Before the UK went into lockdown, I made the trip from York, down to Steel City for the weekend to see what beer Sheffield had on offer. Having previously been to a Tiny Rebel Takeover in the city and several trips to pubs around Tramlines festival, I was looking forward to delving into Sheffield’s beer scene a little more. Following a bit of reading around places to head, there was one choice that stood out amongst the rest, a visit to Kelham Island Brewery to take part in their brewery tour.
Built in 1990, the Kelham Island Brewery was originally the brewing arm of the city’s famous Fat Cat public house on Alma Street. Over time, as breweries in Sheffield have come and gone, this brewery has continued a modest expansion to where it is today. Before I head into my views on the visit, a quick background into the beers produced by this historic brewery.
There is a core range of five beers that Kelham Island pride themselves on, two of which were available on the day, Pale Rider, a 5.2% Pale Ale and Kelham Best, a 3.8% bitter; I’ll go into detail on these later. The other three core beers are as expected; another pale ale by the name of Easy Rider, a classic 4% bitter Pride of Sheffield and an amber ale seen across Sheffield, the 4.5% Riders on the Storm. On average, across all beers on Untappd, the brewery has a rating of 3.44/5, signalling a range of solid, yet largely uninspiring brews, and that is something the brewery seems to pride itself on. On the tour it was made clear the purpose of the brewery is to brew drinkable ales, rather than break boundaries with ABV and flavours. That being said, I was excited to try the three on offer that day.
Now, I must say, if anyone is reading this in place of Trip Advisor, it needs to be pointed out that the Kelham Island Brewery Tour, is much more an unlimited beer tasting session, with a short tour attached to it. On arrival, we were sat down at large tables and the first jug of Kelham Best made it’s way onto tables. Unsure of what was happening we initially rationed our drinking but as soon as the jug emptied, we were presented with another jug. This didn’t stop for the entire three hours we were there and following a substantial Pie and Peas lunch, we left the building full of food and beer.
The tour itself was as long and in depth as it could have been. There was a short walk from the Loft bar we started in to the brewery. From there there were four rooms shown to us; I hold the mantra one you’ve done one brewery tour you’ve done them all, but it’s always good to pick up on the small nuances and differences between brewhouses. At Kelham, what stood out to me was how hands on the brewers are and just how much they manage to produce in such a small space. With the Fat Cat still looming over the brewery, it was refreshing to hear how integrated they still are in the local community. Our tour guide was funny and gave a real insight into how the small brewery operates day to day.
As mentioned, three beers were available to drink in the three hours, kicking off with the classic Kelham Best (Untappd Rating: 3.35). Billed as a classic Amber Ale, this one did exactly as it said on the label. The first glass was a challenge, but that was 98% down to the hangover me and my mate were nursing on arrival, but following a few glasses, it became a highly drinkable beer. The reactions around our table of 12 were pretty resounding, it was a beer we were all happy to drink on the day, but when placed amongst other leading ales, we probably wouldn’t choose it over some others. These views though are challenged by many across Untappd and it’s clear that it’s a drinkable beer that’s popular in the city. It became evident our table were more pale ale minded drinkers too so maybe the criticism was harsh but overall, the assessment was that Kelham Best was good, but it wasn’t going to make any lists of best beers in Britain any time soon. Judging it for what it is though, a classic amber ale, you have to say they’ve nailed it.
Next up was the one we were all looking forward to on our table, Pale Rider (Untappd Rating: 3.5), a 5.2% ABV pale ale. It was an interesting one; a “pale ale” in 2020, is very different to what a pale ale was in 2015, or 2010 and going back further you get my point, and with Pale Rider, it was clear that this was more of an early 10s Pale rather than a pale ale for 2020. What I mean by that is if you ordered it in a bar, you’d be expecting highly hoppy, lots of gas, and ice cold (think Camden Pale), but this was more of a golden pale, perfect on cask and much flatter than a typical pale in this decade. It certainly didn’t feel 5.2%, it went down very comfortably, and six or seven jugs later, I think our table had consumed more than enough Pale Rider to last a lifetime. In its heyday, I imagine Pale Rider was one of the dominant pale ales available on the market, and it has indeed won awards, but again like Kelham Best, it felt a little dated, almost too traditional for me. As a beer drinker who loves my ekaunot and chinook hops, pale ales of this style often miss the mark, but I did find myself drinking the equivalent of about four pints of it and it became much better the more I drank of it.
As well as the core beers Kelham Brewery produces, every quarter they have an exciting range of special beers on offer throughout the months, we had the chance to drink their latest at the time Bête Noire (Untappd Rating: 3.68), a 5.5% stout, brewed with a trio of roasted malts which did give off a strong chocolate aroma and I have to say, as far as the three beers we had on the day were concerned, this was comfortably the best brewed beer. It was silky, smooth and packed a lot of flavour into a 5.5% stout. I’m not personally a big stout drinker, and if I were to reach for any it’d be a lactose heavy milk stout, or a Guinness, so I can’t compare this properly, but as a standalone, it stood out versus the two core beers. The Untappd rating indicates that too and they should maybe consider a beer of this style in their core range moving forward.
It might seem that at times I’ve been negative in this write up. I did enjoy the experience don’t get me wrong, but there came a moment where the unlimited beer did kind of devalue the experience in a way. I was sat there with my mate, genuinely complaining at the amount of beer and felt I was being ridiculous; but that feeling was largely down to the labelling of the experience. What I love about a brewery tour is learning about the beers, what inspired the name, the artwork and the brewing of each, followed by a little taste of each; whereas this was more like a 3 hour drinking session with a tour attached (not complaining at that either!). I didn’t learn anything about each beer and left a little disappointed I’d not prompted more questions. Value for money? Absolutely. Good beers? Yeah they were solid and drinkable. But if you’re expecting an enriching brewery experience where you learn about the brewery and beers, this maybe isn’t one for you.
The Beers Ranked
1. Pale Rider – Pale Ale – 5.2% ABV
2. Bete Noire – Stout – 5.5% ABV
3. Kelham Best – English Bitter – 3.8% ABV