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A Two Day Revisit to the best beer in Leeds - Day Two

This is Day Two of a two day experience in Leeds from May, that has taken a while to write about.  I was determined to finish it one day after several setbacks and distractions. Day one is written about here.

I woke from my slumber with clothes strung about the room and uneaten discarded takeaway scattered at different points on the duvet. Day one in Leeds had been a great time but the dehydration of screaming along to Mobb-phonics and going through the emotions of gun holding had left me feeling tender. Day two in Leeds was supposed to be spent sobering up and meeting somebody for non-alcohol based frivolity, whilst preparing for a stag do the following day. However, when the plans to meet up with somebody fell through, I had potentially a whole extra day of Leeds fun to go at.

My first thoughts were of breakfast and after a quick Twitter enquiry I was overwhelmingly pointed in the direction of Northern Monk Refectory for early morning food, which suited me after my failed attempt to visit the day before.

This time I used the impressive and entirely reliable SiNav to navigate to the Refectory. This would be the impeccable Twitter directions given to me by Si Grit (@LeedsBeerWolf) that even included the sacred patch of astro-turf. With these in hand, I landed at my destination, with my head throbbing in the surprising Leeds sunshine.

Always turn at the Astro-turf

With their onsite food residents - the Grub & Grog Shop - Northern Monk Refectory is, like many craft beer hubs, even better enjoyed at quiet off-peak times. With just one other customer present at this pre-12pm breakfast slot (it should be mentioned that plenty of office workers came in for takeaway breakfasts and coffees though) I was well looked after, being supplied with coffee recommendations that would wake me up, table service and food. I opted for some Croque Monsieur and after two delicious coffees, served in a very totes-craft-amazeballs way sadly, I was ready to dip into the beer menu that had been winking at me all morning.

Similar to Friends of Ham, Northern Monk Refectory is best enjoyed in its more peaceful, less hectic times. Similar to Friends of Ham though, it is a modern space I feel completely at ease in on my own. It really is a terrific space and an idea expertly executed. In my tired state, I could easily have lazed the entire day away here and that is a rarity in many bars these days.

I left Northern Monk with the intention of heading back into town to take in a couple of the Leeds Indie Food Fest events. This failed with my lack of restraint and self control. In my student days, the Holbeck area of Leeds wasn't ventured to by my friends enough so that a visit to one particular old favourite of mine was restricted to birthday treats and ale focused outings.

For reasons probably better known to Leeds residents, The Cross Keys doesn't seem to appear on the lists of city centre pub crawls. Perhaps it is the nostalgia for me that makes me keep coming back. Perhaps it is its increasing restaurant style vibe that puts others off. Whatever it is, a glass of La Chouffe on keg and friendly bar staff kept me content enough to perch at the end of the bar for a half downstairs, remember younger times and be satisfied that I'd happily come here again and again. Part of the North Bar Group - most famous for the iconic North Bar - The Cross Keys is intentionally focused for a crowd suited to the new build offices nearby, but still has a wonderful cask, keg and bottle selection that makes it a must visit for me.

With all plans and itineraries out the window at this point, I decide to complete this stretch of Holbeck with a dive into the Leeds Brewery owned Midnight Bell. Again, here is a city centre venue best enjoyed off peak, when the chance of  propping up the bar and soaking up the arena occurs. It’s location leads to a fair number of suits and office drinks taking place around me. Perhaps this is the ambience that has made this another non-stalwart for those in a modern Leeds pub crawl. On the other hand, I find this a solid little boozer, albeit with contemporary décor. I’ve never been Leeds brewery’s biggest fan – indeed my Untappd entry describes my half of New Moon as "thin, watery pish" - but the Leodis Lager they are pushing is a perfectly acceptable, smooth and tasty beer.

A more exigent stop in Leeds now is the unmissable Tapped Leeds. With it’s relation to the Pivovar group, it's 27 beer taps and brewing vessels present in the bar, this has quickly established itself as a city centre must. Dominating Boar Lane and looking like a Yate's from the outside, if nothing else one must come here for the fine Big Dan's Pizza when one needs to add quick nosh to their pub jaunt. The staff are friendly, the beer is excellent, but in contrast to other places I've visited in Leeds over this two day visit I don't enjoy the atmosphere. Something about the interior, even the brewing vessels, feels too garish to stay for more than two.

From here it was time to rejoin an event from the Leeds Indie food festival I mentioned in part one. There was to be an Artist's View of Brewing event at Tall Boys beer market – “exploring the art of beer” – that intrigued me. It was only my second trip to the beer shop that opened in the Thornton's Arcade towards the end of 2014. Aside from art, Tall Boy's was also playing host to the collaborative Noonshine Cafe;  a bringing together of the Grub & Grog Shop, Noisette Bakehouse and North Star Coffee Roasters. 

It’s a strange vibe in Tall Boys as far as specialist beer shops go. On the one hand the beer selection is excellent, if not a little expensive. On the other, I feel like it lacks welcome and warmth from the personnel involved and I felt the same on my first visit. When I announced I was there for the art, I was pointed up the stairs in a manner that suggested I'd asked for directions to the train station. I perused the art - that included most memorably one of David Bishop's @twattybeer - whilst squeezing between tables in a packed upstairs tasting room.

On returning downstairs, I ogled the shelves and again attempted to get the staff talking about beer.  I picked up a Left Hand Smoke Jumper, that at £14 for a single beer was going to have to be worth it. It also felt like it had the potential to be a conversation piece for those eager to sell me their wares. Sadly an attempt at a conversation about this beer, smoked beer in general and how it might compare to Clown Shoes’ excellent Undead Party Crasher just led to a couple of vacant stares, nods, little interaction and a quick sale, not too dissimilar to my first visit.

In contrast the guy in charge of the Noonshine Cafe that had set up for the week in the same 6 yard shop was chipper and chatty – and his coffee that I took out for a pick-me-up was delicious. 

I took my coffee up to the one place my weekend was certainly missing - the previously mentioned North Bar. This institution and Leeds beer holy land is, perhaps controversially, heritage in these parts. With so many of the places on my two day visit new or newly refurbished, North Bar is now the longest standing beer destination I choose to visit at the ripe old age of 18. Sometimes disparaged for its lack of seating or high prices, North Bar to me has too much importance in the development of craft beer in Leeds to be derisory. A quick half of the excellent Schlenkerla Fastenbier is enough to reacquaint myself with such a beautiful place. 

From here I return to Little Leeds Beer House, after being here for a tasting event the previous day. The shop housed in the Leeds Corn Exchange opened earlier this year and was packed the previous evening. This time I am the sole customer, but I find it no less welcoming. Compared to a different beer shop earlier in the day, I find it almost difficult to browse and purchase beer here for I am too involved in conversation. I am welcomed as a guest and invited to speak about beer - and as a decent conversation breaks out we soon find ourselves as comrades passionately discussing anything and everything. It's not time spent on selling me the beer here as a tradesman, but time discussing everything beer related regardless of how relevant it is to the shop - and that is what I want from such places. Tasters and growler refills are available too whilst you chat away.

Where this place lets itself down is that, on my visit, the shop was divided into three sectors: British Beer, World Beer and London Beer. The London beer section is rather surprising, hosting many beers from breweries I've never seen before. It soon transpires that a "white van*" trip down to London (*may not actually be in a white van) every few weeks ends in drudging back crates of less distributed beer to sell. I am very conflicted about this ideal. On the one hand, I'm drinking the likes of Brixton brewery that I haven't seen before. On the other hand, this shop is called Little Leeds Beer House, and whilst these additions, make them stand out from the more regular competition to people like me, I still can't help but think that some visitors/tourists may want to see more of a Leeds selection. It's a difficult balance. 

After a long chat and nothing but London beer purchased (Yes, I am an incredible hypocrite) I started making my way back to the station. Hoping to avoid the tail end of the Friday commuter traffic, I decided to nip in somehwere near the station and with Friends of Ham, Bundobust and Tapped Leeds all already visited I went to the Head of Steam on Mill Hill.

Opened in December 2014 and replacing Spencers bar, the Head of Steam is part of the chain owned by Hartlepool giants Cameron's with which I am most familiar with its namesake on Huddersfield station. Whilst its exterior doesn't look quite as appealing to me as its craftier neighbours, the interior is wonderful, with its central approach-from-all-sides bar and spiral bottle two-storey light fitting. More impressive are the large, dominating Belgian and American keg fonts, from the likes of La Chouffe and Stone. Certainly the keg selection is impressive and the imported varieties easily rival anywhere else in the city. On the opposite side, the seven cask pumps feel a little more traditional, with session strength best bitters seeming to dominate. The contrast means this is a place to appeal to many.

I spend over an hour in the Head of Steam which is easily the busiest bar I've visited on this day. Because of this, its the first place I've visited where I am not entertained by the bar staff but it is the first where a local at the bar strikes up a conversation with me. An hour spent talking to a stranger about the fortunes of Huddersfield Town and Leeds United reminds me how little footballing debate seems to occur in craft bars, something I miss.

It is with a heavy heart and heavier stomach that I board the train home to try and save some of my internal organs for the upcoming stag do. Leeds proves once more where it is held it such high esteem as a city of beer and I was reminded how one day is never enough to absorb it all.

It has taken me so long to get round to writing this second part that since I have revisited Leeds many times, but most notably for the recent Leeds International Beer Festival. I wasn't there to take notes for an individual blog post, but I was taken aback by just how wonderful the day was on my first visit. A now unmissable event on the calendar for me and now one of the best celebrations of beer I've visited. 


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