Pub of the year: Second time around

Tim Hampson and Tom Stainer find out the qualities that made a humble pub the Campaign for Real Ale's National Pub of the Year – twice

The Kelham Island Tavern's glass is much more than half full, it is bubbling over. The back street Sheffield pub has won the Campaign for Real Ale's (Camra) National Pub of the Year for an unprecedented second year in a row. Not bad for a boozer that was rescued from dereliction in 2002 and nearly went under following the Steel City's flooding in 2007.

Back then it was shuttered, boarded and sadly dilapidated when bought by Trevor Wraith and Lewis Gonda in 2001, and most thought its best days, like those of Sheffield's steel industry, had long since gone. But the pair had a vision of running a local pub based on simple virtues – good service, a wide choice of well-kept beer served by knowledgeable staff – which would be a place for people of all ages to sit, chat and sometimes sing, or just read newspapers. And now their dream has become a nationally renowned gem with customers exchanging articulate views on the merits of a Farmers Blonde, a Nutty Black or even a Ludwig Wheat.

"Never in a million years did I think I would get Camra's national Pub of the Year the first time," says Wraith. "To get it again a year later is beyond imagination. Winning last year only made us work harder to meet and beat people's expectations, with people travelling from all over the UK to visit us. With this award, our aim is that we maintain our high standards and continue to fulfill people's high hopes of our pub."

The Kelham is part of a real ale cultural renaissance that has seen Sheffield and the upper Don Valley in particular, become a must-visit place for serious beer lovers or simply the just plain curious. Within a mile or so there are at least another half a dozen or so pubs that could all be worthy winners of Camra accolades.

Small in space, but with a large beer list and an even bigger heart, the Kelham is neat and clean with a seemingly Tardis-like ability to keep allowing more people in, most of whom seem to find a bit of space to call their own.

"We never envisaged anything like this could happen to us," says Gonda. "We are a small, humble pub and we endeavour to serve the best real ale we can." The pub offers up to 13 permanent hand pumps, including two that always dispense a mild, a stout or a porter.

Trevor and Lewis even turned the flooding to their advantage, taking the opportunity of the enforced five-week closure in 2007 to redo the cellar, making the pub and the beer even better.

While cellar craft – the skill of looking after real ale – is not "rocket science", according tor Wraith, it takes a skillful blend of organisation, dedication and a touch of art to produce the Kelham's impressive lineup of ales.

Real cask beer is "live" in that it contains living yeast when it arrives at the pub from the brewery. Wraith has to rack the casks, giving the yeast a chance to settle into the bottom of the barrels. During this period, he'll also tap and vent the cask, a simple process that allows air to enter the barrel and start off the secondary fermentation – when the magic of cask ale happens and the beer "conditions" and improves as it sits in the pub cellar.

Conditioning can take up to 48 hours to turn a "green" beer into one in its premium drinking state and this is where the cellarman's art comes in. Wraith needs to sample every barrel regularly and decide when his beers have reached this optimum and are ready to serve. Leave it too late and he'll miss the beer's peak, too early and the beer will still be too green, its flavors not yet developed to their full.

"Then they go in to the book," Wraith explains. "It lets the staff know which beers I've decided are ready to go onto the handpumps for customers to drink, so they don't have to find me to ask when something runs out."

With the process taking several days between delivery and beer being ready to drink, it's an impressive feat to predict consumption in the pub and make sure you've got beer ready to go even if you're just offering one or two beers.

The fact Wraith manages to offer 13 beers daily, all in excellent condition, is testament to his ability at playing this complex game of multi-dimensional, logistical chess.

"You do have to think ahead," says Wraith, who has been working in the pub trade since being made redundant from an engineering firm in 1992. "You need to make sure you've got enough beer to keep all 13 beer pumps supplied – there's no point having empty handpulls on the bar. I have also got to make sure that I'm preparing a good range of beers ahead of time. And, obviously, I don't want to end up with a lot of unsold beer either."

He's helped by the sheer throughput of the pub, meaning beer rarely gets a chance to spend long enough in the cellar to be in anything but perfect condition. "We can put a nine-gallon cask of some of the regular beers on and they'll be gone in an hour or two," Wraith explains. "On average we've serving four or five nine-gallon casks through every handpump, every week," he adds. It's an impressive consumption, which sees more than 30,000 gallons of beer passing over the bartop over a year.

You don't get to be Camra's pub of the year without having a good sense for what your customers want, as well as an excellent grasp of the cellar crafts. Wraith and Gonda offer a good range of beers from their 13 hand pumps, but also maintain a core of regular ales, which they know local customers will come back for.

"In Sheffield, there seems to be a trend for pale and hoppy beers, so we make sure that we offer those. We always try to strike a balance though, with traditional malty bitters next to milds, porters and stouts.

"The range reflects the seasons, this time of year we'll be moving from the stronger, malty winter warmers and on to more spring and summer drinks like pale ales."

Clearly a man enjoying his work, Wraith concludes with a very pleasant thought: "I can't think of much better than sitting in a pub garden, in the sun, with a nice, summery, pale ale."

His customers agree. They continue to flock to sample the impeccably conditioned beer in this now double-award winning pub.

Kelham Island Tavern is located at 62 Russell Street, Sheffield, S3 8RW. For more information, call 0114 272 2482 or visit kelhamislandtavern.co.uk

THE RUNNERS-UP

Central Southern

Royal Oak Inn, Wantage, Oxon, OX12 8DF (01235 763129; royaloakwantage.co.uk)

Photographs of ships bearing the pub's name adorn the walls of this street-corner pub run by Paul Hexter and wife Frankie – although it's a competition between the pub and Paul for who is most famous. He's been immortalised by the West Berks Brewery whose Dr Hexter's Wedding and Dr Hexter's Healer beers were brewed specifically for the pub, but are now national brands.

The lounge bar features a wrought-iron trellis, mostly hidden by over 300 pump clips. The public bar attracts a younger crowd. A mecca for the discerning drinker, the pub is a primary outlet for Pitstop and West Berks ales in the area.

Greater Manchester

Crown Hotel, Worthington, Greater Manchester, WN1 XF (0800 068 6678; thecrownatworthington.co.uk)

Local Camra Pub of the Year 2006 and 2008, this country inn run by Daniel and Tracy Prince offers a constantly changing selection of between eight and 13 cask ales from microbreweries across the country. The freehouse also acts as the brewery tap for the local Prospect brewery's beers. High quality home-cooked food is served in the bar and conservatory restaurant, while a terrace at the rear has patio heaters for cooler evenings. Mini beer festivals are held about four times a year.

Surrey and Sussex

Royal Oak, Friday Street, West Sussex, RH12 4QA (01293 871393; theroyaloakrusper.co.uk)

A lovely, isolated, low-beamed, narrow free house that is well worth finding, with seven hand pumps for real ale, three for cider and two for perry. Ales are usually from local micro-breweries and are constantly changing. Famously the pub refuses to sell lager.

The Royal Oak provides a centre for community activity with charity fundraising and selling local produce. While it rarely turned up on "good pub" radar prior to current owners Sara and Clive stepping in, this is now a real gem.

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