Something’s brewing up North. It is going to shake things up, but it’s also going to be good. Very good. North Bar is widely recognised for being the first ‘craft beer’ bar in the UK.
It opened in 1997 when Christian Townsley and John Gyngell decided that Leeds really deserved some better places to drink.
Now, as well as their original eponymous flagship site, the pair own five other sites after opening the Cross Keys in 2005 creating a great British pub in Leeds city centre, with an authentic British menu, Further North in 2007 – the first of four local neighbourhood bars in Leeds suburbs, small, intimate venues with a paired down North Bar offering - the others being Alfred, North Bar Social and Preston.
This year, North Bar beat tough competition across the country to win ‘Best Drinks Selection’ in The Publican Awards and is also a previous winner and two times runner up of The Observer Food and Drink ‘Best Place to Drink in Britain’.
Townsley says: “Our success is based on our high expectations of customer service. We forged our niche with an exceptional beer range too. We offer a continental style table service with a British drinker in mind and our staff are knowledgeable.”
In many ways, brewing is the next logical step.
“We've toyed with the idea of opening a brewery for many years. Right now, as the 'craft beer' market has exploded, it feels like the time is right to offer our customers a range of excellent, consistent beers that they can purchase with confidence whilst improving how competitive we can be in terms of pricing,” says Townsley, pointing out that “in a climate of growing competition in the on-trade and evermore challenging economic conditions, the increased control over quality, availability and margin that will come from the vertical integration makes perfect sense.”
The brewery, which will be called North Brewing Co. takes its name from North Bar, which already has “a strong reputation for offering fantastic beers,” according to Townsley, “our brewery will be an extension of that, and while the association to North Bar might on one hand offer a springboard to build the brand, it also sets the bar high and puts a bit of pressure on us to deliver a promise of brilliant beers.” So, how will the expansion from operator to brewery owner work?
“Well, the brewery will be a new business with another investor/director and a different shareholding, but there will be a clear connection between the two,” hints Townsley, meaning that he and Gyngell will be the common link.
“We've looked at a number of sites, although we haven't pinned one down yet, but there are definitely a couple of buildings that we particularly like. We're after a venue where we can incorporate a customer facing element, an operating bar for weekends where we can also offer some food and ideally host events like live music, and films,” he adds.
Townsley admits that despite still being at the “costings stage” he and Gyngell will soon be able to get the brewery up and running “without spending too much over £150k initially,” but agrees that “there will be further investment ongoing as we develop the business.”
The aim is for North Brewing Co to distribute its beers but a select range will be exclusive to North Bar outlets. “We need to offer a range of ‘bread and butter’ beers, so we’ll probably work on those first, get our core range established so that the brewery is paying for itself from the word ‘go’. A session pale ale, something with more weight and hops and a porter or stout.
Having said that, we might have the opportunity to borrow other brewers’ facilities in which case we’ll probably be a bit more playful,” says Townsley, reflecting on beers he has found “most inspirational over the years” that he “would love to pay homage to” such as “Anchor Liberty Ale, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Magic Rock Cannonball, Rooster’s ‘Yankee’, Anchor Brekles and an aged Brooklyn Chocolate Stout.
I’d love to create something a bit more left of centre too, a ‘Marmite’, love it - hate it beer, perhaps a Belgian style brown or saison,” he muses.
“There are a plethora of breweries in and around the [Leeds] city but none that combine a solid core of accessible beers, a range of playful market leading beers, offering their wares in a cool venue putting on gigs, films and other events and wrap it all up with stunning design,” says Townsley, reminding that North Bar has been operating for 17 years and, in that time, he and Gyngell have accrued a vast amount of experience and were offering the best range of beers in the UK before ‘craft beer’ was a thing.
“That knowledge has served us well and we’re well-placed in the industry to deliver something special to the beer drinking public,” adds, pointing out that “having face-to-face engagement with drinkers on a daily basis is something that not many ‘craft’ breweries have,” which means that they will be able to “react quickly” to develop its core range and iron out any creases.
“We'll start with draught to our own venues but definitely package some for sending out to specific individuals for feedback,” says Townsley, describing how, in the long term, the aim is to offer cans and bottles too.
“It’s important to us that our customers have an option to purchase packaged beers. We’ve got exciting ideas about our packaged products and can’t wait. There's been growth in the range of good beers available at supermarkets and we're seeing growth in the off-license trade, we're keen to be represented in those markets sooner rather than later,” he adds.
“Most of our outlets are mostly wet, with one exception, The Cross Keys, which is a great British pub on the edge of Leeds City centre. We'll definitely work on beers that can match with dishes on our menu and having a venue with a 'proper' food offering where we already host food and drink matching events offers a wonderful opportunity to set up tastings where with specifically designed beers and dishes,” says Townsley, revealing that he and Gyngell would also like to “build the brewery business up and export” and that while the relationship between the existing bar group and the brewery will help both to grow, Townsley admits that the pair “wouldn’t rule out developing a bar group that is more inextricably integrated into the brewery business.”
Townsley seems satisfied. The plans are being drawn up, the wheels are in motion.
“Opening a brewery is something we've wanted to do for over 10 years, we've even considered a few existing breweries that have been for sale,” but out of the “many possibilities” the company has been faced with, “none have been quite right for one reason or another.”
In the meantime, Townsley and Gyngell have grown the group throughout a recession and focussed on getting structure in place to ensure North Bar can continue to grow successfully and, they readily admit that there has been a long game in place. “The systems and personnel we’ve employed will benefit the brewery,” says Townsley, grinning as he adds: “We’d like the brewery to be at a point where we’re inspiring other brewers in the way that we feel we’ve inspired the on trade.” All eyes on Leeds, then.