Category Archives: Crawler

Stocport and elsewhere

This is another Winter Warmer Wander roundup, covering pubs I’ve visited (a) in Stockport (six of them) and (b) elsewhere (another five). (NB I know about the misspelling.)

There’s a lot of pub-crawl potential in this year’s WWW, but only in Manchester and Stockport; elsewhere the pickings are a bit slim. In Chorlton, which you would have thought fairly target-rich, only one pub is listed: the Sedge Lynn (JDW). Here I had a choice between Phoenix Wobbly Bob – a perennial presence at the Sedge Lynn – and Hawkshead Brodie’s Prime. I wasn’t entirely sure if the latter would qualify – or what style it actually is – but a quick google while I was waiting to be served satisfied me that Ratebeer, at least, call it a porter, so that’s what I ordered. I’d reckoned without the manager, who intervened – midway through the predictable hunt for the sticker sheet – to tell her staff (and me) that Brodie’s Prime didn’t count for the WWW. Not feeling entirely sure on the style point, I said something about strength, to which she replied “Yes, it’s got to be 5% or over”. We got it sorted out in the end – at least, I let her know that the cutoff was 4.5% and I duly got a sticker – but things were surprisingly combative for a while there. I guess the Sedge Lynn doesn’t feel any need to drum up custom.

There were three pubs on the Fallowfield/Didsbury route, but you wouldn’t want to walk between them. Down at Parrs Wood, the Gateway was serving Stockport Ebeernezer, which looked like the most interesting option of two or three beers that qualified on strength only; I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t a vaguely Christmassy dark ale but a porter. Up the (tram) line at Wine and Wallop, there were a couple of good options and one excellent one: RedWillow Thoughtless, a 9.4% imperial stout, which (predictably) was very nice indeed. More cask stout at the Friendship in Fallowfield, and a bit of local brewery news (news to me at least): as well as the Beer Studio range, a couple of the Hyde’s pumps were dispensing beers under the “Provenance” label. I may be doing Hyde’s a disservice, but if this means anything it seems to mean “in the style of beers from region X”, which is more or less the opposite of what the word ‘provenance’ generally means. Anyway, my Hyde’s Dublin stout was a nice enough beer – a light-bodied, dryish, easy-drinking stout.

Then there was Urmston. Earlier in the WWW, the Prairie Schooner had had a Winter Warmer from Ticketybrew on, but sadly this had gone by the time I got there. Tatton Yeti only really qualified on strength, but it was a very nice beer. I didn’t go anywhere else in Urmston – the Hop House already had the shutters down – and it was a bit of an excursion for the sake of a half. I liked the look of the Prairie Schooner a great deal, though; at first blush it looks like a small bar/bottle shop of the Heaton Hops ilk, but there’s a more comfortable seating area behind the bar, going back quite a long way. Like the Sip Club in Stretford, it’s one of those places I shall be sure to visit the next time I’m visiting that part of Manchester; unfortunately, like Stretford, Urmston is a part of Manchester I hardly ever do visit. Speaking of Stretford, I got accent-checked by the driver of the bus I got home – Sorry, where? “Chorlton”. Oh, right, Chorlton! (Twenty minutes from here, mate. Also, printed on your timetable.) Admittedly I am a Southerner by origin, but that hasn’t happened to me in thirty years. But then, I don’t go west of the A56 that often.

As for Stockport, I saved it this year till I only had six slots left to fill & could do it in a day. (If six sounds unambitious, read on – & note the a.b.v.s.) Coincidentally my local CAMRA branch had a Stockport crawl planned; I was hoping to join it, but on the day we had something else booked. So it was as a solo drinker that I hit town and went straight to the Swan with Two Necks for a half of – inevitably – Robinson’s Old Tom. It was on hand pump, it was in good nick, it was big, malty and 8.5%, and by the time the bartender had got round to signing my sheet it was almost all gone. Shame – that snug looked very comfortable. From there I headed to the (Portwood) Railway, where I’d ordered a half of Rossendale Pitch Porter – an old friend – before noticing that the Phoenix pump was dispensing a 7% beer called Humbug. (The Rossendale beers have had a redesign, incidentally, and look rather good. They’re also insanely cheap if my half was anything to go by (£1.25!) – although this may just be the Railway, and/or my Chorlton expectations colliding with Stockport.) Anyway, I can report that Phoenix Humbug is terrific – a pale barley wine, sweet all the way down but without ever becoming cloying. My second ‘old ale’ of the Wander, and one to put alongside Old Tom.

Back to town then, where the Baker’s Vaults presented me with a similar multiple-qualifer challenge: Old Tom or Titanic Plum Porter Special Reserve? Well, Old Tom obviously, but I was curious enough about the PPSR to ask for a taster. (It was fine.) Then a couple of new venues, at least to me. The Remedy Bar and Brewhouse is every bit as ‘craft’ as that sounds – bare brick, railway-sleeper benches, big steel vessels, that style of thing. On the bar I couldn’t see any of their own stuff, but they did have a (I’m sighing as I type this) Bad Seed/Trembling Madness collab called Descent into Madness. It was a 7% imperial stout and it was fine. On to the Petersgate Tap; also a very un-pub-like venue, but considerably less rock’n’roll and more cafe-bar, as compared to Remedy, and a lot more to my taste. There was a choice here: Elland 1872 or Liverpool Organic Kitty Wilkinson stout. I’m a confirmed fan of the Elland, but it is 6.5%, and by this stage I fancied easing off a bit. So Kitty it was (4.5% chocolate & vanilla stout, well kept, very drinkable).

On past WWW Stockport trips I’ve finished up at the Crown, but on my last couple of visits I’ve found it hard – despite the huge range of beer they offer – to find one that really called to me. This time I headed to the Magnet. Cryptic Round One stout was 4.9% and fine (I know, but you try remembering what the beer actually tasted like at the back end of a session like this). I finished off with a half of evil keg. RedWillow, like Marble, seem to have got a bit of a new lease of life recently; the Perceptionless “New England IPA” was terrific (and not particularly hazy, for what that’s worth).

Counting one beer per venue (in other words, not counting the Pitch Porter) and adding in the details from the previous post, that stacks up as follows:

Central Manchester and Salford
Stout: 5
Porter: 5
Old ale: 0
Other >4.5%: 2
No qualifying beers: 1

Stockport
Stout: 3
Porter: 0
Old ale: 3

Everywhere else
Stout: 2
Porter: 2
Old ale: 0
Other >4.5%: 1

Total
Stout: 10
Porter: 7
Old ale: 3
Other >4.5%: 3 (Prairie Schooner, Micro Bar, Cafe Beermoth)
No qualifying beers: 1 (Terrace)

Compared to previous years, cask porter has held very steady, and cask stout has grown and grown – if there’s one tangible success the WWW can point to, it’s that. Old ales, barley wines and winter warmers, though – where are they? Setting aside Robinson’s and Phoenix – both of whom, interestingly, brew a strong ale all year round – the breweries just didn’t seem to be trying this year. On the bright side, the number of pubs not actually putting the right kind of beers on – either not understanding the point of the Wander or just not bothering – has fallen dramatically; as recently as 2014 there were almost as many strength-only beers on my list as the rest put together. Overall, this year’s Wander has to be counted as a success; congratulations and thanks to the organisers.

Maximum darkness

Time for this year’s Stockport & South Manchester CAMRA Winter Warmer Wander.  The point of the Wander is to get round as many as possible of the nominated pubs and bars (40 this year), and – most importantly – to have a “cask conditioned stout, porter, old ale or barley wine (or if none available, any other premium beer 4.5% or over”) in each one.

In this, the first of two posts, I’ll focus on my experiences in the town centre pubs included – quite a lot of them this year.

I was in both the Micro Bar and Cafe Beermoth the day after the WWW began this year; this wasn’t me being quick off the mark, though, as I’d forgotten all about it and consequently didn’t tick them off. I went back to both the following week to do it properly. Nothing looked like qualifying at the Micro Bar – no Boggart Rum Porter in sight this year; they had Titanic Cherry Dark on, but this is variously described as a ‘fruit beer’ and a ‘black bitter'(!), and is in any case only 4.2%. I had Kelham Island Riders on the Storm, a perfectly pleasant hoppy brown bitter which (just) qualified on strength at 4.5%. Pickings were on the slim side at Cafe Beermoth, too; several of their keg lines had high-to-silly a.b.v.s, but only two of the cask beers qualified. I asked after the 6%er, but this turned out to be an IPA; so, Okell’s St Nick it was. This is a “full-bodied, dark-coloured beer with an aroma of fruit and malt” to quote the brewer; it’s 4.5%, and it was fine.

Incidentally, Cafe Beermoth have an infuriating system of listing all their beers in a standard format in a row of plain signs above the taps on the back wall – a standard format which includes a.b.v., brewery and town of origin, but not style. Given that they tend to stock beers that are off the beaten track this inevitably results (for me at least) in an extended conversation with the bar staff, something like this:

What can I get you?
– Er… what kind of a beer is Drummond’s Deplorability?
That’s an IPA.
– Oh, OK. What’s the, er, Flintlock Don’t Come The Raw Prune?
That’s a plum porter. Would you like a taster?
damn, plum, I could have guessed that… No, I’m fine. What’s the JSD Chasmatic?
[sigh] …And that’s a stout. Is it a dark beer you’re after?

It’s a lose-lose situation – the person behind the bar obviously thinks I’m a timewaster, and I end up giving in and getting a pint of the second or third thing they mention, whatever it is, just so as not to prolong the embarrassment. Memo to Cafe B: styles, please! (They surely can’t make a living selling exclusively to people who already know every beer they sell… can they?)

Elsewhere in town it was dark beers all the way. Well, almost; the Terrace had Titanic Plum Porter on keg, but nothing at all that qualified on cask. Howard Town Super Fortress, a 4.4% ‘ruby ale’, was both the darkest and the strongest thing going. Another couple of places that didn’t make much impression on me either way were the Town Hall Tavern (the aforementioned Titanic Plum Porter – fine, albeit dearer than I’ve had it elsewhere) and Pie and Ale (Sonnet 43 Create Those Moments, a “spiced pear and brandy porter” which worked far better than I expected it to). The Castle has in the past been somewhere to linger, but Christmas party season seems to have started particularly early this year; it was standing room only when I called, so I drank my Saltaire Triple Chocoholic and got out. (No sign of Old Tom at the Castle, incidentally; I haven’t seen it there since this time in 2012. Shame.)

Two of the city centre’s four Wetherspoons’ – the Paramount and the Waterhouse – are on the WWW trail. Digressing slightly, I was pleasantly surprised to see that both of them had Ticketybrew bottles in the fridge; rather excitingly, the Waterhouse also had a keg font for the 6% Ticketybrew IPA. This was a fine beer when I had it in an unlabelled bottle a few months back, but I’ve never seen it since; sadly it was off at the Waterhouse, so the wait will have to continue. Great to see Duncan & Keri getting a bit more exposure. As far as the WWW goes, it was Brightside Season Four stout at the Waterhouse and Stockport Stockporter at the Paramount – both rather good and well-kept. (The Paramount actually had four different qualifying beers on, including the Elland 1872 porter which was their house beer for a while (as ‘Paramount Porter’). I’m guessing the regulars really like their dark beers.)

eggsDown on Bridge Street, Brink had a small but well-chosen range of beers, including Squawk Porter – really excellent, one of my beers-of-the-Wander. The landlord commented that mine was only the third sticker he’d given out, and admitted to feeling a bit let down by CAMRA’s promises of extra custom; I said that the bar’s non-standard opening hours had probably knocked it off some people’s lists. Be that as it may, I’d recommend anyone to get down there – it’s a really nice little dive bar with excellent beer at decent prices. Anyone concerned about the War on Christmas will also be glad to learn that Brink appears to be resisting the politically-correct orthodoxy of the so-called ‘Scotch’ egg.

Carry on down Bridge Street and you leave Manchester altogether, but since there’s only one Salford pub in the WWW I’ll include it here. The New Oxford is an old-style ‘beer exhibition’ pub: one of those places with 10+ handpumps, mostly dispensing beers from local-ish breweries which don’t have much of a profile. It’s the kind of pub that seems designed to attract CAMRA members and tickers, in other words, and like others of the same type (the Magnet or the Portwood Railway) it’s built up a regular clientele who aren’t either of those things, but live nearby and fancy a drink from time to time. I guess you’ve got to make a living. Anyway, the beer of choice at the Oxford this time was Empire Porter. (Empire: a small brewery in Slaithwaite. You live and learn.) Perfectly decent porter, even if the name’s about as appealing to some of us as “Colony Gin” – and well-kept, not that I’d expect anything else at the Oxford.

That just leaves three local beer institutions. The youngest of the three, the Smithfield, is my favourite Manchester pub bar none. You can find as good a beer range in a few other places – including the Paramount, if my last visit is anything to go by – but none of those has the atmosphere of the Smithfield, which I’d characterise as classic pub ambience with a bit of ‘bar’ to lift it (pale walls, unmatched sofas instead of bench seating – that kind of thing). They had two stouts on, one at 5% and one at a rather fearsome 10% – and both at recognisably beer-like prices (none of that “£6 for 2/3” caper). I considered the silly-o-clock option but wimped out and got the 5%er, viz. Blackjack Stout – and very good it was too. My visit to the Piccadilly Tap was less successful; they had some good stuff on, but the Exit 33 stout I went for was a bit puny, tasting to me more like a rather tame dark mild with a bit of added roastiness (a ‘black mild’?).

And finally Esther, the Marble Arch. Time for a quick confession. The Marble Beerhouse was my local as soon as it opened (1999?), and I’ve been a loyal and mostly enthusiastic drinker of their beers ever since then – even though for most of that time I would have killed for a brown malty bitter. Round about 2011 I had a lightbulb moment – triggered, appropriately enough, by a Marble beer – and ‘got’ the pale hoppy beers the cool kids were all talking about (and which, of course, Marble had been brewing all along). And I haven’t really had a bad word to say about Marble since then. But I confess that, between 2011 and 2015, Marble’s beers weren’t always as interesting, or as solidly accomplished, as I might have liked.

Now, though – blimey, as they say, Charlie. Marble’s current range includes several beers, particularly in the 5.5%-7.5% range, which are really excellent. Earl Grey IPA, Damage Plan, Built to Fall and Extra Porter are all absolutely superb beers; Damage Plan in particular is a beer to dream about. I had a half of Built to Fall on cask at the Marble Arch when I visited; it’s great on keg, but the lighter carbonation and more rough-edged flavour profile of cask really brings out the character and complexity of this beer. (I suspect the same wouldn’t be true of Damage Plan, but I’d love to find out.) It’s not a ‘winter warmer’, mind you, so I preceded it with a half of Magic Rock Dark Arts – which was also very good. (Just not quite that good. Marble really are on a roll at the moment.)

Thirteen pubs, thirteen winter warmers? Not quite, I’m afraid:

Stout: 5
Porter: 5
Old ale: 0
Other >4.5%: 2 (Micro Bar, Cafe Beermoth)
No qualifying beers: 1 (Terrace)

I noticed last year that old ales were thin on the ground compared to porters and stouts; the trend’s clearly continued, sadly. Let’s see if the news is any better when I hit Stockport.

Blue velveteen again

Night was falling rapidly and rain spattered the pavements as we embarked on our evening mission. A fearless band of battle-hardened topers, prepared for a long evening’s pubbing, foregathered at Never Say Never, the atmospheric Tibetan eaterie famed for its real ale and authentic Himalayan pork scratchings. Some familiar faces were on hand – Big Len, WG and Cajun Bill were soon joined by Green Vera, JoJo, Motormouth and Anthony Burtonshaw. Needless to say, the beer flowed and so did the repartee! JoJo was concerned that we might be driving other punters away, but most of us thought that the people on those tables had just decided to move away at the same time (“it’s not as if anything actually smashed,” Big Len pointed out). Golden Hind Yellowjack was sampled, and was variously rated “tasty and refreshing”, “tired and unconvincing” and “is that what I’ve been drinking?”. We would have stayed to check out some of the alternatives, but time was short. “Time is short!” said Cajun Bill and he was right. We moved on.

Just down the road, Café Paradise was serving its usual eclectic range of real ale, craft beer, real cider, speciality gin, over-proof rum, high-class cocktails and coffees-with-a-kick to its usual eclectic clientele of mums and toddlers. With only four staff on hand behind the bar, we all had plenty of time to reconsider our choices while we waited for our halves. New arrivals were filtering in; Sandwell and Dudley arrived together, to nobody’s surprise, and promptly got into an argument with Snowy the Beer Monster. Zenith Mango and Mint Old Ale was sampled and rated “off”, “I think it’s just… no, it’s off” and “no, that’s definitely off”; Ulan Bator An Ale That Is Pale was variously rated “really good”, “just like all the other hop-forward pale ales”, “OK, it is just like all the other hop-forward pale ales, but it is a really good one” and “mmm, yeah, maybe”. “Wagons roll!” said Snowy and we moved on.

Outside in the wet, the wet rain was lashing down wetly, while the darkness was darkening to an even darker degree of dark. The welcoming light of the welcoming open door of our next destination cast a welcoming glow on the wet dark pavement, welcoming us in (get on with it – Ed.). We could see that Bleep and Booster was a bit busy, but our intrepid band wasn’t going to be put off by a little thing like that. Once we’d all got in and closed the door behind us, the bar was a bit on the crowded side, but it was manageable – I think almost everyone had at least a square foot of floorspace. It wasn’t chilly, either! I was thinking of making notes on my beer, but five minutes after we’d arrived it had all gone; perhaps it evaporated. I didn’t fancy my chances of getting another, so I stayed where I was, admiring the bar staff’s crowdsurfing techniques and exchanging recommendations with Big Liz and Small David. Twenty minutes later who should turn up but the ever-elusive Metalman; the last I saw he was in the third rank at the bar, deep in conversation with Sandwell and Dudley. He said he’d catch us up, but I didn’t see him again. “Move ’em out!” said Small David – he’s got a surprisingly loud voice – so we did.

Down the road, Scran lived up to its name, plying our hungry band with a choice of amuse-bouches: for the vegetarians, a tartlet of goat’s cheese and red onion marmalade served with a quenelle of celeriac and mustard-seed puree on a bed of pressed radish and candied chestnut bound with a woodruff emulsion garnished with preserved sorrel leaves drizzled with walnut oil, in a basket; for the meat-eaters, half a pork pie. Needless to say, the pork pies didn’t hang around for long! Neither did the beer – I think I’d worked up a thirst in the previous bar. Half a pint of something pale and hoppy with with half a pork pie; half a pint of something black and stouty with another half a pork pie – food matching doesn’t get much better than that. I caught up with Big Len and Mister Jones; we talked about beer, as far as I can remember. It was a very nice half an hour, but like all half hours – indeed, like all half pints, not to mention half pork pies – it was soon over. “Hey ho my dearie-ohs!” said WG, calling time on this stage of our adventure in his own inimitable way; I stuck a couple of tartlets in my pocket for later and we moved on. (I found them again this morning.)

I went for a second half at our next port of call, too. Ordinarily I would have stuck to the one, but Very ‘Umble is no ordinary bar – and its in-house beers are no ordinary beers. On the grapevine I hear that sales have slumped a bit since the introduction of their eccentric “full names only” policy, but the bar still insists on it: as they say, you don’t point and mumble when you’re in Very ‘Umble! So I went to the bar, took a deep breath and ordered a half of And Hast Thou Slain The Jabberwock? American Amber Stout, which I followed up later with a half of O Frabjous Day! Callooh! Callay! Imperial Pale Ale. (Word to the wise – make sure you pronounce the punctuation!) It was nice stuff, though I wasn’t sure where the paprika and wild garlic notes were coming from in the pale ale; I’d have asked at the bar, but I didn’t fancy going through all that again. Our party seemed to have grown again; WG was holding court at one end of the table, while in another corner Geoffrey of Monmouth was arguing about bicycles with Green Vera and Small David. “Is it about a bicycle?” I considered interjecting, but as it clearly was there didn’t seem much point. A party of roving tumblers came across to our table at this point and conducted some very impressive table-top juggling before our very eyes; what they did with two silk handkerchiefs, a pencil and a beermat defies description, not to mention belief. “Hello Kitty!” said Jimmy the Hat, and we moved on. (I kept meaning to ask him what he meant. Maybe next time.)

At the Lamb and Flag, three different beers and a cider were sampled and pronounced “disappointing”, “wait, did I order cider?”, “‘anging” and “…hmm”. I wasn’t too surprised – I don’t go to the Lamb for unique, interesting and high-quality beers. (But then, I don’t go to the Lamb.) Danno disagreed with Robbo and Kevino about the pub’s pricing strategy and a lively discussion ensued around the table, centring on the feasibility or otherwise of (a) non-conventional supply chain models in brewing and (b) that thing they did with the silk handkerchiefs, the pencil and the beermat. The juggling was assessed and variously rated “physically impossible”, “just a matter of skill and dexterity”, “a matter of physically impossible levels of skill and dexterity, more like” and “yeah, well”. “Excelsior!” said Danno – rather loudly, if I’m honest; people looked round – and we moved on.

The Quartile is the opposite of the Lamb in many ways; if I tell you that the Lamb offers cheap but undistinguished beer, colourful soft furnishings, bright lighting and cheerful and efficient staff, that tells you most of what you need to know about the Quartile. And so it was that I sat on the edge of our group, in an under-lit corner of a quiet and sombrely furnished room, looking out onto a dark street, drinking beer in a style I didn’t recognise from a brewery I didn’t want to admit to not having heard of. Mind you, I was pretty far gone by this point, so I wasn’t bothered. The decor certainly didn’t put a damper on the conversation: I can confirm that both Big Liz and Cheesy Pete have very strong views on the subject of Amsterdam, although what those views are now escapes me. “Oi oi!” called Motormouth and we moved on.

The evening’s festivities were due to terminate at celebrated alt-folk craftorama the Bird in t’ Hand – or the Bird in t’ Hand o’ t’ Man wi’ t’ Bag in t’ Box to give it its full title. Our experience here was mixed. I had a very nice half of Totally Craft Sammy the Stegosaurus (a West Coast-style IPA), but the venue wasn’t as welcoming as we might have liked. It seemed that the upper floor had been double-booked by a local Wiccan coven and a group of neo-dadaist performance poets. By the time we arrived any risk of unpleasantness had passed – the two groups were getting to know each other through an impromptu rap battle – but it did mean that that floor was pretty much out of bounds to casual visitors. This wouldn’t have been so bad if the monthly thrash metal disco hadn’t been in full swing on the ground floor. Some of us tried to get into the spirit of the thing, but for me it was too much, too metal, too late. “Come on, get down and do the funky boogaloo!” called Anthony Burtonshaw, but by that time I’d already moved on.

All in all, it was an evening of good beer in good company, not to mention good half pork pies. Shame I made it all up.

Author’s note: any similarity between this wildly improbable fabrication and Trafford & Hulme CAMRA’s Chorlton Challenge is entirely coincidental. (Apart from the bit about good beer in good company.)

Warmer winter (4)

One final post on this year’s WWW, covering everywhere I went to that wasn’t in the centre or down Wilmslow Road.

I started in Chorlton, specifically at the Sedge Lynn. The Sedge Lynn has Phoenix Wobbly Bob as a more-or-less permanent guest, and I tend to ignore it very much as I ignore Abbot or Ruddles’. This isn’t very fair – it’s not as if you’ll find Wobbly Bob in every other Spoon’s – and I make a point of hitting the Wobbly when the WWW comes round. And very nice it was too.

On the night I went to Dulcimer, their habitually weird and wonderful range of beers included a Blackberry Porter, I think the one produced by Gloucester; it was good, and not as overpoweringly fruit-flavoured as fruit beers often are. I also had a porter at Parlour Moorhouse’s by name, which I’m afraid wasn’t terribly good; too light, in flavour and texture if not in colour.

Another trip took me to Altrincham via Stretford, where the Sip Club was a welcome discovery; only a couple of pumps, but one of them was serving Dunham Milk Stout. More milk stout at Jack in the Box, the Blackjack tap in Altrincham Market Hall: Left Handed Giant Lactose Tolerant. But by far the best beer of the trip was the one I had at Costello’s, where the Dunham Winter Warmer had recently run off and been replaced by Lymm‘s Lymm Dam, a terrific 7.2% old ale.

Finally, although by this stage I’d hit my target of 24 ticks, I hadn’t had Robinson’s Old Tom – the archetypal winter warmer – or indeed seen it anywhere. I rectified this omission with a trip out to The Blossoms, an old-school multi-room local heading out of Stockport on the A6. The Old Tom was sparkled hard, giving it a definite head and knocking some of the gas out of the beer; I wasn’t sure about this approach to begin with, but by the time I got to the bottom of the glass I’d been won over. A magnificent beer; I might even have stayed for the other half if the TV in the room where I was sitting hadn’t chosen that moment to come to life, regaling us with an aggressive American voice loudly hectoring contestants in some kind of game show (“hey, what went wrong? you lost! why’d you lose? you don’t wanna lose!). Shame – it was quite restful until then. I left, anyway, and came home via Heaton Hops. This is a tiny “tap room and bottle shop” – and I mean tiny; both rooms were rammed, with about 15 seated customers in total. I contented myself with finding somewhere to stand, and had an excellent half of Bristol Beer Factory Milk Stout. Milk stout isn’t my favourite type of stout, but this was far and away the best of the three examples of the sub-style I’d had.

Final scores:

Winter warmer: 5
Porter: 6
Stout: 10
Other >4.5%: 5

Comparing to previous years, the true ‘winter warmer’ score is still low (although it’s worth pointing out that I didn’t go into Stockport centre, where two pubs could have been expected to be serving Old Tom). But porters and especially stouts are coming on in leaps and bounds: only five non-qualifying beers in 26 pubs, which for me is a new low score.

Good fun, anyway; many thanks to the people who organised it.

Warmer winter (3)

What was going on at the Fallowfield/Withington/Didsbury end of things? In Rusholme, first of all, the Ford Madox Brown (JDW) was serving Elland 1872 porter – 6.5% and a snip at ‘basically free if you’re having a sandwich with it’. My chicken and avocado wrap was stone cold – which is to say, fridge cold, let’s be honest – but the porter was a monster as ever, and you can’t argue with Spoons’ pricing.

A separate trip started at the Wine and Wallop in West Didsbury, which had an interesting range, as ever; Squawk Espresso Stout was very good indeed, if a bit hefty at 6.5% (again). More strong stout was on offer at Hyde’s pubs, specifically the Friendship in Fallowfield and the Fletcher Moss in Didsbury; in both places I had what Hyde’s are pleased to call Hefty Herkules, a seasonal 6%er. Oddly, although the beer was recognisably a stout, the pump clip refers to it as a ‘dark ale’. This is a trend I’ve seen in a few places; the word ‘mild’ has long gone from most pump clips and ‘bitter’ is thin on the ground, with many pump clips simply describing an ale by colour (pale, golden, dark, red…). The only exception to the no-styles-on-pump-clips trend is ‘IPA’, and strictly speaking that’s only a partial exception.

I’m glad to hear that the Milson Rhodes has been reprieved from an apparent threat of closure. I went in just after Christmas; I don’t know if it was because the pub’s future had been in doubt or just because of the seasonal rush, but the place was looking a bit sad, with about 2/3 of the pump clips turned round (and no dark beers in evidence). I went for Stone’s Amber Ale (brewed at Adnam’s), which was fine.

Further down the road, the Olde Cock Inn is (as far as I could make out) a Greene King house and one I hadn’t been in before. No dark beer here either, although they did have quite an interesting line in guest beers, with breweries including RedWillow on hand pump and BrewDog on keg. I had an Old Speckled Hen, which was perfectly drinkable, and followed it out of curiosity with a half of BrewDog Candy Kaiser, which was rather good if rather expensive (£4.45/pint is pushing it out in suburbia).

This trip finished at the Gateway – second Spoons’ of the trip and third of this post – where the fridge range included Chimay Gold at £2.49, plus Red and Blue for 50p & £1 more respectively. Spoons aren’t in the high-margin business where beer is concerned, and I salute them for that. I had a dark beer of sorts – Mobberley Origin – although as it’s a black IPA it doesn’t really qualify; nice stuff, though.

No winter warmers on this leg, but a fair few dark beers. Overall it’s

Winter warmer: 2
Porter: 4
Stout: 7
Other >4.5%: 5

Warmer winter (2)

More town centre Winter Warmer Wandering.

As I mentioned in the last post, I haven’t seen any Old Tom this year, and the Castle is one of the places I haven’t seen it. (Stockport readers – I know you’re out there! – where’s good for Old Tom this winter?) The Castle, in fact, didn’t have anything dark on, or anything over 5%. I had something at 4.8%; it didn’t etch itself on my memory. Nor did the 4.8%er I had at the Micro Bar. The next time I was there, fortunately, the Boggart Rum Porter was back on, so we’ll count that one.

I said elsewhere – so I may as well say here – that I can’t think of another bar that’s gone down in my estimation so far, and so quickly, as Pie and Ale: from the initial “ooh, shiny!” response to a new and exciting craft beer palace, to a disgruntled “why did I come in here?”, in three visits flat. Drinking a spiced dark bitter, from a brewer I hadn’t heard of, with a jolly-jingle-bells pump clip, while watching large-screen sport, perched on an awkward high chair at an awkward high table… you get the picture. Still, CAMRA discount.

The Marble Arch came up trumps, though, with Marble Stouter Stout and much else; never thought I’d see Blackjack Devilfish on cask. (Hate to say it, but I think it worked better on keg. So that’s two.) Shame about the ten-minute walk through the rain to get there.

Another bar that takes a special trip is the Piccadilly Tap, where Cloudwater Stout was rather brilliant. Many thanks to the bartender who offered me a taster of the same brewery’s 7.2% IPA without prompting – that’s pretty damn good too. (Another factor in my disenchantment with Pie & Ale, incidentally, is that they’d had that very IPA previously, at approximately 190% of the price being charged at the Tap. Nice work if you can get it.) Really must leave Manchester by train more often…

Pub atmosphere is an odd thing. There are plenty of pubs that just don’t have it; even when they’re busy they just look crowded. There are ‘atmospheric’ pubs that retain a ghost of their atmosphere however empty they are, and for that matter whatever time of day it is; I’d say that of the Marble Beerhouse, the Crown and the (alas) defunct Live Stockport, which always looked like it was just about to be absolutely buzzing. And there are pubs where the question doesn’t arise, because to all intents and purposes they always are buzzing; I’ve seen quieter pubs on a Friday night than the George in Stockport on a weekday afternoon. Then there are pubs that do have atmosphere, but need a certain level of custom to bring it back to life; get there too early and the place is just dead. The Crown and Kettle, I’m afraid, is one of those. But the beer’s always good, and Brewsmith Oatmeal Stout was no exception.

Pretty high level of WWW-qualification all round, even if your actual winter warmers are fairly thin on the ground. Where are we up to?

Winter warmer: 2
Porter: 3
Stout: 4
Other >4.5%: 2

Next: Didsbury ho!

Warmer winter (1)

A quick look back at this year’s Winter Warmer Wander, starting in town.

The Salisbury was heaving when I went in; it made me wonder, not for the first time, about the wisdom of holding a massive organised pub-crawl in the run-up to Christmas. (I guess the only alternative would be to run it from November to mid-December, and pubs might not be in the ‘winter warmer’ groove that early.) The Salisbury always was an old rocker’s pub, and nothing much seems to have changed. It’s the kind of pub where you might once have seen Theakston’s Old Peculier on the bar and made a note to get back there. Theakston’s isn’t what it was, and OP isn’t what it was either, but it’s a certified old-style winter warmer & was very pleasant – possibly even worth the ten minutes it took to get served.

On a separate trip I had… er… something dark; possibly a coffee stout?… at the Knott. The Knott is one of those places where you could very happily work your way along the bar, time, wallet and liver permitting; I was particularly struck by the keg beers on offer that day, which included the 11% Marble/All In collab Välbryggda. Reluctantly I swerved it, but followed the stout with a half of Vocation Chop & Change – light but uncompromisingly hoppy, hugely drinkable. What a very fine brewery Vocation is – they’ve yet to disappoint.

I stopped for two at the New Oxford, too, but nothing on the bar called to me as loudly as the JW Lees’ Moonraker I’d started with, so I had another half of that. Lovely beer – the second best winter warmer I had this year (we’ll meet #1 in Altrincham). Incidentally, I haven’t been in a single pub serving Old Tom this time round; I’m seriously considering a special trip to Stockport to rectify this situation.

To round off the southern end of the town centre, two very different Spoons’. I can never remember what I have at the Waterhouse, and last month was no exception. The near-Salisburian crush at the bar didn’t help; by the time I’d got served, and got a sticker, I just wanted to find a quiet corner and polish off my half. I’m pretty sure it was a porter, but my memory says no more than that. As for the Paramount, for once I didn’t have Elland‘s 1872 porter (something of a house beer at the Paramount) but Stockport Stockporter, and very nice it was too.

Five pubs, five qualifying beers: two winter warmers, two porters and a stout. Not bad.

Mildly interesting

A few last words on Mild Magic 2015.

Good beer
Brightside MMM, Cryptic 1049 Dead, Dunham Light, Moorhouse Black Cat, Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best, Titanic Nautical Mild and Wentworth Black Diamond were excellent. So were Adnams/Sixpoint Make It Rain, Blackjack Solitaire, Dunham Gold, Howard Town Hope, Marble Brew 900, Partners Tabatha and Rossendale Hameldon, which I had as substitutes or second halves.

Good pubs
The Crown and Kettle, Fred’s Ale House, the Harewood Arms, the Jack in the Box, Live Stockport, the Spinning Top and the Sportsman will all be worth a detour in future.

What do points mean?
What points mean, this year at least, is that low-scoring pubs are a lot less attractive. So some very familiar pubs got omitted, including some which are only really familiar from CAMRA crawls – no sticker this year from the New Oxford or the Knott Bar, or in Stockport from the George, the Crown or the (Portwood) Railway. On the other hand, it was good to be motivated to seek out new and interesting venues, a category which for me included most of the places I listed above.

How did it go?
Pretty well, all in all. Eight pubs (out of 48) didn’t have any qualifying beers on; three of those had either had a mild on or had one on order. Very few places failed to supply a sticker, and in at least one case (the Spinning Top) it was because they’d run out. Only one place (Wine and Wallop) claimed not to have had the stickers, and nobody denied all knowledge of MM; in both respects this is an improvement on previous years.

The light and the dark
As my last post indicated, light mild is really on the ropes; I only had fourthree (as against 21 dark milds), and one of them may have been one of the other three under another name (see comments). I guess the underlying problem is the dreaded M-word: ‘mild’ got a name as an old men’s drink forty-odd years ago and it still has it, despite the fact that a lot of the people who turned their noses up at it back then are old men now. If you make a dark, sweetish, lowish-strength beer but don’t call it ‘mild’ – as Hyde’s, Lees and Thwaites’ don’t (and Robinson’s didn’t) – in a sense there’s no harm done: it’s still going to sell to the kind of people who like that kind of beer. A pale session-strength beer, though, will struggle to differentiate itself from pale session-strength bitters – I’d been drinking Golden Best for years before I realised it was a light mild. (And it’ll struggle all the more if the brewery puts the word ‘bitter’ on the pump clip, as Hyde’s have done with 1863.)

Mild oddity
What is “Hyde’s Light Mild”, as served at the Plough in Ashton on Mersey? I’ve had it twice now – both times at the Plough – & liked it a lot. Is it just 1863 (of which I’m not a huge fan) plus auto-suggestion?

Discoveries made
One thing I’ve discovered is that there’s no substitute for an A-Z; the map on my iPod got me thoroughly lost in Stalybridge, and very nearly did the same in Broadbottom. Another is that you need to cut your coat according to your cloth: if you don’t think you’re going to have time for pubs 7-9, stop at 6 and go home. (On reflection this isn’t so much a new discovery as something I knew all along and forgot in the, er, heat of the moment.) Lastly, I made the surprising – but perhaps predictable – discovery that pub lunches are basically a thing of the past: there are Spoons and there are high-end bars serving equally high-end food, but in between, and outside the city centre, there’s pretty much nothing. I guess that workplace puritanism has grown, and lunchtime drinking declined, to the point where serving actual lunches no longer makes sense for most places; the cheap and cheerful pub meal has gone the way of the cloche of curling sandwiches or the jar of pickled eggs.

And finally,

Free beer
As well as looking forward to picking up a Mild Magic sweatshirt (no polo shirt for me!), I am now the proud owner of eight – count ’em – tokens, each exchangeable for a half of mild at the Stockport Beer and Cider Festival. I’m heading over there tomorrow evening. Obviously(?) I’m not planning to put away four pints of mild, so free halves will be available on request to anyone who knows me (and isn’t also walking around with a pocketful of tokens). First come, first served.

Mildly interesting (6)

This is the sixth and last post documenting my wanders around Manchester and environs in search of mild, as part of Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA’s annual Mild Magic promotion.

This year’s MM augmented the sticker-collecting routine with a points system, with far-flung and little-visited pubs getting three points, busy and accessible pubs getting one and the rest getting two. What this meant in practice was that I avoided some pubs I’d usually have gone to and sought out some I’d never set foot in. While this was probably a good thing on balance, it did mean skipping some pubs I like a lot. By this stage, though, I’d built up a bit of a bank of points & could afford to go to some one-pointers, which I duly included on a couple of final crawls around town.

Manchester city centre’s first Wetherspoon’s, the hopefully-named Moon Under Water, had Beartown Black Bear on. I’m not a huge fan of Beartown – in the past I’ve found their beers to err on the side of bland and sweet – but this, to my surprise, was rather good. The venue, though… There are three kinds of Spoons, in my experience: there are the kind that actually look like a pub (very rare); then there are the kind that, while undeniably looking like a giant shed, nevertheless have a bit of a pub ambiance and are quite a pleasant place to while away half an hour. Then there are the rest. I drank up and moved on.

The Rising Sun has been a decent real ale pub for as long as I can remember; it had a Moorhouse’s tie (or something very like one) for a while. No Black Cat this time, though; in fact no mild at all. I contented myself with Howard Town Hope, a grapefruity blighter of a pale ale – a pleasant surprise from a fairly traditional local brewery.

My next stop was in the (Gay) Village. I was drinking in the Village when there barely even was a Village; when Manto on Canal Street first opened in the early 90s I used to go there quite a lot, mainly on Saturday afternoons. They had Pedigree on draught, and I liked the café-bar ambience (all terra cotta and hard chairs). Plus, while I’m not gay myself, I actually rather liked the ‘mixed’ atmosphere of the place, the sense that nobody walking in was going to be assumed to be straight (or assumed to be gay); it made for a relaxed atmosphere, something you can’t always rely on in pubs on a Saturday afternoon.

Since then, of course, Canal Street and the wider Village have got a good deal less ‘mixed’; if you stand at the Princess Street end of Canal Street now and look towards what used to be Manto, all you can see is a huge sign reading “G A Y”. And so to the Molly House, which is a sort of anti-Manto: on one hand it’s a snug, pubby-looking pub, all dark wood and plush upholstery, with an excellent range of beer on draught; on the other, it’s very gay. (Try googling the origins of the name.) A nice enough place to visit, for the heterosexual beer tourist, but it doesn’t have that chilled “hey, why should we define ourselves by our sexuality?” air about it. (And I doubt that anywhere does, these days; the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ vibe of the early days of Manto was probably just a phase, which passed when the scene got better established.) Anyway, back to the beer – which was terrific. It was a Brightside dark mild which I hadn’t seen before, called MMM; mid-brown in colour with a real depth of flavour, not unlike the Titanic Nautical Mild.

Another lunchtime trip took me to the Marble Arch, which – unusually – was serving food; I couldn’t bring myself to pay £11 for a burger, though. I wouldn’t usually start a mild session with the equivalent of a pint at 7%, but the nearest thing they had to a mild was Chocolate Marble – and they had Brew 900 on keg. What else was I going to do? Second acquaintance with Brew 900 confirms that it’s a really nice tripel, with that delicate sweetness that comes in at the end without being cloying. The Chocolate was pretty good too.

The Castle on Oldham St is a Robinson’s house and hence a go-to pub on Winter Warmer Wanders. For mild, these days, not so much. They did, however, have Titanic Mild on – not the Nautical Mild, but a 3.8% dark mild, which (as you’d expect) was similar but a bit less substantial. Up the road, the Smithfield was unexpectedly shut – through the window I could see where they’d stashed their A-boards, one of them reading ‘Open daily 12-7’; for points-related reasons, this led to an unexpected detour to the Bull’s Head. After my experience at the Red Lion I wasn’t enthused about doing a solid ten-minute walk to get to a Marston’s pub, but it wasn’t too bad; in fact Banks’s Mild was surprisingly good.

Finally, for my very last sticker of Mild Magic 2015, I schlepped back to the Crown and Kettle, where I had… um. I followed it with Ticketybrew Table IPA, that I do know, but as for the mild itself (and I know there was a mild)… nope. Like the first mild I had this year, the last one has slipped my mind. A dark mild, and one I hadn’t had before; that’s all I can remember.

48 pubs down (and 100 points amassed), how’s it all stack up?

Light mild: 7 (4 different beers)
Dark mild: 33 (21 different beers)
No qualifying beers: 8
Breweries: 30 (22 producing mild)

Pubs I go to anyway: 6
Pubs worth going back to: 17
Once-a-year pubs: 25

Mildly interesting (5)

I went a bit further afield for this one, by rail, tram and bus.

In Stalybridge, the Station Buffet Bar was a one-pointer, but I couldn’t reasonably pass it by. Moorhouse’s Black Cat was excellent – so too was the selection, but I wasn’t stopping. The bar doesn’t seem to do food any more, which is a shame (at least, it didn’t that day); as on the previous trip, I spent rather a long time on this trip in search of pub food. The decline of lunchtime drinking has a lot to answer for.

Passing by the Q Inn – famous (or so it claims) for having the shortest name of any pub in the country – I headed to the White House, where a blackboard assured me that ‘ale trails’ were catered for. Hyde’s, so Owd Oak – fine, if a bit undistinguished.

At the Society Rooms (JDW) I waited while an unsuspecting punter attempted to order a gin and tonic. “Which gin would you like?” said the woman serving – several times; the idea of a choice of gin clearly did not compute. Once over that hurdle (“Have you got Gordon’s?”) the poor guy had to decide whether to have slimline tonic or not, and then whether to have a single or a double. The joys of customer choice! Me, I had a half of Peerless Dark Arts and averted my eyes from the food menu. Around the corner from the Society Rooms, in the marketplace, I bumped into the local leg of the Tameside Food Festival; I was on the point of ordering something in a nan bread when I had a vision of meat juices and yogurt dripping down my arm and onto my shirt. The other main alternatives – burgers and hot dogs – also lost their appeal at this point, for the same reasons. A sit-down meal, I thought to myself slightly grumpily, that shouldn’t be too much to ask at lunchtime. Only not Spoons’, obviously. Something else I didn’t spend money on at this stage was beer: there was a stall from the Tweed brewery, dispensing an IPA and a stout. I talked to the stallholder, who told me Tweed was the only brewery in Hyde (it sounded more impressive at the time). The beer looked great, but I had places to go and ticks to tick, so I moved on.

Some time later I discovered the key disadvantage of trying to map-read on a phone-sized screen: the phone doesn’t tell you whether you’ve got the map the right way up or not. (This should be just as much of an issue with a printed map, but in practice it isn’t; I think if you’ve got a decent-sized map you register more of the surrounding area without thinking about it. Also, if you’re map-reading on a phone you can’t actually turn the map upside down, which is often handy with a printed map.) Finding the next venue took me as much time as visiting the first three. In the end I tracked down the Stalybridge Labour Club, and was pleasantly surprised to find that I didn’t have to show anything to get in. It wasn’t the most exciting tick in the world; if you’ve drunk in anywhere with ‘club’ in the name, or in a purpose-built estate pub, you’ll know the kind of place. Sadly the milds – plural; they had had two on, the landlady told me – had gone; I had a half of Stockport Brewing Company Crown Best Bitter, which was fine.

This was turning out to be another day when non-Wetherspoon outlets had collectively decided that serving food at lunchtime wasn’t worth the effort – and my next stop was a bus ride away. So I worked my way back to the marketplace, to find the food festival winding down and nothing much still being cooked. The paella man had a huge pan of unsold paella, so I went for that – a choice I immediately had misgivings about when I realised that the gas had gone out under the pan some time ago, and the guy was now proposing to bring cold cooked rice back up to heat, in the open air. What, health and safety-wise, could possibly go wrong? To be fair, the paella was very nice & didn’t disagree with me at all, but it did give me a nervous couple of hours. (If I could have the day over again I think I’d just get the thing in the nan & be careful how I ate it – that, and try one of the Tweed beers; I’ve seen them all over the place since.)

The bus took me to Hyde and the Cotton Bale (JDW), which was entirely mildless; I had Bank Top Bad To The Bone, which was pale and invigoratingly sproingy. Then on to the Queens (sic; plural, no apostrophe), which is a Holt’s house serving that 3.2% dark mild to which I’ve referred earlier.

A rather more substantial walk from there took me to the Sportsman. 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 (one of those double-sided bars serving two separate rooms); 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. This year, the balance between the two was a bit more even; the place was buzzing, in fact. Sadly there wasn’t a Rossendale mild on, so I had Thwaites Nutty Black. Since I was in a brewery tap, I followed it with Rossendale Hameldon bitter, a dark brown bitter with an uncompromisingly bitter flavour – a bit like Holt’s bitter used to be, as I remember it.

At this point it seemed like a good idea to get clever with my route planning. From the Sportsman it was a short… well, short-ish… it was a manageable walk to Newton for Hyde railway station, from where I could get a train to Broadbottom; coming back from Broadbottom I could stay on the train as far as Guide Bridge, and from there I could get a bus to Ashton-under-Lyne. Ashton had a two-point Spoons (the Ash Tree) and a tram stop from which I could get home; if I had a bit of time in hand I could even get off the tram halfway and tick off the Strawberry Duck in Clayton. That was the plan.

The train to Broadbottom went fine, although it was a bit of a slog to get to the station at Newton. In Broadbottom I found my way to the Harewood Arms – although not before getting the map the wrong way up and striking off in the wrong direction – and found it a comfortable, pubby pub which I had altogether too little time to enjoy. Although the pub is the Green Mill tap, there wasn’t a Green Mill mild on; I had Wentworth Black Diamond, which would probably draw with the Black Cat for the title of ‘best mild of the day’.

The rest of the journey I should probably draw a veil over. I just missed a bus in Guide Bridge and had to wait far too long for the next one; when I got to Ashton I decided I couldn’t afford the detour to the Ash Tree and would get the tram and go to the Strawberry Duck en route for home; I then just missed a tram and, facing a 12-minute wait for the next one, decided to go straight home. All of which meant that the detour to Ashton was a complete waste of time – I could have stayed on the train from Broadbottom and got home about an hour sooner. Oh well.

PS The following day, feeling that a score needed to be settled, I got the bus out of town to the Strawberry Duck – basically an estate pub with an unusual canalside location – and had another Moorhouse’s Black Cat, which was very nice. They didn’t have any food on, though (when will I learn?).

The doors, the scores:

Light mild: 7 (4 different beers)
Dark mild: 27 (16 different beers)
No qualifying beers: 7
Breweries: 25 (18 producing mild)

Pubs I go to anyway: 5
Pubs worth going back to: 14
Once-a-year pubs: 22