South Manchester CAMRA (I think), which is my local branch (at least, I think it is; Manchester is divvied up between about eight different CAMRA branches, most of which don’t seem to correspond to areas people are actually likely to say they live in – “Trafford and Hulme”, I ask you) – anyway, South Manchester CAMRA is running… I’ll come in again.
South Manchester CAMRA is running a Winter Warmer Wander, in connection with the upcoming National Winter Ales Festival. (It opens on 19th January and I’m looking forward to it already, Christmas schmistmas.) The deal is the usual kind of thing – visit up to 32 designated pubs in the area and “Buy at least half a pint of cask conditioned stout, porter, old ale, barley wine (or if none are available any other premium beer at 4.5% abv or greater)”. Twelve stickers get you two bottles of winter ale and a free ticket to the NWAF; prizes for visiting 24 and all 32 pubs are yet more generous.
Eight of the 32 pubs are in the city centre, if we define “city centre” to include a brisk hike up the Rochdale Road, so I thought there were some relatively easy ticks to be had. I started at the Waterhouse, one of the many Spoons houses in the centre, and probably my favourite; certainly it’s the one that’s most like a pub and least like an old-school Yates’s or a Butlin’s canteen. Getting served on the weekday lunchtime when I visited was a bit of a challenge, as the serving area was dominated by a long queue of people ordering food; I joined it on general if-you-can’t-beat-’em principles (a queue, in a pub?) but then spotted a group of drinkers loitering by the bar and went to loiter nearby. Sadly, the pub had no beer – I jest, it had several cask ales on, but none of them qualified as a “winter warmer”. What they did have on was Jaipur – well clear of the 4.5% threshold and, if ultimately not really my thing, a very nice example of its type. Very much Dobber’s smartly-dressed cousin; Dominic should fit right in over there.
Further into the town centre, the winter warmer drought continued. Nothing at Bar Fringe, where I had Blackwater’s oddly-named Disco; a perfectly decent north-end-of-session-strength pale bitter, but no more. Nothing at 57 Thomas St, partly because I literally couldn’t get in the door – someone seemed to have had the brave notion of taking an entire office party there. The numbers could have got lost in the Waterhouse; at 57 Thomas St, they gave the entire pub the density of a moshpit. I went on. Nothing at the Castle, where the Old Tom clip was turned round (and none of the ales that were on broke the 4.5% barrier). Nothing at the Arndale Micro Bar – at least, not until I remembered that one of the regulars there is Boggart Rum Porter, and what a very fine beer that is. And nothing, again, at 57 Thomas St, where I managed to get through the door an hour or so later; the range was the usual – Bitter and Dobber. The latter would have qualified, but the pub was still unpleasantly crowded and noisy, so I left it.
Another venture into town took me, warily, to the Smithfield Hotel. If you go to Band on the Wall and keep going – where the road heads away from Piccadilly and towards Victoria, and very rapidly starts looking highly run-down and a bit dodgy – you’ll reach the Smithfield. And reach it you should, because it’s a really nice pub with a great range of beer. I had Facer’s Winter Warmer: a beautiful 7% barleywine, mellow and smooth, heavy without being sticky. Emboldened, I made a return visit to the Castle, where the Old Tom was back on, and what a very, very fine beer that is. I had a half, and even that was enough to make me (a) lose all track of time and (b) not care. It drinks its strength in every sense: a firework display of flavour to keep pace with the 8.5% alcohol hit. Wonderful stuff.
Then it was back to 57 Thomas St, which was more or less empty and could only offer Bitter. (Shape up, lads – I don’t think a choice of two ales is a lot to ask.) Finally, I found myself at the Paramount, another Spoons house and one which I’d strenuously avoided up to now. The seating is plentiful, as always with JDW – you’ve got to have something to sit on while you eat your burger-and-a-pint – but the place somehow still gives the impression of being a “vertical drinking” pub; something to do with the combination of an open-plan layout, plate glass windows and low lighting. That, and vast hordes of punters – the place was absolutely rammed. I’ve never known a Spoons that was a nice place to drink, and the Paramount is no exception. On the other hand, I’ve never been disappointed by the beer on offer, and the Paramount came through on that front as well. Step forward Paramount Porter (!), which is 6.5% and brewed by Elland – and is presumably a rebadged version of the 1872 Porter which was Supreme Champion at the 2010 Winter Ales Festival. And rather fine it was.
Seven pubs, six beers, including three excellent “winter warmers” and one absolute classic. Six down, six to go – Chorlton is calling!