Time for this year’s Stockport & South Manchester CAMRA Winter Warmer Wander. The point of the Wander is to get round as many as possible of the nominated pubs and bars (40 this year), and – most importantly – to have a “cask conditioned stout, porter, old ale or barley wine (or if none available, any other premium beer 4.5% or over”) in each one.
In this, the first of two posts, I’ll focus on my experiences in the town centre pubs included – quite a lot of them this year.
I was in both the Micro Bar and Cafe Beermoth the day after the WWW began this year; this wasn’t me being quick off the mark, though, as I’d forgotten all about it and consequently didn’t tick them off. I went back to both the following week to do it properly. Nothing looked like qualifying at the Micro Bar – no Boggart Rum Porter in sight this year; they had Titanic Cherry Dark on, but this is variously described as a ‘fruit beer’ and a ‘black bitter'(!), and is in any case only 4.2%. I had Kelham Island Riders on the Storm, a perfectly pleasant hoppy brown bitter which (just) qualified on strength at 4.5%. Pickings were on the slim side at Cafe Beermoth, too; several of their keg lines had high-to-silly a.b.v.s, but only two of the cask beers qualified. I asked after the 6%er, but this turned out to be an IPA; so, Okell’s St Nick it was. This is a “full-bodied, dark-coloured beer with an aroma of fruit and malt” to quote the brewer; it’s 4.5%, and it was fine.
Incidentally, Cafe Beermoth have an infuriating system of listing all their beers in a standard format in a row of plain signs above the taps on the back wall – a standard format which includes a.b.v., brewery and town of origin, but not style. Given that they tend to stock beers that are off the beaten track this inevitably results (for me at least) in an extended conversation with the bar staff, something like this:
What can I get you?
– Er… what kind of a beer is Drummond’s Deplorability?
That’s an IPA.
– Oh, OK. What’s the, er, Flintlock Don’t Come The Raw Prune?
That’s a plum porter. Would you like a taster?
– damn, plum, I could have guessed that… No, I’m fine. What’s the JSD Chasmatic?
[sigh] …And that’s a stout. Is it a dark beer you’re after?
It’s a lose-lose situation – the person behind the bar obviously thinks I’m a timewaster, and I end up giving in and getting a pint of the second or third thing they mention, whatever it is, just so as not to prolong the embarrassment. Memo to Cafe B: styles, please! (They surely can’t make a living selling exclusively to people who already know every beer they sell… can they?)
Elsewhere in town it was dark beers all the way. Well, almost; the Terrace had Titanic Plum Porter on keg, but nothing at all that qualified on cask. Howard Town Super Fortress, a 4.4% ‘ruby ale’, was both the darkest and the strongest thing going. Another couple of places that didn’t make much impression on me either way were the Town Hall Tavern (the aforementioned Titanic Plum Porter – fine, albeit dearer than I’ve had it elsewhere) and Pie and Ale (Sonnet 43 Create Those Moments, a “spiced pear and brandy porter” which worked far better than I expected it to). The Castle has in the past been somewhere to linger, but Christmas party season seems to have started particularly early this year; it was standing room only when I called, so I drank my Saltaire Triple Chocoholic and got out. (No sign of Old Tom at the Castle, incidentally; I haven’t seen it there since this time in 2012. Shame.)
Two of the city centre’s four Wetherspoons’ – the Paramount and the Waterhouse – are on the WWW trail. Digressing slightly, I was pleasantly surprised to see that both of them had Ticketybrew bottles in the fridge; rather excitingly, the Waterhouse also had a keg font for the 6% Ticketybrew IPA. This was a fine beer when I had it in an unlabelled bottle a few months back, but I’ve never seen it since; sadly it was off at the Waterhouse, so the wait will have to continue. Great to see Duncan & Keri getting a bit more exposure. As far as the WWW goes, it was Brightside Season Four stout at the Waterhouse and Stockport Stockporter at the Paramount – both rather good and well-kept. (The Paramount actually had four different qualifying beers on, including the Elland 1872 porter which was their house beer for a while (as ‘Paramount Porter’). I’m guessing the regulars really like their dark beers.)
Down on Bridge Street, Brink had a small but well-chosen range of beers, including Squawk Porter – really excellent, one of my beers-of-the-Wander. The landlord commented that mine was only the third sticker he’d given out, and admitted to feeling a bit let down by CAMRA’s promises of extra custom; I said that the bar’s non-standard opening hours had probably knocked it off some people’s lists. Be that as it may, I’d recommend anyone to get down there – it’s a really nice little dive bar with excellent beer at decent prices. Anyone concerned about the War on Christmas will also be glad to learn that Brink appears to be resisting the politically-correct orthodoxy of the so-called ‘Scotch’ egg.
Carry on down Bridge Street and you leave Manchester altogether, but since there’s only one Salford pub in the WWW I’ll include it here. The New Oxford is an old-style ‘beer exhibition’ pub: one of those places with 10+ handpumps, mostly dispensing beers from local-ish breweries which don’t have much of a profile. It’s the kind of pub that seems designed to attract CAMRA members and tickers, in other words, and like others of the same type (the Magnet or the Portwood Railway) it’s built up a regular clientele who aren’t either of those things, but live nearby and fancy a drink from time to time. I guess you’ve got to make a living. Anyway, the beer of choice at the Oxford this time was Empire Porter. (Empire: a small brewery in Slaithwaite. You live and learn.) Perfectly decent porter, even if the name’s about as appealing to some of us as “Colony Gin” – and well-kept, not that I’d expect anything else at the Oxford.
That just leaves three local beer institutions. The youngest of the three, the Smithfield, is my favourite Manchester pub bar none. You can find as good a beer range in a few other places – including the Paramount, if my last visit is anything to go by – but none of those has the atmosphere of the Smithfield, which I’d characterise as classic pub ambience with a bit of ‘bar’ to lift it (pale walls, unmatched sofas instead of bench seating – that kind of thing). They had two stouts on, one at 5% and one at a rather fearsome 10% – and both at recognisably beer-like prices (none of that “£6 for 2/3” caper). I considered the silly-o-clock option but wimped out and got the 5%er, viz. Blackjack Stout – and very good it was too. My visit to the Piccadilly Tap was less successful; they had some good stuff on, but the Exit 33 stout I went for was a bit puny, tasting to me more like a rather tame dark mild with a bit of added roastiness (a ‘black mild’?).
And finally Esther, the Marble Arch. Time for a quick confession. The Marble Beerhouse was my local as soon as it opened (1999?), and I’ve been a loyal and mostly enthusiastic drinker of their beers ever since then – even though for most of that time I would have killed for a brown malty bitter. Round about 2011 I had a lightbulb moment – triggered, appropriately enough, by a Marble beer – and ‘got’ the pale hoppy beers the cool kids were all talking about (and which, of course, Marble had been brewing all along). And I haven’t really had a bad word to say about Marble since then. But I confess that, between 2011 and 2015, Marble’s beers weren’t always as interesting, or as solidly accomplished, as I might have liked.
Now, though – blimey, as they say, Charlie. Marble’s current range includes several beers, particularly in the 5.5%-7.5% range, which are really excellent. Earl Grey IPA, Damage Plan, Built to Fall and Extra Porter are all absolutely superb beers; Damage Plan in particular is a beer to dream about. I had a half of Built to Fall on cask at the Marble Arch when I visited; it’s great on keg, but the lighter carbonation and more rough-edged flavour profile of cask really brings out the character and complexity of this beer. (I suspect the same wouldn’t be true of Damage Plan, but I’d love to find out.) It’s not a ‘winter warmer’, mind you, so I preceded it with a half of Magic Rock Dark Arts – which was also very good. (Just not quite that good. Marble really are on a roll at the moment.)
Thirteen pubs, thirteen winter warmers? Not quite, I’m afraid:
Old ale: 0
Other >4.5%: 2 (Micro Bar, Cafe Beermoth)
No qualifying beers: 1 (Terrace)
I noticed last year that old ales were thin on the ground compared to porters and stouts; the trend’s clearly continued, sadly. Let’s see if the news is any better when I hit Stockport.