Long before Flying Dog was flying off the shelf, when kölsch was far from cool, North Bar in Leeds city centre was a pioneer in the UK’s emerging craft beer scene. It has been going for 15 years and is stronger than ever, regularly serving as a test bed for new beers. It has also been the springboard for owners John Gyngell and Christian Townsley (pictured) to develop more bars around West Yorkshire, with their fifth due to open early next year.
John created North Bar in 1997, bringing in Christian after the pair had worked together at the former Town & Country Club, now the O2 Academy, in Leeds. They stripped out a former shop in New Briggate, called Knobs & Knockers, to create a minimalist bar with a “continental edge”, Christian recalls. At first, it had just bare walls – “we thought it was cool but it was probably just cold” – but it now displays work by local artists. “We just wanted to open a really good bar, somewhere that like-minded people could hang out,” Christian adds. “We were committed to certain barrelage with John Smith’s and just had a crap range of beer but, soon after we opened, we started dabbling with Belgian beers and then got shot of our commitment to John Smith’s. We started extending our range and just got more and more focused on beer.”
The bar (pictured below) still specialises in Belgian beers, with about 40 by the bottle and more, such as Bacchus Frambozen and Blanche De Bruxelles, on draught. Also on tap are German beers including Früh Kölsch and Erdinger Dunkel plus regularly changing guests including American brews. The bar has been supported since the early days by specialist beer importer James Clay, Christian says. “It’s been such a great relationship we’ve had with them, where we’ve asked them to find particular beers and they have done it. They have also used North Bar as a test bed to see how they run.”
North Bar also created beers in partnership with brewers such as Thornbridge, Lindeboom, Marble and Kernel. Alice Porter was developed by BrewDog to celebrate the marriage of North Bar’s general manager Matt Gorecki to Alice (née Porter) and ended up being part of BrewDog’s portfolio.
Christian points out that it is not just about beer at North Bar, with a similar emphasis on good-quality spirits and liqueurs, especially rums, bourbons and whiskies. “We think that it’s important to make sure that, while you can’t be all things to all men, integrity is key to our business,” Christian explains. “More so than not, integrity has led the way rather than profits.”
Eight years after North Bar opened, John and Christian launched their second site, The Cross Keys, a gastropub in Holbeck in south Leeds. In 2007, they developed Further North, a mini version of North Bar in Chapel Allerton in north Leeds. Eighteen months ago, they opened their fourth site, another small neighbourhood bar in the style of Further North, called Alfred, in Meantime, north Leeds. They are moving north-west of Leeds for their next site which is due to open in Otley next year.
Consumers are now much more knowledgeable about beer than 15 years ago which “keeps us on our toes”, Christian says. “Customers expect a hell of a lot more. But it’s great.” There is also more competition with craft beer bars opening up across the UK. “It’s a lot more difficult for us to stay ahead of the game. We have to work much harder to make sure we have beers that nobody else has got.”
He says their continued success owes much to the suppliers, importers and brewers they have worked with. Ian Clay, managing director of James Clay, describes them as “liberators in an authoritarian beer world”, adding: “Over the past 15 years, North Bar’s pioneering spirit has placed them at the forefront of the UK beer scene.” Andreas Falt, American craft beer ambassador for the Brewers Association, adds: “North Bar has been the leading light of the national craft beer scene for the last 15 years, breaking some amazing global brands in the UK market by cultivating a captive audience for artisan beer. It’s thanks to the likes of North Bar that we now have a thriving beer scene in the UK which showcases beer from all over the world.”
24 New Briggate Leeds LS1 6NU
Tel: 0113 242 4540 www.northbar.com