In the bustling former industrial city of Sheffield, Jules Gray and her husband Will are flying the flag for good beer. As owners of independent bottleshop Hop Hideout, Jules and Will have been servicing the beery needs of the city’s students and residents since 2013, while Jules’ one woman mission to get Sheffield recognised as a beer destination in its own right led her to set up a week long celebration of the city’s beer culture, Sheffield Beer Week, in 2015.
Ahead of the festival returning for a fourth year next month, we sat down with Jules to discuss her beer journey, the day-to-day realities of running a bottleshop, and what to expect from this year’s Sheffield Beer Week.
JB: Hi Jules, thank you so much for taking the time to chat to us today. Why don’t you start by telling us a little about how you got into beer, and how you came to open up Hop Hideout?
JG: I’ve actually been working in the beer industry for about ten years. In 2007 I started working for a rather large brewery, which I shan't name. I was commuting from Birmingham to the brewery at the time, and ended up meeting Will through a mutual friend. As we got more serious, we started looking for somewhere to live that was in-between Birmingham and Manchester where he was living at the time, and settled on Sheffield because we both had a connection to the city - his mum lived here for a bit and I came to university here.
At the time I was still working for the brewery but was getting more into microbreweries and the independent sector, and my passion and interests were definitely leaning more that way. It felt very corporate there and there were a lot of redundancies going on at the time, so I decided that it was probably time to move on.
JB: What made you decide to open up a bottleshop as opposed to a pub or even a brewery?
JG: We initially thought about opening a micropub, but if you look at the current micropubs, we felt that was a bit limited to sell the kind of beer we were really crazy about. We love cask ale but we also love Belgian beer and crazy styles, and the ethos of a micropub was around traditional cask ale, which is great but not necessarily who we were or what we wanted to be. We wanted to open a business where we could stock a wide range of beers and styles, but also to be able to work more sociable hours and have a life afterwards.
JB: Was the bottleshop like this from day one, or has it evolved over time?
JG: We started as a little pop up at the end of 2013 in a smaller space four days a week, and then we moved in here in March 2015, which is when we installed the five taps we have currently. This building used to be an old bank so it has a really nice large cellar downstairs. This is what we wanted to do from the beginning but we didn't have the finance for it initially.
JB: What is Sheffield like as a city for beer? Do you get a lot of proper beer geeks, or is it more traditional?
JG: There is definitely an appetite for beer here, but Sheffield is still very much in the process of diversifying. Cask ale is still the predominant beer available. There's lots of great beer, and a lot more local breweries now, but back in the early days we were stocking beers from Siren and Beavertown and you really had to explain to people what it was and what the style of the beers were. When Beavertown moved to cans I remember people being quite taken aback. I would defintiely say that Sheffield has a bigger traditional culture than a lot of cities, but it has changed a bit in recent years.
The funny thing is if you speak to anyone who is a Belgian beer lover you just don't get that barrier. Anyone who has travelled for beer has seen lots of different beer cultures and as a result some of those pre-conceptions get broken down. As a business though you can't just expect people to know; you have to be prepared to put time and effort in to educate people about the beers, be that through events or sharing information with people about the ingredients and production process.
JB: One of the things that strikes me as being particularly hard about running a bottleshop is that presumably you have to really keep on top of new releases all the time and make sure you don’t miss out on the latest hype beer. How do you handle that?
JG: I don't think that is necessarily the case actually. With that type of consumer you're talking about a very small percentage of the beer market. Every day I will sell local beer to people; bucketloads of Bradfield, Kelham Island, Magic Rock, Northern Monk, Thornbridgeetc. We will sell their core beers day-in day out. People are creatures of habit to a degree, and you can see that in, for example, your cooking at home. You don't cook a new single dish every day, and you'll have your favourites that you will go back to because you know what it tastes like and enjoy the flavour.
There are different consumers, and the kind of consumer that will hunt out new releases all the time does exist, but those people are a smaller percentage for us. Obviously there are certain beers I’ll want to always get hold of - any Cloudwater release sells really well - but I think the market is changing a little bit because more breweries are selling direct now.
JB: I was going to ask about that. How has direct brewery sales impacted your business model, and does it irritate you to see them essentially bypassing you and going direct to the customer?
JG: It is an issue but I think it has added another dimension. Those types of customers you mentioned earlier will now buy direct from the brewery, but they will still then come to you if they to get want a range of beers from different breweries. It can be a bit frustrating when we get a delivery for the week and then a couple of days later a brewery is posting about new beers you can buy directly from them. However, my customers usually know that I will be able to get them *that* beer, it will just be a week later.
I try personally not to get caught up in hype because I want to build a business based on credibility and authenticity, and knowing that we will have a good range and that people will come to us. I think we have developed that kind of a reputation now in Sheffield where people will say 'if you want to find something interesting or different, go to Hop Hideout'.
JB: It was certainly high up on my list of places in the city to visit. Let’s talk a little bit about Sheffield Beer Week then. Tell me how the whole thing came about.
JG: The first one we did was in 2015, and it was a bit of a hairbrain idea of mine. I'd been inspired by seeing Norwich's City of Ale and London Beer City, and I was a bit frustrated at the time in that I saw all these events happening but it was never in Sheffield! I was having to travel all the time, and I just thought to myself 'why isn't this happening in Sheffield. There’s' definitely an appetite for it'.
JB: What was it like in that first year, and how has it changed since?
JG: In the first year I think we had maybe 15 venues doing about 20 events. We had lots of local breweries and a few from further afield. Certain venues got the idea straight away and were really behind it, but I think a few people were a bit hesitant so didn't get involved straight away in the first year. A lot of people did see the positivity in it, and it then basically doubled in size in 2016.
The whole idea was to try help independent beer businesses throughout the city. People will come to a city and visit at least four or five venues, so it is good to have that collaboration and relationship between them. It hasn't lost money but it hasn't made significant amounts - it pays for itself and the promotion of it, and also helps drive beer tourism in the city.
JB: And this year there’s going to be a beer festival for the first time, right?
JG: Yes that’s right. My inspiration for starting Sheffield Beer Week was initially because we had the SIBA Beer X conference that was hosted in the city at the time. There were already an extra 2,000 people coming to the city who love beer, so why not make sure they travel around Sheffield and visit some venues? Unfortunately SIBA has moved X to Liverpool this year, which was a bit of a blow but was always kind of on the cards. That meant that there was no longer a consumer beer festival happening in the city. I decided it was an opportunity to replace it with something from the heart of someone who calls Sheffield their home town.
JB: So what’s the festival going to be called and which breweries are going to be there?
JG: It’s called Indie Beer Feast and currently we have about 15 breweries involved. We’ll be hosting it just up the road from here at the old cinema site. It has been in disrepair for some time, but it is now hosting all sorts of pop up events like gigs and food markets, clothes markets. It’s a beautiful 1920s cinema but it has just been a bit unloved. So far we have got the likes of Thornbridge, Abbeydale, Black Iris, Blackjack, Lost Industry involved.
It's going to be a combination of people who have been positive and supportive to us and for Sheffield, and then we're making sure there is some space for some of the smaller breweries who have just started up. The plan is also for Vertical Drinks to do a pop-up bar too so that we have an international beer offering in the mix.
JB: It sounds amazing. Best of luck with it and thank you so much for your time today Jules!
Sheffield Beer Week: Three events you don’t want to miss
Indie Beer Feast (Saturday 10th March), £6.50 plus booking fee
The inaugural edition of this independent beer festival is being hosted at the iconic Abbeydale Picture House, and will feature brewery bars from the likes of Abbeydale, Black Iris, BlackJack, Elusive Brewing, Fourpure, Mad Hatter Brewing, Magic Rock Brewing, Moor, North Brewing, Thornbridge and more. For more info and updates, check out @IndieBeerFeast on Twitter.
Sour Puss: Abbeydale v Chorlton (Thursday 15th March), free
Head on down to The Devonshire Cat on Wellington Street for a chance to enjoy an array of sour/wild/funky beers from local favourites Abbeydale and pit them up against Manchester’s Chorlton Brewery. All the beers will be available on the bar from opening to purchase and try at your leisure.
Sheffield Beer Week Closing Party & Tap Room Launch (Saturday 17th March), free
Neepsend Brewery are in charge of seeing out Sheffield Beer Week, and will be doing so in style with the launch of their shiny new onsite brewery taproom. The brewery will be showcasing a range of collaboration beers, with names such as Lost Industry, Hopjacker Brewery and North Riding Brewery all featuring. There will also be a chance to try a special brew combining Norfolk malt and a Sheffield ingredient, made to celebrate the ties between Sheffield Beer week and Norwich City Of Ale.