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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.