Monthly Archives: May 2011

Whatever it takes

I like Beer in the Evening as a quick reference on pubs I’m thinking of visiting, but the comments can be a bit of a mixed bag.

Moor Top many years ago used to have a reputation, but that was just me and my mates who were rather large and hate United fans. Times have changed and this is a community pub with community spirit, whole families go in there, even the ex-mayor of Stockport drank and drinks still in there (who is a good friend of mine and my old CO).

As reassurance goes, this… wasn’t. At opening time on a Thursday lunchtime, however, the Moor Top was devoid of boisterous squaddies, and indeed of anyone else. A half of Tetley’s Mild was very pleasant – a light, easy-drinking dark mild, but with a definite depth of flavour. The landlord told me he’d only put it on for Mild Magic, but it had been going so well he was thinking of keeping it on.

It was Mild Magic, of course, that had taken me to Heaton Moor. From there, a substantial trek through residential streets, ending up on a cobbled lane, brought me to the Nursery, for a visit I wish I’d liked more than I did. There wasn’t anything wrong with the pub – it’s a nice old-school multi-roomed pub with a good range of Hyde’s beer. It was partly the beer – 1863 just doesn’t ring my bell – but mainly a matter of timing; not only was the place empty, but by turning up early doors on that particular day I’d arrived six hours early for a small beer festival, which was a bit galling.

But upward and onward, or in this case mostly downward and onward, to Stockport proper. Here the Mild Magic Map (or the bit of it I’d printed off) gave out on me; I found it incredibly difficult to locate any of the three pubs I was looking for. Correction – I knew where the Crown was, but I was saving it till last; in the mean time, I struggled to locate either of the two pubs I was looking for, viz. the Tiviot and Calverts Court. Finally, completely lost, I studied a bus shelter street map and worked out that I was round the corner from the Arden Arms, and went there instead. A small, busy multi-room pub, with framed “Pub of the Year” certificates on the walls, lots of Robinson’s beers on tap and… a sign over one of the archways leading off the main room asking customers to see the barman and wait to be seated. Maybe it only applied to that one room, I don’t know – but as a solitary drinker I felt a bit inhibited and ended up perched on a bar stool. Needless to say, I didn’t stop long. The Hatters was perfectly acceptable; a bit more body and character to it than the 1863, but not as good as the Taylor’s Golden Best back at the Old Packet House.

I headed back out into Stockport and immediately got completely lost all over again. Eventually I got my bearings and worked out how to get to Calverts Court. When I got there, however, I discovered that it’s a Spoons, decided that on my last Mild Magic trip I could and would do better, and went off in search of either the Waterloo or the Red Bull. Given my past success in finding my way around, and especially given that neither of those pubs was on the bit of the map I’d printed out, this was optimistic to say the least. What followed would have been an excellent dérive if I’d been in the mood, but as a journey from pub A to pub B it left rather a lot to be desired. (Stockport, city of psychogeography! Maybe not.) But eventually I got to the Red Bull, and found myself in a large, dark, low-ceilinged pub with a heavy dining orientation – the first thing I saw on my way in was a birthday cake, complete with sparkler, being delivered to a table. For the second time, I drank a half of Hatters while perched on a bar stool and feeling slightly in the way.

A day characterised mainly by dining pubs and disorientation was about to get a lot better. It didn’t take me more than a couple of false starts to find my way back to Wellington Rd, and once I’d found Wellington Rd I knew how to find the Crown. And what a very fine pub it is. A quick scan of the bar revealed only one problem: nothing identifiable as mild. Fortunately the barman told me that Pictish Black Diamond is a dark mild – despite the brewery having a name for anything but – so I had that. The Crown is another largeish multi-room pub, with that comfortable but slightly shabby decor that makes you vaguely feel you’re in your grandma’s back room. The room I sat in had bell-pushes all around the walls, which is something you don’t often see – they hadn’t even been painted over. The mild was very pleasant and quite unusual – sweetish but distinctly hoppy; my second half, Kitty Wilkinson Chocolate and Vanilla Stout from Liverpool Organic Brewery, was superb. Best of all was the sensation of being in a pub – somewhere people come to drink beer, relax and pass the time away – which, with all due respect to the Arden Arms, was a feeling I hadn’t had since I left the Nursery. The Crown is that rare breed – a ticker’s pub that’s still a pub pub – and long may it continue.

I didn’t manage quite the roster of Stopfordian pub ticks I speculated about a few days ago (Longsight, Heaton Norris, Edgeley, Stockport (x3), Portwood, Shaw Heath, Adswood, Great Moor, Hazel Grove…) but I did fill my (second) card, which was nice – and it wouldn’t have been right to do Mild Magic without tasting (light) Hatters. BOTD was the Kitty Wilkinson; if we restrict it to milds, probably the Tetley back at the Moor Top. A real discovery – let’s hope it survives the move away from Leeds.

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Looking for adventure

Mild Magic, continued. Yes, I know I said I was going to leave it at 12, but I changed my mind, emboldened by the decision by the Lord High Eminences of Stockport CAMRA (NB check official title) that my unsatisfactory visit to the Burnage Albion should count as a tick in good standing.

And so to the Bishop Blaize, ostensibly in Stretford but actually in Old Trafford as far as I can make out; at least, it’s a couple of doors down from the Lou Macari fish bar, almost literally in the shadow of the United ground. It’s an absolute sod to get to from anywhere that isn’t the United ground, but there’s not much else to say about it. It’s a Spoons. It served a dark mild I’d never heard of (and which I forgot to write down), which was quite nice and in good nick. Next!

Next, I thought I’d do the Metro down to Altrincham. Sale first, and YA JDW’s in the form of the J P Joule on Northenden Road. I used to live in a flat just opposite, and have un-fond memories of the JPJ’s predecessor, a vertical drinking den called Ferguson’s with a ‘club’ called Bugatti’s attached. (Or rather, un-fond memories of their clientele, who could make quite a lot of noise on a quiet Thursday night.) Spoons houses may be soulless joints, but sometimes they’re still an improvement on what was there before. A half of Otter mild was in good condition and very pleasant – a light, malty dark mild, in the same region as Hatters’ Dark.

The plan now was to get the Metro to the Timperley stop, walk to the Quarry Bank in Timperley, then walk on to Navigation Road, where I could hit the Old Packet House and then pick up the Metro to Alti. And so it came to pass, more or less. The walk through Timperley was more residential than I’d bargained for – you’re either the kind of person who likes looking in people’s windows or you’re not, and personally I’d always rather be on the open road. Still, after fifteen minutes of suburbia I reached the Quarry Bank – recently refurbished, according to Opening Times – and had a half of decent but unspectacular Owd Oak. Hyde’s weirdness regarding mild reared its head here again: the barman signed my card, but maintained that the pub wasn’t actually doing Mild Magic, because they didn’t sell mild. As for the Owd Oak, “apparently this isn’t a mild as such”. What are the people from Hyde’s telling their licensees?

I pressed on to Navigation Road and the Old Packet House. The Mild Magic map let me down slightly at this point, inasmuch as the post code of the pub had suggested a location practically next door to the station. Not so: the pub’s right up on the A56, opposite the Navigation. It’s a small pub, fairly old school, with a choice of two draught beers – Boddington’s Bitter (!) and Taylor’s Golden Best. Obviously I had the latter, and (slightly to my surprise) it was terrific – easily the second best beer I had all day.

The best came last, at Costello’s Bar in Altrincham: not the most prepossessing venue (definitely a bar rather than a pub), but the beers – oh my. Costello’s is the Dunham Massey brewery tap. I had Dunham Dark – a seriously malty, porter-ish mild – and followed it up with the Chocolate Cherry Mild. The latter was superb; I’ve had it on gravity a couple of times at festivals, and never felt it quite worked, but this half really delivered. What was it like? The clue’s in the name: chocolate, cherry, mild. An odd combination, but it worked brilliantly. And I was served by the Chair of T&H CAMRA in person, which can’t be bad (hi Beverley!).

19 down, 5 to go. A peculiarity of my mild trawl to date is that I’ve been to quite a few Hyde’s pubs and only one Robinson’s. That’s going to change tomorrow, when I tick off the final five in Stockport. Watch this space.

Whatever comes our way

Mild Magic, the road trip (well, bus trip). After crossing off the three areas of Chorlton, the four areas of central Manchester and All Saints, at Friday lunchtime I headed out of town towards Didsbury.

JDW’s Ford Madox Brown in (or just on the townward side of) Rusholme was busy, as Spoons generally are at that time of day; I had a very nice half of Banks’s Black Dragon, a dark mild that’s fruity without being bland. Then on to the Friendship in Fallowfield. The Friendship has a large, four-sided bar in the middle of what’s effectively a single large, square room. Last time I went in there – on a similar mission during the Winter Warmer challenge back in January – I missed the ‘winter warmer’ pump because it was around the corner of the bar from me; I’d assumed, wrongly, that pumps 4-6 would be serving the same thing as pumps 1-3. This time round I made a point of checking round the corner of the bar before I committed myself to anything, but still couldn’t see any mild. I settled on the Daleside Monkey Wrench (a strongish dark bitter), which was rather fine. On handing my card over for signing (I think they ran out of stickers a while ago) I was told that the mild was on the other side of the bar, around the back of the room. I stayed for some lunch and a half of Hyde’s 1863 (confusingly described as a “classic bitter”), which was a perfectly decent light mild. I was pleasantly impressed with both the food and the beer at the Friendship, which is more than I could have said four months ago.

Another pub that made a better impression on me this time round was the Victoria in Withington, where a minor Hornbeam festival seemed to be under way – they had four different Hornbeam beers on, including Black Coral Stout. Very tempting, but it was mild I was after, so I went for the Owd Oak. (I assume this is basically the same beer I drank at the Grey Horse in town, where it was sold as Hyde’s Mild.) Like the 1863, it was perfectly drinkable, and like the 1863 it tasted a bit thin and bland. I was very taken with the Vic, though – I’ll have to find an excuse to go back there. Back on the bus and into Didsbury, only to head straight out of Didsbury again: no pubs on the main drag featured in the list. (I first acquired the taste for mild at the Royal Oak, but I guess they don’t serve anything in that line at the moment.) The next venue on my route was the JDW’s Milson Rhodes on School Lane. It struck me as a big gloomy barn of a place, made still gloomier by a low ceiling and (ironically) some concessions to traditional pub decor (dark wood, plush furniture). Along the bar, Milestone’s Black Pearl mild (of which I know nothing) was ‘coming soon’, but no milds were actually on. I settled for a half of Hawkshead Red, assuming from the name that it would at least tick the ‘malty’ box. What I got was a hop bomb – a prickly, aniseedy hop bomb, rather reminiscent of Buxton’s current range. Impressive stuff, although definitely not a mild.

The bus route gave out on me at this point. I could have baled out and got the bus home, but I decided to make a quick detour and get another couple of ticks. So I headed into Burnage, where the pub of choice was listed as the Albion. This struck me as a proper old working-class boozer (as did most of the customers). It’s a Hyde’s pub, offering a simple choice of… well, what was the choice? There were two handpumps, both with Hydes’ pumpclip present and correct: the standard ‘Bitter’ and a green clip offering something called ‘Light’. I duly asked for a half of light, assuming this was an alternative name for Hyde’s light mild. “We don’t sell Light,” the barman replied, leaning over the bar to check the pump clips as he did so and laying hold of the Light pump handle with a proprietorial air, as if he’d just demonstrated that it wasn’t there. “You can have Bitter or Smooth.” I paid for a half of bitter, and asked if I could have a sticker for my card anyway. This always seems like a slightly silly question, with distinct potential for making me end up looking stupid, and on this occasion it felt sillier than usual. The barman gave me a long, blank stare – so blank that I wondered for a moment if he’d heard me at all – and eventually told me that he didn’t know anything about that and I’d have to ask the landlady, who was on the other side of the room. She then came up to me and asked me the universal question; I asked her about the Mild Magic thing and mentioned that the pub was on the list. Her reply was, “Apparently. You’re about the fourth person to ask about that. No, we don’t sell mild.” So there you have it: the Albion (and by extension Burnage) can be crossed off the list.

By now I was well off my bus route and had no option but a long walk before the next pub. It started raining, but I kept on walking. The rain got heavier, but I went on. The rain turned to hail, but I told myself it would bounce off and walked on. The hail turned back into rain – heavy rain – and I thought, sod this for a game of soldiers, and took shelter under a tree. All in all it took a while to get to the Griffin in Heaton Mersey, and by the time I did I was soaked. It was worth the detour, though. It’s a Holt’s pub: a big building, divided into more rooms than I’ve seen in a single pub for quite a long time. The cask beers on offer are Holt’s Bitter, Mild and IPA. I’ve had the IPA elsewhere, and very nice it was too – a light, easy-drinking, marmaladey American-style IPA, as hard as that is to imagine – but that day I was there for the mild: a sweetish dark mild, very low in alcohol (3.2%) but still with a good depth of flavour, without the thinness I noticed in the Hyde’s milds.

One afternoon, six pubs, five stickers, four different milds. I’m up to 13 on the sticker front now, and I may just call it a day; whether I can fit in another 11 pub visits (in 11 different areas!) between now and the 22nd is frankly a bit dubious. The A6 is looking awfully tempting, though (Longsight, Heaton Norris, Edgeley, Stockport (x3), Portwood, Shaw Heath, Adswood, Great Moor, Hazel Grove…)

Head out on the highway

My Google Map for Mild Magic 2011 (Stockport and Manchester) is now complete! Not only that, but Google has stopped corrupting it randomly (moving pointers, renaming pubs, etc), for which much thanks. Here it is:

Mild Magic 2011

If you want to write it down, the URL is http://www.tinyurl.com/MildMagic2011

Locations are based on postcode, so I can’t guarantee them all to be spot-on. I take full responsibility for all errors and omissions, apart from the ones that are down to Google messing it up again. Share and enjoy!

(And yes, I’m using the ‘mild’/’wild’ pun again. My blog, my sense of humour.)

Like a true Nature’s child

Although I’m an enthusiast for brown bitters, old ales, porters and what have you, I’ve got to admit that I’m not a big mild drinker – particularly not at this time of year. Historically, ‘mild ale’ simply meant ale (as distinct from beer) served young rather than after ageing; ‘mild’ isn’t the alternative to ‘bitter’, it’s the alternative to ‘old’. (Mild ale could be bitter, although it generally wasn’t as bitter as beer – whatever that meant.) These days ‘mild’ generally means dark mild – black, sweet, low in alcohol. Although there are some excellent examples of the style (e.g. Robinson’s Dark Hatters) it strikes me as a style with narrower boundaries than bitter or even porter. Some of the best milds I’ve had in this year’s Mild Magic have been boundary-pushers: Moorhouse’s Black Panther (see what they did there?), which has the depth and complexity of a good stout, or Stringers’ Dark Country, which I’m not sure can even be called a mild – the brewery very sensibly describe it as a ‘dark ale’ and leave it at that. ‘Dark beer’ is alive and well, but I’m not convinced mild has a bright future. Particularly not as a summer drink, an idea which reminds me of that folk belief that the best thing to drink to cool down on a hot day is actually a nice hot cup of tea. (My mother believed that one implicitly, but she was a big tea drinker.)

So I’m not convinced Mild Magic is a great idea – particularly not in a warm May. I definitely think this year’s Stockport and Manchester (sic) contest needs a bit of a rethink. The 94 participating pubs (mostly in south and central Manchester, with a strong south-easterly bias; I counted 3 postcodes beginning WA and 34 beginning with M, the remainder all beginning SK) are divided into 69 small ‘areas’, many of them fairly artificial – Hyde is divided into three, for example. There are prizes for (in ascending order) visiting 12 pubs; visiting 12 pubs in 12 different areas; visiting 24 different pubs in 24 different areas; visiting 48 different pubs in 36 different areas; visiting all 94 pubs. (This would involve making trips to Hyde, Altrincham, Whaley Bridge and Stalybridge, as well as seeking out a variety of pubs stuck out on country roads and in the middle of housing estates. Not for the fainthearted – not for me, anyway.) 18 areas include two or three pubs, accounting for 43 between them; the remaining 51 have one each. While I appreciate that five prize tiers is ample, I think it’s a shame that there’s no incentive to hit more than one pub per area until you get to the heights of 36 areas; I’m fairly confident of hitting 12 in 12 areas, but I could have managed 24 in 12 without too much extra effort. The Stockport bias – or should I say, the Stockport East, Stockport South, Stockport West, Edgeley, Heaton Norris East, Heaton Norris West (etc, etc) bias – is also a bit unfortunate. Fine as Hatters mild is, there’s a limit to how many different pubs it can lure me into.

Having said all of that, it’s a fun thing to do, and I’d recommend anyone in the area to have a go – it’ll take you to some great pubs. I’m determined to nail this 12-pubs-in-12-areas thing, and I might even take a crack at 24-in-24; I’ve got a theory involving a bus journey down the A6, although I’ll have to check the map to see if it’s doable. Ah, the map – I was coming to that. The other problem with this ‘area’ system is that it gives you no idea where anywhere is, or (not to put too fine a point on it) which areas have been got out of mothballs for this competition. (I mean, there is such a district as ‘All Saints’, but no one would actually say that’s where Sand Bar is if they were giving directions.) For route-planning, and particularly bus-route-planning, purposes, I give you:

The Mild Magic 2011 Map (Stockport and Manchester)

Update Now, that’s annoying. I spent quite a while getting that map finished last night, but Google Maps seems to have decided to revert it to an earlier version. If you’ve seen this post already, please forget that URL for the time being, unless you want directions to pubs called things like “Lancs” and “Mystery Pub”. Updated version coming soon!

Updated update All fixed – URL restored.