Posted on March 29 2021
From that opening name, you can tell these guys are up for puns and fun. Their beer names are quip heaven. But the liquid itself is serious … seriously good.
Just how many of today’s craft breweries have been started as a consequence of a few (possibly too many) bevvies down the pub? We have no exact stats, but it must account for a good number. For Brew York, it certainly was the case … founders Lee Grabham and Wayne Smith were at their local in 2015, having their usual discussion about ‘why don’t they …’ and decided, finally, yes, they would start a brewery in the centre of York. It took some hoop-jumping to gain planning permission to convert a warehouse within the city’s ancient walls into a brewery, but they succeeded in 2015 – only the second brewery ever to do so in York – and they were off!
About Brew York
Brew Yorks's address: Unit 6, Enterprise Complex, Walmgate, York, YO1 9TT
Founders: Lee Grabham and Wayne Smith
Brew York's craft beer styles: craft, modern, hoppy and very different
Brew Yorks's craft beer worth trying: A few of our favourites are available in our craft beer online bottleshop
Online: Visit the Brew York website.
A stag do, a barbecue, a home-brew … a boundary-breaking craft brewery in York
As you might well guess, the kernel of the idea, however, precedes that chat down the pub by a few years. Wayne and Lee met at a mutual friend’s stag do in the early noughties and discovered they had a passion for craft beer in common. Several years later, they met again at the same friend’s barbecue, to which Wayne had brought some of his home-brew. Lee was deeply impressed and, as a consequence it brought his brewing hobby back to life. At every opportunity after that, they would brew together… in their converted sheds! That led to those conversations at the pub, they entered home brew competitions, supplied the beer at a friend’s wedding, which all led to the confidence, finally, to take the plunge and launch Brew York.
Both Lee and Wayne also managed to get themselves made redundant (Wayne from the world of accounting and Lee from insurance), which helped enormously in the initial funding of the project. Another early fillip was securing a supermarket contract (pretty much unheard of at that time) for three core beers. That really boosted their confidence, as well as the coffers, to start getting creative big time and branching out into the more experimental and out-there brews. Since then, they have ducked out of supplying supermarkets, so they could service better the smaller independent bottle shops, which felt truer to their ethos. They have regained a toehold back in with supermarkets, but only with product that doesn’t impact on smaller outlets.
Opening a craft brewery in the heart of York
The business was opened properly in York in 2016 and it’s grown exponentially since then. The original site, just off Walmgate in the city centre, is a riverside venue. Look out across the water and to the right you’ll see the original Rowntree’s building. It’s a pretty spot, with a touch of real grit about it. And it’s dog-friendly and family-friendly, outside and in!
A tap room, a beer hall and a riverside garden
They started off there with a brewing capacity of four 50-hectolitre tanks and converted a third of the floor space into a tap room. This has a capacity for 100 customers … obviously not capacious enough, for when in 2018, the upstairs building next door became available, they seized the chance to take that over and created a Beer Hall. It’s a great place, very spacious and atmospheric, with a bespoke kitchen, supplying street food – ‘Born to Lose’ Burgers and Korean-inspired dishes. Here the emphasis is on keg beer, 40 of them on tap, as well as lagers, hoptails (beer cocktails) and ciders – the widest selection available in York and close by, report Lee and Wayne.
The large space has suited punters, too, during this socially distanced era. The Beer Hall tables were originally long trestles, hewn from one huge oak tree. Last year, with the pandemic restrictions however, they had to chop these into smaller, individual tables – “it broke my heart” said Lee.
The staff are second to none, too … unsurprisingly passionate and knowledgeable about the craft beers and only too happy to chat to customers about them. When they reopen, they plan to retain the continental habit of table service and hope also to stay cashless. It all makes sense, they say.
In the downstairs tap room, it has a more traditional feel. Punters can sample 20 beers, mostly from cask, as well as watch the brewers at their work.
Craft beer in cask, keg and such colourful cans
Production for Brew York started out in cask and can, but since then they have added keg. The cans were originally 330ml, but are now almost exclusively 440ml cans … even the whopping 14% offerings! Lee and Wayne had purchased a new canning machine in late 2019, which arrived in February 2020, just two weeks before lockdown. They went from three to eleven canning heads, so what used to take them a week to package, took them a day. What timing! Without that, they wonder if they would have survived last year’s Covid restrictions. They certainly would not have seen the huge growth in sales they did in 2020. In essence, with the new machine, they could pivot the business – from a focus of supplying the on-trade, to supplying the drink-at-home market. Delivery is nationwide and international – they supply nine countries, including China and Japan.
How did Brew York do in 2020?
So they weren’t quiet in 2020 … oh no. In that year they brewed 450,000 litres of beer (well up on 2019). That figure includes 12 Core beers, 27 Seasonals or past favourites and 38 new or one-off specials. These guys are creative. In fact, the home-consumption boom has increased the appetite for their whacky specials.
And for their craft beer styles
Their first brew was Viking DNA (a nod to the Jorvik Viking Centre that used to be on their original site). They win awards too. Most proudly, their flagship stout Empress Tonkoko Buffalo Trace was named Best Wood-Aged Beer in the UK at the World Beer Awards 2019, while Goose Willis won Gold at the same event. and in 2020, their Big Eagle West Coast IPA, another early creation, won Gold at the National SIBA 2020 awards. And there are many more.
Their aim from the start was to brew ‘beers with personality that they had enjoyed around the globe’. York had plenty of beer to offer at that time, largely traditional ale, so they wanted to offer something different. And looking at their range, they certainly have succeeded. Their range is craft, modern, hoppy and very different – and they certainly aren’t afraid of packing in the flavour along with relatively punchy alcohol levels.
And the craft beer names too
We love their beer names – here’s a scattering … Turtle Eclipse of the Heart Pale Ale, Calmer Chameleon American Pale Ale, Rhubarbara Streisand Milkshake Pale, Juice Forsyth fruited IPA, Goose Willis Sour, Cereal Killer West Coast IPA … you can tell these guys are having A LOT of fun, bantering names about to come up with these (“you should see the ones we don’t use,” Lee quipped). The whole team contribute, as well as customers – they like to send in suggestions. And the can artwork lives up to the whacky names – colourful and off the wall.
Their head brewer, Matt Nicholls, has an equally colourful past. He’s been a forex trader, ran a Classic Car business and lived in South Africa, Switzerland, Scotland and the States. It was his time in Switzerland that saw his ‘Damascus’ turn to brewing … Swiss beers were so disappointing, he got into homebrewing, then did a MSc in brewing and distilling in Edinburgh. He’s since been a brewer at London’s Meantime, as well as a 2-year stint craft brewing in Florida. He’s now firmly rooted to Brew York. Lee, of course, leads the brewing team, particularly in the innovative and experimental area. Kid in a toyshop – he’s having a lot of fun, while Wayne is more focused on the direction of the business.
Expanding their York-based craft brewery
It’s not only craft brewing they are being brave about. In 2020, in the middle of a pandemic, they secured a new property in Leeds – another thriving craft-beer hub, whose international beer festival is a favourite of the teams. They will be opening this new Brew York venue as soon as government restrictions allow. There will be 20 beers on tap, guest beers, hoptails, wines and spirits. Plus, a kitchen for Yuzu street food. Roll on April when it can open its doors again. This is in addition to their bars in Walmgate, plus another in Pocklington, just outside York, with a similar set up as the Leeds venue.
In September 2020, they also secured a property just outside York, which should be open this February … now! This purpose-built operation will allow them to increase their brewing capacity fourfold, with four 100-hectolitre tanks and five 50-hectolitre. The new building will also improve efficiency, quality and consistency. At their Walmgate site, any new kit or delivery has to be fitted in where there is space; at the new venue, they can plan the layout well in advance for maximum efficiency. Judging from an online walkabout tour of these premises, the team are hugely excited about it and have some new toys to play with as well.
Their fun craft beer toys
- A reverse osmosis machine, which strips water, York tap water in this instance, of all mineral content, “to create a blank canvas for brewing”. This will enable them to brew styles which, until now, have been out of their reach. With this they can make a Pilsner-style lager, which they certainly have plans for … and much more. It’s a neat little machine that does wonders.
- They have a large grain silo just outside the building, that feeds into a grist mill just inside. This is highly unusual for a brewery but is just what’s needed. The grist mill can be put to the required setting for the style of beer planned that day. Lee and Wayne emphasised that, despite all this high-tech kit, the way forward isn’t ‘brew by numbers’ ie by plugging a recipe formula into a computer. However, it will allow them to get exactly the malt that is required, and the freshest too, milled the same day.
- A centrifuge to clear the beer of the spent yeast and any other debris after the fermentation.
- Two kettles, one of them dedicated to sours, which judging from their list is a speciality.
They have quite a few toys already at Walmgate – a double-sized, well-lagged hot-water tank that keeps brewing water at the right temperature, ready for use at a moment’s notice. There’s a special pressurised machine for infusions. For their Tonkoko Milk Stout, for example, they infuse 200kg of toasted coconut with 30kg of cacao nibs to get, as they put it, ‘bounty in a glass’. Delicious.
There is a hop cannon too, which circulates the hops in opposite directions, at speed, to obtain maximum extraction.
They will take three of their large fermenters from the original site to the new, leaving Walmgate with five small and one large fermenter, to focus on the bespoke, experimental, one-off creations, as well as more of their way-out-there barrel-matured projects.
And that’s one whole ‘other’ adventure – beers in bourbon, whisky, Jack Daniels, Grand Marnier casks … tastebud overload. And, with some at 12-14%, ones to be sipped slowly. For these, they might be tempted to add bottles to the range, while the majority of home-consumption, will stay in cans.
Asked about their barrel-aged craft beers, they said there was up to 20% spoilage, but felt that the quality and excitement of the remaining 80%+ was more than worth the effort. And judging by the customer following for them, that’s what customers think too.
They done a good number of collab-projects over the last few years too, with both other craft breweries and non-beery businesses. One was with Brew by Numbers – a celebration of being part of the London Craft Beer Festival 2019; another is a chocolate milk stout, A Chocolate Story, which is a current project with York’s Chocolate Story museum and the city’s annual Chocolate Festival.
Current founder favourites
Wayne cited his as a ‘sessionable’ 7.5% Imperial Tonkoko and Lee as the Goose Willis … an easy-drinking sour with the balance of creamy lactose.Shop Brew York beers