It was started in 2013 by two beer lovers with just £5,000. Now Leeds’ Northern Monk is one of the world’s Top 100 breweries on one of Yorkshire’s fastest growing companies.
On a small industrial estate on the edge of Leeds city centre a quiet brewing revolution is happening.
This less than glamorous location is home to Northern Monk, a brewery which in just six years has found fans in 23 countries, picked up a trophy cabinet full of awards and earned a reputation for doing things a little differently.
Here the hard hats are shaped like baseball caps, dogs are positively encouraged in the office and so happy are the staff that they voluntarily give up their evenings and weekends if there’s a big order which needs getting out.
The brainchild of entrepreneur Russell Bissett and craft brewer Brian Dickson, Northern Monk started out just down the road from their current headquarters in a redundant flour mill which is still home to a small brewing operation and the popular Refectory tap room which has successfully injected a little hipster vibe into Holbeck.
“It was in a bit of state when we first walked in,” says Brian, who in another life was a saxophonist in the ska band Wobbly Bob, coincidentally also named after a beer. “It was damp, the walls were peeling; we just had to get the power tools out and strip everything back. We thought we’d be up and running in two months; it took us seven.”
Those original premises weren’t the only thing which needed work. Some of the first beers out of the Northern Monk stable were also a little rough around the edges.
“Of the initial four, one was terrible,” admits Brian. “We got the fermentation wrong and it tasted like sickly sweet butterscotch. I think Russ thought we would be turning out world-beating beers on our first attempt. This was always going to be a bit of a learning curve, but you know what? Even our second batch was pretty good.
“There is a science to brewing, but it also relies on instinct. That’s the exciting bit and when you’re starting a brand from scratch you have to be prepared to experiment and try things that might not work.”
Relatively quickly, Northern Monk had perfected its core range and word soon began to spread. The beer also began to win fans around the country as did the pair’s approach to business, which has a definite social bent.
They work closely with local charities and community groups in Holbeck with the aim of changing the reputation of an area often overshadowed by its red-light district and its patron scheme, which sees it collaborate with artists and other creatives on limited edition beer, has helped widened the brand’s appeal.
“Those collaborations are really important to us. Some breweries might do one or two a year, but we are committed to bringing out three a month,” says Russ. “It’s exciting because it means there is always something new to talk about, but more than that it’s about us working with like-minded people.”
The real test of Northern Monk’s pulling power came last year when they launched a crowdfunding appeal with the aim of raising £500,000 to expand their canning line. Within days the target had been smashed and when the deadline hit, 2,090 individuals had pledged £1.4m.
“That was a pretty special time,” adds Russ. “At one point it was going up by £80 every minute. We wouldn’t have launched an appeal if we hadn’t been confident it would be successful, but I don’t think any of us expected it to take off quite the way it did.
“Northern Monk was started on a £5,000 windfall I got from my grandma and even though there was a lot of competition I knew we had something pretty special. We’ve doubled production every year since and as well as raising extra capital, the crowdfunding appeal was also a way of letting other people be part of our success.”
Russ and Brian have always been determined to plough their own furrow and were initially resistant to offers of private equity, fearing they might be compromised by a third party. However, recently they secured a deal with Active Partners, which will see it take a 25% of the company.
“They got in touch when we did the crowdfunding and over the last year they have really got to know us and we have got to know them,” adds Russ. They work with a number of other brands like the ethical clothing company Finisterre which are really a good fit for us.”
Since opening, Northern Monk has doubled production each year and given their success, their latest collaboration – Northern Powerhouse – is an apt one.
“It was begun by Wylam Brewery in Newcastle and it was so successful they decided it should be an annual event with a different brewery taking the lead each year. We have worked with seven other craft brewers on our range, now we just need to get 7,000 cans out to customers.”
With that Russ is off. He’s going to help out in the warehouse because those boxes won’t pack themselves.
Northern Monk’s Dark & Wild City festival will take place on November 22nd & 23rd.
The event will welcome more than 30 top brewers and blenders from across the world to their Old Flax Store home in Leeds.