“beer isn’t what you think it is anymore” — kath hartley, northern monk brew co.Back
Millions of pounds have been spent over the years trying to make the buildings of Holbeck make something of Holbeck.
Italianate towers to make Holbeck equivalent to Verona or Florence. Elaborate columns and hieroglyphics to bring it within squinting distance of Ancient Egypt. Pale glazed office blocks so armies of typists can replace ranks of machinists.
All that has cost money, but the most significant recent change to Holbeck comes free at the point of purchase: your nose.
“It’s wonderful on brew day,” says Kath Hartley, operations manager at Northern Monk Brew Co. on Marshall Street. “Brew day is the best, it’s so good. I’ll be sitting in the office and this amazing aroma will come through when the beer is mashed in. It smells like biscuits.
“You can smell it in the streets. I walk down Water Lane on my way to work and it smells like biscuits all the way down there. It’s great for the local community. I would love it if I lived near a brewery, I’d always be looking forward to brew day.”
Holbeck has had this before; from long gone malt houses of its own on Derwent Street and Meadow Lane, and from Tetley’s Brewery way over in Hunslet. As clean-air laws and the decline of industry lifted the smog from over 1950s Leeds, most everybody came to know that smell at the bottom end of town. “Tetley’s had a really specific smell,” says Kath, “It had that silvery thing going on, a really interesting smell.”
A more likely aroma than silver from NMBCo is limes. “My limes,” deadpans Jim from The Grub & Grog Shop as he gives us a glimpse of his proud kitchen behind the first floor Refectory bar. “They used all my limes.” Hundreds of them, salted, plus kaffir lime leaves, to make a Salted Lime Wit in collaboration with Bad Seed Brewery.
“We did a Salted Lemon Wit with Bad Seed last year, and now we have a fully functioning brewery it was their turn to come to us,” says Kath. “When the kaffir lime leaves went into the boil the whole brewery smelt amazing, it was heavenly. The beer has such a delicate and fragrant flavour, and it’s dangerously gluggable. I was drinking it the other night and it’s refreshing and lovely, but at the same time it’s 6.4% so it’s a bit of a bruiser.”
Transforming the ground floor of the Old Flax Store next to Marshall’s Mill into that fully functioning brewery was one of the big steps forward for Northern Monk last year; transforming the first floor into a fully functioning Refectory where beer from downstairs and elsewhere can be drunk, where limeless food from The Grub & Grog Shop can be eaten, and where exhibitions curated by No Culture Icons and others can be seen, was another. In June 2014, Russell Bisset plonked two bottles of Smoked Porter from his rucksack on to a table outside The Cross Keys and told us about everything he had planned for the empty warehouse next door; now, with Brian Dickson to brew it and Kath Hartley to run it, they’ve done it.
“The way Russ has approached Northern Monk is amazing,” says Kath. “And I find it really inspirational. It’s been a really exciting project since the day I joined, even when I came in and found a building site that I wasn’t expecting! We were fully operational as a brewery by then but the Refectory was still a building site about two weeks before we opened. My first seat was two barrels with a plank of wood, where I sat with my computer ringing people up – ‘Hello, do you want any beer?’ I thought I might at least have a chair.”
Kath’s duties as operations manager are vague but vital, because they are everything. “I just try to keep it all ticking over” is what she tells us, encompassing in ‘all’ a brewery, a bar, a kitchen, a bottling plant, an exhibition space, an events space (and its construction: the Chapter Hall is coming to the top floor soon), distribution, accounts, marketing, staff, export, stock, and a 177-year old listed former mill building. “Russell jokes that he doesn’t know what I actually do all day,” says Kath, who had an early grounding in the hard work that goes on in the background of easy-drinking beer.
“My dad is a homebrewer, although it’s funny because he’s not really amazing – he’s had some right disasters with beer. But I remember being really interested when I was little because all the equipment looked really cool. He used to get these big tins full of malt extract, and he’d say to me, Kath, do you want to do something really fun? And I’d be like, yeah! He’d give me this massive tin and say, just turn this upside down, and the malt would start trickling out, a tiny fine little needle’s worth of malt. And he’d say, great, just hold that there. And then he’d disappear and go and have a cup of tea.
“I used to love the smell though. Malt is really caramelly and syrupy, so I’ve got fond memories of being stuck holding that bloody malt tin.”
It feels like an easy script from brewer’s assistant to brewery manager, but an interest in beer and its crafts was not as easily cultivated in the late nineties as it is today.
“I started getting into more interesting beers when I went to uni. My friend worked in a real ale pub in Birmingham called The Wellington, a proper old man bring-your-own-pie affair. They used to have absolutely tons of casks on. They would just get one barrel of everything and when that was gone they’d change it, so there was always an amazing array of different beers to try.
“I joined CAMRA when I was about 18 because it was a good way to go to all the beer festivals. I remember going to the Great British Beer Festival in London when I was 18 or 19, and had loads of amazing beer and finished the day on some ridiculously strong under the counter style cider – then got horrendously lost on the tube.
“After that when I moved back up to Leeds I started working for North Bar, and that’s when I started to really get into interesting beers; things I hadn’t tried before like Belgian beers and American craft beers. North Bar do a lot of training and a lot of tastings and expect you to know your stuff, so you have to do a lot of reading and a lot of drinking and really engage with it to be able to recommend it to people. Working there for ten years was a really good course in beer.”
Not that being behind the bar made it self-evident to every customer that Kath’s knowledge was down.
“I’d go to serve some blokes at the bar and they’d say, it’s alright, I’ll wait for the barman – I want a recommendation on some beer. And I’d be like, right, I’m not here just to polish the glassware so don’t worry about that. It’s only ten years ago that people were still quite surprised that women could be interested in beer.”
Good beer’s progress from a niche presence around the edges of Carling and John Smith’s dominance along a steady march to the bar tops of everywhere has been one of the great underground gone overground stories of the last ten years, that Kath says is due to experimentation winning out over concentration.
“More breweries started to make more interesting beers, and as things got more diverse, that appealed to more people. There is more choice than there ever has been. The way the beer industry used to be, a lot of pubs would just have three different lagers, and that’s not something that would make people think they really like beer.
“I have a lot of friends who say they don’t like beer, but I tell them no, you do like beer. You just haven’t tried a beer you like yet. There are so many flavours available now; stuff like Duchesse de Bourgogne, that’s an insane beer, a Flemish red ale that tastes like balsamic vinegar, strawberries and black pepper, and all of a sudden, beer isn’t what you think it is anymore.”
It doesn’t come from where it used to, either; although Tetley’s closure was a loss to the city’s heritage, employment and nostrils, the relaxing of large scale brewing’s grip on the city and the country’s pubs has given more room for small operations to test and prosper. We wonder sometimes if it’s because Leeds was once so well-stocked with Tetley’s houses, and has seen what happens when that goes away, that the city has so readily embraced so many smaller, independent alternatives.
Holbeck’s story, too, is of independent businesses taking up the baton after large scale industries and developers have lost their hold.
“The independent scene in Leeds is amazing,” says Kath. “There are so many businesses opening up and doing something interesting and individual. They’re full of passion because it’s just mates opening businesses that they really care about – it’s not just a job, it’s something they’re passionate about and they have to make it work and as good as it can be. The independence really pushes people forward.
“The way Holbeck has grown feels quite organic. It’s nice that it’s happening now because they tried to make it happen here five or six years ago but everything ground to a halt when the economy crashed. But now it feels like there is a really good vibe down here, the office spaces are busy and it’s a great place to be a part of, and to be able to give a nod to a part of Leeds that has been underdeveloped in the past.
“The other day we were comparing Holbeck to Saltaire, and how much money has been spent on Saltaire so it looks wonderful, and that as one of the hearts of the Industrial Revolution in Yorkshire it has been preserved and celebrated; while Holbeck was a bit forgotten about. There have been great things happening on Water Lane for years but beyond that was almost an imaginary barrier, and we’re happy that we can give some life back to a wonderful building that has been here for such a long time.”
Northern Monk are also bringing the area full circle, as their beers, like John Marshall’s textiles, are finding their way out of Holbeck and out of Leeds to Europe and beyond.
“We’ve just started to scratch the surface of export,” says Kath. “Our first beer has landed in America, and some beer went about two weeks ago to Barcelona – which was a right bloody mission. It’s exciting but it’s real hard work. There is a lot of complicated customs work to do, but luckily our first order went to some guys in Barcelona who are absolutely sound and lovely and patient with us. The beer kept getting held up and we’d email them saying, sorry! We didn’t know this would happen! And they’re like, ‘Don’t worry. Everybody is always learning.’”
Learning, and growing. John Marshall might not recognise his old mills and warehouses today, but he’d know industriousness when he saw it. In its heyday, Marshall’s Mill had almost 7,000 spindles; and somewhere, in the office in back, he’ll have had someone like Kath Hartley, making them spin.
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 23