Bold As Brass; Yorkshire’s first nano-brewery

From New York to East Yorkshire – the county’s first vegan brewer brings it all back home.

Brass Castle Brewery featured image

This article first appeared in the Yorkshire Post in October 2011.

Bold as brass

From New York to East Yorkshire, the county’s first vegan brewer brings it all back home.

It would be a massive culture shock for most people to move from an apartment on the 45th floor of a skyscraper in New York to the garage of a house in Pocklington but that’s just what East Yorkshire’s first vegan beer-brewer Phil Saltonstall has recently done. He and wife Harriet swapped a high flying life in the Big Apple for a sleepy, booze-brewing existence in what is becoming one of Yorkshire’s most culturally dynamic towns. With the brewery he’s set up in his home he’s determined to emulate a culture that has revolutionised drinking in the US and introduce Yorkshire to the delights of nano-brewing.

Phil and Harriet both originally hail from Beverley, where they met and married. He joined the RAF and she the United Nations and when Harriet’s job as a diplomat demanded a move to New York Phil took the opportunity to take a career break, travelling with her as they set up home in one of Manhattan’s most salubrious high-rises. With his wife spending her days undertaking high powered tasks with the UN Phil started to develop his long-term interest in brewing by taking a job with a Princeton-based micro brewery. ‘I’d always been a keen home brewer’, he says over a cup of tea in his Pocklington home, ‘but what I learnt at that brewery in the states took my knowledge to a whole new level.’

The US now has a recently-developed but strong tradition of brewing boutique ales and beers in small micro breweries, they sell their wares in dedicated bars, via off-sales and on the internet. It’s most popular in New York and throughout California but it’s a business model that Phil began to realise could and should be applied in the UK. He explains, ‘It’s a part of the culture over there in a way that it’s ceased to be in the UK. We used to drink locally brewed ales in pubs or at home but do it less these days. It’s on its way back, though.’

When Harriet’s New York placement came to an end the couple returned to their native East Yorkshire and Phil took a job with the Bridlington coast guard. The experience and passion he developed for brewing stayed with him, however, and when they started looking for a house they deliberately chose one which could accommodate enough equipment for Phil to take his hobby up a gear. The garage and basement of their comfortable but far-from-large home in Pocklington was quickly transformed into Yorkshire’s first nano-brewing concern.

Brass Castle Brewery – named after the street on which they live – now produces 228 pints of three different ales per week, a capacity which Phil hopes to significantly increase in the coming months. Certainly there seems to be a real thirst (excuse the pun) for his beers. A planned launch at Pocklington’s popular beer festival Pocktoberfest had to be brought forward as word of the beer spread on the social networks. In what is a growing trend Brass Castle’s Twitter and Facebook streams created an unexpectedly expectant audience for beer which was still to be launched and so Phil sold his first barrel of ‘Cliffhanger’, a 3.8% golden ale at a local beer festival in early September. ‘The drummer from the band playing at the festival took a real shine to it’, he say, only half joking, ‘I think he accounted for most of the sales on the night.’ Then, a couple of weeks later, his Bad Kitty vanilla porter won beer of the festival at the York Beer and Cider Festival. Since then the phone hasn’t stopped ringing.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this story is that Phil and Harriet are both vegan, as is all the beer that comes out of their house. ‘Most people don’t realise that animal products are used in beer production,’ says Phil, ‘but almost all brewers use them during the filtering process to control the ‘lace’ of the head or clarity of a pint’. As a long term vegan Phil wanted to create a product free from animal product but which didn’t compromise on taste or appearance. Judging by the ecstatic response his beer has met with so far it appears he succeeded. Vegetarian cafes and restaurants would therefore seem to be an obvious outlet for the beer but Phil wants his ales to compete on an equal footing with traditionally brewed beers to show that the use of animal products is by no means essential to the process.

Phil credits his clever utilisation of the aforementioned social networks for his success so far and believes a similar approach would benefit all smaller breweries. ‘Well run Twitter and Facebook streams create a market for your product before it even exists. I’ve already sold beer that I’ve not even started brewing because landlords have contacted me via Twitter and placed orders based on word of mouth on social networks.’ It’s a business model that many small and cottage businesses are finding works for them, anyone with an innovative approach to marketing and a grasp of the rules of the social networks can sell their product right across the globe using little more than an iPhone. Phil found an online constituency keen to find exactly what he is offering and he now has the type of brand awareness amongst his target audience that some firms pay a fortune on advertising to attract.

Next up for Brass Castle is expansion. Phil’s experience of the US brewing industry has taught him that the way we enjoy and experience beer in this country is surprisingly and unnecessarily limited. The Americans drink in bars and at home, as do we, but they also buy carry outs in a way that is rarely seen this side of the pond. Imagine if you could buy beer by the pint from your local pub, deli or off license – not in bottles or cans but freshly pulled, in jugs or bladders. This is what happens in the US and although there are a few places offering the service here (the Jug & Bottle deli in Bubwith is one) it’s still a long way off being the norm. Ailing pubs, Phil believes, would almost certainly benefit from increased sales and footfall if they expanded into real ale and cider off-sales. We could quickly find ourselves drinking locally brewed beers bought from the local but drunk at home. No bottling, no cans, just fresh cask ale at home. After years of the UK being unavoidably affected by US culture this development may be one that everyone can welcome and, strangely, a lifeboat man working from his cellar may well be at the forefront of this new way the new drinking culture.

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Categories: Writing, Yorkshire Post

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