Last Updated : 24/08/08
Now updated with plenty more pubs! My Google map is here.
eeds is a city I know well. During my desperate scooping years I visited the usual suspects (Duck & Drake, City of Mabgate etc) fairly frequently, plus a friend attended Polytechnic there and I spent many a happy evening in Marston Moor’s superb Beer Exchange pub which – like the brewery – is now but a memory, although I do have the satisfaction of having been offered a couple of beers from the cellar despite the landlord being notoriously anti-scooper…
Anyway, I digress… I’d not visited Leeds for a good few years and so, when the chance of working there for a couple of days materialised, I decided that I’d be more than happy to revisit a city which will always have such fond memories as scooping Robinwood XB in the Duck & Drake, having a lock-in at the City of Mabgate on Rooster’s Jerry plus countless other episodes of drunkenness around the Firkin pubs which had some of the best beer around by virtue of having a certain Mr Sanders (now of Elland brewery) as head brewer. For some years the city’s beer culture was severely degraded but recently several new bars have opened and more good beer seems to be available in the city than ever before which, even if this doesn’t necessarily translate into scoops, can only be a good thing for us cask ale drinkers.
The only cloud on the horizon was that my visit coincided with an Ing-er-Land football match which, so the TV had told me, was “critical” to the future of the nation as if some huge natural catastrophe would be unleashed upon our country if we didn’t win – yeah, right, it’s really important… as most of you will know I really detest football and everything related to it – generally yobbish behaviour, moronic shouting, sheep mentality and oodles of lager – so I wasn’t really looking forwards to mingling with football “fans” during my trawl of the pubs, but was I going to let them put me off getting some scoops? Bollocks was I…
I began the evening at the Palace on Kirkgate for two reasons; one, it was the furthest pub from my hotel (well, I say hotel, I was in a travel inn…) and two, it’s long been one of my favourite Leeds pubs for the extensive range of cask ales it sells plus, as I was on expenses, their good-value food would go well with my prospective scoops. I surveyed the bar, eager for a drink as I’d just completed a brisk twenty-minute yomp from the hotel and my throat was understandably dry from this unaccustomed exertion. Around a dozen beers were available including two winners, both from Naylor’s brewery (Old Bear to us old-hands!), so I was soon in possession of Naylor’s Centennial and Pinnacle mild upon which I went in search of a quiet table to imbibe my winners and peruse the food menu.
A veritable mountain of food was soon ordered (well, I wasn’t paying!) and whilst I waited for it to show up I supped my beers. The mild wasn’t dark but deep amber, in the Yorkshire tradition, with a decent toasted grain flavour and plenty of maltiness; a good start, then. Centennial was a totally different beast brewed with the lovely American hops which bestowed the beer’s name and was a very good expression of the hop – one of the best UK single hop beers I’ve had for a while, in fact – capturing it’s citric, lemony fruitiness and resin character very well indeed. In addition to my scoops I had two “old favourite” beers to help wash down my food, but alas both were major disappointments; Roosters Yankee tasted like they’d forgotten to put the hops in, whilst Durham Magus had a bad case of chlorine and was undrinkable… two breweries which, just a couple of years back, I’d have sworn would be the best beers I’d sup all evening: how times change.
I retraced my steps along Kirkgate under the railway bridge and entered the Duck and Drake. This pub will be known to all those who have frequented Leeds for a long time as one of the long-standing free houses of the city and it’s still, as it’s always been, well worth a look even if it’s scoop count has long been surpassed by some of the newer kids on the block. I’ve had some good times in there over the years and now, looking around, I realised that it hadn’t changed a great deal since I began visiting all those years ago.
A shaky first half.
Today I was in luck: two scoops were on the bar, one from the relatively new Leeds brewery and one from the relatively old (in micro terms, at least) Old Mil outfit. I ensconced myself in the right-hand room – I think it’s the lounge but the two rooms are pretty similar – to sample my winners where I watched the landlord attempt to batter an obdurate TV into action to show the imminent Ing-er-Land footy game. All seemed well until I tasted the beers whereupon it became painfully clear that, after a promising start with the Naylors, the quality of my evening’s supping was heading downhill at an alarming rate; the Leeds Best had an unpleasant diacetyl (butterscotch) twang with hints of phenol, whilst the Old Mill Willow Wood was a sweet and cloying fluid with nothing in the way of balancing bitterness or hop and I found it increasingly sickly the more I drank despite there being no actual flaws in the beer.
Determined to wash the foul taste(s) away I stomped off towards Northern Rock. Now before you wonder why I was going there let me assure everyone that it wasn’t to conduct a fiscal transaction but merely because the alleyway leading to two of Leeds’ less visited pubs is located right next door on Briggate. The Whitelocks and Ma Gamps sit almost next to each other (and in the same ownership) just along this alley but with time marching on I didn’t really have the luxury of stopping for anything less than a superb brew – and within two minutes I was marching back along Briggate towards Boar Lane having seen nothing to tempt me beyond the threshold of the Whitelocks and a locked door having prevented me casting an eye over the delights gracing the bar inside Ma Gamps.
I still had the nauseating butterscotch taste on my tongue and was becoming increasingly desperate to rid myself of it but, martyr to micro-ness and all round principled bastard that I am, I resolutely refused to drink any rubbish to wash it away lest the putrid flavour be replaced by something even worse… such as the sour tang of multinationalism! A quick peek into the Bridge revealed nothing, I resisted checking out Sam Smith’s Duncan as I doubt draught Melbourne lambic was available, before almost breaking into a trot as I neared the Scarborough hotel beside the railway station… surely this old favourite wouldn’t let me down in my hour of need?
Erm… yes, sadly it did… after deftly weaving through the massed throngs of footy-mad normals cluttering up the place I managed to get to within squinting distance of the bar and saw, to my horror, an array of Rudgate beers and not a lot else… now I’ve nothing major against Rudgate and actually like some of their brews, but I just couldn’t face a five-minute queue for something I didn’t really want to drink at that moment (I was looking for hops, lots of them, something Rudgate don’t generally indulge in) and so, becoming increasingly frantic in my search for something vaguely lupulous, I spiralled my way up the staircase which led to the rail station, smirking to myself that it still reeked of piss after all these years and that I must have inhaled about a gallon’s worth of urine given the amount of times I’ve been up and down the thing in the last 20 years…
A quick peek into McSpoons on the station revealed a promising scoop but a closer inspection told me, predictably, that it was “coming soon” and so I left empty-handed; it was now around 30 minutes since I’d had my last beers and I was beginning to wonder if I’d find anything else worth supping – not just scoops, I was after anything with a touch of hop in it by this point – and so off I laboured up the incline of Park Row towards yet another McSpoons without a great deal of hope that I’d manage to get anything decent in the Beckett’s Bank.
Back of the net.
I could hear the pub before I saw it; waves of “football” noise blasted from the doors and almost deterred me from checking out the bar - almost. Now I know that this may not seem normal to 99% of the population but I’m guessing you’ve realised by this point that I hate football… and let me assure everyone that I don’t dislike it in a mildly miffed way but with a full-blown hatred of everything about it from it’s inducement of Neanderthal, thuggish behaviour in it’s followers through it’s annexing of anywhere it happens to be played and fuck everyone else’s opinions to the sheer pointlessness of 22 overpaid primadonnas kicking a bag of wind around a field with thousands of morons shouting at them as if their primordial grunting could possibly change anything… as I said, I’m not the world’s greatest football fan…
Trying my best not to look at any of the 30-foot wide screens lest anyone imagine I gave a fuck, I made for the bar with almost zero hope – so imagine my bewilderment when I found York Pure Gold on the pumps! A swift half was quickly procured and I beat a hasty retreat to the quietest place in the pub I could find which, admittedly, was about as quiet as a novice panel beater’s training course in a corrugated iron shed, but I had my scoop and I was determined to enjoy it!
From the first sniff I knew that this was going to be a right belter; the intensely pale fluid gave off a gorgeous whiff of citrus peel and razor-sharp grapefruit hoppiness which was added to in the flavour by the judicious inclusion of luscious peach and pineapple fruitiness, although the dry, very bitter and increasingly citrussy hops came back with gusto to round off a beer which was just what I needed at that moment; I almost forgot I was sharing the pub with about a thousand football-crazed drones, so immersed was I in my appreciation of the brew, until something happened which brought out a huge cacophony of noise somewhat akin to feeding time in a silverback enclosure and jolted me out of my hop-haze!
As much as I’d have loved to have a whole pint of the stuff – and, believe me, on any other day I would have done – the ambience wasn’t exactly conducive to the appreciation of beer (if I’d been able to take a poll of the favourite beverage of the customers there I feel that Stella would have featured prominently, which kind of says it all about most footy fans) I left the best beer in the pub to it’s destined non-appreciation and, with relief, emerged into the fresh air of Park Row and so continued my tour of the city’s pubs with my next target being Foley’s Ale House.
Now if you’ve never heard of Foleys let me clear up straight away that it’s not some new scooping temple – although it does have a cracking range of beers – but it’s simply the new name for Dr Okell’s alehouse which has now been bought by York brewery. A dozen handpumps dispense York and Leeds brews plus guest beers and, on almost any other evening, it would have been a great place to sup a few ales and relax… any evening apart from this one where the all-enveloping spectre of football loomed over everything and, as is it’s want, proceeded to whip up the normals into a state of foam-flecked frenzy.
With three scoops on the bar, however, I wasn’t about to allow a bunch of people seemingly desperate to be the missing link of Darwinism get in my way and so weaselled myself into a vacant spot at the bar and ordered my first two beers, Ossett Millbridge Mild and Anglo-Dutch Best. The Ossett was unusual in being a mild, a style for which Ossett aren’t known, and sadly it showed with a caramelly and toffee-tasting malty and quite sticky body which was saved by a dab of dry bitterness in the finish, although the toffeeness was doing it’s utmost to score the winner. The Anglo Dutch was a bit better although not quite what I was after, possessing a sulphury malt flavour with some caramel dryness before a decent enough “old-fashioned” aftertaste which I can best describe as being like something from a 1980’s UK regional brewery!
With the footy and it’s followers blaring at me from all directions I stoically ordered my final scoop, York Bramling Cross, which I had high hopes for going on the form of the York beer I’d had not half an hour previously. Happily this turned out to be another whopper, more so as Bramling Cross are one of my favourite hops with their hedgerowy, brambly, blackberry stalkiness, and possessed a deep golden hue which offered up the expected woody, leafy, blackberryish aroma and taste which built to a delicious finale of malt, stalky brambles, black fruits and a gloriously bitter hoppiness with yet more fruitiness… I stood at the bar and grinned to myself, immersed in hop heaven, whilst all around life devolved back to the trees,.. or was it the swamps? At that point, supping my Bramling Cross, I didn’t really care where they went as long as it was a long, long way away from me…
As much as I’d have loved another pint of this gorgeous brew time was now against me and so off I went towards my final call of the evening, the newly resuscitated Fox and Newt on Burley Road which I recollect – not with good memories, it must be said – back in it’s original Whitbread malt extract days, although the dark beer I’d recently scooped had been a million times better than anything else I’d ever had from the pub and so I’d decided that warranted giving the place another chance.
As I wandered along the Headrow, past the Victorian grandeur of the town hall, I suddenly remembered the little Tim Taylor pub which I was about to pass and, ever a sucker for their delicious light mild, in I went. I’ve never been a fan of Landlord, thinking it a right dog’s dinner of unintegrated flavours, but I’ve always liked Golden Best and it was precisely that I was soon in possession of. For those who don’t know what’s so special about this beer let me say two words which those who know about rare beer styles will undoubtedly go all misty-eyed over; “Pennine Mild”. This style, almost extinct today, is a rare pale mild ale which shares only the family name with it’s darker siblings yet, when properly made, is a luscious malty delight.
Golden best has long been on my “drink when seen” list and so it was with some pleasure that I reacquainted myself with this amber ale. It’s aroma was juicily malty, the flavour combined grain, wort, husky malt and honeycomb whilst the finish possessed a slight dryness which balanced the brew perfectly and reminded me just why I liked the stuff so much. As I supped I noticed that football was being shown here too but, for some reason, it wasn’t casting it’s Neanderthal spell over the clientele and the atmosphere was decidedly friendly in a marked contrast to most of the other pubs I’d visited thus far; perhaps Tim Taylor’s beers are some kind of antidote to the vile plague of football yobbishness / Ing-er-landitis?
Just as I was finishing off my beer a muted groan went up from those watching the match and I looked up in time to see a chap prostrate upon the grass, seemingly in his last few seconds of life. I heard someone telling his mate to “stop being racist” – the mortally wounded player was black –and so glanced around to view the shaven-headed, Union Jack wearing National Front wanker who’d made the initial comment… to see a group of Asians barracking the TV! I remembered my time at Poly when a housemate of mine, a Bangladeshi, astounded us all one day by commenting “have a wash, you smelly bastard” at an Arab on telly. Confronted by five speechless white faces, he’d simply grinned and commented “I’m allowed to say that… it’s one of the few benefits of being an Asian”…
My Pennine mild finished I was off across the labyrinthine junction which is the A58M junction (where I generally misread the traffic flow and have at least one near-miss with some hefty vehicle) before arriving at the Fox and Newt. Lights were on inside and so I pushed the door… to find it securely locked! Confused, I peered in through a window and saw, despite there being lights on within, that the pub was empty and obviously closed for reasons unknown to me. I looked at my watch and saw that the time was approaching 22:00 on a Tuesday evening; surely no pub could afford to be closed on a night such as this one with football on the telly?
I hung around for ten minutes, no doubt looking extremely dodgy, but the door resolutely refused to open and so I asked the first passer-by who looked as if he might be a local what time it opened. “It shut down a couple ‘o weeks back” he informed me and thus, with my crawl at an end and my much anticipated scooping frenzy of homebrewed beer denied, I had no option but to wander down the hill to my hotel and reflect on what had been at best a varied evening’s supping, soured big-time by the insidious tentacles of football, yet brightened up by a couple of genuinely excellent ales from York brewery together with some other worthy ones alongside some right old dross. I’d missed out a few other pubs where I could have possibly acquired a scoop yet, with the time I’d had, it had been a decent evening’s wander in a city which I have always liked and still do, despite football’s best endeavours.
I like Leeds; it’s got a lot of gritty Northern character to it and, as long as you choose a night when the Footy’s not on, it can be an enjoyable tour with some cracking pubs of varied styles serving a potentially wide range of cask ales for your enjoyment. It’s never been a fully fledged scooping city in the mould of Sheffield or Manchester and probably never will be, but to dismiss Leeds as an also-ran in the beer stakes is to misunderstand, in my opinion, what a tour of the city’s pubs is all about; yes you might find a few winners, but it’s always been a city where good beer is to be found – and plenty of it, too – with the scoops taking a back seat, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
One thing I didn’t know was that the Leeds brewery was in the process of opening a pub of it’s own, although it didn’t open until the weekend after my visit so there’s no need for hand-wringing at not doing my research properly! My Leeds Google map is online here where you can see all the pubs I visited – plus more I didn’t – to enable you to do a tour of this fine drinking city at a time of your choosing. Enjoy, it’s a great place for a beer!
There are some top pubs in Leeds; see my map for my personal selections from the many which offer cask ales, but here I list my personal favourites of them all.
I stayed in the Travel Inn central, which isn’t really central, but a mere ten-minute wander along Wellington Street will bring you to the rail station. The city centre is full of hotels, there’s even one next door to the Scarborough, but one place which caught my eye was an Ibis/Novotel just past the Palace which could be ideal to allow a crawl to finish at this great cask pub. Reports please…
Two and a bit months later I was in Leeds again, this time for weeks rather than a single evening, and so was able to do a much more in-depth recce of the city’s pubs than I’d managed during my footy-hindered night out in May. Over three weeks I managed to cover all the pubs I’d not managed to visit plus a few more that had come up in searches on the internet and can now say with a fair bit of experience in the matter that the cask ale – and scooping – scene in Leeds, in my opinion at least, is at a high water mark with regards to micro-brewed, quality real ale and it’s difficult to remember the dark days of the early 90’s when your choice was Tetleys and whatever the Duck & Drake had on, although admittedly scoring Robinwood XB in the Duck will be remembered for a long time!
I began with the Cross Keys on Water Lane, a sociable two-roomed pub with four cask ales which, on my several visits, have included Elland, Roosters and Saltaire beers. It’s a quiet pub away from the centre yet only five minutes from the Grove, of which more shortly. Next up, only a few steps city-bound along Water Lane and past a very convenient ATM, is the first pub of the new Leeds brewery, the Midnight Bell. This place is rather posh and minimalistic in design and serves up the complete Leeds range, including seasonals, plus a guest beer or two, on my last visit this was an Ossett beer. It seems to make a lot of it’s income from food, particularly at dinnertime from the offices along the road, and despite the relatively scoopless beer range it makes the walk to the Cross Keys more attractive.
The Grove is a famous music venue with plenty of obscure acts performing, although I’d forgotten it also serves up ten or so cask beers which generally come from Elland, Salamander, Leeds and a range of other Yorkshire brewers plus some from further afield. It’s a very “pubby” place with traditional patterned floors and sparse furniture, and is definitely worth the short wander down Neville Street from the Scarborough which can even be seen under the railway bridge as you leave the pub – it really is that close!
I looked in the Adelphi a couple of times and, although it’s a proper old pub with old fixtures and close enough to Tetleys for the luscious brewing smell to permeate, it’s guest beer range was never interesting enough to tempt me to stay for a swift half despite having just yomped along CO2-laden dual carriageways from the Grove. That’s a shame as, as far as pubs go, it’s one of the nicest in the city and reminds me of a melange of Glasgow’s nicer bars, and maybe next time I’m in town I’ll discard my scooping sensibilities and actually stay for ten minutes!
The North Bar is about as different from the last couple of pubs as it’s possible to be, being what looks suspiciously like a converted shop with a long bar filled with tall keg taps. On closer inspection, however, you’ll see three handpumps dispensing (mainly) Yorkshire brews plus some of the tap beers are of the more interesting side of foreign imports – Liefmans Oud Bruin, anyone? The pub also has a fairly wide range of bottled beers from around Europe, albeit mainly from the safer side of the fence, plus a smattering of the commoner American ales and even some from further afield such as the lusciously hoppy Little Creatures from Australia. It’s well worth a look and can be slotted neatly into the walk from the Duck and Drake to the Cuthbert Brodrick McSpoons and the Victoria hotel.
Speaking of McSpoons, I’ve visited three of the four central ones a couple of times and have come to the conclusion that they make more effort than a lot of others I could mention; even the one on the rail station has eight cask ales and often produces a scoop from Elland or Saltaire. The best for beer range is probably the Beckett’s Bank on the way up to the Headrow which often has York ales on sale (along with the ever-present yet rarely boring Elland) and then there’s the Cuthbert Brodrick in a great position at the top of city square which doesn’t seem to focus on real ale as much as the others yet still sells six or so.
The Victoria Hotel wins my award for “the pub which looks most like one from Edinburgh” with a riot of dark wood, a high pattered ceiling, private “compos” and a long bank of handpumps which, on my recent of visits, have generally been dispensing beers from Acorn plus Landlord and the now rare Tetley Mild. Admittedly It’s not the best pub in town for scoops but, being a short walk from Foleys, it’s well worth a visit if only to sup a half of Acorn and admire the surroundings.
Finally, the Fox & Newt is open again although not brewing as yet. The whole pub has been refurbished to a fairly high standard which belies it’s slightly down-at-heel location and if the homebrews aren’t on – I was told that brewing will recommence shortly – then you generally have a choice of five ales from the usual suspects of Elland, Copper Dragon, Leeds plus maybe other Yorkshire beers. It’s a bit of a trek out of the centre but if you’re staying in the “city centre” travel inn then it’s a quick wander home down Marlborough Street!
So, to sum up, Leeds now has a cask ale crawl worthy of anyone’s time with around a dozen pubs spread across the city and, on a good day, maybe a choice of 60 to 100 real ales for your delectation. Desperate scoopers may not be that well catered for, however, as despite the high number of handpumps I must admit that if you get around a lot (which I don’t these days) you may be disappointed with the number of winners you’ll get despite an exhaustive trawl around the city.
However, if you’re simply after a day out supping good beer, of which Yorkshire has an ample supply, then you can do a lot worse than spending a day around Leeds, although be warned that your scoops tally will almost certainly be better served in Sheffield! I certainly think that Leeds has improved both beer and scoopwise immensely over the last 15 years, despite the loss of the Beer Exchange, the brewing Firkins and the off license, so why not give it a go and see what you think?
After all, that many pubs selling Elland beers can never be a bad thing!
© Gazza 24/08/08, v1.1