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Catching up with Northern Monk

nmbc3Since their launch last summer – on a very, very hot day in Bradford  – happenings at Northern Monk Brewing Co went a little quiet towards the end of last year. Russell Bisset and Dave Bishop’s beers were launched and sold out, rebrewed (in a cuckoo fashion at Ripon’s Hambleton Ales) and tweaked, before David left the partnership. Then, early this year, a new pale ale – Monachus  – appeared, alongside a collaboration with county neighbours Bad Seed Brewing. Northern Monk were back – but is it to stay, this time?

It’s fair to say that those monks have not been spending time relaxing; although some contemplation has certainly taken place. Behind the scenes, Russell and his team have clearly been putting in the hard yards – and traversing the steep learning curve that anyone who sets up their own business inevitably has to become acquainted with.

First thing’s first – the nomads now have a permanent home. Situated in Holbeck Urban Village in Leeds – a stone’s throw from The Cross Keys and Leeds Brewery’s Midnight Bell. We’ll get to that later – first, let’s meet the new members of the Northern Monk fraternity.

nmbco-bottle-new-world-ipa_0Maggie Cubbler – who you’ll all know from Loaded Kitchen), joins as Events and Refectory manager. Brewing is being handled by Brian Dickson, who needs no introduction to drinkers in Yorkshire from his 6 years behind the bar at The Grove (Huddersfield) and his stint moonlighting as Bitches Brewing, creating one-off brews with the likes of Quantum and Black Jack Breweries. Brian cut his teeth with Eddie Gadd at Gadds’ Ramsgate Brewery, as well as  periods shadowing the brewers at Dark Star, Thwaites and Red Willow amongst others, and he’s raring to get started on his own beers.

Maggie recently called time on her excellent beer and food blog, Loaded Kitchen. You can read her last post here, which touches on her decision to work with Northern Monk. Maggie explains exactly what she has in mind. ‘From the get-go, we’ve taken many chances to present our beer alongside food. There are a lot of talented people doing some great stuff with food and beer out there, and I’m here to put The Refectory at Northern Monk Brewery on that map too.’

‘Once The Refectory is up and running, I’ll be hooking up the likes of beer-and-cheese events, pairing evenings, and maybe even an event devoted completely to desserts and how well they go with beer. (Just one ticket available for that one though, and it’s mine)! Also, in line with our ethos of collaboration and community, it’s also my responsibility to arrange events outside of The Refectory. Whether it’s beer pairing dinners, tap-takeovers, meet-the-brewers, or whatever, I’m excited to showcase our beer in some of the best restaurants, taprooms, and pubs out there.’

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Russell explains the story behind his brewery’s new, permanent home.

‘When we set out to find a property we were really keen to find somewhere where we could have a small tap room and that tied in with the other elements of what we’re about in terms of history and character. It took some time – and I now feel like I’m fairly familiar with pretty much all the industrial units between Bradford and Manchester! We finally narrowed it down to two properties and almost ended up at Dean Clough in Halifax – which is a fantastic development but the location and character of the site in Holbeck Urban Village really won us over.’

So – another brewery for Leeds it is, then. ‘The interior has been stripped back to reveal its former glory, complete with Yorkshire stone flags, red brick walls, arched ceilings, and iron columns that run throughout.’ Russell continues.  ‘…The Refectory will house our tap room, bottle shop, and kitchen. We’ll have at least 10 Keg and 4 Cask lines, and our focus will be on showcasing some of the best beer in the North. We can’t wait to get beers in from the likes of Magic Rock, Summer Wine, Rooster’s, Buxton, Kirkstall, Ilkley, Saltaire, Quantum, Hawkshead, Bad Seed and so on.’

It all sounds pretty exciting and once up and running, I’m sure The Refectory will be a great addition to the drinking scene in Leeds city centre, bringing another business to an area of Leeds that still feels somewhat underused – and with plenty of potential. Russell says that The Refectory will appear eventually, but the brewery build is the focus. So much so, in fact, that no more beers are being brewed ‘Cuckoo’ until their kit – a 10BBL set-up fabricated by Burton’s Malrex – arrives and they can do it on their own terms. In fact, Russell’s realised that brewing Cuckoo – full stop – isn’t what Northern Monk is about anymore.

‘Unless you have sacks of cash, nerves of steel or just want to produce ‘accountants’ beer, don’t cuckoo brew in the UK!’ he laughs. ‘I don’t think the cuckoo brewing model is a viable long-term option here. It’s easy to look at the likes of Mikkeler and Evil Twin and think that it’s possible to produce bolder beer styles using a cuckoo brewing model. In reality they work with breweries like De Proef that are truly world-class and have third-party production as their bread and butter. But they also have 12 month waiting lists to work with.’

‘That being said, we owe big thanks to the guys at Hambleton, we wouldn’t be where we are without them. It’s also important to give major credit to David Bishop. He’s left us with some great beers – and what a legacy Strannik is.’

Ah, the beer. What can we look forward to drinking in 2014, then?

nmbco-bottle-strannick_0Russ is understandably coy about going into too much detail about the upcoming beers that he and Brian are formulating, but he does mention a couple of IPA’s called Dark World and 822, a fearsome-sounding triple IPA named Vesuvius – and some barrel-aged Strannik Imperial Stout, which was certainly popular last time it appeared. For the time being, you can still get your hands on some of the Salted Lemon Wit brewed in collaboration with Bad Seed Brewery, and Brian confirms that New World IPA and Strannik will be retained and refined once up and running on the new kit. In his own words, Brian can’t wait to brew beers “…that are not just packed with flavour but have a balance to them as well, a sessionability that has you willing to go back for another”.

So; cuckoo is out but brewing collaboratively is still very much on NMBC’s radar. It’s fair to say there are some interesting partnerships being worked out as we speak; working alongside Saltaire, Bundobust and Gateway Brewing (yes, in Mumbai), to name but three. I agree that working with other breweries and fostering a community around them is a theme that’s nice to see developing at Northern Monk; it nicely links their past with their future.

That being said, you get a sense that the team are dusting themselves off after a very hectic start, getting used to that aforementioned learning curve, and feeling good about having solid foundations underfoot at last. 

‘The next few years will be about honing and refining – and I think consistency, quality, and control will be key more than ever before.’  says Russ.  ‘They’re certainly going to be the things at the very core of what we’re about. It’s an incredible time to be in the UK beer industry both as a beer drinker and brewery founder; I think we’re on the cusp of a truly golden era with so many fantastic breweries and beers in the UK.’

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Getting To Know The Northern Monks

Pic: Lorne Campbell

Dave Bishop (L) and Russell Bisset (R) Pic: Lorne Campbell

‘It feels full-time! laughs Dave Bishop when I ask him whether he considers himself a brewer now. ‘ It’s taking over my life, but I do have a full-time job. Russ calls me a brewer, but its feel a little strange, then!’ How about you, Russell?  ‘I’m doing this full-time, but I don’t have a title.’ he asserts. ‘MD or something would feel a little strange.’ Founder, I offer. ‘Yeah, perhaps…’ he agrees, taking another swig of his pint.

It’s been hard to ignore Northern Monk Brewing Co round theses parts in the last few weeks. The promise of a new brewery and a new beer has certainly set tongues wagging, and when it’s someone you know – and have watched fulfill a particular desire – it makes it all the more intriguing. I’ve known David for a while now, popping up at launches, events and festivals. He’s a  talented homebrewer (He and Matt Lovatt created Joshua Jane with Ilkley Brewery – now a regular beer) with a wicked sense of humour. A likeable fellow, he’s been doing anything but seeing the humour in the creation of Northern Monk. As we talk, modes switch into total seriousness – you can feel that both he and Russell are juggling a lot at the moment; brewing, marketing, selling, launching. Talking.

Talking to people like me.

NMBCNMBCo’s story actually starts around four years ago, when Russell Bisset  and another colleague of his entered a Young Entrepreneurs competition. The idea? ‘Well, we wanted to set up a brewery – something modern and new.’ It didn’t win, and Bristol-based Russell went back to his day job, feeling more and more unfulfilled as he went on. Russell’s keen to point out that his expertise doesn’t lie in brewing; developing business is his initial interest – so when he finally had the means to do so, he decided he wanted to resurrect his brewery idea.

Russell relocated to Shipley,moved in with family to save money, and begun to get a feel for the landscape in terms of beer and potential partners. David  came onto his radar purely by his aforementioned reputation. Contact was made: ‘Dave turned out to not only be a decent bloke but also shared my ideas about what I wanted to do. He was also incredibly transparent about where he was (in terms of brewing experience) and where he wanted to be.’ Russell says. Dave’s certainly not the first homebrewer to be scooped up and ‘go pro’ – recently Wharfebank have brought Steve Crump into the team (another award-winning Yorkshire homebrewer) and the likes of Mallinson’s, SummerWine and Revolutions Brewing are built on the foundations of homebrewing.

‘It’s not actually the first time someone’s contacted me with the same proposition, so I actually dismissed the approach at first.’ Dave says. ‘A short time later, I got another email with a ridiculous amount of information on it. I decided it was serious, and that we should meet. It was great. So much work had gone into the project already, and we went from there.’

The one thing missing was a brewery.

The proposal was a simple one; NMBCo would follow in the footsteps of Revolutions, Steel City, Mikeller and many others by brewing on someone else’s kit. In this case, Ripon’s Hambleton Ales provided the hardware.

photoSo why not open a brewery? I ask. ‘We just felt that if we started small (in terms of capacity), it might take a long time to grow. At the core of what we want to do is simply make good beer; by taking a cuckoo approach we feel that we can find our feet and experiment somewhat.We personally feel that our money was best spent perhaps making the beer; investing in ingredients and growing expertise rather than physical kit. It’s an approach we are happy with at the moment.’ says Russell, before reiterating that of course, a brewery is on the cards in the not-too-distant future.

So, Hambleton is the home of Northern Monk – for the time being at least. Other breweries were approached but Hambleton were the most receptive to their ideas and Nick Hambleton has been providing feedback – good and bad, as you’d expect. ‘Nick probably doesn’t need us there, but he seems to really understand what we are trying to do, and lets us get on with it.’ says David. Hambleton are doing the bottling, too, so the entire process is being handled in one operation. Dave explains how great Hambleton’s have been in terms of feedback, advice, help and generally mentoring him – despite the beer being entirely different to what Hambleton brew.

‘It’s difficult to go onto someone else’s kit and processes and rules; but we were fully aware of this but we’re pleased with the results.’ Dave adds.

The result was New World IPA (6.2% abv),a beer that both represents the output of a period of discovery, hard work, and bringing ideas on paper to life. Sure, the beer’s a little rough around the edges – it’s very sweet, full of boiled-sweet thickness – but has a pleasingly restrained hop snap (more tangerine and lemon-rind than Grapefruit) at the finish. It’s not aggressive – as I was expecting – and ends up feeling nicely balanced. The New World part refers to the hops (there’s some Galaxy in there, among others) but the upcoming beers will have their roots firmly in England.

‘Why IPA first? It’s the style of beer I probably drink the most.’ smiles David, matter-of-factly. Russ continues, laying out the essence of MNBCo ‘We want to do things from a British angle. There’s a lot of US influence over here, but I think we (The British) influence them just as much.’

‘We actually talked about doing a Barley Wine first, but realistically it would take too long to mature and get out there. So we settled on our take on an IPA; solid with a medium abv and nothing too harsh in terms of bitterness. I wanted it to have a bright finish -which it does!’ admits Dave.

Pic courtesy of Northern Monk

Launch night: Pic courtesy of Northern Monk

‘We should be brewing again soon. Within weeks, actually. We plan to brew once a month, and we aim to have a range of ten beers or so eventually, with four core beers.’

The beer was launched at a hot, humid and typically joyous night at The Sparrow last week. A bloke in a Monk’s habit strode around – as did a similarly-attired dog – and the beer was accompanied by some deliciously-spiced Jerk Chicken with Mango Chutney, courtesy of Maggie Cubbler (Loaded Kitchen). The launch seemed a success, with brewers from the likes of Magic Rock and Saltaire giving support and advice to the fledgling Monks. And, of course, it was entirely right for them to work with The Sparrow at the launch. Russell and David are proud to be located in, and supporting, Bradford.

Keep an eye out for it, and tell the guys what you think. The image, labelling and website is all confidently slick and certainly sets the beer apart on the bar. Hopefully it won’t be too long until we another beer from NMBCo, now that those all-important first steps have been taken. And that’s exactly how I would pitch the beer to you, dear reader – a promising start with work to do – but certainly one to watch.

Check out David’s blog for some excellent posts about his ups and downs in his shift from homebrewer to pro – I recommend them. 

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