My Pub: North Bar, Leeds

By Nikkie Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

Beer aficionados and the winner of this year’s Best Beer Pub, North Bar began its life two decades ago. General manager Cal Lister explains why the pub was so deserving of the award.
Beer aficionados and the winner of this year’s Best Beer Pub, North Bar began its life two decades ago. General manager Cal Lister explains why the pub was so deserving of the award.

Related tags: Leeds

Beer aficionados and the winner of this year’s Best Beer Pub, North Bar began its life two decades ago. North general manager Cal Lister explains why the pub was so deserving of the award.

Facts 'n' stats

Name: ​North Bar

Address:​ 24 New Briggate, Leeds, LS1 6NU

Founded:​ 1997

General manager:​ Cal Lister

Staffing: ​11 (eight full time, three part time)

Wet:dry split:​ 99.9:0.1

The pub

North Bar itself is a teeny, tiny corridor bar in the heart of Leeds and has been going for 21 years. It started back in 1997 and was initially run by the North Bar directors John [Gyngell] and Christian [Townsley]. From there, the bar was one of the first in the UK to start selling an extensive range of Continental, particularly Belgian, beer.

We are pretty unassuming from the outside so despite the fact we have been around for so long, we still have people discovering us.

The bar has organically evolved over time and, with it, there are plenty of little quirks and traditions that carry on with each manager.

Whether it is the tankard wall, the portrait of bicycle racer Eddy Merckx, the various artworks of singer Tony Tomlin or the Manneken Pis, they all tip the hat to something. It adds a bit more character to the bar and a little bit of soul. There are also those who remember a time before the Swedish sauna-style cladding – a bragging right between some patrons!

Food offer

About seven years or so ago, North was doing its first foetal version of the Lowlands festival (a festival across North Bar and its sister sites in and around Leeds that aims to celebrate all things beery from Belgium and the Netherlands) and they decided to do toasties and waffles for the couple of weeks it was on.

It then changed to cheese and meat boards. However, we have now gone back to toasties and waffles and we do an absolutely roaring trade on them.

We also offer a mozzarella and Monteray Jack veggie toastie with spring onion and we are experimenting with some vegan cheese as well, but we just need to find the ones that have the right consistency when melted.

The carnivorous toastie is mozzarella, gruyère and then air-dried ham. That is phenomenal and does really well, but food is more of a supplement to the beer.

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Lister’s history

I was running a microbrewery pub in New Zealand, over in Christchurch, for a time and I have also previously worked for Leeds Brewery, where I got my first management position, but I have been at North for just over three years.

Working at North

John and Christian trust me and – with this being the first venue they opened – for them, it is absolutely their baby. It is really good that they trust me with it. We had a chat when I first started about their vision and what they wanted and which direction they wanted the venue to go in.

I would like to think I am fulfilling that, but that trust aspect is great. There’s a lot of freedom that comes with that as well. 

It is very much a case of sourcing some really top-quality beer, but taking a few risks with regards to that. Being in other venues in the past, an initial cost price is a worry if you can’t get that product in or don’t have the clientele.

However, we have nurtured this trust across the bar as well and that’s really cool – the culture we have got, the way the staff communicate with customers.

Facts 'n' stats

North describes itself as ‘probably’ the first craft beer bar in Britain and calls itself ‘a great bar serving a ridiculously varied selection of top-quality drinks to a diverse and fantastic clientele’.

One of the original pioneers of the Leeds bar boom, North has an unparalleled beer selection served brilliantly by friendly and informative staff. North is also Leeds’s coolest haunt for lovers of great drinks, music and art, situated in the heart of Leeds city centre, five minutes from the Victoria Quarter, Trinity and Leeds Arena.

North opened in 1997 and, through the years, it has been so many things to so many people. Having moved on from being the UK’s top account for Kronenbourg 1664, North became the leading light for imported beers from the Continent and the US, and still claims to boast the finest, most interesting and comprehensive selection of beers in the north of England.

All about beer

We have got certain ‘gentlemen’s’ agreements we need to fulfil, obviously to our own brewery and then to Kirkstall Brewery as well. We always have a Veltins beer on because we need a quality lager. 

We are ambassadors with the De Molen brewery [in the Netherlands] and treat them the same way we did six/seven years ago when Magic Rock launched and we started a line for Cannonball IPA, which is 7.4% ABV.

For most people, six or seven years ago, they associated IPA with Greene King IPA (which has a 3.6% ABV) and so when someone walks into the bar wanting a pint of IPA, you have to tell them it’s 7.4%.

We have also started having a permanent imperial stout line so that we have always got that available and it is always a De Molen beer. Our bread and butter for that is Rasputin, which is a fantastic beer. That is the benchmark imperial stout, but then we also get a lot of their specials as well through their representation. At the moment we have got their Hel & Verdoemenis, which is a hazelnut version. 

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We also have partnerships we have made over the years with local breweries. For example, Prototype used to be brewed with Kirkstall. We have that to provide an alternative to what is now North Bar Session Pale so we are not just forcing people down one channel, we are trying to provide options.

Everything else is usually dictated by which beer festivals we are doing. So like with Lowlands, I do a lot of the buying for that – going out and seeking to build relationships with other breweries.

Obviously, you are going to buy beer from people that you want to foster and harbour relationships with. With the beer festivals, they have been growing and growing and growing over the past few years.

It has gone from being, as I said before, Lowlands being like a two-week festival in early March, to being now all of April and we can tie in some of the spring classics.

We have got an affinity with cycling so we get a lot of cyclists down on Sunday nights and there are a series of other cycling socials that either hit us or end with us.

Winning awards

Winning the Best Beer Pub award at this year’s John Smith’s Great British Pub Awards has been great. The team were really amped when we won. The regulars were celebrating with us too and it really brought everyone together.

The reception of it in Leeds has been class. We have had a lot of people come in for the first time off the back of the win.       

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