Category Archives: Drink local

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 – 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Crafty met Spoony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better get that takeaway ordered.

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

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

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

Mmm, Boom Juice.

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

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

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

Around Manchester on a half of mild – 2

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

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

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

(We’ll get to Theme 2 in a minute.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Around Manchester on a half of mild – 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday lunch

1983, Chester

I knew we were on when I saw Tom going back for a pudding. Most days, we’d clock out at lunchtime, go to the canteen for something to eat – a hot meal served with plates and cutlery, none of your rubbish – and then it’d be down the Cestrian for a pint or two, or three. (My workmates Joe and Paul had seen my arrival as the perfect opportunity to turn their two-pint lunchtimes into three-pint sessions. I’d gone along with it for a while, but eventually persuaded them that I was a lightweight, and that two was my limit for a weekday lunchtime.) If we timed it right and got them down without too much hanging about (the Greenall Whitley bitter in the Ces wasn’t anything to linger over), we could be clocking back in after not much more than the regulation 30 minutes. Fridays were a bit different – lunchbreaks stretched to an hour; if you usually had two pints you’d stay for three, and so on – but the canteen part of the routine didn’t change.

Not, that is, unless we were on. On this particular Friday Tom went back to get some apple crumble and custard, which he ate with great relish and without any appearance of watching the time, heartily recommending it to the rest of us; a couple of people actually followed his lead. Then he looked at his watch with some ostentation and led the way out of the canteen. (Tom, I should say, was a PAG 5 – very senior. Even Joe, my overall boss, was only a PAG 4.) By now, of course, considerably more than the usual 10-15 minutes had elapsed; in fact – wouldn’t you know it? – we’d spent all of 30 minutes in the canteen. Still leading the way, Tom took out his time card and clocked back in. We all followed suit – the PAG 4s, the team leaders, the mere analyst/programmers – and then we followed Tom down to the Cestrian.

It wasn’t a 15-minute weekday session or a standard 45-minute Friday session; that Friday, we were on. My two-pint limit was rapidly forgotten; by the time we finished I was at least three pints down, probably four. (So was everyone else, of course.) There was still a fair old chunk of afternoon left when we got back, but I didn’t get much work done in it. (Nor did anyone else, of course.) Paul told me the following Monday that he’d been surprised to see Dave in the Ces after work as usual; we thought Dave had a bit of a problem, although nobody liked to say anything. At the time I didn’t think to ask Paul what he’d been doing in the Ces after work. There wasn’t really anywhere else to go, to be fair, even on a Friday.

1987, Manchester

“I think it’s time for a ROD,” Jill announced one Friday morning, with the self-consciously ostentatious air of somebody who’s using a code of their own devising and challenging everyone else to notice. “We haven’t had a ROD in ages. You’d be up for a ROD, wouldn’t you, Nik? What do you reckon, Chris – time for a ROD?”

Chris took the bait and asked what a ROD might be. Jill was delighted: “A ROD, of course – a Royal Oak Day!” It turned out that going to the Royal Oak for lunch was something they’d done in the past, before I’d started working there, possibly even more than once. It was a bit of an undertaking, as the Royal Oak was five miles out of the city centre; even with somebody driving, it would take a minimum of half an hour just to get there and back. We didn’t clock in and out at this place, but you couldn’t have many two-hour lunches before somebody noticed.

So RODs weren’t for every week – in fact I’m not sure we ever did it again – but that day there was a general agreement to go for it. At 12.00 we left and the five of us got into Chris’s car. (Chris was our designated driver, in the sense that Jill nominated him to do the driving – I don’t think he drank any less than the rest of us.) After rather longer than 15 minutes (blame it on the traffic) we reached Didsbury… and the Royal Oak.

The Royal Oak was famous at this time for its lunches, and justly so. They didn’t do hot food; they did cheese and crusty bread, and plenty of it. Once you’d paid your money you’d be carved a slab from one – or more – of the mountains of cheese that stood on a small table at the back. To be (very slightly) more technical about it, these were cheeses – whole cheeses, or what remained of them after several days of lunchtime trade. If I remember rightly, there were three or possibly even four cheeses on offer – Stilton, Lancashire, Sage Derby, possibly even Cheddar (although it’s not very popular in this… yes we know). You could have a slab of each one of them if you were so inclined, with all the crusty bread and butter you needed (and a doggy bag for leftovers). Everything was open to the air, of course. I do remember noticing tiny black flies buzzing around a dish of chutney, but it didn’t bother me; they didn’t take any interest in the cheese as far as I could see, and I wasn’t planning on having chutney anyway.

The cheese was wonderful – or rather the cheeses were wonderful. My mother used to tell a joke, which she said she’d got from her (deeply religious) father: a young woman on a train is accosted by a stranger, who asks her out of the blue: “Do you love Jesus?”. She’s nonplussed and doesn’t say anything, so the stranger continues: “Not your English Jesus. Round, red, Dutch Jesus!” I defy anyone to go to the Royal Oak, in 1987 or thereabouts, and not love English Jesus. The beer was good as well – the Royal Oak was a Marston’s pub. The cask selection was distinctly limited – the mild had gone keg since the last time I’d been in, much to my disappointment – but what there was was good. To be precise, what there was was Pedigree, and it was in good form – no doubt partly because they sold so much of it.

The place was buzzing, the beer went down very easily and the cheese was never-ending (my doggy bag lasted me most of the next week). We must have been there for the best part of an hour, and the trip back to town took even longer than the journey out. Still, it was a Friday.

1998, Altrincham

Going to the pub at lunchtime with other people was something I hadn’t done for quite a few years, so it was a bit of a surprise when I found myself going to the Bay Malton with Seamus and Andy. A group of people from downstairs went to the pub most Fridays, and some of us from upstairs had tagged along a few times, but personally I never really enjoyed those big groups; I tended to mark Fridays by getting something different from the sandwich people. I did go to the pub sometimes, but on my own and in the week; a couple of times a week you’d find me there, with a ‘Steak Canadien’ and chips, a pint of Thwaites’ Original and a book. The Bay Malton was pretty sparse during the week – looking around, I’d usually only see four or five other tables occupied – but I didn’t mind that; some days I positively welcomed it.

I worked with Seamus and Andy towards the end of my time in that job. Sharing an office with (not one but) two people I could talk to easily came as a pleasant shock, all the more so when they both turned out to have a taste for the Bay Malton, Thwaites’ bitter and even the odd Steak Canadien. Fridays were particularly enjoyable, partly because the place was considerably busier and had a definite end-of-week buzz about it; the slightly forced, coach-trip jollity of the large groups, while I’d found it thoroughly uncongenial when I was in one, made quite a pleasant backdrop to our more ironic and worldly deliberations. Not only that, but with it being a Friday we felt entitled to give in to the arithmetic of our group size and “go for the burn” with pint #3 – although I do remember that by the time we’d finished our third pints we were among the last few people in the pub. (In my memory the Bay Malton was empty, or three-quarters empty, for far more time than it was ever full.) Some of the women from downstairs may even have commented on us as they left; we certainly got some looks. There was no excuse for sitting around boozing until getting on for 2.00, even on a Friday.

201_, Didsbury

At the moment I work from home most days of the week, which obviously(?) doesn’t involve beer – and when I do go to the office, the culture is very much that beer is for evenings and weekends. I think I’ve only had one pub lunch, on a work day, in the last ten years.

But there are, still, occasional leave days and strike days and work trips and dentists’ appointments and w.h.y.; for one reason or another, I do sometimes find myself in the vicinity of a pub on a weekday lunchtime. Passing the Railway in West Didsbury, one day not too long ago, I had a sudden yen for a quick drink in a proper pub – which is to say, a big room with plenty of natural light, with upholstered bench seating and internal partitions, serving one brewery’s beers. I wondered about taking a chance on their serving food, but decided not to risk it and made a quick detour for a sandwich, which I ate on the way back to the pub.

There was no food. There were also no customers; the place was empty but for me and the bartender. There were two Hyde’s beers on handpump plus two from the Horse and Jockey brewery Bootleg. (Rather confusingly, Bootleg’s Chorlton Bitter had two separate pumps with different pump clip designs; one was in an old-school Hyde’s style, which perhaps shows where the Bootleg brand is headed.) On keg, three more Bootleg beers: an IPA and two lagers of different strengths, apparently replacing the Crystal and Diamond of yore. I had a pint of Chorlton, which had to be pulled through. (Nice chunky Bootleg mug, incidentally.)

Empty as it was, it was still a nice pub; there was music from a jukebox, there was sunlight through the back windows, there were plenty of comfortable places to sit and I had a book to read. I settled down and got stuck into my Chorlton. (It was rather a good example of the old ‘Manchester bitter’ style – which is to say that it was quite a plain, light golden ale, made more interesting by a massive bitter finish. You could really taste the (bittering) hops!)

At this point the bartender, doubtless thinking she was acting in the customer’s (i.e. my) interest, killed the jukebox and switched on a very large and loud TV screen, tuned in to the cricket on Sky Sports. Attending to my book became difficult, particularly when the noisy tedium of cricket and commentary was broken by the attention-grabbing racket of a commercial break. Then, while the ads were still going, the jukebox suddenly started up again; confusingly, it was playing the theme to Test Match Special. (The long version. Yes, there’s a long version.) I drank up and left.

It was Friday, it was lunchtime, and the pub was empty, just as it had been before I arrived.

 

Digging, digging, digging

I wouldn’t normally devote a post to reviewing a single beer – particularly not a one-off – but in this case I’ll make an exception.

RedWillow Faithless is the generic name for the brewery’s short-run specials; most are variations on a theme of pale’n’oppy, but some are considerably further out there. Faithless 75 is described as a “Kviek[sic] Farmhouse IPA”; according to the brewery it’s made with “Sigmund Voss Kveik yeast”, which is a strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae isolated from a sample of kveik – kveik being the generic name for the yeast strains used in Norwegian farmhouse brewing, as documented on Lars Marius Garshøl’s blog (e.g. here). (Lars is also responsible for the wider availability of Sigmund Gjernes’s kveik yeast. Incidentally, “Sigmund Voss kveik yeast” should read “Sigmund‘s Voss kveik yeast”; Voss is the district where Gjernes lives and brews.)

Anyway, here’s the keg taps at the Hillary Step, and here’s RedWillow brewing a “farmhouse IPA” with certified kveik yeast. Farmhouse shmarmhouse – labels like ‘farmhouse’ and ‘saison’ cover a multitude of sins, as perhaps they always did – and IPA shmIPA, but kveik? That, I thought, was something new and different, and I had to give it a try – even if it was keg filth. (But… is it key keg? If so, is it unfiltered? If so, might there be real-ale levels of yeast knocking around inside that refrigerated bag? I wonder.)

On ordering it, I had no idea what to expect – and that’s a very rare experience these days. The thought crossed my mind that I might be about to taste my new favourite beer – like meeting Ticketybrew Pale for the first time all over again. Perhaps I primed my own perceptions, but I was initially reminded of that very beer – despite the inevitable cold prickly qualities of keg beer, it gave me a similar sense of the depth of flavour of a malty best bitter, combined with the resonant depths of an abbey beer. (Oh, I’m just getting started here. If you’re not into purple prose and general Adrianism, you may want to give the rest of this post a miss.) I was impressed. I drank some more… and found the ‘best bitter’ fading out and a more assertive ‘rye bread’ character coming in. Toasted rye bread. Toasted rye bread, with… what was that… cocoa? (And it’s a pale beer.) Actually, not just rye bread, it’s pumpernickel. Pumpernickel and chocolate spread.

As an IPA it wasn’t exactly true to style, clearly, but as a beer it was really interesting. So I tried it again – but I tend to fit in pubgoing around the rest of my life rather than vice versa, so it was a full five days before I made it back to the Step. Not so much best bitter this time, more cream soda. Cream soda with sourdough bread. Cream soda with sourdough and an odd little funky yeast note, savoury, almost meaty. Marmite on sourdough… with cream soda. Alcoholic cream soda (you can probably get that these days). And over the cream soda, what was that? Not pear drops – not acetone – but pears; a definite overtone of pears. Pears, and then there was dark chocolate coming through; pears wrapped around dark chocolate; basically it’s pears Belle Hélène, to follow up your marmite on sourdough. The whole thing was only let down, as the other flavours faded, by a tongue-coating aftertaste of sour milk or yogurt; it reminded me (on top of everything else) of the Mad Hatter tzatziki beer I wrote about here.

What’s going on, then, when – in the course of a week – best bitter turns to cream soda and pears, when rye bread turns to sourdough, and when yogurt starts elbowing its way to the front? The obvious explanation is that the yeast – or something that’s come along with the yeast for the ride – is getting a bit lairy. This is why I wonder if CAMRA would say this is real ale, if anyone asked them. Either way – and even with the sour-milk overtone – it’s a fascinating beer, not quite like anything else I’ve ever tasted – and how often can you say that?

Val-de-ree!

It’s the time of year when Manchester CAMRA branches do their bit for the licensed trade by encouraging members to set out on a “Winter Warmer Wander”, thus bolstering pub receipts at this difficult time of year. (Note to CAMRA people reading this: hi John! Also, why is it in December? Wouldn’t January make more sense?)

Rather than separate posts for different areas, I’m going to post a quick round-up with subheadings.

The Good Ones

Last December Wine and Wallop had RedWillow Thoughtless on when I called. Alas, not this time – but they did have the chocolate stout Heartless, which is always welcome and was in very good nick. I was equally impressed with Magic Rock Punchline – a chipotle porter – at Brink. I like Brink a lot but never seem to spend any time there; I would have rectified the omission this time, but the place was packed out (I think there were as many as 30 people there).

Less stellar but decent were Gloucester Six Malt Porter at Pie and Ale and Manchester Brewing Pick Me Up in the Paramount (JDW), a coffee porter which was fine but a bit tired. The Paramount was every bit as full as Brink, which is to say that there were about 300 people in there. (On the same day, incidentally, I looked in at the Waterhouse (JDW), but thought better of it when I saw that the crowd at the bar was three deep.)

The Near Misses

Ashover Liquorice, in the Castle, was probably a really good liquorice stout. It certainly tasted strongly of liquorice – much more so than Ticketybrew‘s Invalid Stout, which was made with tons of the stuff. It’s a near miss for me because I don’t actually like liquorice, or not when it dominates the flavour as it did here.

Origami Mullered (Crown and Kettle) is the only old ale I’ve had this year – if we’re being picky, the only actual winter warmer – and it was really good. It would just have been even better if they’d had the courage of their ‘old ale’ convictions and not added ‘seasonal’ cake spices. Similarly, Ridgeside Kodiak – one of the adventurous choices on the bar at Reasons to be Cheerful – struck me as a hottish, slightly over-cranked porter, and only lost points when I learned that it was a “maple and pecan” porter. (I had it on keg later the same week; it didn’t taste so ‘hot’, oddly enough, but I still wasn’t getting the crunchy nut cornflake effect.) R2BC, like Brink, is a small, friendly bar with an excellent range of beer, and I always want to spend a bit more time there. This time was no exception. I dashed out to get my bus – after debating whether to wait fifteen minutes for the next one, and chance it on being home when I’d said I would – and ended up waiting the full fifteen minutes at the bus stop. (And I was home in time.)

Not Actually Dark

Hyde’s and their pubs aren’t really getting into the spirit of the WWW this year. I’ve had a couple of their “Beer Studio” beers: Mahogany Summit in the Fletcher Moss and oddly, the Ford Madox Brown (JDW); Yankee Pumpkin Ale in the Vic. They’re both basically darkish mid-strength bitters, although the Mahogany Summit does have an interesting ‘roasty’ finish; you could just about imagine you were drinking a stout if you didn’t look at it. There were also no dark beers at the Gateway (JDW) – I had hopes of Kelham Island Smoke on the Water, but it turned out to be a smoked pale beer; or at the Red Lion, where the Marston’s name over the door is as much a guarantee of bland predictability as it once was of quality (I had Snecklifter); or at the Smithfield (Kennet & Avon Caen Hill Hop), or the Great Central (JDW) (Brightside Topaz); or at the Friendship, where I havered between Hyde’s Lowry and someone-or-other’s Fireside Ale, unable to read the a.b.v. on either of the pump clips, and eventually jumped the wrong way. (The Internet tells me that Lowry is actually over the magic number of 4.5%, and that the Fireside Ale is under – and that it’s brewed by Greene King, although they keep very quiet about it.)

Not Actually Qualifying (plus Not Actually On The List)

None of the eight pubs in the previous paragraph had any dark beers on (let alone old ales), and most of them only had the one beer over 4.5%. After less than satisfactory encounters at the Vic and the Red Lion, I was in the mood for something dark – and it had been a long time since that Heartless at Wine and Wallop – so I bobbed into the Turnpike for a half of Samuel Smith’s Extra Stout. It was on keg, of course – Sam’s stout isn’t available on cask anywhere (unless you know better…) – but it was fine; if it was sold more widely, and if people bought keg stout for the taste, I could see it taking market share from Guinness. (Of course they don’t, and it never will, so the point’s academic.) Elsewhere, the Arndale Micro Bar, last time I passed, was listing three more beers than were actually on sale; this struck me as odd, given that they only had one pump idle at the time. One of the phantom beers was a draught stout, but none of the beers that were actually available was either dark or over 4.5%, so I passed. I was less scrupulous at the Crown (Northenden), having made a special trip out there; I had a pint of Weetwood Cheshire Cat, an unexceptional but agreeable golden ale, and found a corner to watch the match.

Are You Man U, You?

Watching the footie at the Crown was actually quite pleasant, which I fear doesn’t bode well for the pub – there were only about twice as many people in there as TV screens. Liverpool v Everton was still playing at the Red Lion and at the Vic; both of those were absolutely rammed, to the level where you have to keep up a constant stream of warnings and apologies to get from one side of the room to the other (“sorry… mind your backs… excuse me… coming through…”).

I made it to Fallowfield a bit later in the afternoon and decided to hit the Friendship before the Great Central, thinking that the latter wouldn’t have the game on and the former probably would – although I did also think that the Liverpool game would probably be over by this time. Good news: the Liverpool derby had indeed finished. Bad news: the Friendship was now showing the Manchester derby – Manchester United and the other lot – while also, apparently, trying for a world record for the number of people they could get into one room. I’d thought the Vic was busy, but this was something else. To get across the room – which included getting to the bar – you basically had to keep up a constant stream of warnings and apologies, and then push hard. You know when you’re at a gig, and there’s a support act on who nobody really cares about, but there are about eight rows of people at the front jealously guarding their positions for when the headliner comes on? Picture that, except that you need to get to the front of the stage in order to get served. My sticker-requesting technique – smile, make eye contact, ask directly and succinctly, say thankyou – was heavily tested today, never more than at the Friendship. (It worked, though – at least, nobody got at all narky about having to fossick around for a bit of sticky paper on one of the busiest days of the year. Which reminds me – why do we do this in December?)

The Scores

Everton equalised, apparently; I don’t know how they managed that. I don’t remember the score for the other match. As for the beers, in sixteen pubs I’ve had

1 old ale
4 porters
2 stouts
7 ‘other’ qualifying beers (>4.5%)
2 non-qualifying beers

7/16 – a bit on the low side, sadly.

The Twist Ending

After all that, I’m afraid I won’t be participating in the Winter Warmer Wander 2017, even though the sixteen pubs I’ve visited put me well on the way to a t-shirt to add to my collection. (Don’t knock it – my stash of CAMRA t-shirts and polo shirts makes packing for summer holidays much simpler.) At my first stop this afternoon, reaching for my sticker sheet, I found it wasn’t there; this didn’t worry me until I got home and found it wasn’t here either. So farewell then, my stickers for Brink, the Castle, the Crown and Kettle, the Fletcher Moss, the Ford Madox Brown, the Gateway, the Paramount, Pie and Ale, Reasons to be Cheerful and the Smithfield. As much as I like some of those places, I really don’t want to do all ten of them again – and I can’t see myself getting to 24 without them – so I think that’s going to have to be it for this year.

 

 

 

Down with the kids

I had a drink with my son in the Sedge Lynn – our local Spoons – the other night; I had Adnams Ghost Ship, he was on the Polgoon still cider (we hadn’t heard of it either, but it was very good). The place was rammed – particularly when the rain drove the smokers back inside – to the point where it was hard to find anywhere to sit; there must have been getting on for a hundred people in there. I don’t think there was a soul among them under 21. The average age was closer to mine than my son’s; the younger generation may favour Spoons’, but not that one, or at least not that night. (My son favours Sam Smith’s pubs when he has the choice.)

For a variety of reasons we couldn’t stay for another, but fetched up later in the Font up the road. I hadn’t been planning on revisiting the Font, having had a bit of a passive-aggressive ordeal there the previous week, but it was fine. We took our drinks (RedWillow Effortless (pale, hoppy and pretty decent as keg filth goes) and Hogan’s medium cider (not a patch on the Polgoon)) to the shabby but comfortable sofa in the room at the back, and settled down for some people-watching. Or rather, this being the back room of the Font, parent-watching. Judge not that ye be not judged and all that, and my son was certainly no stranger to licensed premises in his pre-school years; I remember him literally skipping down Brown Street towards Rothwell’s, one Saturday afternoon in town, shouting out “Pub! Pub!”. (He was good as gold once he’d got his coke and his crisps, let me assure you. Besides, we had the place to ourselves.) But I’m pretty sure it was only relatively quiet pubs that we took him into, and only in daylight hours; to put it another way, I’m pretty damn certain we never took him anywhere full of people, with music at shouting-over volume, at 8.00 on a Saturday night. The back room was less busy than the rest of the pub, but it’s a good size – it must seat about 24, mostly on refectory benches – and there were a good 12 or 15 people there. But I dare say the little girl playing on Daddy’s phone, while Mummy drank her cocktail and Daddy and his friend got another couple of pints in, was perfectly happy. As for the little boy of 12 months or so, whose father was encouraging him to take his first steps, in between the tables – well, what a precious memory that will be, and what kind of hidebound reactionary would argue that it shouldn’t be formed in the back room of a pub on a Saturday night?

Not that it’s actually a ‘back room’ we’re talking about here; banish all thoughts of ‘family rooms’, with their formica tables and soundproof doors. If you know the Font, you’ll know that the whole place is basically open plan. The area at the back – what’s effectively become its ‘family area’, complete with colouring books and crayons – is a separate room that was knocked through some time ago; there are pillars (presumably load-bearing pillars) marking it off, but no partitions or other barriers. At least, there aren’t usually any barriers… Cue the passive-aggressive story (imagine a wobbly time-travel dissolve here). The previous Saturday, I’d gone into the Font, found it a bit on the full side and noticed that the sofa at the back was free – there were a couple of small kids pottering about in front of it, but I reasoned that I could ignore them and they could ignore me. I got to the pillars marking off the back section of the room and found that one of the long benches had been pushed across to form a kind of barricade, at which a man was effectively standing guard. “Coming through?” he asked me – an odd question, given that there was nowhere to get to beyond the back room. I was a bit taken aback by the whole thing and replied, “I was planning on sitting down, yes.” He manoeuvred the bench out of the way and let me through into what had basically been turned into a play area, where two couples could relax without having to keep too close an eye on their three toddlers. Quite the little oasis, it was.

My presence caused a certain amount of consternation (although not among the kids), and I can’t really say I’m sorry. Not that I did anything; I sat on the sofa – moving some colouring-in to one side – and did what I’d been planning to do all along, which was read my paper, drink my beer and mind my own business. At one point two of the kids came over to have another look at their colouring (the third was too young to walk and wasn’t taking much part in proceedings). I wasn’t at all bothered – I carried on reading and they didn’t take much notice of me – but one of the mums immediately came over and got them out of my way, with profuse and rather loud apologies: “Come along, come along this man doesn’t want to be bothered by brats when he’s trying to read his paper! I don’t know, coming over here, getting in your personal space – I know what it’s like, they’re always getting in my personal space at home…!” And so on – communicating fairly clearly that (a) I was calling her kids brats (b) I had a nerve to insist on her keeping them out of my way, considering what she had to put up with and (c) she didn’t give a damn about me and my so-called personal space. Hey ho.

After twenty minutes or so they all left. Both couples had parked their buggies in front of the sofa where I was sitting; this gave the man who’d been guarding the barricade the opportunity to accost me again, telling me “I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear, we’re leaving”. Which – I don’t know about you – I think is a bit rude. The ironic thing was that – as I well remember – it takes ages to get moving when you’ve got small kids, and getting two families moving somehow always takes twice as long; after Mr Gatekeeper had told me off for spoiling their evening it was a good five minutes before anyone had perceptibly moved at all, and getting on for ten before they’d all actually left the pub. I was ready to go myself by then, but no way was I giving them the satisfaction of leaving first.

The odd thing about this is that all the actual hostility came from their side. There are people who really don’t like being in the presence of other people’s kids; there are people who, if they went into a pub and found small children there, would walk out, or tut and glare, or sit and fume and consider their experience ruined. Generally I just tune them out; I don’t mind kids at all unless they make a lot of noise or barge into me – which are also things I don’t like adults doing. There is a difference, though, which is that noisy adults, as adults, have a right to be there, and should only be chucked out if they really make themselves unbearable; noisy kids are already there on sufferance. The pub is still adult space in my mind, at least in the evening; if it’s after 7.00 p.m., if the kids are younger than about 14 and if people aren’t eating, then I’d really rather they weren’t there. That’s a pretty liberal position by the standards of pub culture when I was growing up – and by the standards of a lot of pubs even now – but it doesn’t extend to welcoming the presence of toddlers at 8.00 on a Saturday night. I guess that attitude is what those parents were reacting against, both in creating ‘facts on the ground’ with an improvised barricade in the first place and in the warm welcome they gave me; I think they saw me as reclaiming that back room as adult space. Actually what I objected to wasn’t the children in that area, but the adults who were trying to keep me out of it.

A week on, I’m not quite sure what to think about this. I have some sympathy with the parents: I got enough side-eye from grumpy old gits in pubs, when I was shepherding small children around, to last me a lifetime. On the other hand, I really didn’t do anything, other than sitting down on an empty seat in an unreserved area in a pub; there was no tutting and glaring from me, I promise you, no fuming even (not at the kids, anyway). Then again, it’s true that I would have preferred the kids not to be there, and perhaps there’s not much difference – for a parent – between “take those evil-smelling brats out of my sight” and “wouldn’t your charming and delightful children be better off at home?”. But, then again again (on the fourth hand?), I actually do think that young children would be better off at home, at 8.00 on a Saturday night, than in a noisy, dimly-lit, sticky-floored pub with lots of hard surfaces and sharp corners, full of young people getting raucously drunk. Those parents – both weeks, and (let’s face it) quite probably every week, at the Font – remind me of nothing so much as parents in the US who take their kids to R-rated films rather than fork out for a babysitter. (A friend saw a man actually cover his daughter’s eyes and ears during the shower scene at the beginning of American Beauty. That kid must have asked her dad some very interesting questions afterwards, and serve him right.)

Ultimately it’s not good for kids to take them wherever you want to go. With its terra cotta floor tiles, railway sleeper furniture and transient population of drunken strangers, the Font is about as good a place to let children play as a bus station. (Even the Sedge Lynn would only score one out of three.) Some spaces just aren’t very child-friendly, and insisting on taking your kids to them doesn’t change that.

 

A session of three halves

I’ve been in a few bars recently where a wide range of beers belied a decidedly narrow range of styles, strengths or – in the worst case – both. Not stocking anything over (say) 5% seems particularly regrettable. I know that cask beer doesn’t keep forever, so that any unfamiliar beer is a bit of a gamble for the bar stocking it – and a beer that people are likely to drink in halves is twice as much of a gamble – but there should be a bit more room for manoeuvre with keg beers, surely.

Fortunately, a Half of Something Silly is still available in some places. The newly-opened Keg & Cask (a successor of sorts to De Nada and occupying the same premises) included in its opening keg lineup Alphabet Flat White, an amber 7.2% number confusingly described as a ‘white breakfast stout’. First impression: a decent mid-strength barley wine. Second impression: a decent mid-strength barley wine with coffee and perhaps some sweetness from lactose. Overall impression: a decent mid-strength barley wine, which could probably have done without the coffee and the lactose. Call me a traditionalist, but I won’t mind, because I am. (What do I make of K&C? Early days – and I remember my first impressions of the (Chorlton) Font as ‘a big draughty barn with leather sofas dotted about & a scary man on the door’, which isn’t really the case now. What I will say about K&C is that the posing tables & high stools aren’t really for me – when I’m drinking I like to take the weight off my feet, sit back & lose myself in what I’m reading (and drinking), and being unable to do the first two makes the third a lot harder. The metal chairs on the astroturf ‘lawn’ outside were a lot more satisfactory.)

Somewhere that fits a lot of normally-sized seats – including bench seating – into a small space is the Marble Beerhouse, where I headed next. They had – and (as I’m writing) probably still have – Marble Portent of Usher on cask. This is a 9% imperial stout, and it’s worth seeking out: it’s ‘big’ and heavy without being hot, it’s sweet without being syrupy, it’s got depth and complexity without being hard to drink… all in all I don’t remember very much about it, except that it definitely didn’t not work; there are lots of ways to mess up with a 9% stout, and this one didn’t put a foot wrong. Perhaps my only worry is whether a beer so big should be quite so smooth or go down quite so easily.

Anyway, I had time for another half, and I was pleased to see Marble Assisi on keg. This is a dubbel – brewed in collaboration with the Gorton Monastery of St Francis – although it’s relatively light for the style, at least in colour and strength (6.5%). Having recently enjoyed a bottle of Ticketybrew Dubbel, I was initially somewhat taken aback by the Assisi, inasmuch as my first impression was that it was even better. On further reflection (and further drinking) I demoted it to ‘as good, but different’. It’s on the ‘strong bitter’ end of the dubbel style rather than the ‘dark mild’ end, put it that way: definitely a paler shade of malt loaf.

I called it a day then, or to be more precise went home for my tea. Three halves, then, with an average strength of 7.6% – which is to say, the equivalent of three pints at 3.8%. I don’t think I’ll do many sessions on halves – I do like the volume of a pint; in future I’ll at least alternate with something a bit less rocket-fuel-like. Good to have the option, though.