Beers big enough for gods and demons alike
Saturday 11 March 2023
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An obvious (but trite) question to ask any new brewery launching into Leeds would be how they feel about carving out an identity in the titanic shadow of North Brew Co and Northern Monk. For Tartarus Beers though, the question is unavoidable; the brewery’s prime city centre brewing site is already well-known to the city’s craft beer fans, as the original home of… North Brew Co. Step inside, and even the fermentation vessels have a still-discernible shiny spot, where the North decals have been carefully peeled off. It’s almost as if North moved out overnight, and Tartarus jumped in the next day and began brewing.
Which is, in a nutshell, precisely what happened.
“We started looking for a proper space to brew just as North was consolidating its brewing at Springwell [its new site across the city], so they got in touch to say they’d heard we needed somewhere – it was that easy,” says co-founder Jack Roberts. “They even let us move in to get production up and running before we’d got all the contracts signed, so that we didn’t fall behind. They were really supportive.”
Jack’s journey to this point has seen him working for household names of the Yorkshire brewing scene, including Northern Monk and Brew York. He was brewing with the latter when Covid hit and, like many of his peers, Jack was furloughed and suddenly at home twiddling his thumbs. This generally doesn’t sit well with brewers, so Jack quickly dusted off the 100-litre brewkit in his cellar, sorted out his license and registration, and began brewing micro batches as Tartarus. This progressed into contract and cuckoo brewing, and ultimately into the magnificent brewery/tap in which we now sit.
But Jack wasn’t alone on this journey: he met co-founder Jordan Orpen when the pair were studying chemistry together an university. After graduating, Jordan spent seven years in the pharmaceutical industry, but got pulled into helping Jack out with the brewery as “a bit of a hobby, part time thing. Inevitably though, these things develop their own special gravity.
“I was doing bits and pieces on my laptop at the weekends and after work,” says Jordan, “and then we got the chance to expand in October 2021, at which point I decided to leave my full time job for Tartarus. And obviously, ever since then, my role’s grown from bits and pieces of admin to…”
“…Everything, really,” chips in Jack with a grin.
Aside from Sam, a digital artist who is behind Tartarus’s wild can designs, the brewery is still very much a two-person show, with Jack and Jordan even running the popular taproom when it’s open. Their medium-term goal is to reach a point where they can get an extra pair of hands or two, but in the meantime they seem to approach their labour with a smile.
“The one part that feels like real work is wheeling the canning line in from the next unit,” says Jack. “There’s a bit of a ramp, so we have to take a run-up at it. The neighbours must think we’re mad… It’s a very manual bit of kit, so canning the huge Beer52 order took us a while, even with my mum and dad helping.”
While the venue will be familiar to the Leeds craft crowd, Jack and Jordan are definitely ploughing their own furrow on the brewing front, with beers that are big in ABV, big in character and make few concessions to a market that seems to leaning increasingly toward the light and sessionable. With its stylised skull and crossbones logo, and cans depicting all manner of gods, demons and shades, there’s a definite mood to Tartarus, which helps draw a line between the building’s current and former occupants.
Jack says: “I loved brewing those tiny, experimental batches on the small kit – doing the kind of brewing that interested me. I was maybe a bit self-indulgent, so it was great to learn that other people want those beers too. We’re having fun with it, and really learning as we go.”
A glance at the fridge certainly confirms this. CTHULU – a 12% West Coast TIPA, named for the tentacle-faced Lovecraftian horror – nestles next to BA OGUN – a 10% rum barrel-aged stout. On the bottom shelf are the few remaining bottles of UMIBOZU, a squid ink, seaweed and yuzu imperial goze, all sealed with white wax topped with googly eyes.
While we’re discussing this, a courier arrives with two large bags of cinnamon. “We’re working on a stout at the moment that’s based on a Mexican hot chocolate,” explains Jordan. “Yesterday it was a bag of Scotch Bonnet chillies, because Jack didn’t think the chipotle had given the beer enough of a kick.”
There is definitely a recognition though that, as it grows, Tartarus will need to start thinking about drinkers who aren’t pitching up for a 12% monster on a Tuesday evening.
Jack says: “We had a meeting with a friend of mine who’s in sales, and he said ‘I'm gonna get you 100% commercially viable’. I was like ‘Tartarus, commercially viable?...okay, we’ll make a t-shirt’.
“But he was right of course. The first three beers we ever did was a Belgian saison, a black pepper Belgian triple and a 17% stout. That's pretty much how we came into the craft beer scene. So we have started dialling it back a little bit, because the sizes of our brews now, shifting that much black pepper triple is not easy. So we’re staying in the same sort of area, but making some more accessible options, like a Belgian blonde at 6%, which is shifting, and a hefeweizen at 5.5%. So, lighter, but not endless hazy pales.”
Before we leave, we ask to try the saison that’s destined for the Beer52 box, which is currently still in tank. It’s uncarbonated and still a little sharp on the hop front, but we can see what it will become: beautifully dry and floral, with relatively low esters but tonnes of phenolic spice. Right up our street, and surely a brew worthy of whatever kind of spook ends up on the can.
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