I'm in the pub with Dann Paquette and Martha Holley-Paquette, who together once ran the wildly popular Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project. Martha, seated next to me, is gazing past Dann's shoulder. She sees not the back room of the Kelham Island Tavern but bars in Boston over half a decade ago.
"People would come up to us all the time and be like: 'I'm very rich; I'll give you a million dollars.'"
We've been discussing their decision to close Pretty Things at the end of 2015, and Martha is getting animated.
"And we'd be like: 'First of all, you're drunk. And second of all, you're gonna call me up and you're gonna want me to make a beer for your daughter's wedding and you're gonna want me to put this label on it and put this ingredient in it, and I'm gonna be wanting to punch you in the face. That's not a good place to be.'"
When Pretty Things closed it had hoards of fans, thousands of accounts in Boston and New York City, and sales topping $1.5 million per year—plus multi-million funding offers to turn their cuckoo brewing project into a settled brewery. But instead Dann and Martha shut the project down and spent two years travelling.
"We had burned out," Martha explains.
A fairy-tale feeling
What came next was, unsurprisingly, more brewing. The couple's new venture is called Saint Mars of the Desert brewery (or SMOD for short). What observers might not have seen coming is that this is based in Sheffield, England.
Dann and Martha have settled in Attercliffe, a neighborhood filled with the crumbling remnants of Sheffield's industrial past. Their new taproom sits opposite a former steel foundry, in brick buildings that once housed its offices.
Its double doors are painted bright red with a white, tree-like symbol split across both halves. (Many of Dann and Martha's designs for SMOD echo those from Pretty Things.) Above these doors, a hand-written welcome message ushers you into a tiny, magical space.
Inside, the walls are covered with more handwritten quotes and poems referencing Jack D'Or—the name of both a Pretty Things flagship beer and a mythical figure based on a malted grain of barley. There are signs taken from old French and German breweries, beer books piled in corners, and a garland of dried hops snaking along one wall like a frieze. It feels like a beery Narnia, a parallel world that Dann and Martha have built around themselves.
And the beers?
"Well, the beers here are much better," says Dann. "We have more control. We used to have to think about distribution way too much, but here we have control over it a lot more. It doesn't go out far. We're not sending it to California anymore."
One of SMOD's early fans was Dominic Driscoll, Production Manager at the nearby Thornbridge brewery. He had been a keen Jack D'Or drinker, when he could manage to get hold of imported bottles, and so was eager to give Dann's new beers at SMOD a try.
"Beer gets you down because there's lots of poor quality NEIPAs kicking around and I'm just not interested in any of them to be honest," Driscoll says. "But this was a beer called CITO, which was their first one, and it just hit the spot. It was dry, it was bitter, it had a Noble hop character. Just something that I hadn't tasted in god knows how long. For a new brewery to come along and do that, it was like I'd finally come home."
At one point Dann had entertained ideas of becoming the sort of austere, German-inspired brewer who makes only one beer, and spends his days slowly refining its recipe toward perfection. CITO would have been that beer.
"We realized very quickly that if we did that we would fail," says Martha. "So after that we just went whole-hog, brewing a new beer every single time."
Some of these brews, like Clamp IPA, were hits in the taproom and stuck around to become what might be SMOD's nascent core range—although that is far from settled at this point.
Dann has even brewed Jack D'Or twice at SMOD. "Both times it has been a completely different beer to what we used to make in Boston, but both times the heart of the beer, what we were trying to achieve, was similar," says Martha.
While Saint Mars of the Desert is not Pretty Things Mark II, there is nevertheless a thread running from one to the other. "It's like what Pretty Things always wanted to be," Martha says. "Yeah, it is," says Dann. "With a much better name as well."
With its otherworldly name, SMOD feels like a brewery transplanted from somewhere else—even though Martha is English (from Yorkshire no less, the county in which Sheffield lies) and even though Dann has lived and brewed in Yorkshire before.
It’s not just the name (which by the way comes from a small French village where the couple very nearly settled down) nor Dann’s sort-of mostly Boston accent that lends SMOD its otherness. Dann is busy creating beers that don’t feel like anyone else’s. They’re not entirely American, not entirely British, and have a dash of Belgium and Franconia to them, too.
"Dann likes to be an outsider," says Martha. Dann nods in agreement. "I'm an adopted kid," he says by way of explanation.
And although Saint Mars of the Desert seems more permanent than a project, neither Dann nor Martha thinks they are building a legacy. "We're the kind of people who vanish," Martha says.
"We really enjoyed dismantling Pretty Things," says Dann. "It felt really good. Things shouldn't last forever."