Category Archives: Crawler

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.)

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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).

Brighton by the pint

I was in Brighton for three days last week. My parents lived there for the last twenty-odd years of their lives, so I knew the city quite well for a while, and still know my way around without needing to think about it. Naturally, I planned to spend my free time (a) walking along the seafront (b) walking around town and (c) drinking beer, particularly beer I couldn’t get at home and particularly particularly Harvey’s Sussex Best. The last time I spent any time in Brighton was before the ‘craft’ thing got started – before this blog got started, come to that – but I had some distinct beer memories. There was the range of interesting stuff they used to have (on draught) at the Quadrant and (in bottle) at an offie further up Queens Road; there were the Dark Star beers up at the Evening Star, near the station. Above all, there was the Harvey’s Sussex Best and all the unassuming little pubs that served it – there seemed to be one round every street corner. Walking, drinking, more walking, more drinking, that was the plan for my leisure hours – and heavy on the Harvey’s Sussex Best.

Well, you know about best-laid plans. The first thing I realised when I arrived in Brighton was that the new shoes I was wearing – perfectly comfortable up to then – had given me blisters on both ankles, making the prospect of walking anywhere a lot less attractive. The next thing was that some of my beer memories badly needed updating. The offie with the interesting beer? Gone (or possibly converted to an offie without interesting beer, it’s hard to be sure.) An interesting range of beers at the Quad? Not so as you’d notice. As for all those unassuming little pubs serving Harvey’s, I scoured the centre of town looking for them, as far as my ankles would permit; eventually I gave up and downloaded the brewery’s pub-finder app (which I recommend if you’re ever down there). Some of the specific pubs I remembered weren’t there any more; one had closed, but two had turned into something… different. You’ll look in vain for the Princess Victoria on North Road: it’s the Craft Beer Co now (with, to be fair, some very reasonable prices on cask beers, a phrase which here means ‘under £4’). As for the Prince Arthur, that’s now the… brace yourself… Brighton Beer Dispensary. I only stuck my head in there briefly, so my fleeting impression of the BBD – which involved Edison lightbulbs, furniture made from railway sleepers and £5 portions of chips – may have been misleading. I didn’t fancy stopping, I’ll say that. (The Arthur was a lovely little pub, too. O tempura, O morays.)

Mmm, murk…

My visit to the Arthur-as-was was on my first evening in Brighton, spent mainly wandering around the centre disconsolately, looking for something to drink that was (a) decent and (b) local. After I’d done this for a while I realised it was 9.00 and went for a meal. So it was that my first beer in Brighton was a bottle of Chang lager, which was pretty awful (the mussaman curry was excellent, though). But I went for a drink afterwards in the Spoons by where I was staying, where I had a pint of (Sussex-based) Firebird Parody IPA. It was seriously cloudy – not something you often see in a Spoons – and my first impression was that it was just plain off. The sharpness I tasted at first modulated into an apple-y fruitiness, which wasn’t at all unpleasant; I guess you’d call it juicy. On the other hand, none of the pictures of this beer on Untappd show any haze – let alone the floc party that was going on in my glass – so maybe it was just a badly-kept pint. I’d already taken against that Spoons after I ordered something different (something else from Firebird) only to be told, with a wave at a whole bank of pumps, “all of these are off”. I told the guy that if that was the case he should turn the clips round, but apparently that would be too much trouble. (Also, their wifi was off every time I went in there. Decent breakfasts, though.)

The next day, on a lunchtime trip to the Dorset in the North Laines, I was finally reunited with Harvey’s Sussex Best. If I say that my first impressions were ‘sweet and heavy’, that will probably give you completely the wrong idea. There is a lot of malt there, in the old-school heavy mouth-filling style, but this isn’t a sweet or heavy beer; it’s not hard to drink and it’s certainly not bland. There’s a tannic bitterness running right through it, building to a really clean, refreshing finish – like every good session beer, it’s decidedly moreish. Nice to see you again, HSB.

My next beer, though, was another meal accompaniment, and a bit of a bad choice on my part. Manju’s is a rather fine Gujarati vegetarian restaurant, with – unusually – a fairly extensive beer list; I was tempted by the beers from Hepworth’s, a local brewery specialising in gluten-free beers (for what that’s worth). Greed got the better of me, though; I noticed that the standard Indian lagers were priced up at £2.50, and that the table next to mine had a 650 ml bottle of Kingfisher. Bargain, I thought, and duly ordered a bottle of Kingfisher. “Small or large bottle?” asked the waiter; yes, the £2.50 price was for the 330 ml bottle. I was too British to backpedal and order something else, so 650 ml of Kingfisher – which turned out to be £4.50 – it was. Still, the food was excellent. Afterwards I made my way to the nearest Harvey’s pub – the Lord Nelson, a spit from the station and a fair old hike from the seafront (as my ankles reminded me). I had a pint of Sussex Best and one of Harvey’s Armada; not a hop bomb by any means, but a bit lighter and more aromatic than the Sussex Best. Harvey’s brew an extraordinary range of beers, mostly for bottling, and the bar had rows of 275 ml bottles on display (not in the fridge, as far as I could see). I bought a bottle of the Elizabethan Ale; I was initially intending to drink it there, but the place was empty and the landlady clearly wanted to call it a night, so I took it away with me.

IMG_1554

Ironically, a sure sign of what it isn’t

The next evening I went, again, in search of unassuming, ordinary pubs in the centre. I fetched up in a tarted-up Nicholson’s gastro-pub with bulls-eye glass in the windows; really not quite what I had in mind. (Not the one with the sign pictured here, though – I have got some standards.) Anyway, they had Dark Star Hophead on, and it was very welcome. It was about as different from the Harvey’s beers as it could be – pale yellow, with a loose, soapy head, and hoppy; really very hoppy. Then I headed stationwards again, to check out the Evening Star. Dark Star Six Hop was, frankly, a bit of a disappointment – it’s 6.5% and tastes like it, in the sense that it tastes like they were trying to make Hophead (a) even hoppier and (b) nearly twice as strong. Effortful, really, which is rarely a good look. (What with Hophead, Magic Rock Ringmaster and Marble Pint, I’m starting to think that 3.8% is actually the sweet spot for pale’n’oppy beers.) On keg they had – among much else – Mad Hatter Tzatziki Sour and Lost and Grounded Apophenia. I can report that the Tzatziki Sour actually does taste of cucumber, and that L&G may not be quite there yet on the tripel front, that being what Apophenia is: there was an initial sweet heaviness, that didn’t dissipate but combined with the herbal notes that come in later, to produce a kind of beer equivalent of winter mixture. I had a third, and it took a while to get through.

After this slightly disappointing session I looked for something to eat, although – being, on a rough count, four pints down – I was seriously considering having a soft drink with it. Nu Posto, a vaguely crafty pizza place, surprised me with another interesting beer list, including a couple from Hepworth’s. I went for a bottle of their Gold pale ale, which frankly tasted of very little – as golden ales go it was less Summer Lightning, more Rolling Rock – but did have an extraordinary aroma. I’ve never known a beer like it – I put my nose over the bottle and I was getting freshly-baked bread, cut with something sharp and herbal, perhaps sage or thyme. Then I actually tasted it and it was… fine. (And no, it wasn’t the garlic bread I could smell.) Back in my room, it was getting late, I was already pretty drunk and I didn’t really have anything to stay up for, but what can I say, the Harvey’s Elizabethan Ale was calling to me. It’s a big, dark, strong, sweet beer, tasting exactly like I’d expect an old-fashioned beer to taste. Very nice indeed, and easily my beer of the evening.

At close of play the next day I was heading home, but before I trudged up the hill to the station – again – I wanted to have at least one drink in a nice, ordinary pub that I remembered from my previous trips to Brighton. Eventually I managed to locate the Lion and Lobster in Hove – probably not a very long-established pub (or not under that name), but old enough for me. And they had… Dark Star Hophead! Harvey’s Sussex Best (with the old ‘barrel’ pump clip)! Dark Star APA! Old Dairy Blue Top! I was very tempted by… well, everything: the first two for obvious reasons, the third because it’s possibly even hoppier than Hophead and the fourth because it comes from Ed‘s old gaff. But I was still feeling a bit worse for wear from the previous day, and wanted to dial the a.b.v. right down, so Hophead it was: pale yellow, loose, soapy head, hoppy as a very hoppy thing. And that – apart from an Oakham Citra IPA from the M&S at the station – was it for Brighton.

Overall impressions: Brighton’s changed a surprising amount in ten years. Almost everywhere seemed solidly geared to a specific, high-spending clientele: tourists, stags & hens… hipsters. I’m sorry I didn’t go back to the Craft Beer Co – I think I could have had quite a pleasant session there, even if most of the beers were from that London – but I wouldn’t have felt comfortable spending any time in the Brighton Beer Dispensary; the vibe I picked up wasn’t just hipper-than-thou, it was considerably-more-hip-than-yow. (I may be doing the place a disservice; I was in a foul mood that evening and looking for a very different kind of pub.) Ordinary little pubs round the corner seem to be in very short supply. On the plus side, it’s a lot easier to get decent beer with a meal than it used to be. What’s more, Harvey’s beers are still there if you look, and both HSB and Dark Star Hophead are as good as they ever were. The beer abides.

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.