THE vexed question of which city is Britain’s best for beer will never satisfactorily be resolved, not least because no-one in Norwich, for example, would ever acknowledge that Bristol or Sheffield were better.
Those three are certainly up there in the Premier League, as are London, Manchester, Edinburgh and York, but few can have seen such an expansion in quality and variety as Leeds has experienced over the past two or three years.
And that transformation, from being a city with great drinking traditions and pub heritage, to one which is absolutely at the forefront of modern beer culture, has accelerated over a remarkable 12 months which have seen three companies in the vanguard of the craft beer revolution set out their stall in Leeds. While its football team still plies its trade in the Championship, 2013 will be forever be the year when Leeds joined the Premier League of beer.
This year of wonders started with Brewdog, though the maverick Aberdonian brewers had been threatening to open a Leeds bar for at least a year before they pulled their first pint in anger sometime in February. They blamed the bureaucrats who dithered and dawdled over permission for the scheme, perhaps concerned about the punk attitude of a brewer which has placed courting controversy right at the heart of its business model.
Perhaps they shared the moral outrage at Brewdog’s super-strength, roadkill-encased, hype-motivated End of History ale (55% ABV), fearing the End of Civilisation itself.
Perhaps they thought lovely White Cloth Court might be preserved for some higher purpose. Whatever the cause, it took a year of negotiation to finally get the necessary papers, which is a shame, because now it is open, all those silly fears have been allayed.
It has an edgy feel, and the blackboards may show some punk attitude, but no-one actually gobs on you when you order a drink; the super-strength alcohol is prohibitively expensive, and even then, only available in quantities you might inhale. The conversion is a beautiful one, breathing new life into a building whose name echoes with the city’s proud woollen heritage. To visit now, it feels every bit a part of the Leeds drinking landscape as pubs which have been there for decades – and it is way more interesting than plenty of them.
Other bars have now muscled in on a space once dominated on the one hand by real ale giants Tetley’s, John Smith’s and Sam Smith’s and on the other by wine bars, cocktail bars, coffee bars, disco bars. It doesn’t take a giant leap of the imagination to realise that the contemporary “bar feel” can be combined successfully with a venue serving great beers, but the bar owners and pub companies have been slow to catch on, leastwise in the LS postcodes.
But the imaginative re-emergence of Holbeck as a drinking circuit; the success of the clutch of micro-breweries which have moved in on Tetley’s vacated territory; the arrival of bars like Friends of Ham, which champions the craft beer revolution; have between them heralded in a new age of enlightenment to a city where once Tetley was King.
Perhaps the Leeds International Beer Festival represents the brightest flowering of this wonderful renaissance and the clearest evidence of the city’s appetite for world beer. This year’s was only the second, yet already this three-day celebration of all that is best in brewing feels like a fixture on the city calendar.
And for a few short weeks this summer we had a Brooklyn pop-up bar too. A few years ago you would have struggled to find a decent American beer in America, let alone in the UK. But since the first craft brewery opened in California in 1976, a similar revolution to the one catalysed here by CAMRA has brought a whole New World of flavours to a market where once merely cold was king. And while the mass-produced big brands – Miller, Michelob, Budweiser – still dominate the country’s exports to the UK, some of its smaller producers are gradually gaining a foothold in both the domestic and overseas markets. None more so than Brooklyn, whose erudite, garrulous and ludicrously talented head brewer Garrett Oliver brought to North 11th Street the skills he first learned at Harrogate’s own Daleside Brewery.
I try to avoid New Year resolutions, but I do have one for 2014 – and that is that at some point I will create a working definition for Craft Beer. Not, I hasten to add, one that will be universally accepted by all sides – such a feat would be akin to bringing a lasting peace to the Middle East – but a definition which would at least guide ordinary consumers, like you and me, through this minefield of lie, supposition and rumour.
It will be tricky, but perhaps a good place to start will be the Leeds Tap, newly opened on Boar Lane, and bringing the same cosmopolitan choice long enjoyed in York Tap, Sheffield Tap, and Euston Tap – the latter an inspired re-use of the grand old gatehouse of Euston Station. The Leeds branch is part of the Trinity Quarter, but you can expect the same eclectic mix, with 27 taps serving 13 cask ales and 14 keg beers and a copper brewhouse designed and built in the home of Pilsner itself. It sounds like the crowning achievement on a great year for Leeds – and if you’re back here next week, I’ll tell you what I think.
Beer of the Week
Sulis Barley Wine 2013
Coniston Brewery’s success at the 2012 Great British Beer Festival, showcased the renewed interest in barley wine; Sulis Barley Wine 2013 is the Bath Ales take on a style which was familiar to the ancient Greeks.
One interesting touch here is the black wax sealing which the bottle tops are given – a gimmick perhaps, but also a practical way of ensuring the beer stays fresher for longer. Even the best bottle-tops allow air to very slowly escape over time, enabling the harmful oxidisation which will slowly turn beer sour.
In the case of Sulis Barley Wine this would be a crime beyond imagining. That wax seal offers valuable added protection for a rich dark beer with a medicinal aroma, and a sweet, burnt treacly, damson taste, whose full-blooded assault on the senses is like being coshed by a fruitmonger on bonfire night.
At 9.1 %, after a few sips you begin to feel woozy, and you succumb to a beautiful warming aftertaste.
You know you shouldn’t, but you know you must drink more.