Category Archives: CAMRA Man

Not a fan

I realised the other day that I’m not a fan.

I don’t mean that in the usual sense, as an elaborate way to say you don’t much like something – although I’m sure I could reel off as many dislikes and prejudices as the next blogger. I’m not a fan of beer you can’t see through, for example, and I still haven’t managed to get into sours; in my experience Wild‘s beers need to be approached with caution, and Omnipollo‘s are rarely worth the trouble (and expense) of approaching at all.

But that’s by the way. The point is, when it comes to beer I’m not a fan – of anyone or anything (any brewery, any style, any beer).

(OK, I’m already thinking of exceptions. But let’s pursue this melancholy line of thought a bit further.)

What’s happened? How did the decades-long journey of discovery – starting out with one big, explosive discovery (beer!!!) and continuing through the smaller explosions of other discoveries (old ale! abbey beers! Weizen! Dunkelweizen! porter! imperial stout! really really really pale hoppy beers!) – how did it wash up in my current state of vague yeah it’s all right I suppose not-a-fandom?

The short answer is that things change. The long answer is the same, but in four parts.

1. Breweries Close

Yes, I’m going to mention TicketyBrew again. I was a huge fan of Duncan Barton’s beers; I’ve still got a few in the garage, but when they’re gone I’m really going to miss them. If I knew a bar nearby had one of their beers on I’d always check it out, even if it meant making a special trip later – and I was very rarely disappointed when I did. I only really discovered how big a fan I’d been after the brewery closed, when I realised that I’d stopped peering in at the windows of local bars as I passed. If I already knew I wasn’t going to see one of TicketyBrew’s instantly identifiable zigzag pump clips… well, what was the point? There are a few other breweries in the “always check out” category – Batham’s, Holden’s, Harvey’s, Dark Star – but three of those are very rarely available around here, and as for the fourth…

2. Breweries Change

For a long time I felt like I ought to be a fan of Marble, what with the eponymous Beerhouse basically being my local, and for a long time I didn’t really get their beers. I don’t think it was entirely me, either; some of them were a bit rough round the edges, particularly in the period when they were using that one hop that smells like vomit. (That’s not just me, is it?) Anyway, breweries change – sometimes for the better – and, while James Kemp was head brewer, Marble produced two superb pale ales, the beast that was Built to Fall and the crystalline perfection of Damage Plan. Kemp, with Joe Ince, followed up with the Gothic Series, a range of barrel-aged old ales and imperial stouts, which were equally brilliant. I bought one of everything and started making notes towards what would have been a big (and favourable) review of Marble Beers In General. Then things changed; James Kemp moved on (to Yeastie Boys); the bottles started going out of stock and the beers weren’t re-brewed. There have been a few new barrel-aged beers from Marble, but Ince’s interests seem to lie more in pales and sours. (So, am I a fan of Marble? No. Yes. Which Marble?)

3. Fashions Change

When I first got into beer there was a simple rule of thumb; beer in general was brown, malty and traditional, quite easy to find but not very strong; good beer was very brown, very malty, very traditional, quite hard to find and very strong (a phrase which here means ‘over 4.9%’). I had Young’s Winter Warmer at a beer festival once and for a moment had to restrain myself from shouting Yes! That’s it! (“Est, est, est!” “Tell them I am drinking stars, although by ‘stars’ I mean ‘memories of under-age drinking in South London’!”)

Anyway, one taste I’ve preserved from that period is a taste for old ales and barley wines. But can you get them? I realise that 8%ers on cask are a tall order, but you’d think that the ‘craft keg’ scene – with its tolerance for high strength and high price, and its endemic competition for stylistic niches – would have been ideal territory for a revival of these types of beer. (And you can always bottle them – see above.) Strong pales we get; strong stouts, we get; strong sweet stouts, even. Old ales and barley wines, dubbels, tripels, doppelbocks – not so much. It must just be fashion. I guess barley wines will come back round again – everything comes back round again eventually; I just hope it doesn’t take too long.

4. Tastes Change

This last point, though, is the real shocker. I cut my teeth on the brown, malty beers characteristic of the London area and South Wales – and Sussex, and rural Yorkshire, and the South-West, and the North-East, and East Anglia, and Scotland… – and for a long time I was a staunch partisan of those styles, despite them not being the thing around here (or in south Lancs and west Yorks generally).

After several years of more or less forced exposure to them, eight years ago I made the happy discovery that pale’n’oppy beers are actually quite nice. But I retained my appreciation of the good old brown-and-malty, if done properly – as in, Adnams’ Broadside or Fuller’s ESB rather than Sheps’ Spitfire – and would always make a beeline for beers from those few contemporary breweries that were still turning them out. They were often Welsh; Conwy was a favourite for a while, and I was over the moon when I realised that Evan Evans was a direct continuation of Buckley’s, whose bitter was the one of the first I ever loved.

Then, just a few weeks ago, I had a half of Evan Evans’ uncompromisingly-titled Cwrw in a Spoons’ in Urmston (of all places), and it was… fine. Well, barely that. I mean, the beer itself was absolutely fine – good example of the style, well kept and in good nick, I could tell that it was doing what it was supposed to do. It was just… a bit on the sweet side, if I’m honest; a bit too big and mouth-filling for my liking. Results from a subsequent tasting of Fuller’s ESB were similarly disappointing. It’s a good beer, it’s just… it’s not really my thing, any more.

But if I haven’t got a brewery to be a fan of, and I haven’t got a style to be a fan of – except breweries and styles that you basically can’t get – what does that leave?

5. Found in the Supermarket

A bottle of Landlord, the other week, absolutely knocked my socks off – it was every bit as good as it is on cask, when it’s been cellared properly and allowed to dry out a bit. A can (it’s what all the cool kids are drinking these days) of Rooster’s Yankee was terrific; I was genuinely surprised at how fruity and how bitter it was. The whole thing was so well done, it really seemed to make sense of the pale’n’oppy style (which can be as ho-hum as any other). A bottle of Proper Job delivered something similar but in heavier boots; that’s a big pale hoppy beer.

So there’s that; the classics are still classics, at least some of them. And, going back to the first couple of points, it’s worth noting that these are all quite long-established beers from independent breweries that are still trading (and still independent). Maybe that’s something I am a fan of: independent breweries (so that the brewer is close enough to the top of the organisation to guarantee quality) making styles they’ve been brewing for a few years (so that they’ve had time to get them right). Same thing I’ve been a fan of since the 1970s, really.

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Roll up! Roll up!

All the fun of the festival! Yes, it’s another beer festival – Chorlton this time.

I’ve been to Chorlton Beer Festival, held every year in the outbuildings and grounds of St Clement’s Church, most years since it started in 2005; I’ve still got fond memories of the BrewDog Zeitgeist black lager I had there once (and that’ll be at least ten years ago now). So the lineup of attractions this year wasn’t entirely unfamiliar. In rough order of appearance, there was:

The Hip One (On Cask!)
Always nice to see a cask beer from a fashionable brewery who you don’t always see cask beers from, if that’s grammar. Cloudwater Mr Green’s Bouffant is a strongish pale ale, and it was pretty nice. (It’s no Zeitgeist, but what is?)

The One With The Flavourings
I couldn’t say no to RedWillow‘s pink peppercorn saison (a Faithless), particularly when there was a gap in the bar between me and it. I realised afterwards I’d been at the keg bar – and I do hold to the general position that any given beer is almost always better on cask – but they didn’t have this one on cask, so never mind. Anyway, the carbonation and chill didn’t seem to do it any harm (and it was a warm night).

The Crush At The Bar
Or, as it turned out, not. I wimped out of volunteering this year, as indeed I have ever since my rather strenuous – and very dry – experience at the festival in 2015. But the bars seemed to be much better arranged this year; I don’t think I ever noticed a bar that was two deep along its full length, let alone three. Maybe next year. (If they’ll have me – if they’ll let me back in, come to that. But more on that later.)

The Other One With The Flavourings
I was a bit disappointed by Stockport‘s Raspberry Porter, having really liked the brewery (and indeed their porter) before now. You know how in Sam Smith’s raspberry beer you can actually taste raspberries, it’s not just a syrup flavour? Not like that, sadly. (But Stockporter’s still ace.)

The Seating Situation (featuring Staring At Strangers)
I believe there were enough chairs, and to spare. It’s just that it’s not always easy to get at the one empty chair halfway down a long table (backing onto another long table); and it’s not easy (in another sense) to sit yourself down, as a lone punter, in one of the two empty chairs in between two groups of six, which was generally what was left by mid-evening. (Were they even empty? Were they keeping them for their friends?) So I spent a fair amount of time leaning against the church or perched on various bits of wall that shelved outwards, sometimes directing hard stares at people who seemed to be particularly profligate in their use of seating. (The three people chatting, standing up, in the middle of a cluster of eight empty chairs – I saw you.)

The Murky One
Track Helios – a Stockport Beer Festival home-brew competition winner – was everything you’d expect from a New England IPA: it was fruity, it was creamy, it was zingy, it was… completely opaque, and frankly rather unattractive to look at. So I drank it without looking at it. But it is a great-tasting beer.

The Food Situation
Having eaten before I came out, I wasn’t in the market for a full meal, but after a few beers you always fancy something… But what? I’d scouted out a couple of food stalls where everything seemed to be large-ish and priced around the £8 mark, and was musing grumpily on how this was Not what I wanted At All, when I caught sight of the answer to my prayers: a stall selling pork pies. Lots of pork pies. All different. A couple of different vegetarian options even. I bought one – £3, for a proper handful – and was well pleased. Festivals everywhere please copy.

The Cold Fizzy One
So there was this keg bar, and some of them were only on keg, and it was a warm night, and… What can I say, Beatnikz Republic/Atom Blanc Atomium (white IPA) is a really nice beer.

The Advancing Inebriation (also featuring Staring At Strangers)
No thirds at Chorlton, and some of these beers were rather strong (although I regretfully decided to swerve the Cloudwater Human Meanings at 8.5%). Rather sooner than anticipated I found myself sitting with my back to the church, gazing vaguely ahead of me and thinking rather slowly. I remember noticing a very tall woman who looked a bit like Thom Yorke, and wondering if she found that difficult. On getting up to go for another drink, I realised I’d been looking at a fairly tall man who looked a bit like Thom Yorke.

The One You Don’t Remember Afterwards
A classic sign of actually getting drunk at a beer festival is that, even though you’ve made a list, when you look at it later you’ve got no idea what the last beer on the list was like. (Or sometimes the last two or even three beers.) Blackedge Porter falls into that category this time. I do remember the guy serving me recommending a different porter, which – unlike this one – was on cask; I didn’t go for it, though, possibly because it was the Stockport and definitely because he’d already started pouring this one. I’m pretty sure this one wasn’t bad, anyway – I’d have remembered that.

Then there was a feature you don’t get at most festivals:

The Argument With A Clergyman
Chorlton BF runs on tokens, sold in sheets of £10 a go; this is on top of an entry fee, which also gets you a programme and a (non-returnable) glass. Partly-used sheets of tokens can be refunded on the way out. Some years ago, the organisers caused a bit of a row – literally on the night(s) and figuratively afterwards – by implementing a policy of not refunding partial sheets and holding on to the difference, for the benefit of the church. This is not something CAMRA approves (and the festival is sponsored by CAMRA), so they’d promptly stopped doing it. However, subsequent festivals have featured signs at the refund desk, asking visitors to consider not getting a refund and donating the value of their unused tokens to the church. Now, I don’t have many issues with the Church of England in general – and I dare say St Clement’s in particular could make good use of my money – but I have got a bit of a thing about making conscious choices: when I donate money, it’s because I’m choosing to donate money. Rattle a tin and I’ll often choose to put money in it; sell me a programme and I’ll usually choose to buy it; just don’t borrow money from me and then say, hey, here’s a thing, how about we keep it? This kind of ‘nudge’ technique, extracting the cash by replacing a deliberate donation with an unthinking default, is something that annoys me intensely whenever I see it (and I’ve seen it in lots of places beside St Clement’s, of course).

I’d seen the sign as I came through the churchyard on the way in, I knew where I stood, and by the time I was leaving I’d had plenty of time to think about it all. Asking at the tokens stall, I was redirected to the refunds stall, which was staffed – probably not coincidentally – by a man in a clerical collar. When he asked if I’d consider donating the money that was left on my card, I declined, giving him a polite but firm prepared statement: No issues with the church… like what you’re doing here… when I donate… choose to donate… so yes, thanks all the same, but I would like my money back. He wasn’t best pleased, and reacted as if I was the first person to be so awkward all evening (and, to be fair, I probably was the first person to make a speech about it). But he turned to his cashbox, and I prepared to take my £4.40 and leave with a good grace, feeling slightly ungenerous but satisfied that I’d made my point.

Then he took £4 out of the cashbox and explained that he was only giving me back the whole pounds. I did not have a line prepared for this – and I was, as I may have mentioned, quite drunk at this point. I don’t think I swore, but I certainly expressed some surprise and disappointment. His response, rather to my surprise, was not to try and mollify the ranting drunkard who’d just appeared in front of him, but to explain that this was in fact the festival’s policy, and even to indicate the small print on the sheet of tokens which had (apparently) notified me of this. (The chance of my reading any of the said small print was non-existent – I’d already handed the sheet over by this time, and in any case it was 10.00 at night.) Outmanoeuvred and out-documented, I turned to go – but then remembered CAMRA’s previously-expressed policy on the non-refund thing, and turned back to advise my new friend that he was in breach of this policy. He got quite flustered (I suspect I was getting rather loud by now, which I do regret) and offered me 50p, “if it matters so much to you”. But the money, of course, didn’t matter to me – and I certainly wasn’t going to take any money off him that wasn’t mine – so I left it and walked away, highly disgruntled.

It’s a shame; it was a bad note to end the evening on. (To clarify, I wasn’t involved in the planning, so I don’t know if the ‘whole pounds’ thing is covered by the festival’s arrangement with CAMRA or not. It doesn’t strike me as particularly good practice, though.)

Conclusion: The Negatives
As I’ve said, there were no delays getting served and no trouble finding affordable food. There was live music, but it was kept to a level where it was no nuisance to anyone who wasn’t in the mood; there were no queues for the loo, either, although as a man I was well provided-for. (None of the portaloos dotted about seemed to be designated for women only, while men had the added benefit of a block of urinals. This may be one for the organisers to keep an eye on.) More importantly, none of the beers I liked the look of had run out (and I was there on the second night); none of the beers I had was in poor condition; and I did not regret having any of them. Overall, it was not a bad little festival, and I would not rule out going again this time next year – as long as I’m not barred.

Mild by Northwest 4

Final scores

About 2/3 of the pubs I went to had a mild on (although in a couple of cases this took multiple visits). 32 out of 48 is lower than in previous years, but there does seem to have been a bit of a timing clash, and perhaps some miscommunication, on the Spoons front. Also, I have been a bit more selective in some areas – I visited fewer Hyde’s pubs than usual and only two Holt’s.

Dark mild: some good stuff from Brightside, Dunham, Moorhouse, Poynton, Salopian, Stockport, Tweed and a couple of less familiar breweries, as well as old friends from Hyde’s and Holt’s; Moorhouse and Tweed were probably the best of the bunch. Not so many actually labelled as ‘mild’, though.

Light mild: just the one, from Hyde’s – and the pump clip calls it a ‘session ale’. (Which, for once, is probably an improvement on calling it a bitter.) If mild’s endangered, light mild should be on a watchlist.

State Of Pub-Going: generally seemed fine, to be honest; there were a few tumbleweed venues, but much fewer than on my last round of MM outings, particularly at weekends. Perhaps it was just something about 2018.

Pubs where I was sorry not to be stopping for more than a half: Briton’s, Four Kings, Jake’s

Pubs where a half was plenty: Cocked Hat, Oxnoble

Old favourites: Petersgate Tap, Stockport Arch 14

New favourite: Reasons to be Cheerful, Tweed Equinox

Rediscovered old favourites: Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar, Moorhouse’s Black Cat

The pay-off

All this boozing earned me – what else – beer tokens, for use at the Stockport Beer and Cider Festival; enough for six halves, in fact. Since they weren’t restricted to the purchase of mild, I decided to spend them each on a different style of beer – subject to a strength limit of 5%, which ruled out going for a swift half of a 12% barrel-aged imperial stout. In the end I had:

Boudicca Spiral (stout)
Five Points Railway Porter (really good)
Stockport/Bar Nouveau Mild Mannered Victorian (mild; it was good, but how did they miss the obvious name?)
Twisted WTF (bitter; supposedly a biscuity old-school bitter with masses of hops, but I wasn’t sure about the hops)
Thirst Class You can call me Hal (pale)
Moorhouse M/44 (saison; really nice)

After that, I spent my own money on some >5% beers (in thirds):

Marble Different Dobber (nice, but I’d need to taste them side by side to verify the ‘different’ part)
Lacon’s Audit Ale (recommended by Dave Pennington, to whom many thanks; a terrific old-school barley wine)
Serious Gold Rush (a golden ale with Belgian yeast)
Cloudwater Henry’s Last Call (a cask pale from Cloudwater, got to be worth a bash – and it was)

The Lacon’s was my beer of the festival, although – slightly to my surprise – that Moorhouse saison wasn’t far behind. Great festival, great beers.

Many thanks to everyone who gave up their time to organise both the Mild Magic trail and the Festival; your work is really appreciated, at least by this punter.

Mild by Northwest 3 – Way Out East

Mild Magic 2019: the Eastern leg

The ups…

I’d been to Marple before, albeit only in search of beer and quite briefly at that; train in, head for the Samuel Oldknow, bus out. I saw a bit more of it this time, for two reasons. One was that Marple as a destination had been joined on the Mild Magic map by Marple Bridge, itself divided into ‘North’ and ‘South’ areas. The other was that I got the wrong train. The map on my phone suggested to me that Rose Hill Marple was only a little way out of town; I was impatient to get going, so I caught that train rather than hang around for the Marple (proper) service a quarter of an hour later.

This turned out to be a bad idea. I’m not one of life’s ramblers, but if there’s a hill to be climbed I’ll climb it without complaint. A long and gentle uphill slope, though – particularly one that continues uninterrupted for the best part of a mile – is not my idea of fun. This, though, is what lies between Rose Hill and the centre of Marple. At least it gave me plenty of opportunities to look at Marple. I concluded that Marple – like so many other places – is coming up in the world, not least because – like so many other places – it now supports at least three different craft beer outlets (including one that also specialises in craft gin). The longest-established is the Samuel Oldknow, an unassuming shop-front bar with hidden depths; I had Stockport Arch 14 mild, which was rather good (although admittedly I was thirsty by this stage).

Next, I headed for Marple Bridge, which to my surprise turned out to be at the bottom of a very steep hill, with Marple Station halfway down. (I guess bridges go over rivers, and they tend to be in valleys… Perhaps I’ve been a townie too long.) The mild on offer at the Norfolk Arms – a big old-style pub at the foot of the hill was 4 Ts Old School; the main thing I remember about it is that, after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing with stickers, I took it and sat down without paying. I reckon I could have got away with it, too, if I’d thrown it back and legged it, but honesty got the better of me.

Further out of Marple Bridge – strung out on the northbound road out of town, in fact – were the Spring Gardens and Northumberland Arms, two more big ‘roadhouse’-type pubs. The Spring Gardens didn’t have a mild on, but I hadn’t seen Abbeydale Deception in yonks, so it was nice to reacquaint myself. The Northumberland Arms had Dunham Dark, a very decent mild & one of those local milds I’d expected to see more of in the free trade. From there I got the bus to Romiley, where the proprietor of Jake’s Ale House (Jake?) proudly exhibited his all-but-empty sticker sheet – “75 new customers!”. Quite how often I’ll be making the trip to Romiley between now and the next CAMRA crawl, I don’t know, but in principle that is very much the idea. (It’s a nice little bar, and the Poynton Dark Side was really good.)

According to my notes it was 40 minutes from Jake’s to my next stop, the Railway in Portwood (covered in the first of these posts); as I remember most of that was spent on a minuscule bus bobbling around through the estates of Romiley and Harrytown. (Yes, Harrytown. Whether there’s any reliable way to distinguish people who come from Harrytown in terms of their accoutrements, I don’t know.) From there it was on to the Petersgate Tap and home (NB two distinct places).

…and downs

Glossop – which is also very easy to reach by train from Manchester, public transport fans – is another place that’s coming up in the world, at least if its craft beer bar quota is anything to go by. After a mildly disappointing start at the local Spoons, I’m afraid I incommoded the proprietor of Bar 2 slightly by walking into the bar at 12.15, at which point he was (as he explained) not only still setting up but still waking up after a very late night and a short night’s sleep. (Sometimes I think how nice it would be to run a little bar, and then I think again.) But there was mild (Stockport Arch 14) and it was in good nick. Bar 2, incidentally, was Tweed 2 until a disagreement with the Tweed brewery over rates and availability; there were no Tweed beers at all on the bar when I went. Finally – for Glossop – Four Kings Cask and Kitchen didn’t have any mild on, but I could forgive them that for the quality of the Four Kings Porter. The food menu looked extraordinary, too, but nothing quite leapt out at me, so I moved on.

You know how places like Marple and Glossop are coming up in the world, proliferation of craft beer bars etc? (It’s not just the old country towns, either – look at Urmston. Even Stretford is loaded with ‘craft’ joints these days – Stretford!) OK, so: Hyde. The centre of Hyde is busy, you’ve got to give it that, and I didn’t notice many vacant sites – but you’d be looking at it for a long time before the phrase “up in the world” occurred to you. (Having a honking great motorway running – at best – right alongside the town can’t help matters.)

Where beer’s concerned Hyde sometimes means the Queens; not this time, though, I reckoned I’d had my quota of Joey’s pubs. But it always means the Tweed Tap, the Sportsman and the Cheshire Ring. The Tweed Tap somehow looks like a craft beer bar which has no intention of bringing the surrounding area up in the world; I’m not saying it’s rough, just a bit… spartan, inside as well as out. Tweed Equinox is badged up as an “English brown ale”; I suppose you could find some echoes of Newcastle’s finest in there if you thought about it, but it was basically a pleasantly complex light-ish dark mild. As for the Sportsman, there is, in all honesty, very little to say that I haven’t said before. Here’s what I said when I visited four years ago, with a bonus callback to two years before that:

The last time I was in there – for 2013’s MM – the place was deserted. Not only was there only one other drinker in there, there was nobody behind the bar … in fact there was nobody in the place at all, apart from some people in the back kitchen preparing food and chatting in Spanish. (I got someone to serve me eventually, but it was a struggle.) It’s an oddity, the Sportsman, as it doubles as the Rossendale brewery tap and a Latin American restaurant.

It’s still a Rossendale brewery tap and a Latin American restaurant – with little or no signage outside indicating either of these things – and it’s still a bit challenging to get served; if you’ve ordered food, in particular, it’s handy to memorise phrases like “relaxed, unhurried service” and repeat them to yourself occasionally. (It’s good food, to be fair.) A vast array of Rossendale beers were on the bar – seriously, there must have been seven or eight of them – but none of them was a mild as far as I could tell.

As for the Cheshire Ring, I always vaguely think of it as a bikers’ pub; I’m sure it isn’t, but it’s got that combination of cheap – but good – beer and macho bonhomie that I remember from my few forays into bikers’ pubs, Back in the Day. (People didn’t even say ‘back in the day’ in those days, I’m talking properly way back…) Further investigation establishes that there is in fact a biker’s pub in Hyde, the uncompromisingly named Bike’n’Hound; perhaps I’ll investigate another time. Or perhaps not; either way, something tells me that my mental image of the b.’s p. (involving draught cider, pork scratchings and singles by Hawkwind on the jukebox) may not be entirely up to date.

Back at the Cheshire Ring, there was nothing dark on the bar except Beartown Crème Bearlee (which is a stout); not being the world’s biggest Beartown fan, I swerved this in favour of something light (Shardlow Narrow Boat, my notes say, but I couldn’t tell you more than that). When I asked for a sticker the barman gestured at the Beartown stout – You should have had that one! I demurred politely, pointing out that it wasn’t a mild. You’re all right, he replied. Trouble is, when we do have Quantock on, it goes in a flash! As an argument against stocking Beartown’s dark mild, I thought this lacked something.

Exactly what happened after the Cheshire Ring I’m not able to tell you (although my notes tell me that I was back in Stockport an hour later). Similar issues relating to alcohol and memory make me unable to say very much about another trip, which finished at the Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar; there are pubs where I find it all but physically impossible to stop for just the one, and the Buffet Bar is definitely one of them.

Earlier that day, though, I definitely made a stop at Silly Country in Droylsden. There’s a distinct set of bars where I never do stop for more than one but invariably think I’d like to – Jake’s is one, and the Four Kings bar is heading that way; and Silly Country is on that list. On this occasion, though, one beer was plenty: they had an act on. There had been an act on at Platform 5 – or “the Holt’s pub with the flirty barman” as it is to me now – but that place is so big, they could set up a bowling alley if they moved a few tables; even with amplification, a full band off in the middle distance was no impediment to a quiet half. Not so Silly Country, which looks big-ish when it’s empty but looks – and sounds – decidedly bijou when it’s occupied by a dozen punters and a young man with an electric guitar. I say ‘young man’ – he can’t have been older than twelve. He was doing a decent job, accompanying himself through a series of hits – now the Beatles, now George Ezra – and he seemed to be collecting for a good cause. I didn’t feel like lingering, though. There no mild on offer, that day at least – I had a half of Stubborn Mule The Mandarin Candidate, an experimental-sounding IPA (Mandarina Bavaria hops plus actual mandarins). It worked, just about; awful name, though.

Next: final thoughts

Mild by Northwest 2 – Times Change

More on Mild Magic 2019

Times change
Ways change
Times change, people change
– Julian Cope

Didsbury and beyond
I haven’t been in many Hyde’s or Holt’s pubs for this year’s Mild Magic. But Hyde’s, in particular, is hard to avoid if you’re doing the Withington corridor, and one or other of 1863 and Old Indie was on offer at the Friendship, the Victoria, the Horse and Farrier (Gatley) and the Crown (Cheadle). The Vic was a bit dead when I called in, but the other three were all pleasantly busy – not something that’s always been true of the Friendship, in particular. (There have been fewer empty pubs across the board as compared to last year; it may not mean anything, but it does seem like a good sign.) I think 1863 is the only light mild I had this time round, if indeed it still is a light mild.

East Didsbury was more varied, in all senses of the word. I’ve never yet had a mild in Wine and Wallop (despite the name) and this year was no exception – although I gather that they did have a mild on for at least some of the Mild Magic period. My first visit to the Head of Steam also drew a blank, but when I returned a couple of weeks later they had Timothy Taylor’s Dark Mild on. The last time I’d seen that beer it was on the bar at the George in Stockport, side by side with Golden Best and both going for £2 a pint – happy days. It wasn’t £2 a pint at the HoS – in fact it was very nearly £2 a half – and I guess trade hadn’t been brisk, as it was rather tired. Still, better that than the reliably awful Coach House Gunpowder Mild which was on at the Olde Cock. Up the road in Burnage, Reasons to be Cheerful had Salopian Divine Comedy, an excellent contemporary take on the dark mild style, along with much else; it’s one of those bars that I try to fit in last when I’m doing a crawl, because I know I won’t want to stick to the one half. I have to confess, the places in this category used to be old-style real ale ‘exhibition’ pubs – the Crown in Stockport, the Railway in Portwood, the New Oxford – but these days they’re more likely to be places with interesting keg as well as cask ranges: Reasons, Petersgate Tap, Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar. Times change, people change.

Urmston
I like Urmston, but next to Chorlton – next to Stockport, for that matter – it’s… odd. It has the unevenly-developed, up-and-coming quality of bits of the Northern Quarter (ever-shrinking bits), or of Beech Road in Chorlton about five years ago, but with the difference that in both those two cases a bohemian/foodie/’craft’ scene took root in the midst of urban decline. Urmston’s not quite like that, in that the ‘old’ – pre-hipster – Urmston is still right there and doing absolutely fine. Put it this way, there can’t be many other places in Manchester where you can walk out of a craft beer bar and come face to face with a poster advertising a 70s dinner-dance hosted by TV’s Stan Boardman.

I was there for the beer, starting with Holt’s dark mild at the Lord Nelson; I even went for a pint, on the basis that

  1. it had been off at Platform 5 in Cheadle Hulme, so I hadn’t had Holt’s mild yet
  2. it’s only 3.2%, and
  3. it seemed like the kind of pub where one orders pints

Nice pub, like a lot of Holt’s suburban pubs (the Griffin, the Park Inn) in being a massive, multi-roomed beer palace; hard to fill, but it was early in the evening when I was there and I got the sense it would get busier later. Perhaps it was just having a pint of mild in my hand, but it felt very much like proper old-school pubbing.

My other scheduled stop was the Tim Bobbin (JDW) for Lymestone Stonefish dark mild – and not Stella, as my order was initially misheard. (This seems to happen to me a lot in Urmston. I guess my accent still sounds a bit ‘southern’ – I’ve only been here since 1987, after all.) I also had a half of Evan Evans Cwrw; Evan Evans is the successor brewery to Buckley’s, whose bitter provided me with an unforgettable teenage beer epiphany. This time round… well, times change.

But I finished off at the Schooner, which wasn’t doing Mild Magic but would have been a sure-fire last-bar-on-the-route if it had been. The porter I started with was excellent; the arancini that were being prepared – one night only – on a stall outside made a great meal (and I’d been wanting to try arancini); and the second beer I had was the best of the night: it was dark, it was 7%, and it was an India Dark Ale. That’s right, it’s like an IPA only dark and stouty… It took me right back to when that piney/roasty combination was new – and “Cascadian Dark Ale” was being bandied about as an alternative title – and reminded me of what’s good about black IPAs, when they’re done well. It’s only a shame I can’t remember the brewer.

The Schooner also does off sales, and they had some beers reduced that night – including some that were up against the sell-by date and were reduced to £1. A recent Belgian beer tasting had introduced me to De Dochter van de Korenaar, so I was pleased to be able to pick up a bottle of their Beau Monde saison (brewed with bitter oranges and dry hopped). This is a daft recipe on paper, and it was an unprepossessing beer when I got round to opening it – it gushed enthusiastically and took about five minutes to transfer into a glass; how long it would have taken to settle I don’t know, as I wanted to drink it that evening. Still, sludge-brown and murky though it was, it was a terrific beer; the dry hopping and the oranges worked to blunt the rough edges of the saison style, and it all added up to a properly grown-up fruit beer.

Urmston took me back: back to the glory days of the late noughties when black IPAs were new, back to drinking malty Welsh bitter in my teens, back to the kind of pub that my Dad would have known his way around… (Not to mention taking me back to when I was new in Manchester and I was still getting accent-checked.) But the Schooner, at least, has one foot firmly in 2019. No mild, but nobody’s perfect.

Next: way out East.

Mild by Northwest

More observations on Mild Magic 2019.

Manchester
Pubs in and near the city centre did pretty well by Mild Magic this year. I had Brightside Ch-Ch-Cherry Mild at the City and an excellent Moorhouse’s Black Cat at the New Oxford (have Moorhouse’s changed the recipe? I’m sure it never used to be that good). The Briton’s Protection even had a house mild on (brewed by Beartown). I would have liked to stay longer at all of those, the Briton’s most of all – partly because they had an excellent beer range, partly because I’m not a huge Beartown fan and wouldn’t have minded moving on to something else, but mainly because I was the only person in, that Wednesday evening. Most of the pubs I went into on a weeknight were pretty quiet, but that was a low point. Of the town-centre Spoons’ – which weren’t quiet – the Moon Under Water and Paramount both had a mild or something similar (Pheasantry Mikado and Orkney Dark Isle respectively); the Waterhouse didn’t, although the porter I had instead was very good. The Oxnoble was (I think) new to Mild Magic this year, and (definitely) wasn’t really trying – only one hand pump on when I visited, and that one had Robinson’s Trooper on.

Stockport
I mentioned the Hope and the Remedy Bar in the previous post. The Petersgate Tap also had a ‘coffee mild’ on – North Riding Coffee Bean Mild – while the Railway had Howard Town Milltown. Less encouragingly, on my visit there was no mild at the Angel or at the Cocked Hat. I’d been encouraged to revisit the Cocked Hat by reading that it had reopened under new management, but I won’t be hurrying back. The main beers on the bar were a pale bitter called 28 Days Later and a darker bitter called One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, both from a brewery called RT about which I can find out precisely nothing (except that I don’t think they’re anything to do with RT Ales of Cardiff). I had the second of these, and it was really poor – somehow bland and unbalanced at the same time. As I was forming this opinion the song playing on the PA finished and another started – a cover version of the Steely Dan classic Do It Again, which had apparently been augmented by the bass and drums from Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. Recoiling from this travesty, I necked my beer as quickly as I could manage and moved on. Up the road, Heaton Hops wasn’t serving a mild (although the Siren Undercurrent was excellent). Normal mild service was restored – not before time – at Fred’s in Levenshulme, where I had my second half of Brightside Ch-Ch-Cherry Mild, to the accompaniment of the bar staff talking among themselves about how horrible it was.

– Have you tried that one? It’s… ugh…
“I’d be all right, I like anything with cherries in.”
– Well, I’m the same, that’s what I thought, until I actually tried it…

(Memo to Brightside: I don’t care what they say, I like it.)

Spoons’
Mild in Spoons’ pubs was patchy this year, possibly because the chain’s latest ‘beer festival’ had only just finished when Mild Magic started; the Sedge Lynn in Chorlton was still starting ‘festival’ beers two weeks later. Yes, there were milds at the Moon Under Water and Paramount – not to mention Tim Bobbin in Urmston (Lymestone Stonefish), the Great Central in Fallowfield and the Society Rooms in Stalybridge (both Leeds Midnight Bell) – but there were no milds at the Waterhouse, the Bishop Blaize, the Ash Tree, Ford Madox Brown or the Gateway. Part of this will just be down to when beers start and finish; I was told at the Gateway that they’d have a mild on the next day. On the other hand, the Smithy Fold in Glossop did have Beartown Brown Bear on, but it was off (and was exchanged without a fuss). The Sedge Lynn didn’t have a mild in the first week of Mild Magic, or the second, or the third; that said, when I went in the week after that they’d put two milds on to make up for lost time. (But no, I didn’t note either of them down.)

Next: Urmston, Didsbury and beyond…

Mild Magic – slow starters

I thought I’d get going reasonably quickly on this year’s Mild Magic – Stockport & South Manchester CAMRA’s annual celebration of this beleaguered beer style. MM 2019 started a week ago today. I can’t match those people who have set about filling their cards inside the first week (in at least one case, inside the first day), but I’ve made an effort to check out participating pubs in the last week, and thought I’d have a reasonable amount of progress to report by now.

The reality? Two stickers.

The first pub I tried – a week ago today – was the Gateway in Parrs Wood. To be honest I wasn’t expecting much success here; day one of MM was also two days after the end of Spoons’ latest “beer festival”, and I expected there would still be a fair few ‘festival’ beers on. As indeed there were. Under the terms of Mild Magic, I could have asked for a sticker anyway, but I felt I’d rather not start my first sheet with a non-compliant beer, so we moved on – or rather, went to our planned lunch venue.

This was the Head of Steam in Didsbury – or at least, it was going to be, until we checked out the chain’s new menu and decided we’d rather go for our fallback option. I stuck my nose in anyway and established that they didn’t have any mild on either. (The bar’s Web site is currently listing Timothy Taylor‘s Dark Mild – a rare beast around here and well worth the detour.)

On a previous visit to the Head of Steam I’d been confidently assured that Cameron’s Strongarm was a ‘ruby mild’. On a previous visit to Wine and Wallop – where we had a rather nice lunch – I’d been treated to a mini-lecture about how mild just wasn’t a very popular style these days, certainly not round here, so even if they did try stocking it it would only end up going off… There’s a grain of truth in there, certainly, but the fact that we were in the middle of that year’s Mild Magic at the time – and that the bar was participating – seemed a bit ironic. Anyway, there was no mild on this time either; that said, several pumps were off, so maybe a mild or two have come on since then. The beers we did have – from Silver Street and Siren – were excellent, but mild they weren’t.

Back in Chorlton I checked the Sedge Lynn, and found that the ‘festival’ was pretty much in full swing. I checked again during the week, and once more last night – when I found that one of the festival beers was being replenished and another couple had only just come on. This, eight days after the ‘festival’ formally ended; it looks rather as if they over-ordered. (The place has been rammed every time I’ve gone in, mind you, as indeed was the Gateway last Sunday.) No mild, anyway. I tried the Greene King ‘Ernest’ heritage beer they had on draught; it was just as dull, woody, brown-bread-y and generally malty-in-a-bad-way as I remember the Suffolk Pale being. I’m strongly in favour of reviving ‘heritage’ beers, but GK are starting to push it.

A trip to Stockport via Levenshulme was more productive, although we got off to an unexpectedly bad start by looking for food on the hip and happening Levenshulme Market. Not that there weren’t food options – there were; there was a variety of ‘perfectly nice’ options and quite a few ‘rather special, at a premium’ as well. Our problem – one I’ve had before, in town – was that as far as we could see the ‘perfectly nice’ options were already at a premium. Levy (as the cool kids were calling it in the 80s) clearly isn’t what it was. Fred’s Ale House was handy – and had the very respectable Phoenix Monkeytown Mild on – but, as I suspected, they weren’t serving food.

We eventually found exactly what we were looking for, foodwise, at the Produce Hall in Stockport, which has adopted the novel approach of selling Mackie Mayor food at Stockport prices. Unfortunately this was every bit as popular as you’d expect it to be, and there wasn’t a seat to be had in the place. We repaired to one of the cafes in the – rather more sparsely populated – Market Hall.

After lunch I looked in at the Baker’s Vaults; I don’t think I’ve had a mild in there since 1892 went out of production, and that day was no exception.

So far my scorecard read like this:

Pubs visited: 6
Milds seen: 1
Milds drunk: 0 (sorry, Fred’s; I’ll be back)

Fortunately my luck was about to change. Remedy had a beer, and in fact a brewery, that was new to me – Northern Monkey Reeny’s Beans, a “coffee mild” that I’d class as interesting more than impressive. (But at least it was a mild!) My next mild stop was the Hope, where the startlingly wide range of Foolhardy ales included Dark Raven, a very solid traditional dark mild.

Seven days, eight pubs, two stickers. A bit disappointing so far, but maybe I’ll have more luck with some of the more traditional pubs on the circuit. (And the Spoons’ ‘festival’ beers can’t last forever!)

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.

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).