My Pub: The Sheffield Tap

By Claire Churchard contact

- Last updated on GMT

Sheffield Tap: it doesn't take long for the bar to fill up
Sheffield Tap: it doesn't take long for the bar to fill up

Related tags: Beer

When licensee Jamie Hawksworth found a derelict Edwardian building on platform 1b of Sheffield railway station, he saw potential beneath the boarded-up windows and damage. But he says the journey to making it an award-winning pub wasn’t always easy.

The licensee

I have always brewed my own beer but it was a business trip to Prague that made me want to get into the brewing industry professionally. At the time I was a telecoms and structural engineer. My visit to the Czech Republic was with an engineering contractor and while I was there I tried the beer and fell in love with the place. This led me to become the UK partner in the Bernard Czech brewery in the Czech Republic in 2005. I set up the Pivovar company in the UK to import the best beer I could find.

The UK market was tough even though we believed customers wanted high-quality beer. So in 2007, I opened my first bar – the Pivní York – as a world beer freehouse. Pivni became a showcase bar for the Bernard Czech brewery. During that time we won a contract with Tesco to supply lager. We were listed at 600-plus Tesco stores, so suddenly everything went a bit wild, I still had my day job as an engineer at that point.

Fact file

■ Pub:​ The Sheffield Tap, a world beer freehouse

■ Address: ​Platform 1B, Sheffield Station, Sheaf Steet, Sheffield, 
S1 2BP

■ Tenure:​ Lifetime protected lease

■ Licensee:​ Jamie Hawksworth

■ General manager:​ Phil Briddon

■ Awards:​ Great British Pub Awards, Best Beer Pub 2016

■ Wet:dry split:​ 99:1

■ Turnover for 2016/17:​ £1.2m (net)

■ On-site microbrewery:​ The Tapped Brew Co

■ ‘Pivovar’ means ‘beer’ in Czech

In 2007, I found the site that is now the Sheffield Tap and, with my business partner John Holdsworth, started the process of negotiating a contract. My job as an engineer, on top of everything else, became untenable. I gave up the day job.

 

The pub

The restored Grade II-listed building opened in 2009 as the Sheffield Tap, a world beer freehouse. It sits alongside platform 1b at Sheffield Station, housed within the former Edwardian refreshment room and dining rooms of the train station, which were built in 1904. It had been boarded up since the early ’70s when I found it.

The site is divided into two areas, which were originally a drinking space for ‘commoners’, which includes a snug in the entrance area, and a grand dining room for first-class passengers. The two rooms are divided by a broad hallway that was open to the outside platform. We’ve still got the little serving hatches on the door to what was the dining room. ‘Commoners’ would collect their food from the hatches because they weren’t allowed in the dining room.

My business partner John and I spent seven months restoring it to a high standard. At that point, we’d become romantically attached to what we were doing. We realised how beautiful we could make it. We put in plush red leather seats and chandeliers, alongside our showcase microbrewery ‘The Tapped Brew Co’. People said we were stupid for putting in a high-quality interior but we felt that it fitted the character of the building.

The interior creates an atmosphere where everyone feels welcome. Our general manager, Phil Briddon, says his mother-in-law feels comfortable coming in on her own to sit and have a coffee.

What’s on the bar?

Cask

Jarl, Blonde Ale – 3.8% ABV, Fyne Ales

Rodeo, Pale Ale – 4% ABV, Tapped Brew Co

Drop, Red Ale – 4.3% ABV, Electric Bear Brewing Co

Jaipur, IPA – 5.9% ABV, Thornbridge Brewery

 

Keg

Světlé výčepní pivo 10, Pilsner – 3.8% ABV, Bernard Family Brewery

Veltins Pilsener, Pilsner – 4.8% ABV, Brauerei Veltins

Suffolk Cyder, Cider – 5.5% ABV, Aspall

Cannonball, IPA – 7.4% ABV, Magic Rock Brewing

Our aspiration for turnover was not grand at all. We were simply happy
that we would be able to trade and not make a loss. We knew we had a fantastic bar, so we didn’t want to fill it with the usual ‘big brand’ nonsense. It made sense to serve the best beer possible in this environment, so we source our beers from all over the world via our import company Pivovar.

The bar is so popular that a complaint we sometimes get is that when people come to Sheffield, they don’t go any
further than the Sheffield Tap. They
plan to go out and visit lots of bars in the town but then they get here and don’t leave. As a result, the pub has picked up the nickname the Sheffield Trap!

 

The restoration

When my business partner and I took on the lease, it had no value because the site was derelict. There was no premium to pay as an incoming tenant, there was just the repair and liability, which was very much understated. National Rail still owns it but we let it from them on a lifetime protected lease.

When Network Rail had used it, the space had been partitioned into several different rooms, they had concreted over the floor and used thick red paint to cover the period tiles. And while the building had been derelict, it had been abused and the original ornate barrel plaster ceiling had collapsed from water damage.

We had thought we could open the first side of the bar for £150,000 with a quick refurbishment of a few new windows and a spit and polish. We were naïve, the restoration took seven months. We spent weeks throwing damaged interior material into a skip. We had to replace the ceiling with a replica because it is a Grade II-listed building. The mahogany bar was salvaged from pieces of the original bar, which was rebuilt and polished. It was a huge job and I think overall now we’ve spent just shy of three quarters of a million pounds on restoring the premises.

But we don’t own it. It’s a Grade II-listed building so even if we owned the actual freehold of the building, which we don’t, we could never own the building because it belongs to the state. We are keepers of the building and have the privilege of trading in it. The analogy is like renting a house and building an extension on it, so it’s a bit crazy.

We’ve spent far too much money on the place. I don’t think we’d have done it if we knew then what we know now. However, I have absolutely no regrets, I’m pleased we didn’t know. Naivety was key.

 

The early days

The pub nearly didn’t open at all when I was arrested the day before.

The fitters were finishing the vinyl floors and I needed to settle the invoice. I went to the cash machine and got £750 in crisp notes. I’d been working with the French polisher so I was covered in acetate, paint thinners and primers. As I starting walking back across the station concourse, a police dog grabbed my arm and dragged me to the floor. The policeman thought I was some kind of drug dealer because the drugs dog had just gone wild. He told me to empty my pockets and I pulled out £750 in cash. When I said I was working on the pub at the station, he said “There’s no pub at this station!” So I said: “There won’t be one if you don’t let go of me!”

They let me go eventually. It turned out that the dog had smelled the paint thinner on my jeans from the French polishers doing the bar.

When we did open the next day we were overwhelmed by the level of interest. We thought the interest would die off but it didn’t. Cask ale drinkers don’t like queuing, so we started getting bad reviews because the security were holding people back at the door because we were at legal capacity.

We had more space that we hadn’t developed yet, so we needed to open that quickly. We had planned to open the hallway in a couple of years’ time and then open the dining room in year six. But we realised we had to open the hallway quick and the dining room was developed in year three.

 

The team

There are 15 staff that work in the bar led by Phil. He trains the staff and they are encouraged to taste everything, Phil says you can’t sell it if you haven’t tried it. The staff go to beer festivals and on visits to Thornbridge Brewery. We also encourage them to have a go at brewing so they understand the process. A lot of our staff are students from Hallam University. They stay for the three years and become experts in that time.

There’s scope in the company for internal progression as the staff move between sites. Phil has lost a lot of good staff to our other sites because the Sheffield Tap is a real proving ground. It’s a compliment to his training. Phil says it’s good to know that people can get recognition and move up the career ladder.

 

The drinks

When we opened the Sheffield Tap, there were very few people selling beer from outside the city, certainly not Continental or world beers. The term ‘craft beer’ didn’t exist in the way it does now.

In Sheffield, there’s a great localised market with lots of brewers in the city and that was something we tried to get away from. We tried to promote that there’s an abundance of ale beyond the city limits and give ourselves a point of difference from other pubs.

We have the independence to buy from anyone. It has got to the point now that we couldn’t operate any of our bars – the company has seven – to the limits that we do without our central whole-sale system, which is run by our parent company Pivovar. Everything comes
into our warehouse, its purchased directly from the brewers, there’s no
secondary wholesaler.

We have 11 cask beers – predominantly from the UK – but we have had Belgium and Czech beer as well. Our keg range can be up to 12 different beers, it varies. You have to have a balance, you can’t have a bar full of high-percentage beers. If you have one that is 3.5% or 4% ABV then it’ll go really quickly.

The pub is 99% wet-led, the other 1% is pork pies and crisps. We had an opportunity to put in a kitchen next door but we made the conscious decision not to. Food changes the feel of the building
and I think it would detract from the quality beer service. We want people to be able to enjoy our beers because they aren’t cheap. We’ve had an Australian Imperial IPA 8.8% ABV at £9; it’s a sipper.

I used to get the hump with people who said: “You’re just profiteering off the station and the transient trade”. I’d reply that if we wanted to do that we would have Foster’s, Stella and the other usual suspects on the bar. That is not what we’re about. We’d have a
much easier life if we just sold the bar out to Heineken and had regular deliveries from somewhere else instead.

 

The future

Both our breweries are pretty much at full production. We’ve just acquired more space at the Sheffield Tap so we’re putting more tanks for the brewery in.

We know there’s further scope to grow our brewing business, so we are looking to enhance our external facilities, which means another brewery, a bigger external one. The finance is in place and we’re purchasing the land now, although we’re two years away from production.         

Related topics: Other operators, Marketing, Training, Beer

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