Time was, a new pub could open up on one of the city’s main drinking thoroughfares without giving any serious consideration to real ale.
In my early days writing this column I came across several of these places, and it was a painful, chastening experience. Sure, they might have had a lone Tetley’s handpump tucked away apologetically at the end of the bar, but it was incidental to their primary mission of attracting customers in the greatest volume while expending the least possible effort in the cellars.
These punters had no expectation of anything more interesting than mass-produced keg ale and lager; the pubs did nothing to raise these expectations higher. “My customers just don’t ask for it,” one lumbering dinosaur of a manager told me.
Twenty years on, the world has moved so far in the other direction and a flood tide of real ales, wonderful Belgian beers, interesting continental lagers and craft ales from Britain, America and all across the globe can be found
In few places can this flourishing of a golden age of beer be more evident than the spiral of streets just to the north east of Leeds city station. A two-minute walk along New Station Street, into Boar Lane, Bishopsgate Street and Mill Hill will pass no fewer than nine pubs and bars which have beer right at the heart of their business.
Of these, The Griffin is perhaps its most remarkable example. For years this was the soulless Censsa Bar, which then stood boarded up and neglected for years, an ugly blight on the face of Boar Lane.
Its new incarnation reaches back further into the past, to when this was the gothic revivalist Griffin Hotel, which was a landmark for generations, with its four-storey frontage topped by a magnificent clock, the twelve letters of its name taking the place of the numerals. A meeting here in 1919 led to the foundation of Leeds United, who entered the league a year later.
The hotel was designed by renowned Victorian architect Thomas Ambler and its style reflects that of the nearby St Paul’s House, another of his Leeds commissions.
The new look embraces this history. “Est 1872” is etched into the mirrors behind the bar, while lovely lanterns and sepia photographs of trams and shops invoke the same character. The tasteful refurbishment – deep blues, tiled columns, comfortable banquettes and broad wooden tables – is in keeping with this heritage. Light floods in through Ambler’s stone-arched windows.
Inside, the pub stretches back and doglegs around to the right, to reveal the rather surprising tunnel room, an intimate drinking space with candle-lit tables and period artwork, the barrel-ceiling clad in white tiles like an Edwardian tube station.
The long attractive bar features banks of handpumps dispensing six real ales, two of which are regulars, Fuller’s London Pride and 1730 pale ale, the house beer of pub company Taylor Walker, which has wrought this remarkable change at the Griffin. The other four will offer a changing selection of guest ales, chiefly drawn from breweries in the Leeds area, and I make my first acquaintance with the rich and dark Naylor’s Velvet mild from Keighley.
There are further delights of course – not least chrome fonts offering a host of alternatives such as Punk IPA from Scotland’s Brewdog, Grimbergen from Belgium and American-influenced Thirteen Guns from Thwaites in Lancashire.
The Griffin does hearty pub grub, from opening right through to an hour before closing, and the beer makes its presence felt on the menu with 1730 pale ale included in several of the recipes.
Name: The Griffin
Type: Lively city centre alehouse
Opening hours: 11am-midnight daily
Beers: Two regular real ales: London Pride (£3.65) and Taylor Walker 1730 (£3.55) plus four guest ales. Amstel (£3.50), Heineken (£4.10), Peroni (£4.60), Guinness (£3.65), Aspall’s (£3.70), Punk IPA (£4.75), Grimbergen (£4.60)
Wines: Good choices from £3.99-glass and £14.29-bottle
Food: Good value pub meals served 11am-11pm daily
Entertainment: Sky Sports and games machines
Children: Welcomed but no special facilities
Disabled: Easy access from Boar Lane, plus disabled toilet facilities
Beer garden: None
Parking: On-street areas and town centre car parks nearby
Telephone: 0113 245 2803