Revisiting Kirkstall Brewery with a fresh eye
Saturday 08 May 2021
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First up, a confession: For me, Kirkstall has always been one of those outfits whose brewing I’ve really admired, but which I’ve never really had a good handle on. It’s been around for ever, its core branding has always leaned toward the traditional, and it’s never really had a particular signature style of beer, beyond ‘modern American’. I don’t mean this in a bad way, it’s just annoyingly good at everything it tries. This slight bafflement comes across loud and clear in the vague and meandering profile I wrote for them back in 2018, for which I owe the team a belated apology.
I’d caught a glimpse of the ‘real’ Kirkstall in the brilliant video the team had produced for one of Beer52’s Cyber Fest online events last year. But there’s no substitute for meeting up in person, clamber round the brewhouse and generally find out what makes a brewery tick. After a year of telephone interviews, it’s so great to be out and about again.
First up it should be noted that Kirkstall’s setup is impressive, and reflects how seriously it takes its brewing. The brewhouse itself was originally specified by Molson Coors for a lager brewery, but a middleman in the deal went bust and the deal fell through, leaving a top-of-the-line four-vessel kit up for grabs.
“I mean, it was massively over-specced for us, and we had to spend a fortune on a control system for it, but we can make a better lager than anyone in the UK,” says managing director John Kelly, in a matter-of-fact tone. I confirm this later, with a cold glass of IPL, a style whose popularity waxes and wanes, but which I love. This is one of the very best I’ve tried.
The brewery is situated in an old dairy building, whose glass front provides a handsome showcase for a few of Kirkstall’s impressive collection of fermenters to anyone passing by. But you need to step inside for the real treats.
Kirkstall’s estate of pubs, including its brewery tap, are a delight; full of dark wood, old brass, stained glass and vintage pieces, that give each property a unique character all its own. What I hadn’t appreciated was just how integral the decor is to the vision for Kirkstall. I first notice the brewery’s antique collection, in various states of repair, stacked on the roof of the cold storage unit, then more tucked away behind some sacks of grain, then more still gathering dust behind a small pilot kit.
Sales director Ian Galbraith says: “When Steve (Holt, Kirkstall’s founder) puts pubs together, there’s a lot of fixing up of things like this. By the time the public sees it, it’s all nicely restored and everything works. But there’s a lot of work that goes into these things. We have a booth in the taproom here that was pulled out of a pub in Liverpool 30 years ago, and sat in Steve’s garage for 27 of those years. Now the same guy who pulled it out has restored it and put it in here. Every piece has a story, and Steve’s told us he’s got enough for like four or five more pubs.”
My favourite piece is a tall wooden cabinet, with a built-in bench at the front. This, Ian tells me, is a genuine Yorkshire ‘bacon settle’ - once apparently a common piece of pub furniture in these parts. Whole legs of ham would be hung inside the cabinet, which would then be placed in front of a fire, and weary patrons would sit on the bench to warm their feet (‘settle’ meaning ‘seat’ in the local dialect). With time and the gentle warmth of the fire, the bacon would slowly cure.
For a brewery so tightly bound to pubs and pub culture, lockdown has been hard for Kirkstall. It didn’t even have a webshop until March 2020, and even when it launched it was probably best described as “functional”. Nonetheless, loyal fans didn’t take long to catch on to the new rules of engagement, and Kirkstall embraced the change enthusiastically.
“We’ve definitely used the opportunity to be more experimental in our brewing,” says John. “We obviously ended up with a lot of spare capacity from the loss of on-trade, which was about 90% of the business at that point. So we’ve had the space to really push our lager brewing, and the seasonal brews have become a lot more important. We need to give people a good reason to keep checking the web store.
“We’ve also really had to start promoting ourselves online. For example there’s this talented local baker that sells its cakes via Instagram, so we teamed up with them for a cherry choc chips stout, which she promoted to her millions of followers. We’ve got another batch of that barrel ageing just now.”
So what else has changed over this tumultuous year, and what will it mean for the future of Kirkstall and the Yorkshire craft scene more generally?
“Our focus will always be on Yorkshire, because that’s where we are and that’s what we love,” says Ian. “Kirkstall’s a national brand on can and keg, but cask’s strength is very much locally in our heartland. I mean, we’re not ‘League of Gentlemen’ local, but we will try and get involved in the community as much as we can, like setting up the Leeds International Beer Festival at the Town Hall.”
John continues: “We’ve been involved with food festivals, and there’s going be a lot more events happening at the brewery once lockdown has lifted, starting with the garlic festival in July. We’re very fanatical about the quality of beer, but we’ve been doing it for so long that quality should be a given. So we’re asking how can we make the experience more interesting. A festival which is just focused on one style of food, with loads of traders and great beer is so much more compelling than the trad festival model.”
It’s a hell of a journey for a brewery that originally sprouted from a craft beer import business in the heart of cask country. I leave Kirkstall with a box of tallboys (including the truly outstanding Impunity DDH IPA), a much better grasp of what makes it such a special brewery, and a belly full of exceptional pizza from the tap kitchen. Happy days.
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