Monk-y business

Tales from The Refectory


Before speaking with co-founders Russell Bisset and Brian Dickson I had long suspected that, beneath its renowned professionalism and talk of ‘brethren’', there were layers to Northern Monk that I’d yet to peel back. With its brand proving watertight from the moment of the brewery’s inception, it can feel like Northern Monk was preordained to become a household name across swathes of the UK. But for me, at least, the solemn, hooded figure emblematic of the brewery’s success, has always stoked a curiosity as to the human stories behind a decade’s hard graft and award-winning craft. Speaking with Russ and Brian yielded so many of those stories, and even dropped the hood so far that I could catch a glimpse of this serious brand’s playful, and silly side. 

“We were really lucky and grateful to have had lots of friends and family chipping in and doing things for free in the early days,” says Russ, reminiscing on a time, pre-2013, when his younger self was preparing to quit a successful but unfulfilling career in marketing, and start a beer brand. At that point, Russ had just received £5,000 from his grandmother, who had recently sold her house, moved into a smaller one, and generously shared the equity among her grandchildren. In hindsight, he says “that was enough for me to feel like we could take on the world but, you know, time told that £5,000 doesn't go very far in the world of beer.

“Dad did the web design, and his sister’s company was a tiny graphic design agency, so they got us started, but the end result was that we looked much bigger than we were. We put a job advert out looking for a brewer while the company was just me with five grand, operating out of my mum’s cellar, and we ended up with some really high profile applicants, which totally blew us away. In the end, Brian and I crossed paths at a beer festival, we got chatting and I think a lot of the vision really clicked, so Brian came on board.” 

This vision encompassed a lot more than using modern ingredients and methods to produce innovative, cutting edge beers. He’d been paying close attention to the craft beer revolution unfolding across the US, and in particular, became interested in the movement's emphasis on locality. San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing started using Cascade because those hops grew locally to them. Green Flash named its genre-defining beer ‘West Coast IPA’ because the West Coast is where the stratospheric IBU exemplified in the beer was then becoming popular. Allagash’s renowned slogan, “From Maine with Love,” needs no explanation. 

The success of these breweries was (and remains) worthy of international recognition, but the full scale of their achievements can be much better appreciated when considered in the context of their respective localities. Russ recognised that back in 2013, and while he greatly admired what was happening in the US, he was also aware that beer making its way from the US to UK shores referred to a place far away, to which many people had never been. What’s more, craft beer then being produced in the UK, and across parts of Europe, seemed “Americanised” as Russ puts it, which I understand to mean aspiring to an American style and standard, without really having any connection to the US. 

Russ felt that a UK craft beer brand should be grounded in the locality of the UK, and decided to 

build the culture and heritage of the North of England, where he’s from, into a beer brand he would make from scratch. “The ‘monk’ in Northern Monk is a nod to the rich history and heritage of monastic brewing in the UK, but particularly in this area, where you’ve got both Kirkstall Abbey, and Bolton Abbey just down the road,” Russ begins. 

“Beer and brewing historically played a really central role at the heart of communities, whether that looked like raising funds for local, social infrastructure, or actually just creating potable liquid and a safe place to drink it. There was never any religious meaning behind our branding, it’s more the case that we took inspiration from the social role monastic brewing has traditionally played in its community. The ‘Northern’ aspect is then, probably, the more straightforward bit” he concludes, but I’m not sure that’s true. 

Russ was born in Manchester to Scottish parents, and grew up in Chorlton, then Bradford. Brian was born in Scotland to Scottish parents, but grew up in Newcastle and went to university in Huddersfield. Their stories paint the geography of the north in very broad strokes, but common to their experience of all those places were the strong community bonds they found and formed. In a way, it’s actually co-founder and head brewer Brian’s side of the story that best embodies this. 

Like many brewers, Brian did a creative degree, getting a masters in music at the University of Huddersfield before realising academia wasn’t for him. He got a job in a local bar to keep him ticking over until he decided on his next move. The Grove, as it happens, was then somewhat of a beer Mecca, and before long, Brian was its in-house beer geek. “The place was run by this eccentric chap named Ian Hayes,” says Brian. “His whole idea was just ‘more’, the bigger, the better, the weirder the more wonderful. He had 20 casks and 20 kegs of beer from all over the world, so it was just a really great place to get to discover beer.” 

It was there that Brian became acquainted with the likes of Dogfish Head and Russian River from the US, a full range of Belgian beers, and some of Thornbridge and The Kernel’s earliest releases. Brian decided he wanted to learn how to brew, and wasn’t short of connections that he’d made through the pub, who he could ask about apprenticeships and work experience. What he perhaps hadn’t anticipated was that Ian would offer to pay his expenses while he interned at five or six breweries around the country over several months. 

So, where did his tour kick off? With none other than the man, the myth, the legend, Eddie Gadd, of Ramsgate Brewery. “What can I say, the man loves East Kent Goldings,” says Brian, which I can’t help but laugh at because I’ve witnessed first-hand Eddie’s love of his local hop. “But what was funny at the time, was that his beer almost never left Kent, yet there was a permanent line for Gadds’ beer in a random pub in the middle of Huddersfield. That’s because Ian used to hire a van and just drive around the country filling it up with beer. Eddie used to do a lot of swaps too, and so would have De Molen casks and all sorts that Ian would pick up while he was down there, and bring it all back to Huddersfield.”

Just before Brian moves on to tell me about working for Mark Tranter at Dark Star and then moving onto RedWillow — all big names in UK beer — he makes a throw-away comment that I keep thinking about after our conversation ends. He says: “Eddie is a displaced Northerner himself, he’s from Blackpool. There’s something very Northern about Eddie.” It struck me then that, in a way, The North might not be a place but a network of people, and that once you’re touched by northerness, it never really leaves you. I dare say that in the case of Northern Monk, its northernness is not defined by place, but the people it shapes and has been shaped by.

After a year and half of managing The Grove, and collaborating with breweries keen to pay homage to the Huddersfield-based pub, Brian was ready for a change and not short of industry professionals suggesting he find and talk to Russ. When their paths eventually did cross, it was 10pm on the Saturday of Leeds International Beer Festival, and Brian was in the middle of Holy Hopping Hell, a 10% DIPA by The Weird Beard Brew Co. Needless to say, he got straight to asking for a job upon meeting Russ, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

The pair were lucky early on that a friend’s dad provided a loan and a small investment into the brewery, a boost that allowed them to open The Refectory in Holbeck. If you haven’t been, whether for a pint, or one of the brewery’s renowned beer festivals, Hop City and Dark & Wild, I’d suggest you make plans to go. The Old Flax Store is a beautiful, bright, red brick building in an industrial area under feverish, frenzied development. According to Leeds City Council, Leeds is the fastest growing city in the UK, its economy having grown by a staggering 40% over the last decade, and a 50 year-long project already underway to draw the city centre into its southern suburbs.

And The Refectory is smack bang in the middle of it all. Russ says he tends to think about how he can adapt to Northern Monk’s operating environment rather than influence or change that environment, which may be a perspective that’s not only rewarded, but required as the city continues to change. Northern Monk’s evolution is, and would seem to always have been, entwined with the development of its city, and where there is wasteland behind the Old Flax Store, in the pockets of completed development just ahead of it, small businesses, artist collectives, and local eateries are flourishing.

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