Dream team! York’s new brewery teams up with city pub of the year

Inside the new Brew York brewery and tap room off Walmgate. Photograph: Brew York on Facebook
3 May 2016 @ 6.12 pm
| Food & drink

Star Wars day is now a sobriquet. May the 4th be with you – geddit!?

And whilst we’re on puns let’s talk about Brew York – the new brewery within the city walls whose name, whilst evoking the strikingly hoppy pale ales of the land of the Big Apple, symbolises the traditional brewing background of good old Blighty represented by our own fair city.

Brew York takeover day

Rook & Gaskill, 12 Lawrence Street, York YO10 3WP

Wed May 4

Brew York

Rook & Gaskill

So what’s the significance of May 4th? Well it looks like being the winning combination of a bold new venture taking over the taps of York CAMRA’s 2016 Pub of the Year – the Rook & Gaskill – for the day. More of “The Rook” later…

In opening Brew York, business partners Wayne Smith and Lee Grabham have fulfilled a long held dream. It was inspired by similar British breweries, including Tapped Leeds – and in particular from a visit to Little Creatures Brewery in Freemantle, Australia.

The brewery, just off Walmgate, comes complete with a snazzy new capacious adjoining bar area where you can overlook the gleaming brewing and fermenting vessels as you sup the fruits of Brew York’s labour.

If it’s good enough for Oz then it’s good enough for York…

Flooded out

The brewery as it was being built. Photograph: Nick Love
The brewery as it was being built. Photograph: Nick Love

I first went to visit them before Christmas when plans were at an early stage, on the day that they had signed the lease and there was building work in progress, spaces reserved for key parts of the operation and the rest you had to imagine.

It had taken almost six months from when they first walked around the former warehouse in Enterprise Complex, Walmgate to go through planning to get to a stage where they could finally sign the lease – although an amenable landlord had made sure that they could get access when they wanted to enable them to get ahead of the curve.

That said they (as with all the businesses in the area) hadn’t factored in the Boxing Day floods. Thankfully, they were able to put all valuable equipment in a mezzanine area given that none of the brewing equipment had arrived. The resulting setback was only two weeks.

Drink the house dry

Packed… Launch party at Brew York
Packed… Launch party at Brew York

It was great to visit them on their opening weekend a couple of weeks ago. The gods were smiling, the stainless steel brewing kit gleaming, the bar heaving and the bijou but achingly cool beer garden overlooking Rowntrees Wharf and the River Foss was glinting invitingly in the Spring sunshine.

It was to put it mildy, hectic. The unrelenting swathes of humanity that descended on them was both welcome and stressful from what I could see.

There was that unmistakeable glint of panic in the eyes of Wayne and Lee when it dawned on them at one stage that the voracious imbibers could actually drink the house dry. It didn’t happen, but it was an illustration of just what a hotbed of beer lovers York has become.

One thing that was blindingly obvious from tasting their wares was that these guys aren’t idealistic novices when it comes to brewing.

They’ve both independently been home brewing since their teens, graduating from kits onto all grain brewing, but it was when happenstance played its hand and they met on a French stag do that Brew York had its inception.

Founders Wayne Smith (left) and Lee Grabham. Photograph: Nick Love
Founders Lee Grabham (left) and Wayne Smith. Photograph: Nick Love

The portents seem good for a brewery that has been doing extensive research in order to survive and thrive in an already highly competitive marketplace.

They’ve been speaking with local licensees and doing their research and are fully committed to a consistency of brewing excellence.

They realise that they have to produce a quality product every time and eschew any hit and miss approach that will make pubs reticent to re-stock their beers.

No bean counters

Lee and Wayne on opening night
Lee and Wayne on opening night

One of their guiding principles is to be “true to themselves” and as Lee puts it: “not be run by bean counters”. He continues – “if a recipe demands 20kg of hops it gets 20kg of hops. It’s not down the line asking ‘will 18kg get us the same flavour?’ Because we know it won’t.”

That approach will hopefully ensure that they don’t abandon winning formulas (literally in brewing terms) that has seen some great iconic beers in the UK turned into bland shadows of their former selves by changes in recipes – in many cases to achieve economies in production costs.

The offending breweries for some unfathomable reason think they can hoodwink thousands of drinkers.

I remember one very prominent brewery getting shirty with me when I questioned a perceptible degradation in the taste of one of their flagship beers. I later found out that despite their protestations to the contrary that there had been a significant change to the recipe.

Brew York promise “hop-forward” flavourful beers and as already articulated, the whole Brew York branding derives from the influence of American beers and American hops paired with the traditional British brewing background.

Man behind York’s finest

Pub of the year… Rook & Gaskill on Lawrence Street. Photograph: YorkMix
Pub of the year… Rook & Gaskill on Lawrence Street. Photograph: YorkMix

So what better place to hold their first beer showcase than York’s best real ale pub, at least according to CAMRA in 2016 – Paul Marshall’s Rook and Gaskill.

When I finally sit down with him, it becomes clear that he sees himself as part of a winning team rather than a figurehead – although there’s no denying the impact that he’s had on this refreshingly down to earth and welcoming hostelry situated a few yards from Walmgate Bar.

The pub’s named after two executed sheep rustlers who met their maker in 1771. These days the real ales are the only thing that are a steal at £2.90 a pint across the board, and the only things you’re likely to get hanged for is coming in and asking for John Smith’s Extra Smooth.

It seems a real contradiction to talk about the mundanity of excellence but Paul is matter-of-fact about what makes the pub a success. He calls it “just following the basic rules”: good customer service; well-kept ales; a clean pub, and “most of all recognising and appreciating the team that we have around us because without them nothing ticks”.

These are the key things that have built up a loyal customer base in a pub that’s not situated in a prime location.

Unwashed and offhand

Great service and beer make the Lawrence Street pub a winner. Photograph: YorkMix
Great service and beer make the Lawrence Street pub a winner. Photograph: YorkMix

Once you’ve got a loyal customer base it’s then even harder to keep them because York is such a diversely wonderful place to drink. That’s why some pubs that may be seen as above average in other cities just don’t cut the mustard here.

Ask yourself – how many pubs have you visited where they fall down on one or more of Paul’s so called “basic rules”? I can name a few off the top off my head that I’ve visited just within the last couple of weeks.

Pub X had an offhand bartender who resented me interrupting a text conversation; Pub Y had a beer better suited to chips it was that off.

Not according to the licensee – “that’s what craft beer tastes like – I’m surprised you didn’t know that”… Pub Z was obviously going for the world record for most unwashed tables and glasses.

What’s obvious is that the obvious is not that obvious!

Paul gets how to run a successful pub with some “basic rules” as, to be fair, do many other pubs in York. But there is still much to be done to improve many more – not just in York but in the UK generally.

What to drink

Which brew will tempt you? Photograph: Brew York on Facebook
Which brew will tempt you? Photograph: Brew York on Facebook

Anyway – enough of the negative – get down to The Rook & Gaskill on May 4th and taste some of these fine beers that Brew York have to offer in one of the best pubs York has to offer.

The beers on offer

Maris The Otter
an English pale ale (3.9%)
Little Eagle
a session IPA (4.5%)
Kiwi Ale
a New Zealand brown ale (5%)
Viking DNA
a smoked porter (5%)
Brew York Brew York
an American-style pale ale (5%)
Eagle IPA
an American-style IPA (6.5%)

I’ll be covering my chat with Paul Marshall at The Rook & Gaskill in much more detail in my next YorkMix article, plus there will be an audio version (pubcast) of it available also.

He has some very interesting things to say about the current state of the pub market in the UK at the moment – with 25 pubs still shutting per week, having been both a licensee in a tied pub and now running a free house.

May the 4th be with you. Or should that be May the thirst be with you…