When I get asked about the Leeds beer scene and what the highlights are, focus inevitably goes initially to the Bars, Pubs and Bottle Shops that seem to be opening on a monthly basis, but also to the sheer number of Breweries that are producing great quality Beer across the county. In what we hope to be a series of articles, Plus One Magazine and I are going to speak to Breweries across the area to get an insight into how things are developing and what to expect from them in future.
First up is Northern Monk Brew Co, and they’ve certainly had a big impact since moving to Leeds almost a year ago, (read our feature on their opening here) not only with their diverse range of Beer, but also with their popular Refectory Bar and Kitchen. I met with Brother Russell Bisset of the NMB Brethren to get an insight into the founding, development and future of the Brewery. For the uninitiated, I asked Russell to give us a bit of back story…
Plus One: Can you give us a quick history of Northern Monk, and what led to the formation of the company?
Russell: ‘Following a misspent youth I moved back North and was lucky to get a good job in the International Department of a large company, and spent time travelling for work where i was introduced to good booze, created with passion and flavour and learnt about food combinations, which I became inspired by and passionate about. I continued my interest at home and had tasting nights with friends which got me interested in the first wave of craft beers to come to the UK from America.’
‘From there decided that I wanted to start a Brewery producing more flavourful, dynamic beer as well as presenting them in a more interesting, engaging way. I entered a young entrepreneurs competition with a colleague in 2008, and we did really well trying to launch a business, but ultimately we decided to focus on our day jobs.’
‘Skipping forward five or six years, I got a new position working as a Global Products Manager, which was….shit! I hated the corporate culture at the company, and at the same time, my Granny decided to sell her property and give her Grandchildren Five Thousand Pounds, so I thought ‘This is my chance’. I moved home, back in with my family, and gave up my Car to get the Brewery going. Obviously Five Thousand Pounds didn’t go that far, so I applied for Business Enterprise Loans, and without enough to get our own premises we approached Hambleton Ales to do some Cuckoo Brewing for us.’
So without full control over the end product, did you find it difficult to create a quality finished product that you were fully happy with?
‘At the time I naively thought we could be the UK’s answer to Mikkeller! But after the first few meetings it was clear that Hambleton and ourselves had different opinions on the sort of Beer we wanted to create. The relationship was difficult and it was clear that Cuckoo brewing isn’t a model that we could follow in the UK – breweries producing the sort of beer we admire are already full to capacity, and we couldn’t meet the standards that we wanted.’
‘So, we decided to start looking for our own premises, and we also recruited Brian Dickson who has experience working at a number of Breweries across the UK. I kind of knew Brian, but we met at Leeds International Beer Festival one year, and he’d heard about the position and was really keen to be involved. I’d met with a few people from Heriot-Watt University and James Campbell, who is now brewing with Cloudwater, was interested, but I decided Brian was the man from the job – someone who could come in at ground level to build with me and who shared the same sort of ambition as I did. I interviewed him via dodgy skype connection while I was in India with Gateway Brewery, and although I understood one word in ten, I’d heard enough to hire him immediately.’
‘We took on further investment from a local businessman and decided to do a series of collaborations while the property search was underway. We found this process really enjoyable and it was great to work with the likes of Weird Beard, Saltaire Brewery, Hopcraft, Atom Brewing, Bad Seed, which not only got our name out there, but also let people know what sort of Beers we hoped to create. We weren't making a lot of money from these, but doing collaborations and farmers markets helped get a bit of cash flowing through the business. Both Bryan and myself had a nominal wage for nine months, which was tough, but we were enjoying what we were doing which was what mattered.
What was the thinking behind the naming and branding of Northern Monk, and how does this relate to what you’d like to achieve in the future?
‘The idea for the Northern Monk brand was about creating something quintessentially ‘Northern’ and we were trying to step aside from the US-influenced Craft brewery image to acknowledge the history and heritage of brewing in the UK, and we were particularly influenced by the manufacturing, craftsmanship and approach of the North in a historical context, which is something that we felt is worth rallying around. The Monk element comes from the Monastic Brewing tradition, not just in Belgium but also as a nod to the wider European tradition monastic brewing, including in the UK.’
‘Having looked further afield for sites, including Manchester, Sheffield and Dean Clough in Halifax, we found the Flax Store and it felt right to be based in Leeds, so we went for it. Moving in was the least smooth transition possible, there was a lot that we overlooked, and the costs inevitably skyrocketed. We bought a state of the art chiller, but didn't price up the cost of getting the chiller to the fermentation vessels and it kind of ended up looking like Marble Run – it was a total mess. Prior to our use, the building was used as a training center for people who had been out of work, and all the main features of the building today were completely covered up and unloved.’
Since moving in, the facilities you have on site have certainly been popular, and the Refectory has created a buzz amongst Beer lovers in Leeds and beyond. How crucial to the company has having a tap room been?
‘Having a tap room at the Brewery site was very important for us, and although the brewery is the main thrust of the business, having the refectory up and running has provided about 40% of our income while we’re adding more Fermentation Vessels so we can have a further 66% capacity over the current 30BBL. The core of the business is built on me, Brian and Kath (Hartley), and they both have great experience from the Grove and North Bar respectively and we’ve got a team of people that will really help us push on. We’ve worked hard to get to this point, and we’re very excited that our beers, especially New World IPA are tasting great. We’re trying to create a full range that we can be proud of, rather than just a few excellent regulars and newer ones such as Faith have been well received.’
Expansion then is very much on the cards, are you currently working at full capacity?
‘At one stage last week every unit of Beer we have in the building is sold on a weekly basis and we have to work hard to keep up with capacity, our tap room manager Joe is always asking what he can steal from the existing stock to put on the bar, and the aim is eventually to have 15 taps of our own beer on at all times. We’re humbled by the reception and amount custom at the refectory and we think we’ve created a great room for events. Its a permanent meet the brewer really, as you can come to the refectory between 8am and 11pm and one of us will usually be here! We enjoy welcoming people in to our working space and we’re really grateful to everyone who has come down’
Outside of the on-trade, will your Beers be available for us to indulge in at home too soon?
‘We’ve finally made a downpayment on a packaging line, the final form of which hasn't 100% been confirmed, but we will be packaging our beer in the next few months. We’re debating which beers to package, and we’re hoping that the starting line-up will be Northern Star, Faith, Eternal, New World IPA and Dark Arches.
What can we expect to see happening at the Brewery over the next year, in terms of events?
‘Events wise we’re planning a music festival, City of Industry, for the 14th-16th of August in conjunction with High and Lonesome, Hide and Seek, Superfriendz, with beer from Cloudwater, Yeastie Boys and Edge Brewing, and food from Bundobust, Patty Smiths, Dough Boys and Grub and Grog Shop. We’re also running a scheme called Northern Monk Patrons where we get involved with local artists and musicians to support them and promote them and create Beers that coincide with events and releases from them.’
It’s clear from talking to Russell that Northern Monk is not just about producing great Beer. The scale of ambition for creating a supportive, localised community around the company is energising, and although he admits that sometime the amount and scale of the ideas generated can outstrip what is practically possible, it’s admirable that such a young company is already looking to establish a worthwhile and engaging presence in the City. The level of enthusiasm is infectious, and its refreshing that the company is looking beyond simply enhancing their profitability but also collaborating on schemes that encourage creativity and dialogue between them, their customers, and their neighbours.
Interview and words by Gareth Pettman
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