Tag: Thornbridge

| Brewing, Brooklyn Brewery, Cask ale, Thornbridge

Thornbridge and Garrett Oliver Save the Famous Burton Unions

A Bank Holiday Monday seems an odd time for Carlsberg Marston’s to announce a major story about Britain’s brewing heritage. But we live in odd times. Whatever – it’s good news.

Sometimes there’s a happy ending.

In January, Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company (CMBC) announced that they were getting rid one of the last remaining pieces of Burton-on-Trent’s brewing heritage. For decades, the old Marston’s brewery insisted that you couldn’t brew proper Marston’s Pedigree unless it went through the unique, eccentric Union fermentation system. Then suddenly, the story changed, and you could brew Pedigree even better in the same kind of fermenters everyone else uses.

Anyway, now it turns out that at least one of the Union “sets” has been saved. It’s currently being installed at Thornbridge in Derbyshire (photo above). This was announced, sort of, today by CMBC, who posted the tweet below. At the time of writing, the accompanying link is broken and there’s no relevant press release currently on the CMBC website.

Happily, Thornbridge will be providing clarification over the next day or so. And I’ve had a sneak preview.

The deal seems to have been orchestrated by Garrett Oliver, legendary brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery. Oliver has had a close relationship with Thornbridge for many years. And Brooklyn Brewery has a longstanding commercial relationship with Carlsberg. (It’s complicated – Carlsberg don’t own Brooklyn, but do have international rights to sell Brooklyn beers in Europe and other parts of the world.)

Oliver said:

When I heard that the unions were slated to go silent, I immediately thought that Thornbridge would be the perfect inheritors of this beautiful piece of British brewing heritage. I’m thrilled to provide the ‘assist’ on this historic play.” 

For their part, Thornbridge are going to do some really exciting things with the Union set that kick against the narrative that contributed to CMBC’s decision to discontinue the Unions: that cask ale is supposedly in terminal decline and brewers can’t make money from it any more.

For anyone wondering what the hell a union set is and why it’s important, this would be a good point to explain. It would be perfect if this news could have waited till after my forthcoming article in Ferment magazine on this very subject. But that’s going to be a week or two. And it’s now. So let me sum up briefly.

In the nineteenth century, Burton was the most important brewing centre on the planet, home of the OG IPA. The Union system emerged in the town in the mid-nineteenth century. It was a curious – no, let’s not beat around the bush – it was downright weird and strange and brilliant and British. A bunch of wooden barrels or a “set” – sat horizontally alongside each other in a kind of scaffold. Held in union. On top of this scaffold sat a big iron trough. Swan-necked spouts stretched form each barrel into the trough. After beer had been inoculated with yeast, it would be pumped into the barrels. As it fermented, the yeast pushed up through the pipes, foamed into the trough, and sat there happily for a bit before gradually running back into the barrels. It would keep doing this until it finished fermenting. Why? Apparently, it kept the yeast really happy and healthy, and that meant better beer. You want a definition of craft beer that’s actually about, y’know, the word “CRAFT” rather than who owns what? This was it.

That’s why it’s important that at least one Union Set has been saved. This is our brewing heritage. When Burton produced a quarter of all the beer in Britain, plus a big chunk of its exports, all Burton breweries used unions. To be fair to Marston’s, they clung to the unions decades longer than everyone else did.

CMBC cited “Low volumes due to the decline of the UK cask market” as the reason why “using the Union sets is no longer viable.” So why does a brewer like Thornbridge think they are?

Starting with a brew of their flagship beer, Jaipur, they plan to follow up by brewing other well-loved beers from their armoury, some brand-new new beers specifically designed for the Union set, as well as collaborations with other brewers who are keen to see what a union-fermented version of their beers will look like. I’m told at least one of these will involve Garrett Oliver, sooner rather than later.

Every aspect of this serves to premiumise cask beer, which is what cask beer has to do if it is going to thrive.

Let’s see what else Thornbridge reveal. Let’s see if CNBC can decide if they’ve issued a press release or not before then. I’m sure there’ll be lots of hot takes on this. But Britain now has an authentic union set brewing beer again. Which it didn’t have before this deal was struck.

| Beer, Dave Wickett, Kelham Island, Thornbridge

Sheffield’s legendary Kelham Island Brewery saved from closure

Back in May, the announcement of the closure of Sheffield’s oldest brewery felt too awful to contemplate. Now, a group including Thornbridge Brewery have stepped in.

The press release says:

Kelham Island Brewery, Sheffield’s oldest independent brewery, has been saved from closure by a group from Sheffield. 

The brewery’s rescue is a collaboration between Tramlines co-founder and Sheffield venue owner James O’Hara, his brother and financial analyst Tom O’Hara, Simon Webster and Jim Harrison of renowned Thornbridge Brewery, Peter Donohoe, founder of Sheffield based creative studio Peter and Paul and Ben Rymer marketing manager from beer festival organisers, We Are Beer. 

James O’Hara, who put the group together after hearing about the brewery’s closure, said: “Kelham Island Brewery, and its flagship beer Pale Rider, are known and revered beyond Sheffield. It’s heritage that we, as a city, should be really proud of. We couldn’t let that just disappear, it means too much within the city and to the UK’s beer culture for it to become another Wikipedia entry.”

Finally, some good news.

The closure of any brewery that is run by dedicated, enthusiastic people and produces good beer is a tragedy, and there have already been too many of those post-pandemic. But Kelham Island was more than that.

When the closure was announced in May, brewery owner Ed Wickett blamed “a whirlwind of problems,” a list topped by Covid and lockdowns. They were being hit by surcharges on fueL and other utilities, and at the same time the brewery was in a dilapidated state and needed new investment. In a broken cask ale market that is indulging in a foolhardy race to the bottom on price, there was simply no margin to survive.

Ed ran the brewery for ten years almost to the day following the death of his father, Dave. He has done a great job and devoted ten years of his life to Kelham Island. But I imagine somewhere in the sadness over the closure, there was also relief.

A generation of craft beer drinkers has emerged since Dave passed away from cancer in May 2012, aged just 64. I might be wrong, but it feels like his name is not known to many these days. But he was a pioneer in Britain’s craft beer revolution. Our beer scene today would not look the same without him.

Wickett the pioneer

Kelham Island Brewery was a trailblazer. When Wickett opened it in 1990, it was the first new brewery opening in Sheffield for over a century. Everyone told him he was mad. But they’d said the same to him when he opened the Fat Cat pub ten years previously. Wickett’s favourite beer was Timothy Taylor Landlord – it’s never been out of stock in the Fat Cat. The brewery were so sceptical of a new real ale-centric pub in the centre of Sheffield’s decaying industrial district that they refused to deliver to him. So Wickett drove a van up to the brewery in Keighley and picked it up himself. When he was back a day or two later for more, they started to believe in him.

Kelham Island’s flagship was – sorry, is! – Pale Rider, a pale blonde ale with pronounced citrusy hop aromas. It won Champion Beer of Britain in 2004 (the year everyone thinks Greene King IPA won – it actually came second.) But Pale Rider’s significance was far greater than that.

Wickett was a stubborn maverick who didn’t suffer fools gladly. He acknowledged that he wasn’t always easy to work for, and there was a steady revolving door of brewers in and out of Kelham. The thing is, when they left – either fired or storming out after being unable to work with Wickett any longer – they’d often go just up the road and open their own brewery. Grudgingly or not, they still wanted to brew pale, citrusy cask ales in Sheffield’s now post-industrial heart. There was a cloud of small, independent brewers around Kelham Island years before they started spreading across the country. And that pale rider-inspired blonde ale has become Sheffield’s signature brew.

The birth of British craft beer

Exact recollections of events vary between him and some of the people he worked with, but here’s how he told the story to me.

By the early 2000s, Kelham Island was struggling to keep up with demand. One day Wickett was visiting his mate Jim Harrison, who had recently moved into the magnificent but then run-down Thornbridge Hall in Derbyshire. They went past an old stable block in the grounds and Wickett (everyone called him Wickett, never Dave) joked that it would be a perfect spot for a small brewery. They talked some more, and agreed that Thornbridge Brewery could be a handy overflow for when Kelham Island needed extra capacity. Instead of hiring some seasoned old cask ale brewer, Wickett interviewed two young men just out of brewing school, Stefano Cossi and Martin Dickie.

Neither was especially wedded to the Sheffield cask pale ale tradition. They were excited by new hops from America and New Zealand, which at that point had hardly been seen in Britain. Thornbridge began brewing British cask ales with American hops, used American style. Their flagship, Jaipur, went on to win just about every award possible, and Wickett ended up having to build a new brewery for Kelham Island instead. In 2007, Martin Dickie left to do some kind of start-up brewery in Scotland, and Cossi left soon after. But the Thornbridge blueprint was established.

Family saves the day

I don’t know too much about the other people involved in the consortium, but I do know Tramlines now defines Sheffield as much as the brewing tradition Wickett began. But it feels so right that Thornbridge is part of this move. Without Kelham Island, there would be no Thornbridge. Now, without Thornbridge there would be no Kelham Island. There couldn’t be a more perfect end to what started out looking like a tragic story.

Writing this has made me think a lot about the time Wickett invited me to the Fat Cat to do a talk about my second book, Three Sheets to the Wind, back in 2006. I had been invited to meet Thornbridge the following day, and they were putting me up at the hall that night. As Wickett took me out to the taxi, he said, “I’m jealous of you.”


“Because you’re going to Thornbridge.”

“But you’ve been loads of times!”

“Yeah, but you’re going for the first time. You can never get that feeling again.”

Welcome home, Wickett.

| Beer, Beer Writing, BrewDog, IPA

When Michael met Stef and Martin

Trawling through old notebooks can yield unexpected treasures.

The new beer book I’m currently working on was initially inspired by a few experiences that I’d never properly written up and used.

Sometimes I’ll visit a brewery or go to an event and I’m inspired by it, taking pages of notes, and I’ll decide to write them up for one of my columns. A typical column is 700-800 words long, and while the column itself might be good, it only skates across the surface of the notes and observations I’ve made.

When I decided to write a book about hops, it was because I knew I had unused material that I’d gathered on a visit to the National Hop Collection in Kent, a jaunt to Slovenia to see the hop farms there, and a hazy account of Chmelfest, the hop blessing festival in the town of Zatec in the Czech Republic, home of the revered Saaz hop. I’d written up the National Hop Collection and Slovenia for short Publican’s Morning Advertiser columns, but I’d never known quite what to do with the Chmelfest notes. That’s where the idea for this book was born. About thirty seconds after deciding to use these three stories as the basis for a book about hops, I thought, ‘Why just hops?’ And What Are You Drinking? was born.

So now I’m deep into pulling the book together, writing up notes from trips over the last year and digging into my pile of old notebooks to find bits from over the last few years that also belong in this book.

I went to Chmelfest back in 2007, just as I was starting work on the first Cask Report and while I was trying to plan the sea voyage that would become my third book, Hops and Glory. So I dug into my pile of notebooks trying to find the one I’d been using in early 2007.

It turned out to be the same one I’d been using in late 2006 – number 6 in the stash of anally numbered notebooks I began when I first started travelling to write about beer. Chmelfest is about two thirds of the way through, and the notes are more intact and coherent than I have any right to expect. But near the front of the book, undated, is a short set of notes – just two pages – about a meeting between Michael Jackson and Stefano Cossi and Martin Dickie, who were then two young brewers at a new brewery called Thornbridge.

I remember this meeting taking place at the legendary White Horse pub in West London. I can’t remember why I was there, why I’d been invited, but the two brewers were sitting against the wall with Michael facing them across a table. I was sitting two seats down, watching, not daring to join in.

I remember being inspired by Michael that night, and later feeling lucky that I was there. A year on from this meeting Michael would be dead and Martin would have left Thornbridge to start up BrewDog. Martin has spoken often about what an inspiration the meeting was to him. It’s become part of BrewDog folklore, a key event in the origin story, which makes me feel weird that I’d been there as a silent observer.

The occasion was the launch of a new beer called Kipling. Michael thought it was interesting because it used a new hop called Nelson Sauvin which came from New Zealand, and no one had brewed in Britain using New Zealand hops before. (In my notes I wrote ‘Nelson Sauverne’, which is how it sounded when Martin said it.) Martin and Stef had encountered a sample of these hops and immediately ordered some in. They wanted to make a beer that celebrated their flavour, because they were already, according to my notes, ‘bringing in obscure US hops’ for beers like Jaipur.

In a demonstration of my stunning beer writing skills at the time, my tasting notes stretch to ‘grapefruit in the finished beer.’ I also wrote down ‘Fills in the gaps that are left by the flavour spikes in spicy, deep-fried spring rolls.’ I don’t know if I wrote this because that’s what the beer was paired with because I didn’t write any more detail about what we were eating and drinking. I may have been quoting someone. (Does anyone really think spring rolls have flavour spikes?)

I’ll spare you my clumsy notes about Thornbridge and my observations about its two young, moody brewers. The reason for sharing the reminiscence is the notes I made about Michael Jackson. I was paying more attention to him during the interview than I was to the two brewers.

I’m tempted to tidy up my notes and write them better. It’s a rubbish piece of writing, embarrassing in parts, but I wanted to share the sentiments it contains, so here it is quoted as I wrote it, unvarnished by later experience or hindsight:

Michael going on – interesting enough stories. Meeting some of these people is a bit special. He’s created this thing, still sees it w the novelty he genuinely discovered for the first time.

Gentle, warming method of questioning that draws the best out of his subject – “Why this beer?” “What did you think of the hop the first time you tasted it?”

It doesn’t seem like much, written up. But this was an absolute inspiration to a fledgling beer writer. The obvious passion, undimmed after thirty-odd years. And the focus on the people, how they felt, making it about them and getting the best from them. I remember sitting there thinking, “THIS is how you do it.”

I still think that. My own notes are better now.

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Brewers Dominate BBC Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards

I wrote a few years ago that Thornbridge and BrewDog were like the Beatles and the Stones: rivals, both revolutionary, one more user friendly and respectable, the other edgier and more dangerous, but each profoundly changing the medium they work in.

Now, I’ve had to update my analogy by a few decades. Because over the next few weeks I am officiating in a rivalry that more resembles this:
In January, I appealed for drinks producers of all kinds to put themselves forward for the BBC Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards. I am judging the category of Best Drinks Producer for the second time, along with Victoria Moore, the wine writer for the Daily Telegraph.
Clearly our appeal struck a chord. The total number of entries doubled to almost 200. Of that total, 113 were either brewers or cider makers. I especially enjoyed reading some of the nominations for micro-distillers and people making interesting, natural, adult-oriented soft drinks. But as Victoria and I hacked our way down to a long shortlist, almost half the names on it were brewers. Every single brewery that I am excited about in Britain today either put themselves forward or was nominated by a fan.
We had to take our longlist of eight or nine contenders to a meeting with the judges from all the other categories. Each shortlist, including categories like Best Farmer, Best Food Market and Best Takeaway Food, has to be approved by the entire judging panel.
Best Drinks Producer was kept until last, because we had samples from many of our shortlisted entrants to taste. After tasting our top three, people asked to taste some of the other beers too, just to make sure we’d chosen well. Things got quite raucous. A couple of our decisions were overturned, and finally it went to a vote, the result being that among three finalists, we have two breweries and a winemaker:
Someone across the table captured my reaction to this:

Shortlist agreed.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted that two of our three finalists are brewers. It reflects the momentum and creativity in brewing today. And I love both brewers, having known each pretty much since they started. But that’s the problem. I might have to choose between them.

Of course the wine maker might impress us more – I’ve been keen to find out more about the revolution that’s happening in British sparkling wine. It’s a three-way fight.

But within that three-way, there’s an epic struggle brewing for the craft beer crown. BrewDog’s Martin Dickie began his brewing career at Thornbridge. Along with Stefano Cossi he created Jaipur, the beer that has won more prizes in British brewing competitions than any other in the last ten years. He began his experiments with wood ageing beer with Thornbridge’s St Petersburg. And two years later he quit to go home and found BrewDog with his childhood friend James Watt.

Now both breweries are guiding lights of the UK craft beer movement. Both have achieved huge levels of success, and added chains of pubs or bars to their businesses that set superlative standards for serving beer as well as brewing it. Each brand is so strong it attracts keen, bright beer lovers who want to work with them and be part of the story. Both have taken the US craft beer influence and turned it on its head, exporting their beers back out round the world. Countless people have been inspired by them to set up breweries of their own.

So which is best?

There’s only one way to find out… or maybe not.

We visited BrewDog last Monday, going around the new brewery, tasting the latest beer, Bourbon Baby, straight from the bottling line, going through the core range and finishing with another beer, as yet unnamed, drawn from a red wine barrel where it has another three months to go before bottling. At one point Victoria, who doesn’t really drink beer, whispered “I think I’ve been converted to beer.”

This coming Monday we visit Thornbridge. Every time I go there, there are new surprises, and they’ve promised us plenty more this time.

And then, in a couple of weeks, we head to Kent to visit Gusborne, who have been making sparkling wine since 2006 and are regularly cited as one of the most exciting wine makers in the country.

We have a crew with us capturing the whole thing, ready for it to be turned into at least one, and possibly two, editions of the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme. I’ll post details of when you can catch up on our exploits. The winner will be announced at a ceremony in Bristol on May 1st.

In the meantime, who do you think you should win? Who should be celebrated as not just the best brewer (or winemaker), but the best producer of any drink in Britain? 

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‘The Brewery Tap’ – the next generation?

Imagine you’re a microbrewer.  You’ve established a few successful beers and have won the odd award here and there at SIBA competitions and CAMRA festivals.  Sales are showing healthy growth and you’ve got some local recognition.  In a few years time, you might have to expand.  But there’s one thing now obsessing you.

Your own pub.  You want a brewery tap.

But you can’t get one.

Buying a freehold pub is a financial step too far – you just haven’t got that kind of money to hand.  You could of course get a lease or tenancy from one of the big PubCos but what would be the point of that?  The tie means you’d have to take beers from their limited range, and your not on it – you want a pub that showcases YOUR beers, as you want them to be seen.

This is a scenario facing many micros at the moment.  To some, it’s a symbol of what they’re fighting against – an outdated model in the British beer and pub industry.

But now, things are changing.  And it’s my old mates at Thornbridge who are leading the way, with the first pub on an interesting new deal with Enterprise Inns.

Well, not quite leading the way.

Three years ago, Midlands brewer Everards started a scheme called Project William.  They took over defunct, failed pubs – the ones that we read about that are closing every week – and went into partnership with local brewers around the Midlands and the north of England.  Everards invested in refurbishing the pub – in partnership with the local brewer – and took a traditional tie on lager, soft drinks and spirits – meaning the publican had to buy all these from Everards at their rates.  This is usual enough for PubCos and regional brewers.  But they made cask ales free of tie, simply asking that one Everards beer be stocked on the range.

Now, if you were a bog standard pub that relied mainly on industrial lager (as most of these pubs were before they failed), it doesn’t make much difference.  But if you’re a micro looking for a pub where you can stick six handpulls on the bar to showcase your own beers plus a range of other interesting micros, it’s giving you what you want from a pub with much lower risk and investment than you’d get elsewhere.

There are about twenty Project William pubs now, and they’re all – apart from one uncertainty – booming.  Everards gets the return on its investment from the other drinks.  The micro gets its Brewery tap.  A community gets its pub back.  Everyone wins.

I wrote about Project William in the Cask Report and The Publican.  It’s such a clever idea, the biggest question for me was why no one else had done it, why the big PubCos didn’t take heed.

Well now, someone has.

Thornbridge have worked with Enterprise – one of the two giants of the PubCo world with between 7,000 and 8,000 pubs – before.  The Cricket Inn in Totley is an Enterprise pub, but the leasehold model is not ideal for a brewer with as many great ideas and beers as Thornbridge has.  So brewer and PubCo have been talking about doing things differently.  When Enterprise decided to take a leaf out of Everards book and create a different kind of leasehold, Thornbridge was the first to jump.

The result was the Greystones:

God bless Farrow and Ball.

This was a failed pub in Sheffield called the Highcliffe, a great building that had just become a haunt for local, erm, ‘characters’, the kind of people who spend more money in a toilet cubicle than at the bar.  The refurb was a joint investment – with Enterprise chipping in most of the cash.  Thornbridge are free of tie on ales so they can showcase their range.  Enterprise gets a big pub run by people who know what they are doing.  Sheffield gets yet another amazing craft beer pub, which also has an emphasis on ‘arts and the local community’, with gigs and other events happening regularly.

The Greystones opened on November 3rd.  It sold 3000 pints in its first 48 hours.

So if you’re that ambitious micro, it’s not simply a case of walking up to Enterprise or Everards and saying, “Gizza pub” – they need to be convinced that you have the business acumen to make it work, and that if they pay for a refurb it’s going to pay back.  But if this model catches on – as it surely will – we’re going to see more abandoned pubs revived, and a much greater variety of drinks on British bars.

Hats off to Enterprise – not always the hero in stories about British pubs – for having the vision to do this.    Props to Everards for coming up with the original idea in the first place.  And well done Thornbridge, yet again.

I’ll be doing a Hops & Glory event with a tasting of Thornbridge beers at the Greystones on Thursday 16th December.

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Exclusive: the Euston Tap: A Sneak Preview

When the Sheffield Tap opened almost a year ago, I wrote that it was almost worth getting the train to Sheffield just to sit and have a drink in the station.  Since then, I have done just that.  But now there’s no need: the team behind this wonderful craft beer bar – one of the best in the country – have now repeated their stunning success at Euston Station.
In an audacious and visionary move, Jamie Hawksworth and co – also responsible for the Pivo bar in York – have taken a lease on one of the iconic square Portland stone buildings flanking the front of the station, and made it the Euston Tap.  Yesterday, manager Yan Pilkington invited me for a look around.
London landmark becomes beery destination.
The builders – imported like the management from Sheffield – were still busy when I arrived.  A lobby into the bar area was being erected over the door, and Yan and Jamie were in the cellar struggling with the three pythons that will take the beer into the bar.  Said beer was standing on pallettes outside on the grass, and there was an awful lot of it.  I imagine the guys won’t be getting too much sleep between now and 6pm tomorrow,  Friday 5th November, when the place opens.
Signage will be subtle, to say the least
I love the ambition here.  And while it’s not finished, it already looks stunning.
It’s a small place, but not as small as you’d think if you walk past.  There’s standing room for around 65 downstairs, and then a spiral staircase leads to a second floor where a lounge area will seat up to around another 50.
When you walk in, the main bar itself – like the one in the Sheffield tap – takes your breath away.
Would you like a beer sir?

They’ve gone for the American craft beer bar style, with all the taps coming out of the back wall and nothing on the bar itself.  By opening time, this back bar will be flanked by two fridges, which you’ll be able to walk up to and inspect.

But the main stars are the draught beers.  Expect to encounter beers here that you will never see anywhere else.  The taps will be constantly rotating, and treats lined up for the first couple of months include cask Thornbridge Alliance and Bracia – outstanding, rare beers never seen on tap before – and Coalition, a collaborative brew with Dark Star that has been maturing for two years at Thornbridge.  One cask is coming here, the other is going to the Sheffield Tap, and the rest is going to be bottled – that’s how rare this beer is.  The cask beer selection will at all times include three beers from Thornbridge and three from Marble.
Eight cask ale taps, looking forward to the objections from dinosaurs
There are 19 quality keg beers.  I spotted Bernard’s wonderful unpastuerised lager, Matuska, a rising star from the Czech Republic that blew us beer writers away when we visited recently, Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA, and Stone Pale Ale, to name but a few. In those fridges there’ll be 100 rotating bottles.  Currently these include 60 American craft beers, 30 German and ten from Danish cuckoo brewer Mikkeller.
You have never seen a craft beer selection like this anywhere else.  And Yan insists you won’t be paying through the nose for it either – cask ales start at £2.70.
There’s just one serious flaw.  This is a listed building, and the work that can be done to it is limited.  Which means there is one – ONE – toilet in the entire place, and it’s at the top of the spiral stairs. So remember to go before you get here.
If you’re a craft beer geek already, you will now be reading this already queuing outside the Tap for tomorrow’s opening.  If you’re not, I urge you to get to Euston as quickly as possible to sample some remarkable beers in what will be a wonderful atmosphere.  You’ll never make your train from Euston again.
See you there.

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The Beatles and the Stones

Maybe it’s because they share the same combination of artistry and sociability, maybe it’s because both have the power to intoxicate, or maybe it’s just that one was my passion and obsession before the other came along. But I can’t help seeing constant parallels between the world of brewing and the world of pop and rock music. When I first realized that I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to write about music, and maybe I’m just venting some of that frustrated desire.
I’m not going to describe brewing as the new rock and roll because that would be unforgivable, but the excitement of discovering a new beer, the sense of an underground, an alternative to the mainstream, the hype and buzz that occasionally surround an ‘important’ new release… they’re very similar. If you took away the music analogy and my other favourite – seeing the brewing industry in terms of Monty Python films – I’d struggle to describe how I feel about beer and brewing.With that in mind, I was struck recently by the strongest parallel to date. And it’s this: Thornbridge and Brew Dog are the Beatles and the Stones.In the early sixties, the Beatles and the Stones tore up the blueprint of popular music and redefined it forever. They took established forms – rock and roll, rhythm and blues – and while they showed immense respect for these traditions, they twisted them into brand new shapes.The influence of both is inarguable and still felt today.But the two bands were quite different in the way they came across, and people talked about which they preferred.

Thornbridge Hall just to of shot to the left.

While both were experimental and incredibly popular, the Beatles were seen as clean-cut, nice, cheeky boys who you could take home to meet your mum if you snagged one of them. They rocked the establishment, but there was something wholesome about them. They proved accessible and likeable as well as pioneering and brave.

You can’t go out in Fraserburgh dressed like that, you dangerous young punks!

The Stones on the other hand were more dangerous, more edgy, with more attitude. “Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?” ran the infamous headline. While both bands indulged in mind-altering substances, it was the Stones who were seen as the druggy, edgy band, the real rock and rollers, the Rolls Royce in the swimming pool and the TV out the hotel window.

You could obviously appreciate both, but you probably had a definite preference for one over the other. Thornbridge and Brew Dog are symbiotically linked in my mind because when I first met Thornbridge, Martin Dickie was joint brewer there with Stefano Cossi. Since they went their separate ways they’ve remained on good terms (when I brewed at Thornbridge, the screensaver on the brewery laptop was a big photo of Martin). They’ve developed very similar beers – Martin first explored the wood aging that would lead him to Paradox and beyond with Thornbridge’s wonderful St Petersburg. And Jaipur and Punk IPA are clearly related. A couple of weeks ago, each brewery sent me some beer to try. Brew Dog sent a bottle of Sink the Bismarck! And Thornbridge delivered a few bottles of Jaipur that’s been centrifuged rather than pasteurized and/or cold filtered. This weekend, I tried them both. Both IPAs, both from new wave rock and roll brewers. Jaipur the latest Beatles remix, Sink! the challenging new release from Their Satantic Majesties. I’m actually going to have to discuss the beers in a separate blog post now because there is so much to say about Sink! in particular, so I’ll let this observation – originally intended as an intro to a blog about beer tastings – stand on its own. Please let’s not get into which one of the Bakewell lot is Ringo, and whether James Watt is more Mick Jagger or Andrew Loog Oldham – I don’t want to get down to the personal level (though I’ll give you Martin Dickie as Keith Richards – there’s even a passing physical resemblance to the young Keef). But if the analogy is true, can we extend it? Who is the brewing world’s Simply Red, its Joy Division or Black Lace?

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Sheffield gets a fantastic new pub. As if it didn’t have lots of those already

Day three of “Let’s Be Nice On Pete Brown’s Beer Blog Month” and boy, it’s tough. A real test of will. If I was arrogant enough to believe that people with influence ever read this blog, I could conjure up a fantasy that they were being as annoying as possible simply to try to get me to break my resolve. Naming names would be tantamount to having a go, but from the government through the industry and the media to the blogosphere, Christmas joy seems to have got delayed, stuck behind an enormous cartload of twattishness. I’m rising above it. I will maintain my resolve. I will be nice.

It was very easy to think nice thoughts on Tuesday night. Thornbridge’s latest Joint Venture is with Pivovar – a company that imports foreign beers – and it’s a joy: ladies and Gentlemen, say hello to The Sheffield Tap, Platform One, Sheffield train station.
To paraphrase the immortal John-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a train station without a pub is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.
Sheffield station did have a pub – kind of. In 1904 a set of refreshment rooms was opened for first class passengers. It was beautiful, with tiled walls and a long wooden bar. In 1975 the bar was closed and it was turned into a waiting room. Soon after, it was used for storage. And after that it was closed up, and this listed building was left to rot. The roof fell in, the tiled disappeared behind layers of grime and six-foot drifts of rubbish.
Why Network Rail and their predecessors were perfectly happy to let this happen, to forego the chance of a little goldmine in a beautiful building at a busy city station when they’re continually putting up fares because they don’t have any money, is speculation that will have to wait until after the end of Let’s Be Nice On Pete Brown’s Beer Blog Month. Network Rail were also apparently indifferent to Pivovar’s plans to renovate the place. They have ‘endorsed’ the move, but given little if any practical help.
No matter: Pivovar’s Jamie Hawksworth got in touch with Thornbridge, and between them they’ve created one of the most pleasing bars you’ve ever seen. It combines the grandeur and pride of a classic Victorian architecture, the quiet beer worship of a Belgian cafe and the snug intimacy of a British boozer. Eight Thornbridge Beers on tap, hundreds of bottles from around the world in the fridge, quality Czech lagers, the works.
On the downside there’s one hand drier in the gents that’s like a child’s toy hand drier, and if they don’t put a departures board in there soon I promise you you’ll miss your train. Apart from that, it’s a perfect pub.
(With one slight caveat: apparently, when they got into the place and made their way through the mounds of refuse, on one of the walls was the legend: “Barnsley Skins”. The bar has of course been restored to its original glory but to me this is a vital piece of period detail that has been removed, and I was upset that the guys seemed unwilling for me to scrawl it back on the wall where the big mirror is.)

Thornbridge’s Kelly Ryan, Beerticker movie cameraman Dave, and me – just before it got messy.

It’s only two hours from London to Sheffield, as Simon Webster from Thornbridge kept reminding me. From our house, it’s sometimes touch and go whether I can get to the White Horse in Parson’s Green in that time. The Tap may just be a regular haunt – it’s well worth the travel time.

One bit of advice to anyone thinking of drinking there: if you haven’t done so already, when you discover Raven, the new black IPA from Thornbridge, on no account treat it as a session beer. Your tastebuds will tell you it is. Your beer drinking instincts will tell you it is. If you succumb to these voices you will wish yourself dead the following morning.
Trust me on this.

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The most expensive bottle of beer in the world.

Yup, on Thursday night I enjoyed a bottle of beer that cost me over £1500.

I’m thinking it was karma. As you can see from recent posts, I was having a very good week. Then, it just got better. A review for Hops & Glory in the Times Literary Supplement (sorry – it’s not online) dubbed me “The beer drinker’s Bill Bryson”, an accolade I’ve been not-so-secretly coveting for years because it would look very good on the front cover of the H&G paperback and probably increase its sales.
I was told about the review while en route to Leeds for a reading event in Borders. Before the gig, I visited Zak Avery‘s fantastic shop, Beer Ritz in Headingley. We had a great chat, and I found beers I thought I would never see again, and beers I’d never seen before, and walked out of the shop £65 lighter, a very happy man indeed. And as if things couldn’t get any better, I then realised my oldest mate from uni was on his way to Leeds to watch the Headingley test with his dad. I phoned him, arranged to meet up, and he offered me a ticket to come to the test match with them.
OK, things were getting just a little too nauseatingly perfect.
The reading went well. Sold a few copies. Met a couple of good guys. Later, back in my hotel room, I decided to have a bedtime beer while writing up a few notes.
This is something I’ve done almost every day of my life for at least the last seven years. I have perfectly normal motor skills – I wasn’t brilliant at sport at school, but neither am I noted for being particularly clumsy. So it came as a total shock when, after placing my beer carefully on its coaster, while bringing my hand back to the keyboard I clipped the top of the glass and neatly poured about 250ml of beer into my pretty damn new (last November) MacBook Pro.
The weird thing is – two days before, Mrs PBBB had done exactly the same thing to a different MacBook Pro with a cup of coffee. She phoned the Mac technician she uses and he told her to turn off the power immediately, turn it upside down and rest it on something absorbent. She did. That MacBook now works fine, albeit with slightly sticky keys. I remembered this, and immediately did the same.
But before he told her to do this, he asked one very important question: did the coffee have sugar in it? The circuitry could cope fine with water, but sugar was fatal.
And so we come to the beer in question.
Thornbridge Alliance PX Reserve 2007 is an 11% barley wine brewed at Thornbridge in collaboration with Garrett Oliver. Brew Day was 18 hours long because they had to do two mashes to get the gravity up high enough, and the fermentation was explosive. After brewing, this particular bottle was aged in vintage sherry casks for a year. As far as I knew, it was no longer on sale anywhere, and then, there it was on Zak’s shelf. I gladly paid my £7 for a bottle, knowing I would probably never have the opportunity to do so again.
This was a very expensive, very rare beer. It was also a beer with a very high level of residual sugar contributing to its wonderfully rich, mellow, complex, flavour.
I guess at least my MacBook Pro died in style.
The next morning that wonderful residual sugar had gummed up my circuitry and turned my laptop – my fifth limb, my life, my career, my window on the world – into a frozen, dead piece of beautiful brushed aluminium. I’m told I can probably get the info off my hard drive so if anyone is reading this to whom I owe work, I should be back online in a day or two. But I’m writing this on my new MacBook Pro, bought yesterday. It brings the true cost of my bottle of Thornbridge Alliance PX Reserve to £1632.
And of course, England’s performance on the first day of the test completed the restoration of karmic balance in the universe after what had been an absurdly good week.
From now on, I’m writing tasting notes by hand at the kitchen table, and typing them up later.
Remember – always drink responsibly.