“I THOUGHT this place was supposed to sell beer,” I whispered to my wife as we wandered into the Hungry Bear on Monday.
There’s a bar, sure enough, but no tell-tale handpumps, no trendy copper back bar studded with taps, not even any chrome beer fonts dispensing unpronounceable lagers from Bohemia, Bavaria or Bratislava.
I’m about to turn tail, when I spot a blackboard chalked up with an enticing range of ales – all brewed on the premises. And the day suddenly seems a whole lot better.
We take a seat on the leather sofas in the window. The bar’s fairly empty so the pair of us don’t feel guilty about occupying a space for six. And soon we are served with two foaming home-brewed ales, along with some nibbles to keep the hunger pangs at bay.
The decor is fairly minimalist – a mismatch of furniture scattered across a stone-flagged floor, beneath walls of Space Cadet Blue. Beside the pine-fronted bar, a wooden staircase leads up to the dining room. “We’re primarily a restaurant,” says owner James Coupland, who pops over for a chat, proffering complimentary olives and sun-dried tomatoes.
He moved here from the midlands, and after spells at noted local establishments like the Wood Hall Hotel at Wetherby and the Box Tree at Ilkley, set out on his own with the Hungry Bear opening last September: “I has been looking at doing this for a long time.”
He entered a resurgent marketplace, where rival bars East of Arcadia and Alfred have proved a far cry from the days when the soulless Meanwood Arms and dangerous Becketts were the only licensed premises nearby.
“I don’t see them as competition,” says James. “If anything, having those places there is a help. They’re saying Meanwood is the new Chapel Allerton, and there’s certainly a good little circuit here now.”
He enlisted the support of long-term pal Phil Marsh, who’s in charge of the one-room brewhouse which would make even the most determined micro-brewery seem palatial. A central table is topped by plastic vats containing the various current ales; around the walls are stacks of the swing-top bottles in which they’re served. The beers are brewed in 90-litre batches – for comparison, that’s just a shade more then your average petrol tank – and decanted into the bottles. You could probably swing a cat up here, but not a very large one.
So when you order beer, it is served by the bottle, and if my experience is anything to go by, it gets rather lively. I poured so much of my Flying Bells Porter (4.5% ABV) into my glass that the ivory head foamed out and onto the table – and then, proving that I am ridiculously slow on the uptake, I did exactly the same again five minutes later. Which is a serious shame, as in doing so, I lost a fair amount of a rich, dark, smoky, chocolately ale, with a really dusty, papery aftertaste, redolent of musty old books. It might sound odd, but that’s a really lovely finish.
My wife, meanwhile, was saying complimentary things about the gentle, slightly cloudy, Outback IPA (4.5%), which gains its cocktail of peach, melon, apricot and passion fruit from the use of Australian-grown Galaxy hops.
The range of beers available here changes regularly, and James admits to occasionally having to rein in his partner’s enthusiasm for the more wacky recipes: “I think he’d brew something at 40% ABV if he had the chance. We do have to calm him down from time to time.”
Because, as Hungry Bear is first and foremost a restaurant, Phil’s beers should, at the very least, be an accompaniment to the quality food which James is producing for the restaurant. “We like to match beers with our foods, and if diners want to know which will go well with a particular dish, then we can offer some advice.” I think my porter might have been a nice foil for the belly pork (£13.90) while the IPA would certainly sit nicely against the seabass (£14.50).