Leeds, of course, has a long and venerable history when it comes to brewing, stretching back to at least the brewery installed at Kirkstall Abbey’s foundation in 1152, plus evidence of brewing at the Temple Newsam estate in the 18th-century, the subject of an exhibition there in 2018.
But much more familiar to us today are, of course, names like Tetley’s Brewery – formed in 1822, though the Tetley family’s links with the brewing industry stretched back even further into the 1740s.
We have a small but interesting collection of Tetley’s material at the Central Library, which you can read more about in our leaflet (click on the image below to view).
Tetley’s, of course, was taken over by the Carlsberg Group in 1998. Today, however, beer in Leeds is largely associated with independent breweries like North Brewing, Northern Monk, the Kirkstall Brewery, Wilde Child, and a whole host of others around the city, its suburbs and towns – from Farsley to Methley. Most, if not all, of these would be described in some way as being part of the ‘craft beer’ movement that has become increasingly popular over the last 10-15 years.
It’s hard to say exactly when craft beer emerged, either nationally or locally – this is much less a revolution than a gradual shift in taste and provision, as Boak & Bailey’s fantastic history of beer in the UK makes clear – but probably most people know it when they see it (or taste it), particularly given its emphasis on independence, experimentation in terms of beer styles and a deliberate focus on the quality and provenance of ingredients, particularly hops.
Leeds, in fact, had already played a large part in the development of craft beer: Michael Jackson’s classic 1977 book The World Guide to Beer is often credited with kickstarting a more serious and intellectual approach to brewing, having “a special influence on the popularisation of the brewing culture in North America” – where craft beer and brewing is usually said to have begun. Jackson was born and raised in Leeds.
Why, though, did craft beer more properly emerge in the UK, even if we can’t say exactly when? Well, many authorities point to Gordon Brown’s progressive beer duty in 2002, which massively cut taxes on the first 500,000 litres of beer produced each year – but only for breweries producing less than 3m litres per year. This gave smaller – microbreweries – a huge competitive turbo boost.
All the Leeds breweries we associate with this movement launched after 2002, many not until the next decade, in fact. There is some evidence that the closing of the Carlsberg-Tetley brewery in 2011 played a part in these developments – Mike Hampshire, Leeds beer evangelist, has said:
“The single key turning point in Leeds beer has been the closure of Tetley’s Brewery in 2011. As sad and difficult as it was, it effectively hit the reset button on the Leeds beer scene. The US craft revolution was well underway and lots of micro-breweries started popping up, seeing the huge gap in the Leeds market for traditional ales and US-influenced modern styles.”
But it’s also of great importance that a grassroots infrastructure and community was already in place in Leeds to support those breweries, both in terms of places open to selling those kinds of beers, and also in terms of a knowledgeable consumer base with a pre-existing interest in and regular exposure to relatively exotic beers.
This was fertile soil with its roots deep in the 1990s and attempts to create what has been called a ‘European café culture’ in Leeds. Beginning around 1992, with the opening of Indie Joze in the Victoria Quarter and then the legendary Arts Café on Call Lane in 1994, Leeds was slowly developing the infrastructure of a bar scene that was increasingly far removed from the image of the traditional Northern boozer; far likelier to be serving cappuccinos, single glasses of wine or European beers then pints of Tetley’s.
And it was from this scene that the true starting point for the Leeds beer renaissance emerged: North Bar, often called the country’s first craft beer bar for its emphasis on a wide range of worldwide beers, which opened in July 1997 on New Briggate, where it is still to be found to this day, replacing the hardware store ‘Knobs and Knockers’ – a change that possibly says as much as anything about the way Leeds city centre has changed over the last 25-30 years.
North Bar’s owners – John Gyngell and Chistian Townsley – who met working as barmen at the Town & Country club – initially didn’t intend the bar, in its very earliest years, to focus entirely on exotic beer at all – the drink was supposed to be part of a whole package, similar to the Arts Café: a European-style bar where you could feel as comfortable ordering a cappuccino as another pint at 9 or 10 in the evening. But the bar became increasingly focused on beer, led in part by the demands of its new customer base. North Bar soon began incorporating increasing numbers of imported beers, particularly the kinds of American beer styles that drove the craft beer boom; indeed the first UK draught servings of important beers like Sierra Nevada and Brooklyn Lager were poured at North Bar.
Slowly, North Bar became a legend, both locally and nationally – a beer lover’s mecca at the heart of a post-industrial city otherwise known for its hardcore party and nightlife scene. It’s this that – at least in part – created the cultural space for craft beer and breweries to flourish in Leeds – no doubt almost everyone involved in the scene had their eyes opened, at some stage, to a particular style of beer at North Bar.
Other, similar, venues followed – especially in the last decade: Friends of Ham, Tapped, Brownhills and others. Whereas in 1997 it was hard to find somewhere to drink in Leeds that wasn’t a traditional pub, the pendulum has now swung almost entirely the other way – and North Bar played a huge role in that shift, even launching its own brewery in 2015: North Brewing.
Alongside North Bar, Leeds was also fortunate to have another institution that opened around the same time as North Bar, though now sadly closed – and that’s the Headingley beer shop, Beer Ritz, which opened in about 1998, initially online but with a physical presence soon after. Often feted as the longest operating specialist beer bottle shop in the country, the store was another huge influence on the development of modern beer trends and tastes in Leeds. In fact, one of the most influential of all local craft beers was initially brewed in 2011 in the backroom at Beer Ritz – Rooster’s Baby Faced Assassin.
Together, these two venues (and this is probably simplifying things a little!) made Leeds a beer lover’s paradise; not just a place to drink to get drunk, but a city where the connoisseur could enjoy and discover a wide range of beer styles, creating the cultural space for craft beer and breweries to flourish in Leeds; so much so that, by the 2010s, Leeds was hosting two major beer celebrations: Leeds Beer Week and the Leeds International Beer festival.
Beyond that very specific, local inheritance, we might also think about what Leeds already had in place in terms of an historical inheritance: we’ve already mentioned Leeds’ long history of brewing – but what was also important was that Leeds, like many post-industrial cities, already had dormant physical spaces, perfect for reinvention – like the flax store part of the old Marshalls Mill in Holbeck, which local pioneers Northern Monk operate from.
Interestingly, in fact, Northern Monk, as much as any other of the modern Leeds breweries, play with their place in Leeds’ and West Yorkshire’s industrial and cultural heritage in a creative way, framing themselves quite self-consciously as the heirs to innovators such as John Marshall; for instance, their 2017 beer City of Industry pays tribute to both John Marshall and the men and women who worked in his Mill.
Northern Monk’s commitment to local heritage spans beyond the immediate locale of their own brewery – in 2018 they brewed a collaboration beer, Evolution of Tradition, to tie-in with the Temple Newsam beer exhibition mentioned earlier, and which was inspired by a 1736 recipe for a ‘pipe of pale strong beer’.
Kirkstall Brewery too, do much the same thing: their name is a deliberate revival of the 19th-century Kirkstall Brewery, and their flagship Dissolution IPA pays homage to the nearby Abbey.
Kirkstall Brewery have also regularly collaborated with partners around the city, from North Bar itself – for a time they brewed the house pale ale, Prototype – to recent ventures like this beer, a collaboration with local street artist Burley Banksy:
Collaborations, in fact, are at the heart of the craft beer movement, something we’ve already touched on with the brief story of Beer Ritz and the Rooster’s beer. Some of those collaboration are between different breweries, whether locally – a tie up between Holbeck’s Northern Monk and Sheepscar’s North Brewing; or internationally – like this North Brewing beer from last year, a collaboration to support hospitality professionals worldwide.
As one person I spoke to a few years ago suggested, part of the reason for this is that Leeds has “everything in one place” – that is, production – breweries; distribution – bottle shops; and consumption – pubs and bars; all within a few miles of one another, all feeding off one another and sparking new creativity. Not just those directly connected to the production of the beer itself, either – the sector draws in and collaborates with graphic designers, artists, other food and drink producers, writers, bloggers, musicians, photographers; a whole community of largely independent creatives.
But some of the most interesting are, I think, the ones that cross disciplines and both illustrate and generate a sense of community among independent creators in the city – whether that’s a collaboration between a brewery and a football fanzine; a collaboration between a brewery and a local coffee shop & roasters; one between a bottle shop (the now sadly defunct Tall Boys Beer Market), a brewery and a comic book shop (OK Comics); those between breweries and local artists (see above); between breweries and restaurants; not to mention the fact that the designs of the cans means breweries regularly draw on the efforts of other local creatives – North Brewing’s eye-catching cans, for instance, are put together by local design studio Refold Designs, run by James Ockelford who is, in turn, creative partner for Leeds Beer Week.
In short, there is a whole creative eco-system that has grown up around, or been pulled in by, the local craft beer industry in Leeds over the last 10, 15 and 20-years. In this sense, Leeds’ craft brewers, bottle shops and bars are merely the latest in a long line of local innovators at the heart of national and international networks of trade and ideas; demonstrating the city’s continual powers of dynamism and self-renewal, all sitting within a culture of mutually supportive cross-pollination; drawing on the city’s history and heritage and, in the process, becoming an essential part of the Leeds story themselves.