Mildly interesting

A few last words on Mild Magic 2015.

Good beer
Brightside MMM, Cryptic 1049 Dead, Dunham Light, Moorhouse Black Cat, Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best, Titanic Nautical Mild and Wentworth Black Diamond were excellent. So were Adnams/Sixpoint Make It Rain, Blackjack Solitaire, Dunham Gold, Howard Town Hope, Marble Brew 900, Partners Tabatha and Rossendale Hameldon, which I had as substitutes or second halves.

Good pubs
The Crown and Kettle, Fred’s Ale House, the Harewood Arms, the Jack in the Box, Live Stockport, the Spinning Top and the Sportsman will all be worth a detour in future.

What do points mean?
What points mean, this year at least, is that low-scoring pubs are a lot less attractive. So some very familiar pubs got omitted, including some which are only really familiar from CAMRA crawls – no sticker this year from the New Oxford or the Knott Bar, or in Stockport from the George, the Crown or the (Portwood) Railway. On the other hand, it was good to be motivated to seek out new and interesting venues, a category which for me included most of the places I listed above.

How did it go?
Pretty well, all in all. Eight pubs (out of 48) didn’t have any qualifying beers on; three of those had either had a mild on or had one on order. Very few places failed to supply a sticker, and in at least one case (the Spinning Top) it was because they’d run out. Only one place (Wine and Wallop) claimed not to have had the stickers, and nobody denied all knowledge of MM; in both respects this is an improvement on previous years.

The light and the dark
As my last post indicated, light mild is really on the ropes; I only had fourthree (as against 21 dark milds), and one of them may have been one of the other three under another name (see comments). I guess the underlying problem is the dreaded M-word: ‘mild’ got a name as an old men’s drink forty-odd years ago and it still has it, despite the fact that a lot of the people who turned their noses up at it back then are old men now. If you make a dark, sweetish, lowish-strength beer but don’t call it ‘mild’ – as Hyde’s, Lees and Thwaites’ don’t (and Robinson’s didn’t) – in a sense there’s no harm done: it’s still going to sell to the kind of people who like that kind of beer. A pale session-strength beer, though, will struggle to differentiate itself from pale session-strength bitters – I’d been drinking Golden Best for years before I realised it was a light mild. (And it’ll struggle all the more if the brewery puts the word ‘bitter’ on the pump clip, as Hyde’s have done with 1863.)

Mild oddity
What is “Hyde’s Light Mild”, as served at the Plough in Ashton on Mersey? I’ve had it twice now – both times at the Plough – & liked it a lot. Is it just 1863 (of which I’m not a huge fan) plus auto-suggestion?

Discoveries made
One thing I’ve discovered is that there’s no substitute for an A-Z; the map on my iPod got me thoroughly lost in Stalybridge, and very nearly did the same in Broadbottom. Another is that you need to cut your coat according to your cloth: if you don’t think you’re going to have time for pubs 7-9, stop at 6 and go home. (On reflection this isn’t so much a new discovery as something I knew all along and forgot in the, er, heat of the moment.) Lastly, I made the surprising – but perhaps predictable – discovery that pub lunches are basically a thing of the past: there are Spoons and there are high-end bars serving equally high-end food, but in between, and outside the city centre, there’s pretty much nothing. I guess that workplace puritanism has grown, and lunchtime drinking declined, to the point where serving actual lunches no longer makes sense for most places; the cheap and cheerful pub meal has gone the way of the cloche of curling sandwiches or the jar of pickled eggs.

And finally,

Free beer
As well as looking forward to picking up a Mild Magic sweatshirt (no polo shirt for me!), I am now the proud owner of eight – count ’em – tokens, each exchangeable for a half of mild at the Stockport Beer and Cider Festival. I’m heading over there tomorrow evening. Obviously(?) I’m not planning to put away four pints of mild, so free halves will be available on request to anyone who knows me (and isn’t also walking around with a pocketful of tokens). First come, first served.

Mildly interesting (6)

This is the sixth and last post documenting my wanders around Manchester and environs in search of mild, as part of Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA’s annual Mild Magic promotion.

This year’s MM augmented the sticker-collecting routine with a points system, with far-flung and little-visited pubs getting three points, busy and accessible pubs getting one and the rest getting two. What this meant in practice was that I avoided some pubs I’d usually have gone to and sought out some I’d never set foot in. While this was probably a good thing on balance, it did mean skipping some pubs I like a lot. By this stage, though, I’d built up a bit of a bank of points & could afford to go to some one-pointers, which I duly included on a couple of final crawls around town.

Manchester city centre’s first Wetherspoon’s, the hopefully-named Moon Under Water, had Beartown Black Bear on. I’m not a huge fan of Beartown – in the past I’ve found their beers to err on the side of bland and sweet – but this, to my surprise, was rather good. The venue, though… There are three kinds of Spoons, in my experience: there are the kind that actually look like a pub (very rare); then there are the kind that, while undeniably looking like a giant shed, nevertheless have a bit of a pub ambiance and are quite a pleasant place to while away half an hour. Then there are the rest. I drank up and moved on.

The Rising Sun has been a decent real ale pub for as long as I can remember; it had a Moorhouse’s tie (or something very like one) for a while. No Black Cat this time, though; in fact no mild at all. I contented myself with Howard Town Hope, a grapefruity blighter of a pale ale – a pleasant surprise from a fairly traditional local brewery.

My next stop was in the (Gay) Village. I was drinking in the Village when there barely even was a Village; when Manto on Canal Street first opened in the early 90s I used to go there quite a lot, mainly on Saturday afternoons. They had Pedigree on draught, and I liked the café-bar ambience (all terra cotta and hard chairs). Plus, while I’m not gay myself, I actually rather liked the ‘mixed’ atmosphere of the place, the sense that nobody walking in was going to be assumed to be straight (or assumed to be gay); it made for a relaxed atmosphere, something you can’t always rely on in pubs on a Saturday afternoon.

Since then, of course, Canal Street and the wider Village have got a good deal less ‘mixed'; if you stand at the Princess Street end of Canal Street now and look towards what used to be Manto, all you can see is a huge sign reading “G A Y”. And so to the Molly House, which is a sort of anti-Manto: on one hand it’s a snug, pubby-looking pub, all dark wood and plush upholstery, with an excellent range of beer on draught; on the other, it’s very gay. (Try googling the origins of the name.) A nice enough place to visit, for the heterosexual beer tourist, but it doesn’t have that chilled “hey, why should we define ourselves by our sexuality?” air about it. (And I doubt that anywhere does, these days; the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ vibe of the early days of Manto was probably just a phase, which passed when the scene got better established.) Anyway, back to the beer – which was terrific. It was a Brightside dark mild which I hadn’t seen before, called MMM; mid-brown in colour with a real depth of flavour, not unlike the Titanic Nautical Mild.

Another lunchtime trip took me to the Marble Arch, which – unusually – was serving food; I couldn’t bring myself to pay £11 for a burger, though. I wouldn’t usually start a mild session with the equivalent of a pint at 7%, but the nearest thing they had to a mild was Chocolate Marble – and they had Brew 900 on keg. What else was I going to do? Second acquaintance with Brew 900 confirms that it’s a really nice tripel, with that delicate sweetness that comes in at the end without being cloying. The Chocolate was pretty good too.

The Castle on Oldham St is a Robinson’s house and hence a go-to pub on Winter Warmer Wanders. For mild, these days, not so much. They did, however, have Titanic Mild on – not the Nautical Mild, but a 3.8% dark mild, which (as you’d expect) was similar but a bit less substantial. Up the road, the Smithfield was unexpectedly shut – through the window I could see where they’d stashed their A-boards, one of them reading ‘Open daily 12-7′; for points-related reasons, this led to an unexpected detour to the Bull’s Head. After my experience at the Red Lion I wasn’t enthused about doing a solid ten-minute walk to get to a Marston’s pub, but it wasn’t too bad; in fact Banks’s Mild was surprisingly good.

Finally, for my very last sticker of Mild Magic 2015, I schlepped back to the Crown and Kettle, where I had… um. I followed it with Ticketybrew Table IPA, that I do know, but as for the mild itself (and I know there was a mild)… nope. Like the first mild I had this year, the last one has slipped my mind. A dark mild, and one I hadn’t had before; that’s all I can remember.

48 pubs down (and 100 points amassed), how’s it all stack up?

Light mild: 7 (4 different beers)
Dark mild: 33 (21 different beers)
No qualifying beers: 8
Breweries: 30 (22 producing mild)

Pubs I go to anyway: 6
Pubs worth going back to: 17
Once-a-year pubs: 25

Mildly interesting (5)

I went a bit further afield for this one, by rail, tram and bus.

In Stalybridge, the Station Buffet Bar was a one-pointer, but I couldn’t reasonably pass it by. Moorhouse’s Black Cat was excellent – so too was the selection, but I wasn’t stopping. The bar doesn’t seem to do food any more, which is a shame (at least, it didn’t that day); as on the previous trip, I spent rather a long time on this trip in search of pub food. The decline of lunchtime drinking has a lot to answer for.

Passing by the Q Inn – famous (or so it claims) for having the shortest name of any pub in the country – I headed to the White House, where a blackboard assured me that ‘ale trails’ were catered for. Hyde’s, so Owd Oak – fine, if a bit undistinguished.

At the Society Rooms (JDW) I waited while an unsuspecting punter attempted to order a gin and tonic. “Which gin would you like?” said the woman serving – several times; the idea of a choice of gin clearly did not compute. Once over that hurdle (“Have you got Gordon’s?”) the poor guy had to decide whether to have slimline tonic or not, and then whether to have a single or a double. The joys of customer choice! Me, I had a half of Peerless Dark Arts and averted my eyes from the food menu. Around the corner from the Society Rooms, in the marketplace, I bumped into the local leg of the Tameside Food Festival; I was on the point of ordering something in a nan bread when I had a vision of meat juices and yogurt dripping down my arm and onto my shirt. The other main alternatives – burgers and hot dogs – also lost their appeal at this point, for the same reasons. A sit-down meal, I thought to myself slightly grumpily, that shouldn’t be too much to ask at lunchtime. Only not Spoons’, obviously. Something else I didn’t spend money on at this stage was beer: there was a stall from the Tweed brewery, dispensing an IPA and a stout. I talked to the stallholder, who told me Tweed was the only brewery in Hyde (it sounded more impressive at the time). The beer looked great, but I had places to go and ticks to tick, so I moved on.

Some time later I discovered the key disadvantage of trying to map-read on a phone-sized screen: the phone doesn’t tell you whether you’ve got the map the right way up or not. (This should be just as much of an issue with a printed map, but in practice it isn’t; I think if you’ve got a decent-sized map you register more of the surrounding area without thinking about it. Also, if you’re map-reading on a phone you can’t actually turn the map upside down, which is often handy with a printed map.) Finding the next venue took me as much time as visiting the first three. In the end I tracked down the Stalybridge Labour Club, and was pleasantly surprised to find that I didn’t have to show anything to get in. It wasn’t the most exciting tick in the world; if you’ve drunk in anywhere with ‘club’ in the name, or in a purpose-built estate pub, you’ll know the kind of place. Sadly the milds – plural; they had had two on, the landlady told me – had gone; I had a half of Stockport Brewing Company Crown Best Bitter, which was fine.

This was turning out to be another day when non-Wetherspoon outlets had collectively decided that serving food at lunchtime wasn’t worth the effort – and my next stop was a bus ride away. So I worked my way back to the marketplace, to find the food festival winding down and nothing much still being cooked. The paella man had a huge pan of unsold paella, so I went for that – a choice I immediately had misgivings about when I realised that the gas had gone out under the pan some time ago, and the guy was now proposing to bring cold cooked rice back up to heat, in the open air. What, health and safety-wise, could possibly go wrong? To be fair, the paella was very nice & didn’t disagree with me at all, but it did give me a nervous couple of hours. (If I could have the day over again I think I’d just get the thing in the nan & be careful how I ate it – that, and try one of the Tweed beers; I’ve seen them all over the place since.)

The bus took me to Hyde and the Cotton Bale (JDW), which was entirely mildless; I had Bank Top Bad To The Bone, which was pale and invigoratingly sproingy. Then on to the Queens (sic; plural, no apostrophe), which is a Holt’s house serving that 3.2% dark mild to which I’ve referred earlier.

A rather more substantial walk from there took me to the Sportsman. The last time I was in there – for 2013’s MM – the place was deserted. Not only was there only one other drinker in there, there was nobody behind the bar (one of those double-sided bars serving two separate rooms); in fact there was nobody in the place at all, apart from some people in the back kitchen preparing food and chatting in Spanish. (I got someone to serve me eventually, but it was a struggle.) It’s an oddity, the Sportsman, as it doubles as the Rossendale brewery tap and a Latin American restaurant. This year, the balance between the two was a bit more even; the place was buzzing, in fact. Sadly there wasn’t a Rossendale mild on, so I had Thwaites Nutty Black. Since I was in a brewery tap, I followed it with Rossendale Hameldon bitter, a dark brown bitter with an uncompromisingly bitter flavour – a bit like Holt’s bitter used to be, as I remember it.

At this point it seemed like a good idea to get clever with my route planning. From the Sportsman it was a short… well, short-ish… it was a manageable walk to Newton for Hyde railway station, from where I could get a train to Broadbottom; coming back from Broadbottom I could stay on the train as far as Guide Bridge, and from there I could get a bus to Ashton-under-Lyne. Ashton had a two-point Spoons (the Ash Tree) and a tram stop from which I could get home; if I had a bit of time in hand I could even get off the tram halfway and tick off the Strawberry Duck in Clayton. That was the plan.

The train to Broadbottom went fine, although it was a bit of a slog to get to the station at Newton. In Broadbottom I found my way to the Harewood Arms – although not before getting the map the wrong way up and striking off in the wrong direction – and found it a comfortable, pubby pub which I had altogether too little time to enjoy. Although the pub is the Green Mill tap, there wasn’t a Green Mill mild on; I had Wentworth Black Diamond, which would probably draw with the Black Cat for the title of ‘best mild of the day’.

The rest of the journey I should probably draw a veil over. I just missed a bus in Guide Bridge and had to wait far too long for the next one; when I got to Ashton I decided I couldn’t afford the detour to the Ash Tree and would get the tram and go to the Strawberry Duck en route for home; I then just missed a tram and, facing a 12-minute wait for the next one, decided to go straight home. All of which meant that the detour to Ashton was a complete waste of time – I could have stayed on the train from Broadbottom and got home about an hour sooner. Oh well.

PS The following day, feeling that a score needed to be settled, I got the bus out of town to the Strawberry Duck – basically an estate pub with an unusual canalside location – and had another Moorhouse’s Black Cat, which was very nice. They didn’t have any food on, though (when will I learn?).

The doors, the scores:

Light mild: 7 (4 different beers)
Dark mild: 27 (16 different beers)
No qualifying beers: 7
Breweries: 25 (18 producing mild)

Pubs I go to anyway: 5
Pubs worth going back to: 14
Once-a-year pubs: 22

Mildly interesting (4)

Another Mild Magic round-up, this one covering a few separate trips around Chorlton and Didsbury.

I’m perversely fond of the Sedge Lynn (JDW), and they didn’t let the side down; Peerless Dark Arts was rather good. Down at the Chorlton Green end of town, the Beech has Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best as a regular beer; they had Rudgate Ruby Mild as well, but GB was fine for me. Further along Beech Road, the Parlour – a nice relaxed bar, one of those places I always think I should go to more often – had Moorhouse’s Black Cat, also in good nick.

(SCRUPULOUS HONESTY UPDATE: if I’m scrupulously honest I don’t actually remember what I had at the Sedge Lynn – it was my first tick of this year’s MM, and is some time ago now. But it was a dark mild; the chances seem pretty good that it was one of the three dark milds I’ve had at other Spoons; and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t either of the other two. It was pleasant and well-kept, that I do remember.)

A trip to Didsbury started (thanks to the tram) at the Railway, a pleasant and welcoming Holt’s house serving (alas) the brewery’s weak and uninteresting dark mild. Down the road at Wine and Wallop, the staff claimed never to have had their MM stickers; this didn’t seem very likely to me, but I wasn’t going to argue. The W&W is a smart, attractive bar with a good range of beers, albeit with only one mild: a second appearance for Titanic Nautical Mild. (Something not quite right on the condition front, sadly; it was in better nick at the Bishop Blaize.) The sign board features a quote from 1984 supporting their contention that ‘wallop’ means ‘beer'; interestingly enough, the quote actually defines ‘wallop’ specifically as mild ale. They missed a trick there – or perhaps not.

Some way further down the road (I can be less precise) I arrived at the Parrswood Hotel, a JW Lees‘ house serving their (unexciting but perfectly serviceable) Brewers’ Dark. When I opened the door I thought I’d stepped back in time; the first thing I saw was a hippieish-looking old bloke standing at the bar wreathed in smoke. It was an e-cig, obviously, but he’d clearly found the ‘produce maximum vapour’ setting and given it some welly. He engaged me in conversation, which was sadly rather one-sided; all I could make out was that he’d worked for forty years and didn’t want to pay any more taxes (well, who does?). I’m a confirmed fan of Lees’ MPA, so I ordered a half of that too; sadly it had gone off. Not being a fan of Lees’ ordinary bitter, I did something I’d never done before in a pub and requested a refund instead of a replacement. I soon regretted it, though: the young lad serving had to go off to find somebody more senior, after which the two of them spent the next five minutes entering menu options and authorisation codes on a touch screen at the back of the bar.

Another Didsbury trip began up in Rusholme at the Ford Madox Brown (JDW), where Arundel Black Stallion was flanked (as I noted at the time) by no fewer than four beers I would have preferred; Moorhouse’s Farmhouse was particularly intriguing. Hopefully another time. Back on the bus and down to the Victoria in Withington, for the first (and very nearly the last) sighting this time round of Hyde’s Owd Oak, which was fine. I should say at this point that this was a lunchtime trip, and one of my resolutions when I left (along with “stick to the half of mild to begin with” and “have another half in the last pub or two, if there’s anything interesting”) was “get something to eat, only not in Spoons“: it takes the shine off trying new and interesting pubs if you end up ordering off the same menu they have in umpty-three other pubs. The Vic was one of the pubs I was hoping might be offering food, but no such luck.

The next pub on the list – the Red Lion – did have food on; it was clearly a chain menu, but at least it wasn’t the same chain menu I would have faced at a Spoons’. The trouble here, ironically, was the beer. When I lived in Withington the Red Lion was a bit of a cut above – it served Marston’s! On this visit they had quite the range: beers from Jennings, Wychwood and Ringwood as well as the Marston’s mothership. I had a half of Ringwood Boondoggle – Jennings’ Mild had just gone off – which was… fine. No, it wasn’t fine: it was mediocre. It wasn’t actively bad – if it had been a mild it would have been Holt’s rather than Coach House, put it that way – but it was bland. It struck me then that this is what Marston’s do, these days – they make bland brown bitter (Pedigree), alternating with bland malty brown bitter (Cumberland), bland dark brown bitter (Hobgoblin) and bland yellowish bitter (Boondoggle). And now they’ve got Wainwright too. Yippee. CAMRA still have a job to do – there’s plenty of ale out there that still needs revitalising, and breweries that (sadly) aren’t helping.

Anyway, I had to force the half down – which is an awful thing to have to say of a beer under the Ringwood name – and there was no way I was staying for another, of anything. So it was ho forth to the Dog and Partridge, where they had a couple of signs up suggesting food, but no sign of a menu. (To be fair, there was no sign of anything much – I was the only customer.) I consoled myself with a Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best and headed for my next and final stop… the nearest Spoons’. The Milson Rhodes (JDW) had an extensive (if familiar) food menu; they also had some really rather excellent beer. I ordered some food and had it with halves of Peerless Dark Arts and Partners Tabatha (a 6% tripel). More messing about with technology here, rather more successfully than at the Parrswood: it turns out that the JDW till’s meal-anna-pint discount system can’t handle a meal and two halves, but that it can be induced to price up a meal-anna-half-anna-nother-half for less than the meal and the two halves would have been separately. (This has just taken longer to explain than it took the woman behind the bar to process.) I then finished off with the Adnams/Sixpoint collab Make It Rain, an IPA-ish golden ale that gave new meaning to the word ‘sproingy’. There was never a better illustration of why I tag posts “Love/hate relationship with JDW’s”.

But soft, what scores are those on yonder doors?

Light mild: 7 (4 different beers)
Dark mild: 20 (14 different beers)
No qualifying beers: 5
Breweries: 21 (16 producing mild)

Pubs I go to anyway: 5
Pubs worth going back to: 11
Once-a-year pubs: 16

Mildly interesting (3)

Stockport has been a mainstay of past Mild Magics (to say nothing of Winter Warmer Wanders). The loss of Robinson’s mild meant that some familiar names didn’t appear this time round; I also skipped some of the usual suspects, as they would only have scored one point.

All in all, this visit to Stockport isn’t going to look much like previous years’. For one thing, it started in Levenshulme, at Fred’s Ale House – a tiny bar (I counted seating for 13 maximum) which seems to have been carved out of the pub next door. A nice place, though, with a beer selection uneasily balanced between the usual Marston’s suspects and a couple of more interesting contenders. No mild, though; I had Solitaire, a pale and sproingy bitter from Blackjack.

Then the orienteering began. Rather than wander down the main road, taking in the reliable but low-scoring Hope, I struck off towards Heaton Moor. The Crown is one of those big old pubby pubs; that day it came complete with a big old pubby barman, deep in one of those animated and just slightly truculent conversations with two regulars. (One of the regulars seemed to be holding forth about paying somebody to wash his car for charity, and complaining that she wasn’t offering to take her top off – “what’s the point of that?” He wasn’t joking.) I was pleased to see that they had a mild on, then disappointed to see that it was Coach House Gunpowder Mild – one of my least favourite beers, not to mention brewers. How to describe it? If you like Coca-Cola, you’ll probably like it; the main differences are that it hasn’t got so much sugar in it and it will get you drunk if you drink enough of it. At least, I assume it will; I’m never going to find out.

An even longer walk brought me to the Nursery, where the barmaid queried whether Hyde’s 1863 qualifies; you can see her point of view (it says ‘bitter’ right there on the pump clip). Being pretty thirsty by that point I followed it with a half of a Beer Studio beer, the self-explanatory Citra Chinook; not up to the standards of the Blackjack beer, but rather good.

Another trek took me back to civilisation Wellington Road and the Railway… which isn’t on the list (although it did appear to be on the official map). I supped up my Rammy Craft pale ale (no mild, perhaps unsurprisingly) and moved on. I passed the George (reluctantly – it’s the only place I know that regularly has Timothy Taylor’s Dark Mild on) to arrive at the Spinning Top. This is a new one on me, but if the opportunity arises I’ll be going back – it’s a really nice bar, more bohemian and less ‘dressy’ than Fred’s or the Orange Tree, and with an excellent range of beer. The landlord knows his stuff, too; he gave me the back story to the beer I had (Cryptic 1049 Dead, an excellent strong dark mild).

Sadly, this was the last mild of the day; I had Castle Rock Harvest Gold at the Baker’s Vaults and Outstanding Ginger at Live Stockport. I haven’t really got on with the Baker’s Vaults since the refurb a couple of years ago; it’s nice enough, just not terribly welcoming (to the solitary middle-aged CAMRA type). Live Stockport was a revelation, though. The moment you walk in the door you know you’re in a live music venue. It’s a one-room pub – a big, cavernous space with a stage off to one side – and the space is just made to be filled with a crowd of gig-goers. I was there at opening time (5.00) on a weekday – just me, the barman and the barman’s friend – and even then the place had a really nice feel to it. What it reminded me of most of all was the old Firkins, before David Bruce sold out – that same sense of old premises repurposed without much adaptation, that same slightly studenty, slightly bohemian feel. I liked it a lot. (According to the barman, incidentally, they had had a mild on order – Phoenix Monkeytown Mild – but it hadn’t turned up.)

Six pubs, one light mild, two dark. Which gives us…

Light mild: 5 (4 different beers, counting the mysterious Hyde’s Light Mild)
Dark mild: 12 (9 different beers)
No qualifying beers: 4
Breweries: 16 (12 producing mild)

Pubs I go to anyway: 2
Pubs worth going back to: 7
Once-a-year pubs: 12

Mildly interesting (2)

My other half and I headed to Altrincham one fine weekend, armed with a bus/tram travelcard and a rather ambitious route plan. Working part-time gives me a bit of flexibility when it comes to getting 48 pubs into five weeks, but at the end of the day the 92 pubs are rather far-flung; there was never really any possibility of ticking them off in ones and twos. So an Altrincham Trip was in order.

This one started in Old Trafford at the Bishop Blaize (JDW), where Titanic Nautical Mild was rather fine: it’s a strongish (4.4%) dark mild, mid-brown in colour. It’s one of my favourite milds of this year’s MM: well-balanced, full-bodied, not too sweet but not overpoweringly bitter either.

Then to Sale… or not. At this stage we trimmed down the route plan from nine pubs to six. So then to Broadheath and the ever-reliable Old Packet House, for an ever-reliable Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best. No idea why the Graun was so sniffy about TT GB; it’s a lovely beer when kept well. It’s not particularly bitter, but lots of beers aren’t. (I’m not quite sure why the MM list has kept the old division into districts, incidentally, given that the scoring doesn’t use them.)

Altrincham was the day’s destination, beginning with the Orange Tree. I vaguely remember going to the OT back in the old days (circa 1990), when finding a decent beer was a matter of finding a pub that still served it. It’s had a refurb quite recently – probably not the only one it’s had since I last went – and is now well supplied with matt grey woodwork and hard furniture. But it’s a nice place with a pleasant, relaxed vibe – and they had a couple of decent beers on, including the excellent Rudgate Ruby Mild.

Next stop – after a Waterstone’s detour – was somewhere called the Jack in the Box, in something called the Market Hall; I knew no more than that. The Market Hall turned out to be an old market hall; inside, though, it was something else. Picture a stall with a chalk board advertising Scotch eggs for a fiver, and another advertising salads for a tenner, and another selling steak for £20, and… basically, picture enough up-market artisanal food stalls to fill the entire perimeter of a market hall. And the place was rammed; rather than look for beer straight away we bagged the first table we could find (just by a handmade pork pie stall), and it was just as well we did. The centre of Altrincham has looked a bit sad for the last couple of years, but the Market Hall is anything but; the local ‘craft’ economy is evidently doing fine. What about the beer? The Jack in the Box is a Blackjack tap, so naturally I had… well, I had Chocolate Marble, as this was the only mild that they had on. (Is it a mild? I’m sure it was originally a stout.) Then I went back for one of theirs, which turned out to be Devilfish. On keg, this was billed as an ‘orange amarillo saison'; a classic example of the fruit-machine brewing I generally revile, which was terrific (curse the luck).

The Unicorn (JDW) was mildless, as well as being busy and rather dimly lit; after a fairly extensive inspection of the bar I went for Blakemere Jewel IPA, which was unremarkable but pretty decent. We finished off at Costello’s; another brewery tap (Dunham) but with a much more extensive range of the brewery’s beers than the Jack in the Box, not to mention much lower prices. The Light was excellent, standing comparison with the Golden Best. I finished off with Dunham Gold – a similar beer in many ways, only twice the strength (7% instead of 3.5%).

As for the places I didn’t get to that day, another trip took me to the J. P. Joule (JDW) in Sale, which was serving Arundel Black Stallion – a decent but unremarkable dark mild. I’m afraid “decent but unremarkable” would be high praise for Holt’s Mild, which I had at the Volunteer. The Volunteer is a classic example of the kind of pub I’d want to keep open without actually wanting to drink there; just as well I live far enough away for it not to be an issue. No Bootleg beers on the bar there – in fact no choice at all beyond bitter and mild (I had the IPA there once before, but the bar staff told me then that it wasn’t moving). I took my beer to the pool room – actually just a corner of the main room, with bench seating and bare boards (plus a pool table of course). I noticed something there I hadn’t seen in a pub in many years: a “no work boots” sign.

Finally for this area, the Plough in Ashton-on-Mersey. I’d been there once before, timed it wrong for the bus and ended up walking – a 15-minute walk through residential streets (it’s one of those suburban areas where one district’s houses merge into the next one’s). This time round I timed it perfectly. Unfortunately the bus didn’t, arriving a full ten minutes late – five minutes after I’d decided it wasn’t coming and set off walking. Ten minutes after that, I made it to the Plough, where I encountered a small mystery. Just like the last time I went there, they were serving something – with an official-looking pump clip – called Hyde’s Light Mild. It was no Golden Best, but it was really rather good – and, I thought, quite different from the 1863 (whose pump clip actually describes it as a bitter). Have Hyde’s kept a light mild going for a select clientele? Or is it just the 1863 under another name, plus the effects of auto-suggestion?

So how’s it looking numerically?

Light mild: 4 (3 – or 4? – different beers)
Dark mild: 10 (7 different beers)
No qualifying beers: 1
Breweries: 11 (10 producing mild)

Pubs I go to anyway: 2
Pubs worth going back to: 4
Once-a-year pubs: 9

Mildly interesting (1)

This year’s Mild Magic – Stockport and South Manchester’s annual promotion of mild – is being run on a points-based, er, basis: participating pubs have been assigned a points value, ranging from 1 to 3, and the target is not merely to hit 12 (or 24, or 48) pubs but to rack up 24 (or 48, or 100) points. There is no prize for visiting all the pubs on the list – this is probably just as well, as there are 92 of them. This in itself represents quite a feat of organisation on the part of local CAMRA volunteers, considering that Robinson’s – previously a mainstay of the mild trail – stopped producing mild a matter of weeks before this year’s MM began, necessitating quite a few substitutions. As a result there are considerably more new venues in this year’s trail than usual, including some which are decidedly off the beaten track (not only Stalybridge Labour Club but also Flixton Conservative Club).

Here are a few notes on my MM2015 travels. A first trawl of the city centre, concentrating mainly on 2-point pubs, was fairly uneventful.

Sandbar, unusually for them, didn’t have Moorhouse’s Black Cat on; they did, however, have Privateer Dark Revenge, which isn’t sold as a mild but is dark enough and (alcoholically) light enough to qualify. They also had RedWillow Smokeless, so I stayed for a half of that. Mmm, RedWillow.

The (Boggart-owned) Arndale Micro Bar had really entered into the spirit of the thing, by putting on Boggart Dark Mild – a nice dark mild with a bit of body.

Sadly, the same can’t really be said of Holt’s Mild – a very light (3.2%) dark mild, which I had at the Old Monkey, the Ape and Apple and the Crown and Anchor. All three had Bootleg beers on the bar, but I wasn’t tempted enough to try them. I hit the C&A on St George’s Day & was surrounded by blokes celebrating it, a couple in full costume and the rest in St George’s flag t-shirts. The slogan on the back read “England – love it or f*** off”, with St George’s crosses for the asterisks. Nice.

In the Grey Horse – tiny but oddly welcoming, as ever – I had a half of Hyde’s 1863, as you do, and stayed for a half of something more interesting, as you do. They have a pretty good range of guest & Beer Studio beers now – remarkable really, considering the size of the place.

A bit of a low-key start, then. Next, I hit Altrincham.

The big, the bad and the Marble

Brewing at high strengths isn’t easy. Come to that, brewing isn’t easy – I haven’t got the faintest idea how to go about it – but you know what I mean: above about 7%, brewers face problems that aren’t an issue for session-strength beer, and the problems get more intractable as you go up the scale. Go into double figures, particularly with a pale beer, and you’re liable to end up with something that tastes – as I said of the celebrated De Garre tripel – as if somebody’s brewed a strong beer and then poured a glass of tequila into it. Alcoholic heat, alcoholic oiliness, even alcohol flavour – these aren’t things you want to be tasting in a beer.

I’ve tasted three high-strength ‘special brews’ (if you’ll pardon the expression) recently, and I’m sorry to say that two of the three fell right into this trap. The other week I noticed that one of my locals was selling Thornbridge Jaipur X (in bottles), and charging no more than a 50% markup on the retail price – which is to say, they were resisting the temptation to charge £10 for it (which they could probably have got away with). It’s Jaipur, it’s a tenth-anniversary special Jaipur, and it’s a 10% a.b.v. tenth-anniversary special Jaipur. And it tastes as if somebody had opened a bottle of Jaipur and poured a glass of tequila into it. The extra strength adds nothing, I’m afraid – if anything the effect is negative, adding a distracting, woozy note of pure alcohol. You know the first time you tasted Special Brew, and how you noticed it tasted different from ordinary lager? It’s like that; that’s the difference.

Then there was Magic Rock Un-Human Cannonball, an 11% “triple IPA” (whatever that means). (So I’m reading this guy’s blog, and all of a sudden he goes “triple IPA, whatever that means!” Expect he was pissed they wouldn’t serve him a proper British pint. English, what are you gonna do?) I’ve never been crazy about Cannonball, but one thing it does do well – perhaps even a little too well – is to keep the alcohol well hidden; it’s a light, smooth, easy-drinking 7.4% skull-splitter. So I had high, well, fairly high, moderately high, sort of fair-to-middling hopes of the top-of-the-range Un-Human Cannonball. The first thing that struck me was that it was opaque – I mean, completely; chicken soup territory. The last time that happened to me it was an unfined (and badly handled) cask beer which was full of yeast, but presumably that’s not an issue when you’re drinking keg. (Unless it’s real-ale-inna-key-keg, I suppose – topical! – but even then you wouldn’t expect that much yeast, surely.) As for the taste… well, it was OK. It was stronger-flavoured than Cannonball and less balanced – and the comparison made me appreciate both Cannonball and the virtue of balance: the Un-Human version was at once less easy-drinking and less complex. And, once again, there was lots of alcohol going on there – very much as if you’d brewed a strong beer and then poured it into a glass of tequila.

Third time lucky: Marble Brew 900 was a 9% keg beer I ordered without knowing much about it, but having liked the brewery’s barley wine rather a lot. It was light and very drinkable, with a delicate, slightly fruity flavour; in fact, I thought as the bottom of the glass loomed into view, you could call it a tripel and nobody would be any the wiser. On inspecting the tap I discovered that Marble have in fact called it a tripel. A very nice one it is too – and with no alcoholic overtones to speak of.

Marble seem to be on the up at the moment. On the same visit to the Marble Beerhouse I had two cask beers – Antipodean, a newish pale ale with NZ hops, and the relatively well-established Earl Grey IPA. I don’t know if I’ve only just got the point of the Earl Grey IPA or if it’s improved recently; either way I was impressed with it in a way I hadn’t been before. Antipodean was terrific, too – pale ales have been Marble’s forte for a long time, but this didn’t have any of the rough edges they’ve sometimes had in the past. Marble have been coasting for a while – losing some of your best brewers will do that to a brewery – but on this evidence they’re definitely getting back on track.

Update 30/4 I did a bit more drinking last night & can add to both parts of this post. On the Marble front, another hit: Little Meiko is terrific. It’s a strong (7%) IPA, currently available on cask, and it’s got a flavour I can only describe as sproingy. (I mean that literally – if I could think of another word I’d use it. It just is… sproingy. Lots of hops. They kind of go ‘sproing!’.) On the strength front, it very nicely hits the spot between not drinking its weight and actually tasting strong. However, although it plainly is a craft beer, it doesn’t taste of grapefruit; it tastes of yuzu. So now you know.

More to the point, the shocked and horrified responses to the first part of the post (see below) persuaded me that I should give Un-Human Cannonball another go. Here are my tasting notes, as far as I remember them.

“Maybe ‘chicken soup’ was unkind. It’s not that cloudy. I mean, if you hold it up to the light… actually, no, it is that cloudy. It is in fact opaque. What did they put in it?”

“Mmm… OK. It’s true what they say about this one, there is a lot going on. There’s pine, and a kind of punchbowl of tropical fruit, with smoky notes in there too, and a big bitter finish, and it all sort of rolls over you propelled by the alcohol.”

“You can kind of taste the alcohol, though.”

“OK, good. Got it. All I’ve got to do now is drink the rest of the glass.”

“It’s kind of an exhibition beer, this one – you could drink a shot glass of it and you’d get everything, and it’d all be very impressive. But a whole third of a pint is actually going to be a bit of a slog.”

“Third of a pint. If you were out with a friend and he asked if you wanted another, and you had a third of a pint left, you’d just knock it back. If you knocked this one back you’d fall over.”

“It’s like beer but it’s not like beer. It’s like beer from Mars. This is Martian beer.”

And that’s pretty much all I remember.

Stylish

I really ought to drink more session bitter, I say to myself from time to time (sometimes on this blog).  I really ought to drink more traditional styles. Beer began for me in the mid-70s, in the (first) heyday of CAMRA: back when CAMRA was half anti-big business and half conservationist, when finding good beer was a matter of finding the pubs that were still serving it. And, back then, traditional styles were what there was – to be more precise, bitter was what there was, unless it was winter and you were very very lucky (mmm, Young’s Winter Warmer…). That’s in the south-east, at least; I never tasted mild until I came to Manchester in 1982. (Mmm, Marston’s dark mild at the Royal Oak in Didsbury…) Porter was something you heard mentioned in historical dramas; as for stout, for a long time I had a vague idea that there wasn’t any such thing as a cask stout – that you actually couldn’t make it to be served that way. As for bottles, I’m struggling to remember when I started buying decent beer in bottles; as far as I remember, (a) it was much later, (b) at first I mainly bought imports and (c) the British beers I did buy were bitters, old ales and barley wines, just like the cask beers I’d tracked down from the late 70s on.

So that’s what I keep feeling I really ought to get back to. It’s partly because I suspect I’m missing out (some session bitters that I know are utterly wonderful, so it stands to reason that some I don’t know will be too), but mainly because I don’t want to turn into a neophile – or, worse still, an extremophile. It’s just not how I see myself. Never mind your short-run barrel-aged bourbon saison infused with kopi luwak! I picture myself saying. Never mind your limited-edition single-hop Imperial Pale Gose! Give me a pint of bitter!

But I fear it may be too late. Here are the last six beers I’ve drunk in pubs and bars:

2 pale ales
1 red ale
1 stout
1 IPA (keg)
1 double IPA (keg)

And the last nine beers I’ve bought in supermarkets – actually, one supermarket; this was the fruit of a single trip to Tesco:

1 best bitter
1 dark bitter
1 pale ale
1 red ale
1 Burton
1 old ale
1 stout
1 black IPA
1 saison

That’s an only slightly unusual range for a supermarket – there certainly aren’t any exotic (or exciting) breweries in there. Ten years ago you’d only have seen that kind of lineup in a specialist beer shop; twenty years ago you wouldn’t even have seen it there.

But look at that one lonely best bitter! Amalgamating the two lists you get eleven styles (counting ‘IPA’ and ‘double IPA’ separately). When CAMRA first got going, ‘best bitter’ was the only one of those styles that was at all easy to find in Britain, with ‘dark bitter’ a distant second; your best bet for finding a Burton or an old ale was to stop looking for a year or two and rely on serendipity. Of the other seven styles, one was more or less dead, one could only be found as an import and the other five didn’t even exist. (I’m counting ‘pale ale’ and ‘IPA’ in the five. Of course there were such things as pale ales and IPAs, but IPA in the 1970s meant ‘like bitter but very slightly different‘, and ‘pale ale’ basically meant ‘bitter in a bottle'; neither of them mean anything like the pale’n’oppy things that go by those names now.)

I don’t think I’m turning into a hipster; so far this year I’ve mostly stuck to my resolution to avoid beers that can’t be described in fewer than three words. But going back to session bitter may be a lost cause. There’s just too much else going on.

Tasting the difference

Morrison’s isn’t a supermarket I get to very often (although this may be about to change), and it’s taken me a while to get round to checking out their ‘own brand’ beers. In the past I’ve seen beers brewed by Titanic and Black Sheep in the range, but at the moment they all seem to be from Marston’s or Ringwood (owned by Marston’s since 2007). Last time I was in, I bought one of each – at £1.50 you might as well; here’s what I thought.

Dark (Ringwood) Not sure if this is a mild or a very dark bitter. Fairly thin, either way; competent but not exciting.

Amber A bit more full-bodied, with some of that satisfying hoppy prickliness going on. I say ‘some’, though – again, this struck me as a light beer, lighter than it needed to be.

Stout Light is the word, again; there’s some burnt-grain bitterness, but a lot of sweetness too, and the body’s thin. It’s as if a stout has been blended 1:3 with a dark mild. It’s not unpleasant by any means, it’s just not necessarily what you’d be expecting.

IPA Now this was more like it: tropical fruit a go go, a proper new-model IPA. I’ll be getting this one again. (Ratebeer says: ‘One of those that fall into the “I’ve had worse…..” category’, ‘Bit on the boring unremarkable side.)

For another set of comparisons, I bought the two separate Marston’s IPAs currently available at Sainsbury’s – their own “Taste the Difference” IPA and Marston’s Old Empire IPA. All three of them – these two and the Morrison’s – are within a couple of decimal points of a.b.v. (they’re all over 5.5 and under 6), and I wasn’t expecting there to be much difference. I was surprised.

Sainsbury’s IPA I was particularly surprised by this one, and not entirely in a good way. “Toffee apple” is the best flavour descriptor I can think of: the flavour’s dominated by a great wodge of sweetness and burnt-caramel bitterness, with some fruit in the background. It’s well within the style parameters of a twentieth-century IPA, but even in that context it’s rather offputtingly heavy. Taste the difference you most certainly will.

Old Empire IPA Ratebeer has strong opinions about this one: ‘bitter disappointment to notice that this has nothing to do with IPA‘, ‘Not IPA as it says on the bottle.‘, ‘I have no idea why they wrote IPA on the label.‘ Well, excuuuuuse me. It’s actually well over on the ‘tropical fruit’ side from the previous one; like Sheps’ ‘historic recipe’ IPA, it’s basically midway between the IPAs we were (occasionally) drinking in the 1980s and what the style stands for now. Not bad at all.

To sum up:

Morrison’s own-label beers are (currently) best described as ‘light’, nay, ‘undemanding’. This works better for some styles than others; for the IPA I think it works rather well.

Marston’s three* IPAs cover the range from 1980s toffee apple to 2010s fruit salad, and two of the three are pretty good.

*Unless, of course, you know different.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 115 other followers