Bar talk: the grand new Duke Of York

The Duke of York is game for a laugh (apparently). Photograph: Richard McDougall / YorkMix
27 Nov 2013 @ 12.40 pm
| Food & drink
Attention to detail on Kings Square. Photograph: Richard McDougall / YorkMix
Attention to detail on Kings Square. Photograph: Richard McDougall / YorkMix

York CAMRA’s Nick Love meets the man behind one of the new pubs on the block

If anything exemplifies the growing appeal of not just real ale but regional breweries it is the opening of two new pubs in York recently.

One of those pubs, The Duke Of York, is where I find myself conversing with Sam Moss the co-founder (with Michael Brothwell) and director of Leeds Brewery.

They have a track record of converting alluring properties which were previously not pubs and in this case are responsible for the metamorphosis of a handsome part-14th century building from a sterile estate agent’s premises to a bustling, gregarious public house.

This hostelry is an amalgam of two distinctly different properties and yet there is no sense of dissociative personality disorder from a pub that certainly has many strands to its genetic lineage. The central bar, a large grey stone edifice, serves the staple four Leeds beers and four rotating guests ales.

The bar area, which only dates back to the 19th century, is not overpowered by the huge charisma of the neighbouring right hand lounge – with its knotty beams and nooks and crannies that have been lurking around for well over half a millennia.

Sam is happy with the tangible results of a lot of hard work that started back in June when he and Michael finally found a site in York (where they attended university) that they could get excited about.

He loves opening pubs and it shows. The co-founders are still intimately involved in the opening of every new outlet – even taking full responsibility for the interior design.

They work closely with a trusted band of tradesman from the onset of the project right down to the last flick of paint before it opens to the public.

“We open pubs that we like to drink in,” says Sam and the Duke of York illustrates perfectly how regional breweries have an agility that national pubco’s can only dream of.

There’s no generic template that is imposed on a property that entails a mass of lazy assumptions of what appeals to the average pub goer. There are no average pub goer’s – just average pubs.

You could argue it’s far easier if you only have seven pubs and you know them all intimately but the nub of the argument is that local knowledge is much more conducive to an empathetic approach to each and every new outlet.

Hospitality jenga

Opening up in a city that is renowned as offering one of Britain’s best pub and real ale experiences presents as many challenges as opportunities.

Sam and Michael are only too aware that despite the licensed trade in York being a friendly and welcoming community, everyone is fighting hard not just to attract every extra customer and sell each additional pint but to keep that customer – or as Sam calls it “the second pint concept”.

The first pint could be a taster – the second is a validation: they like it enough to return for more!

Window on the world
Window on the world
Consumers are demanding ever higher customer service and exhibiting less brand loyalty than ever before. If they don’t like what they get, they can go to any one of a myriad of other great pubs vying for their trade.

So Leeds Brewery have a laser focus on the customer experience. Every constituent part of the hospitality jigsaw has to dovetail perfectly.

The beer can be the best in the world but if service is below par or the food disappoints then all can be lost. Hospitality jenga if you like!

Big beginnings

The Duke of York is illustrative of just how far Sam Moss and Michael Brothwell have come since they formed Leeds Brewery in 2007. Perhaps it was their youthful exuberance that led them to begin with a 20 barrel plant, when most microbreweries start far smaller and grow organically.

Not these guys. They had a brew kit capable of producing 6,000 pints of beer at a time with no customers and no pubs initially, although their first pub The Midnight Bell followed quickly in 2008 giving them a foothold in Leeds city centre.

They now brew 60,000 pints of beer per week, not only for their own pubs but to service significant demand from Yorkshire and beyond. Their loyalty is first and foremost to their local area and regular drinkers though.

Sam is not afraid to admit with a smile that they thought they had “just snuck in” at what they thought was the back end of the brewing renaissance back in 2007 and have been amazed at the continued surge in new breweries and the ever increasing appeal of real ale which shows no signs of abating.

There is no great plan to open a set number of pubs a year, but Sam and Michael still drive around looking for aesthetically desirable premises for new ventures when they get the chance, such is the pub bug.

You would expect someone who speaks with an unabated enthusiasm for an hour to not have experienced for nigh on seven years the everyday low-level warfare that is part of being at the sharp end of one of the most competitive retail sectors in the high street. But Sam Moss speaks with a passion, a missionary zeal.

We talk finally about the location of the Duke of York in Kings Square. Sam talks of being very aware of the “footprint of the pub” in relation to the local area, their neighbours and its effect on Kings Square and its environs.

He is also very aware of the obligations to the 80 staff that work for Leeds Brewery, whose wages “pay their rents and mortgages”. From talking to the likes of Sam Moss and other protagonists in the industry, I sense that this new breed of brewery directors care as much about the positive impact they are having as the profits they make.

They cast light rather than shadows in an emerging new age of an industry over a thousand years old. This new age has a long way to go and a lot of churn before it itself becomes mature.

Hold on – I suspect it’s going to be one hell of an exhilarating ride!