PERHAPS Alfred tells us just how far we have come.
This week marks the 25th anniversary of my first Taverner column for the YEP. Back then I was very much the understudy to a couple of far more experienced writers, and usually quite happy to find a pub which served a decent cold pint of Guinness and where I could rave about the lasagne and the juke box and the shiny new refit.
Many times back then I would find a pub with no real ale and – more significantly – no real interest in the subject from the people in charge. “There’s just no demand for it,” I was often told.
And if there was a handpull, it almost always dispensed something from Tetley’s, the city’s only brewery at the time. Even on tap you’d feel blessed if you chanced upon something more interesting than Caffrey’s.
Never a CAMRA diehard, my own sense of loss was less about the beer than about the pub itself, the tradition, the diversity, the culture. And when I raged against the dying of this particular light, it seemed that few people were listening.
A quarter of a century on and the world has turned utterly on its head. So on Monday I walk into one of three bars in a suburb where there once was none, where I’m faced with a row of handpulls and fonts, several of them dispensing beers from different Leeds breweries – and end up choosing a session wheat beer, brewed at Britain’s first all-wheat brewery, and follow it with a milk stout from County Durham, which has been aged in bourbon casks. It’s another world.
The emergence of Meanwood as a centre of drinking culture is emblematic of how Britain’s love of the pub has blossomed once more. Alfred is now a fixture on the local scene, neatly sandwiched between bijou brewpub the Hungry Bear on one side and foody real ale paradise East of Arcadia across the road.
It has been here for about six years now; what once seemed irritatingly whimsical now feels perfectly at home – the cheap formica tables, the deranged chequerboard of floortiles, North’s trademark array of mismatched lampshades. Favoured customers’ personal tankards hang from the rafters.
A display of rock-themed abstract artwork is sprawled across one wall, Hilda Ogden’s gaudy ducks take flight above a doorway.
It’s owned by North Bar, a company whose attitude and innovation were local catalysts for the city’s resurgent interest in beer. Products from the pub chain’s own microbrewery in Sheepscar take pride of place on the bar, the nicely balanced session ale Prototype and the more substantial craft keg ales Transmission and Bulkhead.
The changing choice typically features brewers in the craft vanguard – London’s Kernel, Huddersfield’s Magic Rock, Manchester’s Marble.
Other Leeds beers on show are the tart, slightly sour Framboise from Kirkstall and the clear golden Kleine Weisse, from the city’s Eyes Brewery, a “cuckoo” operation without brew kit of their own, but brewing on spare capacity at others’. This 3.6% wheat beer has none of the haze and little of the spicy character you would expect of these beers, but instead is a crisp, refreshing, golden bitter. I expect those distinctive traits are felt more forcefully in their Hefeweizen (5.2%), Dunkelweisse (5.2%) and Hopfenweisse (6.0%).
And as we lumber headlong out of the European Community, it’s interesting both to find a brewery which is placing a continental style right at the heart of its business and to hear words unthinkable in 1992 – “saison” and “lambic”, “witbier” and “gueze” – now part of the everyday argot of drinking.
Address: Stonegate Road, Meanwood, Leeds
Type: Real ale and craft beer paradise
Opening Times: 5-11pm Mon-Wed, 5pm-midnight Thur, 3pm-midnight Fri, 1pm-midnight Sat, 1-11pm Sun
Beers: Prototype (£3) plus changing selection of real ales and keg beers, including Veltins lager.
Wine: Great selection from £2.90-glass and £16.60-bottle
Food: Cheese, meat and bread platters (£8), pizzas (from £8) and burgers (£9.50) from the Hungry Bear next door.
Disabled: One step access, disabled toilets
Entertainment: Background music only, occasional special events
Beer Garden: None
Parking: Some on-street areas nearby
Telephone: 0113 2780779