A while back, a mate introduced me to this Aussie guy called Mark Stredwick. When I got to know him I discovered he’s not actually Australian, originally he hails from Yarm, Teeside, but he stayed down under for just a bit too long! Why is it anyone whose spent more than twelve months living in Oz seems destined to retain the twang for ever? Anyway, amongst other things, while Mark was in Australia he worked for Dave’s Brewery Tours in Sydney and he’s now brought the concept to the UK.
Back in November, Mark asked me to go on one of his first trips, along with some American tourists. Although Brewtown tours run several different tours, I went on the Leeds one, and bang on the appointed hour I was picked up outside The Queens hotel by Mr Stredwick in his stylishly liveried Brewtown tours minibus (yes, thats it in the picture, but don’t worry, you can see out through the windows perfectly well from inside). It surprised me to discover the comfy Mercedes is actually a licensed private hire vehicle, and Mark a licensed driver. It all sounded a bit OTT to me, but everyone is a paying passenger and that’s what the regulations say. Positively, you’re assured that everything is properly regulated and checked out.
First port of call was North Brewing Co in Sheepscar, where we were instantly plied with a third of Herzog; nice, very nice. We sipped away while Mark talked us round the brewery. There’s no need for a tourist guide style umbrella on Mark’s tours, you instantly recognise him from his Brewtown tours red jacket. He’s got a comprehensive knowledge of beer, and brewing processes, interesting facts, and a good line in patter. To be fair he got it spot on and pitched his commentary at an appropriate level, even to those of us who think we might know a bit about beer. I certainly picked up a few things, I never knew Citra was grown under strict licence conditions, effectively trademarked.
The tour itself was quite hands on with the usual tasting and sniffing of the ingredients, as well as being able to climb up and peer into the mash tun and other vessels, and generally having a free run of the brewery.
One theme that went through the entire tour was a bit of audience participation. I quite liked it each time Mark brought out a new beer, asking what people could smell, and then taste, encouraging them to learn aspects of beer tasting, and then getting them to discuss what they thought. The Vespertine sour certainly raised a lot of comment and almost split the group of seven down the middle. On a positive, those of us who liked it got to finish the glasses of those who didn’t (I’m not fussy me, not when there’s beer about!).
The final beer at North Brewing was Full Fathom Five, a 6.5% coconut and coffee porter. Surprisingly FF5 also split the vote, those liking the sour beer deciding they perhaps didn’t like the soft deep notes of the stout. It was intriguing watching the various reactions because in no way did the group represent beer connoisseurs. Knowledgeable people? Definitely. Beer drinkers? Perhaps not. Anyway, after three leisurely beers and some excellent discourse that was North Brewing done.
If you want to go on a ‘piss up in brewery’, then this isn’t the tour for you. Yeah, you’ll have a nice few drinks, but as Mark says, ‘If you just want to get drunk then don’t come with us.’ On every tour there is at least twenty minutes between venues before you get to your next drink, interspersed en route with running commentary on points of interest. Mark’s very keen to retain the balance between having fun, responsible drinking and a decent amount of beery learning to boot. There’s even bottled water to keep you hydrated and snacks aboard the bus.
Next stop was Northern Monk’s Old Flax Store brewery in Marshall Street, Holbeck. I love the refectory there and I love their beer, the first taster was one of my favourites, Eternal. Before we piled down into the brew house for a tour hosted by assistant brewer Fraser Bisset, there was time for checking out the unusual 2.02 PBJ, a peanut butter and jelly, brown ale that’s one of the Patrons Project series and was brewed in collaboration with street muralists Nomad Clan. Mmmm, different, but very enjoyable.
Some interesting facts and features here. I didn’t realise the boil stage for Strannik was six hours! You won’t get (m)any breweries with art work like they have on the walls here neither! The explanation of the canning process surprised quite few as well. Strange how many folk assume there is some way of filling them through the ring pull hole!
I really enjoyed the Northern Monk brewhouse and the input from Fraser about the brewery and their beers, which built nicely on the basic process we’d heard about at North Brewing Co. I really don’t like using the C word, but after Fraser’s Craft Beer input we were treated to the smokey taste of Smoggen Roggen, back in the refectory before we left. Another unique one that which split the voting. Whatever you thought about the beer, you couldn’t say that the boundaries of beer tasting hadn’t been explored with the sampling of some of Northern Monk’s non-core range beers.
The last venue took us back to the more traditional. It was worth the ride back into the city centre just for the experience of Mark squeezing, only just, his tour bus under the height barrier (and roof!) of Trinity multi storey. The pedestrian entrance leads you out directly to the door of Leeds Brewery tap. That’s not a brewery, I hear you say? It is actually, there’s a small brewing kit housed upstairs. That wasn’t the point though, there was a little more on offer here.
The first thing that came to our reserved table were glasses of Gathering Storm, which were quickly followed up with a plate full of ribs. Manager, Rob Young, acted as host and explained that although this wasn’t truly a considered food pairing, the sauce sticking to the ribs had been made from a reduction of the popular Leeds breweries traditional stout.
Next onto the table were glasses of Leeds Best and Pork Pie (decent growlers too). Throughout, Mark kept the beery chat and discussion going and it was pretty obvious that Leeds Best was winning in the afternoon’s popularity stakes. Just shows, you can go off all wild and wacky but at the end of the day it’s a traditional bitter that comes out on top.
The penultimate offering really showcased the benefits of food pairing. Chocolate brownies brought out an intense maltiness and a touch of molasses in our glasses of Midnight Bell. Impressive. Mark said he felt it was important for him to open up peoples taste to local quality products and provide something that was a little bit more than your bog standard brewery trip.
The final beer from Leeds Brewery came in the form of Monsoon IPA and a big bowl of Nachos. Rob explained it was important to realise that food pairing extends to something just as simple as a humble snack, and not necessarily something substantial. Again food and ale perfectly complimented each other and brought out an added extra from both sides.
By this time it was getting on for 5.30pm and there was just enough time to continue sipping and chatting before we set off back. Expect the finish/drop off time for this afternoon out to be somewhere around 6.00pm (later if you go back to York), in all a full five hours excursion into a side of the Leeds beer scene not many people get to experience.
Verdict: Excellent brewery trip for those wanting to go on a very well run, informative, small group, chauffeur driven luxury tour of progressive Leeds breweries to sample some traditional and cutting edge beers and do a bit of food pairing.