Author Archives: Phil

Some beers in

I’m a bit of a solitary drinker – particularly at home – and I like a bit of variety, even if it’s only alternating Landlord with Proper Job and Ghost Ship. So the only quantity I usually buy bottled beer in is 1. I have occasionally wondered what I’d offer a beer-drinking visitor – or rather, not what I’d offer them (I’d offer them a beer, quite clearly) but how I’d phrase the follow-up question: “What would you like, there’s a Boltmaker and a Harbour Pale and an ESB and an 1845 and a Champion, it is a bit strong that one, although you’re welcome if that’s what you fancy, or if you want a smaller beer there’s an Old Tom and a Duvel and a Guinness Foreign and… What am I having? No, you choose first, I really don’t mind…“. But I only ever seem to meet beer-drinking friends and acquaintances in pubs, so as yet the problem hasn’t arisen.

So I’ve never really “got some beers in”, or not until recently. My first multiple buy was around the beginning of the year, when I bought six bottles of Greene King‘s limited-edition bottle-conditioned Vintage Fine Ale after being rather impressed by the first bottle. This wasn’t a huge success, as I promptly went off it; too malty, too heavy, too much like beer with a cough-mixture depth charge (I imagine). That said, I’ve gradually worked my way through the batch since then & can report that it’s starting to dry out; by the time I get to the last bottle it should be pretty good.

More recently, there was the Aldi promotion which saw bottles of Holden’s XB, Felinfoel Dragon Heart and – in at least one store – Dark Star Hophead going cheap. I bought six of each – why wouldn’t you? Shortly after that we got the sad news about TicketyBrew, which naturally made me want to grab whatever beer of theirs I could still find; an online beer merchant obliged with six bottles each of the Pale and Blonde, and four of the Dubbel. The same retailer had a deal on Tynt Meadow – six for the price of five – so I went for some of those as well.

So for the time being I haven’t just got beers, I’ve got a stock of beers; I can get out a couple of beers, or have a beer and replace it with an identical example of the same beer. It’s a novelty. The main use I’ve made of it is to drink nothing but Hophead, at least as far as low-strength beers in large bottles goes; any time I fancy a pint of bitter, or the closest thing to it in a bottle, I’ve gone for the Hophead. It’s given me a distinct sense of what a pint of bitter tastes like: loose in texture, thin yet oddly oily or soapy; strongly aromatic, herbal (rosemary? sage?); a fresh-tasting attack, sharp but not sour enough to be citric; then a long, bitter finish, persisting almost long enough to be unpleasant, then fading away, leaving your mouth dry and ready for a repeat.

It’s a lovely, lovely beer – and it is, quite definitely, what bitter tastes like. Although I may feel differently when I’ve drunk nothing but XB for a couple of weeks. Watch this space…

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Světlý ležák

We spent a few days in Prague earlier this month – I was there for work and my wife was tagging along. Never having been to Prague – or anywhere else east of Berlin – I asked around on Twitter, then took the plunge and shelled out for a copy of Max‘s book on the subject. Which, if I’m honest, I found first overwhelming and then frustrating – so many bars were described in glowing terms, and I had so little time! To make matters worse, Max doesn’t rate pubs on standard tourist guidebook criteria, but only on whether they’re nice places to sit and have a pint of something decent and maybe something to eat – and OK, fine, that’s how I rate pubs myself, but how was I ever going to find the Top Five Utterly Unmissable Pubs Of Prague that way? Max doesn’t even go into much detail about the beer – some breweries are better than others, but at the end of the day it’s just this pale lager (světlý ležák), only apparently it’s really satisfying in some way… Baffling. Feeling rather stymied by the whole thing, I set up a Google Map with a semi-arbitrary top 28 pubs (and getting it down to 28 was quite hard enough), and trusted I’d be able to work out an itinerary or two on a quiet evening.

Then life intervened; running downstairs to check something on the morning of my departure, I slipped and fell hard on my back. No real damage was done – I can still feel all my toes – but it was not at all comfortable, then or afterwards; two weeks on, it’s subsided to the level of a permanent nagging backache. Adrenalin got me through the journey to Prague; once there, though, anything more than a half-mile walk was rather challenging. My view of Prague was perhaps slightly jaundiced as a result – although when it was good, it was very good.

On our first night we ate at a restaurant called Poja, which was quite near our flat in Žižkov and served beer from the Ježek brewery. The brewery’s name means ‘hedgehog’; there’s a picture of a hedgehog on their logo, with a slogan that seems to translate as ‘beer with spines’ (it probably works better in Czech). And it’s true, the beer wasn’t quite as smooth as I was expecting; a distinct aroma-hop spikiness came through, not entirely in a good way. I ordered what was described as a potato pancake (bramborak) stuffed with meat, reasoning that I’d get a crepe made with potato flour or something. I thought it couldn’t possibly be what I understood by a potato pancake – i.e. a Kartoffelpuffer or latke, grated potato bound with egg and fried; I mean, you can’t make one of those big enough to roll up and stuff with meat, can you? It turns out that you can in fact make Kartoffelpüffer the size of a dinner plate – and they do. It was very nice but a bit overwhelming, what with the assorted meat filling and the mound of grated cheese on top; after that meal I don’t think I felt hungry again until we were back in Manchester.

Lunch on the second day was at a pub about three-quarters of a mile from my work venue, which I realised halfway was a bit of a long haul in my condition at the time. Specifically, I went to U Sadu, where I had halves (well, 300 mls) of (their own) Sádek 11° and a Klášter 12°. (For an approximate ° Plato to a.b.v. conversion, divide by two and then subtract one – so roughly 4.5% and 5% respectively.) Both were good, but the (unfiltered) Sádek… perhaps I was thirsty, but the only way I can describe it is to say that it drank itself. I sat down, I looked at the food menu, I looked at my glass – 2/3 empty. Philip Larkin wrote a poem about the difficulty of getting enough to drink at receptions; it begins

I never remember holding a full glass
My first glance shows the level halfway down

That was me and Sádek – and it wasn’t the last beer in Prague to have that effect.

As for food, still being half-full from the night before I scoured the menu for something light and came up with “Švejk toast” – toast with egg and bacon. (The waiter was quite disappointed – “Is that all?”) Švejk toast turned out to mean two slices of rye bread, fried till crisp (possibly deep fried), then spread with mustard and topped with two fried eggs and a couple of rashers of bacon (all fried together), which in turn were hidden beneath a pile of chopped tomato, onion and pickled cucumber. Basic, maybe; light, no.

We just had a sandwich that evening.

The next day, still feeling of rather limited mobility, I had lunch at U Jary – which wasn’t on my list but was basically the closest pub I could find that I hadn’t been to. On finding it I was pleasantly surprised to see a sign advertising Pardubičky Porter (I’d been meaning to try a dark beer), then pleasantly startled to realise that I was at the bottom of the street with our flat on it. (Not that it was any use to me – my wife was out sightseeing, with the only key.) But what was the beer like? Most beers at U Jary are from Pernštejn (of Pardubice); I had a 12° světlý ležák called Premium, described on the menu as bitter (hořký), followed by a 13° amber beer called Granát. I chose this after chickening out of the porter on realising that it was 19°, which is to say 8%; some over-hasty mental maths convinced me that this would be like having five halves instead of two. (It’s strong, but it’s not that strong.)

Anyway, both the beers I did have were beautiful – and went well with the pork in paprika sauce from the à la carte menu (which cost less than the previous day’s Švejk toast) – but the Premium stands out; it positively threw itself down my throat. The Granat was, perhaps, more subtle and interesting – it was certainly more complex – but the relative cleanness and simplicity of the Premium somehow elevated it to another level. Back at the flat at the end of the day, I checked Max’s guide and discovered that he rates U Jary very highly. I don’t know why it wasn’t on my shortlist; I’m just glad I found my way there. (And embarrassed at how little Czech I know – going in completely cold, I found it wasn’t the nouns and adjectives I really missed so much as words like “and” and “the”. Still, I did manage to order two beers and a pork (vepřové) dish, without being asked to repeat everything in English, so I’m pleased about that. (I didn’t go near that ř sound – just treated it like a ž.))

That evening we went to another nearby restaurant, U Slovanske Lipy, where I had what would have been my second choice at Poja – roast duck, red cabbage and dumplings. The dumplings were bread-based and not particularly enticing, and the duck was well done going on charred; the meat tasted lovely, though, and it went really well with the red cabbage. But what about the beer? Half a litre of a 12° from Vedova did the now-familiar disappearing act; I remember saying to my wife that it was a bit like drinking water when you were thirsty, only more so. I followed it with a dark beer from Šnajdr, a pleasant light stout which gave me an instant earworm.

The next day we were leaving, but before we went we hit the Old Town. Now, I’ve been to Paris, I’ve been to Florence, I’ve even been to London, but nowhere have I ever seen such a concentration of tourists, over such a wide area. The entire pedestrianised area of the Old Town seemed to be entirely given over to tourists, who were out in force. To say that local businesses had adapted to these conditions would be an understatement; wherever you looked there were sweetshops, coffee shops, ice-cream shops and souvenir shops, and very little else. Prague is a cheap city if you’re coming from the West – presumably for historical reasons – but prices in the Old Town have adjusted to the influx of tourist euro, dollars and pounds. Whatever a beer, a coffee, an ice-cream cost in Žižkov, you could guarantee that in the Old Town it would be twice that, while still seeming reasonable relative to prices ‘back home’. (Two pounds for an espresso instead of one? Can’t complain really, can you?)

The architecture is beautiful and historic, but the lack of anything resembling real life, the relentless price-gouging and – most of all – the sheer number of people got to me after a while. The nadir for me was the Charles Bridge, which we crossed in what might as well have been a ten-wide marching column. Once over the river and into Mala Strana, we stopped for a drink at a bar specialising in beers from the Clock brewery; I had the desítka Hektor. Not far beyond that, the pedestrian zone ended and my spirits lifted – not that I’m a fan of cars and trams, particularly, but it was nice to see that the architecture and the history could coexist with ordinary Czechs going about their business.

We crossed back over the river by the Legions’ Bridge and had our final Prague meal at a Pilsner Urquell Original Restaurant. Just as I had at U Sadu, we both found ourselves combing the menu for something smaller than a full meal. In what was basically a ‘bar snacks’ section (“Between Beers”) we discovered the makings of an ample, indeed fairly hearty, lunch: pork sausages baked in a tomato and paprika sauce for me, pickled pork sausages (utopenci) for her and a bowl of fries between us. (How do Czechs manage it? Nobody we saw seemed particularly fat.) And the beer? The beer was divine; all the cleanness and uncomplicated drink-me goodness of the best beers I’d had, plus a hit of herbal bitterness in the aftertaste; I’m not saying it was the best beer I had in Prague, but it was certainly in a four-way tie for first.

So that was Prague. If I’d been more mobile I might have done more than scratch the surface. Perhaps some time I’ll go back and do it properly, although I’m not sure what I’ll do between beers – the thought of sight-seeing in Prague doesn’t make my heart beat faster, except perhaps with panic.

Postscript: a brewery recommended by Max, whose beers I regretted not trying, was Svijany; I regretted it all the more because there was a bar serving them right across the street from our flat, and normally it would have been the easiest thing in the world to wander across for a 13° nightcap. At the airport we were doing the usual thing of using up our coins in the shops, when I spotted some cans with the Svijany logo. I bought one – it was only about 50% more expensive than it would have been in a bar – and brought it home in my hand luggage. A few nights later I opened it. The first impression was both sweet and sharp, but this settled down into something more familiar and clean-tasting; a really nice beer, even out of a can. Max was right: světlý ležák is a plain, simple, straightforward style, so much so that it’s hard to say what’s good about it – but a decent světlý ležák is a really good beer.

Goodbye, TicketyBrew

The ‘free advertising’ side of beer blogging has never sat well with me (although I’ve taken, and written about, the odd freebie over the years). I often catch myself writing about having a particularly nice pint of Scruttock’s Best down at the Pig and Whistle, and think, is that the stylishly-refurbished Pig and Whistle with a wide range of artisan gins and food service from 12.00 till 9.00? good old Scrut’s, with its surprisingly fruity note that lingers on the tongue? Not really what I’m about. Not unless they were paying me, and in that case it definitely wouldn’t be what I’m about.

But there’s one brewery I’ve made an exception for, almost since the first time I encountered their beer; there’s one brewery which could always count me as a dedicated and vocal fan. I’ve referred to TicketyBrew in 35 posts on this blog, going back to 2013, including seven posts devoted to their beers alone. It started in July 2013, when I nominated their Pale, on cask, as my beer of the year; I didn’t think I’d taste anything better in the remaining five months of the year – and as it turned out I was right. I wrote: The aromatic wallop of a good contemporary pale ale runs head-on into the soft herbal richness of a Tripel, and they dance. Which still seems about right. On cask, the Blonde was pretty amazing too – not to mention the Jasmine Green Tea Pale, the Golden Bitter, the Invalid Stout, the Marmalade Pale… On keg and in bottle, there was a really nice Dubbel, a superb Tripel, the East India Porter, the Rose Wheat, the Rhubarb Weiss, the Ginger Beer and some terrific hoppy pales… the list just went on. Not to mention more or less experimental styles – Munchner, Grodziskie, Mumme – and dotty one-offs like Marmite Stout or Tea and Biscuits Mild.

Golden Bitter, Invalid Stout, Marmalade Pale, Rhubarb Weiss – it feels like I’m reeling off lists of ancient paintbox colours or weird Victorian sweets, rich, mysterious, unattainable. And I’m afraid that unattainable is what they are. Duncan has wound up the brewery and the company; his partner Keri, who left a career in marketing to start TicketyBrew back in 2013, has gone back into marketing.

I’m really sorry they couldn’t make it work. In the last couple of years TicketyBrew had had all-new brewkit, taken on new staff (the last time I saw Duncan he was complaining about how little brewing he got to do these days) and even had a redesign. Distribution didn’t seem to be a problem, either. When I saw the Blonde and the Pale in Wetherspoons fridges across central Manchester – and particularly when I ordered a Blonde for my Leffe-drinking son, and saw his reaction – I thought they were set up. Perhaps appearances were deceptive. For whatever reason, it doesn’t seem to have worked out.

I wish both Duncan and Keri all the best – and I hope this won’t be the last the world of beer hears of Duncan. Not all of the styles he tried his hand at were equally successful, but his hit rate was ridiculously high. The East India Porter, the Green Tea Pale, the Golden Bitter – in fact, almost all the beers I’ve listed – were solid, solid beers, and a couple of them were classics: I’d put the Pale and the Blonde in that category, as well as the Dubbel and the Tripel.

Looking more broadly, I guess this is another example of a small brewery falling by the wayside, like Quantum and Offbeat. Only this isn’t just another small brewery – this is TicketyBrew, with the mad bottle labels and the pump clips you could spot from the street (very handy, that’s been) and the ‘Pale’ that was like a cross between a Tripel and a best bitter and the Stout that tasted of black treacle and the ‘Manchester Tart’ that actually tasted of Manchester Tart, and the small bottles for everything and the first few large ones just coming in (9% in 750 ml, really?), and the Invalid Stout with real liquorice and the Marmite Stout with God knows what (probably not real Marmite), and the Blonde that me and my German friend got absolutely pasted on and the way the Pale was right at the start and that amazing Seville Orange Pale, and the bottled Blonde that was probably a bit over-primed and the Grodziskie that practically exploded (Polish champagne, they call that), and the cherry Weiss and the rhubarb Weiss and the Citra Pale that was just as good as anyone else’s Citra pale, and the, and the…

I’m really going to miss them.

TicketyBrew, 14/2/2013 – ??/5/2018

Adieu, adieu, TicketyBrew
Image credit: Beerbods

Glass, Traps

“That old bit of land? It in’t pasture, that’s for sure… ‘tin’t grazing… I could go on…”

Why yes, since you ask, that is a glass of Tynt Meadow dubbel (a branded Tynt Meadow glass, in fact, although that part isn’t obvious). Bottle and glass are both rather nicely designed; note in particular the die-cut bottom edge of the label, showing the skyline in (presumably) the eponymous meadow. The projection to the left of centre is the abbey of Mount St Bernard, which I think is also what the logo on the glass schematically represents.

Mount St Bernard? Cistercian monastery in Leicestershire. Not ancient, for obvious reasons, but pretty well-established; it was founded in 1835 by a group of monks who had left France following the post-Revolutionary suppression of monasteries there. Cistercian monks have been there ever since (it’s now the only Cistercian monastery in Britain) and they’ve recently started brewing beer. I say Cistercian; you could also call the order Bernardine, or indeed Trappist.

YES IT’S A TRAPPIST BEER! TRAPPIST BEER IN ENGLAND!! ENGLISH TRAPPIST BEER!!!

When I spotted this beer in the fridge at the Head of Steam in Durham, I was initially going to leave it – I quite liked the idea of being able to say I’d spotted it, and putting off actually buying it for another time. (Also, it’s brand new and wasn’t listed in the beer menu, and I hate buying things without knowing what they cost.) But curiosity overcame me in the end.

What’s it like? First impressions weren’t massively favourable, I have to admit. The picture doesn’t lie: not a lot of condition – certainly nothing resembling a head – and a liquid that was frankly murky. (Perhaps it needed another few weeks or months for the yeast to settle out properly, and/or for conditioning to develop. It’d be interesting to keep a bottle for a while.)

Taste, though? Really nice; more importantly, really interesting. It has a lot of the caramel-backed oomph of a dubbel like Westmalle, but more bitterness and, I think, more complexity. This may be autosuggestion, but to both me and my companion it tasted ‘English’; there’s something of the way that a dark old ale develops into herby and medicinal territory, as well as a bit of stouty roastiness on the finish. This isn’t an imitation of any other beer; it’s a distinctive take on the Trappist dubbel sub-(sub-?)style, from what looks like being a really interesting brewery. I’m going to have to get hold of some bottles to drink at home, though, both for ageing purposes and just to be able to drink it a bit below room temperature rather than fridge-cold – chilling doesn’t do this style of beer any favours.

Distribution shouldn’t be a huge problem; this beer’s appearance in the Head of Steam presumably means that James Clay are on the case. I wouldn’t have jumped to this conclusion at one time; compared to other bars trading under that name, the Durham Head of Steam used to be a rather different, and rather superior, proposition. A couple of months ago I was rather uncomplimentary about the newish Didsbury branch, comparing it unfavourably to the Durham HoS

where the wine is finished off with fables from an old almanac

sorry, wrong quote (although the mood is the right one)

[where] I’ve spent many a happy lunchtime … getting quietly smashed on ludicrously expensive Belgian beer

Didsbury? beer descriptions … [that] seemed to have been downloaded from somewhere or other into a fixed-format template, with the result that almost all of them cut off with a string of dots; bar staff who, frankly, didn’t know their beer; the same ‘chain’ food menu as (e.g.) the Liverpool HoS; generic glassware with just a couple of ‘special’ glasses. Durham? Huge, properly curated beer menu; friendly, obliging bar staff who really knew their beer, Belgian beer in particular; the right glass for the right beer, without fail (something you hardly ever see in this country, even in self-styled ‘Belgian’ bars); and a short but individual food menu.

Well, now that’s finished; you’ll never see the Durham HoS (as it was). The powers that be at Cameron’s have obviously brought Durham into line with the rest of the chain: same food menu, same “guy on the Internet says” beer menu, same interchangeable bartenders with good people skills but a cavalier approach to glassware. (For our first round we ordered an Achel and a Spencer, which came with glasses branded for Duvel and La Trappe respectively; I wasn’t sure the Achel was going to benefit from the Duvel ‘thistle’ glass and got it replaced with a ‘chalice’ glass – which was branded Westmalle.) On the plus side, the beer range is still superb – and, as you can see, my Tynt Meadow did come with the right glass, as indeed did my companion’s Straffe Hendrik Tripel.

It’s certainly not the first time I’ve had a dubbel and a tripel in one visit to the Head of Steam, and probably not the first time I’ve had two Trappist beers. It is the first time I’ve had two Trappist beers from two different breweries outside Belgium – let alone from two different breweries in the English-speaking world. (As for the Spencer, it was fine, but not very special.) But then, that wasn’t possible before 2018 – in fact, it wasn’t possible before the 9th of July 2018, ten days ago. Yes, it’s Oh Good Ale, your source for breaking news in the world of beer!

NB other sources are available. Seriously.

Around Manchester on a half of mild – 4

At last, the long-awaited, and only partly forgotten-about, final instalment of my Mild Magic 2018 travels.

As noted last time, I’ve identified six recurring Themes in my visits to (mostly) unfamiliar pubs, most of them not particularly cheerful:

  1. Not Enough Drinkers
  2. Too Many Beers
  3. Pub Food Is Dead
  4. Spoons Has Pros and Cons
  5. There Are Still Pubs
  6. Craft Is Everywhere

Also, I’ve written about 36 pubs – no fewer than 30 of which had a mild on – and got up to the letter S. The home straight beckons.

Smithfield, Manchester city centre
I’ve had good experiences at the Smithfield before, and this visit was no exception. While I couldn’t exactly say I remember the cask mild they had on, I remember liking it at the time; on balance it was a bit more successful than the bretted strong IPA on keg that I followed it with. For lo!, the Smithfield is a Pub That Does Both, and does ’em well. Food had been a bit of a contentious issue for me the night I was there (see Crown and Anchor); the Smithfield offered bar snacks, in the (slightly eccentric) form of hand-made pork pies stored in a large glass jar. I ordered one and was pleasantly surprised to find that (a) it was bigger than it looked in the jar and (b) it came on a board, complete with a knife, a dish of pickles and a choice of mustard. It was a fine pork pie and went well with both beers; my only slight regret was that it wasn’t quite a full meal (see Piccadilly Tap). Great pie, great beer, great pub.

Smithy Fold, Glossop
Glossop was my last stop on a long trail involving multiple beers and multiple forms of transport (see Harewood Arms, Cheshire Ring, Joshua Bradley etc). My recollections of this large, unusually quiet Spoons are consequently rather limited. I’m pretty sure they had a mild on, though.

Sportsman, Hyde
“It’s an oddity, the Sportsman, as it doubles as the Rossendale brewery tap and a Latin American restaurant,” I wrote in 2015. Relations with Rossendale are currently strained, but the Latin American food is going strong; this time round I had the place pegged for a lunch stop. Once before I’d found the pub completely deserted – including the bar area – and had to go out to the kitchen at the back to ask where everyone was; this time, there was someone behind the bar, but the kitchen was rather conspicously silent. I asked about food and was told, “she’s just popped out to Morrison’s”. I decided to have a pint rather than a half. The Sportsman has two bars, both served by the same central bar area; all the handpulls are on the carpeted ‘lounge’ side, so that’s where I went. After ten minutes or so the cook made it back with her shopping and orders could be taken. At this moment, the lino-floored ‘public’ had a bit of a rush on, with the arrival of a group of lager-drinking regulars – all of whom, by Sod’s Law, also wanted food. All told, it was the best part of an hour between my arrival at the pub and the arrival of my Cuban Sandwich (which was essentially a cheese and ham toastie, heavy on the mustard). Which was very nice – and good value – but also, by that stage, very welcome. File under Pub Food Isn’t Dead Exactly, But Sometimes You Can See The Appeal Of Spoons.

Station Buffet Bar, Stalybridge
I’m not going to describe the Buffet Bar; if you don’t know what it’s like, that can only mean you haven’t visited, and you really should – it’s a great little pub. (Also does trains!) The bartender apologised for the condition of the Howard Town Milltown Mild, which was approaching the end of the barrel – it was a bit ‘slack’ but basically fine. I followed it up with Ticketybrew Yanks for the Memories, a session-strength IPA with American hops and an awful name. My timing was clearly out, as this was approaching the end of the barrel as well – but, even warming up and losing condition, it was absolutely superb. I had a 6% keg IPA from Marble that evening; when I finished it I could still taste the Ticketybrew.

Tim Bobbin, Urmston
No mild at this Spoons, and a very long hunt for stickers; by the time the sheet had been located I’d finished my half. Leaving the pub, I found I was looking directly at a very ‘crafty’ bottle shop (with, I think, some kind of ‘on’ licence) called Brewtique. (Theme 6: Craft Is Everywhere.) Spurning its charms (well, I did stick my nose in) I went 100 yards down the road and had a half at the Prairie Schooner, which was pleasantly busy that prevening; I had a ‘blood orange IPA’, from Moorhouse of all people. The rebrand, the Greene King tie-in and now this – what’s happening up there?

Tweed Tap, Hyde
A micropub with three or four people in feels pleasantly busy, which can’t be said of a full-scale pub (see Park Inn). Unfortunately a micropub with no bugger in at all (see Grove Alehouse, Malt Disley) feels much the same as a full-scale pub, ditto – perhaps even worse; in most pubs you can at least tell yourself that there might be somebody round a corner. I had the Tweed Tap to myself, despite it being a sunny Saturday lunchtime. The Chester Mild was really good, though – and in good nick, so somebody must be drinking it some time.

Victoria, Withington
Going back to the Vic now I see no trace of the big single-room boozer I used to go to in the mid-80s – no bellpushes, no white-coated glass collector; nobody remembers the sharp-edged bright yellow bitter I used to drink there, either. (Unless I was on lager in those days? That would explain a lot.) Anyway, what I do see when I go to the Vic now is the same pub I visited for last year’s Mild Magic, and the year before that, and the year before that (to say nothing of the Winter Warmer Wander) – which makes my memories of any particular trip a bit less than vivid. The dark mild’s OK, even with its terrible name.

Victoria Lounge, Glossop
Looks like a backstreet pub until you get inside, whereupon it turns into a rather opulent hotel lounge; also, seems larger on the inside. No mild AFAIR, but the beer was fine, if a bit more pricey than I was expecting in Glossop (although, to be fair, I had just come from a Spoons).

Waterhouse, Manchester city centre
Midway between the Vic and the Sedge Lynn on the ‘multiple visits’ front – I go to this pub on every CAMRA trail & several times in between. Not a scooby what it was like this particular time, although I’m pretty sure there was a mild on.

White Hart, Cheadle
To my dismay, the White Hart’s mild offering was Coach House Gunpowder Mild – a mild (and a brewery) which I prefer to avoid. I knocked it back – and, to be fair, it wasn’t positively unpleasant – and followed it with a half of draught Bass, which was a lot nicer.

Wilfred Wood, Hazel Grove
Spoons. Big. Main road. Titanic Nautical Mild. Er… that’s it.

Wine and Wallop, Didsbury
There was no mild on here. When I made the obligatory polite inquiry (see Ford Madox Brown, Head of Steam) the bartender lost several points by launching into a long and confident ‘splanation (see Head of Steam) of how they didn’t very often have mild on as such, it wasn’t a very popular style in this area, they had tried putting draught mild on but they’d had trouble selling it, and of course with draught mild you do need to be sure it’s going to sell, so they probably wouldn’t be having it on again, at least not very often, and so on.

QUIZ! Should I have
a) throttled him
b) said “That’s all well and good, but in that case why did you sign up for Mild Magic?”
c) said “The actual name of the bar is Wine and Wallop! What do you think ‘wallop’ is? It’s mild – that’s what it means! You’ve actually put ‘mild’ in the name of the bar!”
d) nodded politely and ordered something else

I went for d), of course – a pale ale from RedWillow, and very nice it was too. But still – spare me ‘splainers!

Nine pubs with mild on, three without; six (non-JDW) free houses, four Spoons, a Hyde’s pub and a brewery tap. Overall totals: 13(!) Spoons, 22 other free houses, 7 Holt’s, 4 Hyde’s and one each for Greene King and Tweed. Also, 39 with mild on vs 9 without, which isn’t too bad. (Also, two closed when they should have been open.) Ten pubs memorably busy (four of them Spoons), five completely deserted (three of them micropubs) – plus another four or five big pubs doing micropub levels of business. Most visits were at the weekend, with some weeknights and some weekday lunchtime visits; no weekday afternoons (in case you were wondering if that was why some of the pubs were deserted).

So, what’s going on out there? Pub-going is changing; like Spinal Tap, its appeal is becoming more selective. The progressive denormalisation of alcohol and social drinking, as a part of everyday life, is continuing to drive pub-going numbers down – or rather, it’s ensuring that losses in pub-going numbers (which are inevitable with social and cultural changes, plus the march of time) aren’t being made up by equal numbers of  new drinkers. There is a new breed – or a number of separate, partially overlapping new breeds – of drinker; it’s not just a few hundred hipsters, but on the scale of the population as a whole their numbers are tiny. We can get a false impression from looking in the wrong place, I think. People come from miles around to destination bars in the town centre (and Chorlton), and those bars get pretty crowded at times – but if they’re in town, those people aren’t drinking in the pubs where they live. Thanks to a range of social changes, many of them positive, pubs have lost what used to be their steady clientele (defined roughly as “every unmarried male over the age of 14 and a large proportion of the married men”) – and people who know their Beartown from their Beavertown aren’t going to fill a gap that size.

There are places where an old style of pub-going doesn’t seem to have gone away, but there are many others where it seems to have died completely, leaving big multi-room pubs waiting for a clientele that isn’t to come back (or not more than a couple of times a week). One strategy of adaptation is to forget about pub food, or else to go big on ‘dining’; Holt’s seem to be trying to do both at once, with predictably mixed results. (Perhaps they’re taking a leaf out of Sam Smith’s book; there are some very nice Sam’s ‘dining pubs’, as well as the more basic ones most of us are more familiar with.) Another strategy – which Holt’s, again, were early to adopt – is to grab a bit of that ‘craft’ market; that may be necessary, but it’s not going to be sufficient to keep big estates of big pubs afloat. (Going for the ‘craft’ market may not even be enough to keep a micropub afloat.)

“Do you drink something every day?” a friend who worked in public health once asked me. When I said yes, more or less (one or two dry days a week, and so forth) she said “Really?”, and looked at me as if I’d said I regularly put chip fat on my cornflakes. More precisely, her expression wasn’t so much disapproving as incredulous – a Regular Drinker! I never thought I’d actually meet one!. That’s the world we’re in now, pretty much; unless that wider trend towards denormalisation can be reversed, the pub industry’s going to be facing lean times – or rather, even leaner times.

(On the bright side, there is some excellent beer to be found out there – Great Heck Voodoo Mild, Tweed‘s Chester Mild and Stockport Arch 14 Mild (at the Grove Alehouse) were all impressive, and Hyde’s don’t-call-it-a-light-mild is still a very nice drop.)

Around Manchester on a half of mild – 3

Yet more random notes on pubs where I’ve recently drunk or attempted to drink mild, in no particular order (a.k.a. alphabetical order by name).

The Story So Far: I’ve identified six recurring Themes in my visits to (mostly) unfamiliar pubs, most of them not particularly cheerful:

  1. Not Enough Drinkers
  2. Too Many Beers
  3. Pub Food Is Dead
  4. Spoons Has Pros and Cons
  5. There Are Still Pubs
  6. Craft Is Everywhere

Also, I’ve written about 24 pubs – an encouraging 19 of which had a mild on – and got up to the letter M. Shall we proceed? I think we shall.

the Moon Under Water, Manchester city centre
Visiting this large town centre Spoons (and it is large, even for a Spoons) one weekday evening, I found it relatively quiet – which is to say, pleasantly busy by the standards of a lot of pubs. Acorn Darkness is a nice mild and was in good nick. Otherwise my only memory is of a youngish and roughish-looking guy, standing six feet or so back from the bar while he was waiting to be served and looking like a cat on hot bricks; he actually started pacing after a while. Being a few halves down myself by this stage, I found I was watching him without realising it; I took note of his severe haircut and the nasty-looking scar it exposed, pondered how rarely you see people who actually look like trouble in pubs (even in Spoons), then decided I should probably look away. Just as I did, he caught my eye and – rather than being keen to learn what I thought I was looking at – gave me a friendly smile. (I’ve been here 30-odd years and Manchester still wrongfoots me.) I glanced round a bit later and saw that he’d got served – a rum and coke and an extra glass of ice, which he promptly took outside. Maybe it was just that one drink between two was all he could afford; being up against it does make you nervous.

the New Oxford, Salford
This is one of those multi-ale free houses of the old school; specifically, one of those where I always feel it’d be a great idea to stay for another, but when it comes to it can rarely see a second beer I actually fancy. There’s a big middle ground out there of small brewers that are never going to be big enough for the supermarkets, hip enough for the craft bars or cheap enough for Spoons; pubs like the New Oxford are their natural habitat. In principle I’m all in favour, but in practice I’m not really a ticker – I do like to order something I actually recognise. This time, anyway, I had a half of perfectly decent dark mild from a brewer I’d never heard of, then havered over a bottle of something Belgian (the Oxford’s other speciality) but eventually left it. Boring, I know – blame the refurb. The Oxford has recently acquired a series of upholstered booths with fixed tables, but with the tables fixed at ‘posing table’ height relative to the seats, which in turn are fixed too close to the tables to stand up. The result is that you’re sitting with the table top just under your chin – not ideal.

the Old Monkey, Manchester city centre
I visited this town-centre Holt’s pub on a weekday lunchtime. It was silent as the tomb (Theme 1: Not Enough Drinkers). In the time it took me to drink my half, one person left and one came in, leaving the total clientele at 2 (until I left). The beer was in good nick and the bartender was chatty, asking me about Mild Magic and where I was up to with it.

If this write-up looks familiar, it’s because I got confused when I wrote up the Ape and Apple – a totally different town-centre Holt’s pub, which I also visited on a weekday lunchtime. Otherwise it was pretty similar, particularly the ‘silent as the tomb’ bit. But the chatty bartender was definitely at the Monkey, not the Ape. (Asking for trouble, really, those names. They’re only a couple of streets apart, too.)

the Paramount, Manchester city centre
This was a flying visit on a weekday lunchtime. It’s a Spoons, they had a mild, they had stickers. And, er, that’s it.

Park Inn, Monton
Monton is a bit of a walk out of Eccles, where the tram line ends; no great penance on a sunny Saturday morning. Never having been (to Eccles, let alone Monton), we didn’t know what to expect – and didn’t expect much – but found it quite a pleasant surprise. Apart from anything else, across the road from the Park we saw not one but two bars that seemed to be going for the ‘craft beer’ market, although neither was open at the time (Theme 6: Craft is Everywhere). The Park itself looked like a fairly unprepossessing flat-roofed estate pub from a distance, but turned out to be a vast, traditionally-furnished Holt’s pub. On tap were six cask beers (four Holt’s, two Bootleg) and five keg (three Holt’s, two Bootleg); there to drink them were the two of us and, as far as I could tell, five other people, dotted about the pub like solitary worshippers at a weekday church service. It was early – it wasn’t quite twelve when we left – but equally it was a Saturday. Themes 1 and 2, I’m afraid.

Petersgate Tap, Stockport
Having finished with Hazel Grove, I got a bus into Stockport where many fine pubs awaited. In the event I only went to one, though. The Tap (as nobody is calling it) was comfortably busy and came up trumps on the mild front (no, I don’t remember what it was). I followed the mild with a beer I’d fancied trying way back at Malt Disley – Torrside Take Me To Your Lemur, a darkish barley wine with vanilla. It’s sweet, but not excessively so; it’s 9.5%; it’s rather fine. (Although it’d be better on cask, obviously.)

Piccadilly Tap, Manchester city centre
Yet another mild that’s gone down the memory hole, I’m afraid. The Other Tap (as absolutely nobody is calling it) also featured in my search for food that weekday evening (see under: Crown and Anchor, Smithfield). Having been rather impressed by the Smithfield’s pork pie service – and still having a bit of a gap – I ordered a pork pie from the Piccadilly Tap’s bar snacks menu. The bartender opened the chiller behind the bar and handed me a small, flat object like a hockey puck, still in its waxed paper wrapper. Very nice pie (from Beehive), to be fair.

Platform 5, Cheadle Hulme
This was a big Holt’s pub, and it was busy – going on crowded – on the weeknight when I visited; I wandered the different rooms for some time before I could find anywhere to park my half of mild. (Theme 5: there are still pubs out there; pubby pubs, doing busy pub business.) There were food menus, but it was all a bit lamb-shank-and-rosemary-potatoes; no sign of the rather more cheap-and-cheerful menus I saw in the Holt’s pubs in the town centre. (Out of 48 pub visits, several of them taking place in the evening or at lunchtime, I ate in four, and only two of those were actually meals.) I eventually went and got a sandwich from Waitrose (there’s posh) before heading up the road to the Kenilworth and then Cheadle.

Queens, Hyde
Big town-centre Holt’s pub, Saturday lunchtime, busy as you like (Theme 5). Mild needed pulling through and was a bit watery – dirt cheap, though, as indeed was the Bootleg IPA I followed it with (viz. both £1.09, so presumably £2.18/pint).

Reasons to be Cheerful, Burnage
A micro-pub which fell comfortably in the “not many in” bracket – not a problem when the premises won’t accommodate that many (not a problem in atmosphere terms, at least). Great Heck Voodoo Mild was terrific – a sweet, malty dark mild but with a bit of porter-ish roast to it. The (keg) Magic Rock Mind Control (8% double IPA) with which I followed it was terrific as well, in a different way.

Rising Sun, Hazel Grove
I’d been to Whaley Bridge and come back via Disley; the train had taken me as far as Hazel Grove, where I could pick up the A6 and… well, walk, as it turned out; there seemed to be a fair bit of walking before I found the Grove Alehouse, and rather a lot of walking after that to find the Rising Sun. Which, I’m afraid, didn’t really repay the effort; that Saturday afternoon, it was just a rather empty bog-standard ‘roadhouse’ pub, with no qualifying beers and a bartender who’d barely heard of mild, let alone Mild Magic. I’m surprised to discover online that it was closed, and short of a landlord, as recently as April; it seemed fine when I was there, just not very interesting. Hey ho – onward to the Petersgate Tap…

Sedge Lynn, Chorlton
What is there to say about the Sedge Lynn? Not a lot, really: it’s my local Spoons; it’s on the rough side for Chorlton (my daughter won’t go near it after an unfortunate bad language incident when she was much younger), but I’m rather fond of it all the same. Also, they had a mild on and there was no problem with the stickers. What more can you ask?

Eleven pubs with milds on, only one without; three Spoons’, five (non-JDW) free houses, four Holt’s. (Running total: 30 with a mild on, six without.)

In part 4: S is for Stalybridge, T is for Urmston, V is for Withington, W is for West Didsbury and that’s your lot.

When Crafty met Spoony

Saturday. Takeaway. Couple of drinks before I pick it up. Where’s close? Big Spoons. Little ‘craft’ bar. Excellent beer. Really excellent. Pricey though, some of it.

Spoons tokens. Haven’t spent any of them so far. Don’t really need them at the moment, but still. Leaving money on the table. Just take a couple in case.

Craft place? Well, I’ve come this far – I’ll just go a bit further and see what the Spoons has got on. They have some good stuff, sometimes.

Usual suspects. Blonde Witch. That Acorn special could be good. Kelham Island, they still turn out some good stuff. Mobberley, they’re OK. (“Boom Juice”? Really? Catch me ordering that.) Oh, and there’s a porter. First pint sorted!

£1.79 a pint, I mean, come on. I mean, get in. Daft not to.

Table outside. Can see the craft place from here. Might head down there for my second pint. Might go for a half of something silly. They do some great strong beers on keg. Pricey, though, some of them.

That porter… it’s good. No, I mean it, it’s fine. I mean there’s nothing wrong with it. Seriously, just as the beer that it is, you know… It’s an enjoyable beer, if you don’t think about…

You just feel a bit cheap after a while, that’s the thing. Or, maybe not cheap exactly, but a bit… off. A bit, kind of, is this what I’ve come to. Is this the kind of person I am?

Fag ash on the table, and everything. And the porter, I mean, it’s good, but…

Definitely head to the craft place for the next one. Come on, here’s me with my Blue Harbour shirt and my iPhone and my London Review of Books, I must stick out a mile.

Still. This porter’s actually pretty good, if you give it a bit of time and attention. By the time you get to the bottom of the pint, it all comes together rather well.

Better get that takeaway ordered.

There goes the porter. That Mobberley pale ale would make quite a good contrast, when you think of it. And I mean, £1.79. Daft not to.

Very nice indeed. Really very nice indeed. Felt like a right idiot ordering, but can’t be helped.

Might just dip into the craft place after, if there’s time before my food’s ready. Half of something. Really excellent beers. Bit pricey, though, some of them.

Mmm, Boom Juice.

See all sorts here, that’s the thing. See a bit of life. Not like the craft place, where they’re all just sat there with their iPhones and their Blue Harbour shirts, drinking a half of this and a third of that – excellent beers, don’t get me wrong, but some of them are way too pricey.

And you know, if you were sat there on a Saturday night with your iPhone and your London Review of Books – sat there paying a fiver a pint, a fiver for two-thirds, a fiver a half for some of them… I think you’d just feel a bit flash after a while. Or, maybe not flash exactly, but a bit… off. A bit, kind of, is this what I’ve come to. Is this the kind of person I am?

Ah, there goes my phone alarm – best drink up.

Around Manchester on a half of mild – 2

More random notes on pubs where I’ve recently drunk or attempted to drink mild, in alphabetical order (i.e. in no order at all).

The Story So Far: I’ve identified three recurring Themes in my visits to (mostly) unfamiliar pubs, none of them particularly cheerful:

  1. Not Enough Drinkers
  2. Pub Food Is Dead
  3. Spoons Has Pros and Cons

(We’ll get to Theme 2 in a minute.)

Also, I’ve written about twelve pubs – seven of them with mild on – and got up to the letter F. Avanti!

the Friendship, Fallowfield
I first knew the Friendship as the pub I used to go to on the way home from Saturday shopping, back in the 90s; the beer was cheap and they had rather a good jukebox. I didn’t go in for a few years, and the next time I visited they’d done the place up and were serving Thai food; ever since then I’ve had the place filed under “done up recently, Thai food”. Well, it was lunchtime when I visited, but a weekday lunchtime; the big, light, airy, modernised-traditional pub interior of the Friendship was quiet as the grave. No food of any description, and precious little beer (being sold; there was plenty available). Theme 3, then; also, looking at the three regular Hyde’s beers and the Beer Studio faux-guest and the Kansas Avenue faux-guest – plus an actual guest from down South somewhere – I couldn’t help wondering if there are just (ladies and gentlemen, Theme 2!) Too Many Beers. To be fair, the whatever-it’s-called that used to be Hyde’s light mild was really nice – and cheap – so there’s that.

the Gateway, East Didsbury
Spoons. Busy-ish, as they tend to be. No mild of any description. Sticker, though – Spoons generally seem to have cleaned up their act on the sticker-location front. (When I visited the Gateway for the Winter Warmer Wander the guy behind the bar went into a bit of a rant about how the sticker sheet had gone walkabout, and how this always happened in Spoons. So he’ll be happy, at least.)

the Goyt Inn, Whaley Bridge
I had a bit of a route planned on the Saturday when I went to Whaley Bridge – two pubs there, then back to town via New Mills Newtown, Disley, Hazel Grove… Opening times are a bit of a bugbear when you’re planning a trip like this, as they set a definite limit to how early it’s worth setting out; I was pleased to notice on Whatpub that the Goyt Inn opened at 11.30. I got to Whaley Bridge at 11.30, to find the Goyt Inn (“Always a Warm Welcome”) closed and dark. I hung around in case they were just a bit slow opening up, then headed out to the Drum and Monkey, which opened at 12.00. Back in Whaley Bridge, post-D&M, I hung around a bit more – perhaps it was a typo and they opened at 12.30? – then went to peer in at the window to check that what looked like the darkness of a closed pub wasn’t just a fashionable natural-light effect. The barman saw me and unlocked the door – not to usher me in, but to tell me they weren’t open till 2.00. I went and got the train to Disley. (Couldn’t work out how to fit in New Mills Newtown. Another time, maybe.)

Great Central, Fallowfield
Spoons, Saturday. Pleasantly quiet, i.e. quite a few people in. Half of Titanic Classic Mild – pretty good. Bottle of Ticketybrew Blonde – very nice indeed. Realised that the reason it gushes like crazy when I drink it at home is probably that I don’t store it chilled. Not that Spoons do either, but if the fridges are on for all the hours they’re open that comes to the same thing. Honestly, these modern craft brewers and their supply chain requirements! (This has nothing to do with mild – Ed.)

Grey Horse, Manchester city centre
I’m rather fond of the Grey Horse – a properly pubby pub, despite its size – but to get the most out of it you need to have (a) somewhere to sit and (b) time to drink more than a solitary half, and this Saturday lunchtime I didn’t have either. Hyde’s Old Indie – not my favourite, not least thanks to the awful name, but basically fine.

the Grove Ale House, Hazel Grove
As I mentioned wrt the Crafty Pint in Stalybridge, there seem to be two types of micropub. The Crafty Pint was Type 1 – “not many in”. The Grove, I’m afraid, was Type 2 – “absolutely nobody in” – and it won’t be the last we meet. It’s a nice little bar, the landlady was friendly – recommending Jake’s and the Samuel Oldknow, neither of which I managed to get to – and the mild was good (although for the life of me I don’t remember whose it was). It’s just that there’s a limit to how much of a good time you can have in a pub when there’s nothing to watch or listen to but the sunlight bouncing off the walls and your own thoughts. I’m not the world’s most sociable drinker, Lord knows, but I do like to feel that I could talk to somebody if I wanted to. Not Enough Drinkers, I’m afraid.

the Harewood Arms, Broadbottom
Getting to Broadbottom (from Hyde) was memorable – rather than shlep up to Newton for Hyde for the train, I got the (mini-)bus from outside Morrison’s – but I remember very little about the Harewood Arms, other than that it was rather dark inside (pubs used to be, didn’t they?), there was a Howard Town mild on (which was fine), and they had a Tiny Rebel collab(!) on keg. They’ve clearly got someone behind the bar who knows their stuff. A few years ago I saw a “CAMRA Says This Is Real Ale” sticker on a keg tap – presumably KK – at the Harewood; still the only place I’ve ever seen that, sadly.

the Head of Steam, Didsbury
The Head of Steam is one of my favourite pubs anywhere; I’ve spent many a happy lunchtime there, getting quietly smashed on ludicrously expensive Belgian beer. That’s the Head of Steam in Durham. How’s the little brother in Didsbury looking? Not so clever, I’m afraid. We got off on the wrong foot straight away: I scanned the bar, saw nothing resembling a mild and asked the obligatory question-expecting-the-answer-No, only to be directed to something other than a mild (see also Ford Madox Brown). In this case the ‘mild’ label had been attached (literally) to Cameron’s Strongarm. The bartender compounded the offence as he pulled my beer, remarking with a knowledgeable air, “Yep, Cameron’s Strongarm ruby mild”. I’ve got nothing against Strongarm – it’s a fine beer when it’s on form – but mild it ain’t. Also, no sticker; my form was graced with a rubber stamp. I retired to my seat, picking up a copy of the beer menu on my way; this was my last call of the day and I fancied something decent to finish off with. More small irritations: the beer descriptions were chatty and twee (spare me the gnomes of Achouffe!); they also seemed to have been downloaded from somewhere or other into a fixed-format template, with the result that almost all of them cut off with a string of dots rather than… I looked for St Bernardus and couldn’t see any of their beers listed – odd, that. I decided to go for something on keg instead (the Strongarm wasn’t on form, incidentally); back at the bar, my eye was caught by a tap saying Waterloo Récolte, so I asked about that. This led to irritation number… I’ve lost count… when the bartender went into raptures about how very organic and pure the beer was, what a very good choice it was of mine, and basically how it would suit me, sir. While all this was going on I glanced over his shoulder and noticed some St Bernardus bottles in the fridge. Hey ho. The Waterloo Récolte was very good, to be fair, but as a pub-going experience this wasn’t the greatest.

the Horse and Farrier, Gatley
Big old Hyde’s pub. Got there on the bus from Northenden (top tip: don’t). It was Saturday afternoon and the pub was buzzing; the bartender was quietly, efficiently and (as far as I could see) quite happily working flat out. Is this another Theme? I think it might be. Theme 5: There Are Still Pubs. Everyone seemed to be having a good time; it was a nice scene to dip into, however briefly. Plus, the whatever-it-is-that-used-to-be-light-mild was in good nick and very welcome.

the Joshua Bradley, Gee Cross
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. I had a bit of a route planned on the Saturday when I went to Glossop via Hyde and Broadbottom. Opening times… you know this bit… so I was pleased to notice on Whatpub that the Joshua Bradley (not too far from a station on the Hyde line) opened at 11.00. Only it didn’t, obviously. Massive ‘roadhouse’-style dining pub, set back from the road and on a steep rise, unlikely to get any passing trade to speak of – except me, and I was there at 11.30 on a Saturday. When it was closed.

the Kenilworth, Cheadle Hulme
Being in Cheadle Hulme with a bit of time to kill before the next bus back to civilisCheadle, I wandered back up the bus route and happened on the Kenilworth. It’s a GK pub, so not promising – but it was on the Mild Magic list, so what the hell. I don’t know what announcement I’ve missed, but they were going big on Moorhouse beers, with the new and rather stylish pump clips – including the ever-reliable Black Cat. Glad I dropped in.

the Lord Nelson, Urmston
Urmston’s odd if you’re not used to it. There’s the centre – which I’ll get to another time – but then there’s… all these other bits… consisting to quite a large extent of streets with houses. I know, what are the chances of finding houses in a suburb – it’s just odd to work out a route from railway station to nearby pub, and then find yourself turning corners from one residential street into another. Anyway, I got to the Lord Nelson in the end: a huge Holt’s pub, with about five people in the entire place. Then I downed my half of 3.2% beer and headed back down somebody’s street.

the Lowes Arms, Denton
Having missed out on the Joshua Bradley, I decided to make a quick detour to Denton before hitting Hyde. The Lowes Arms is a nice old traditional-looking pub, with a small but decent beer range including Tweed‘s Chester Mild – an unusual dark mild, lightish in colour and texture, not very sweet but with a touch of ‘roast’. Nice stuff, anyway. I don’t think they can be getting much CAMRA trade; asking for a sticker provoked a long, initially incredulous, discussion, before somebody found the envelope underneath something, as usual.

Malt Disley, Disley
This looked like a nice little bar, in quite a surprising location – not the first or the last, either (and it’s another Theme: Craft Is Everywhere). At first glance, it looked like a good place to kill the 40-odd minutes before the next train. The beer was fine, too – well, the mild was going off, but it was replaced without hesitation; the bartender even offered to tap me a half of the mild that was coming on, straight from the barrel (I declined). The problem was people, or the lack of them: just like the Grove, there was no bugger there but me, and just like the Grove, it got on my nerves after a while. Shame.

Ten pubs with milds on (I’m including Malt Disley), two without, two closed; two Spoons’, five (non-JDW) free houses, three Hydes’ pubs and one each from Holt’s and Greene King. (Running total: 17 with a mild on, seven without, two of which passed something else off as a mild; the seven are a Holt’s pub(!), three Spoons and three free houses (Crown Northenden, Drum & Monkey Whaley Bridge, Head of Steam Didsbury).

In part 3: pubs from M (for Monton) to S (for Stockport).

Around Manchester on a half of mild – 1

I haven’t been posting about this year’s Mild Magic – Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA’s annual ‘treasure hunt’-style celebration of mild and the pubs that serve it. I haven’t been taking notes on the mild I’ve drunk, either. I have been taking part, though – to the tune of 4850 pubs visited, from Cheadle to Stalybridge and from Eccles to Whaley Bridge. This year, rather than document the individual trips I’ve made, I thought it might be interesting to go through the pubs in an arbitrary (i.e. alphabetical) order and see what memories I can dredge up as we go along. So here goes. I’ll do twelve at a time to stop it getting too boring (hopefully).

the Ape and Apple, Manchester city centre
I visited this town-centre Holt’s pub on a weekday lunchtime. It was silent as the tomb; this, I’m afraid, is going to be a Theme. (Ahem. Theme 1: Not Enough Drinkers.) In the time it took me to drink my half, one person left and one came in, leaving the total clientele at 2 (until I left). The beer was in good nick and the bartender was chatty, asking me about Mild Magic and where I was up to with it.

the Ash Tree, Ashton under Lyne
This is a large, two-storey Spoons, where my wife and I had lunch one sunny Saturday. I was feeling the worse for wear after a long and stuffy tram journey, some of it through some rather unprepossessing surroundings. (I read recently that Droylsden was getting a micro-pub; I’d like to wish the proprietors all the luck in the world.) As for the Ash Tree, it’s a Spoons, although with the slight added interest of being on multiple levels. It was busy, naturally. I had a pint of… something not especially memorable. Top tip: the bus to Stalybridge (if that’s where you’re headed) stops right outside; time it right and you can effectively wait for the bus at one of the downstairs tables. (We didn’t time it right and had a longish wait on the pavement outside.)

the Bishop Blaize, Old Trafford
How do you get to the Bishop Blaize? You just get to the Bishop Blaize. To put it another way, you just walk. Not particularly keen on a 10-minute walk from the nearest tram stop, I worked out a route involving getting a bus from town; unfortunately this also ends with a 10-minute walk through the shadow of the United ground. Another big Spoons, anyway; another un-memorable mild; and another 10-minute walk, back to the tram.

the Cheshire Ring, Hyde
When I visited on a Saturday lunchtime, the bartender asked if I wanted a sticker before he’d started pouring the mild, which is either impressive customer service or a testimony to how little of the stuff they sell. Formerly a Beartown tied house, the pub still had a wide range of Beartown beers when I was in – including the dark mild, which was rather a good example of the ‘fruity, fairly uncomplicated’ sub-style. I was sorely tempted to stay for another half of something – some of the other Beartowns looked good, and there was a beer from Black Hole, who rarely disappoint – but I had places to go and halves to drink, so I moved on.

the City Arms, Manchester city centre
What is there to say about the City that hasn’t already been said? Well, exactly. So it’s no great loss if I can’t remember a damn thing about my last visit – apart from noticing that it was busy on a weekday evening, and that they didn’t appear to do food any more. Shame if so – I’ve got fond memories of their sausage sandwiches – but they are operating with a Spoons right next door. (Another couple of Themes for you. Theme 3: Pub Food Is Dead; Theme 4: Spoons Has Pros And Cons. We’ll get to Theme 2 later.)

Crafty Pint, Stalybridge
The micropubs I’ve visited on these excursions fall into two categories; this one’s in the more comfortable of the two, which is “Not Many In”. The centre of Stalybridge, that Saturday, fell into that category itself; we wandered up one street and down another, wondering where everyone was and what on earth the town would be like on a Sunday. (We didn’t go in the local Spoons, to be fair, which might well have answered the first question (Theme 4).) Anyway, there weren’t many in the Crafty Pint, but enough to keep a hospitable buzz of background conversation going; enough, too, to call the bartender back from the cellar, or the kitchen, or the loo, or wherever he’d got to when we came in. (Wherever it was it must have been some way away – they were calling him for several minutes before he surfaced.) Once again I don’t remember much about the beer; what I do remember is a story in the local paper about Stalybridge Labour Club flying the red flag, to honour a Communist-sympathising member who had recently passed on. The old bloke’s son came out fighting; asked if the Union flag would have been more appropriate, he told the reporter that his father would have seen that as a symbol of the British Empire, “where the sun never set and the blood never dried”. You tell ’em, son.

the Crown and Anchor, Manchester city centre
More about pub food and Spoon’s. I visited the C&A, as nobody is calling it, on a weekday evening; I hadn’t planned a food stop into my route and was pleased to see food menus on all the (numbered) tables. I ordered a pint of mild, trading up(?) to a pint of Two Hoots when it turned out mild was off. Then I asked if I could order some food, and was surprised to find the answer was No – apparently they generally stopped serving food between 7.00 and 7.30. This, I thought – and still think – was extraordinary, and not in a good way. Since the darkest (i.e. earliest) days of pub food, has it ever been known for a pub to serve food in the evening, but stop serving at 7.00? Is it any wonder that people go to Spoons if they want food with their beer? Then again, in a world where people are going to Spoons, how much food trade can there be left for a place like the Crown and Anchor? It’s a death spiral, really, and by now we’re a good way down it (Theme 3).

the Crown and Kettle, Manchester city centre
If I’m ever in Manchester and have the yen for a really nice, comfortable, pubby pub which also has a good range of beer from contemporary breweries, I generally go to the Smithfield. Which is a shame, because the C&K (as nobody is calling it) ticks all those boxes in good style, and I always enjoy it when I do go there. On this occasion I didn’t really get the full experience – what with only stopping for a half of mild – but I remember that the beers looked good; the keg board, in particular, had a very striking selection of potential Halves of Something Silly. Another time. Promise.

the Crown Inn, Northenden
This was my second visit (ever) to the Crown; the last time was for the Winter Warmer Wander, and they didn’t have any qualifying beers on then either. In fact I’m pretty sure I had the same golden ale then (Weetwood Cheshire Cat). Other than that: it’s a pub. Quite old. Lounge and public. A few regulars. TVs. Only a few regulars, which doesn’t bode particularly well for them (Theme 1), particularly given that it was a sunny Saturday afternoon.

the Drum and Monkey, Whaley Bridge
The pub is a health-giving ten-minute walk away from the centre of Whaley Bridge (and from the Goyt Inn, of which more anon). The name might lead you to expect an inn sign along these lines; actually they’ve gone for something more like this, harking back to a celebrated advert. Not a mild in sight, but when the very young barman had served the very young couple in front of me, he served me a half of something pale and local, which was fine. (O wad some pow’r the giftie gie us… I suspect the word ‘old’ would figure quite a lot.) Then I was off back down the hill into Whaley Bridge.

Eccles Cross, Eccles
A big Spoons (is there any such thing as a small Spoons?), handily placed for the end-of-the-line tram stop and the tram to Ashton, if that’s where you’re headed (although if you are I’d recommend breaking the journey at least once). There were a couple of dark beers on the bar, but neither of them was a mild; I had a half of Peerless’s This.Is.Eccles, a stout which presumably is popular locally (and it was pretty good). The pub was buzzing. I noticed that their ‘community’ noticeboard included a sweepstake for the Lotto bonus ball, with every number with a name by it; the significance of this, of course, is that the pub has (at least) 59 regulars.

Ford Madox Brown, Rusholme
What do you know, another Spoons – that’s four out of these first twelve. An odd experience here: having scanned the bar and ascertained that there weren’t any milds on, I was about to order something else, but thought I’d better ask anyway. The bartender pointed to a porter, which (I now noticed) had had a ‘Mild’ label attached to its pump clip. I argued briefly, but there wasn’t really any point – if that was the beer they were treating as mild, that was the beer I was going to be ordering. It was a decent enough porter, as it goes – not a mild, though (and, of course, not all milds are dark anyway). The pub was comfortably busy, even on a weekday lunchtime.

Seven pubs with milds on, five without; four Spoons’, six (non-JDW) free houses, two Holt’s pubs. In part 2: pubs from Broadbottom to Urmston – or rather, from F to M.

What happened?

A quick post on the CAMRA Revitalisation story, this time covering what’s actually happened.

Here (again) is what we had before the vote:

2. The objects for which CAMRA is established are:

  1. To protect the interests of all those who wish to drink real ale;
  2. To campaign for an improvement in the quality and variety of British real ale;
  3. To draw to the attention of Members and the general public those places where real ale can be found;
  4. To promote and foster activities concerned with the consumption of real ale;
  5. To campaign for the retention and reinstatement of the facilities of the traditional British pub including the public bar;
  6. To ensure in every manner possible that producers and retailers of beer act in the best interests of the customer;
  7. To ensure that the knowledge and expertise of brewing real ale is kept alive;
  8. To improve the standards in all premises licensed to sell alcohol in the United Kingdom;
  9. To publish and issue to Members magazines or newsletters;
  10. To publish or sponsor the publication of books, articles, magazines, photographs, films, radio, television programmes and internet content or any similar material connected in any way with the items mentioned above, and to market them and otherwise assist in the collection and dissemination of information.

And here’s what we’ve got now:

The objects are:

  1. To secure the long term future of real ale, real cider and real perry by increasing their quality, availability and popularity
  2. To promote and protect pubs and clubs as social centres as part of the UK’s cultural heritage
  3. To increase recognition of the benefits of responsible, moderate social drinking
  4. To play a leading role in the provision of information, education and training to all those with an interest in beer, cider and perry of any type
  5. To ensure, where possible, that producers and retailers of beer, cider and perry act in the best interests of the customer.

How does 10 go into 5? Here’s what’s happened. First, three objectives (the old objectives 2, 5 and 6) have been reworded and updated, fairly uncontroversially.

Old:

  • To campaign for an improvement in the quality and variety of British real ale;
  • To campaign for the retention and reinstatement of the facilities of the traditional British pub including the public bar;
  • To ensure in every manner possible that producers and retailers of beer act in the best interests of the customer;

New:

  • To secure the long term future of real ale, real cider and real perry by increasing their quality, availability and popularity
  • To promote and protect pubs and clubs as social centres as part of the UK’s cultural heritage
  • To ensure, where possible, that producers and retailers of beer, cider and perry act in the best interests of the customer.

No real change there; the old objectives struck a balance between specificity and generality (“British real ale” in the first, “the traditional British pub” and “beer” in the second and third) which is preserved by the new versions.

Second, there’s one new (and very welcome) objective:

  • To increase recognition of the benefits of responsible, moderate social drinking

Third, four objectives have effectively gone into one.

  • To draw to the attention of Members and the general public those places where real ale can be found;
  • To ensure that the knowledge and expertise of brewing real ale is kept alive;
  • To publish and issue to Members magazines or newsletters;
  • To publish or sponsor the publication of books, articles, magazines, photographs, films, radio, television programmes and internet content or any similar material connected in any way with the items mentioned above, and to market them and otherwise assist in the collection and dissemination of information.

These have all been replaced by the very broad wording of the fourth new objective above:

  • To play a leading role in the provision of information, education and training to all those with an interest in beer, cider and perry of any type

I can understand the rationale for losing the second and third of these ‘old’ objectives – is “the knowledge and expertise of brewing real ale” really in danger of extinction? does BEER need its own line in the constitution? I think losing the first and fourth is regrettable, though. Note that the fourth, while it refers to a whole range of forms of publication, doesn’t actually commit CAMRA to producing any specific type of media; if the Exec proposed to replace CAMRA Books with a Whatsapp group, the wording of the objective wouldn’t stop it. The same goes for the first of the four, for that matter; I referred to it in my earlier post as “the GBG objective”, but I might as well have called it “the WhatPub objective”. Either way, telling the world where cask beer in particular can be found is a very specific undertaking, which isn’t necessarily covered by the objective of becoming a Beer (And Cider) Oracle. Score +1 to generality, -1 to specificity.

Fourth, another two ‘old’ objectives have been dropped without replacement:

  • To promote and foster activities concerned with the consumption of real ale;
  • To improve the standards in all premises licensed to sell alcohol in the United Kingdom;

I referred to the first of these in my earlier post as “the GBBF objective”, but obviously it doesn’t carry a commitment to any particular event. If CAMRA does want or need, now or in the future, to scale down its commitment to national-scale events, retaining this objective wouldn’t actually have stopped it doing so – although losing the objective may make it a bit easier. I’m not sure why the second of these has been dropped; presumably not because it’s enormously ambitious and lacks any specific real ale focus (cf. new objective 4). Overall we’ve lost an objective focused on real ale, but we’ve also lost one that focuses on everything from malt whisky to blue WKD, so that’s -1 to both specificity and generality.

Fifth and finally, the vote that was lost. What was the first – and, you might think, fairly fundamental – objective of CAMRA

  • To protect the interests of all those who wish to drink real ale

has gone. This is the one that was supposed to be replaced by

  • To act as the voice and represent the interests of all pub goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers

but this (much broader) replacement didn’t quite get enough votes. This was to be a dramatic broadening of CAMRA’s remit, from “the interests of all those who wish to drink real ale” to “the interests of all pub goers and [all] beer, cider and perry drinkers”; whether you’re drinking Pinot Grigio in a gastropub or Kopparberg in a car park, CAMRA is the campaigning organisation for you! Or it would have been, if this change had passed. Since it didn’t – and the old objectives had already been deleted en bloc – it’s -1 to specificity without any gain to generality; CAMRA is (officially) no longer the voice of the real ale drinker, but it’s not the voice of all beer drinkers in general either.

Add up all these subjective scores on an arbitrary scale, and you get a net change of -3 in specificity and 0 in generality. This may explain the disgruntled reactions to the changes from some quarters, the sense that CAMRA has missed the boat and fallen irrevocably behind the times: yes, CAMRA has cut several of its ties to ‘real ale’, but no, it hasn’t made an equal and opposite commitment to…

Well, to what? There’s an odd sense of a proxy battle to this debate. Nowhere in the proposals does the Exec refer to craft beer; at no point do the new objectives specify that CAMRA looks favourably on contemporary beer, innovative beer, forward-looking beer, beer made with passion, beer brewed by brewers under independent ownership… or any other form of words that may be used to divide the craft sheep from the macro goats. The choice before us isn’t between real ale and craft beer (defined in whatever way you prefer); it’s between real ale and all beer. This is one of the reasons why the debate, despite the passions it’s aroused, has left me cold. I can understand (although not agree with) people who want CAMRA to extend its remit to include Jaipur on keg as well as on cask, but embracing Carling into the bargain would seem like a step in the wrong direction. Be that as it may, this is why I’ve referred throughout to ‘specificity’ and ‘generality’, rather than ‘traditionalist’ and ‘moderniser’ or ‘cask’ and ‘craft’ – ‘specific’ vs ‘general’ is what the changes are actually all about.

This leads to my second point, which is that the result we’ve got is a mishmash of different levels of specificity and generality – “real ale, real cider and real perry”, “beer, cider and perry”, “beer, cider and perry of any type” – but that this is nothing new. Several of the old objectives refer to “real ale”, but there’s also a reference to “beer” and one to “alcohol”: CAMRA was already trying to lean both ways, towards real ale specifically and towards beer and pubs generally. Moreover, the fact that there’s still a reference to “real ale” in the objectives has nothing to do with the failure of that one resolution to pass; the old objectives were all deleted by a separate resolution (and that vote did pass, which on balance is just as well). “Real ale, real cider and real perry” – and no other beverages at all, craft beer shmaft beer – are specified in one of the new objectives, put forward by the Exec.

The full story of the changes, then, is nuanced, qualified and generally not very exciting. In bullet points:

  • CAMRA was already committed to supporting beer and pubs in general, alongside a set of objectives to do with real ale; the changes were about shifting the balance between these two things.
  • The Exec proposed to retain a core ‘real ale’ objective but commit CAMRA more explicitly to supporting beer and pubs in general.
  • Members who voted agreed overwhelmingly with the Exec’s approach, barring a single change which shifted CAMRA further towards a more general remit than some members were happy with.

In short, a change of emphasis within CAMRA’s existing set of objectives has been broadly accepted by the members, but toned down a bit in one area. Shock, horror.