Words by Gareth Pettman
As part of the Manchester Beer Week City Clash, which will see six brewing teams from five cities go head-to-head in a unique competition, we asked beer writers from around the country to tell us what makes the beer scene so special in their cities. This week, blogger Gareth Pettman, who can be found over at Barrel Aged Leeds, takes a look at our friends over the Pennines.
It may surprise you to read that Leeds is actually quite a modest city. Whilst we like to celebrate our achievements and accentuate the positives of living here, most of the plaudits for Leeds as a great beer city seem to come from visitors rather than us bloggers endlessly banging on about it... *winky face*.
In the vein of the urban legend that you’re never more than a few feet away from a rat in a city, in Leeds City Centre you’re seemingly never more than ten feet from decent beer, which highlights the main strength of the Leeds experience - the sheer number of great venues squeezed into a relatively compact urban area.
Leeds has long been dependent on an independent spirit and innovation, and this mindset is reflected in the bars and breweries of the city. For an example see the influence of the North Bar group, its crown jewel being North Bar - one of the originators of the UK craft beer bar scene - and latterly the eventual birth of North Brew Co. Northern Monk also exemplify the importance of supporting local creativity with their Patrons projects, funding local artists and makers, collaborating with them on unique recipes that are inspired by and feature their work in the can design.
With both North and Northern Monk's beers finding their way to drinkers across the UK and Europe (and beyond), these two are leading in the way in putting Leeds on the map globally, as well as investing in local people and culture.
Aside from the two biggest hitters, there are also other important players in the region that are beginning to reach past West Yorkshire boundaries. Zapato have been cuckoo brewing in Leeds for a while now, creating beers that are well worth seeking out - from bretted pales to Baltic porters - and their success in creating excellent beer on a smaller scale is inspiring others to get mashing.
A common criticism is that there aren’t enough visible breweries with tap rooms, compared to say Manchester or Bristol - this is partially due to demand for space from other sectors, but I wouldn’t argue that Leeds does punch below its weight in this area. Gladly, multiple plans are afoot to change this. From homebrew beginnings, Wilde Child have recently opened a new brewhouse in Armley, while Nomadic and Eyes Brewing have plans to open their own facilities and more established breweries such as Ridgeside have renewed their focus on creating unique, unusual beer.
Cask is and always has been of primary importance to Leeds drinking culture, and the local kings of the format for me are Kirkstall Brewery, who produce excellent cask and keg beers that are staples of pubs both inside and outside of craft beer circles. They too have expanded and taken on staff from other breweries who are keen to make their mark and expand the range. As well as increasing their brewing output, Kirkstall have also ensured that there is more good beer available locally, first by renovating the Kirkstall Bridge Inn, and then more recently rescuing the historic, ornate Cardigan Arms from PubCo-owned irrelevance.
This desire to expand, coupled with a respect for tradition is another important feature of Leeds' beer scene. No better example is the reinvigoration of Whitelocks, the city centre's oldest pub, which has retained its historic character whilst attracting new custom by bringing more local beer to the bar alongside the mainstream favourites. Coupled with the repurposing of its function room into the keg-driven, sleek, trendy Turk's Head, the owners have shown how to respect a historic building whilst bringing in new ideas, and not alienating existing customers.
Ultimately, the customer is also one of Leeds' most important assets - the city has a thirst, not just for beer, but to support events, places and people who lead the way and create something unique. Generally speaking, the crowds are unpretentious, welcoming and up for fun. For me, the pride I feel for Leeds isn’t a bragging, 'shout from the rooftops' pride defined by self-appointed titles, but a sense that it is a place that visitors genuinely love, as it paves its own way.