Britain's Best Beer City

It's not just all struggling football teams, music and steel, Sheffield is the best beer city in the UK.
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It's not just all struggling football teams, music and steel, Sheffield is the best beer city in the UK.

Beer on tap...at the Tap

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Arrive by train in Sheffield and its current credential as the best place to guzzle beer in the UK is immediately announced on Platform 1. The Sheffield Tap is an inspirational introduction to the seriousness with which folk hereabouts treat their beer. Until last autumn it was a closed former station bar with venerable pub fittings falling into decay, rotting timbers, broken windows and graffiti from the 1970s era of football hooligans still visible (sadly, ‘Barnsley Skins Rool Ok’ has not been kept as a historical curiosity).

Enter now and you’re faced with an array of taps dispensing cask beer (eight hand pumps) and classy European beers (and I’m not talking San Miguel or Becks), plus a hearty selection of bottled beers. The Tap opened in late 2009, a joint venture between Thornbridge Brewery (based in Bakewell) and Pivo Café Bars, who have an outlet in York. Time spent in the Tap is an essential alpha and omega to any Sheffield beer hunt. Here Thornbridge’s crisp and fruity lightly coloured bitter Kipling can rouse and raise the most jaded of palates, while its lusciously peachy IPA — Jaipur — is a voluptuous hop bomb. All this and you’ve not even hit the streets.

After the Tap, take the trail. The so-called ‘real ale trail’ meanders like a river through the mean streets of Sheffield. Pick it up in the area of Kelham Island, once a home to industry, now busily being developed into a place where local yuppies can lay down roots. It’s ten minutes on foot from the station. Two pubs stand in two streets, two minutes walk between them.

The Fat Cat is home to the Kelham Island Brewery, set up by Sheffield beer hero Dave Wickett in 1990 (the pub came earlier). The Cat stands alone, a tall Victorian building, the brewery at the back. Inside, there are several rooms, comfortably furnished, decorated with beer memorabilia. Nine cask beers, foreign beers on draught and in bottle and robust English pub food, provide a handsome attraction. The brewery’s fragrant golden ale Pale Rider is a former Champion Beer of Britain, but I always plump for the assertive bitter Best Bitter.

Round the corner is the Kelham Island Tavern. Traditional is the word that leaps to mind on entering. The bar has the feel of a large and comfortable front parlour with plush cushioned chairs and heavy wood furniture. Built in the 1830s, it’s the sole survivor of a row of terraces that housed the workers for the local steel industry. Nearly a dozen cask beers are offered up. A particular favourite is Acorn’s Barnsley Bitter, a full-bodied intensely bitter drop.

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Sheffield used to be a brewing capital but the big guys shut their doors one by one. Now, along with the Kelham Island Brewery, the craft guys are making their way back (there are six micros). At Crown Brewery Stuart Ross is the man with the mash, a passionate chap whose beers include a ferociously hopped IPA and the infamous Ring of Fire, a barley wine with chilli in the mix. He’s based at the Hillsborough Hotel, a large roomy place ideal for a base when investigating Sheffield.

Elsewhere? The Devonshire Cat is a large open-planned bar with a dozen cask beer taps, popular with students. Compactness is the key to the appeal of the Bath Hotel, a venerable two-room establishment with good ales and an atmospheric interior that harks back to the 1930s. Or you might want to travel to the southern limits of the city, to Totley, where the Cricket Inn is a wonderful semi-rural haunted pub offering Thornbridge’s peerless beers and good grub (the chips are worth the rise in cholesterol).

And if you ever get bored with Sheffield, then Derby (the Brunswick for starters) and Leeds (North Bar for beer and good vibes) await, but for the moment the beer crown sits easily on the head of Sheffield’s beer god.

Adrian Tierney-Jones is the writer of  '1001 Beers You Must Taste Before You Die', click below to buy. Also, read Adrian's blog at maltworms.blogspot.com.