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Do Bars need to continuously innovate? (A Trip to Leeds)

The other weekend I had an afternoon out in Leeds city centre where I visited Tapped Leeds for the first time, a fairly new establishment having only opened last year. It boasts 27 beers - 13 cask and 14 keg. There are also house beers brewed on site in the brewery whose kettles sit in the bar area itself. It's modern in design; square, matching and formulaic. It feels fresh and clean but certainly bar-like. As an ex-resident of Leeds it is interesting and incredulous that such a bar exists in a prime location (on the main road running to the train station by the brand new Trinity shopping centre) in a city whose drinking establishments have always seemed hidden or camouflaged. It stands bold as brass opposite the ever popular Yate's as an anti-thesis to it's rival. A doorman watches over even though it is early afternoon; a reminder of the reputation of this corner of the city. 

Do I enjoy my time here? Of course. We sit on high stools just near the bar and sup a variety of beverages all of incredible standard. The Siren/Omnipollo Nacken is enough to make me want to stay here all day. I announce via a check-in on Facebook that this bar is "my dream" and I would have longed for such an institution to exist in the days I resided on this side of the Pennines. 

Alas, we are here for the day and there are other pubs and bars I wish to visit. I'm looking forward to returning to the long standing North Bar, northerly to where we currently are. Long have I drank in this bar and long has my love and admiration stood for it. In the days I was a student in this city, drinking here was a rare treat due to the prices. Since those days though, no trip to Leeds has been complete without a visit. I had my first ever Gulden Draak here 8 years ago. I had my first ever Mikkeller Sort Gul here 2 years ago (and yes it is that good a beer I remember that so distinctly.) I am looking forward to returning at this stage of my day out. 

Yet, something is lacking here. An initial scan of the cask and keg pump clips as we reach the bar doesn't excite me in the way I have just been thrilled by Tapped. A chance to try Flying Dog's Brewhouse Rarities Series' Cinnamon Porter casts intrigue, but nothing else does. This is unusual. I take a seat with my drink with slight disappointment that does not fade as we chat to people and take in the ambience. This is the moment where the questions from this blog post are formed. 

For I find myself seeing North Bar for what it is for the first time. It is a thin corridor of a bar that has never had enough seating, that has always been a struggle to get served peering over the ever present bar-flies and has little character. It is not enjoyable to relax in or charming. It has always just had the best beer selection in the city and that has been enough. Now, however, it has the second best beer selection in the city and I sit here drinking in this old favourite haunt wishing I was back at the brand new, shiny dwelling across the city. I tweeted at the time saying "North Bar has changed. In fact, no it hasn't and that's the problem." 

When I think of Tapped Leeds now though, I realise that it too had little charm or character, bar some steel drums in the corner. If you removed 26 beers from their choice and left one, no matter if it were kept in terrific condition, I wouldn't return to soak in the building or to sit and enjoy a drink. 

Do bars need to continuously innovate in a way pubs do not? 

I ask this because, on my last visit to Leeds city centre, I went to pubs south to the train station in the Holbeck and Hunslet area. I was taken to the Adelphi for the first time, a pub very overpriced and with a poor beer selection that day but one with such a beautiful, structural interior that I could have drank there all night. We also went to the Grove, a pub I used to adore and still do. The best beer I had there was Moorhouse's Black Cat which perhaps says a lot about the more traditional cask selection. Yet as a pub, with it's unchanged interior and delicious snugs I think it's perfect as it is. I wouldn't mind if all they ever served was Moorhouse's Black Cat. I hope the Grove remains the same for as long as it's doors are open. 

This ideal is apparent in so many towns and cities I have either lived in or frequented. At Huddersfield, just down the road, I used to once enjoy a visit to Vox Bar in the heart of town. This was at a time when a draught Erdinger Dunkel was appeasing enough and the layout and dĂ©cor of the bar enhanced the experience. Yet in the last couple of years, a bar named Zephyr has opened around the corner with a similar feel and design. The difference has been in beer selection which, although not massive at Zephyr, is often impressive; I've had Nogne's Brown and Saison, Brewdog's Abstrakt 13 and MOA's Pale Ale on keg here. I find myself choosing Zephyr over Vox now, as Vox stubbornly doesn't change or innovate and is being left behind. It is not the same though, again, for the pubs in the town centre for me. Traditional pubs such as the Slubbers Arms or the County need offer nothing better than Timothy Taylor's Landlord or Copper Dragon's Golden Pippin' respectively for me to keep returning without criticism or complaint. 

Whilst living in Wakefield I used to go out drinking with a few older CAMRA members every now and then for a different perspective of the city. Amongst the pubs we would try were the Elephant & Castle and the Harewood Arms. As I recall from 8 or 9 years ago, neither offered anything more than cask John Smith's or Tetley's and I asked why they enjoyed going there. "Because it's a lovely pub" would be the response and they weren't wrong. 

As I sat in North Bar the other Saturday, I contemplated what it was that disappointed me about the place. What did North Bar lack? The obvious answer would be history and heritage. Who doesn't like an old fashioned heritage pub? Yet that isn't something you can gain or buy so how do you combat your lack of it? The answer must surely be innovation. Bars are not timeless in the way pubs can be. 

It seems to be a truth until you consider that on this same Leeds trip I returned to Friends of Ham. Whilst this bar come charcuterie does offer a good range of beers (9 if I remember correctly on cask and keg) it is also one of my favourite drinking establishments in the world to just sit and have a drink, when you can find a seat downstairs.It is a very modern bar, barely 2 years old, yet has a basement room laid out with a mixture of small coffee tables, long wooden tables, sofas, bookcases and shuffleboard. There's no history or heritage here, but it's ambience, when it isn't too busy, is unbeatable. If Friends of Ham removed all it's current cask and keg lines and served only Black Sheep Bitter I would still come here. Annoyingly, this great bar has disproven my own theory. 

It may be that atmosphere, comfort and overall pleasure is provided by the factors that come with "history and heritage" and that cold, diner-like, modern bars need to find a different way of providing the ambience, whether it is through a game of shuffleboard or a mini library in the corner. 

I feel that this is part one in a little voyage of discovery for me. Of course, one could start the discussion between what makes a "bar" and what makes a "pub" but that is not for here. 

I'm not describing bars as soulless, rather looking for the features besides the beer selection that make them enjoyable. Similarly, what makes my favourite pubs so fantastic? I'll continue to look into it. In the mean time, I'll be sure to go back to North Bar on my next Leeds visit, hopefully to find the fun once more.


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