Things are certainly not easy at the moment in the world of pubs and beers, but even amidst a difficult and uncertain backdrop, it is heartening to discover that there are still some good news stories....
We have become used to hearing about pubs and breweries closing down (only in the past couple of days it has emerged that long-established Cornish brewers Skinners have called in the administrators), but even in these difficult times there are still some good news stories about that lift the spirits and gladden the heart. In the last few days, news broke that a much-loved brewery that had closed earlier in the year has been bought and will start brewing again, whilst I have been along to a couple of pubs that for different reasons had closed, but have re-opened in recent months, reinvigorated and raring to go.
Shockwaves were felt across Sheffield and way beyond the South Yorkshire city when the closure of the much-loved Kelham Island Brewery due to financial pressures was announced in May. The brewery, set up by Dave Wickett at the back of the Fat Cat pub in 1990 was the first new brewery in Sheffield this century. Over the following years it had a massive influence on both the local scene and far beyond, with their hoppy, and dangerously drinkable 5.2% flagship pale ale, Pale Rider, winning Champion Beer of Britain in 2004. Many breweries opened in Sheffield set up by former employees of Kelham Island leading the city to have a thriving brewing community which continues to this day, whilst several miles south in Derbyshire, the roots of Thornbridge Brewery can be traced back to a Kelham Island connection. It seems that one day Dave Wickett went to see his mate Jim Harrison who had just moved in to the somewhat rundown Thornbridge Hall a few miles north of Bakewell. He noticed an old stable block and joked that it would be a great site for a brewery. After much discussion, the idea took shape, with the Kelham Island owner thinking it would be ideal for extra brewing capacity. He interviewed and took on two young guys fresh out of brewing school, Stefano Cossi, and Martin Dickie, the latter who would eventually go on to found Brewdog. Both were enthusiastic about New World hop varieties which in the early 2000's were little known in this country. As Thornbridge's beers, making use of those New World hops, became increasingly popular, with their flagship strong ale Jaipur becoming a serial award winner, Dave Wickett had to re-think where to get that extra capacity and thus ended up building a new brewery!
And so, when news broke a few days ago that Kelham Island was to brew again, it was somehow very fitting and symmetrical that two members of the consortium were from Thornbridge Brewery. One of them was Dave Wickett's old mate Jim Harrison and with his colleague Simon Webster, they had been pulled together by Jamie O'Hara, founder of the city's Tramlines Festival and venue owner along with his financial analyst brother Tom, creative studio owner Peter Donohoe, and Ben Rymer, marketing manager of beer festival organisers We Are Beer. With the Kelham Island brewery on Alma Street requiring restoration - the kit was sold off when the business closed - the first brews will be produced at Thornbridge. The first pour of Pale Rider will fittingly take place on lunchtime, Thursday 19th October at the Fat Cat, and it will then be available that evening at the Sheffield Beer Festival at the Kelham Island Museum next door, before going out to the general trade the following week.
|The Fat Cat, Sheffield...where it all began for Kelham Island Brewery|
Meanwhile last weekend, closer to home I visited the re-furbished Star at Folly Hall in Huddersfield (opening picture). Earlier this year the pub had been badly damaged when blocked drains backed up and flooded the cellar. The pub has always been a real community pub with a loyal band of regulars, and when the extent of the damage became clear, several mucked in to help landlady Sam sort out the mess and eventually, after a gargantuan effort, the cellar was cleared, cleaned up, and made fit for purpose again. Whilst the pub was closed as the damp cellar was drying out, the interior was given a makeover and I have to say the results are very impressive. The Star is fairly understated from the outside, but was always comfortable inside, a real community pub in a predominantly industrial area. I walked in on a damp early evening, having walked down Chapel Hill from the town centre, and was immediately struck by the warm and cosy feel. The pile on the carpet was thick and there was a welcoming whiff of woodsmoke emanating from a log burner. Several people were sat around in nooks and corners, whilst a few were sat on stools at the bar.
The Star has always been known for featuring an eclectic range of beers from small breweries up and down the country in and amongst two or three regular beers from the likes of Pictish and near neighbours, Mallinsons, and on this, my first visit since pre-lockdown, I was glad to see that tradition has been maintained. I recognised the guy behind the bar from previous visits, and after surveying the available beers, I settled on a pint of Comet, a 3.8% pale ale from the Crankshaft Brewery from Leyland in Lancashire, whose beers I had never come across before. It was very good, and whilst I hadn't really come here on this visit with a view to scoring the beers, if you asked me, I would say it was worth a NBSS rating of 4. Next up I went for a pint of Blonde Protagonist from Alter Ego, who brew in a 2.5 barrel plant in Heanor in Derbyshire. This was another brewery I had not encountered before, but it was another good one, another NBSS 4 rating, a 4.3% hoppy pale. I had a nice chat with Tim, the guy behind the bar, with one or two of the customers joining in for a time. I had a final half before I left - I was calling in at Mallinsons Brewery on their latest open day - and I opted for a glass of Kerala, a 4.2% Session IPA from Distant Hills, the crafty offshoot of Howard Town Brewery from Glossop. That was also very enjoyable, very sessionable (NBSS 3.5).
Before I left, I asked Sam if I could take a few pictures to capture the fine makeover the Star has been given. It really does look very comfortable and welcoming, and it seems to have gone down very well with the regulars who come here for the fine beers and conversation. It was good to go back, and whilst it was a convenient place to stop for a pint on my way home from work when I was based in Hyde, particularly when our Tom was living in Lockwood, I am not passing by on a regular basis these days. But this visit showed it is well worth making the extra effort and I look forward to calling in again soon. Particularly if the beer is as good as it was on this visit. The Star used to be a Good Beer Guide regular, but like so many well-pubbed towns and areas of the country, it has tended to miss out in recent years due to the number of available slots in the area, but it definitely should be in the running based on this visit. Great to see that The Star has come back better than ever after its enforced closure.
Now another pub that has reopened even closer to where I live has, unlike The Star, no particular tradition of offering real ale and whilst an occasional visit over the years might have revealed a solitary hand pump in use, the odds would more likely be stacked against it. Set at the crossroads in the middle of the village of Hipperholme, a mile or two to the east of Halifax, The Whitehall, which had for many years been a Websters house, had in later years become somewhat sad and neglected as often happens in the hands of pubco's to whom a pub can simply be just another property on a list. The pub did have a regular customer base, but in the period after lockdown, it had spent most of the time closed, and the customers subsequently moved on. The Whitehall had been up to let for several months, and then one day I was having a pint in The Crafty Fox in Brighouse when an old friend of mine, Dave Kelly, came in for a pint with a mate, who it turned out was his business partner, Doddy. Dave, who is originally from Chesterfield, has run several pubs over the years, and during the course of the conversation, he mentioned they were in the process of acquiring the lease for The Whitehall, and were planning to turn it into a real ale pub.
Fast-forward several months, and after some extensive work and refurbishment, the Whitehall finally re-opened in July, now known as The Hop Monkey at The Whitehall, to give it its full name. The pub has been pretty much gutted, and a new bar has been put in. To the right as you go in, there is a comfortable seating area, whilst to the left and throughout the rest of the main room are a number of wooden barrels with stools. Wooden flooring has been fitted throughout, and an old fireplace has been opened up, which on my most recent visit on a damp, chilly autumnal evening was throwing out plenty of welcome heat from the wood burner. The walls feature several pieces of artwork from Dave himself, and there is even a photo on display that he took a few years back featuring yours truly! Beyond the bar is a conservatory and the main attraction in here is a couple of football tables which always seem to be in use when I've called in. But a word of warning...if Dave asks if you want a game, beware, he is very good at it; when a mate and I took him up on the challenge, he beat the two of us 9-1...on his own!
Meanwhile on the bar, 10 hand pumps are in position, although the number of beers on at any one time tends to be a more realistic 6. Amongst the beers, there are usually 3 from Kirkstall, which tend to be Three Swords, Jasper - the hazy pale brewed with different hops from brew to brew - and Black Band Porter. All have been in excellent condition when I have called in. There is also a pump which seems to be used for beers from a different brewery each time, which has featured the likes of Vocation, Mobberley, and Black Iris. For the more traditional drinker, Dave has sourced beers from the Cooper Hill Brewery in Morley (whose head brewer coincidentally lives in the village), with Cooper Hill Best, a 3.8% bitter, and Timmy's Tipple, a 3.7% blonde ale, proving to be popular. There are also several keg lines, with beers from such as Kirkstall, Beavertown, and the excellent North Wales brewers Polly's regularly available, with premium lagers from Veltins and Bavo.
|A warm welcome at The Hop Monkey...Dave and his wife Sue|
The pub has a lovely welcoming feel to it and has managed to attract many customers back after a first, curious visit. And it has been great to see several friends who have started calling in here that I hadn't seen since before lockdown. From a personal point of view, it is great to have another decent pub with a good choice of beers almost on my doorstep, but for those of you from further afield, if you are passing through the area, it is well worth a visit. It has taken a lot of hard work over the past few months to get The Hop Monkey to where it is now, and I wish Dave, Sue, and Doddy all the best for the future.
So, there we have it. Three completely different operations - a much-loved brewery being brought back to life, a true community real ale pub that seems to have come back stronger than ever, and a former pubco property that has been re-invented as a real ale pub. Different, yes, but similar in that each has a positive story to tell....
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