Northern Soul

Matthew Curtis gives us the lowdown on one of his favourite breweries: 2019’s Beer52 UK brewery of the year, Northern Monk


It’s late 2015 and I’m sat in The Queen’s Arms pub near Kings Cross station chatting to Russell Bisset, founder of the Leeds-based brewery Northern Monk. We’d met to discuss his fledgling brewery’s expansion, which was happening at a rapid pace following its establishment in 2013. Pausing for a moment mid-chat, Bisset reaches into his rucksack and after rummaging around for a few seconds pulls out a can of his brewery’s award-winning session IPA, Eternal.

Only back then, Eternal wasn’t yet award winning and this wasn’t even a can at all. It was merely a proof—a hollow aluminium sheath with no lid—designed to test the products striking design, with Northern Monk’s now somewhat iconic (at least among beer fans) hooded figure logo sitting at its centre. Bisset let me keep it, and to this day it has remained on my desk, its lack of lid allowing it to serve as a pen holder.

These cans were not designed to hold my overzealous collection of sharpies, however. They were designed to hold beer. And with Eternal in particular is a beer that would soon go on to take a covered bronze medal in the 2016 World Beer Cup. Organised by the American Brewers Association and held that year in Philadelphia, the competition is seen as something of a gold standard among brewers. For a British brewery to take home third prize in a category with hundreds of entrants, dominated by some of the best American breweries in the world, well, that is quite something. 

Despite being just six years old as of 2019, Northern Monk already feels like a veteran within the British beer scene—proof that they are perhaps one of the hardest working modern breweries in the UK. Not content with creating a solid core range and winning national supermarket listings as a result, they are also renowned for their special releases. From Mango Lassi New England IPAs to ice cream pale ales and porters flavoured with legendary Yorkshire condiment, Henderson’s Relish, there are few ingredients this brewery sees as taboo.

Through what it calls the Patron’s Project it has not only been able to unshackle the brewery’s latent creativity but also work with local artists and creatives, further cementing them as a key fixture within Yorkshire’s modern culture. This is perhaps what sets Northern Monk apart from its peers. They are all about making the best beer possible, but at the same time not all about the beer. By reaching outside of beer culture and into others such as skateboarding, or fell running, they have created a community of fans, which has in turn buoyed its own success.

What’s even more incredible is that before producing award winning beers and becoming an essential part of its home city’s modern culture, Northern Monk didn’t even have a brewery to call its own. With just £5000 in his pocket—money Bisset describes as a “windfall” from his grandmother—Northern Monk was able to spring into being from humble beginnings.

On A Shoestring

Initially unable to afford his own brewing equipment, Bisset created his first two recipes at Hambleton Ales in Ripon, North Yorkshire. Courting the skills of award-winning homebrewer David Bishop, the pair produced a modern American IPA called New World and an imperial stout called Strannik. The beers were produced in miniscule volumes (they can now brew in a day or two what they brewed in their entire first six months), packaged in bottle and keg, and then sent into the wild, with fingers firmly crossed.

The beers were launched at The Sparrow bier cafe in Bisset’s home town of Bradford. The reception was warm, especially to the imperial stout, which was laden with unctuous molasses and tangy liquorice flavours. It was a quiet start, but in 2013 the beer scene wasn’t quite as crowded and noisy as it is now, so people noticed, which in turn allowed the brewery to secure enough investment to build a brewery of its own.

Sadly, Bishop decided not to push on with Bisset’s ambitious project, but this allowed another key proponent of Northern Monk’s story to enter the frame. Before he began brewing commercially Brian Dickson was a bartender at legendary Huddersfield pub, The Grove. Like Bishop he was an avid homebrewer, and had the fortune to do a few collaborations and gain experience at some commercial breweries, such as Dark Star in Sussex and Blackjack in Manchester. Dickson would prove to be the missing proponent to Bisset’s untempered ambition, giving Northern Monk the ability to design the beers it dreamed of making. Now they simply needed somewhere to make them.

The Old Flax Store

A 10-minute walk from the city centre, The Old Flax Store—home of Northern Monk’s original brewery and taproom, which it affectionately refers to as “The Refectory”—has become an iconic destination for beer drinkers throughout the North, but especially within Leeds itself. Such is the stature of this grade II listed building that its very presence on the horizon triggers both excitement and, crucially, mouthwatering expectation for that first taste of Northern Monk beer.

Northern Monk acquired the site in 2014, it took several months and a lot of what Bisset describes as “very hard work” to refurbish the derelict mill and transform it into the brewery it is today. It opened on Friday 24th October 2014, with a 10-barrel brewery on the ground floor, the Refectory on the first floor, and an events space at the top floor.

Not resting on its laurels, In 2017 the brewery would begin an expansion at a site three-times the size of the Old Flax Store, a half-mile away on Sydenham Road. This would not only allow the brewery to pursue the kind of growth that matched Bisset’s grand designs, but it would free up production at its original home, allowing a greater level of experimentation and freedom than before. Following crowdfunding over £1 million, and further investment, the brewery is now capable of production over 30,000 hectolitres (or over 6 million pints) of beer per year. Not bad considering just how small their beginnings were. 

It has also invested in its second bar, opening a Refectory in Manchester’s eclectic Northern Quarter. Despite being from the opposite side of the Pennines, Manchester too has embraced the Yorkshire brewery, which perhaps speaks volumes of both its influence and the high quality of its beer. It plans to open more bars in the future too, having had its eye on refectories in London and Liverpool for a while now, it’s Leeds, however, that will forever remain both its spiritual and physical home.

Remarkably, perhaps due to being located outside the centre of town, the location of The Old Flax store wasn’t an immediate draw for some drinkers when it first opened. This is said in praise of the Leeds beer scene more than anything else—this is a town with some of the best beer venues in the UK, such as North Bar, Bundobust and Whitelock’s Ale House to name a handful. However, the industrial, yet somehow-cosy, red brick surroundings of the Refectory soon became a major draw for the beer community and beyond.

The beer likely had something to do with that—its first recipe New World still holding pride of place. Now tasting better than ever, and rasping with notes of grapefruit and pine on the palate. It’s joined by more modern takes on the style too, such as Heathen, a modern hazy IPA that courts flavours of peach, mango and apricot. There’s cask beer too, of course, this is Yorkshire after all. You may even occasionally find a classic such as Timothy Taylor’s Landlord on the bar beside Northern Monk’s own beer, such is its respect for Yorkshire’s brewing heritage.

It might just be that respect—that acknowledgement that Northern Monk is far from being the first of its kind, and will absolutely not be the last to make a mark on Yorkshire brewing culture—that marks this brewery as one of the most exciting and relevant in the country. This is a brewery that has already achieved an immense amount of progress within a few short years, and it's likely that growth will continue at the same pace for a while yet.

You get the sense though, that Bisset and Dickson won’t forget how things started in a hurry, and that by remaining grounded they’ll be able to continue building Northern Monk on the back of quality beer and a strong community.

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