For the past few decades, real ale has been perceived as an exclusive oddity for beard-stroking bores. Yet in recent times, new generations have embraced the quality of this intricate industry and reinvigorated brewing into a cool and essential world. Now modern bars and traditional boozers alike stock an array of intriguing craft beers and excellent local brews. The scene has changed from lone old obsessives sipping flat pints in tired pubs, to social young eccentrics supping rounded pints in vibrant bars.
At the forefront of this movement are several breweries, new and old, which are producing a range of forward-thinking, tradition-respecting beers, nowhere more so than in Leeds. The likes of Ilkley, Ridgeside, Whippet, Burley Street, Golden Owl, Kirkstall, Sunbeam, WharfeBank, North Brewing Company, Northern Monk and Leeds Brewhouses are all creating drinks that the city has embraced and the nation has admired
The emergence of these breweries could be seen as a Yorkshire grit reaction to the recent cold closure of the famous Tetley Brewery. Sam Parker of cask ale specialist Whippet Brewing Company explains how the industry in Leeds adapted; “The void left by Tetley’s has been filled by around 15 breweries now and we are pleased to see us all flourishing,” he says. “There is plenty of competition but no one is really vying for the same area of the market and we certainly aren’t shy at recommending other Leeds breweries to our customers.” This healthy relationship between the breweries has helped one another expand and caused the output to diversify.
For the Leeds public, the scene has been accompanied by a mix of fine places at which to sample these delights. Dozens of pubs, including the city’s oldest (Whitelock’s), its newest (Headrow House), and many in between, now line their bars with changing choices from local suppliers.
Some of the brewers have opened their own to serve their offerings directly. Northern Monk’s Russell Bisset explains why bridging the gap between brewery and bar makes sense; “The idea was to showcase our beers in an environment that gives people the opportunity to experience our whole ethos.” The historical building with a cool industrial twist does indeed suit their produce, a range of constantly developing, powerfully flavoured drinks that personify the craft beer resurgence. Russell explains that these modern tasting ales are actually based on traditional recipes; “We take the best of old and move forward,” he says. “There is a perception that British ales have low flavour but if you go back further to IPAs from the 1700s and to Russian imperial stouts, they are strong styles of beer.” Using these bases for interesting and seasonal additions, Northern Monk have quadrupled their audience and entered six countries whilst keeping its proud Leeds foundations.
Interestingly, the original Leeds craft beer bar, is journeying the other way around. Long before the current craze, North Bar was already showcasing brews from around the world to the city and is now aptly about to enter the brewing market for the first time
North director, Christian Townsley tells how and why this came about; “We’ve been talking about brewing for over ten years but for one reason or another we didn’t make any major progress. Then a short time ago we started thinking seriously about it again, sourced kit and a site and worked incredibly hard to realise our dream.” North Brewing Company (officially a separate business to North Bar) hope to open before the end of this year and are aware of expectation; “Given the reputation North Bar has forged over the years and the place we have in the modern UK beer scene expectation will be high, we can’t put mediocre beer out there.”
Fortunately they’ve an unequalled knowledge and experience of the market, having lived through years of change; “Since North Bar opened in 1997 the beer scene in the UK has changed beyond recognition,” says Christian. “The breweries offering a diverse range were few and far between. Now, thankfully, the bawdy sketches of busty barmaids on pump clips are pretty much a thing of the past.”
So where next for the city’s micro-brewers, who are so far successfully challenging the mass-produced giants with flavour and personality? Onwards and upwards, according to Sam Parker; “We are lucky that in general the Leeds beer buying public are a savvy bunch, demanding more from their pints than tasteless fizz. This means the Leeds market is wide open for any independent brewery selling a quality product.”
With the breweries, the bars and the people all equally enthused, Leeds continues to lead the way to a future where talent, passion and character is rewarded and natural quality can triumph. This is a city whose glass will never run dry. We’ll drink to that.
Originally published in issue 1 of the IL Magazine
Words: John Barran
Photography: Declan Creffield & John Slemensek