Kirkstall may be one of the busiest suburbs of Leeds – leading away from the city and to the Abbey and Horsforth heading north-west, or up into the student heartland of Burley and Headingley heading north-east – but it’s not what it used to be for pubs. Aside from the resurgent West End House and The Vesper Gate (owned by Sizzling Pubs), there’s not much for the beer drinker on this busy junction.
This wasn’t always the case. I remember the Kirkstall Lights being a cheap, popular local in the late 90’s (I lived in nearby Burley whilst in college at the time) which did a decent sideline in live music, and stalwarts of the area cite long-gone drinking dens such as The Morning Star, The (somewhat infamous) Star & Garter, The Abbey Inn and The Rising Sun (the recent fire at which was a real shame for those interested in design; one of the first Tetley’s houses (its gorgeous interior was destroyed finally after a year or so of being used as an ersatz furniture warehouse) as ‘decent drinkers’. The George IV sits idle, rotting away behind ornate glasswork, at the very bottom of Kirkstall Road.
So it’s heartening to see a new pub (housed in what used to be The Old Bridge Inn) being taken over by local heroes Kirkstall Brewery and turned into what is ostensibly their brewery tap. You get a sense that the area needs The Kirkstall Bridge Inn (not the Old Bridge, as the signage outside confusingly still states); not just for the students who now inhabit what used to be the original, bustling brewery overlooking the canal, but for the residents of Bramley and Kirkstall, too.
After a long development / refurbishment, it finally opened at the end of the summer – and it’s been worth the wait. Inside, the pub itself is unrecognisable from it’s somewhat tatty, unloved former self. There’s cosy nooks, plenty of dark wood and the walls gleam with original and reproduced breweriana, most of which came out of Steve Holt (Kirkstall Brewery’s owner) extensive private collection. New seating and partitions have been created, and the overall feel achieved is that of a large, single-roomed pub with plenty of privacy – which is quite an illusion to pull off. Speaking to Steve, I know he’s proud of it – but has promised more to come in the way of decoration.
Bar-wise, it’s as you’d expect from Kirkstall Brewery; Three Swords Pale, BYB and the luscious Black Band Porter were all in fine fettle, and to be expected as permanent. There’s Kirkstall’s lager and Framboise on keg, and, at the time of my visit, a couple of guests from The Tapped Brew Co. The fridges groan with Vertical Drinks’s US and Belgian roster; Stone, Oskar Blues and, of course, Sierra Nevada all being present and correct.
Downstairs, the transformation is even more striking; the dark, dingy ‘basement bar’ now a second bar; stone-flagged and spacious, leading out to the riverside beer garden. It feels like part of the pub, despite being underneath it. There’s no food, but local food vendors such as Bundobust and Fish & are enjoying long-term winter residencies, which solves that problem. Wilson’s (frankly excellent) Pork Pies are also available for those wanting something more traditional.
So, overall, an excellent addition to an over-populated but under-used part of Leeds. Let’s hope the students and local residents take the opportunity to pop in rather than heading into Leeds – I know my canal-side weekend dog-walk just got another welcome little stop on it (dogs are welcome in the basement bar).
It’s not just change at the pub, though. I took the opportunity to have a chat with Matt Lovatt – part of the new brewing team at Kirkstall- to see how life has changed since I last interviewed Steve Holt and Dave Sanders for Great Yorkshire Beer. Dave Sanders recently left the brewery and made the short hop towards Bradford, joining the team at Saltaire Brewery.
Matt’s one of the army of talented homebrewers being given a chance to step up. ‘I’d never been employed in a brewery before. I have home brewed for about five years now with varying levels of success. I had just moved house and was toying with the idea of setting up a vanity brewery in my garage when I was asked if I was interested in working at Kirkstall.’ he explains.
He’s already finding the challenge of commercial brewing lies not only in recipe formulation, but brewing to schedule and at a level of consistency that the drinkers demand. ‘(There’s) plenty to learn – and also to unlearn. Home brewing is great but scale, free time and attention span tend to lead to occasional, eclectic brew days! Returning to a recipe can seem like a wasted opportunity. By contrast, at Kirkstall I’m really enjoying getting to know a set of core beers and working out what makes (and keeps) them what they are. We recently hit capacity so we are also in the process of scaling up which presents its own logistical challenges.’
There’s not just Matt on the team – Alex Dodds is the Head Brewer. Starting out managing pubs (including Wire in Leeds and a stint with Market Town Taverns, he got his break in brewing as Brewery Manager at Wensleydale a few years ago and moved to Kirkstall in 2012 to assist Dave Sanders. He and Matt are joined by Tom Summerscales, who started at Kirkstall within a week of graduating from Heriot Watt this year. Tom is also a keen home brewer and has had some previous experience at his home town brewery, Ossett.
So, what are the new -look Kirkstall crew working on at the moment?
‘Our first priority is to be able to make more of the beer that has already proved itself. Beyond that, some other things in the pipeline include keg Three Swords (which, at the time of publishing, has made an appearance) and some seasonal specials for North Bar (whose house Pale ale, Prototype, is a perennial favourite and brewed by Kirkstall).’ Explains Matt. ‘A pet project of mine is to get a pilot plant going at the brewery. If all goes to plan it should be possible to indulge some experimentation to complement our established range.’
So, very much a case of new brew team, new challenges for Kirkstall Brewery. Not least the addition of a new pub to showcase their wares. Much like Kirkstall bringing brewing back to an area of Leeds once known for it, the pub should hopefully bring a few drinkers out of the city centre and Headingley. Trust me, it’s worth the visit.