In their own words: the development of the Leeds beer scene

A statue in Leeds of a brewer carrying a barrel.

A while ago some­one on Twit­ter said they’d like to read a his­to­ry of the Leeds beer scene. We want­ed to read one, too, but didn’t feel it was our place to write it. Then we recalled the suc­cess of a cou­ple of pieces we’d writ­ten ‘in their own words’ and decid­ed that at least we could facil­i­tate.

What fol­lows is based on emails and inter­views, some dat­ing as far back as 2013 (John Gyn­gell and Chris­t­ian Towns­ley), oth­ers from the past month or so, with light edit­ing for sense and clar­i­ty.

We’ve also used a quote from Richard Coldwell’s blog because we get the impres­sion he wouldn’t want the mere fact that he sad­ly died in July stop him con­tribut­ing on a sub­ject about which he was so pas­sion­ate.

Ian Gar­rett Drinker and CAMRA activist
I first drank in Leeds in the ear­ly 1970s, when I was a stu­dent in Brad­ford and vis­it­ed the city to go to gigs at the Uni­ver­si­ty. The only pubs that beer lovers talked about were The Vic­to­ria Fam­i­ly and Com­mer­cial Hotel, and The White­locks. Leeds was awash with Tet­ley pubs and I remem­ber when doing a PGCE in Leeds the won­der­ful aro­mas waft­ing over the city cen­tre as they mashed in. I guess the ‘beer scene’ in Leeds had a few fal­ter­ing starts. There was the CAMRA owned pub The Eagle which always seemed to be strug­gling when­ev­er I ven­tured there. Then, in the 1980s, The Fox & Newt brew­pub opened and, of course, The Felon & Firkin where Dave Sanders first plied his trade.

Bar­rie Pep­per Beer writer and vet­er­an CAMRA activist
Leeds had a beer explo­sion came around the turn of the cen­tu­ry. I think Ian Fozard – now the Chair­man of SIBA – had quite a bit to do with it. The amaz­ing suc­cess of his Mar­ket Town Tav­erns com­pa­ny, which he start­ed in the mid-1990s with the Long Boat in Skip­ton, like Top­sy, just grew and grew. His pol­i­cy was to sell a good selec­tion of cask beer in pleas­ant sur­round­ings to accom­pa­ny good food. There were also con­ti­nen­tal beers and a fine wine list. The estate grew to ten pubs – all in York­shire, five in Leeds – and by the issue of the 2008 Good Beer Guide, every one of the ten pubs was in it. There were some oth­er fac­tors of course. Tetley’s opened a few brew pubs and was devel­op­ing its Feast group and some Fes­ti­val pubs which had guest beers on their bars. Oth­er brew­eries fol­lowed suit. A cou­ple of small brew­eries locat­ed at pubs opened with prize-win­ning ales. The city’s drinkers had an impres­sive choice.

Having fun behind the bar.
Chris­t­ian Towns­ley (left) and John Gyn­gell at North Bar c.1997.

Zak Avery Beer writer and retail­er
John Gyn­gell and Chris­t­ian Towns­ley from North Bar were pio­neers, doing the beer thing before craft beer exist­ed.

John Gyn­gell Co-founder of North Bar
Peo­ple thought we were mak­ing a mis­take open­ing a bar on Brig­gate. This was kebab alley. I remem­ber dri­ving past here with my Mum and show­ing her the site and she just said: “What the hell are you doing?”

Chris­t­ian Towns­ley Co-founder of North Bar
I was 22 when we opened on 26 June 1997; John was a bit old­er. It was real­ly qui­et for the first six months, or some­thing like that. At first, the beer was­n’t any­thing spe­cial, large­ly because of the brew­ery loan from John Smith’s. Back then, that was real­ly the only way to finance some­thing like this, if you did­n’t have a rich mum­my and dad­dy.

John Gyn­gell
I can’t remem­ber if we approached James Clay or they approached us, but that’s how we start­ed get­ting more inter­est­ing beer. We’ve always had a great rela­tion­ship with them, and we became more-or-less their brew­ery tap. Brook­lyn, Goose Island, that kind of thing.

Chris­t­ian Towns­ley
Erdinger Weiss­bier was an ear­ly one. We were the first place in the UK to sell it and I guess we’re a bit proud of that. In bot­tles, we had the Chi­mays, Duv­el and Anchor Lib­er­ty, when they were pret­ty hard to find. We’d been drink­ing Lib­er­ty at the Atlantic and at Mash. That was a real land­mark beer – prob­a­bly where, for me, some­thing clicked.

North Bar

Matt Gorec­ki Own­er of Zap­a­to brew­ery, indus­try ‘face’
The first Bel­gian beer I had was a Hoe­gaar­den in some ter­ri­ble pub down low­er Brig­gate and I almost smashed a tooth on the huge glass. The same night I was intro­duced to North Bar by a friend and mar­velled at the freely flow­ing pints of Erdinger. When I start­ed work­ing at The Cross Keys [part of the North chain] I was edu­cat­ed by Mr Chris­t­ian Towns­ley in the beau­ty and sub­tle­ty of some of the import­ed US, Bel­gian and Ger­man beers that were avail­able at the time from James Clay. Leeds at that point had a few stand-out venues but inter­est­ing cask ale was only real­ly just start­ing to take hold. My first ever beer pur­chase as man­ag­er was casks of Mar­ble Gin­ger – the first time over the Pen­nines!

Ian Gar­rett
Spe­cial men­tion must go to the orig­i­nal Beer­Ritz which was a whole­sale-retail ware­house where it was pos­si­ble to pick up some great Bel­gian beers by the bot­tle or case.

Zak Avery
After uni­ver­si­ty, I was work­ing on a PhD with the Open Uni­ver­si­ty and also writ­ing music. I was liv­ing in Head­in­g­ley just round the cor­ner from Beer­Ritz and one day in 2000 they put up a sign adver­tis­ing for a part time shop assis­tant. Eigh­teen months in, I was man­ag­ing the shop and a cou­ple of years after that had launched thebeerboy.co.uk to host beer tast­ings as cor­po­rate events. The shop went from strength to strength – best inde­pen­dent beer retail­er 2003 – and I start­ed writ­ing beer-relat­ed web­site con­tent. In my mind, it was before blog­ging was real­ly a thing, but I might be wrong about that. From 2008, I start­ed doing video beer reviews – I’ve been blamed for the whole phe­nom­e­non by var­i­ous peo­ple – and get cho­sen as Beer Writer of the Year by The British Guild of Beer Writ­ers. 2009 saw the blog Are You Tast­ing The Pith? launch and in 2011 my busi­ness part­ner and I bought out Beer Par­adise and Beer­Ritz.

Neil Walk­er Blog­ger, lat­er employed by CAMRA and now SIBA
Dean at Mr Foley’s was the guy that dragged Mr Foley’s into the 21st cen­tu­ry, got good keg beers on the bar and mod­ernised what they were all about. It was always a good ale bar but 2011 was when it start­ed to get real­ly inter­est­ing.

Dean Pugh Head of Euro­pean bar oper­a­tions for Brew­Dog
I moved to Leeds for uni­ver­si­ty in 2003 and was work­ing part time at Wether­spoons. I had a shift man­ag­er there who taught me every­thing about cask ales and cel­lar man­age­ment. I moved into man­age­ment and dif­fer­ent Wether­spoon loca­tions in Leeds, always tak­ing on the respon­si­bil­i­ty of the cel­lar and organ­is­ing real ale fes­ti­vals. I had a friend who was run­ning the tap room at York Brew­ery and they were pur­chas­ing a bar on the Head­row called Dr Okells. I joined as gen­er­al man­ag­er and the bar was rebrand­ed as Mr Foley’s, open­ing in 2007. My ini­tial aim when open­ing Foley’s was to become the best cask ale pub in the city, and we were named Leeds CAMRA pub of the year in 2008. Around the same time I joined Foley’s in 2007 I was also dis­cov­er­ing Amer­i­can craft beer, most­ly through vis­its to North Bar. I remem­ber Brook­lyn Choco­late Stout being one of the first beers that real­ly grabbed my atten­tion and showed me a dif­fer­ent side to beer. I brought this back to Foley’s, begin­ning with an extend­ed bot­tle list, but soon con­vinced my boss­es to hand over that draft lines too.

Neil Walk­er
Mr Foley’s felt like the com­mon room for the Leeds beer scene. Its ample space and rel­a­tive cheap­ness made it ide­al for events and beer-gath­er­ings – bot­tle-shares, beer launch­es and so on. We even had a beer din­ner there with Gar­rett Oliv­er [of Brook­lyn Brew­ery] pour­ing Ghost bot­tles of wine-lees aged sai­son paired with buf­fa­lo chick­en wings and pulled pork pre­pared by Tyler Kiley.

Dean Pugh
I think towards the end of my time at Foley’s we had around six to eight rotat­ing taps for craft beer, two Brew­Dog taps, ten cask ales, bag-in-a-box real cider and prob­a­bly up to a hun­dred bot­tled and canned beers.

Neil Walk­er
One of the ear­ly, key moments for me was IPA­Day in 2011. It felt like an impor­tant moment – every­one seemed to be there and every­one remem­bers it. As well as the inter­na­tion­al beer list there were some great offer­ings from British brew­ers and I remem­ber Zak Avery and Dave from Hard­knott mak­ing impas­sioned and semi-incom­pre­hen­si­ble speech­es on the style. My first mem­o­ry of feel­ing like I was in a beer scene was the Brew­dog IPA is Dead launch at North Bar. There were just so many blog­gers there and at that time it felt a lit­tle bit com­pet­i­tive, albeit in a friend­ly way, and I remem­ber writ­ing up my tast­ing notes at about 6 am the next morn­ing to make sure I was first to press.

Zak Avery
I was shit broke in 2010, real­ly strug­gling to make ends meet, man­ag­ing the shop, try­ing to go free­lance, a new par­ent. I was sell­ing things to meet mort­gage pay­ments. I wrote a real­ly well-paid adver­to­r­i­al for Guin­ness. It was­n’t all totes craft amaze­balls, you know?

Tetley's sign on a pub.

Mike Hamp­shire For­mer local CAMRA chair, own­er of Mike’s Tap Room
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.

Ian Gar­rett
In its hey­day, Tetley’s was one of the biggest brew­eries in the UK, Tetley’s Bit­ter was the best sell­ing beer in the UK, Leeds drinkers knew what to expect from a good pint of Tetley’s, and they drank it by the gal­lon.

Leigh Lin­ley Retired blog­ger, author of Great York­shire Beer
The buzz around the first Leeds Inter­na­tion­al Beer Fes­ti­val in 2012 was fan­tas­tic. A real inde­pen­dent beer fes­ti­val in Leeds, a shift toward keg being not only accept­ed but expect­ed.

Maria Estibal­iz Organ­is­er of the Leeds Inter­na­tion­al Beer Fes­ti­val
We want­ed to cre­ate a fes­ti­val that cel­e­brat­ed and embraced the inde­pen­dent craft scene in the UK as exist­ing beer events weren’t real­ly recog­nis­ing the amaz­ing things that were going on in the indus­try and a lot of new, great brew­eries were being over­looked. We also want­ed to cre­ate some­thing that was a lot more acces­si­ble and inclu­sive for younger audi­ences, par­tic­u­lar­ly women in this age group, as the indus­try and fes­ti­vals at the time were incred­i­bly male dom­i­nat­ed. We also want­ed the brew­ers them­selves to attend the fes­ti­val, meet audi­ences and talk about their beer – and at the same time we encour­aged audi­ences not be afraid to ask the brew­ers ques­tions.

Leigh Lin­ley
I recall sit­ting behind my desk at work eaves­drop­ping on a group of col­leagues who had no pri­or inter­est in beer who had got tick­ets for the Fes­ti­val excit­ing­ly detail­ing what beers they were going to try. That felt dif­fer­ent, for sure.

Leeds town hall

Zak Avery
The first LIBF, held in the city cen­tre at the glo­ri­ous town hall, marked a point where the scene start­ed to prop­er­ly cross over into the main­stream.

Leigh Lin­ley
Leeds host­ed the Euro­pean Beer Blog­gers Con­fer­ence in 2012 – an event that prob­a­bly passed a lot of non-blog­gers by but the impor­tance of hav­ing that many jour­nal­ists, blog­gers, writ­ers and retail­ers in the city can’t be over­stat­ed. I think a lot of influ­en­tial writ­ers went away rethink­ing what Leeds was about. We did the city proud.

Friends of Ham

Gareth Pettman Blog­ger
Friends of Ham open­ing in 2012 was the game chang­er for me – one of those ideas that a lot of us had dreams of, but not the abil­i­ty to exe­cute. Tyler Kiley took over as head beer buy­er there and under the Kitch­ings it was unbe­liev­ably rammed almost every night of the week.

Leigh Lin­ley
Here was a bar that embraced beer cul­ture but offered some­thing total­ly dif­fer­ent. It was a tiny, well-put-togeth­er bar with good beer but also more than that. It bridged the gap between beer and food (although it real­ly was­n’t beer­centric – it sold plen­ty of wine and sher­ry, too) in a way that real­ly shook up the bar scene. And it did it in a rat­ty part of Leeds that’s thriv­ing now, due to key­stone busi­ness­es like FoH.

Richard Brown­hill Lit­tle Leeds Beer House, Brown­hill & Co
Claire and [Antho­ny ‘Kitch’ Kitch­ing] real­ly raised the bar in terms of qual­i­ty in Leeds when they opened. It coin­cid­ed with my move to Leeds and their focus on ser­vice and the orig­i­nal­i­ty of their con­cept was a real scene-set­ter at the time.

Zak Avery
Even though Friends of Ham has been through ‘finan­cial restruc­tur­ing’ which left a bad taste in a lot of mouths (metaphor­i­cal­ly rather than lit­er­al­ly, of course) I don’t think their impor­tance can be over­stat­ed in chang­ing the Leeds beer scene. It was qual­i­ta­tive­ly dif­fer­ent from any­thing that had gone before, and set the blue­print for much that fol­lowed

Richard Brown­hill
It was a real shame what hap­pened with Friends Of Ham. I think their strug­gles just show the fragili­ty of small inde­pen­dent busi­ness­es, regard­less of rep­u­ta­tion or stand­ing in the indus­try. It’s an ever crowd­ed mar­ket out there and it’s very easy for offer­ings to become dilut­ed. It’s great that they man­aged to strike a deal to stay oper­at­ing, and it’s start­ing to get back to it’s best – they have some great new peo­ple in there who have a real pas­sion for the prod­uct.

Gareth Pettman
I arrived quite late to the scene itself and with­out friends who shared my bur­geon­ing inter­est in beer, it wasn’t until Simon Girt, AKA ‘Leeds Beer Wolf’, organ­ised a Twissup in 2014 that I actu­al­ly made an effort to get to know peo­ple in Leeds and beyond. So for me, per­son­al­ly, the peri­od between 2014–2016 was when the scene was at its peak, with reg­u­lar bot­tle­shares, most­ly organ­ised by Rob Der­byshire, AKA Hopzine, and held at Lit­tle Leeds Beer House or North­ern Monk. The open­ing of North­ern Monk was the next big leap for­ward in itself – with­out a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of brew­eries in Leeds this was prob­a­bly the kick up the arse that oth­ers need­ed.

Rus­sell Bis­set North­ern Monk Brew Co.
I start­ed North­ern Monk in a parent’s cel­lar in 2013, launch­ing at The Spar­row in Brad­ford the sum­mer of that year. Orig­i­nal­ly oper­at­ing as a cuck­oo brew­ery, we built our own brew­ery in a list­ed mill just out­side the cen­tre of Leeds, which launched in Octo­ber 2014.

Matt Gorec­ki
North­ern Monk are absolute­ly up there and their rate of growth and mas­tery of the mar­ket has been aston­ish­ing. Their beers have helped put the UK on the map across the rest of the world and espe­cial­ly in the US. Kirkstall’s cask offer­ing and extreme­ly sol­id expand­ing range of beers has been qui­et­ly win­ning hearts all over the place. Kirk­stall have also breathed life into two pubs that had gone to the dogs and man­aged the impor­ta­tion of so many of the gate­way brands and excit­ing US beers – the entire scene owes a lot to Steve Holt and Dave Sanders. There are also scene lead­ers and crossover suc­cess­es like Bun­do­bust, Lit­tle Leeds Beer­house and the team behind White­locks – Ed Mason of Five Points and Ash Kol­lakows­ki – who’ve put this ven­er­a­ble pub back at the heart of the scene.

Beer at Bundobust.

Richard Brown­hill
Leeds Beer Week was start­ed by myself, Matt Gorec­ki and James Ock­elford from Refold Design in 2016 – both to com­ple­ment the very pop­u­lar Leeds Inter­na­tion­al Beer Fes­ti­val but also to have a week where the many venues of Leeds were all under one umbrel­la and in the spot­light. I had found as both as man­ag­er of Tapped Leeds in 2014 and at the fledg­ling Lit­tle Leeds Beer­house in 2015 that although LIBF brought many peo­ple to the fes­ti­val at the town hall, the impact was quite insu­lar. The first cou­ple of years were tough but we’ve now expand­ed the team to include more than ten peo­ple and it is 100% inde­pen­dent­ly fund­ed. We have so many amaz­ing venues in Leeds who spon­sor the week finan­cial­ly every year, and James pro­duces world class design for our year­ly guide which pro­motes all venues, big or small. I am par­tic­u­lar­ly proud that we have built a mod­el which is not for prof­it – we are paid a lit­tle for our time each year, and we pay our com­mit­ted team, but every oth­er pen­ny from spon­sor­ship, adver­tis­ing and mer­chan­dise goes back into the fes­ti­val to help it grow each year. Which is a good job as Matt’s bunting fetish knows no bounds.

Ian Gar­rett
Today’s scene, for me, is over­crowd­ed as all the new bars try to entice the same hand­ful of peo­ple. I tend to stick to a hand­ful where I know there’s either excel­lent cask, well-kept, or a decent choice. Too many have eight vari­eties of IPA but that seems a com­mon prac­tice. It still looks like a healthy beer scene and new bars still appear, Brown­hill & Co being a recent addi­tion try­ing to do some­thing a lit­tle dif­fer­ent.

Richard Brown­hill
Brown­hill & Co is a blue­print for every­thing Bry­ony and I love about the drink­ing expe­ri­ence and is focused on pro­vid­ing relaxed, sim­ple table ser­vice in a chilled envi­ron­ment. Ten taps of qual­i­ty, no filler, and bal­anced with all sorts of styles – a rotat­ing lager line and rotat­ing cask beers. Many years of vis­it­ing Bel­gium had us won­der­ing why the UK is aller­gic to table ser­vice in pubs and bars. I per­son­al­ly can’t think of any­thing bet­ter than not mov­ing all day while a nice, friend­ly, knowl­edge­able per­son brings me lots of beer. We’re delight­ed to have been select­ed to host this year’s Can­til­lon Zwanze Day.

Leigh Lin­ley
Leeds is still Leeds – there’s still a pub for all tastes with­in walk­ing dis­tance and the major­i­ty of the clas­sic places are still there, doing well. There’s even more choice and it’s hard to not encounter ‘craft’ in most places now, like in any major city. At the risk of sound­ing like an old man, it’s get­ting increas­ing­ly expen­sive to drink in the city cen­tre, but the scene itself is thriv­ing – beer is main­stream, there’s no need to guide peo­ple any­more. There’s a new gen­er­a­tion of drinkers dis­cov­er­ing beer and enjoy­ing some incred­i­ble venues that we’d have been over the moon to have enjoyed back in the ear­ly 2000s.

Richard Cold­well Blog­ger
There’s no doubt in my mind that Leeds is one of the pre­mier beer cities in the UK and that includes mak­ing the stuff as well as con­sum­ing it. We just need to shout out and make our mark. I often think Leeds is a bit slow to catch on to self pro­mo­tion. (2016.)

Matt Gorec­ki
There’s always some­thing going on and a num­ber of qual­i­ty brew­eries are com­ing through, push­ing things for­ward. Venues are high­er qual­i­ty and you’re start­ing to see some real­ly good qual­i­ty and curat­ed selec­tions rather than just a list of ques­tion­able hype beers that taste rough­ly sim­i­lar. Leeds is at its peak right now.


Pho­to cred­its: All ours except the one based on ‘Leeds Town Hall at Night’ by Enchu­fla Con Clave via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons and the pic­ture of John Gyn­gell and Chris­t­ian Towns­ley which they kind­ly sup­plied to us in 2013.


We’re very grate­ful to every­one who found time to respond to our ques­tions so ful­ly and frankly, but espe­cial­ly Zak Avery and Leigh Lin­ley. This post was sup­port­ed by Patre­on sub­scribers like Will Jor­dan and Peter Sid­well. Please con­sid­er sign­ing up, or just buy us a one-off pint via Ko-Fi. Alter­na­tive­ly, you can give us a boost by buy­ing one of our books, or just by shar­ing some­thing we’ve writ­ten on social media. Cheers! Ray & Jess. 

6 thoughts on “In their own words: the development of the Leeds beer scene”

  1. Great piece of writ­ing. Well done.

    I well remem­ber the IPA night at Mr Foley’s in 2011 men­tioned by Neil Walk­er. I was with Stew­art Ross the founder of Ilk­ley Brew­ery. The speech­es by Hard­knott Dave and Zak were tru­ly mem­o­rable if only for how loud they both were (for loud read drunk). As for me and Stew­art we got very mer­ry indeed with the high octane beer on the bar. It cer­tain­ly was mem­o­rable and we still talk about even now 8 years lat­er.

  2. Of course the strange­ly unmen­tioned Duck & Drake has for many years flown the flag for mul­ti choice qual­i­ty ale. When the Eagle Tav­ern returned to Sam’s there was nowhere to match the D&D IMHO.

  3. While I appre­ci­ate it was before the dawn of time, the fact that the Great British Beer Fes­ti­val was held in Leeds three times does not seem to get a pass­ing men­tion. For the first event, we got the impres­sion that near­ly every vis­i­tor had to have a pint of Tet­leys before ven­tur­ing to try any of the odd beers on sale (any­thing from out­side York­shire being odd, indeed for some any­thing from beyond the West Rid­ing was clear­ly for­eign). In Year 2, this had changed sig­nif­i­cant­ly and the mood for exper­i­ment­ing had clear­ly devel­oped.

  4. A great read, real­ly took me back. Very sweet of Gareth to men­tion me, glad I played my part.

    I’d have to men­tion the cre­ation of Hop City play­ing a role of mak­ing Leeds one of the most impor­tant beer cities in Europe. Cred­it goes to Richard for being the beat­ing-heart of the event and Russ for tak­ing a risk on an idea I stole from events that I’d hear about on Amer­i­can pod­casts.

    My cur­rent thoughts on Leeds is mixed. I share a lot of the opin­ions above (espe­cial­ly Ian and Leigh), maybe its just my Leeds Beer “Sal­ad Days” are behind me. Per­son­al­ly I miss the com­mu­ni­ty aspect we once had.

    Sor­ry I nev­er sub­mit­ted my (half writ­ten) piece. It was becom­ing an auto­bi­og­ra­phy. 😀

  5. John Cryne is cor­rect to men­tion GBBF at Queens Hall, I worked at ’81 & ’82 which was cer­tain­ly instru­men­tal in encour­ag­ing my inter­est in the wider beer world. By chance I was sent to work on the Bel­gian Bar…
    Anoth­er pub worth a men­tion was Brahms & Liszt in the late 70’s, an ear­ly adopter of the mul­ti­ple hand pump approach to bars which fre­quent­ly fea­tured Land­lord & Old Peculi­er to temp Leeds drinkers away from Tet­leys.

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