About a year ago, a bottle of beer was deposited for me to pick up in a local off-licence – meaning the somewhat liberating prospect of walking into a bottle shop and asking for what was under their counter (something I’d only ever done before in bookshops). That beer was a brand new offering from a brand new offeree – Northern Monk Brewing Co’s ‘New World IPA’. Six months later, another email, a re-up, and it was Northern Monk’s Strannik imperial stout. After enjoying both – the latter far more, I have to say – this unusual breadcrumb trail then led to a fleeting appearance at last year’s IndyMan festival in Manchester; to great acclaim.
Fast-forward almost a year, and I finally managed to sit down with NMBCo founder Russell Bisset, just days before their official launch – which takes place tonight, at the North Bar in Leeds. Ahead of that, Russell was only too happy to talk about the route his company has taken, and what their future holds. “We’re really humbled to have launches at North Bar in Leeds and Craft Beer Co in Clerkenwell,” he says (the London launch is set to take place on September the 25th). “We’re still very much a fledgling business. We’ve been very fortunate in that we’ve worked with a number of great breweries across the UK, and it’s led to a presence that’s maybe a little bit ahead of ourselves at the moment.”
This is an interesting point, and it belies the unusual position that Northern Monk find themselves in; ‘launching’ their beers over a year since the first one hit the market. That, of course, is because up until now the beers have been brewed on a contract basis, at Hambleton Ales in Ripon. I ask Russell if he feels extra pressure as a result, given that this week’s launch has been a long time coming. “Yeah, I think so,” he answers, truthfully. “Because we’ve had beers on the market, both cuckoo brewed and collaborations, a lot of people don’t see us as a new brewery; but we kind of are, really. We’ve produced quite a small amount of beer in the grand scheme of things, and we were never going to be 100% happy with beer we were producing in cuckoo fashion.”
“Beer is a combination of science, art and a bit of pot luck,” he continues. “It’s a process you need to nurture. But if you do everything right on a brew day, and then leave it in someone else’s hands, there’s no way you can sleep, as there’s someone else looking after it. It feels great having everything under our control. We’re really stoked about the future.” ‘Under their control’ is an understatement. After leaving the services of Hambleton, Russell and brewer Brian Dickson* now do everything themselves – ‘working every hour that God sends’, as he puts it. They now have a 10 barrel Malrex kit and three fermenters, in a site right in the centre of Leeds. I ask Russell more about it, and their future plans. He starts beaming.
*The affable ex-Grove lynchpin, who went on to form Bitches Brewing and has since joined NMBCo.
“I was really keen to find premises that reflected what we were trying to do in terms of the Northern industrial approach, and pay homage to the industrial nature of things. We found a Grade 2-listed former flaxmill building, ten minutes from Leeds station. We’ll have a little taproom there which is something we’re really keen to do.” When I ask him to elaborate on the ‘little’ taproom, he reels off a list of things that make it sound like one of the destination highlights of the entire city. Sixteen keg lines. Four cask. Eight or nine NMBCo beers on permanent rotation, with others pouring local guests. A working brewery tap, with the bar on the first floor, level with the grist hopper, giving visitors a chance to see and smell the malt as they drink.
It must be pretty frustrating, then, as well as nerve-wracking. Having all these grand plans in place, and the time counting down to when they’ll all go online. “Oh, sure,” he confirms. “We’re so close now. It’s really exciting though – I guess it depends when you ask, really. If you asked on each different day you’d get a different answer; it doesn’t really correlate to the day of the week. I’d either be having a nervous breakdown or be really, really excited. But ultimately we’ve got what we need in place and are committed to making incredible beer. That will happen. We’re not going to hit eleven out of ten on our first brew, as we’ll get used to the kit, but we’re confident we can get there.”
So, what about those brews? Russell lists the core lineup:-
True North – “A 3.7% Pale. Being a Yorkshire brewery, it’s something we need to do.”
Monachus Pale Ale – “We’ve done a US and NZ-hopped version recently.”
New World IPA – “We’ve honed and refined this [since it was contract-brewed], we never really hit where we wanted.”
822 IPA – “Our double IPA; the first recorded use of hops in this country was in 822AD by a monk called Adelhard the Elder.”
Vesuvius – “Our once-a-year triple IPA, so-called because Vesuvius is the volcano that killed Pliny.”*
Strannik – “The beer we were happiest with, when contract brewing; it will definitely be part of the core range.”
* It should be noted Russell said this hugely tongue-in-cheek; it won’t be launched specifically to take pot shots at Russian River’s standout IPA of that name…
Aside from these, Russell talked candidly about mocha porters, session IPA’s and the most craft-forward style of the moment, saisons. They haven’t actually published a full beer list yet for the trade, but he told me the first batch of Monachus has already sold out. “Most of the rest of these should be out in the next couple of months,” he reveals, although he goes on to qualify that statement about Vesuvius – “We’re not going to brew Vesuvius next week, we’ll work up to that.” I ask him, with this lineup heavy with on-point beer styles and abv’s, what will set Northern Monk apart from the plethora of small, up and coming ‘craft’ breweries. He pauses, for pretty much the first time during our conversation.
“That’s a really curly question. The UK’s beer scene has developed so much I’m not going to sit here and say we’re going to be better than anyone else. We aspire to be up there, but we’ll have to work our arses off to get there. Ultimately we’re trying to just make the best beer we can. There’s something great to be celebrated about the monastic brewing tradition of the UK and across the rest of the world, and that kind of ties in to the community and collaborations, and things like that. It’s nice to bring those elements back to the fore.”
The Leeds launch takes place tonight (28th August) at the famed North Bar, and will feature four NMBCo beers. Further details are here, on the Facebook event page. The 25th of September event at Clerkenwell’s Craft Beer Co will feature at least twelve Northern Monk beers – potentially twice that many – and the FB page for that event is here.