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.