Where time and place are of the essence


Every time we peer into Kirkstall’s history, operations and ethos, something new and different comes to light. It is a brewery in constant motion – it changes, adapts, develops, and will surely continue to do so – but for all this is the case, it creates the distinct impression of being a brewery that has completed the process of becoming; its values are firm, and its identity solid and settled.

When we last spoke to Kirkstall, we delved into its origin story, which, for those less seasoned Ferment readers, began with the import of American craft beers. Steve Holt, Kirkstall’s founder, was the first to import Sierra Nevada to the UK, back in 2003. From there he additionally became the primary importer for Stone, Dogfish Head and a plethora of other American Giants, by pioneering the transportation methods that allowed beer to reach the UK, from America, in the best possible condition. 

It was only in 2011 that Steve and co-founder John Kelly, equipped with a wealth of knowledge, experience and awareness of international markets, set out to establish a brewery of their own. The American influence on Kirkstall’s beer is clear, but at its heart, it tells the story of Leeds, Yorkshire, where the brewery made its home. Beer has been brewed in Kirkstall since 1152, when the Cistercian Monks resided at the now ruined Kirkstall Abbey, making this small suburb of Leeds inspiring and historically rich ground in which to lay the foundations of a modern brewery. 

Kirkstall has done a great job of incorporating traditional components into its modern manifestation, creating traditional beer recipes using records drawn from the historic Kirkstall Brewery (the oldest they’ve worked with so far go back to 1885!) and fitting out its estate of pubs with antiques, wood panelling and traditional fixtures that contrast with the modern exterior of its many venues. 

Chris Hall, Kirkstall’s marketing manager, comments that he regularly marvels at tourists who visit the bar and immediately gravitate towards the taps that are staunchly traditional in appearance, and choose a bitter whose challenging flavours might come as a shock to unseasoned palates. 

It is a brewery in constant motion – it changes, adapts, develops, and will surely continue to do so

It seems a gargantuan work of psychological engineering to cultivate a space in which people seek out beer to match their perception of that space, of their own volition. I often hear of brewery taprooms struggling to convince pub goers who aren’t quite at beer-fanatic status, to try something different, or challenging, so I marvel at the idea that furniture might prompt those still finding their feet to dive in the deep end without being pushed.

It’s not just Kirkstall’s own venues though; creating a welcoming, authentic vibe is equally important at festivals and events, whether the brewery is hosting or attending. In fact, to return and reconnect with Kirkstall’s roots and wider community, the brewery will be helping to organise Leeds International Beer Festival at Kirkstall Abbey this year.

“Festivals are like a turbocharged version of what we aim to do at events we host”, says Chris. “When we attend international events, we go to experience what breweries from other parts of the world specialise in, we want a taste of where they’re from, and why they work the way they do. So as hosts, we want people to experience where our beer comes from, and that includes the surrounding landscape, people, history and culture, as well as the brewery itself.”

As it happens, there’s no better way to take in Leeds, and Yorkshire more generally, than by bicycle; a fact that quite nicely coincides with the fact that Kirkstall’s managing director, Ian Galbraith, is a bike fanatic. The brewery itself neighbours Restrap’s premises, a business whose motto is “Carry Everything” and that makes functional, durable and sustainable equipment for travelling by bike. 

Kirkstall has done a great job of incorporating traditional components into its modern manifestation

Chris tells me that the Restrap team regularly drink in the Kirkstall taproom, and with Ian regularly frequenting the store to transform his cycle into a compact, fabric tank, it made sense for the neighbouring businesses to collaborate on an event that celebrated and exhibited their relationship to the local community, landscape, and each other. 

At the time of my call with Chris, Kirkstall and Restrap are in the midst of organising an event in late July, which will celebrate craft beer and ‘Randonneuring’, the art of cycling lengthy routes (54.7 miles in this instance) with predetermined stops (The Crown Inn, Addingham; The Black Horse, Otley; The Bridge Inn, Kirkstall) and which concludes at the Kirkstall taproom. 

The route skirts along the peripheries of the Yorkshire Dales and takes in some spectacular scenery in the county, impressing participants with a sense of the landscape, culture and camaraderie that informs the work Kirkstall does. Kirkstall will also brew a beer in honour of the event; the Rando is a 4% Belgian Blonde which is evenly balanced with caramel and biscuit malt character, lightly hoppy with spicy, earthy yeast aromas.

Beer and Pizza will be supplied at the end of the ride by Kirkstall Brewery, allowing riders to rest their legs and refuel after an epic day in the saddle.

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