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Leeds: Real Ale Capital?

I had a great trip to Leeds the other day.

A city I used to live in. Tetleys held sway then, but since the brewery closed, a city that had in years gone by been largely a one-beer town has become a real ale magnet with a vast choice of beers. Indeed I would go as far to say that it must be a serious contender for the best city for real ale around at the moment.

I went with a group of friends and friends of friends, some of whom joined us in Leeds. We took the train from Brighouse and on arrival in the city took the new exit from the station that descends via a large number of flights of stairs, finally depositing us seconds from The Hop. We got our beers and sat out in the sunshine looking out over Granary Wharf with Bridgewater Place looming large. I had an excellent pint of Ossett Blonde.

We moved on, crossing over the canal, turning right down Water Lane, then left down Marshall Street, where the aromas coming from the Northern Monk Brewery beckoned us. This was where I, along with Dave and Rob, made the only wrong decision of the day. Shunning the almost universal choice of True North, we opted for a beer of Dave's namesake, Dave Mark 2. It was a craft beer, very citrussy, would have been fine as a thirst quencher on a hot summer's day, but a pint was definitely too much for a blustery albeit sunny day in March! 

Some of the group had gone out for a smoke, and as we waited for them to finish, I wandered over to the open brewery door, and stuck my head in for a look around. A bearded guy approached, eyeing me suspiciously, when I reassured him that I was only being nosey, he became more friendly. He asked what beer I'd had, I told him Dave Mark 2. Smiling, he said one of the perks of being the boss that he could name a beer he'd brewed after himself. I thought I'd best not tell him I'd made the wrong choice! It seems like Northern Monk are doing very well, brewing every day and now exporting to 12 countries.

From there it was a short walk back to Water Lane and the Cross Keys.This is a great pub with a highly-rated menu, though I've not eaten there myself. A pint of Roosters Cream, my first in years, did not disappoint. Don't be deterred if the door is shut, its location right on the road and its internal layout mean it isn't practical to leave it open. From there it is a minute's walk to the Midnight Bell, the first of the Leeds Brewery pubs we tried. Here I opted for a Great Heck Blonde, excellent it was too, and was enjoyed as we sat round the back in the pleasant outside area, enjoying the late March sunshine. I reflected that when I used to work around the corner on Sweet Street, this was a run down area, with derelict buildings, dodgy characters, ladies of ill-repute, and all in all it was very seedy. How the area has reinvented itself!

We moved on to Back Row, and the Grove, the oldest pub we'd been in so far, and a Leeds institution, dwarfed now by office blocks but still the same as ever. This is a great traditional multi-roomed pub with an excellent drinking corridor, and has been serving great ale and featuring excellent music for decades. People like Brendan Croker and the Five O'Clock Shadows were regularly on, I remember. I must be one of the thousands who claim to have seen Mark Knopfler here in his pre-Dire Straits days. The back room of the pub is where it still happens to this day, and with some excellent photographs on the wall it simply oozes atmosphere, even when it's empty. And there are some excellent ales to be had in this free house, I opted for a pint of Woodforde's Wherry, which hit the spot. They also do some excellent pork pies, the one I had with chilli comes highly recommended. A visit to the Grove is a must.

We left, passing by the massive Bridgewater Place, and crossed over to head down a pleasant riverside walk past ASDA House, and in another 5 minutes or so arrived at the Adelphi, another traditional multi-roomed pub by Leeds Bridge. This used to be right next door to the old Tetley Brewery, and its beers were quaffed enthusiastically and in great volume in this former tied house. It hadn't changed structurally in the years since I'd last been in, which, I think, was for my daughter's 18th. However, price-wise, £3.90 for pretty ordinary beer left a bit of a sour taste. In the context of the day, a rare disappointment.

We headed to a new one on me, Calls Landing, set across the other side of the river in an old warehouse. It was very busy, but the beer, the first I'd tried from the new Wishbone Brewery in Keighley was fine and not ridiculously priced. We sat outside in a nice little garden overlooking the river, enjoying the sun and watching the boats going past. Ah, bliss.

Next stop was the Lamb and Flag, a lovely new pub created with the usual care and attention by Leeds Brewery. These guys have to take a lot of credit for upping the stakes in making Leeds a must-visit destination for beer. Whilst there may be better beers around, the work they have put in to selecting some quality old buildings and turning them into superb pubs needs to be applauded. They have set the standard for so many of the other great pubs and bars that have been opened in the city in recent years. The pub is situated right next door to the Minster, ex Parish Church. Oh, and the Leeds Pale was very nice.

From there, it was a short stroll to the Duck and Drake on Kirkgate. This was my first visit for years. At one time it was part of Jim Wright's TFC chain, a time that coincided with my period in Leeds, and it was a regular port of call when I was in the city. This was the pub I was in the night I fell asleep on my bus home to Morley and ended up waking up in the long-closed Middleton Bus Depot! These days, it dispenses a good choice of ales and is a great place for live music. Naturally the musicians in the party exchanged details over the bar before we left.

As we approached the end of the trip, we headed up to New Briggate, a good few minutes walk away through shopping streets and arcades to the North Bar. This is a sister pub to the Cross Keys we'd visited earlier, and as usual the beer was excellent. This is a very narrow, one-roomed bar with stylish decor catering for a wide mix of clientele. Another one you must visit.

The time to catch the various trains was approaching, so we headed back to the station. I managed a quick half at the newly-refurbished Friends of Ham on New Station Street, and very nice it was. The place looks so much better too, expanded to give it a much more roomier feel.

And there it was. There were so many places in the centre we didn't get chance to visit - Tapped, Whitelocks, The Ship, Mr Foleys, Veritas, the Templar - to just quickly name a few. And that is without even including any of the suburbs! Which is what prompted my initial question: is Leeds now the country's Real Ale capital? Whether it is or not, and I am sure plenty of people will have their own views, a visit will not disappoint.

The Grove, Back Row, Leeds


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