After a three-year absence, the beloved Boston brewery has reinvented itself in a former British steel town.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated April 19, 2019
St Mars of the Desert
Credit: St Mars of the Desert

When Dann and Martha Paquette finally settled in at their new brewery, Saint Mars of the Desert, the husband-and-wife team cracked a beer called Jack D’Or. This beloved saison was from Massachusetts’ Pretty Things — a brewery that shuttered unexpectedly and somewhat mysteriously at the end of 2015, despite critical and financial success. Jack D’Or hadn’t been brewed in three years. And Dann and Martha should know: Pretty Things used to be their brewery, and Jack D’Or was their flagship beer. To them, the closing wasn’t a mystery at all: It was time to move on.

And yet, their past still informs their present. That ceremonial opening of Pretty Things Jack D’Or is now immortalized in the artwork for Saint Mars of the Desert’s iteration of the beer. On the label, a ghostly figure rises from the old bottle, framing the name Jack D’Or, beneath which it reads “is perhaps not actually dead.” “It felt like a friendly place to go back to,” Martha explains about Jack, which the couple often personifies as an actual person, almost like a guiding spirit.

Jack may be back, but Dann — who handles most of the brewing duties while Marta, a former scientist, leads the way in the lab — admits that the beer isn’t the same as it used to be. Jack has evolved since its last incarnation — much like the couple who created him.

Pretty Things began in 2008 out of circumstance. After 15 years working as a brewer, Dann wanted to open his own brewery. But the couple didn’t have the money, so they began “contract” or “gypsy” brewing — making beer at someone else’s facility. That inexpensive plan to get a new beer brand off the ground quickly turned into a million-dollar-per-year venture.

“Pretty Things happened to us. It wasn’t what we would have chosen,” Martha tells me. “We made a massive success out of it, but then it grew in a way that was not the direction we would have ever have chosen for ourselves…. We were burned out. Just sick of it. So we decided, you know what, let’s just take the money, and figure this out.”

“We always thought that we needed to be smaller, or build a brewery, or something, and we always were sort of thinking, ‘What are we going to do with this thing?’ Because it was growing,” Dann chimes in. “People were offering us to invest and build breweries. Meanwhile, we wanted something smaller like what we saw in Europe: these couples that own little farmhouse breweries and stuff like that. Because then I’m brewing all the time. We can brew together. Not stood inside shops trying to convince people to drink beer. People can come and experience — create our own reality.”

That reality is now Saint Mars of the Desert, which started selling beer earlier this year in Sheffield, a city of about a half-million people located in South Yorkshire, England. The oft-overlooked former British steel hub (with similarities to Pittsburgh, including a hockey team called the Steelers) is a long way from the Boston metropolitan area that Pretty Things called home. Though the brewery name is actually an inside reference to a location Dann and Martha scouted in France, the idea of a “desert” is fitting for the Attercliffe neighborhood where the small, currently 800-barrel brewery is located: a barren vestige of the city’s industrial heyday. (For the record, I live in Sheffield. My band has a rehearsal space in Attercliffe across the street from a brothel. The local fish and chips shop is apparently incredible, but I wouldn’t know: It’s only open three hours a day for lunch. Such is Attercliffe.)

But as the French-inspired name implies, Sheffield was an unexpected landing spot for Dann and Martha too. The success of Pretty Things provided them with just enough financial freedom to take their time and undergo an international search for the perfect spot for their dream brewery. They looked up and down the East Coast, almost settling in the craft beer hotbed of Asheville, North Carolina; they found a perfect farmhouse in France before suddenly realizing their desire to get away from it all might leave them without any customers. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom was a sensible choice: Martha is a British citizen, and Dann had spent two years brewing in England before opening Pretty Things. Originally, the couple began looking around the countryside, but after finding many of the similar logistical problems they would have faced in France, they decided a city was the best bet.

“Dann wanted to be cut off from the world,” Martha says. Dann quickly agrees, “I wanted a compound.” But on a random drive through Sheffield, something caught their attention: “We were like, ‘Wow.’ We saw all of these kinds of buildings, abandoned, and we were like, ‘This is brewery town.’ It has to be,” Martha explains. “And then we spent some time here, and we just loved it.”

“I had heard about Sheffield,” Dann says of his previous stint working in England. “That it was beer town. So I kind of knew that in the back of my head.” But visiting gave him a new perspective: “There are some Boston-y things about it that makes me feel instantly at home.”

A few years ago, a report even named Sheffield the best beer city in the world. Admittedly, it was commissioned by Sheffield University, but don’t let that little detail deter you. “I thought that was brilliant,” Dann tells me. “If you’re going to get people to come to your city to do more beery things, that’s exactly what you need to do. So that really stuck out in my head. I could just look at that report and get all the information I needed.”

Sheffield actually does have a rich brewing history, though one that, like other parts of the globe, has changed dramatically over the past generation. Once home to a number of major producers, by the turn of the century, all of them had shut. But new names emerged. Kelham Island Brewery led the way: When it launched in 1990, it was Sheffield’s first new independent brewery in nearly a century, and by 1999, it had the odd distinction of being the city’s oldest production brewery as well. Abbeydale Brewery, founded in 1996, is probably the city’s biggest name, with their flagship Moonshine a regular on cask lines across the region, though last year, they also began making some pretty impressive New England-style IPAs of their own. Sheffield now has about two dozen brewers in the city limits alone.

And yet, Saint Mars of the Desert is something different — even beyond Dann’s American accent. Most of the city’s breweries tend to focus on cask beer as opposed to the draft kegs we’re used to in the States. Additionally, though brewery taprooms have become a big part of the craft beer business around the globe, in Sheffield, breweries are more likely to join forces with local pubs than open their own doors to visitors. Saint Mars will try to buck that trend, hoping to make their cozy taproom with plenty of (albeit paved over) outdoor space a big part of their business.

St Mars of the Desert
Credit: St Mars of the Desert

Of course, shutting down a successful brewery in Dann’s hometown of Boston to open an unconventional one in a city that neither Dann nor Martha had lived in before (and many Americans have never even heard of) is a huge risk. “Do I have moments of regretting spending all of our money on a brewery in Attercliffe? Yes,” Martha laments. “There’s been moments when I’ve been like, ‘Oh shit, no one’s going to come. We’re not going to make this work.’” However, almost immediately, her tone changes. “But the first night I met Dann, he said, I want my own brewery, and just to have done that is an achievement,” she continues. “So all we’ve got to do is make great beer now. It feels really good.”

St Mars of the Desert
Credit: St Mars of the Desert

One of those beers is the first entry in Saint Mars of the Desert’s Attercliffe Industrial Hop Series — a “koelship & double dry hopped DIPA with Rakau and Citra.” It’s already the best New England-style IPA I’ve had in Sheffield and one the best I’ve had from England (with all due respect to the Cloudwater and Northern Monk breweries). Granted, this is no accident: Dann now has 25 years of brewing experience under his belt, most of which took place in actual New England. He’s confident about his beers, and it shows.

Thankfully, so far, the locals who have found their way to Dann and Martha’s desert seem to agree. “The people who make their way in through these doors, you know what they have to go through to get here, to find this place?” Dann asks me rhetorically. “But when they do walk through the door, they love it in here. And that’s all we need. We need those people to enjoy themselves, so we’re making beer for them.”

As word begins to spread — who knows — maybe they’ll even get some visitors from Boston dropping by to see an old friend named Jack D’Or.