beer reviews

(A version of) Kelham Island Pale Rider lives

Sheffield’s Kelham Island brewery is important. Last year, it looked as if it was going to disappear, until it was saved, and the Pale Rider is riding again.

For two weekends in a row, we’ve been able to find Pale Rider on cask at The Llandoger Trow in central Bristol. And drinking it has made us think about it.

The press release about the saving of the brewery was light on practical detail. A few months on, the story seems to be that it’s being brewed by Thornbridge, at Thornbridge, in Derbyshire.

The pump-clip doesn’t say that, though. In fact, it states very clearly MADE IN SHEFFIELD. There’s a little local consternation about this fact, if our social media replies are anything to go by.

But Thornbridge is a Sheffield brewery at heart, despite its location, and Kelham Island and Thornbridge were always tangled up with each other.

Digging through the notes of our interview with Thornbridge’s Simon Webster back in 2013, for Brew Britannia, we find this:

In August 2004, Kelham Island Pale Rider won the Champion Beer of Britain. We started brewing in October 2004 and, at first, we were helping Dave with the sudden demand for his beer. We were brewing once a week for Kelham Island, which was more often than we were brewing our own!

So this version of Pale Rider is perfectly authentic in its own way.

Here are some tasting notes on Pale Rider 2023: crisp, clean, classic 1990s citrus hop flavours; plus a certain round peachiness that comes with being 5.2% rather than 4 point something.

Everything we remember, in short, from drinking it frequently in and around Sheffield more than a decade ago, and on rare occasions since.

You can see how a beer like this won Champion Beer of Britain. You can see why Michael Jackson listed in his 500 Great Beers. You can certainly see how it played a part in spawning an entire sub-style – pale’n’hoppy, if you like, or the ‘juicy banger’.

But perhaps there’s a bit of Thornbridge there too, now? Maybe it’s even a bit better than when we last tasted it, in 2018, or at least more to our taste.

Clean and peachy. Those are two words we associate with Thornbridge beers.

But perhaps all we have to do is think of Thornbridge, or see the name in the small print, and those qualities pop into our heads.

If so, good for Thornbridge. That’s a good, powerful brand, that.

Now, let’s hope that either production moves back to Sheffield, maintaining the current high quality, or that ‘Brewed by Thornbridge in Derbyshire’ pops up on the pump-clip.

We don’t want a localised version of The Soul of Madrid, do we?

Beer history breweries

Kelham Island Family Tree (beta)

Snapshot of the Kelham Island Brewery Family Tree


When we put together our Thornbridge Brewery ‘Rock Family Tree’ a while ago, several people responded with suggestions that we do the same for Kelham Island. Then, last month, we heard the sad news of the death of Kelham Island’s founder, Dave Wickett (and read tributes from Simon ‘Reluctant Scooper’ Johnson, Melissa Cole, Adrian Tierney-Jones and Pete Brown).

That spurred us on and, with help from Stuart Ross, a former head brewer at Kelham Island, now working his magic at, er, Magic Rock, we’ve put together a first cut. We also referred to some old Kelham Island newsletters and Linkedin, which is great source of information on brewers’ CVs. (Though it makes you feel like a stalker.)

Our first thoughts: this format doesn’t quite capture all that Dave Wickett did for beer and brewing. He’s there in the first box as the first head brewer at Kelham Island, but his role as owner was more than just ‘money man’. The consulting, advising and encouraging he did is also not recorded.

Nonetheless, it shows how many brewers passed through Kelham Island and, when put side by side with the Thornbridge chart, the strands connecting Britain’s breweries do become more obvious.

Corrections and suggestions welcome! Off you go.

beer festivals

CAMRA Kernow Festival, Falmouth

Detail from the logo of CAMRA Kernow

Having moved to Penzance proper from a village a few weeks ago, we suddenly find ourselves much better connected by public transport, and so getting up to Falmouth for the CAMRA Kernow beer festival on Saturday was a doddle.

Even as we approached the venue from the station, we could tell it was going to be good: the streets were crowded much like the approach to a football ground on match day. The venue itself was busy — almost chaotic — but the startled looking volunteers were nonetheless fast and efficient and had us inside, pints in hand, within five minute of hitting the door. Impressive.

Now, there was plenty of Cornish and other West Country beer on offer but, frankly, we can get that any day of the week so we made a beeline for what we’ve been missing the most since the move: proper northern beer.

We knew Steel City Brewing’s Escafeld would be hoppy and weren’t disappointed: it smelled of mown grass, and tasted something like a good, sharp gooseberry jam. Kelham Island’s Now That’s What I Call Bitter was exactly the kind of flinty, crisp, pale and hoppy beer we’d been dreaming of. It took us right back to Sheffield in an instant. And we couldn’t resist an old favourite — Thornbridge Kipling. Can you believe we’ve gone more than six months without a pint of anything from Thornbridge? Weird.

We didn’t just drink beers from up north, though, and also dug into the very decent selection from Oakham, reminding ourselves that this brewery (whose products we don’t see enough of) are up there with Dark Star, Crouch Vale and other favourites of ours. Black Hole Porter was the standout.

Not for the first time, we’ve been very impressed by a regional festival in a way that we aren’t generally by the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF). Why? Perhaps because there’s less overwhelming choice; a different crowd — locals, students, passing hippies; and a cosier venue? We’ll keep pondering this.

Of course, the real  buzz was about the toilets: many of the women in attendance were gleeful at a turning of the tables which saw them walking straight in while the gents queued for a urinal. “I wouldn’t use the sink in the disabled toilet if I were you.” Eeew.

pubs real ale

Back to Oxford

It looks like we’ll be in Oxford at around this time most years now as a friend of ours who lives there has decided to make his anti-January-blues party a fixture in the calendar.

Between the station and his house last night, we took in a few pubs we missed last time round.

The King’s Arms on Holywell Street is a cosy, crowded boozer decorated with brewery memorabilia. It’s a Young’s pub but with three guest ales. Bailey went for Winter Warmer and thought it was good this year. Boak went for Bath Gem, an old favourite that we haven’t come across for a while, which was just about OK if perhaps a little tired. The pub is so full of character, though, that the beer’s almost irrelevant.

The White Horse on Broad Street is really a long, cluttered corridor, but is also very cosy. We were drawn in by the Brakspear sign but the lack of that beer was more than made up for by two excellent microbrews. Prospect by the Shotover Brewing Co. (who are new on the scene, apparently) was a beautiful hoppy, flowery beer, powerful enough to overpower a bag of particularly lethal, hairy pork scratchings. Can anyone tells us which particular variety of hops give that wonderful elderflower flavour? In contrast, Winter Solstice by Vale Brewing was all about the malt: caramel with a hint of chocolate. It was also excellent, but it was Prospect that really knocked us for six.

Far from the Madding Crowd had six ales on tap including Oakham JHB, another classic we’ve not had for a while. Wow. What a beer — incredibly drinkable. Easy Rider from Kelham Island was another corker with a slightly (and very pleasantly) sulphurous aroma. The pub itself was lacking in atmosphere, somewhat resembling a community centre. Those of you who are sceptical of our ability to taste anything through the pork scratchings in the last pub will be glad to hear we didn’t indulge in the cockles in offer here…