Meet the brewery donating their first batch to key workers

There’s no such thing as a perfect time to take the plunge with starting a business, but it is hard to imagine a more challenging one than during the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s exactly how it worked out for Nick, owner of Steel Brew Co in Plymouth, UK. Within a day of getting the power switched on at his brand new taproom, located in the stunning Grade 1* listed Melville building in the historic Royal William yard, the government ordered the shutdown of businesses.


Like many participants in the recent craft beer boom across the UK, Nick started as a home brewer. His background is in management and IT, and he is still working his day job alongside running the business. After spending last summer out and about in the community doing pop-up events, he decided to commit to opening his taproom and brewery premises.


Nick told me that the whole experience has been a huge learning curve, particularly because he’d never used a six barrel system before. By the time the first brew day for Steel in their new premises arrived, the supply chain had almost collapsed. “I had this moment where I thought, I can either go for it or not, and if I don’t, I don’t know when I will” Nick said. “It seemed a very fitting sentiment to give whatever we produced to key workers.”

steel taproom

Giving away free beer may sound simple, but Nick explained that the logistics of getting the beer to some businesses has presented challenges. “Getting into the NHS has been really difficult” he noted.


The beer to be donated gets packaged for distribution using cardboard milk containers. It takes Nick about 40 mins to pour 100 units. Then, he and his wife and dog hop in the car to make the deliveries. Nick explained that they have deliberately kept their team small to limit risk. On one delivery run, Nick and team arrived at a local Parcel Force depot, and the guy who came out thought it was a joke. “It felt like a really positive thing to do” Nick smiled.

steel brew beer

As Nick tells me of the taproom, which uses recycled pallet furniture and an open-plan layout, with no screen between the seating area and brewing equipment, I’m eager to visit. The space he has selected perfectly lends itself to this open concept, which for me is reminiscent of the breweries of Portland, Oregon. “If someone was sat at bar space next to the brewing equipment and I’m cleaning, we’ll have to put a sign up saying ‘please don’t wear a nice shirt’” Nick joked.


Nick is optimistic about the future, despite the strange beginnings for his venture, and thinks that the southwest of the UK is ripe for expansion of the craft beer industry. He talks of bringing in a head brewer once he is ready to grow the operation, but is clear that it won’t quite be ‘business as usual’ in the way that he initially imagined it for quite some time. “We keep talking about when the lockdown is lifted, as if that’s going to be a single thing. It isn’t.”


Luckily, Nick has plenty of ideas about how to adapt to the new reality, like click-and-collect style orders, and setting specific timeslots for beer pick-ups to assist with social distancing. “I’m really looking forward to seeing how it all unfolds.”

steel box

Pining for pubs

For the first time in as long as I can remember, I have not enjoyed a beverage of any kind in a pub, bar, taproom, cafe or restaurant for over a week. It’s a strange feeling.

I am, of course, supporting local breweries by buying take-out growlers and crowlers. I’ve made a particular effort to support those that don’t have any distribution to local bottle shops and grocery stores. In addition, I’ve tried my best to order the beers that needed drinking the soonest. That Czech-style lager I had my eye on will still be there in a couple of weeks in excellent form, but the delicious NEIPA I devoured at the weekend won’t weather the closures quite so well.

It has been fantastic to support local businesses; I count myself incredibly lucky to live close to so many wonderful breweries and to have the means to throw them a little custom during this trying time. That said, I miss grabbing a drink out and about. Going to brewery taprooms, pubs and bars is never just about the beer. It’s a bookend to a day, a chance to watch the world go by, and a way to share an experience with someone.

Right now, even turning up in-person to buy the beer to take away can’t emulate any of that. The taprooms are eerily quiet, and my order echoes around the room. The poor staff look as exhausted from it all as I look and feel too. I try my best to offer my sympathies, and ensure to tip generously. Knowing I’m giving my support to local business is a good feeling; just not nearly as good a feeling as if I was able to stick around.

I keep thinking about some of my favorite pubs back in the UK and trying to imagine them empty. For places like the Harp, which I’ve never seen any less than bustling, even on a Monday lunchtime, it’s near impossible to envisage.

Right now, the uncertainty is the scariest part. No one knows quite when all will be back to normal in our various corners of the globe. All I know is how much I’m going to enjoy sitting on a bar stool, chatting to friends and strangers alike, and listening to the warm, comforting hum of voices swirl around the room again.

The Christmas Day pub trip

First comes the hard part; self-restraint. Bucks Fizz will be flowing freely all morning after all, and I will need to stop myself from overindulging on the bubbles in order to save myself for a pre-lunch pint.

We’ll open some presents and snack on bacon-wrapped sausages (crispy and a little burnt around the edges, just the way they should be), before bundling up in woolen jumpers and long coats to head outdoors. It’s around a half hour walk to the pub. It’s not the closest one to my childhood home, but it is the best. The sort of place with old tankards hanging from the walls, barrels repurposed as perching tables in corners, and a hardy wooden bar top streaked with scrapes from the decade, layered over scratches from the decade before that.

But first, the journey, which in itself is a ritual. We’ll say ‘merry Christmas’ to each person we pass, because for some reason talking to strangers in the street is appealing to even the most withdrawn of Brits at this time of year. Chalk it up to the fact that everyone has had a tipple with breakfast, and inhibitions have floated away with the morning mist.

My favourite part of winter walks when I was younger was to stomp across the frosted grass tips in the park, turning the tiny white crystals to water with a satisfying ‘crunch’ sound. To be honest, it still is. The only difference is that my mother doesn’t tell me not to get my shoes messy anymore.

Somehow, the reduced opening hours of pubs on Christmas Day mean that there is all the more to savour. I can already anticipate the warmth that will greet me as the door swings open, spilling the heat from the fire onto the chilly street as I step inside. My glasses will mist up, obscuring my view of the smiling faces and colourful festive jumpers.

It will be noisy and crowded, but undeniably cheerful. Locals will be sat on bar stools as their dogs sit at their feet, lapping at large bowls of water. The barman will be wearing a brightly coloured waistcoat and a matching tie, the same as always.

We’ll seek out a spot to sip at our perfectly pulled pints, standing shoulder to shoulder, undoubtedly bumping into some people that one of us knows.

The cold air won’t feel as harsh the second time around. A cool breeze against my now flushed face will enliven me just as the post-pint stupor looms, and I’ll turn my mind to preparing lunch. And although there will be many other pub trips to come during the holidays, there won’t be one that is quite the same for another 365 days.

Hard seltzer and hard to break routines

A couple of weeks ago, I met a friend at a local taproom. When I arrived, a glass of something transparent and fizzy was sat in front of her. Hard seltzer.

“I don’t like beer” she had explained previously.

Before you write me off as a somewhat selfish date, let me clarify that I’d chosen the taproom because I know that they typically have a couple of ciders available. Instead, she’d opted to give the seltzer a whirl.

Hard seltzer has been gaining popularity in taprooms across the country, or so I hear. I have nothing against hard seltzer as a drink, but there’s not much I like about it either. It’s bland, and the fizzy-ness without any depth of mouthfeel just rubs me the wrong way. That said, I can certainly see how having something a little lighter and healthier might appeal to some drinkers from time to time.

What I am concerned by is the culture of seltzer as a beer substitute. If it becomes a taproom staple, it makes it easier for people to perpetuate the claim that they just don’t like beer. Call me belligerent, but I’m just not ready to take all of those people at their word, 100% of the time.

In a recent Twitter conversation, a brewer told me: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a husband and wife walk into the taproom and then leave because there wasn’t something the wife wanted.”

More than just the gender stereotypes (true as they be in the case) make me dismayed at this statement. I wonder how long it will be until taproom managers just ‘give up’ on asking pertinent questions to match the reluctant guest of a beer lover to something that might actually wind up knocking their socks off. Seltzer could be a substitute for that conversation. But should it be? Does anyone actually legitimately ‘love’ hard seltzer, or is it usually ordered as a last ditch choice, by the poor wife in the brewer’s anecdote, or by my friend whom I dragged to a microbrewery with me?

Shortly after my friend and I ordered our second round – another pint of fizzy alcoholic water for her, a beer for me – I slid my glass across the table to her. She sniffed at the dark mauve liquid inquisitively. I encouraged her to take a sip.

“It’s a fruited wheat beer”, I told her, explaining how the wheat produced a creamy mouthfeel. It was a beautiful pint too; fruity, tart, and perhaps importantly in this case, with no detectable hop flavor.

“That’s really nice” she exclaimed, seemingly surprised, turning back to her sparkling pint of transparence with a somewhat lackluster gaze.

I have a feeling she’ll be trying something different next time.

White wheat ale recipe

Today I cracked open the first bottle of a white wheat ale I made a few weeks ago. I fermented for 2 weeks and conditioned in bottles for 4 weeks.

I mashed at 157F, which was a little higher than I was aiming for, but I wanted to go for something on the higher end with the aim of getting a fairly full bodied beer. I chose to add a few extra early hops and ease off on the late additions, to ensure that the hop flavor bomb didn’t steal the show from the wheat in the final flavor profile.

I’m happy with how this turned out – the bitterness and flavor profile is pretty much what I was aiming for. Next time I might dry hop for a bit of extra aroma, and perhaps try adding lactose/more wheat, and making this a hazy beer.

white wheat

This was a nanobrew, but I’m including the grain info recipe:

Mash at 157F for 45 min

2 lb 12 oz grain per gallon
55% 2-Row pale
35% white wheat
10% flaked wheat
Mash for 50 minutes

0.8 oz of hops per gallon
Pacific Jade and warrior first wort hops
Pinch irish moss @ 15 min to go
Columbus @ 15 min left
Citra @ 10 minutes left
Mosaic @ 5 minutes left