What started as a dream in 2008 became a reality in 2013. Based out of a parent’s cellar, Northern Monk Brew Co was launched at The Sparrow Bier Cafe in Bradford. We started with just £5,000 passed down from Granny Bisset who decided to downsize her property and release some equity for her grandchildren. £5,000 is loads of money to start a brewery right…? We’ve since invested 11,900% more into Northern Monk. Primarily through bank funding (Thanks HSBC!) with some help from the good folk at the LEP too. Initially, the plan was to become Yorkshire’s answer to Mikkeller and after an extensive search we started brewing at Hambleton’s in Ripon. It was a start but we were never content with the level of control we had. We brewed 4 X 10BBL batches with Hambleton: two Strannik, two New World. Back then, that was an unfathomable amount of beer. However when your warehouse is your parents cellar accessed by two flights of stairs, that amount of beer can feel like a lot.

Brian and Ashley selling beer at a farmers' market, surrounded by straw bales

We quickly realised that cuckoo brewing was not for us. The most celebrated cuckoo brewers of our time had access to some of the most advanced breweries in Europe, primarily De Proef in Belgium (where we did try to brew but the year waiting list was slightly prohibitive). We decided instead to focus on collaborations and we remain eternally grateful to the breweries who gave us a shot across the country as we tried to eke out a basic income by holding pop-up bottle shops at farmers markets and selling our share of the collab beers.

In 2013 we took on investment from a friend’s father. David Seymour had sold his company (Everbuild) and was looking for good investments. We received a seed fund in the form of a loan from David. What started out as a little project so that David could go to his local pub and drink beer from a brewery he was a part owner of quickly escalated… Whilst we absolutely respect the decision of some breweries and businesses to keep their finance arrangements private, we are extremely happy and grateful to have David as an advisor and part of our business. His knowledge and experience in business are invaluable, his occasional visits are a fantastic excuse to tidy up and our sales of Eternal to him help keep us in business (Thanks David!) Brian and I (Russell) remain majority shareholders in the business.

We found The Old Flax Store in 2013 and immediately fell in love. Located just outside the centre of Leeds the building oozed the industrial charm we wanted to reflect in our brand. It took a long time to get planning and The Tap Room and events space we have there remain a labour of love (turns out it’s not the easiest job to run a tap room on the edge of a Red Light district). The building also presents logistical challenges when used as a brewery. Ever tried to pull a pallet of beer across 150 year old (extremely warped) Yorkshire stone flags? It’s not easy… But there’s nowhere else we’d rather call home (number one…)

We launched Northern Monk (proper) at North Bar & Craft Beer Co Clerkenwell in October 2014. I can still remember going to Belgrave to line our stomachs with pizza prior to the launch. After months of sleepless nights and at times literally not being able to afford to eat, the tension and anticipation were high. After experiencing a number of issues with the first beers we cuckoo brewed back in 2013 we sent off our first batches for testing. To add to the tension, the results were coming back the night of the launch. It turned out that two of the four beers we were launching that night had issues with diacetyl. An issue that had haunted us in our past. That moment remains one of the most challenging we’ve experienced as a business. We would literally have gone under if we did not sell those batches. So, we put a brave face on and tried to enjoy the night as best we could. We’ve since thrown away numerous batches of beer after making a pact that we would never release a beer we felt was faulty or was within a 10% threshold of where we wanted it to be, unless the livelihoods of ourselves or our employees depended on it.

We started on a 10BBL (ten barrel – 310 gallon) Marlex kit with 3 X 10BBL FVs (Fermenting Vessels). We quickly added a further two FVs built by a friend who is an incredibly talented metalworker, who also made all the furniture in The Refectory (thanks Rory). After just over a year we added another FV and a further 6 CTs (Conditioning Tanks – enough with the acronyms already! Ed.) supplied by Marlex.

To some extent our expansions have always been dictated by finding properties close to The Old Flax Store, which is why we soon began renting extra warehouse and office space in an industrial unit round the back. But we’ve always worked to our capacity and have never been able to fulfil the demand for our beer. We looked at adding a further two external FV’s to our set up at The Old Flax Store but ultimately the team decided the logistical challenges this presented meant it wasn’t worthwhile.

And so I had a quick scout for properties and once again found the best option we were likely to get locally. It quickly became clear it was time for the next big move…

We’re really stoked with the progress we’ve made since 2013 and feel our beers have continued to evolve with us. We know we can always do better though and we’re always looking at ways we can improve. Mostly we’re proud of the jobs we’ve created, the work we’ve put into giving back to our community, our efforts to use our beer and our venue to help others tackle issues like food waste (thanks to Real Junk Food project) and the platform we’ve given to artists, photographers and creatives across the North through our Northern Monk Patrons projects. We’re humbled to work with such a diverse bunch of incredibly talented people. There’s lots more to come in this series.

Over to Head Brewer Brian to tell you all about our new set up at our new site:

We’re 2 ½ years in from our first brew day on our 10bbl Malrex fabrications kit and it’s served us extremely well. But through inexperience at the time of design and the restrictions of our Old Flax Store home, it was definitely time to upscale to a brewhouse more suited to today’s Northern Monk, to help us take the next giant step in our story.

We spoke to a number of suppliers but by the end of our first sit down with Martin and the guys from Gravity Systems we knew exactly who we wanted to work with as we were blown away by their enthusiasm for problem solving and an impressive attention to detail. They came fresh off the back of installing a new brewhouse for our friends Wylam in Newcastle so we knew the standard to expect, and further visits to their past projects at Redchurch, Beavertown, Burning Sky and more just reiterated the quality of their work.

We’d already lined up the new site at Sydenham Road and so we set straight to planning the best use of the space available to us. There was a mezzanine platform already in prime location and with the weight capabilities required to act as our malt store, so next was to work out how we got the grain to the mash tun. After reviewing multiple options, the grist case was positioned under the mezzanine, so we could cut through and simply pour down from above. The grain is then conveyed by screw up and over the door through to the cold storage space and up to a hydrator on top of the tun.

The mash tun has been designed to take up to 1.8 tons of grain which will allow us to brew our full range of beers, up to 10% abv (and more) in a single mash. Our mash tun at the Old Flax Store limits us to beers around 7.4%. Any higher requires a process known as double mashing (filling the mash tun,running off with minimal sparge, digging out and repeating) which adds many hours to a brew day and is a very inefficient procedure. The new vessel also has a rotating mash out arm which should take some of the labour out of removing the larger malt bills from the vessel once complete.

The next big decision was what form of hops we would want to work with. Our existing kettle is designed for whole leaf hops and for much of the design process we were considering a separate hopback to hold our large flame out hop charges as we looked at ways to make the brewhouse efficient enough to allow back to back brews within a sensible time period. Leaf hops are quite laborious to remove from the kettle (and have a habit of getting everywhere) so having to wait while the kettle was emptied each time could potentially add a couple of hours to the day. In the end, after consulting with other breweries with similar set ups and collecting their feedback, we decided the best option for efficiency and the flavour profile of our beer was to switch to pelletised hops. These form a slurry and can easily be washed out of the kettle once empty, greatly speeding up the brewing process and by the nature of their form allow easier dispersion of the essential oils within which the flavours we seek are hiding.

Another benefit of setting up at a new site was a mains gas supply! This is a luxury we’ve never had at the Flax Store, meaning we had little option but to heat the kettle by electric immersion elements. Asides astronomical electrical bills, this method means longer brew days, increased wort caramelisation and a lot of elbow grease as one lucky brewer gets the job of climbing in to the vessel at the end of each day to clean layers of grime from the elements. Better utilities supply has allowed us to fit our kettle and HLT with steam jackets, generated by a brand new 30HP CFT boiler. We’ll bring the wort to boil faster and more efficiently than we ever could on our old kit.

We’ve even designed our fermenters with better beer in mind. Dry-hopping is a huge part of ensuring our IPAs pack the most flavoursome punch possible and we spent time looking for ways to maximise what we can extract from our (very expensive!) chosen hops, aiming to get them thoroughly mixed in solution quickly but gently to avoid blowing off volatile aromas. To achieve this, we intend to recirculate the beer within tank through tangential inlets built into the body using a specially designed pump which won’t shear the beer like a standard brewery centrifugal pump would do at this stage. We have had 4 of these 5,000L fermenters delivered as well as 2 x10,000L giants to go alongside, which we intend to fill with double brews of Eternal as required.

There’s no point having this specially designed equipment if we don’t maintain control over the quality as a priority and the move will see us increase our commitment and investment in this area. We’ve promoted Fraser, our resident science whizz kid, to the role of Technical Brewer and going forward he’ll be in charge of overseeing daily cellar checks, yeast management and ensuring consistency in our packaged product and we’ll be ensuring we put together a fully equipped lab to assist him with this.

For all it’s challenges though, our trusty 10bbl system isn’t surplus to requirements just yet. It’ll be staying in situ at the Old Flax Store, undergoing some overdue maintenance and then will be dedicated to small batch special releases, largely under our Patrons banner. Eventually the brew team would like to be able to dedicate this site to mixed fermentations but initially we have lined up a program of Imperial Stouts, IPAs and, now we finally have the capacity to allow the tank time required, we’ll also be making our first steps into lager fermentations.