California Dreaming With North Brewing Co.
Herzog Kolsch Style Lager
‘Back in 1997 when we started, the term ‘craft beer’ didn’t even exist in this country,’ says Sarah Hardy, the North Brewing Company’s engaging Marketing Manager, reflecting on how far the company has come since then and how influential they have been in changing Leeds’ beer-drinking culture. We are sitting in her office in Taverners Walk, Sheepscar, and she has just poured me a glass of their beer of the moment, for which there is apparently an insatiable demand, California Pale Ale (4.5 ABV).
It’s a golden amber with a robust creamy head which I let settle. The company, which in time became the North Bar Group, was started by two enterprising, far-sighted young men, John Gyngell and Christian Townsley, who remain very much hands-on as experts in front-of-house hospitality, strong believers in fostering a spirit of co-operation and collaboration with others in the trade no less than with the local community. ‘They were strongly influenced by the Belgium Beer café culture,’ she says, ‘and saw the possibility of introducing it here, bringing a new relaxed attitude to beer drinking where you sit outdoors in the sun and try different exciting beers and maybe enjoy something to eat.’
The head has quickly subsided on my beer and it is giving off a most gorgeous aroma of citrous fruits, identifiably grapefruit-based. ‘It’s our tribute to Leeds United’s promotion,’ she says, ‘brewed in collaboration with a supporters’ group’s fanzine and we can’t brew enough of it at the moment, it’s selling so quickly.’ The can is decorated in the club’s traditional royal blue and deep yellow colours.
North Bar in Briggate. Photo by Nick Maw
North Bar, in Briggate, was the company’s first venture and the first craft bar in Leeds, probably the first of its kind in the country. Certainly, it was the first bar in the UK to serve on draft the daddy of all original craft beers, the pale ale, Sierra Nevada. This Californian-based company modestly style their product, which they began brewing in 1979, as having ‘changed tastes, made hops famous and brought an industry back from extinction’. It is astonishing in retrospect that beers of this kind took so long to reach these shores. North Bar also introduced on draft Brooklyn Brewery’s American-style craft lager and the Erdinger Weissbier - wheat beer, a concept then virtually unknown in a country where dark bitter beer was still the thing.
They now have four more bars in the city, one in Harrogate and another in Otley. ‘The brewery tap in Sovereign Square in the city centre is where we showcase our beers and do all our promotions.’ If you like craft beer this is truly the place to be: at any one time, there are 24 to sample
Certainly the Californian Pale Ale now tickling my tastebuds has the power to make instant converts to this type of hazy, crisp-tasting pale ale and it was brewed especially for this purpose, Sarah tells me. ‘We wanted something to appeal to people who had perhaps not tasted our beers before or this type of beer, something sharp and refreshing for the summer months, something to chime with the feel-good factor of football promotion.’ With a crisp, clean, zesty taste embracing hints of oranges and lemons, melon and not least grapefruit, it has a nice balance. The fruity hop flavours linger on the palate in expectation. It's the definition of a balanced sweet bitterness, a happy hoppy beer.
It is currently one of their core ales, alongside the potent flagship IPA, the award-winning Transmission (6.9); a Mango and Guava Pale Ale, Piñata (4.5); an American Pale Ale, Sputnik (5.0); and the crisp Kölsch-style lager, Herzog (5.0).These and their seasonal beers ‘feature playful and interesting flavour combinations’, according to the company’s website, and obviously strive for variety and difference. They have been scooping a multitude of awards in the last five years of the brewery’s existence.
In 2015, the North Bar Group opened their own brewery, the North Brewing Company, realising a ten-year dream for the owners. It is housed in an industrial estate in Sheepscar and today it’s all hands to the pumps. In the crowded 15-barrel plant, which produces 8,000 hectolitres per year, the staff under the direction of head brewer, Seb Brink, are deeply intent on the serious business of another batch of Transmission. From next door, a second unit, comes the buzz of the canning machines running flat out. A temporary gazebo has been erected outside where stacks of cans are overflowing all the way to a third unit, the warehouse, where a small army of no-longer-furloughed bar staff have been brought in to load them. ‘Because of space restrictions, we are planning eventually to move to bigger premises,’ Sarah laughs, ‘to cope with ever-increasing demand.’
Clearly there is an exceptional demand. They export to 25 different countries world-wide as well as reaching all parts of the UK. They also have their own webshop - https://shop.northbrewing.com/
In keeping with the owners’ philosophy, the company has worked with some of the best craft breweries in the world, collaborating with such as Lervig Øl (Norway), Dry & Bitter (Denmark), Basqueland Brewing Project (Spain), Het Uiltje (Holland), De Molen (Holland), Other Half and Finback (USA), Magic Rock, BrewDog, Verdant, Thornbridge, Track Brewing and Wylam Brewery (UK).
They have come a very long way in the new millennium. Bearing in mind the scores of craft bars which now exist in Leeds, it is quite amazing to remember that back in 1997 there was just one, North Bar, in Briggate.
NB: Take very good note of NB!