DO YOU make any ordinary beers? I ask brewer Phil Marsh when he joins us for an early evening pint at the Hungry Bear.
It seems a fair question for the man behind an array of innovative, inventive brews which have sailed this place right out of the easy mainstream and into the dangerous waters of bourbon porters and super-strength India Pale Ales.
Rather than answer, he simply hands me a glass of Verbena Wit, a cloudy wheat beer brewed with champagne yeast and clumps of the herbaceous plant Verbena, grown by a customer in his garden nearby. It’s hardly a session bitter.
Phil met business partner James Coupland at Birmingham College of Food, though he admits James was always the more determined chef. So after Phil spent time in Canada, and caught the beer bug helping a friend develop his own brewing business – and James served his time at top notch establishments like the Box Tree at Ilkley – the two decided to combine their talents at The Hungry Bear. A few years ago, Meanwood would hardly have been position-A for a business like this, but the success of nearby Alfred and East of Arcadia at least offered confidence that it could be done, however limited the brewer’s experience.
“When we set it up, I’d only done about ten brews, so it was a really steep learning curve,” says Phil. He’s now completed 214, all different, the business has just marked its fourth birthday, and the pair are making tentative plans to expand.
While it started out as primarily a restaurant, a recent change of emphasis has seen the ground floor given more of an ale-bar feel – not least because the addition of two taps has seen Phil’s beers being served on draught for the first time. “Until recently we’d only sold them in bottles,” he says, adding that making them available in keg – and the shift away from the foody side of the business – has meant he’s had to scale up production. “I’m brewing two or three different beers a week now,” he says. “With each one, you learn a little bit more, so while each beer is different, some are previous recipes which I’ve improved with little tweaks. You might find it works better with a different yeast strain, more oats or a change of hops.”
Even so, volume remains incredibly small, with each brew yielding just 65 litres. The limiting factor is the upstairs brewhouse, just about large enough to swing a cat, but it would be sure to knock some bottles over. Phil works his alchemic magic with a single worktop brew kettle, decanting the produce into plastic buckets for fermenting before it’s moved on into bottle or keg. Small wonder that his beers are sold exclusively on the premises.
“Everything I make, we sell,” says Phil, and the pair are now looking for a second venue, which would serve both as a bigger brewhouse and a taproom. But for now, he has to concentrate on satisfying the thirsty folk who come to the Hungry Bear. A series of moderately-strengthed pale ales, each featuring the talents of a particular hop, are particular favourites with drinkers who come in for a session, and the closest Phil gets to that “ordinary beer”.
And he remains keen to experiment: “I’ve been growing pumpkins on my allotment and I picked a couple of them yesterday to brew a spiced pumpkin rye ale.”
You can expect to find that one on the bar sometime around Hallowe’en.
Stonegate Road, Leeds
Type: Taproom and restaurant
Host: Phil Marsh and James Coupland
Opening Hours: Noon-2.30pm and 5.30-11pm Mon-Wed; noon-2.30pm and 5-11pm Thurs-Sat
Beers: Changing selection of other beers from the brewhouse
Wines: Good selection
Food: Quality restaurant meals served every session, with special Sunday lunch menu.
Children: Welcomed, with kids’ meals available
Disabled: Ground-floor access but no special facilities
Beer garden: None
Parking: On street areas and shopping centre car park nearby
Telephone: 0113 2740241