds United supporters seeking well-kept Tetley Bitter and the finest pre-match pie and peas in Christendom. Though recent figures suggest that the annual decrease in the number of pubs in the UK may now be at an end, the loss of these historic inns will remain keenly felt. Each is symbolic of a worrying trend, as pubs which have been at the heart of their communities for generations have closed in devastating numbers.

Yet for the last two years, New Craven Hall has been home to Leeds Festival of Brewers, an annual celebration of some of the smaller brewers on the local scene. There are plenty; more than 20 in a city once dominated by a single massive brewery, and over 220 across Yorkshire.

The Festival is the brainchild of Mike Hampshire, a former Chairman of Leeds CAMRA who realised that many interesting microbreweries were being denied an opportunity to showcase their wares to the public.

Simon Jenkins checking out a pint at The Fenton on Woodhouse Lane in Leeds , with his new book The Yorkishire Beer Bible.

“I was at a beer festival in Newcastle. The brewers there were all good ones – the likes of Tiny Rebel, Cloudwater and Hawkshead – but these are all well-established brands and you see them everywhere at other festivals. As great as these might be, I prefer to enjoy beers from breweries which I haven’t come across before.”

Nomadic Brewery, based close to Leeds city centre in Sheepscar, was among those featured at this year’s event.

Boss Katie Marriott became immersed in the world of beer while a chemistry student at Leeds University: “I joined the Real Ale Society after going on a Theakston’s brewery tour,” she says. “I’ve been brewing for four years now and wouldn’t want to do anything else. It’s great fun to play on a giant chemistry kit – and then consume the end product.”

Katie Marriott at Nomandic Brewery in Sheepscar. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

But when pubs are closing what gives tiny breweries like Nomadic the confidence that they are ever going to sell their beer?

“The beer scene in Leeds is vibrant and has some great independent pubs and bars,” says Katie. “You’ll find us in places like The Wardrobe, Wharf Chambers, Wapentake, Slocken and Whitelock’s. But I do worry that the larger bars which are opening in the city centre will be damaging to the independent places, especially if they can run at lower margins.”

Steve Hemingway of Mill Valley Brewery in Liversedge has little doubt who’s responsible for the years of decline: “The big breweries and pub companies make life impossible for the people running their pubs,” he says. “They charge sky-high rents and force tenants to buy beer through them – and can charge £50-a-barrel more than if they were allowed to buy it from a brewery like us. It’s no wonder the tenants struggle.”

It’s a familiar story, particularly where these companies see the potential development value in their pubs, rather than their intrinsic value to holding a community together. Sometimes there’s simply more money in selling them for flats or supermarkets. Even so, breweries continue to enter the market, each confident they have something compelling to offer this crowded marketplace. Recent news that the Wetherspoon chain is planning a £200m investment in its estate, does offer some further comfort to small brewers hoping to bring their traditional cask ales to market.

Like many behind these emergent ventures, Steve started out as a home brewer – initially concentrating on replicating Tetley Bitter in his cellar. His popular Yorkshire Bitter is an attempt to recreate that famous taste. And he remains optimistic about the future: “The big old pubs might be closing but there are micropubs popping up all over the place. When we try to get our beers into these places, I visit them personally – and they can see the passion and enthusiasm I have for the business.” An on-site brewery tap and a bar at Mill Valley’s original home in Cleckheaton offer a more straightforward route to market.

It’s a route familiar to Ossett Brewery, which now has the confidence born of two decades of steady expansion. From a tiny brew kit behind a pub on the outskirts of town, it has grown to become one of the big players in the local scene, with a £17m turnover and 400-strong workforce. Ossett boasts a chain of traditional local pubs as well as the lively Hop pub brand and a trio of other microbreweries – Fernandes in Wakefield, Riverhead in Marsden and Huddersfield’s Rat and Ratchet. Their beers have gained a national following through widespread supermarket exposure.

And the company is in the midst of a new phase of expansion – the pace of which has even surprised its own management team. “I thought life at Red Bull was quite high octane, but this is even more so,” says Alex Minett, newly-installed as managing director after moving over from the energy drinks brand. A multi-million-pound investment has seen brewing capacity increased, the creation of a bar and events space on the sprawling brewery site and the development of Salt Beer Factory in Saltaire, which is backed by a chain of Craft Asylum bars focussed on selling the innovative beers from the Salt range.

Triple Point in Sheffield is focused on lager – but also on stretching that envelope as wide as it will go. Pontefract cakes bring colour and sweetness to a Black Liquorice Lager, while a hefty dose of oatmeal makes Triptych a full-bodied pilsner like no other: “It definitely has an element of the perverse,” says brewer Alex Barlow. “There are a lot of brewers trying to do different things but we are one of the few doing it with lager. We believe we can carve out a niche for it.”

Mill Valley, meanwhile, is targeting the vegan market – both with draught ales and specialist vegan beers in can and bottle.

Yet perhaps for each of these breweries, Bradford’s Eyes Brewing offers a salutary lesson. Established as Britain’s first brewery solely concentrated on wheat beers, Eyes blazed an exciting trail, before running into difficulty and closing earlier this year. Small wonder then that some prefer to concentrate on the mainstream: “You won’t find Nomadic producing the next fad beer,” says Katie. “It’s great that other breweries focus on big flavours and different styles, as I like to try these myself, but we have found that there’s still a gap in the market for something more traditional.”

And she fears that more breweries might go the same way as Eyes: “In terms of breweries, I think we are coming to saturation point in Leeds. There are only so many taps available around the city, or even across the UK, through which all these beers can be sold.” Thankfully Nomadic’s biggest seller is a 3.8% easy-drinking pale ale – its reliability offering Katie and head brewer Ross Nicholson a certain insulation against the changing whim of the hipster drinker.

And at Mill Valley, Steve is confident in his plans for organic growth: “I’ve made mistakes in the past, but I’ve learned from them. I’ve got a ten-year plan to gradually grow the brewery and open more pubs – before retiring and handing the business on to family. That’s the dream, anyway.”

Simon Jenkins’ new book, the second edition of the Yorkshire Beer Bible, published by Great Northern Books, is a comprehensive guide to all 220 breweries in Yorkshire, priced £11.99.