Utter the names John Smith’s, Red Stripe or Kronenbourg to a craft beer drinker and they’ll recoil in fear. But back in 1997 when North Bar opened its doors by co-owners John Gyngell and Christian Townsley, that was as exciting as their range of beers was to begin with. Looking at it 24 years later then, how did it become the place to go for a decent drink in Leeds? Ask anyone where to visit in Leeds, and I’d be surprised if North Bar wasn’t at the top of the list…
Turning former shop Knobs & Knockers into a bar in Leeds’ early days was certainly a brave move by Christian and John. The beer scene then wasn’t anywhere near as strong as it is today, with most people happy drinking the same thing, a far cry from today’s habit of chasing ‘the next big thing’. Their initial commitment to John Smiths’s et al was something they were keen to continue initially, however that soon changed once they started exploring beers available on the continent.
After establishing a strong relationship with distributor James Clay, North Bar soon shed mass produced beer from its taps and changed dynamic completely. Herein lies the very foundation on which North Bar’s reputation is now built, with a portfolio now boasting 5 bars scattered in and around Yorkshire. Without fail, you will always find a unique or quirky beer be it on tap or in its fridges, matching its decor and vibe. Be it from its wood panelling or its original bare walls, North has always had a charming simplicity about it; good beer, just done right.
North Bar has always seemed to try and accommodate a broad spectrum of drinkers, with an expansive range of spirits, cocktails and coffees available to order. In more recent times a resident kitchen serving bao buns and now dim sum has strengthen their offering to ensure people can enjoy good beer and good food together, just how it was intended.
Whilst there isn’t a definitive record to prove otherwise, the pair still claim to have been the first craft beer bar in the UK. Knowingly, I haven’t seen or heard anyone post or say anything to the contrary so I think it’s fair to assume that this is the case. Again looking back at 1997 and the availability of beers at the time, it’s unlikely anyone was as brave as Christian and John to start buying and selling Belgian beers. But, if they hadn’t, Leeds’ beer scene would be much worse of for it and it’s probably not too much of a stretch to say the UK’s beer scene too.
Having bagged the Observer’s ‘Best Place to Drink in Britain Award’ in 2006, it’s clear to see that the bar’s appeal spreads far beyond that of its home town and rightly so. There are few beer stories or journeys that don’t include the iconic North Bar and long may that continue. Here’s to celebrating the last 24 years and, hopefully, another 24 are to come.