The Fellowship Of Beer visits Caps Off, Bishop Auckland
Bottleshop, Bar, Brewery, Gourmet Burger Takeaway, Street Food Trader, Mobile Events Bar. Caps Off is all of these things, yet at the same time, it’s so much more…
We are on our way to see Ali and the rest of the Caps Off team. I phone him en route. I can hear the sound of his van’s engine and traffic in the background. “I’ll meet you at the brewery, I’ve just got to drop a burger off for me Gran!”
This is pretty standard. Ali is a busy guy, and usually dashing about on some obscure mission between one of the local towns, or else retrieving a piece of bargain equipment from the opposite side of the country. On reflection, delivering food for his grandma sounds almost normal.
Caps Off is the closest craft brewery to ours – Steam Machine Brewing Company – and it’s been a beautiful thing watching Ali as he develops the brand. We are usually on the phone to each other two – three times a week, giving each other advice, swapping ingredients, or just a catch up between our busy lives; but sitting down for a beer and a bite to eat together? Those moments are all too rare, which is why tonight is exciting…
We arrive at the brewery located on Chester Street in the semi-urban red-brick industrial area of Bishop Auckland. It’s a random assortment of makers, fixers, and repairers in a jumble of buildings that have all seen better days.
It’s pouring it down, and the road is partly flooded, but we spy David – Ali’s best friend, and co-owner of the brewery side of the business – and we dodge the raindrops to follow him inside.
It’s been a good few months since I was last here, but in the past year this place has become a fully working brewery.
They share the small building and beautiful automated Chinese brewkit with Hops & Dots Brewery. As we enter, the modern vessels sit there gleaming in the lowlights, and we are welcomed by the smell of fermentation, yesterday’s brew day, and noisy chillers.
There is a lot to love about their brewkit. Every vessel is conical, and has multiple valves and panels that I’m unsure do what. Apparently the mash tun can even dig out the spent grains itself (cheating in my opinion)!
To say they need a bigger place is an understatement. Pallets are double stacked, and everything is crammed literally to the rafters.
Speaking of the rafters, it really is a lovely space, with great timbers, and elegant lighting. The plan is to open it up to the public in the not too distant future…
Today, Hops & Dots are canning a new Kolsch, and James from Caps Off is recording some values on some beers still bubbling away.
We chat with David for a while. He looks a bit tired and is preparing to go home. He works full time in the management of a local supermarket too, and I reflect on how exhausted I was running Steam Machine whilst still full-time teaching in the early days. It’s the passion that carries you along, and there is no shortage of that from David.
Ali arrives, and we talk shop for a while, and I am brimmed with joy at what my friend is creating here, and the people he is surrounding himself with. My professional opinion is called for on a number of technical issues, which is humbling, and then it’s back in our vehicles, and off to Caps Off Bottleshop / Bar / Kitchen just two streets away.
A good thing too, as my stomach is rumbling.
Bishop Auckland is a strange place (words taken from a customer who is from there!). It has a rich history, a beautiful castle that once housed the Prince Bishops, an amazing open country park, where the River Wear ambles through hills of green pasture and ancient woodland on its way to Durham and finally Sunderland. A beautiful old market square and a townhall that would make many modern cities jealous, and long Georgian and Victorian avenues from when the Weardale lead industry was it its peak.
Yet it is also a place of a lot of social deprivation. Behind the veneer of the beautiful houses are neglected council estates, and pot-holed roads. It was once the seat of one the largest levels of unemployment in the North East, and the highest numbers of teenage pregnancies in Europe.
I have a mixed love for the town. I was unfortunate enough to spend time here at a local catholic secondary school. It was mostly an unpleasant experience that was a result of a power struggle between my parents; yet as unhappy as I was, I met my now departed best friend. Each time I pass by the medieval castle, or a pub long closed, I find myself smiling longingly at the thought of the two of us sharing a cask ale together. It is also the town I shared a lot of time with one of my first loves.
So to say that memories swim around me whenever I visit this town is an understatement.
But the town is so different now compared to what it was then. Investment is happening, with money being piled in by philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer. The market is being cleaned up. Stonework restored. Museums opened. And for the hugely improved drinking scene at least, we only have Ali and the gang to thank.
They are truly proud to be from Bishop Auckland. Proper local lads and lasses. Everyone knows them, and they know everyone.
A trained civil engineer, Ali sees how things work. His knowledge on many things is expansive. He tinkers, he reads, he finds a way to make everything work… and he does nearly everything himself. I think that’s why we get on so well, because just like Steam Machine, he has a can-do attitude and just cracks on with the hard work.
I first met Ali when he was a manager of Bishop Auckland’s Wetherspoons, and he was trying to loyally bolster their business on the back of a successful council-run food festival where Steam Machine had done roaring trade.
I had sworn that Steam Machine would never cheapen itself by selling to a chain, especially one owned by such a narcissist, yet Ali half-convinced me otherwise. It was, after all, the only place one could find semi-decent beer in Bishop Auckland; and they were succeeding in selling an independent and local craft fridge to the local populace, out-performing some of the more standard macro-fare. And what’s more, said Ali, didn’t the people of Bishop Auckland deserve decent beer?
The forms to supply Wetherspoons were arduous, yet I couldn’t refuse such an honest sales pitch. Unfortunately for Wetherspoons, Ali was soon made redundant, and so I deleted the forms from existence.
He moved onto project managing an ambitious community venture, that for one reason or another, failed to ever get off the ground – albeit not for lack of passion, enthusiasm, and hard work on Ali’s part.
But the wheels were already turning to start Caps Off…
With limited funds available, many a good friend to lend a hand, Ali and his partner Chloe started their independent bottle shop. And whilst sparring with the council over licencing, and a landlord over building use, they manned the market stalls instead. Craft beer, artisan gin, independent soft drinks… A mobile bar followed.
In and amongst it, charismatic and chatty with all his customers, Caps Off swiftly became the only drinking and street food destination for the locals, and for those a bit further afield too.
And then came the brewery and kitchen…
In four years, and despite the pandemic, Caps Off is thriving. The original bottleshop is still there and is a busy destination, situated in a 70s yellow-brick building beside Bishop Auckland train station.
It’s still raining as we arrive, and Ali quickly shows us how he’s adapted the shop for current Covid restrictions. The place looks great. He’s been busy. As has the kitchen. Last time I was there Caps Off Kitchen was operating from a single shipping container. Now it’s doubled in size, with a kitchen team of four. I speak with Jon Saunders, Ali’s partner in crime for the food-side of Caps Off, and he tells me about new sauces and specials. Ali orders us a range of what’s available, then disappears to find beers.
We sit down beneath a sheltered gazebo, somewhere in the carpark of Halfords, sandwiched between the shop and the converted shipping containers. The food and beer arrive, much to the excitement of my stomach and taste buds. This is certainly not the Bishop Auckland I knew…
As I said above, Ali loves the area he is from. He lives and breathes locality. We tuck into the gin-marinated popcorn chicken and he muses on it: “Well it’s about keeping money in the local economy. I’ve spent money in three maybe four independent food businesses today?” A joke is made about how many breakfasts one man can have, and he slaps his tummy with a grin, “That’s how you get a fine figure like this!”
A lot of the core beers they sell are nods to things they previously sold as a bottleshop, back-engineered, brewed to a high quality, but with their own stamp; whereas the specials are a bit more off-piste, yet totally on point for the craft scene. Bakewell Sours, Fruited Goses, Milkshake IPAs. He knows what sells well, he knows what the people want, and so he happily provides it for them.
Anyone who thinks that Caps Off is anything other than a roaring success is delusional. “It’s what Bishop needed!” A regular exclaims to us as I have a pint of a rather excellent Caps Off weiss beer. He’s absolutely right. This is exactly what Bishop Auckland needed, even if it didn’t know it before Ali and the gang came along with the answer.
But what’s next for Caps Off? It’s gone from market-stall to employing over twenty staff in seemingly the blink of an eye, and all of it done by hard work. As we sit there devouring the last of the scrumptious burgers, Ali talks about building the food brand, and is currently developing a second outlet in Darlington’s revamped indoor market.
“But that’s not all,” Ali says, pouring us their new galaxy NEIPA, “I want more Caps Off in more than just Bishop Auckland. I want little bars of fab beer across the North.”
“Like a local Brewdog?” I suggest.
“Yeah, but without the gimmicks! Actually, did I tell you I met James from Brewdog when I worked in Wetherspoons?”
And Ali tells us a fine story, and I listen with a smile on my face. The rain falls on this town I am all too familiar with, but who cares with such fantastic company, food, and drink?
You can visit Caps Off at:
3 Bob Hardisty Drive
Check them out online here: