The tanks towered above us. Filled with what we felt was some of the best beer we had produced. It was late April 2017 and filled with hope, excitement and anticipation, it was a good time to be at Northern Monk. All we had to do now was package it… Turns out canning 10,000 litres of beer is not the easiest of jobs.
Our first brew on our new kit was New World IPA. As fate would have it, this was the one and only opportunity to dial in our kit before jumping into collaborations with Alefarm, Deya X Verdant, Other Half and Fieldwork X Lonely Planet. They say fortune favours the brave (foolish) and aside from a fairly epic blowout on the Other Half Brew day (we definitely put Sam & Anthony to work!) we were really happy with the beer we produced. The DDH Saison in particular is one of our favourite beers brewed this year.
Whilst well received here, the follow ups in the Sæsoner series have divided opinion. The Blueberry Wild Ale was our first experiment in adding huge fruit additions to beer. Our original plan was to sell it exclusively through the tap room to recoup some of the costs after topping up with whole blueberries on three different occasions. The final Saison in that series sparked heated debate prior to brewing, with Dave (who’s baby it was) really keen to try to go for a Peaches and Cream style beer in a Saison. For the most part we were pleasantly surprised by how it turned out but it was another one destined to become a marmite beer.
On the core range we're really happy with the tallboys of both Faith and Heathen coming off the new kit. Faith is without doubt the go-to beer at the brewery these days.
In the Patrons 6 series with Jon Simmons, we’re excited to launch Kuncklepuck and, with the help of our collaborators at Bissell, we feel it’s one of the best DIPA’s we’ve brewed. With Slam Dank pencilled in the brew schedule we’re running out of beer / sporting / hop pun inspiration for this series. Ideas welcome!
Whilst a DIPA when Bissell were in town was always going to be on the cards, we were also keen to brew something with more of a British take. We decided to incorporate this into our range of ABV defying light beers with Fell Runner Ricky Lightfoot and produced Ingleborough, a Session imperial Stout (Yeah, we know... we eventually settled on Session Porter). It’s a 4% Porter that we’ve packed with as much flavour and body as we possibly could cram into it.
It’s fair to say the expansion has brought its challenges. Whilst working with the limitations of the Old Flax Store and the first warehouse and offices we took on, it was all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything would be easier once we moved to the new site. The majority of production and offices would be under one roof, we'd have roller shutter doors we could bring tanks in through, we'd have flat floors...
Whilst many things have become easier, we’ve inevitably faced new challenges. The leap in size and scale has been in effect like starting an entirely new business. The most terrifying prospect when first brewing on the kit was the potential for something to go wrong with a 60BBL (10,000L litre) batch. Unfortunately within six weeks of production that very scenario was to occur...
We have a 30BBL brew kit and so to fill a 60BBL vessel we have to brew twice into it. For a number of reasons (yeast, temperature probes, cooling jackets) we had a batch that layered in tank, leading to incorrect gravity readings (half the beer had finished, half hadn't). This resulted in us packaging early and then the beer going back into secondary fermentation in the can. Literally the worst scenario you could possibly envisage. Fortunately we caught the problem before 90% of the beer had gone out and spent the next few days destroying thousands of cans of Eternal. Needless to say we've adapted QC procedures to ensure that this doesn't happen again.
A quest for perfection
As a brewery, our quest to hone and refine everything that we do is at the core of our approach. One of the initiatives that we’re proud to champion is an exchange programme for our brewers. As brewers reading this will know, whilst there's a lot of fun to be had, brewing is largely cleaning and lots of long hours. Just this week we had two of the brew team sleep overnight and Brian mashed in at 1am at The Old Flax Store this morning (that's a whole other story though). Anyway, we're keen to give something back.
This initiative saw Brian head to Louisville to work with Against the Grain for three weeks in 2015, Adam (Old Flax Store, Lead Brewer) fly to sunny Florida to brew with Cigar City for three weeks and most recently Fraser (Technical Brewer) head to Fieldwork in San Francisco in June. I (Russell) accompanied Fraser on his visit (sometimes you’ve just got to get your hands dirty). It was fascinating to see the way the West Coast scene has developed over the last few years in comparison to the East Coast. It’s fair to say that North of Monkish West Coast IPAs still reign supreme. Whilst Fieldwork, Alvarado, Cellarmaker and Moonraker are all producing examples of the New England style, it is still not as prevalent as on the East Coast or even in the UK. That's probably a whole other blog post though...
In 2013 (somewhat naively it could be said) we set out to make some of the best beer in the world with little resources and little experience, gypsy brewing on a small old trad kit in North Yorkshire. Just over three years later and with over 1000% more capacity and only the experience gained in the time since, it’s the same raison d’être that gets us out of bed each morning. We have however recently made an appointment that will triple the years of experience we have in the brew team and advance our quest… We’re excited to welcome Colin Stronge to lead our production team in October. For many of us at the brewery Colin is one of the brewers that inspired us to start our journey into beer and we’re humbled that he will be joining us.
Colin brings with him years of experience and amongst many other things his addition to the team means we can start to fast track our wild beer and ageing programme. In the past this was an area we were reluctant to delve too deep into because we felt we didn’t have the knowledge and experience within the team to do the styles justice. But our original brew kit at The Old Flax Store is the perfect home for this and something we had always planned to do in time. Colin starts with us in October and we’ll have more news on our plans once he is with us.
We also recently said goodbye to Dave Kerr, who after two years was still unable to find a good enough Parmo in Leeds and ultimately decided to move further North. We're delighted that he has joined our friends at Wylam and our paths will no doubt cross again in the years to come. Thanks again to Dave who played a big role in our journey over the last couple of years.
The Northern Monk Patrons project was initiated shortly after our launch at The Old Flax Store. We wanted to use our place in the community to provide a platform through the resources we had to give something back. This resulted in a promotional video made with local director Jack King. Including The Evolution of Tradition - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z8-btjl1KQE as well as producing the Wasted beer with the Real Junk Food Project. Wasted was brewed with croissants and brioche destined for landfill and pears past their BBE. The Real Junk Food Project was designed to highlight the global problem of food waste.
However the Northern Monk Patrons truly took flight when we decided to produce a photography exhibition through the medium of beer with our in-house photographer Tom Joy.
Recently we took the Patrons project to the streets and with the help of Leeds City Council we gave the wall of a derelict building in Holbeck a facelift. The piece, painted by Nomad Clan & Tank Petrol, is homage to the industrial heritage of Holbeck and features John Marshall, founder of the Marshall empire and Hayley’s (Nomad Clan) grandpa who worked in the mills.
Hop City itself was a blast and we’ve been blown away by the support for the festival up and down the country. Seems like everyone had a good time. We knew we had a good lineup, we feel our building is a really special place and all we needed was people to turn up and have fun. They did that and then some.
Amongst everything else, we’re in the process of planning Dark City. Think Hop City but dark beer, heavy metal and fire (we’re still working on how we deliver on the fire safely). We might be even more excited for this than Hop City… Tickets are released next Tuesday (29th) at The Refectory. We've got some of the worlds best brewers of dark beer lined up ready to party with you from the 3rd to the 5th of November.
As an extension of Hop City, we decided to host some Hop City Sessions. As such we invited some of our favourite dabblers in juice. This also included the team at Bissell. We met the guys at Bissell at a beer festival in Vermont in 2015 after a party that resulted in losing hire car keys, a wallet, two coats and time on the roof of the hotel (hire car keys turned up in an Uber, the rest is still somewhere in Vermont). But we became good friends and had talked a number of times about bringing them and their beer over for a tour of some of our favourite UK beer bars.
It was a fairly epic operation but we just about pulled it off. Everything got a bit Jack Bauer when the pallets sent to JFK Airport had traces of explosives (presumably they had been used for fertiliser previously). This meant shipping the beer back down to Portland Maine, de-palletising and then wrapping it all up again to send back through. Throughout the entire shipment all the beer was in refrigerated trucks. The total cost of transport alone (not including beer, staff hours, travel or accommodation) was ~£13,000. The beer was tasting as fresh as it does from the tap though, so it was all worthwhile. Thanks to everyone who came and showed their support at the venues across the country. We're stoked to have Bissell with us at Hop City 2018. Rumour has it, there will be Swish too.
Not to end on a sad note but it is with heavy hearts we have to announce that Archie has passed away. Whilst you would never know, Archie fought a brave battle with cancer over the last year. More than just a brewery dog, Archie was the tap rooms most regular customer and in a business built around the collective rather than individuals he was possibly the most well known member of the team here. We would like to thank everyone who came and hung out with him at the tap room and entertained his passion for chasing balls, sticks and dog chews (anything really). He will be sorely, sorely missed. Needless to say the new dogs in team monk have big shoes to fill. Rest in peace Archie.
Our thanks as ever to Tom Joy for capturing our journey.