We’re well-served for established family brewers in Manchester; some of us still miss Boddies’, but four out of five isn’t bad. In many parts of the city the tied estate model is still dominant, imposing the kind of local beer monoculture that used to be the rule. Fortunately all four of the big local brewers turn out a good pint – nobody needs to be stuck with something like the vinegary Hyde’s Anvil I was drinking in the 80s.
What’s been particularly interesting, over the past couple of years, has been to see all of the big four start to move with the times – some, it has to be said, more hesitantly than others. So JW Lees have supplemented some fine seasonals and specials with a collaboration with Marco Pierre White (for those who like that kind of thing) and, more recently, the launch of Manchester Pale Ale – a pale, dry, classic-Boddington-alike which the company hopes to sell into the pubcos, and which for my money deserves to do very well indeed. Robinson’s have made a feature of Old Tom (not before time) and spun off a couple of variants, as well as venturing into the weird and wonderful world of rock-star collaborations – an idea that does them credit, even if the resulting beers have both tasted almost, but not quite, entirely identical to Unicorn. Hyde’s, going through major changes, have launched an entire ‘craft beer’ operation under the ‘Beer Studio’ label. And Holt’s… well, Holt’s have supplemented the choice of Mild and Bitter with a low-strength, easy-drinking IPA. I like it a lot, as it happens – it’s got a lot more IPA character than something like Greene King’s – but at a sessionable 3.8% it’s not going to be making any waves on BeerAdvocate.
And, er, that was it – Holt’s seemed happy to plough the same old furrow. Or so I thought. An early sign that things might be shifting came with the company’s takeover of the Horse and Jockey in Chorlton, a multi-ale free house with in-house microbrewery. Early fears that the Horse’s sizeable range would be whittled down to three (all prefixed “Holt’s”) weren’t borne out, with the anecdotal exception of one particularly busy night when everything went off except the bitter and IPA. (But then, when the Horse gets busy it does get really busy; we can probably put this down to teething troubles.) The Horse settled down in its new incarnation, as a Holt’s pub with a permanent guest list.
And it wasn’t the last. Passing through West Didsbury yesterday, I noticed a blackboard outside the Railway announcing seven permanent cask ales. The last time I was in the Railway, the tally was the same as every other Holt’s pub I’d been in up to then (viz. 3), so this aroused my curiosity. (And it was a warm day, so what the hell.) On the bar I discovered the Holt’s threesome, plus – as advertised – four guest beers. It has to be said that the roster of guests wasn’t the most exciting: we’re not talking Summer Wine or Arbour here. We’re talking, in point of fact, Bombardier, Old Speckled Hen, Everard’s Tiger and Tetley’s Bitter (who even brews that these days?) I went for the IPA, of which (as I mentioned) I am rather fond.
Later I got talking with the landlady, who confirmed that this was a new regime for Holt’s pubs; they’re running several guest beers, changing monthly, from a list arranged by Holt’s on an exchange basis with southern breweries. The aim was to run three guests: the Tetley’s pump was a temporary replacement for a fourth Holt’s beer, a draught version of the golden ale Two Hoots, which has been selling particularly well – even rivalling the Bitter. Since tasters were on offer, I tried the Tiger, which was in good nick and tasted rather fine – on the sweet side for a pale bitter, but quite delicate and complex with it.
Rotating guests and a golden ale on draught: it doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a big change for a brewery which has been as conservative as Holt’s. Put it this way, it would have been a lot easier for them to carry on as before – apparently the guest beer deal took over a year to set up. It’s not a revolution, but it’s a step in the right direction, and I think Holt’s deserve some credit for taking it. (And the beer’s still cheap.)