Yorkshire is gaining an international reputation as a centre of booze excellence. Joe Shute was given the tough job of investigating (well, someone had to).
It is approaching 9.30am on a Monday and I am on my first pint of the day. The beer in question is a 4.3 per cent pale ale freshly brewed from wilamette and chinook hops. “This is a fruity one so a good session ale to drink at any time,” encourages its creator, brewer Dean Hollingsworth.
The beer tastes of grapefruit and sweetened wood smoke, cutting nicely through the residual toothpaste and the lingering notes of my morning coffee. I take another sip and contemplate the scene around me: great metal vats bubble and steam while the air is thick with the heady scent of malt. The next batch of Sheffield’s finest is already on the way.
At present Dean brews 6,000 litres of beer a week in this exposed brick and beam warehouse next to the Forum on Devonshire Green. The building is a former ‘little mesters’ workshop (a little mester is a self-employed steel worker who rents factory space) where artisans would once smelt bespoke cutlery from Sheffield steel. Now it is owned by the True North Brew Company and used exclusively to create what is fast becoming another one of the city’s famous exports: beer. And lots of it. Yorkshire is gaining an international reputation as a centre of booze excellence. As a region, we have always been good at drinking, but now we are making it, too, in record amounts and all manner of dizzying concoctions.
At the last count there were some 57 breweries in operation within the Sheffield city region alone. Similarly West Yorkshire has long competed with London for the accolade of hosting more breweries than any part of the country with an explosion in microbreweries. Recent figures from the British Beer and Pub Association show there were 73,681 jobs supported by the beer and pub sector in Yorkshire. Beer, though, is far from the only Yorkshire tipple making a name for itself. Holmfirth Vineyard creates wonderfully quaffable reds and sparkling wines.
Gin distilleries are springing up throughout North Yorkshire and far beyond – Slingsby of Harrogate and Masons Yorkshire Gin of Bedale to name but a few. There is even a Yorkshire single malt in production (more of which later). The 37-year-old Dean Hollingsworth has long been at the forefront of this revolution. As a child growing up in Rotherham in the 80s he recalls his family always brewing their own alcohol.
“There wasn’t much money around then so they had to do it themselves” he says. “My parents brewed all sorts: wine, ginger wine and beer. I remember my granddad always had strong stouts on the go and used to give me a tot when I was a boy to help me get to sleep. The smell of it has always been around me.” Dean attempted his first homebrew as a 15-year old. “It was a blonde ale that went terribly wrong. I had no temperature control and it got so warm that it tasted like butterscotch. Still, we drank it anyway.”
After moving into the bar trade he met a brewery owner down in Sheffield’s Kelham Island who offered him a job washing casks once a week. At the same time, he read voraciously in an attempt to understand all the myriad possibilities of the brewing process. Eventually he was appointed head brewer of a different brewery in Sheffield before moving to True North in 2016.
As he prepares for the next day’s brew Dean points out with pride the many aspects of his creation. Bourbon barrels are piled up in one corner filled with a six per cent stout that is ageing in time for Christmas. He shows me the ‘hot liqueur’ tank where malt mixes with water; mash tuns; fermenters and the bright beer tank from which the finished product eventually spills out to be kept in casks. In between talking, he heaves sacks of malt about ready to mix into new beer. “We are brewing three days a week,” he says, wiping his brow with a heavily tattooed arm. “And our venues are so busy that we can only really keep up with demand for ourselves.”
A short stagger from the brewery is a nondescript industrial unit overlooking a skate park at the bottom of Devonshire Green. Like many newcomers on the burgeoning Yorkshire booze scene it is a small operation, but punching well above its weight. This is True North Brew’s gin distillery manned by 28-year-old Ben Schultze who keeps a close eye on the copper stills.
Ben first began to experiment with distilling gin while a photography student in Sheffield. He set up the distillery for True North in 2015 and currently has four different gins to his name. His creations, he says with pride, are the first gins to be distilled in Sheffield for a hundred years. Sheffield Dry Gin was the first released by the company and he has since made one sweetened with hops and honey, another bright pink mixture with raspberry and hibiscus and a fourth with kiwi fruit, lemongrass and mint. All are on sale throughout the 10 venues owned by True North as well as available to buy online.
When we meet he also has a new Blacka Moor gin on the go, sweetened with foraged autumn fruits from the Sheffield nature reserve of the same name. Because of the softness of the water which flows into the city from the Peak District, Ben adds a dash of the famous Sheffield condiment Henderson’s Relish to flavour his product. At the brewery Dean buys in minerals to harden the water while elsewhere in less blessed parts of the country, brewers agonise over how better to soften theirs. “It is why I think we are really lucky to be working in Sheffield because the quality of the water is just perfect,” Ben says.
Over on the east coast on a farm near Hunmanby just a few miles from the seaside town of Filey, work is ongoing to produce Yorkshire’s first single malt whisky. It is a bold, some may say reckless, plan, but that has not deterred the owners of the Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery. They have chosen as their talisman the gannet, as they are close to Bempton Cliffs where one of the UK’s largest population of the seabird resides. It is also a fitting symbol for the extent to which they are taking the plunge.
‘It’s the business plan of nightmares,’ admits whisky director Joe Clark, a 31-year-old from York. ‘You’re looking at vast sums of money up front. Pretty enormous ongoing costs. The owners would have taken a lot of advice before embarking on this and I’m sure some people said: ‘are you mad?’. But fair play to them they’re very forward thinking and have that long view.’ If all goes to plan – and the signs, Joe says, are encouraging - from 2019 the first bottles of Yorkshire single malt will be available to buy.
The distillery was started by Tom Mellor, a farmer cum brewer who set up the award winning Wold Top Brewery on his family arable farm in 2003 and his business partner David Thompson. They invested in two of the largest Forsyth pot stills in operation in Britain (outside of Scotland) and in May 2016 fired them up for the first time. Trading regulations mean whisky must have matured for at least three years to qualify as single malt. Joe has filled up 654 casks so far.
While single malt is currently being made in the Lake District, Cotswolds, Suffolk and Wales it has never before been attempted in Yorkshire and is a complex alcohol that draws heavily on its surroundings. “I’ve always thought this is long overdue for Yorkshire,” Joe says. “We are right on the coast here. You can see the sea out the back of the distillery doors. There’s very little science [to the whisky process] really. But we have everything available here to do this well.”
Every grain of barley used in the process is grown on the family farm, while all the water used in production comes straight from boreholes that connect into chalk aquifers deep underground.
While it is an anxious wait to determine exactly how the whisky matures, Joe Clark says he has already enjoyed more than a wee dram. “I’ve had the privilege of tasting a lot of it and we have an incredibly fast maturing spirit,” he says. Such is the interest it has created that the distillery is already open to the public for tours where people can taste the unfinished product.
The distillery has also already sold 100 casks to private investors who must now wait for the whisky to mature. According to Joe Clark it may not be long before other distillers follow suit by setting up in Yorkshire. Such is the scale of our booze revolution - the possibilities are bottomless.
This article was taken from This is Y 2018