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“beer is essentially a living thing” — russell bisset, northern monk brew co.

“beer is essentially a living thing” — russell bisset, northern monk brew co.


Holbeck is often recognised as one of the cradles of the industrial revolution, but it didn’t gain that status automatically.

Two of its most significant and surviving factories, Marshall’s Mill and Temple Works, were built by John Marshall, who by 1838 was master of the largest and most successful flax spinning firm in England. He hadn’t started in Holbeck, however; first, he took over his father’s business in Mill Hill, then wandered as far as Scotland Mill at Adel before he moved the business south of the river to Water Lane.

Now another wandering industry intends to make Holbeck its home, as Northern Monk Brew Co. ends its first phase as a cuckoo brewery by moving permanently into the building that was John Marshall’s old flax store.

“The idea of cuckoo brewing was far more viable in our early stages than to invest in kit,” says Russell Bisset, one of the brothers at Northern Monk. Instead they used kit that was temporarily unused at other brewers’ premises, partnering with their hosts to produce collaborative beers like their Smoked Porter, made with Saltaire Brewery. “Initially it meant we could focus on the product itself rather than spending all our money on a very small amount of kit and doing it on a very small scale.”

As street food traders have found, success can be achieved by keeping start up costs low and quality high, but beer is difficult to master if you can’t be on hand to tend to it during the fermentation process.

“We’ve been happy with all our beers, but we know we’ve got better in us,” says Russell. “But we’ve never felt that we can quite get to perfection using someone else’s kit. Brewing beer is a bit of an art form and a bit of science, but there are some elements that you can’t really be in control of. It is essentially a living thing, and it’s important that you do everything you can to nurture it through the process.”

The search for a permanent site for Northern Monk was also a long process, but then they set the standards for their premises as high as their beer. “I was really keen to find somewhere with the kind of industrial heritage that tied into what we wanted to do, but also a place that people could get to so that we could serve beers on tap at the site. It also had to be somewhere that we could access the rest of the UK from, and obviously somewhere in the north – that was important too. So there were a lot of boxes to be ticked, and it took a while.

“We almost went with a place at Dean Clough in Halifax, which is a great spot with a great feel to it, but then we found this place.”


This place is the Old Flax Store in what is now the car park for the offices in Marshall’s Mill, an imposing three storey brick building built in 1838, with a scale that still hints at the grandeur it must have had before its fourth storey was lopped off and replaced by a flat roof. Internally, its wide, open plan spaces spread out beneath brick arched ceilings – its potential is obvious, and after being welcomed into breweries across the north to brew their beer, Northern Monk now plan to welcome everybody into their own – not only other brewers, but drinkers too.

“The ground floor will be a ten barrel brewery with three fermentation vessels, and that will have an initial capacity of five thousand litres per week,” says Russell. “The first floor will be our tap room and kitchen, with sixteen keg beers and four cask on at all times. We’ll look to showcase beers from the surrounding region, so we can’t wait to welcome the likes of Ilkley and Saltaire, and Magic Rock, Summer Wine and people like Bad Seed that we’ve worked with in the past, kind of the cream of the Yorkshire brewing scene. There’s such a fantastic amount of great beer being produced in this region it would be a shame not to showcase that.

“In addition we’ll have a grist hopper which feeds the grains down into the mash tun through a big funnel, and that will be on the first floor so it’ll be viewable from the bar at all times. We’ll have our grain store there as well so there will be a real sense of interaction with the brewery and the site of production, which is something that we’re really keen to reflect.”

Brewing began at The Old Flax Store in August, and the first floor Refectory opens on Friday 24th October, combining a tap room, bottle shop and events space with a kitchen run by The Grub & Grog Shop. Dan and Jim’s menu will make full use of the beer being brewed beneath their feet, with fresh hop syrups and beer-braised meats and vegetables – with a typical Grub & Grog focus on flavour-filled vegan and vegetarian food.

“We’ll be serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, and will change the menu on a monthly basis with ingredients sourced direct from local farms where possible,” says Jim. “For breakfast we’ll be making homemade crumpets using the yeast from the brewery and for lunch a range of sandwiches and salads including a great beef brisket sandwich cooked in Chennai Porter. Dinner will be served all day and items will change depending on what’s in season. The initial menu will feature a vegan celeriac stew, an ox tongue hash and gin-cured river trout.”

Unlike many breweries that are necessarily industrial units with no room for visitors, Northern Monk want to return to the days when breweries were only slightly less common in the heart of the community than pubs; or even further, to the days when monastic communities were centred, after religion, on the brewhouse.

“It’s important for us to create a real destination to increase the footprint of Holbeck Urban Village,” says Russell. “I think a lot of people see Marshall Street as a dividing line and maybe don’t feel so comfortable about going further than that, but we’re really keen to be part of the local Holbeck community. It’s a fantastic area with so much history, and architecturally it’s brilliant. We’re going to work with Motiv8 gym next door, let them hold some classes in the tap room and maybe some yoga in there – we’ve lots of little plans to bring the community into the space. Historically pubs and breweries, and abbeys, were all centres of the community, and it’s those things that we’d like to play on and bring back to the fore.”

Part of the buzz of the new building is also the new opportunities for the beer, with head brewer Brian Dickson bringing his experience to the new kit from brewing at places like Thwaites and Dark Star, and managing the bar at The Grove in Huddersfield, one of the best beer bars in the country. Northern Monk have a long list of favours to return from the cuckoo days, and are planning to create something with the coffee roasters at North Star; they’ve also cast their collaborative net around the world, working on the first Anglo-Indian beer collaboration with Gateway Brewing Co., Mumbai’s first craft brewery. A very special Bundobust beer is in development and will launch at the new craft beer and Indian street food venue in November.

“We’ve got quite a long list of people we want to get back, because we would have been lost without them as we’ve grown,” says Russell. “We’ve had so much support, which is indicative of the way the industry works and that’s a great thing. The more we can work together the better. There are more breweries in the UK than there have been for thousands of years, and it’s important to see how we all work together within that.

“And being in Leeds – you can feel the energy in this city at the moment, and it’s just a great time to be here, and to have already begun working with people.”

The Refectory opens at Northern Monk Brew Co.’s brewery at The Old Flax Store, Marshall Street, Holbeck, on Friday October 24th; opening hours will be Monday to Tuesday, 10am till 5pm, and Wednesday to Sunday, 10am till late. Follow NMBcoRefectory on Twitter for updates, or visit the Northern Monk Brew Co. website here.


Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 14