Jon Howe talks roots and expansion with brewery boss Russell Bisset
If all you’ve read about Northern Monk recently focuses on money, then you might be tempted to think that it has changed them. But being reassuringly ‘northern’ has meant that the sudden influx of £1.5million from the ‘Northern Rising’ crowdfunding investment scheme has, if anything, focused more attention on them resolutely not changing.
“The core of our business is definitely going to remain in that part of Leeds,” says founder, major shareholder and managing director Russell Bisset about the deliciously unflattering, industrial setting of Holbeck. “It’s a part of Leeds that we’re really determined to bring along for the journey wherever we possibly can, and to look at how we can give back more and more.
"I think as a business we’re really aware that we’re in one of the most deprived areas of the UK, so we’re working on lots of initiatives in addition to the street art mural that we did celebrating the history of Holbeck.”
When we read about Northern Monk wanting to open new taprooms in London and Manchester, we can’t help feeling an infantile sense of rejection, that the brewery we have seen develop before our eyes has finally outgrown its origins. But that couldn’t be further from the truth, and indeed, far from leaving us behind, they are making us more involved than ever.
"Sending our product to 23 countries around the world from the heart of Holbeck is pretty cool"
“We’re incredibly proud of the Holbeck roots of the company,” Bisset continues “and there’s a real history and heritage to industry in that area of Leeds. It was really influential in the industrial revolution and it’s nice to be able to be part of that again. Sending our product to 23 countries around the world from the heart of Holbeck is pretty cool.”
So while inexorable progress is taking place elsewhere, little will change in Leeds.
“In terms of capacity we have just about finished commissioning an additional eight 10,000 litre fermentation vessels, so that was a big part of the funding campaign. That’s all in our second facility which is just four minutes down the road in Holbeck. We don’t want to lose the destination identity of the taproom in Leeds, though. It’s been a bit of a labour of love and we don’t want to dilute that by putting another bar in the centre of town.”
But plans are afoot for the next chapter in the Northern Monk story; a compelling rags to riches narrative that is central to the core of the business, and a big reason why the recent Northern Rising campaign was so successful. “I think we told the story of the business well, and there was also an element of luck, it was one of the worst snow days of the winter when the fund went live and everyone was stuck at home with nothing to do," says Bisset.
"But most importantly we structured the investment opportunity in such a way that people saw an opportunity to be part of something bigger; something they could make some money from and something that will hopefully do something special on a world stage. And that must have come through a little bit because we were overwhelmed with the response.”
'I don’t think if there was a brewery called ‘Southern Monk’ based in London, you would get the same kind of support'
Russell tells me he invested a further £500 himself on the first day of the campaign because he was terrified they wouldn’t reach their initial £500,000 target, yet they did that within three hours. And thirteen days later they had raised three times that. But the demographic of the investors tells you a lot about the strength of the Northern Monk brand and why they feel compelled to spread the ‘north’ to other territories.
“We had a lot of people from London and that reflects the people that follow the brand. We saw a lot of people locally too, so I’d say Leeds, London, Manchester were the three biggest population centres that we saw investment from. I think we’ve built a brand around this idea of northern-ness that resonates, not just in the north. I don’t think if there was a brewery called ‘Southern Monk’ based in London, you would get the same kind of support from people in Leeds and Manchester.”
Looking back a few years, ‘Northern-ness’ meant that Russell and his team didn’t want to tie themselves too closely to a locality when originally choosing their brand name, as it would temper their ambitions. “But what we really wanted to represent, particularly in a country that is heavily skewed in terms of arts and culture and money towards the south, was to promote a progressive view of Northern Britain at a time when there weren’t so many people doing that.”
Hence, a second taproom in Manchester in Autumn 2019 and another in London "...is probably twelve months away at least. We don’t want to take massive risks with the second site, we really want to look at how we roll out the experience we have created in Leeds, and do something that’s going to be profitable and deliver for our shareholders really. So we feel like we’ve found that in Manchester.”
Back in Leeds, an extra canning line is being installed in December and local collaborations are still celebrating the local beer scene. “We’ve done a beer called ‘Hit The North’, where ourselves and North Brewing Co. brew a beer at each site, and the beer label has a map of the route between the two taprooms, because we think you can go and check out some really great pubs on a ‘beer appreciation tour’ and start and finish at either our tap room or theirs.”
With loads of microbreweries popping up in Leeds also – Anthology, Wilde Child, Hungry Bear, Zapato’s etc – the city is a hotbed of brewing, but Russell is absolutely behind it. “There’s enough to go around,” he concludes “I think if you’re producing excellent quality beer with excellent branding, there’s a place in the market for you, and if we just concentrate on doing it the right way we’re confident there’s enough room for us to grow, and for other people to grow with us.”
And thankfully, that means us lucky and faithful brethren too.