breweries pubs

Getting to know Kirkstall Brewery in Leeds

After a week in Leeds, we’ve decided Kirkstall Brewery belongs in the top rank of UK breweries.

What sent us to the brewery tap on our first night in town was, frankly, panic. On a Saturday night, even in these strange times, Leeds city centre is a lively place – all hens, stags and overflowing pubs. The Kirkstall tap was the first place we could find that was (a) open and (b) beyond the Big Night Out circuit, beyond the ring road.

And what a beyond it is – under the concrete of the A58, past casinos and hotels, past wasteland and the derelict remains of the Arla Foods HQ, just before the vast studio where ITV films Emmerdale.

Set into a square-edged modernist building in gleaming black and glass, showcasing stainless steel brewing kit, the tap itself is like an oasis: warm light, warm brown wood and the smell of pizza on the air.

A sort of magic has been worked in the space with greebling and structure magpied from elsewhere. Antique mirrors and enamel signs add depth and a sense of history, set against panelling, screens, stained glass and engraved glass salvaged from long gone buildings.

It feels like a pub. Or maybe more like a German beer hall. Perhaps a touch too bright, perhaps a touch too open, but certainly somewhere that invites you in and makes it hard to leave.

The range of beer is impressive, too, with five cask ales, and eight or nine on keg, as well as a handful of outside brews. The styles available range from traditional (bitter, pilsner, imperial stout) to modern – ice cream sour and blood-orange hefeweizen.

On our first visit, we zeroed in on Kirkstall Pale Ale (bitter, £3.60/pint), Three Swords (pale and hoppy, £3.80/pint) and Pilsner (£4.20/pint). All three share a precision and clarity that says this is a serious brewery with serious quality control.

Pale Ale provides what you want from Tetley’s: somehow both simple and complex, with malt you can get your teeth into, and a finish that makes you sigh with satisfaction. It’s as hoppy as it can be without the hops breaking out and making a fuss. It was the best beer we drank all week, we think, and might be a contender for beer of the year.

Pilsner came a close second, with a fresh green quality that took us back to Franconia.

Three Swords, by comparison, was merely a bloody good example of the type of beer also produced by Saltaire, Ossett and any number of other Yorkshire breweries. But note – bloody good.

You might have rolled your eyes at the mention of ice cream sour above. Well, guess what – that was also a rather brilliant bit of work. It’s called Gelato Tropicale and is one of those rhubarb-and-custard beers: sugar, a touch of acid, lots of vanilla. It prompted a ‘same again’ from Jess.

It wasn’t all perfect. We didn’t enjoy Black Band porter as much as the others. It struck us as a bit harsh with too much coffee and an aggressive bitterness that made getting to the end of the glass a challenge. But we suspect others might love it and it certainly wasn’t badly put together.

On our second visit, the night before we left Leeds, we had to try the 12.4% imperial stout, Drophammer, at £4 for a third of a pint. Our immediate impression was that someone has been playing around with historic Courage Russian Imperial Stout recipes. We were impressed but, still, it prompted some debate: at that strength, at that price, it should be something pretty special, but we weren’t sure it quite reached those heights. Almost, though – almost.

As a side note, it’s worth noting that Stuart Ross, late of Magic Rock, is now brewing at Kirkstall. Not much fuss has been made about this – we picked it up from Twitter – but he’s a brewer who knows what he’s doing.

And another note, while we’re at it: we also drank a couple of Kirkstall beers at Whitelocks, where they tasted similarly fantastic; and at Bundobust in Leeds, where they didn’t. So don’t be surprised if you encounter it at your local and struggle to match our gushing above to your experience. No beer is bulletproof, especially not cask ale.

Disclosure: in 2014, when Brew Britannia was published, Kirkstall brewed a beer for the launch event at North Bar. We didn’t pay them, they didn’t pay us.


News, nuggets and longreads 16 October 2021: pressure from below

Every Saturday morning, give or take, we sit down and put together a list of the week’s most important, entertaining or interesting beer writing. This week, we’ve got… not much, actually, because one story took up all the air in the room.

Without doubt the story that dominated the week was a tussle over the attendance of breweries at a festival organised by Danish brewing company Mikkeller.

In this case, we can understand if some brewers missed the Mikkeller story first time round – we’d forgotten it, actually, among the flood of similar news from the past year – but the response was where it really went wrong for them.

The lesson for breweries is probably something like this: if you want to be considered ‘the goodies’, whether because it’s part of your brand or completely sincere, double down on due diligence.

If you’re alerted to the fact you’ve entered into a relationship with an organisation that has unresolved issues around bullying or harassment, be ready to either (a) change course decisively and apologise without qualification or (b) take the hit to your reputation.

As a consumer, you might be thinking, bloody hell, how am I supposed to know which beer to buy or not? Honestly, we don’t really think this should keep most ordinary consumers awake at night but if you do want to make an effort…

Elland 1872 porter pump-clip.

We enjoyed Anthony Gladman’s piece for Good Beer Hunting on the past and present of porter, not least because of its science fiction opening:

Imagine you’re standing in the middle of London’s West End. By Centre Point (the 34-story, 1960s Brutalist tower block), facing northeast towards the Dominion Theatre, to be precise… Now imagine you have on your wrist a special watch. Around its face it has a knurled bezel. Turning this adds or subtracts from the date displayed on its face, one soft, haptic click for each day ticked off. Dial the date back to October 16, 1814 and press the button… You find yourself standing in the infamous St Giles “rookery” – a Dickensian slum. It is home to the dispossessed and the desperate. Many are poor Irish immigrants. It is crowded, dirty, and dangerous. Above the reek of juniper and turpentine leaking from the nearby gin shops, there’s a strong smell of beer in the air. Much of the area due west, back towards what was, or will be, the Dominion Theatre, is taken up by Henry Meux’s Horse Shoe Brewery. The locals are starting to look at you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, so you flip the dial forward one day and hit the button once more… A roaring wall of liquid 15 feet high sweeps you from your feet and dashes you against people, against doorways, against debris borne along by its force.

This is an interesting side note, too:

An American M1 helmet.

In a special edition of The Ruffian, his Substack newsletter, New Statesman columnist Ian Leslie provides detailed notes on ‘the Battle of Bamber Bridge’, a little-known incident from World War II:

On a warm midsummer evening [in June 1942] two Military Policemen (MPs) – American officers tasked with ensuring discipline among the troops – drove by one of Bamber Bridge’s pubs, the Hob Inn, on the village’s main road. Roy Windsor and Ralph Ridgeway were based in nearby Preston, but that night, as they passed the Hob, they noticed what they took to be a disturbance and stopped. It’s hard to say what caught their attention but among the mixed crowd of black GIs, British soldiers, and local civilians at the Hob there seems to have been boisterous resistance to the call for last orders. The Americans were unaccustomed to being refused beer after 10pm… Whether what took place constituted disorder or not, Windsor and Ridgeway were determined to treat it as such. After parking the jeep and getting out, Windsor confronted some of the black GIs drinking outside the pub, while Ridgeway went inside. There, he surveyed a scene that must have enraged him. Not only were the black soldiers enjoying themselves, but they were mingling freely with white men and women, an eventuality that the American military had gone to great lengths to prevent.

We touched upon the Battle of Bamber Bridge ourselves in 20th Century Pub, in the chapter about the English pub during World War II, but this piece goes much deeper.

Bog myrtle.

We find ourselves enjoying the content at Craft Beer & Brewing quite a bit these days. It’s old-fashioned, low-key writing about beer, brewing and beer styles which invariably tells us something we didn’t know. This week, it was Joe Stange’s piece on the use of bog myrtle in beer that caught our attention:

A less conventional outfit that likes brewing with bog myrtle is Antidoot Wilde Fermenten, a brewery/winery/cidery based in Kortenaken, Flemish Brabant, about 60 miles east of Brussels. Brothers Tom and Wim Jacobs are specialists in wild fermentations using indigenous yeast and bacteria—and often indigenous ingredients, such as bog myrtle… “We tried it a few times in homebrew experiments,” says Tom Jacobs, “and we were at first surprised that it was more antibacterial than the other herbs we were using. In those experiments, we were not using any hops at all, trying to find out about the possibilities of herb-forward beers, like in the old times. At the same time, we were intrigued by its distinct aromatic profile.”

Finally, from Twitter, a final word on breweries grumbling about being ‘cancelled’:

For more good reading check out Alan McLeod’s round-up from Thursday and Stan Hieronymus’s Monday notes – “But let’s face it. Beer blogs are dead. That is why you are not reading this.”


News, nuggets and longreads 9 October 2021: of data and donkeys

Here’s all the booze and pub writing that grabbed us in the past week, from hop substitutes to Pubtober.

The news that BrewDog’s mobile app left the personal data of more than 200,000 ‘Equity for Punks’ open to exploitation isn’t all that interesting to us in its own right. What is interesting is the sense that it’s yet another blow for a brewing company which is not, it seems fair to say, having a great year. ‘Move fast and break things’ doesn’t seem to be working. Which makes us wonder how long can it be before the founders think, sod this, and exit with their big comedy buy-out cheques.

Another bit of news: Brains is selling 99 pubs, including the famous City Arms in Cardiff. It had already entered into a partnership with Marston’s for the management of its pub estate. Again, not that interesting in its own right, perhaps, but indicative of the direction of travel for an old brewing company of a type which seems increasingly endangered.

Mark Johnson has emerged from a period of silence with an exasperated admonishment for those who bang on about how “you can’t get normal beer anywhere these days”:

Jarl is a good beer. Have I mentioned Jarl before? I like Jarl. I could see Jarl in every pub up and down the land and never tire of it. Am I repeating myself? I like Jarl… But still… I don’t actually want to drink Jarl all the time, despite previous suggestions. I like the variation and the choice. I like the current beer climate of irresistible opportunity… The idea that brewers could start pushing the idea of beer to the limit, in the ingredients used and the method undertaken to get there, was what drove the beer scene forward. Endless openings – the antithesis or even antidote to the rapidly declining pub scene.

For Craft Beer & Brewing Ryan Pachmayer provides an overview of the use of ‘liquid hop terpenes’ as an alternative to hops in brewing:

While many brewers are just trying to keep up with demand for their IPAs, Brandon Capps has had great success in using hop terpenes in some limited-release IPAs. The owner and founder of New Image Brewing, in the Denver suburb of Arvada, combines the terpenes with more conventional hops (in T-90 pellet form) to achieve the final flavor in several of his popular IPAs… “I’ve been using this as more of a finishing salt to date,” Capps says. He uses terpenes for up to 20 percent of the hop bill, focusing on the unique flavor contributions they bring to the base beer, in conjunction with conventional hops.

We’re not necessarily going to link to all of Eoghan Walsh’s ‘50 objects’ pieces but, frankly, this is one of the most interesting runs of beer writing we’ve encountered in a while. It’s going to be turn into a book, right? This week, he turned his attention to Schaarbeekse Kriek:

Schaarbeek is famous for two things: donkeys and cherries. The Brussels municipality, now largely residential, was once farmland. From the 12th century, donkeys (ezels in Dutch) were driven down the Ezelweg road, carrying produce for central Brussels’ food markets. The clacking of their hooves on cobblestone streets caused the people living there to shout “Daar zijn de ezels van Schaarbeek!” – “There go Schaarbeek’s donkeys!” Schaarbeek was the Ezelstad, Donkey Town, and its residents nicknamed ezels.

(Forget it, Jake – it’s Donkeytown.)

We’ve long said that the trick to maintaining or reviving a blog is to get a project. At Bring on the Beer Michael has declared this ‘Pubtober’ and is writing about a new pub each day, such as The Old Arcade in Cardiff:

The Old Arcade is a monument to the game with the odd-shaped ball. It is a celebration in pub form of rugby’s players and of the nations and clubs that have played it over the past 150 years. Every great day in Welsh rugby can be found here somewhere, and some of its darker ones too.

This is proper, old skool blogging which adds to the sum of human knowledge. We’ll certainly be checking these posts out next time we go exploring in Newport, Cardiff and around.

Mining historical sources, as ever, Gary Gillman highlights an interesting nugget: did brewery workers in Burton drink sour beer on the job?

Finally, from Twitter, a plug for this book, which we’re in, and have finally seen in the, er, pulp:

You can read more about it in the Guardian.

For more good reading check out Alan McLeod’s round-up from Thursday and Stan Hieronymus’s from Monday.


News, nuggets and longreads 2 October 2021: Kent, kruks, krisps

Here’s all the most interesting writing around brewing, beer and boozers from the past week, from the hops to hospitality.

It’s been a while since we had a Portman Group packaging kerfuffle but Tiny Rebel has found itself being told off once again:

Tiny Rebel Brewing was found to have breached rules including appealing to underage drinkers, sexual references and causing offence… The Newport brewery also fell foul of the Portman Group’s rules on marketing drinks as clearly alcoholic… Tiny Rebel has withdrawn four beers from sale and said it was working closely with the regulator… The Portman Group said it received complaints from the Metropolitan Police, Alcohol Focus Scotland and a member of the public, leading it to review eight beers.

When you’ve built a brand around bright colours, graffiti and comic book art, we suppose there is constant tightrope walking to be done. But there might also be something in this observation on the market the brewery is targeting:

A barperson at work.
SOURCE: Rowan Heuvel/Unsplash.

For Good Beer Hunting Helen Anne Smith, who works in hospitality as well as editing Burum Collective, has written about the treatment of staff in the industry:

Earlier this year via Twitter, I conducted an informal survey on Typeform for those employed in the hospitality industry in the U.K. Across 100 responses from people working in food and drink in England, Scotland, and Wales, only 40% of workers reported that they felt they were fairly paid for their work. Just 33% of workers were paid above Real Living Wage, with 32% of workers paid the Real Living Wage and 35% of workers on or below the government’s ‘living wage’… Those responses may represent a fraction of the country’s hospitality workers, but these hostile conditions have long been considered an industry norm.

There’s lots to think about as we go out and about to pubs and bars this weekend.

Generalisations about beer culture

Beer gardens that work

Young’s pubs in the West Country seem to do beer gardens unusually well by British standards – but maybe beer gardens are also getting better across the board.

This thought occurred to us as we sat in the garden at The Chequers at Hanham Mills last weekend, on what felt like the final day of summer.

Back in 2012, we gave the following general description of the British beer garden:

Wasps buzz around the hatchback-sized industrial waste bin, over by the wooden fence with its dropped slats. The concrete paving slabs under foot are littered with cigarette ends, knotted crisp packets and squashed chips. The remains of steak and ale pie sit on the next table over, as they have done for the last two hours. A tattered white Bacardi-branded parasol is threatening to break from its moorings in a gathering gale. The ashtray on your table overflows.

Snarky, perhaps, but we’ve seen plenty of beer gardens since that fit that general pattern.

What The Chequers gets right is, first, that its beer garden is built around nature.

The River Avon (the River River, etymology fans) runs along one side and mature trees stand overhead. It feels shady but not gloomy, fresh but not exposed.

The benches are wooden – worn but clean – with parasols where they are needed.

Our neighbours felt close but not too close, their conversations forming part of a warm collective hum.

It’s not perfect, of course. Between the garden and the green space up the hill there is a large car park, around which people were constantly manoeuvring large vehicles or simply running the engines. (What fuel shortage?)

At times, this did somewhat shatter the illusion.

In Germany, we’ve sat in beer gardens on ring roads that solve this problem with hedges and fences.

With pints of St Austell Proper Job at £4.65 and Young’s Original at £4.30 there’s clearly also a premium to be paid for the maintenance of a destination beer garden – and sufficient staff to adequately cover it. We don’t mind that; some might.

Sitting in the shade, feeling content, we started listing other similarly excellent beer gardens we’d encountered. There’s The Lock Keeper at Keynsham, the next stop along the Avon, for example. And, on the river Exe outside Exeter, two in succession: The Turf Hotel and The Double Locks.

Apart from The Turf, those are all Young’s pubs. Based on a brief dig around, it seems acquiring riverside pubs might be part of the pub company’s long-term strategy. If so, that’s not a bad move – what marketing types call ‘nicheing’ – and one we bet has worked out well for them of late.

If you subscribe to the view that every cloud has a silver lining, you might wonder if being forced to drink outside more often in the past 18 months has made British people take beer gardens more seriously. And improved beer gardens and outdoor service, too.

Now we think of it, this is where apps and table service really work. It seems odd to think that, in the summer of 2019, we’d have had to walk the length of the garden, up a flight of steps, through a busy pub during Sunday lunch service, then back again (after a scrum at the bar), every time we wanted a fresh round.