“SOMETIMES you want to go where everybody knows your name”, or so the song says. The key word being “sometimes”.
Having a local is a great tradition; an enduring part of British drinking culture that’s eroded every time a publican must regretfully retire their name from above the door in the face of higher costs and lower profit margins. Inevitably their gaff gets bought by a national chain, who make it family-friendly by turning the sticky-carpeted games room into more of a laminate-floored mini-arcade. This way you can not-win a toy Minion instead of not-winning a game of pool against scary Terry with the hand tattoos of questionable origin.
If there's still a decent boozer nearby that you can confidently call your 'local', you’re luckier than most. It doesn’t mean you always want to go there, though. Sometimes it’s nice to branch out, get a change of scenery and idly toy with different exotic beer mats.
Every pub is one that I wouldn’t hesitate to have a pint in myself, and often look for an excuse to drink in…
"Sometimes you want to go where you’ve got a bit of anonymity" isn't as catchy, but it's just as true. Maybe you underestimated the strength of that new Double IPA you were drinking last week and need to give the other regulars a chance to forget how much of a fool you made of yourself (they won’t.)
There are more bars in Leeds now than ever, and an even higher ratio of good ones to crap ones. It’s a golden age to be a drinker of decent beer, but it’s easy to feel spoilt for choice. That’s where Leeds Digital Ale Trail comes in; an app that generates a bespoke pub crawl around the city centre, removing any indecision regarding where to go to next while helping you discover new pubs and hidden gems.
Phil Bennison is one of the developers of Leeds Digital Ale Trail. I got in touch with him to see if he fancied going for a couple of drinks. Luckily, he knew a few places…
Phil texted to say our first destination would be North Bar - the bar that pretty much started it all, over 20 years ago.
Thoughts were racing; “How will I know it’s him? Will the bar staff think I’m on a blind date? Or am I going to be left looking around the bar as bewildered as a Confused Travolta meme?” It turns out, if you’re meeting an app developer in a bar, they’re likely to be sat behind a great big Lenovo laptop. Dead giveaway.
However, writers and software developers aren’t known to be the most dynamic of socialisers - they’re essentially hermits with decent touch typing skills. Luckily, following a brief introduction, we found plenty of common ground - an island of it, buoyant on an ocean of beer.
We started light with half a North Brewing Co. 'Prototype' - a rock-solid 3.8% session ale that made the short journey from North’s Sheepscar brewery and taproom to their New Briggate flagship bar. It’s so local it's likely they’d just rolled the keg over rather than loading it onto a delivery truck.
The app's not just filled with Phil’s favourites - he consulted various beer aficionados to create a definitive list of real ale and craft beer destinations to suit a range of drinkers. Phil said, “I even went on the Real Ale Pubs of Yorkshire Facebook group. That got us a few good recommendations I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
By this point our second half of Prototype had mysteriously disappeared, so we consulted the app to see where it suggested we go next...
On the walk over I quizzed Phil for more detail on the selection process, “Every venue on the app is a pub that I wouldn’t hesitate to have a pint in myself, and often look for an excuse to drink in…” he assures me, "and every one of them has been consulted before being included."
I was interested in the feedback he’d got from the venues themselves, “most places thought the idea was good - there were a few that weren’t interested though, some even seemed cagey about what was involved, who they would be associated with on the app.”
By now I’m drinking Dugges Tropic Sunrise, a juicy brew with mango, pineapple, and hints of raspberries - a contender for my favourite beer of the day. Phil can’t resist the charms of Thornbridge Jaipur on cask.
Phil is a six-foot-eight whirlwind of enthusiasm when it comes to talking about his various projects, and it’s certainly contagious: “Some places seemed enthused with the idea, but due to the busy nature of running a pub we’ve not managed to get anything officially organised yet”.
Still, the app feaures an impressive 23 pubs and bars to work your way through - several trails-worth, even for the most determined drinkers. These span across the city centre from Northern Monk’s refectory in Hunslet, to The Brunswick at the top of North Street - a firm Leeds Confidential favourite.
Next, the trail takes us back south for Brewdog’s new-ish Shuffledog pub, a crystallised icon of a particular point in the history of beer. Phil asks for some feedback on the app. The barman is familiar with it, and says that they’ve had a few groups coming in because of it, both new customers and regulars alike. In the basement we start playing Shuffleboard - I embarrass myself by dusting the table down, but it turns out that the sand actually aids the movement of the puck…
Phil mentions the competition element of the app. Competitive drinking probably isn’t best encouraged, so a built-in trivia quiz encourages a bit of friendly, responsible rivalry between participating trail teams. You get one question when you’ve arrived at each new destination, and then after every ten minutes spent in there - usually pub quiz questions about Leeds history or geography, such as “What’s the oldest street in Leeds” etc, but as the reach of the app expands to other cities (akin to Phil’s grand plan) questions will vary accordingly.
Points decrease significantly the longer you take to answer the question, so pacing your drinking over a sustained crawl rather than hitting the Trappist Tripels straight out of the gate should see your team climbing to the top of the leaderboard. Whether it was down to lucky picks on multiple choice or just my superb Leeds knowledge, I did pretty well on the trivia side - even beating Phil who wrote some of the questions. Shame the same couldn’t be said for our game of shuffleboard, though. Time for the next venue.
Ahh the Templar. One of Leeds’ most historic pubs, and a symbol of determination against the gentrification of Leeds city centre. Stubbornly refusing to sell up and be demolished during the Eastgate renovations - like that farmhouse in the middle of the M62, but with real cask ale.
This place demonstrates the variety of venues Leeds Digital Ale Trail covers and might not be the kind of place you usually just pop into unless you’re one of the regulars. This is exactly the sort of pub that should benefit from being involved with the app, allowing new-generation beer drinkers to benefit from experiencing proper drinking heritage.
THE WHITE SWAN
Our next stop is a perfect combination of heritage and progress - previously a Leeds Brewery pub before Cameron’s Brewery took over all of their venues so they could concentrate on brewing. It has a good mix of local casks and imported craft beers both on keg and in the fridges, but tucked away next to the historic City Varieties, it’s not exactly on everybody’s radar.
The final couple of bars were - Foley’s Tap House on The Headrow - which critics and advocates alike might rightfully call “an old man pub”, and The Head of Steam; a fairly new concept inside an old Mill Hill boozer that specialise in traditional Belgian and American craft beers.
Both fall into the same category of pubs often noticed but never visited. In both, we discovered knowledgeable staff, friendly locals, plenty of decent beer, and something a bit different from 'the usual'.
It’s still early days for the Ale Trail app - there’s plenty of room for expansion with things like themed trails, added reviews of bars and beers, and potential integration with Untappd. As it stands, it’s a slick, intuitive app that can help while away the best part of a day, and even call a taxi for you at the end.
In eight short hours we’d reaffirmed our love for some old favourites, discovered some new pubs, enjoyed new drinks and contributed more than we’d like to the local economy. It’s going to take more than an app to save any of the 27 pubs that close down every month in the UK on average, or preserve the legacy of the “Great British boozer” - but when British drinking culture is compromised by homogenised chains, cheap supermarket booze, and table-service nightclubs, we’ll drink to any idea that encourages us to try something new.
For more information and to download the app on iPhone or Android, head to the Leeds Digital Ale Trail website