ONE storey above the Bierkeller and one below the Sports Bar, a truly remarkable development is giving drinkers the most cosmopolitan selection of beers I’ve ever encountered.
The North Bar group, which has long prided itself on its choice, started the trend for beer menus. Around the World in Eighty Beers takes it to the next level, with a 20-page brochure on every table outlining all the beers on offer here. I stopped counting when I reached 80 – there must be nearly double that here.
Crisp Tusker Lager from Kenya, pale and malty Svyturys Ekstra from Lithuania, lively Cubanero Fuerte from Cuba – the choice is almost overwhelming and gives drinkers the opportunity to err on the side of the familiar or fly headlong into unknown territory.
Take Mexico, for example. If you decided to take an alcoholic trip around the country, you could start on straight-up supermarket brands like Sol and Corona, before branching out into harder-to-find refresher Pacifico and ending your journey in the loving embrace of Modelo Negro – the Mexican take on a dark Viennese lager would you believe.
The beer menu offers a brief guide to each, and though space simply doesn’t allow for detailed tasting notes on all of them, the staff at least seem knowledgeable enough to point their customers in the right direction. They are also keen to mark drinkers’ passports after each one: the loyalty system meaning that completed books go into a draw to win a trip-of-a-lifetime and taste the beers in their own backyard. A completed half page brings you a free beer, a full page wins you some food, but you’d have to be pretty bloody-minded about it to spend enough time and money to get into the draw.
The world’s great brewing nations are all here in force. There are ten choices from Belgium, six each from Germany and the USA, five from the Czech Republic. But the more adventurous drinkers would surely try the choices from Madeira, Mauritius, Vietnam or the Baltic States.
It’s not a perfect list. The Italian selection is possibly the worst. A country which has undergone an amazing micro-brewing explosion in recent years is merely represented by mass market Peroni and Moretti.
Curiously, the British choice is a poor one too. To truly give drinkers a taste of beers from these islands, then there ought to be at least one cask ale, or failing that a quality craft keg beer. John Smiths Smooth falls into neither of these categories, Carling lager some distance away from them. True, there are some decent British bottled beers here – Doombar from Cornwall, Reverend James from Wales, Punk IPA from Scotland among them – but the lack of a real ale demonstrates a lack of attention to our traditional style of brewing, at the expense of large-scale refrigeration.
By contrast, there’s no Fosters or Castlemaine, and Australia is represented by lesser-known James Boag’s from Tasmania, characterful bottle-conditioned Coopers Pale, and fruity, flowery Little Creatures, among others.
It’s not North Bar of course. There the beer menu is smaller, but more select and aimed squarely at more discerning customers, older customers perhaps too. Real ales and true craft ales are a serious part of their culture.
Here, in an obvious attempt to bulk up the numbers, there are too many rank-and-file ordinary lagers, which might fly the flag for a particular country, but give nothing in the way of taste and character that isn’t available from 10, 15, 20 other bottles in the next fridge.
While North aims for beer lovers pure and simple, AW80 is more about buffets and birthdays, parties and platters. Its boozy concept and soulless, cavernous interior will appeal to the stags and hens as much as it will those aficionados eager to try out Nigerian Export Guinness, or Chinese Lucky in the attractive fat-buddha bottles.
As an addition to the Leeds scene it does something through its sheer range which no other bar here is doing, and that’s fabulous. Will I become a regular? No, absolutely not. Will they be bothered? No, not in the least.