Bury is baking. On this Wednesday morning in late July, the sun has nudged aside the ever-present threat of showers and is doing its best to bring the red roses into bloom and give the town’s famous black pudding an even deeper tan.
I sit beneath the spindly branches of an undernourished tree and gaze down the central precinct at vaping shops and walking frames, at parents dragging kids. There’s a clump of polo-shirted bucket-shakers dispensing wristbands for charity, thanking passers-by for donating to the cause then pausing to chow down on some well-earned foot-long Subways. They have a ghetto blaster with them that soundtracks this lethargic Lancashire scene, which is why as I watch Bury uncurling itself into the day, it’s The Girl From Ipanema to which its citizens are lazily stepping in time.
Bury is baking. The sun is high in the sky. It may only be 11am, but I really could murder a pint.
Fortunately, I have an appointment at a nearby pub called The Clarence, so gathering my bag and a rather superfluous hoody, I make my way round the corner where I find the boozer’s fine Edwardian edifice casting its shadow from the other side of the street.
I am here to meet Craig Adams, the head brewer at Silver Street Brewing Company which operates from The Clarence’s basement. I’m excited, as despite thinking about beer an awful lot, not to mention drinking my fair share and, more recently, writing about it too, I’ve never actually seen the stuff being made.
It’s taken a while for us to find a date and time that suit us both, largely because Adams is a very busy man. The Clarence – a relaxed and handsome venue offering beer and food over three lofty floors – is now a couple of years old in its current guise and is proving to be very much to Bury’s taste. As a result, Silver Street is run off its feet. While it may have begun life as an on-site venture pumping its precious fluids up through the floorboards to the pub, restaurant and cocktail lounge above, Adams is currently managing the brewery’s expansion into nearby Britannia Mill. And that, it appears, is a lot of work – not that he seems to mind.
“We simply need more space,” he says, clearly delighted that the brewery is in this enviable position. “And when we move into Britannia Mill we’re going to have a lot more space, more than we know what to do with.”
I’ve seen photographs of many of today’s young craft breweries, and am always impressed by the way they manage to make something consistently drinkable in what appear to be somewhat cosy surroundings. Typically they are housed under railway arches or in the cramped corners of Victorian warehouses, the brewing kit tightly crammed in leaving barely any space for the brewer’s precious flat caps and beard care products.
However, despite knowing this is how it is for many of our most exciting microbreweries – the clue is in the name after all – I am unprepared for the claustrophobic dimensions of Silver Street’s global HQ. While The Clarence itself is a generously-sized pub, entering this slim subterranean space puts me in mind of clambering into a wartime Anderson shelter, albeit one with the scent of hops and an endless tangle of plastic tubing. The heat and humidity are intense; it also seems to be the route to some toilets. It’s no wonder that Adams is looking forward to the move.
Not that Silver Street Brewing Company is leaving its diminutive brick basement unoccupied. Small it may be, but the four-barrel operation will still have a role to play as the brewery ups its output and enjoys the opportunity to experiment more. As I descend into the muggy void, I can hardly help bumping into Kieran Sproston, assistant brewer, as he emerges from the fug and does something technical with a pump. Adams introduces us, and explains that while he is getting the new space up and running, Sproston will continue brewing in the cellar.
“I haven’t really brewed anything here for a while,” says Adams. “Kieran will carry on working here at The Clarence to allow me to concentrate on the new brewery. He’s been here for just over a year and he’s doing really well. He’s really passionate and a real asset to the team – although that’s just me and him. A team of two.”
As Adams walks me through the brewing process – a journey that takes us from the hot water tank tucked in the corner, past the mash tun and copper, then round the corner to the rainforest atmosphere of the tiny fermenting room where three fat fermenting vessels are unfeasibly housed – he tells me how The Clarence came into being.
“Lee Hollinworth, who already owned the Automatic café bar in Bury, bought this pub building in about 2010,” he explains. “It had been closed for well over a year and before that it had a bit of a reputation. I used to come here when I was at college because it was £1 a pint. It was really on its arse. But Lee has vision and can see how things are going to work.
“Automatic was doing really well, and when this building came on the market it was a no-brainer as to whether he was going to open another place in Bury. The idea of The Clarence was to have somewhere with a slower pace, with more emphasis on people coming in and relaxing, and maybe staying for three hours to have a meal rather than a quick bite and back off shopping. Somewhere a bit more special – which it is.
“It was going to be done in a year, but it ended up taking four.”
Having explored every corner of the cellar within a matter of minutes, Adams leads me up through the beautifully restored building from ground-floor pub to first-floor restaurant and up again to the luxurious New York-style cocktail bar, while explaining the brewery’s genesis.
“I was working at Automatic – in fact it became quite a big part of my life. I’d always had an interest in beer but was developing an interest in brewing because we’d started to supply real ale at Automatic. At first it was stuff like Thwaites’ Wainwright, things like that, but when a new microbrewery called Outstanding opened in Bury, they approached us to ask if we’d like to sell their beer. We thought it’d be a nice idea if they could make a house ale for us, which they did. It was called Silver Fox.”
The more Adams talks, the more I realise that Outstanding played a crucial role in helping Silver Street get off the ground. Outstanding was founded by Lancashire brewing legend Dave Porter who also runs a company called PBC which supplies and installs microbreweries – according to figures on their website, they have installed more than 300 breweries around the world. “Because we had such a good relationship with them, it became more of a possibility for us that maybe we could actually do a brewery of our own one day,” Adams says. “It was an exciting prospect.”
With the purchase of The Clarence, Adams’ dream finally became a reality.
“Lee came to me one day,” he tells me, “and said ‘There’s a bit of space in the basement of the new building. I’m sure we could put a microbrewery in it.’ And I practically fell on my knees and said, ‘Please! We have to do it!’”
And thus Silver Street Brewing Company – named after the road that runs down the side of The Clarence – was born, with Adams brewing his first basement beer in February 2014.
“The pub wasn’t yet open so I was only really supplying Automatic. They were our guinea pigs. It was a really exciting time because every brew was brand new and I was lucky to have enough time to experiment and tweak the beer. There wasn’t really any pressure to get it out there straight away.”
Well over two years on from those first tentative experiments, Silver Street is now at full capacity supplying The Clarence and Automatic, with beers also going to HOME in Manchester and occasionally to Bury’s other must-visit pub, The Trackside. Clearly, expansion can’t come soon enough, with Outstanding playing yet another crucial role in the story.
“Outstanding are moving out of Bury,” explains Adams. “They’re going to Salford where they can double their capacity, so we’re moving into their current space in Britannia Mill. It’s worked out perfectly. It’s a natural step for us.”
As we go up and down stairs, through bustling kitchens and attic space offices – which are stiflingly hot on this atypical British summer’s day – I get a feel for the sense of family that binds this pub and brewery together. Everywhere we go, the staff are chatty, beaming, hard at work operating a venue that offers Bury something very special. As a freelancer whose work often involves spending hours alone at home, I must admit to a slight twinge of jealousy.
As if reading my mind, Adams pays tribute to Lee Hollinworth’s initial vision and continuing passion, and says: “I hope the public can see real worth in that. I think it does come across. We love the place, and that’s what gets us all out of bed.”
And finally, noticing that heat exhaustion is about to leave me crawling back down to the brewery on my hands and knees, he drops the words I’ve been waiting for.
“Shall we have a tasting?”
This is what my Brew North blog is all about after all – the sampling of Northern beers – and a few minutes later we are sitting at a table, each with three dinky third-of-a-pint glasses in front of us.
“We always have three of our beers on in the pub,” says Adams, “and these are today’s choices. I suggest we go from the darkest to the lightest as they get gradually hoppier with the colour, not that that’s a contributing factor, it’s just coincidence.”
I’m happy to take Adams’ advice so without further ado, we take a sniff and a sip of the darkest of the trio: a rich chestnut-brown mild called Gentlemen.
“The emphasis with this one is on the malt,” says Adams. “You can smell it can’t you? It’s packed with the stuff, there are five different kinds of malt in there.”
In our flavour crazy, hop-loving age, mild has proved to be a difficult sell, given that its pleasures are inherently restrained. It is a well named beer style, being mild in bitterness and mild in strength – Gentlemen is just 3.7 per cent ABV – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deliver its own brand of quaffable glee.
The nose is subtly nutty while the flavour is of soft and silky chocolate; not intensely so, but just enough to encourage the gulping of another mouthful as I chase its aromatic hit.
At first, I suspect Adams is about to get truly, madly geeky as he delves into flavour-profile specifics (“I get a very small amount of coconut and a specific type of chocolate called cocoa nibs”) but he quickly reverts to less specialist prose. “There’s a kind of malt in there called Munich malt which has a flavour which can only be described as ‘malty’.”
So that’s Silver Street’s Gentlemen for you: it’s Munichy, it’s malty and it’s mild.
Next up is a copper-coloured beer called Session. “It’s 3.9 per cent ABV and by far and away our biggest seller,” says Adams. “I wanted to make something that I would want to have two or three pints of after a walk. It took maybe ten attempts for it to became how it is now. It really was a case of ‘it’s too sweet’ or ‘it’s too hoppy’, or the hops didn’t last long enough, or it needed a fruitier twist. It was a matter of reining it in and getting it right.”
And it is a great session bitter, a touch hoppier than would once have been considered the norm, but the citrus tang delivers the quenching bite that would certainly slake a post-ramble thirst.
Finally, we dive into the third beer, a much paler golden ale called Fire Island. If the previous brews were all about subtlety and nuance, this one pumps up the volume of the hops for an unmistakeably American-influenced pale ale punch. In fact the Stateside theme is followed through in its branding, as it’s named after the slender party paradise that lies just off the coast of Long Island, New York.
I’ve never been there myself but I know of its reputation as one of the driving forces behind the development of disco in the early 1970s. As a popular gay retreat, the island’s hideaways devoured the rapidly-developing sound, with producer Tom Moulton virtually inventing the concept of the continuous disco mix specially for one of the island’s venues.
I mention this to Adams as we sup the very pleasingly bitter brew, and he laughs before retrieving the beer’s pump clip and pointing at the lighthouse-shaped logo.
“When Lee was getting his head together about what to do with The Clarence, he spent some time in New York with his family and was taken by some friends to Fire Island. He really embraced that party culture – he’s a 90s raver at heart – and he thought we should have a beer inspired by it. When you go there, the main focal point is this lighthouse…”, at which point he indicates the logo, and my penny drops, “…which is unapologetically phallic, in keeping with that spirit of, well, just having fun.”
With one glance it’s a lighthouse. With the next glance, it’s an old-school cock and balls.
As with all the beers we try, Fire Island is restrained in strength, being just 4 per cent ABV, although the heftiness of the hops hints at a more potent brew. This is clearly what The Clarence’s clientele seem to be looking for – easy-going beers for sociable pub drinking, whether in the main bar or the restaurant upstairs. Silver Street doesn’t currently sell its beers in bottles, so Adams can be more or less sure of the context in which his brews are enjoyed and he tailors his wares accordingly. Each beer has its place in the pub line-up and each has a distinct role to play.
“I want every beer to speak for itself,” says Adams as I prepare to head back out into the sun. “I want quality and consistency to be our hallmarks rather than having any other common thread running through the range. I want to isolate each recipe and really get into the head-space of each beer. Each has a different process, a different yeast, and when you taste them, they could almost be by different breweries.”
The lack of bottles means I don’t get to carry any Silver Street beer home with me, which is a shame, but having explored The Clarence in Adams’ company, I can’t help feeling that this building is where these fine beers belong. Yes, you may well see the likes of Session and its Silver Street stablemates in other venues from time to time, and probably more so once the new brewery is up and running, but this place has been a clear labour of love for this extended Bury family, and its beers were built to be enjoyed in these wonderful, welcoming surroundings.
As I say my farewells – and seemingly the whole happy bunch of them wave back – I emerge into the daylight and head off in search of the tram. Bury is still baking, the sun is still high in the sky. But now I have finally been in a brewery, and thanks to Silver Street Brewing Company, I can tell there’s an extra hop in my step.
Photos by Chris Payne
The Clarence and Silver Street Brewing Company are at 2 Silver Street, Bury. More info: www.theclarence.co.uk, www.silverstreetbrewingcompany.com
To read Northern Soul’s review of The Clarence, click here