Signifiers

Sons of the Pioneers — Northern Monk Brew Co in Leeds, UK

It’s 8pm in Philadelphia and the World Beer Cup awards ceremony is bringing the 2016 Craft Brewers Conference to a close. It’s also 1am in Leeds, a bustling city at the heart of Yorkshire in the north of England, and that’s where Northern Monk Brew Co’s head brewer Brian Dickson’s phone begins to vibrate. 

“Buddy, you just won!” reads the text from Against the Grain’s Adam Watson, with whom Dickson had spent a few weeks brewing at the Louisville, Kentucky brewery a few months previously. That text was followed by a stream of tweets and messages congratulating Dickson and his brewing team on their achievement.

Northern Monk had just picked up a bronze medal in the Session IPA category for its Eternal Session IPA. And in doing so, it had just become the first British brewery to medal in an IPA category in an American beer competition. When you consider that the judging panel featured expert palates belonging to beer luminaries such as Stan Hieronymus, Ray Daniels, Randy Mosher, and Melissa Cole, and that the cans had traveled a couple of thousand miles to be judged against a staggering 110 competitors in the category, well, that achievement starts to come into focus.

Some folks will tell you that the UK beer scene is still years behind its U.S. counterpart—both in quality and pervasiveness. But moments like these are proof that British craft beer is rapidly gaining ground on its Stateside friends.

“It was surreal. I’d just been at home watching a movie or something, it was pretty late and I didn’t even realize the ceremony was happening in Philadelphia,” Dickson says. “I went to bed, and as I turned the lights out my phone started vibrating. I thought, ‘What the hell’s going on now?’"

It was time to party—sort of.

“I went on the brewery Whatsapp group and was like, ‘Guys, look what we did!’ Then I thought, hang on a second, I need a beer. I’m not getting back to sleep anytime soon. It was then I realized that before I went to bed I’d drank my last can of Eternal in the house. We’d just won an award for this beer and I couldn’t even drink it to celebrate!”

Russell Bisset launched Northern Monk in July 2013. Back then his business plan looked very different than it does now. The brewery’s managing director had little in the way of investment and his idea was to “cuckoo brew,” as he calls it, out of other breweries, creating and selling small batches of beer while building a brand in the process. (This process is more commonly known as “gypsy brewing.”) It’s a model that has proven very successful for breweries such as Denmark’s Mikkeller and New York’s Grimm Artisanal Ales. 

Bisset originally approached an award-winning homebrewer named David Bishop to design and brew Northern Monk’s beers while he focused on building his brand. The pair brewed the first batches of its New World IPA and Strannik Imperial Stout at Hambleton’s Ales, a traditional British brewery based in Ripon, North Yorkshire. Hambeton’s was usually focused on producing classic styles such as Bitter, exclusively for cask dispense and not the modern styles that Northern Monk hoped to create. 

Bishop says he almost didn’t take the job at first, but he couldn’t resist Bisset’s raw ambition. “I’d been approached by another guy before Russ came along,” he says. “It was a similar story to Northern Monk, really—a guy with a brand and a stack of energy asking an enthusiastic homebrewer to work miracles. I politely declined that offer. Russ’ approach was different. After meeting him for the first time, he gave me the sense that he was going to make a go of this, with or without me. Those early days were a lot of fun.”

Once Bishop had joined Northern Monk, the pair spent those formative months working on a business plan, while regularly visiting breweries and drinking plenty of beer together. They’d hold Northern Monk’s launch party at The Sparrow in Bradford, West Yorkshire where it launched its first two beers. New World would go on to become its core IPA, while Strannik relaxed into a role as a recurring winter seasonal. Although Bishop admits that those first batches weren’t quite on the money, mostly due to the limitations of their equipment.

“Hambleton’s had worked with contract brewers before, but not with anyone quite like us,” he says. “We had to convince them that we wouldn’t break their brew kit by adding 20 kilos of dry hops and that it’s possible to ferment beer out for more than three days.”

Despite the perceived flaws Bishop sensed in his beers, the launch went off without a hitch and Northern Monk began its quest to win the heart of British craft beer culture. But the pressures of family life and brewing part time for a new start up on top of a full-time career was all too much for Bishop. After a few months of professional brewing he parted ways with Bisset. 

Despite lacking a brewer, Bisset continued unhindered. Northern Monk’s initial success had attracted investors, so he now had the capital to open a brewery of his own. After much searching he came across The Old Flax Store, a former linen mill in a 160-year-old industrial building just half a mile from Leeds’ town center. With a site secured, Bisset began advertising for a new head brewer, but the application didn’t come along in quite the way he expected. 

Dickson was working as a bar manager at one of the UK’s best beer pubs, The Grove, in the nearby town of Huddersfield. He’d also been learning to brew as an intern at breweries all over the country, most notably Gadd’s in Kent and Dark Star in Sussex. Northern Monk was Dickson’s opportunity to turn brewing into a full-time career, so he applied for the job in his own inimitable style. 

We had good branding, which our friends and family were helping us with for free. But in reality, our volumes were miniscule. We produce more in three days now than we did in our first six months.
— Russell Bisset

“I already knew David and Russell. I also knew Russell had found the investment he needed to start his own place and that David had moved on,” he says. “I approached Russell at about 11pm on the Saturday night of Leeds International Beer Festival. I’d been drinking Weird Beard Brewing’s Holy Hopping Hell DIPA for the last hour, which explains the state I was in. Obviously, it worked. He got in touch with me the next week, apparently having only understood about one word in 10 of what I’d said. But it was enough because he offered me the job!”

The newly formed pair then set about gutting and refitting The Old Flax Store, while still keeping the contract brewing at Hambleton’s ticking over until they were ready to move into their new home. The brewery went in on the ground floor and a taproom known as The Refectory was installed on the second floor. The top floor was left empty for hosting special events from wedding receptions to beer festivals, also acting as overspill space for The Refectory when it wasn’t under hire. 

With its own brewery now in place, Northern Monk finally had a place to call home in the city of Leeds. It moved into The Old Flax Store in October 2014.

When you first meet Bisset, he doesn’t exactly give off a “business” vibe. He dresses down in a uniform of black jeans, a black hoodie, and always—without question—a Northern Monk t-shirt. His hair is unkempt, he usually sports a few days worth of stubble, and there’s rarely a time when his dog, Archie, is not by his side. He speaks in soft Yorkshire tones, always pausing to consider his words before speaking. His subject is almost always his brewery and the business of brewing.

“We hardly put any beer out when we were cuckoo brewing and collaborating. I think people actually saw us as quite a substantial outfit,” he says. “We had good branding, which our friends and family were helping us with for free. But in reality, our volumes were miniscule. We produce more in three days now than we did in our first six months.”

From those humble beginnings, he’s grown Northern Monk into one of the most recognizable brands in the UK craft beer industry. New World has developed into a formidable beer, with the tropical and pine overtones of Simcoe, Amarillo, Mosaic, and Centennial hops coming through in high definition. It’s even on the shelves of a major UK supermarket chain along with its sessionable sister, Eternal. The decision to enter the mass market is often met with some stigma from diehard craft beer fans, but Northern Monk has seemingly taken this in its stride, broadening its reach whilst maintaining its craft credentials. It’s impressive to consider that Bisset, Dickson and the team they’ve built around them have accomplished all of this within three years. 

The arrival of Northern Monk has brought more people to an area of town that was in danger of being forgotten. Buildings that have been derelict for years are now being snapped up for creative and leisure projects and the area is set to go from strength to strength.
— Kirsty Morton

The bulk of Northern Monk’s success can be attributed to the work it does within its most local market. Collaborating with Leeds-based local businesses and creatives that share a similar vision and ethos has been at the heart of that. Take, for example, its Northern Star Mocha Porter, which was a dual effort between the brewery and Leeds-based coffee roaster, North Star.  For local craft beer bar and Indian café Bundobust (which, incidentally, boasts some of the best vegetarian Indian food you’ll find outside of India), Northern Monk produced a house Witbier brewed with ginger, coriander, and cardamom. With bottle shop Little Leeds Beer House, it produced a Neapolitan Ice Cream Pale Ale that proved to be so riotously successful that, like Strannik, it became a yearly seasonal release. 

Richard and Bryony Brownhill opened Little Leeds Beer House in 2015 and have supported Northern Monk since day one. Richard feels Northern Monk has influenced the Leeds beer scene since it opened. 

“Their existence has really raised the bar for brewing in Leeds,” he says. “It’s no coincidence that, with their success, we’ve seen more breweries opening up throughout the city as well as established ones changing their outlook and going down a similar route. I think the Leeds beer scene was in rude health before Northern Monk arrived, but it’s amazing to now have a first class brewery to go along with our spoil of first class venues.”

Brownhill is right that Leeds hosts an embarrassment of pub riches. When North Bar opened in 1997, it was arguably the first ever craft beer bar in the UK. It was pouring an increasingly eclectic selection of beers for more than a decade before the likes of Port Street Beer House emerged in Manchester and The Craft Beer Co. arrived in London. Since then, it’s seen watering holes such as Bundobust, Friends of Ham, and The Turk’s Head arrive on the scene. Hell, even BrewDog has two bars here within easy walking distance of each other. But while Leeds has always been ahead of the game in terms of its bar scene, the presence of modern breweries such as Northern Monk has sorely lacked in comparison to cities such as London or Manchester.

Yorkshire actually has more breweries per capita then anywhere else in the UK, but unlike the aforementioned cities, which have a high concentration of breweries in a metropolitan area, Yorkshire has them spread out around the county. Historically, Leeds has always been a center of traditional brewing. In fact, it was once home to the revered Tetley’s brewery, which eventually closed in 2011 and was demolished a year later. But despite the storied history, the area has always lacked modern breweries. Until now, that is. Northern Monk seems to have shifted the paradigm, but Bisset is notably coy when I suggest this. 

“I think the beer scene is thriving in Leeds,” he says. ”I don’t think we’re lagging behind. It’s possibly even the best beer city in the UK. That’s quite a daring thing to say, but I think the compactness of the city and that you can access and experience it all within a few hours is great.”

Since its acquisition and refurbishment, The Old Flax Store has become the centerpiece of Northern Monk’s operation. Its location was once at the heart of industrial Leeds, and with a working brewery now inside it, the site is once again reclaiming that title. The box shaped, red-brick building carves out a sizable chunk of the Yorkshire horizon as you make the gradual approach from the center of town. And thanks to its dual nature, the building’s always a hive of activity. 

In order to keep up with demand, Dickson and his team are typically brewing six days a week on their 10-BBL kit. The low ceiling and 160-year-old building restrictions meant that they were unable to install a brewhouse and tanks any larger than what they’ve got. In the corner, a canning line built by Boulder, Colorado’s Wild Goose is constantly whirring away, spitting out brightly colored 330ml aluminum vessels.

The second floor is altogether more serene, despite being no less hectic. The Refectory is always buzzing, be it during a busy lunch service or a lively evening beer session. The beers upstairs are as thoughtful as the beers below, with selections pouring alongside locally roasted coffee, and food produced with locally sourced ingredients. Anja Madhavni and Kirsty Morton manage the events space and taproom, respectively. 

“Leeds is fast becoming recognized as one of the best cities in the country in which to drink beer and we are really chuffed to be a part of that,” Morton says. “The arrival of Northern Monk has brought more people to an area of town that was in danger of being forgotten. Buildings that have been derelict for years are now being snapped up for creative and leisure projects and the area is set to go from strength to strength.”

“As a venue, we’re more than just a taproom,” Madhavni adds. “As such, I think our identity is a little broader than that of other brewery taprooms, and we reach out beyond typical beer fans.”

If you scan the surface of the UK current craft beer scene, it’s all too easy to position Northern Monk as an underdog. The quickly growing poster boys of UK craft—Cloudwater, Beavertown, and Magic Rock—are, in some ways, indirectly responsible for this. But Northern Monk doesn’t see it this way, and they’ve got a World Beer Cup medal hanging around their necks to prove it. Meanwhile, they’ve got a new production facility already under construction, which will see a 30-BBL brewhouse and more tank space added to the mix in a warehouse that’s walking distance from The Old Flax Store. 

I think the Leeds beer scene was in rude health before Northern Monk arrived, but it’s amazing to now have a first class brewery to go along with our spoil of first class venues.
— Richard Brownhill

But at the same time, Bisset seems to thrive on the underdog perception. It’s an attitude that’s just so typically Yorkshire—steadfast self-conscious criticism with an underlying, quiet confidence that what you’re doing is exceptional. This is Bisset personified. 

“As much as I have many sleepless nights thinking about making the best beer in the world, the reality is that doesn’t often happen, even for the best brewers in the world who’ve got years and years of experience,” he says. “We were really, really happy with our beer when it first launched, but we knew there was room for improvement. It’d be amazing to get the launch of a beer right every time and get the hype train running, but these things take time. We’ve only been a brewery in our own right for a little while. We’re still wet behind the ears.”

Words + Photos by
Matthew Curtis