Sheffield retains ‘real ale capital of the world’ title, as thriving brewing industry drives tourism and regeneration

1st March 2024

Sheffield has retained its position as the real ale capital of the world, with the thriving brewing industry driving tourism and regeneration in the steel city, a new report reveals.

The new report, commissioned by the University of Sheffield, found the brewing scene in Sheffield and the wider South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority area is bucking the national trend for closures, despite the challenges of Covid and the cost-of-living crisis. The region is now home to 58 breweries, more per head of population than anywhere else in the country, producing around 1,800 different beers every year.

A strong culture of traditional pubs that “feel different” to elsewhere in the country, and which see over 600 different beers being served every day on its bars, means Sheffield is experiencing a beer tourism boom, the report found. Dozens of events, from the Sheffield Folk Sessions Festival, to the Rotherham Real Ale and Music Festival, are taking advantage of, and supporting, this pub culture.

Breweries are also helping to regenerate run-down areas, often being the forerunners of other indie and like-minded businesses that turn an area into the next hip hot-spot.

First conducted in 2016, the new report has once again been written by award-winning beer writer Pete Brown, who was born and raised in Barnsley. The report surveyed breweries across Sheffield and the wider region about the state of the industry in the area. Key findings included:

Sheffield is home to four breweries per 100,000 head of population, while the broader Mayoral Combined Authority has three. Either measure is many times higher than cities such as Edinburgh (1.1), Manchester (0.2), London (0.4) or Dublin (0.6), which are often cited in surveys of the best beer cities in the world that use high numbers of breweries per capita.

Brewers across the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority produce a total of around 1,800 different beers every year, with around 780 of those being brewed in the city of Sheffield itself.

Almost 70 per cent of the beer brewed by local brewers is drunk within the local region. The report also found 70 per cent of cask ale brands sold in the city of Sheffield are brewed within 20 miles of the city centre. 

Approximately 300 different real ales are on sale in Sheffield every day, with around the same number of craft keg beers also available.

The city and region’s breweries and pubs are still predominantly cask (real) ale focused, again bucking a national decline which has seen sales volumes half in the last decade, but a wider variety of beers can now be found than in 2016. With cask beer being almost exclusively a British product, Sheffield can again claim to be the real ale capital of the world.

The Visit Sheffield website lists 362 beer attractions – second only to the outdoors, which has been Sheffield Tourism’s key priority in recent years.

Author of the report, Pete Brown, said: “Sheffield’s prowess as a beer city won’t come as a surprise to anyone who drinks here. But it’s fascinating that when you do the research and generate the numbers, the claim of being one of the best beer cities in the world really stands up. Sheffield is having a bit of a moment just now, punching massively above its weight, culturally. And its brewing scene is the glue that holds that culture together.” 

But the report also notes that while breweries in the region have been resilient and adaptable thus far, they are in “survival mode”, with no capacity to expand. In 2016, two-thirds of the breweries surveyed said that they were planning significant expansion over the next twelve months; today that figure has dropped to around one in five. There is also a lack of support from local authorities which means that while Sheffield in many ways out-performs its brewing rivals, it could do even better with more active, broader involvement and promotion.

Professor Vanessa Toulmin, Director of City Culture and Public Engagement at the University of Sheffield, said: “Sheffield has always been a city of makers and what makes the report’s findings really interesting is the added value this industry of modern-day little mesters are bringing to the region. They are not just brewing beer; they are providing a huge tourism pull for people from far afield, while also regenerating neighbourhoods in organic, unplanned ways.

“To anyone living in Sheffield and visiting its pubs, it will come as no surprise that this new report has reaffirmed what we discovered in 2016; that Sheffield really can lay claim to being the ‘real ale capital of the world’.”


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