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Tapping into the Zeitgeist – a dozen crafty breweries doing it for themselves on site

I seem to spend far more time in taprooms than actual pubs. Only the other day, in Manchester, I popped into Bundobust Brewery to sample their new Bombay Sandwich-led menu with a couple of in-house beer pairings, naturally, then sashayed the 300 metres down Oxford Road to check out the beer and bar formula at the new North taproom. This latest outlet of the Leeds brewery of that name opened a couple of weeks ago, but rail strikes and Biblical downpours deterred me from trekking in.

It was worth the wait, but does North’s count as a taproom proper? Perhaps we play a little fast and loose with the definition. Surely a taproom has to be an on-site bar in the brewery whose beers it pours? North now have a string of venues, but the taproom proper, in this pedant’s eyes, is at their Springwell production base alongside the brewing vessels.

After this nit-picking let’s salute the Age of the Taproom. No longer just a rickety bar and a fridge servicing some garden furniture among the mash tuns, in the teeth of a chilly blast whipping through an arch’s open doorway. 

Not that I’m knocking this prototype, habitually offering great beer at source. It’s just that some serious, and seriously brave, investment has also gone on of late. Trading up or key part of a fresh new package, they draw me in.

I’m not alone in being a devotee of those lavishly illustrated online compendiums (compendia?) of the world’s most beautiful independent bookshops or libraries. Lit porn, let’s call this fetish. From my own experience, nowhere beats the Livraria Lello & Irmão in Porto, with an honourable mention for Manchester’s own Portico Library. I’m biased there, though, as a card-carrying member.

Now I have a new crush. The other day social media granted me a peek at Wiper and True’s new Old Market taproom (above) in Bristol and I was smitten. No one’s going to recreate the look of  those palatial, ornate Victorian city pubs, even less centuries-old thatched and beamed country inns. But in the 2020s there’s a stream of spectacular (yet functional) taprooms created by the new wave craft breweries. 

The hypothesis is simple – when there’s a dwindling number of outlets for your wares in a competitive market invite your customers around to your place. Taste all the latest beers, meet the folk behind them, support the brand. Maybe grab a bite from the current street food operation in residency. Wood-fired pizza fuels that US bar-room feel.

Still with one UK brewery going under each week due to financial pressure (that’s according to my pal, Pete Brown, doyen of beer writers) a taproom can be a scary investment. I was shocked when ultra-cool Wild Beer Co went into administration recently, their planned, crowdfunded showcase mothballed for too long.

While I was compiling for Manchester Confidential (in tandem with staff writer Davey Brett) a piece on the city’s mooted ‘Piccadilly Beer Mile’ and its legacy (parts one, two and three) a mood of optimism against the odds was evident. Below I’ve widened my net to pick out some favourite taps across the land.

North Brewery, Leeds

Let me kick off my tap bucket list with the aforementioned Springwell, set in a former tannery along post-industrial Buslingthorpe Lane. North only unveiled their new site in November 2020, moving a mile up the road from the original brewery they had launched in 2015. Softy, softly. The brewing arrived a full 18 years after founders John Gyngell Christian Townsley had opened North Bar in town, arguably the UK’s first craft beer bar proper, but everything they have done has been worth the wait. Springwell has now doubled brewing capacity and created an airy taproom and beer garden, James Ooi’s formidable Little Bao Boy dishing up the ballast.

What to drink: ‘Transmission’, North’s signature tropical and piney IPA – East Coast meets West Coast.

Northern Monk, Leeds

Earlier than North they established a bar presence in Manchester but atmosphere-wise it’s not a patch on the original ‘Refectory’ above the brewery in The Old Flax Store of Marshall’s Mill, Holbeck. From Monk’s inception in 2014 the brewing operation and taproom worked in tandem, linked by founder Russell Bisset’s cute take on the traditional monkish bond with beer. I feel rival North has overtaken them in both profile and overall beer quality, but the bare brick taproom is still a sweet, off-the-beaten track spot to linger in. Yet it’s just a 10 minute walk from Leeds train station.

What to drink: Worship their decadent annual ‘Heaven’ – just the 12.5 per cent, featuring maple syrup, chocolate and vanilla, and aged in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels.

SALT Beer Factory, Saltaire

An old tram shed is home to this offshoot of Ossett Brewery but with its own distinctive, craftier range helmed by Colin Stronge. I know him from his time at Marble in Manchester before a peripatetic journey involving Black Isle, Buxton and, yes, Northern Monk, but it is his inspirational work at SALT that won him UK Brewer of the Year before Christmas. The £1.7 million micro-brewery opened up in October 2018. Its actual tap among the equipment only opens at weekends, but the Salt Bar + Kitchen at the front is open seven days a week, its wood-fired pizzas heartily recommended (my tip: the Moroccan lamb).

What to drink: ‘Tram Double New England IPA’. Not the obvious link, it’s a beer name-checked for a double twisted silk thread weaving term. Expect a lot of USA and New Zealand hops in the mix.

Verdant, near Falmouth 

Just the 400 miles from Saltaire, West Yorkshire to Penryn, Cornwall and the shiny new home of one of the UK’s great pioneers of US-style hop-driven beers. These hazy IPA  specialists were founded in Falmouth proper eight years go, but the swanky new state of the art brewery and taproom is four miles upstream in Penryn, the original port when Falmouth was just a marshy foreshore. It’s a 20 minute suburban trek to Verdant from Penryn Station. Well worth it; the interior is spectacular and, guess what?, there’s some toothsome wood-fired pizza.

What to drink: ‘Even Sharks Need Water’. Juicy hop and yeast driven  NE IPA that tastes of sherbet refresher sweets with lashings of peppery mango, lemon and grapefruit.  Smooth, full and fun to drink! That’s the brewery blurb, but they’re not wrong.

St Mars of the Desert, Sheffield

And back to God’s Country and the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire. Here in the former industrial heartland of Attercliffe, surrounded by ranks of contemporary factories/depots, you’ll find an unshiny taproom that’s so old school it has inkwells. Well, not quite, but you get my drift, as soon as you penetrate the picket fence, bearing the sign “Please don’t let Grimbold the dog out”. This brewery specialise in “hoppy koelship beers, foeder-soured stingos, rustic lagers, deep malty dark beers and Benelux-inspired creations”, according to their website. Koelship? Pronounced cool ship, it’s a long, slender, open top stainless steel vessel akin to those traditional Flemish/Dutch koelschips, originally made of wood, whose high surface-to-mass ratio allows for more efficient cooling of the wort in the brewing process. Full details in this report. Whatever, SMOD is a quirky, civilised boozing bolthole. The taproom will re-open in March 2023. 

What to drink: ‘Jack d’Or’ Belgian-style saison. Originally conceived at the Pretty Things brewery in Boston, original project of SMOD duo Dann Paquette and Martha Holley-Simpson.

Rivington, north of Bolton 

Let’s stay pretty rustic at a farm-based brewery that initially suffered profile-wise because it was just outside Greater Manchester. Ben Stubbs and his farmer brother-in-law Mick Richardson launched their brewery in 2014 next to the dairy operation and hilltop camping site with a spectacular view of Rivington reservoirs and Winter Hill that is now shared with the beer garden. The ‘taproom’ is a converted barn and find the marquee a more copacetic drinking hole, especially when the site is hosting the annual ‘Farm Trip’ festival. Dough ‘n’ Co are in residence serving burgers from Wednesday to Sunday and pizzas from 4pm Friday and all weekend.

What to drink: ‘tI has to be ‘Never Known Fog Like It’, a 5.2 per cent New England pale ale, whose success was instrumental in giving up his day job. Hazy and hopped with Citra, Mosaic, Simcoe and Chinook, it never fails to charm.

Wylam, Newcastle

Palace of the Arts is a posh address for a brewery. Factor in its tap serves Sunday roasts as well as burgers and is shortly hosting gigs by the likes of Kula Shaker and Mr Scruff and you realise what a unique venue this is even before you get stuck into the delicious range of beers brewed there. The Grade listed building in parkland was originally constructed for the Great North East Exhibition of 1929. Former music promoter Dave Stone has been the driving force since the brewery, once a run of the mill cask operation, moved into the Palace in 2016.

What to drink: Again let’s stick with the standard bearer, ‘Jakehead’, the first IPA the brewery ever created. Brewer Ben Wilkinson is proud of its mix of British malt character and a tropical US take.

Runaway, Stockport

After almost a decade in an arch on Manchester’s Dantzic Street, Mark Welsby’s pioneering craft operation, is currently moving to a sizeable new home in Stockport, so the taproom like the brewery and barrel store – is still very much a work in progress. When it opened as a pop-up (with pizza from the redoubtable Honest Crust) for three weekends before Christmas the response of local was ecstatic. Reassuring in troubled economic times, for Mark, who told me: “Taproom ambitions are key to the move. We’ll offer a food menu. The scene is not just about craft beer any more. Natural wine, proper cider, small plates all have their place at the table. We’ll have space for barrel ageing, too. More control over our destiny. If it doesn’t work, then it’s all down to us.”

What to drink: I’m tempted to recommend ‘Yuzu Sour’. based on a classic Berliner Weisse but substituting pure Japanese citrus for the usual sugar syrups, but with winter still engulfing us will plump for Runaway’s American Brown Ale. another transatlantic hybrid, robust British maltiness mating with Yankee pine and grapefruit pithiness.

Sureshot, Manchester

Even James Campbell, Manchester brewing royalty (Marble and Cloudwater) must be surprised at the rapturous reception for his new post-Pandemic project across the UK. Alongside a raft of playfully conceived and marketed hop-driven brews he has leapt in with a taproom that’s boldly open six days a week. It’s twice the size of the brewery next door in an arch once home to Track. The tap manager is Lucy Clarke, whose CV includes Cloudwater, Siren and bottle shop Epicurean. Draught cocktails (and mead from a member of the team) add to the jollity.

What to drink: A hard choice with such a hyperactive list so let’s go with the latest offering, a New England IPA,’Have Thee Nowt Moist?’, accompanied by the ‘dry’  wit of the Campbell spiel: “Our first (proper) release of the year is this worthy knight, questing for moisture in a land of dryness. Dripping with Bru-1 Lupomax, Citra BBC & Galaxy hops, pineapple and citrus joust for the favour of thy taste buds. Henceforth, this January shall be known as Moist January! As we banish the dry and embrace the damp.”

Track, Manchester

It’s not the right time of year to enjoy the large suntrap garden, but the stylish taproom itself, open six days a week, is dazzling and airy, a stunning repository of craft (and cask) curated by bar manager Dev Parmar. The current food pop-up from Greek specialists Taka Taka Mam is also worth the 15 minute trek up from Piccadilly. Ask for their epic ‘Zeus Platter’. Dog and family friendly, it’s a haven for cyclists too. The project was inspired by a two year round the world cycle ride by founder Sam Dyson where he discovered the craft breweries and taprooms of the States. Staying active, Track also offers its own running club, One Foot Forward (at the end of the 5km run there’s a welcoming glass).

What to drink: Sessionable pale ale Sonoma is the signature beer, particularly appealing in the cask version, but Track also excel in the stronger DIPAs. Try the new version of Sea of Stars, 8 per cent,100 per cent fresh Nelson Sauvin hops, so all resinous fruit on reamy base of pilsner malt, oats and wheat.

Torrside, New Mills

‘Eclectic’ doesn’t do justice to the range at this special place tucked away by the canal in a Derbyshire mill town. Smoked and barrel-aged beers are the speciality of this operation set up in 2015 by a trio of home brewers (one of them a Japanese translator). The taproom opening is sporadic. The next one is Friday, March 25 and Saturday, March 26. For the rest of the 2023 dates visit this link and look out for their annual Smokefest festival, which is what it says on the bottle. They even offer smoked snacks – cheeses, meats, nuts and tea cakes!

What to drink: Any of the ‘Dogs of War’ series in sharing bottle (you don’t have to share). To encourage a snooze on the train ride home perhaps go for the ‘Swiss Guard Sighthound Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Porter’ (10.5 per cent).

Bundobust Brewery, Manchester

Back to where we started in quest of a Bombay Sandwich. For the record this exotic toastie, available 12pm-4pm every day bar Saturday, is filled with potato and spinach, green chutney, red onion, tomato and vegan Cheddar, seasoned with chaat masala and served with sambhar. The combo of Gujarati vegan/veggie snacks and craft beer has been the group’s big selling point since the original Bundobust opened in Leeds in 2014. The Manchester Piccadilly branch followed a couple of years later, ahead of the Bundo Brewery ambitions being finally realised in September 2021. A basement of the city’s Grade II-listed St James Building has been transformed into a US brewpub style integrated brewing facility and bar dining room. Both Manchester venues stare up into a great glass atrium and share quirky design touches. Here each chair is made from 40 recycled plastic water bottles, while school-style desks have been repurposed into beer hall-style tables, complete with “I Woz ‘Ere” etchings.

What to drink: Brewer Dan Hocking, once of Holland’s world-renowned Uiltje Brewery, has been very active in collabs with other breweries, including a dark mild with Thornbridge, but the perfect match for the spicy food offering is the in-house, 4.8 per cent Dhania Pilsner with its hit of citrusy toasted coriander seeds.