“I joke about it now, but I was like, ‘Are we gonna die without ever doing this?’”
Christian Townsley is seated on a bench in the brewery he never thought he’d open. His Sunderland accent rumbles softly, but his eyes betray the doubt he once felt. For more than 12 years, Townsley and his business partner John Gyngell had been trying to open a brewery. From behind the counter of the bar they owned in Leeds, they watched—and even helped—countless breweries on the way up. If you wanted to make a name for yourself as a brewery in the U.K. in the early 2000s, you called upon Townsley and Gyngell at North Bar first.
You wouldn’t know it from the outside. Tucked between an aging sushi restaurant and a convenience store on the northern edge of Leeds, North Bar is fairly nondescript, and it’s hard to believe anything of note really happens here. But it was the most important beer bar in England for at least a decade—perhaps still is. The bar hosted Brooklyn Brewery’s U.K. launch, pulled the first-ever pint of Sierra Nevada on this side of the Atlantic, was one of the first places to pour many of the greatest British craft breweries, and has since become a model for other beer bars around the country. Dig deep into North Bar’s history, and you can see the layers of bedrock on which British craft beer was built.
North Bar was never meant to be a craft beer bar, and that descriptor wasn’t even used back when it opened in 1997. Townsley was a student at the University of Leeds when he met Gyngell collecting glasses for The Town and Country Club, a legendary music venue in the city. Wide-eyed and naïve, they got it into their heads that opening their own bar was a good idea.
“There was nowhere we wanted to drink in Leeds, so the intention was to create a bar for like-minded people—more relaxed and European café-style, open all day with great service,” Townsley explains. “John said, ‘I’m gonna open a bar, do you wanna come and have a laugh?’”
Seemingly without much persuasion, Townsley dropped out of university, and the two pulled together what little funds they had to acquire a shell site by the old north gate of the city (which also lent them the bar’s name).
“John got a loan from his mum and dad, and we got a brewery loan too,” Townsley says. “Our original list was Foster’s, Kronenbourg 1664, Guinness, and Beamish Red, because we had to achieve a certain barrelage through John Smith’s.”
According to their loan agreement, once they hit that annual barrelage, Townsley and Gyngell could pour whatever they wanted, but back then there wasn’t a huge amount of choice. They opted to brand themselves as a “world beer bar,” and started bringing in beers that, at the time, simply weren’t available in most British pubs—uncommon Lagers like Tsingtao from China and Dortmunder Export from Germany. Where some bars flirted with speciality beer, North Bar sought it out and championed it. They even gave out passports that customers could get stamped as they drank “around the world.”
Most of the beers came from importer James Clay, whose warehouse is just outside the city. As James Clay specializes in Belgian and German beers, that meant, in the early days, North Bar’s taps and fridges were filled with Trappist beers such as Chimay and Orval and wheat beers like Erdinger and Hoegaarden. At some point, Duvel donated some awnings, and its faded logo still adorns the bar’s frontage.
According to Matt Gorecki, who worked for Townsley for nearly a decade, the concept wasn’t an immediate success. “It seems ridiculous to say it now—but back then Leeds was a dead zone; it was gruesome. There was a story Christian told me about how they used to just sit in the window of the bar to make it look busy, and people used to just open the door, poke their head round and shout ‘DICKHEADS,’ then walk off.”
North Bar’s slow-burn success wasn’t so much down to its unusual beer, though that played a part. The venue enticed locals who appreciated the attentive service and art students who enjoyed the DIY aesthetic. But what really made North Bar popular was its non-stop party reputation. Among those in the know, it was a place where stories were written and legends were made.
“I remember the first time I went there I drank about 10 pints of Erdinger Dunkel and didn’t pay for any of them. I thought it was the best bar ever!” says Gorecki. “We always had characterful locals as a result—like ‘Dortmunder Dan,’ who used to drink Lager all day and talk about how he was gonna start the revolution. He was with us a long time, so as we changed taps a lot he had to become ‘Früh Dan.’”
An artsy “café” with world beer seems dated now—its early beer lineup would be safe in a chain pub like Wetherspoon today—but thankfully, those beginnings were only a hint of what North Bar would become. Townsley and Gyngell’s insistence on rotating taps at a time when permanent lines were the rule meant they were perfectly set up for the American beer revolution, which started skirmishes in the UK around 2000.
“My first sip of interesting American beer was Anchor Liberty Ale,” says Townsley. “It probably wasn’t tasting as fresh as it should have been, but I was blown away by it. The piney, floral nature of it wowed me. Over the next few years we had the first Sierra Nevada draft line in the U.K., the first Brooklyn Lager line in the U.K., as well as Dogfish Head and Goose Island, too.”
With the exception of Dogfish Head, all of those breweries went on to achieve significant volume in the U.K. via big chains and supermarkets, so when the local craft beer movement started to take off, North Bar shifted its focus to homegrown breweries. Abbeydale Brewery, Rooster’s Brewing Co., and Thornbridge Brewery all started appearing on its cask lines around 2004, complementing the traditional Real Ales North served on its hand pumps. Even Guinness lost its place in the lineup in favor of a rotating cast of seasonal, Cask Stouts. Some locals threatened to never come back, but one by one they returned to enjoy the more varied offerings.
The real change came with kegged craft beer. Most bars at the time weren’t ready to start rotating their keg lines: they had all signed long deals with macrobreweries or pub companies that either “tied” their lines or gave them barrelage targets they had to reach to access certain pricing structures. Even if they wanted to serve other beers, they would have to tear out the brewery-owned equipment and install their own. Blessed with complete freedom, North had the pick of the country.
“Being able to buy BrewDog was an incredible development for us and [they] did a lot of different keg beers even back then,” says Townsley. “And Matt [Gorecki], our manager by 2010, was really into the scene—he was a huge fan of Kernel. The most exciting, though, was Magic Rock, because they were so close to us. We’ve had such a strong relationship with them right from the start.”
Magic Rock, which recently sold to Lion, has consistently been one of the best breweries in the U.K., and together with North, put Yorkshire on the craft beer map. The two companies have had a close relationship since. Having a local bar like North gave the brewery a platform and a go-to outlet for its keg beers before most other modernizers in Northern England.
“North Bar were big supporters from the beginning,” says Magic Rock founder Richard Burhouse. “When we were planning the brewery I enlisted the help of a popular blogger to announce the launch. Within 30 minutes of the post going up, Matt Gorecki rang me to ask how they could get the beer. Off the back of that call, North Bar held our second launch event, and we got a permanent line in North Bar for Cannonball [IPA], which is still there.”
The relationship was naturally symbiotic. As these breweries’ brands and reputations grew, so did North’s. It became one of the most famous craft beer bars in Europe: a champion of British breweries that was also known for its international range. North became an Ambassadeur Orval, filled a storage room with vintage Lambics, and had to install six fridges to keep up with both the manager’s curiosity and customers’ appetites. Townsley and Gyngell went on to open another six bars in and around Leeds, which helped them provide small breweries with even more volume and exposure. Still, they weren’t quite satisfied. At North Bar, they were close to the heroes of the craft beer revolution without ever quite counting as one of them.
“It was the last thing I said before I left, in my exit interview,” remembers Gorecki. “Christian asked, ‘What do you think we should do next?’ And I said, ‘Well look, every annual staff meeting you get that piece of paper out saying ‘North Brewing Co. has been incorporated.’ It’s been incorporated for about nine years, mate. Do the fucking brewery.’”
Townsley and Gyngell made a business out of promoting breweries on the way up, but each one that made it cut a little deeper. The ambition to open a brewery began at the start of their careers, inspired by early adopters like Rooster’s and Thornbridge, as well as those precious tastes of Anchor, Brooklyn, and Sierra Nevada. But nothing seemed to stick.
“I remember going to Copenhagen in 2003 or 2004,” says Townsley. “We were looking at a project in Leeds—a microbrewery with a taproom in a new development—and we did some research out there. We even had a brewer in mind, but the development never happened in the end, and we got distracted opening more bars.”
Other chances came and went. Instead, the pair focused on their bars, cheering on their brewing friends as they flew past. It seemed like they were making excuses for themselves, blaming a lack of time and funds for the inertia. But small details like that hadn’t stopped them from opening a bar, so why hadn’t they forged ahead in opening a brewery? The truth was that they lacked a brewer—someone with the spark that would jolt them into action. Someone waiting for his or her chance.
“We didn’t have the resources or knowledge [to brew], but we’d been at the heart of the industry the whole time and everyone else was cracking on and doing it,” says Townsley. “And then we found Seb, who was going around schools teaching kids music with his ukulele.”
That might sound like an unlikely description of a would-be brewer, but Townsley also knew Seb Brink as the brains behind Golden Owl, a contract brewery in Leeds. Brink had been drinking in North Bar for a few years, and even sold the odd beer to them. He’d impressed the staff, including Gorecki, who by that time was operations manager for the group. Given the whole company’s support for the long-awaited brewery, Townsley and Gyngell decided to approach him.
“I remember he did a Porter with cardamom, and you could tell he had a nice touch with beer,” says Townsley. “So we asked, ‘Would you be up for this?’ and he was like, ‘All right.’ So we shook hands and it was done, just like that!”
Brink dropped his uke faster than you can sing “Over the Rainbow” but, of course, no brewery appears out of thin air. North had a name, but no site, no funds, no branding, and no beer. The first few tasks were bread and butter to Townsley and Gyngell, but the others presented an issue. In the time they had taken to get their act together, craft beer had gone from garage rebellion to billion-pound industry.
If, in 2009, the onus was on the pub to find great beer, by 2015 they were negotiating with several breweries for every tap. Brink knew that the stakes had changed, so he looked a little further down the road when designing North’s first beer: Transmission IPA.
“I was vaguely aware of the New England style emerging at the time from reading homebrew blogs,” adds Brink. “Around that time a lot of U.K. IPAs were too bitter—it was all about getting IBUs in there, and not the profiles of the aroma hops. So I wanted the beer to have slight inflections of what I was reading from across the Atlantic.”
The result was a beer caught between coasts, with lots of stone fruit but also plenty of bitterness and a solid smack of citrus and pine. Like all the best West Coasters it drank frighteningly easy, and it was vibrant without feeling like juice. Since its first incarnation, Transmission has slipped further east, but only in response to public tastes and demand. Back then, it was everything Townsley had dreamed of.
“I remember when we met to try the first beer. Seb came to North Bar with a handful of brown bottles. John was loaded with a cold, and I was so, so nervous. John couldn’t taste anything but I was like, ‘Shit, that’s amazing.’ I was a bit choked up.”
Since those beginnings, North Brewing Co. has grown into the kind of brewery Townsley and Gyngell would have once championed. It’s obvious that its lineup has been developed by a team with a background in bars. Everything feels sessionable, even if it definitely shouldn’t be. From the graphic design and names to the ABVs and flavor profiles, North’s beers are all designed to leap off the shelf. Transmission has since been joined by an array of styles, including a zesty Pale Ale, Sputnik; the lively, pineapple-y Piñata; and Full Fathom 5, the dangerously drinkable coffee coconut Porter.
“At the start I was really keen to do a Brown Ale, partly because of our background and my northeastern heritage, and partly because I like American ones. But we always struggled to sell them, and in our enviable position as bar owners we knew what people wanted and even how much of them they would drink,” says Townsley.
The only real risk in the core portfolio was Herzog. North Bar was known for playing around with its Lager lines, and frequently bought unknown brands that offered quality but, most importantly, value. In the U.K., Lager is often considered the true beer of the people, and has a price point to indicate that status, particularly in the North. The craft beer bubble has only recently begun to recognize Lager’s potential, and the style’s macro associations can make it a tricky choice for upstart brewers. Knowing all that, North took a risk in brewing a Kölsch (a Lager-Ale hybrid originally from Cologne, Germany).
Herzog was a gamble, but it came about disguised as an opportunity. After the sale of Camden Town Brewery to AB InBev in 2015, a bar in town wanted a new, independent house Lager, and approached North. None of the founders had even considered brewing something so tricky, slow, and expensive, but with a lot of volume up for grabs at an early stage in the brewery’s life, they were determined to make it work.
“I put the idea of a Kölsch forward because it looked and tasted close to a Lager, but was quicker to make and a bit different,” says Brink. “We use a German Pilsner malt, wheat, wet Kölsch yeast, and German hops, and lager it for a good few weeks. So it’s pretty much traditional—maybe not the wheat—but it’s much more bitter.”
If Herzog has become one of North’s signatures, it’s also diametrically opposed to the other style that’s synonymous with the brewery. The fruited Gose has become North’s trademark, and many think of the style as sour beer’s equivalent to the New England IPA: Instagrammable, easy-drinking, and uncomplicatedly enjoyable.
That playfulness attracted Brink to the brewing industry, even if adding vat after vat of pureed fruit isn’t something he expected to be doing as a commercial brewer. For that reason, he is still careful to pay respect to the style’s traditional salt and coriander profile underneath.
“It looks great on Instagram and that counts for a lot,” he says, “but it’s like when you go to a restaurant and the dishes seem to be based on what will look nice written on the menu—some breweries design beers by coming up with the name first. How does it work on the palate?”
It’s safe to say it works when Brink is the one brewing. North’s fruited Goses are balanced, juicy, and tart without quite verging into smoothie or popsicle territory. The beers have become a calling card partly because North was one of the first breweries in the U.K. to experiment with the style after seeing it on social media: again, Brink managed to look further forward than his compatriots, carrying on the long tradition of North being ahead of the curve.
One thing the brewery team didn’t predict, however, was demand. North’s sessionable core lineup and on-trend specials have proven popular, even within a competitive market. This year the brewery will likely double in tank space, and has already moved into the warehouse next door.
“The growth here has been difficult to manage,” admits Townsley. “Almost uncontrollable. It’s been double year-on-year, and that takes its toll on the whole team. We’ve also had to turn away a lot of customers and not brew as many specials as we’d like.”
Given the lack of space for a formal taproom, North recently opened a standalone brewery tap in the center of Leeds, which serves its beer almost exclusively. As for North Bar, beer shortages meant that the six locations rarely got to stock their own beer, but that has become a conscious choice. Townsley is insistent they remain true to their purpose of promoting a wide range of new, exciting, and independent breweries.
He knows how lucky they were to have a captive audience at the start and, even with his life ambition fulfilled, he wants to make sure the ladder is free for new breweries to climb. As Townsley and Gyngell take their place among the brewers they once idolized, they also leave room for the upstarts and ascendant talents. After all, it’s by staying true to that ethos that they keep heading North.