BrewDogging #46: Leeds North Street
[Previously: Bristol, Camden, Newcastle, Birmingham, Shoreditch, Aberdeen, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Kungsholmen, Leeds, Shepherd's Bush, Nottingham, Sheffield, Dog Tap, Tate Modern†, Clapham Junction, Roppongi, Liverpool, Dundee, Bologna, Florence, Brighton, DED Angel†, Brussels, Soho, Cardiff, Barcelona, Clerkenwell, DogHouse Glasgow, Rome, Castlegate, Leicester, Oslo, Gothenburg, Södermalm, Turku†, Helsinki, Gray's Inn Road†, Stirling, Norwich, Southampton, Homerton†, Berlin, Warsaw]
Just to get this out of the way up front: no, The Belated Birthday Girl and I are not fucking millionaires now, no matter what you've read in the papers.
People have been asking us this since BrewDog's AGM back in April, when James Watt told the massed shareholders that he'd just sold 22% of the company to a venture capital organisation, and that BrewDog was now worth one billion pounds on paper. In the short term, the shareholders could choose to either sell up to 15% of their previously unsellable shares at a new inflated rate, or keep all their shares in for the long haul and get a six pack of beer as a thankyou. (For what it's worth, we went for the beer.)
Despite all the fireworks of the big announcement, it's not really been that great a year for BrewDog. Since the start of 2017, they've closed down two of the bars I've previously reviewed here. Homerton has, to be honest, looked like a shaky proposition from literally the day it opened: but for me, the sadder of the two closures is Turku, which seemed to be doing okay on the event night we visited back in 2016. (There's also been a third bar closure, but that'll require a separate post on its own.)
With all this activity, and very few new bar openings on the horizon, it does colour your experience of visiting a BrewDog bar for the first time: you find yourself consciously looking for signs of ill health, in case it's going to be the next entry on the dead pool. With Leeds North Street, the obvious question to ask is this: does a change of name count as a sign of ill health?
Concepts have turned out to be a bad idea for BrewDog, and one by one they all shut down (or, in the case of the coffee bar, never even got off the drawing board). The shuffleboard bar in Leeds – launched in July 2015 under the name ShuffleDog – was apparently not doing as badly as the rest, but wasn't really pulling in punters at the volume expected. So a little while ago, it quietly changed its name to BrewDog Leeds North Street and became what it probably should have been all along: a standard bar with a couple of rather lovely shuffleboard tables sitting in the basement, rather than a gaming parlour that happened to serve craft beer.
With both Leeds North Street and York waiting to be ticked off our list – in fact, at the time, they were the only two UK bars we hadn't visited yet – we've built our entire Easter weekend around an expedition to Yorkshire. So our first visit to the North Street bar happens around lunchtime on Good Friday, about thirty minutes after our train had pulled into the station. Our first impression, given the recent spate of bar closures, was a little worrying: sure, you wouldn't expect a huge crowd in the middle of Good Friday, but it seems a little too quiet for comfort. It's quite a big bar, largely broken up with booths around the outer circumference, but you can still tell when there's not much going on. Still, we settle into a booth and grab a lunch of veggie pizza and beer.
We nip downstairs to use the loos and check out the shuffleboard tables – they look impressive enough, but there's only one in use at the moment, which seems a bit much to name an entire bar after. The ShuffleDog branding has largely been removed from the bar now, but traces still remain: a reference to it on a bit of artwork above the takeaway fridges, and the name of the wi-fi network. But it's reassuring to note that as time goes on, the place starts to fill up – by 3pm, it's nicely busy, and we don't feel quite so worried about it.
The following night we come back there for a nightcap, and again we start off a little worried about how few people are visible in the bar. Admittedly, dedicated craft beer drinkers have a reason to be elsewhere in Leeds on this particular Saturday night, as you'll see later. But we do wonder, where is everybody? And then we go downstairs and we find out – they're all on the shuffleboard tables. As they're all hidden in the basement, it's not immediately obvious to the passing punter just how popular they are: but once we've seen the crowd of 30 or more downstairs, we notice that the majority of new people coming in through the doors are heading down to join them. With that confirmed, we can relax into our Cocoa Psycho for the night.
So Leeds North Street seems to be doing okay: and judging from a quick visit late on the Friday night, the old Leeds bar is still pulling in punters (though still closing irritatingly early, with a couple of potential customers being turned away at 11.35pm). So what else is going on in Leeds? Well, based on a mere 48 hour stopover, here are a few hints.
For our hotel, we stayed at the Premier Inn, specifically the one that's ten minutes walk away from the bar and no time away from the Leeds Arena. The best place for breakfast nearby is Greedy Pig, a couple of doors away from the bar on North Street – it's got traditional fryups, some more sophisticated options, and some hilarious artwork on the walls. If you're looking for a decent coffee and cake snack mid-afternoon, you could do a lot worse than Mrs Atha's: if you're looking for some nice fancy chocolates to celebrate Easter, don't be a div like Richard Herring (who we passed on the street during the search he describes in the early part of his blog), get them from Bon Bon's. And if, like The Belated Birthday Girl, you bemoan just how few people have made the connection between Indian street food and modern India Pale Ales, then get down to Bundobust and get ready to be ridiculously happy.
In terms of culture, one location we totally failed to get to on our last visit was the Henry Moore Institute: or, at least, we got there only to find that they were between exhibitions and there was nothing to see. This time around, the main attraction is an exhibit by Aleksandra Domanović entitled Votives (now finished), a collection of mixed media sculptures in a variety of forms. But the main piece of interest is her twenty minute video installation called Turbo Sculpture, which looks at the burst of kitsch sculptures that have appeared in the former Yugoslavia over the last couple of decades: it tells such a surreal story in such a deadpan way, you come away not sure how much of it is true. It's all on Vimeo, so have a look and see what you think.
As for more popular culture, we uphold our Easter Sunday tradition of watching a film made in the city where we're staying: of the couple of options available for Leeds, we plump for John Schlesinger's 1963 classic Billy Liar, and are very glad we did. In terms of spotting bits of the city we've already visited, the best we can manage is a glimpse of the steps of Leeds Town Hall during the military parade sequence at the start. There may be other bits of Leeds that were used in the film, but it's hard to spot them, as a recurring motif throughout is how much of the city was being torn down and rebuilt at the start of the sixties.
We also decide to take in some local music, and see a quadruple bill of newish Leeds and Mancunian bands at The Hi Fi Club: a lovely little venue reminiscent of London's Borderline in its size, but with a surprisingly eclectic selection of beers from the likes of Magic Rock. It's a nicely varied bill, featuring the girly synthpop of Park Fires, the 6 Music-ish stylings of Larkins, and the jolly danceability of headliners Happy Daggers (whose final encore cover of Ride On Time is an absolute hoot). But for my money, the best act on the bill is The Bright Black, a ridiculously funky combination of flamboyant lead singer and take-no-prisoners rhythm section.
There are other places in Leeds to drink beer apart from the two BrewDog bars, of course: we've been given a list of recommended bars, but end up missing virtually all of them. Part of the problem is this: just after we book the weekend in Leeds, we find out that the city's running a gigantic craft beer festival over most of it. Oops, that was careless of us.
The festival's called Hop City, and it's based at one of Leeds' premier breweries, Northern Monk. “The UK's first hop-led beer festival,” it claims on the fliers, and they're not lying – thirty craft breweries of varying degrees of fame have set up shop in the brewery over three days, and are offering samples of their beers. It's very much a tasting festival: the standard unit they're selling is one third of a pint, which will cost you a £2.50 token whether you're going for Partizan's 3.6% Table Brown or Magic Rock's 11% Un-Human Cannonball.
The one exception to this nicely no-frills pricing policy is US brewery The Alchemist. They have a bit of a reputation for fancy and rare beers, which they insist are best drunk straight from the can: so they've implemented a system where you can only obtain one can of each of their beers per session, and it costs three tokens. This, inevitably, cranks up the hype associated with their product, so we head straight for their bar at the start of our Saturday evening session to pick up a can of their 8% Heady Topper Double IPA, in case it sells out. It turns out we needn't have rushed – there was still plenty left by the end of the evening – but it's a nice enough drink anyway.
Having thirty craft breweries offering their wares side by side allows you to compare and contrast, looking for trends: and the big trend currently seems to be for East Coast-style cloudy hop monsters. (As this piece appears online - two months after the festival - BrewDog have just launched their own IPA in this style, called Hazy Jane. I wish they'd gone with the suggestion someone made on the shareholder forum to call it Bandwagon...) As a result, although the eleven beers we end up sampling between us are all very drinkable, it's difficult to come up with a favourite, as they're all very similar to each other. There's a bit more variety in the food stalls – an absolutely filthy burger from Patty Smith's, nice Indian nibbles from Manjit's Kitchen, and excellent crab rolls from Holy Crab.
It's an excellently run festival: the only moment of unpleasantness comes while we're by the outdoor food stalls, as a guy is being ejected from the brewery. Even then, rather than getting aggressive about it, he spends ten minutes on the street outside throwing a rather hilarious hissy fit. Unlike old-school CAMRA-style beer festivals, there's no evidence of the traditional puddles of spew on the floor, or the traditional piles of green sand used to cover them up: people are here to enjoy the beer rather than get hammered, and it just makes for a delightful atmosphere all round. This is the first Hop City, I believe, and if they have more of them in the future we might even be tempted to make a return visit. Possibly even wrapping up the day with some shuffleboard, too.