Category Archives: Drink local

Around Manchester on a pint of mild (3)

One more post on Mild Magic, CAMRA’s annual campaign to promote mild around Manchester.

When I started this blog back in 2010, one of the first things I posted was a series of posts on “my local” – I was lucky enough to have four pubs and bars to choose from. All four are still trading, although with the exception of the Wetherspoon’s they’re all under different management. Of the other three, two – the Beerhouse and the Hillary Step – are more or less recognisable as the same place they were, with a formula that the incoming management have altered but not overturned.

The Beech, though, is an almost completely different pub, with the snug opened out and large screens – and piped music – in every room. Not, I have to say, my cup of tea. Still, at all but its very lowest points the Beech has been dependable for beer quality, with a longstanding association with Timothy Taylor’s, and I’m happy to say that both of these are still the case. I didn’t stop long enough to find out if the Landlord and Boltmaker were as good as I remember them being, but I can report that the Brightside Umbra was in good nick. It’s an odd one for a dark mild, with a lot of roasty bitterness and very little sweetness; if you’d told me it was a light stout I wouldn’t have argued. Good stuff, though.

I had the Beech, and its many screens, more or less to myself on this Friday afternoon, but as I approached the Bowling Green things looked decidedly more lively. In fact it was buzzing. Actually it was a bit too busy, and what was that? a sign asking customers to place all orders at the desk? I approached close enough to the lad on the said desk for him to accost me and ask whether I was with the funeral. Ah.

Fortunately there was another pub handy, in the shape of the Horse and Jockey. In its latterday form as a gastropub, it was deserted and rather unwelcoming. I took my pint of Holt’s mild outside; it was fine, but no more than that.

On another Friday afternoon, the bus took me to Urmston and the Lord Nelson – a pub I’ve only ever visited in daytime, and which always looks as if it’s going to be a lot livelier in the evening; not in an unwelcoming way, though. The Holt’s mild here was excellent, for what that’s worth.

A walk into the centre brought me to the Prairie Schooner, the Music for the Soul secondhand record shop, and – more to the point – the Tim Bobbin (JDW), where I had another pint of Brightside Umbra (for about half the price the Beech had charged). The sticker sheet had gone walkabout, so I returned to the bar afterwards to get a signature, only to be stuck behind an old bloke who was having a pint of Coors dispensed from the slowest keg tap you have ever seen. And a slightly lairy-looking guy who lunged up to the bar, counted out some coins, said something about ifmyturncomesroundandI’mnotherecheersta and disappeared out of the front entrance, presumably for a smoke. (The bartender, still drawing the endless pint of Coors, ignored this approach completely and rolled her eyes as he left.) Then it turned out that the old bloke with the Coors wasn’t just ordering the one pint; in fact I had to wait until the bartender had pulled four of them, by which time there was a small crowd waiting and I felt quite bad about monopolising the bartender’s attention. Still, I seized my moment and got… the bartender’s initials in the box on the form. (This was actually the only place I came away from without a sticker this year.) Outside I met ifmyturncomesround guy, although as it turned out he wasn’t smoking; in fact he was riding a pushbike in circles on the pavement. He asked if there was still a queue at the bar, then answered himself (ahyouwouldn’tknowwouldyou) and headed inside to find out, wheeling the bike. JDW’s, all human life is there.

There was no drama at the Prairie Schooner – not least because it wasn’t on the MM list – but I’ll talk about it anyway. There was an opportunity to compare and contrast Loch Lomond‘s single-hop DIPAs Lost in Citra and Lost in Mosaic (verdict: the Citra works better than the Mosaic, unless you like an undertone of burnt toast with your fruit cocktail). Also at the Schooner, a wall entirely covered with past pump badges; I was able to count 20 different TicketyBrew beers, half of which I never had, alas. (Also a few from Cryptic – and doubtless from other former breweries of quality.)

And then to Didsbury. Wine and Wallop and I have (slightly tetchy) history with regard to MM, so it’s nice to be able to report that they had a mild on, and that it was a very nice pint. It’d be even nicer if I could remember which mild it was. I blame their bizarre decision to operate on table service only, while still having draught beers on the bar (and not on a menu, blackboard etc, at least as far as I could see). I distinctly remember thinking, halfway down the pint, what is this again? and straining to read the pump clip from my seat (I appear to be drinking… Binny Stritchly’s Dank Mick… can that possibly be right?). I don’t distinctly remember what I eventually worked it out to be, sadly. Still: they’re serving mild – and giving out stickers – so fair play to them.

There was more nomenclatural (it’s a word) consternation at the Fletcher Moss, which turns out to have been the only Hyde’s pub I visited on this year’s MM. Despite sponsoring MM, Hyde’s seem determined not to sell anything actually called Mild. As I understand it Hyde’s light mild is still on sale as 1863 (although as Hyde’s currently badge it as a “chestnut session ale” I wonder if it’s as light as it used to be), but the dark mild is no longer Owd Oak or even Old Indie; it’s… (You have to imagine this entire paragraph playing out, with increasing rapidity, in my head as I studied the pump clips at the Fletcher Moss.) In the end I plumped for Dark Ruby (“a very dark ruby red beer”), as much on the basis of its strength (3.5%) as anything else. A pint of it in the beer garden went down quite nicely.

Lastly to East Didsbury and the Gateway (JDW), where they were between milds. As remnants of their ‘beer festival’ were still visible, I took the opportunity to settle a question from the Waterhouse – where

There was a pump for Rudgate Ruby Mild, which is what I duly ordered, but I didn’t see the server draw it – she disappeared to the other end of the bar and came back with my pint some minutes later. (I checked afterwards and there wasn’t another mild tap at that end.) Maybe she had it ‘banked’, although I can’t imagine why.

The only other dark beer it could have been was an Italian porter – Foglie d’Erba Hot Night at the Village – which, as luck would have it, was on the bar at the Gateway. So I had a half. It was good, but it was definitely a porter – which means I did have the Rudgate mild. Nice to get these things settled.

There was very nearly a problem with the stickers at the Gateway, albeit an unusual kind of problem – I overheard two members of staff debating whether, considering they hadn’t had a mild on, I should have been given a sticker. Fortunately they didn’t confiscate it for being obtained under false pretences. They were also pulling through Titanic Classic Mild at the time, and as I’d only had a half of the porter it seemed rude not to have a half of that as well.

Six pubs and one bar; seven venues, seven milds, six stickers. Overall, 23 out of 24 were giving out stickers and – more importantly – 20 out of 24 had mild on. Several old favourites it was nice to visit again – Costello’s, the Stalybridge Buffet Bar and of course the Tap – and four places I’d never been before (Ladybarn SC, Tapsters, the Halfway House and Bridge Beers). (And I really must get back to Reasons one of these days.)

Many thanks to the organisers for making Mild Magic possible, again – it’s good to have it back.

Around Manchester on a pint of mild (2)

More on Mild Magic, CAMRA’s annual campaign to promote mild around Manchester.

One of the pleasures of Mild Magic is connecting up assorted pubs and bars in a single route – particularly when it means getting to somewhere you don’t usually go without having to make a special trip. It doesn’t always work out; this time round I decided not to fit Reasons to be Cheerful into my Didsbury trip (of which more anon), but never managed to work out another route it would fit into. What I did manage this year, courtesy of a £10 all-you-can-eat bus/train/tram pass, was Stalybridge via Droylsden and Ashton.

At the Silly Country my notes have let me down; I could tell you what was on two of the handpumps (viz. two different flavoured ciders); I could draw you a map of the layout and tell you where I was sitting; I could even name several of the books on the bookshelves, but I can’t tell you the name of the dark mild I had. It was pretty good, though. (It definitely wasn’t Pomona Mild Peril, which TSC had had on, as that’s 6% and I would have (a) remembered and (b) had a half.) The Silly Country – a craft beer bar in a shopping-centre unit, in Droylsden – wouldn’t have been on my list of Bars Most Likely To Succeed, but it’s been there four years now and seems to be doing OK (and the mild, whatever it was, was in good nick). Good luck to them.

Back on the tram to Ashton, where I decided to tick off the (restricted-opening) Halfway House before trying anywhere more central. I’m not sure where it’s halfway to, but it would have to be pretty good if you were going to get me doing the other half on foot. I did get a bus part of the way, but ‘part’ was the operative word – the usually-reliable Moovit app suggested that my best route was “get on bus, sit down, count to ten, stand up, get off bus, walk uphill through terraced streets for 15 minutes”, and like a fool I believed it. The Halfway House turned out to be a back street pub on the old “large detached house” model, with three rooms, three customers and two handpumps. They had had a mild on, apparently, but no longer; I had a pint of Bass, which was perfectly fine.

Then back into the centre, which took a while – that side of Ashton isn’t really optimised for foot traffic – and took me down a lot of streets where all the shops were closed and there was nobody around but bored teenagers. As it was a Saturday lunchtime this seemed odd, to say no more than that. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by living in Chorlton. Fortified by a couple of pies from the covered market, I went in search of Tapster’s, and found… a nightclub. A nightclub from the 1970s or 80s, specifically – chrome, deep pile carpets, black leather, low lighting… And, er, cask beer. There was no mild on, so I had a half of Bridge Beers Galaxy. The bartender told me they had a Bridge Beers mild, but it was still settling; we had a bit of a chat about the brewery, who he rated highly.

Next stop was the aforesaid bridge – viz. Staly – and my first call was Bridge Beers itself, where the brewery’s beers are served on gravity, from nines behind the bar. I had a half of Bridge Beers mild, which was really good. Ordinarily I would have either made it a pint or stopped for another half or two – I’d enjoyed the Galaxy & was quite tempted by the “Galaxy Export Strength”, even though “export strength” turned out to be 5% – but.. Well, it’s a social distancing thing, or rather an ‘enclosed space’ thing. I’d managed to mute, or at least snooze, my inner Covid Alert in all the places I’d visited so far – “well, it’s quite airy”; “well, it’s quite a big place”; “OK, it’s a small place with no windows at all, but… actually it’s quite big, and anyway there’s hardly anyone in”… But Bridge Beers was (a) tiny, (b) packed (there must have been eight other customers in there, maybe even ten) and (c) frankly a bit stuffy – you know how, when you’re in a crowded room, after a while the air starts to feel a bit moist? That.

So I regretfully supped up and moved on to my last stop of the day, the Buffet Bar. I went there 28 years ago to my certain knowledge (and that may not have been the first time); it hasn’t changed a lot. Sadly there wasn’t a mild to be had, but as they had Jaipur on cask I didn’t feel too hard done by. A half of that was followed by a half of Thornbridge/Neon Raptor Pandora’s Box, an 8% DIPA (on keg, naturally). Which was fine – lots of tropical fruit, lots of alcohol – but no more than that; I should just have had a pint of Jaipur, or maybe two.

Another trip out took me to Sale and Altrincham – not an actual train trip, admittedly, although it did involve travelling on a railway line.

In Sale I decided against trekking up the A56 to the Volunteer, and went to the J. P. Joule (JDW) next to the stationtram stop. It was early in the day, so I broke my rule and had a half, of Phoenix Monkeytown Mild. It was a fairly light-bodied dark mild, not particularly sweet, with a slightly stout-like bitter finish. I wasn’t bowled over, but it would probably work better over a full pint.

In Altrincham I went to the Old Market Tavern. I’ve seen it buzzing in the past, but that was at night. On this particular Saturday lunchtime, this big, open pub, a bit outside the town centre, not serving food (despite signs claiming otherwise), was about as busy as you’d expect. I imagine food service was a casualty of the pandemic, as I think was also the case for the Buffet Bar. Bringing it back would be a big step, but without it a place like the Old Market has lost a lot of its appeal, at least during the day. They also didn’t have any mild on, but a pint of Lees‘ MPA was very welcome.

Then it was over to Costello’s, where I was back on halves; the Dunham Dark would have been well worth a pint, but there was the Porter to fit in (malt extract and tobacco smoke), not to mention the Lymm Lymm Dam. There’s a certain kind of beer of which I always want to say that it “rings like a bell”. I’m not entirely sure what I mean by that(!), but it’s usually an old ale, an abbey beer or a top-end strong bitter; Ticketybrew Pale qualified, for example. It’s a certain combination of body, fullness of flavour (without cloying sweetness or cough-mixture heaviness) and strength. Anyway, that half of Lymm Dam absolutely rang like a bell. (And the Dunham Dark was a very good mild.)

Three pubs and five bars – or if you’re being picky, three pubs, four bars and one micro-pub; quite a variety of places, anyway. And eight venues got me eight stickers and five milds – a bit less impressive than the 8/9 scored by central Manchester and Stockport (see previous post), but not bad.

Next: making some local calls.

Around Manchester on a pint of mild (1)

Mild Magic – CAMRA’s annual campaign to promote mild around Manchester – is back for 2022; slightly to my surprise, I’m even taking part myself. (“Look how the figures are falling at the moment” did battle with “Look at all the people who’ve been posting pictures of their positive tests”; it wasn’t a foregone conclusion, but optimism eventually won, thanks in part to an intervention by “it’s not as if I’m not going to the pub already”.) 24 pubs, 24 different areas, mostly on weekday afternoons (being a part-timer has its benefits) – it’s been fun, and hopefully it hasn’t been excessively risky.

The main difference with previous years, as far as I’m concerned, is that I’ve decided to have a pint where possible. The weekday afternoon trade tends to be slack, for obvious reasons, and in previous years’ MMs I’ve sat in quite a few pubs and bars that were otherwise completely empty. If I was going to be the only custom a bar had in half an hour, I didn’t want to seem like a cheapskate into the bargain – especially post-pandemic. Also, it’s mild – a good mild should be pintable, even to the point of being a “disappearing beer“.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the first instalment of pubs on this year’s MM itinerary, covering central Manchester and Stockport.

I started at the Briton’s Protection, a landmark pub with reliably good and interesting beer, now sadly under threat (petition here). The mild they had on was 4Ts Old School, which was… fine. To be more positive about it, it was – as the name implies – an old-school dark mild: malty, sweetish, light-textured, absolutely nothing striking or unexpected about it. Which meant that it went down very easily.

I had an odd experience at the Waterhouse (JDW). There was a pump for Rudgate Ruby Mild, which is what I duly ordered, but I didn’t see the server draw it – she disappeared to the other end of the bar and came back with my pint some minutes later. (I checked afterwards and there wasn’t another mild tap at that end.) Maybe she had it ‘banked’, although I can’t imagine why. It was a nice mild, anyway – fruity and full-flavoured, with a lot of body.

Also in – or near – the city centre are the New Oxford and the Piccadilly Tap; I know I had a mild in both places but I didn’t make a note of it, sadly. Both places had a big range of beers on tap, as ever – and, as ever, an impressive range of Belgian bottles at the Oxford – but nothing that made me feel the need to stop for another.

A city-centre pub that wasn’t an old haunt of mine – I think I’d only been in once before – was the Lower Turk’s Head. There are pubs that, when you see them in daylight, look as if they come into their own at night, and the Turk’s Head was definitely one of those. The Holt’s Cherry Mild was excellent, though – not especially sweet or fruity, but a big, complex flavour, far superior to the standard mild.

As for the Stockport leg of my MM journey, that began at the Ladybarn Social Club. I was initially foxed by the “entry by key fob only” notice on the door and considered going elsewhere, before reasoning that it must be possible for non-members to get in and trying the door buzzer. Of course, it was fine – just a matter of signing in as a guest – and I had a pint of Dunham’s Chocolate Cherry Mild, which was really good. The signing-in process took a bit of a while to organise, as did the hunt for the MM stickers, and I was slightly concerned that I was going to miss the next bus. Once I’d got my pint, I realised I needn’t have worried. The flavour of the CCM is just as big as the name implies, but the chocolate and cherry notes don’t feel bolted-on – it just tastes like a dark mild that happens to taste of those things. (Cf. Ticketybrew’s “Frankenstein beers” with hops-and-barley flavour profiles duplicated – and heightened – by the use of additions.) And it goes down extraordinarily easily. After this and the 4Ts, I started to wonder if the roster of disappearing beers needed to be updated to include traditional dark milds (and some less traditional ones).

In Stockport itself, the recently-revived Crown didn’t have a mild on, but only because it had run off the previous night, when (the licensees were keen to impress on me) the place had been rammed. It was Sunday afternoon, just after lunch; I had a half of Brimstage Oystercatcher stout, and I didn’t see another soul while I was there. It’s hard to come back from closure, and I wish the new licensees luck with it.

The Cocked Hat, by contrast, had a good complement of regulars, a word which here means “person sitting at the bar who looks round at you suspiciously as you come in” (an experience I’ve had in there before, although oddly enough the pub was under different management). It also had big screen sport with the sound off, together with piped music – a weird and unappealing combination (also seen at the Lower Turk’s Head). I decided to break my pint rule and had a half of Timothy Taylor’s Dark Mild – a fairly rare bird, which I’ve enjoyed a lot in the past. Either it’s not as good now as it used to be or the half I had was in poor nick; I wasn’t impressed, anyway.

Lastly, I broke the pints rule again at the Petersgate Tap, but this was because they had Ashover Victorian Ruby Mild on – and it’s 7%. There’s no reason to imagine that a Victorian time traveller would call it anything but a mild – and matching Victorian styles to anything we’d recognise now is a mug’s game – and  but for what it’s worth this tasted like a strong old ale or a light-ish barley wine; it was terrific, either way. (But a half was enough.)

Counting the Ladybarn SC as a pub – and it’s certainly the pubbiest social club I’ve ever seen; I could name pubs that look more like a social club – that’s seven pubs and two bars; nine venues, nine stickers, eight milds.

Next: two train trips

Is it safe?

Is it safe at this desk? Yes, I think so, although the joke could yet be on reclusive old me – a multi-member household is only as safe as the riskiest place any member visits.

Was it safe when I went to the Font last night? Yes, I think so – we sat outside. I had a NEIPA which I won’t name (it was so long since I’d had the style that I’d forgotten I don’t like ’em) and the ever-reliable Track Sonoma; my companions both had a raspberry sour from Vault City, which was really rather good. (I can recommend the same brewery’s blackcurrant sour, of all the unlikely things. Strong, sour fruit beers – they’re the next big thing, possibly.) The Sonoma was the only cask beer on, incidentally; in the old days there used to be six or eight of them, although admittedly all six (or eight) were generally low- to mid-strength pales. Anyway, given that we were in the open air it did all seem pretty safe.

Is it safe in an enclosed space? There’s a question. As an extension of the ‘open air’ principle, I reckon you’re probably reasonably safe as long as you can feel a bit of a breeze on your face, whether it’s from an open window or from ventilation. On that basis I don’t worry about the tram – though I do still try and avoid buses – and I think the cinema and the restaurant we went to last week were both probably OK. Not everywhere qualifies, though – most pub interiors don’t, for a kick-off. The only time I’ve been inside any of my local pubs this summer, I was sitting so close to an open window I could have poured my drink on the pavement.

Is it safe if you’ve had the vaccine? This is the difficult bit. According to data I’ve seen two shots cut your risk of catching the Delta variant by 60%. What this means is that for any occasion when you would (100%) have caught the virus otherwise, you now have only a 40% chance of catching it. But what that means, as anyone who can do powers of 6 in their head can confirm, is that if you have two opportunities(!) to catch the virus your chance of not catching it goes down to 36%; three, down to 22%; four, down to 13%… Six opportunities to catch it and your chance of missing out on getting infected is down below 5% – which is to say your cumulative chance of catching it is up over 95%.

People I know take the view that if you’ve had both shots (a) you’re not going to end up on a ventilator (or worse) if you do catch the virus, and in any case (b) you’re about as safe as you’re going to get, so if not now, when? I respect those people’s judgment, but I can’t quite share it, for three reasons. Firstly, while the thought of being protected from the worst outcomes is reassuring, I would really rather not get Covid (or pass it on to anyone else); it’s “just like the flu” in roughly the same sense that street opiates are “just like paracetamol”. It has some weird neurological features that we’re nowhere near understanding, and the long-term effects can be debilitating or worse – I knew someone who died from “long Covid”, aged 46. If the choice is to stay at home or roll the dice on a possible infection, it’s going to take a lot to get me out of the door – even with the dice weighted in my favour.

Secondly, I don’t believe we are about as safe as we could be: we’d be a lot safer – we’d be rolling those dice a lot less often – if figures were low and falling, instead of being high and rising. On current trends, the daily case count will match its early-January peak in about a month’s time. The vaccines have been effective to some extent: they’re almost certainly preventing a much steeper rise in cases, effectively providing firebreaks that stop flare-ups spreading. Also, both the proportion of people who catch the virus who are admitted to hospital and the death rate of those who are hospitalised are way down from the January wave. (If the peak case numbers are repeated, we’d expect to see 200 deaths a day in early October, not the 1200 per day we had at the end of January.) But remember that January was in the middle of a lockdown, a tactic that the government has promised not to use again: if we do see 60,000 cases per day in a month’s time, what’s to stop those figures rising even further? (Don’t say ‘herd immunity’ unless you can explain why – given that it clearly isn’t working now – a month’s worth of vaccinations will make it start working.)

Thirdly, the one thing we don’t want to happen is another mutation, making the virus more infectious, more deadly or both. When there’s a lot of viral replication going on, mutations happen all the time; most of them are trivial or non-functional, but sometimes a mutation improves the virus’s chances of surviving and replicating to the point where it out-competes other, existing variants. This is what happened with the Alpha (Kent) variant, and it’s happened all over again with Delta. (If we had nothing to worry about but the original Wuhan version of Covid, the country would probably be Covid-free by now.) The range of possible mutations isn’t infinite, and there may not be much scope for a version worse than Delta – but we don’t know that. Every day when people are getting infected is a day when a new mutation may arise. Every day when large and growing numbers of people are getting infected is a good day to stay well away from becoming a part of the process, if you can.

So, is it safe? Well, I don’t feel safe; I haven’t felt safe since about the time I last wrote on this blog. It was around that time that the government made it clear – to the general approval of their own party’s MPs – that the abandonment of lockdown measures and other restrictions, while it might be gradual, would be irreversible. I don’t know what this actually means, but the mood music is clear enough: the course has been locked in and nothing’s going to change it. Not public concern, not the case numbers, not the medical profession, not people dying on trolleys in hospital corridors. Watching the case figures rise – then fall, then rise again – and watching the hospitalisation and death rates rising or (at best) holding steady, ‘irreversible’ is the very last message I want to hear: it’s depressing, and by depressing I mean ‘nightmarish’. So that’s one reason why I haven’t been blogging lately.

Is it safe to talk about? This is another. As it goes, I’m quite keen on Britain having good trading and political relations with Europe; I’m also a Labour Party member. So there have been plenty of opportunities, in the last six years, for me to learn that other people have strong negative feelings about people and things who I feel positively about. Usually I’ve been happy to stand by what I believe in – where appropriate, which on a beer blog it generally isn’t – and laugh off any hostility. Something about the politics around lockdown, though, has got to me, and made me not want to do anything even slightly like wading in. It’s partly that the topic of lockdown is hard to avoid if you’re writing about pubs and beer, and partly that I genuinely see the way we deal with Covid as… well, a matter of life and death; this makes it hard to engage in a highly polarised debate in a spirit of knockabout fun. And it doesn’t help matters that the effects of the other two big polarisations I mentioned – the effects of what happened in December 2019 and January 2020 – are still very much with us.

Is it safe to go to Spoons? Probably not, quite frankly – and there are plenty of other reasons to give someone else your beer money – but it’s so well-placed for a quick drink after the pictures… Early on a weekday evening, the Seven Stars was half-empty – a good kind of half-empty – but I could see that the staff were stretched, not least from the number of uncleared tables. I scanned the code on our table and found myself ordering through the Website, which rapidly chewed up the battery in my (admittedly ageing) phone. Cask beer was limited – not to one beer this time, but to four decidedly uninspiring house beers (Ruddles, Abbot, Doom Bar and Wainwright Gold). Scrolling the can and bottle menu, I saw several beers greyed out and marked as out of stock; several others which I would have expected didn’t appear at all (no sign of those Sixpoint IPAs, for example). But they had Devils Backbone American IPA (which was fine, although less ‘American’ than I remembered), and they had Tiny Rebel Clwb Tropicana, so… ah. No. In actual fact they didn’t have Clwb Tropicana, or pretty much anything else in a 330 ml can; our server explained that they were switching from cans to bottles (???) and suggested a few alternatives, all of which were 500 ml or more.

As for the safety aspect, I realised as soon as we walked in that we were the only people there wearing masks – and I didn’t see another soul in a mask the whole time we were there, entering or leaving, behind the bar or on the stairs. Ventilation? I didn’t notice any – which probably means there wasn’t enough. (Roll the dice, then.) The other thing I noticed when we walked in was a piece of tape across the main double doors reading ‘Entrance Only’; I didn’t remember that pub having another exit and wondered vaguely which way we’d be going out. When we left I realised I’d misread the sign: it said ‘Entrance Only’ on one of the two swing doors and ‘Exit Only’ on the other. If taped-off one-way routes are security theatre, this was security burlesque.

Is it safe? Some places yes, some maybe, others not really. The real question is, is this as safe as it’s going to get? Come to that, is this as normal as it’s going to get – six cask lines down to one, Spoons running out of craft beer, Nando’s running out of chicken joints (although not halves and quarters), half of the people hating the other half and everyone hating the government?

I really hope not.

Greebling

Boak and Bailey make some interesting comments about pub tat – here a tin-plate sign, there a fishing float or two, and everywhere shelves of unread books – and the messages that it conveys:

What this kind of greebling aspires to, of course, is the genuine, accidental clutter of really old pubs. … The great thing about contrived greebling is that it only takes a decade or two to look as if it’s been there forever, and for fake greebling to attract the real thing as regulars present offerings as tokens of love.

Perhaps the value of greebling is that it suggests continuity – that a pub has been under the same ownership for more than a year or two, at least.

(Greebling? Yes, greebling.)

I think this last point is right, or half-right: it may not be the impression of continuity that the proprietor’s after, so much as – more straightforwardly – the impression of age. Age doesn’t necessarily mean trying to look like “really old pubs”, either. I’m thinking of Jam Street Café, a bar near us that I never used to visit very often (beer range not great, plenty of alternatives). When I did go in, though, I always felt comfortable straight away, purely because of the decor: framed posters advertising local bands from the very first days of punk. (They had one for Gyro, for goodness’ sake – who the hell remembers Gyro? I didn’t live here back then, but I did collect records on independent labels – including Gyro’s one and only single. (Maybe that was a poster for their one and only gig.))

Anyway, I went in again a year or so back, after a refit and a rename (Jam Street), and immediately felt uncomfortable. I realised eventually it was (also) because of the decor – the walls were now covered with posters for all these, I don’t know, modern, up-to-the-minute acts, like Moby and Catatonia and the Sterephonics… In other words, instead of appealing to people who wanted to be reminded of their lost youth in the late 70s, they’d reoriented to people who wanted to be reminded of their lost youth in the late 90s. Can’t blame them, I guess – it has to be a bigger (and thirstier) market – but it didn’t half make me feel old. (I hope they saved those posters at least.)

Then it gets meta: when a new bar opens, and you go in and see the walls adorned with Algerian hot chocolate posters, American coins flattened by trains and tide tables for Stranraer from 1975, what do you think? You know for a fact that the place hasn’t been there long enough to accumulate decades’ worth of assorted international cruft – and besides, the paintwork’s all fresh – but does it work on you nevertheless? Do you think Clearly the proprietor has come to this venture bearing the fruits of many’s the long year spent roaming the seven seas? Probably not. There is obviously an appeal to some kind of imaginary past, but it’s equally obvious that – while the individual elements do have a history – the composite past they evoke together is imaginary; and these two things cancel each other out. You know that it’s just decor, in other words; you judge it on whether you feel comfortable with this combination of elements or the composite imaginary past it suggests, or like the kind of person who’d put it together. (See also cafés with a vintage “look”, which often seems to involve mismatched crockery for some reason.) I love Sandbar dearly, incidentally, and will be going back there as soon as it’s feasible – and it’s probably the only place mentioned in this post of which I’d say that – but their particular combination of elements includes some that raise definite questions.

It goes beyond meta (if that’s possible) when the venue with the not-quite-believable combination of bits of vintage decor is not only new but part of a chain (paging Cosy Club). Given that the combination of elements on the wall presumably consists mainly of replicas and imitations, even the question of whether you would warm to the kind of person who would evoke this imaginary composite past gets lost. What you’re faced with is (on one hand) a look which relies for its impact on imitating things which did have a history, and (on the other) the knowledge that the look is just a look, which tends to cheapen the effect and reduce its impact. The extreme version of this approach is the chain pub refit I saw a while ago, which turned a multi-room pub with genuine signs of age into a big, open space, broken up with screens and dividers – all with shelves, loaded with miscellaneous but (ironically) very new-looking cruft.

Greebling: from an accumulation of objects with genuine age (even if only 30-odd years of it) to the mass-production of a brand-new imitation of the real thing – and from an instant emotional connection to none at all. And all within half an hour’s walk, in Chorlton (which admittedly is well-supplied with bars, whether old, new or old-but-disastrously-refitted).

One final, unrelated point on those shelves of unread books. B&B also write:

If you stop and look at the books on the shelves, or investigate the artefacts, you’ll find they rarely stand up to scrutiny.

I’m not so sure about this, where the books are concerned at least. A while ago the OH and I, who met at university, were visiting our offspring at a university up north. In a Spoons, having ordered a meal, we found ourselves with a few minutes to kill and started taking an interest in the books on the shelf opposite. A familiar coat of arms caught our eye: there was the Yearbook of the Cambridge college where we had met, mumble years ago and 200 miles away. (We didn’t even know there was a Yearbook.) Not only that, but it was for our year – and there, listed among the names of the new intake, were both of ours. It was more than a little spooky – but it was definitely genuine. (And, I suppose, genuinely old. If you must.)

 

Forgotten beers

As I write I’m closer to my 60th birthday than, well, any other. Being of mature years isn’t exactly unusual among CAMRA members – any more than it is in my other social group of choice, folk musicians. But what does sometimes make me feel a bit atypical – in both contexts – is that I only became an enthusiast relatively recently; I started going to folk clubs in 2003, and started thinking seriously about beer (seriously enough to remember what I’d been drinking) in 2008. Before then… not.

(What was I doing all that time?)

But of course I didn’t start drinking in my late 40s. As a matter of fact I started drinking at the age of 12, when my parents let me and a friend see in the New Year at home with a bottle of Woodpecker each. (I remember telling them the next day that it had made me feel “very lucid”. They said it did have that effect.) I had got through a fair bit of beer before I started going to festivals, taking notes and generally thinking about what beer I did and didn’t like. I just… didn’t notice it so much.

This post is about two beers I know for certain that I didn’t notice – two gaps in my memory that I’m sure are there. One dates back to 1986 or 87, the other to some time in the early 00s.

We get to 1986 via 1976 (when I fell blissfully in love with London Pride and Buckley’s Best); 1979 (when I could drink legally but discovered that I didn’t actually like bitter after all); 1982 (when I came to Manchester, encountered Marston’s dark mild and fell in love with that instead, but mostly ended up drinking Hyde’s lager*); and 1983 (when I got a job and drank two pints of Greenall Whitley bitter every lunchtime and three on Fridays, because that was what you did). Beer could still be amazing, sometimes – but how often did you see London Pride on a bar in Manchester? Or Marston’s dark mild, come to that. Usually it was just… beer; something you drank when you went out, and you chose it because it was what they had in the place you’d gone out to.

The place we went out to, one day after work in 1986, was a proper working men’s pub (in the enthusiastic words of my friend Mike, whose idea it was) and a bit of a walk from the office. (This wasn’t a two-pint-a-day office, incidentally; I didn’t do much lunchtime drinking at all in that job, not least because when the people I worked with did go out they invariably went to the Vine (which was Greenall Whitley), despite it being right next door to the City (which wasn’t). So I guess I must have developed some taste in beer by then.)

Anyway, the pub Mike led me to was the Old Garratt. And yes, it was a “proper working men’s pub”; at least, I remember the place being full of blokes, and the two of us being the only people there in a suit and tie. I also remember glancing upwards and being unable to see the ceiling for a blanket of cigarette smoke. And I remember one other thing, which is the first of the two gaps in my memory I wanted to talk about: the beer. That evening in the Garratt, before I left to get the bus home for my tea, I had two pints of Boddington’s Bitter.

And I have no memory of it whatsoever. It could have been bright blue and tasted of cranberries for all I know. (Except, of course, that I know it wasn’t, because if it had been I would have remembered it.) I don’t remember it being particularly bitter, I don’t remember it being outstandingly drinkable, I don’t even remember it being dull. 1986 was pretty late to be discovering Boddington’s, admittedly – the early-80s bland-out referred to here was pretty much accomplished by then. But at the end of the day it was still Boddington’s, still being brewed at Strangeways, and if I ever have grandchildren I’ll be able to tell them that I did, indeed, once drink it. I just won’t be able to tell them what the hell it was like.

In the 90s I did start to get interested in beer, although not the kind that you get from a hand pump. There was a holiday in Barcelona, where I discovered Franziskaner Weissbier (not available in supermarkets at that point) along with bratwurst and sauerkraut; there was a holiday in Amsterdam, where (slightly more conventionally) I discovered witbier; and there was a holiday in Scotland, where I discovered Trappist beer (the hotel bar had overstocked on Chimay – which is to say, they’d bought some – and they were selling it off cheap).

After that I was away; Belgian beers were pretty cheap at the time**, when you could find them. In the 90s and early 00s I discovered blonds, red ales, dubbels and tripels, tried lambics and even one or two gueuzes, and ticked off all the Trappists I could find. Sometimes the big hits are big hits for a reason, and discovering Trappist beer was a bit like discovering Sergeant Pepper: I discovered that some of the beers everyone was raving about were, in fact, beers worth raving about. (If there’s a better beer anywhere than Westmalle Tripel… it’s probably an old-ish Orval.) Eventually I’d worked my way through all the available Trappist beers – which was to say, four of the big five Belgians, plus Koningshoeven – as you can see here.

IMG_2424

(Wait a minute. That isn’t four of the five big Belgians.)

Version 2

(I’ll be damned.)

Dredging my memory, I have the faintest of faint memories of buying those bottles of Westvleteren. It was in the Belgian Belly in Chorlton; my curiosity was aroused by the unlabelled bottles, and aroused some more by the relatively punchy price tags (although I can’t remember what the prices actually were, and I’m pretty sure they were considerably cheaper than you’d ever see them today). I can picture Jason telling me that these particular bottles really were a bit special, and I can hear him sounding entirely sincere and very persuasive, as indeed he generally did in that situation.

Or maybe I’m just filling in that last part because I know that the sales pitch worked. Anyway, evidently I bought them – presumably on the same occasion, although the BBE dates are rather a long way apart. And evidently I drank them, given that the bottle tops are all I’ve got left.

(Best beer in the world, they say it is. The strong one, especially.)

(Might be, for all I know. I have no memory.)

(Only one way to find out, now. Road trip! I could do that. When this is all over.)

There aren’t any big gaps after that – at least, none that I’m aware of! There is one other beer I’d like to remember more about: I went to Brendan Dobbin’s King’s Arms once around this time, and – while I remember the pub vividly – I’ve no idea what I had to drink. But I do have fond memories of a couple of West Coast beers, so let’s assume it was one of them. By then, anyway, the Marble Beerhouse was open. It wasn’t long before I became a regular and started taking a ticker’s interest in the Marble beers they served*** – and that put me on the path to keeping tasting notes, starting this blog, joining CAMRA and generally thinking about beer far too much.

(Still wish I could remember those beers, though.)


*For years I was convinced that, around 1982-3, I used to drink a pale yellow, sourish bitter at the Vic in Withington. Nobody else can remember this beer, and the simplest explanation is that it was in fact Hyde’s own lager – and that I really wasn’t into beer back then.

**Something to do with Black Wednesday, possibly. Or something to do with EMU. Or not.

***Despite the fact that at this stage I still didn’t like most of them. That didn’t change till some time later.

Lockdown beers

Time in lockdown behaves strangely. I was about to write “I remember the early days of lockdown” but then felt ridiculous – of course I remember the early days of lockdown, it was less than two months ago!

Things did feel very different, though. The first Saturday of lockdown, I remember we ordered a pizza instead of the usual Chinese takeaway, then had to wait two and a half hours for it to arrive. (I even chased them up.) The worst of it wasn’t the wait, but the sinking feeling that this was what it was going to be like from now on. Similarly with beer; after watching my under-stairs stash dwindling for a while, I took the plunge and ordered a case from Thirst Class and a mixed case of nip bottles from Harvey’s (of which more another time). When those started to go down, I looked at the breweries’ Web sites and found, to my mounting horror, that Thirst Class’s range had been greatly reduced since I’d ordered, and Harvey’s – although the Web site did say they were continuing to brew, to give their yeast strain something to do – had nothing at all on sale. Was this what it was going to be like? Were breweries going to stop brewing, one after another – then run down their existing stock, one after another – and then there would be no more beer? Was I going to have to start drinking gin?

Happily, I can report that Thirst Class currently has an extraordinary range of beer on sale – quite a lot of it isn’t their own, so presumably there has been some running down of stock, but it’s still a very fine range. As for Harvey’s, I don’t know why absolutely everything was marked as ‘sold out’ on that one alarming evening, but it certainly isn’t now; either they’ve been re-brewing quite a few of the weird and wonderful beers in their range, or they’ve found a lot of bottles somewhere (pub cellars, possibly) and assigned them to the Web shop.

So that’s the first effect, or the first two effects, of lockdown on my beer drinking habits: 1. buying in bulk and 2. panicking periodically. (Mind you, 2. is so familiar a feature of lockdown in general that it hardly deserves its own ‘beer’ sub-heading.)

My bulk buys to date are:

  • 12 assorted bottles from Thirst Class (free delivery)
  • mixed case of nip bottles (3 x Imperial Extra Double Stout, 3 x Christmas Ale, 3 x Elizabethan Ale, 3 x Tom Paine) from Harvey’s (courier)
  • 12 bottles of the Batham’s plus 3 x Enville Ale from The Wine Press of Stourbridge (courier) (hat tip to the Pub Curmudgeon)
  • a case (12 nip bottles) each of Imperial Extra Double Stout and Elizabethan Ale from Harvey’s
  • a case (12 33cl cans) of Jaipur and a mixed case of 12 bottles and cans from Thornbridge (free delivery on orders over £30, but orders by the case only)
  • 6 bottles of Orval and 12 other mixed Trappist and Trappist-ish beers from biere-speciale.be (international delivery, but bottle prices low enough to make orders of 10+ bottles cheaper than buying them locally)

The first Harvey’s case is long gone, as are the Envilles and all but one of the Thirst Class (you need to pick the right moment for a 9% black IPA); most of the Orvals and the IEDSs are for ageing, or at least that’s the plan. The rest should keep me going for another few weeks.

Or perhaps for longer than that, considering another effect of lockdown: 3. reduced consumption. I was never a huge pub-goer, but in the average month I’d probably fit in

  • 8 swift ones after work (15 minutes, 1 pint)
  • 4 trips to the pub to order the takeaway (30 minutes, 2-3 pints)
  • 2 folk sessions (2-3 hours, 3-4 pints)
  • 1 pub quiz (2 hours, 2 pints)

On one hand, when I stop work these days it’s because it’s time for tea (or to make tea), and it’s hard to fit in the swiftest of beers on my way from one room to another. On the other, following one beer with another beer – let alone following that one with a third – seems like a much bigger deal at home than it does in the pub. When – the week before lockdown – we switched to ordering the Saturday takeaway for delivery, I tried to make the effort to have two drinks in the half-hour before it came, but an effort is what it was. One beer in an evening – even one 33 cl bottle or can, which generally packs less of a punch than the weediest of pints – is not at all unusual these days; and the more I get out of the habit of session-style boozing, the less I’ve got the capacity for it. I hardly ever have an even moderately heavy session now; on the other hand, I also have fewer completely dry days – not least because I’m hardly ever hung over. It’ll be interesting to see whether I go back to how things were, whenever this thing is finally over.

Note I’ve been disinclined to write on this blog lately – along with most other things – but I’m planning to crank it up again. I’ve currently got another three posts planned; hopefully inspiration will strike again after that.

 

 

 

Farewell to the gold (and the amber and the black)

It was a Saturday afternoon. We’d been to see 1917; we enjoyed it, although I thought its portrayal of the wily, treacherous Boche was a bit lacking in nuance. (All friends now, eh?) The cinema was a bit fuller than I would have liked – there’s this virus going round, and even if there have only been single-figure numbers of cases in Manchester, it only takes one of them to sit next to you… Still, you’ve got to take some risks in life, haven’t you?

After the film, anyway, we were in the market for a drink; the Smithfield had been a hit with my other half when we’d been there on a previous weekend, and I had high hopes of introducing her to the Crown and Kettle. I couldn’t immediately work out a route, though, and we decided to give it up and go to the Pilcrow – which, unlike those two, isn’t one of my favourite town centre pubs, but is a lot handier for the cinema.

It was rammed. They’d said on the news that nobody was taking much notice of the advice to avoid unnecessary social contact, and that was certainly how it looked. I had heard that trade was dropping off in a lot of pubs (and the place where we’d had lunch had certainly been less full than usual), but the Pilcrow didn’t seem to have got the memo. To be honest it was too full – at least, it was too noisy (that’s what you get for all those hard surfaces). Herself fancied a fruit beer, so I got her a rhubarb saison; I had two beers, but I didn’t make a note of their names. One of them was a porter – by Beatnikz Republic, who also made the saison – and the other one was… something else. Really nice porter, for what that’s worth.

Not a classic beer experience, then, and definitely not a classic pub experience; but it was a Saturday afternoon, in a pub, with beer.

Nine days later, I found myself at a loose end mid-afternoon. I left work and headed home, pausing only for a swift half on the way. (Headed home to do some more work, I should say; I’ve been working from home ever since (spoiler), and have in fact had a very busy couple of weeks.) The venue was the Brewdog Outpost, and the half was something dark and strong – I forget what. The bar was fairly empty but not completely so, even on a weekday mid-afternoon; it was a pleasantly chilled environment, and the beer was rather fine. Again, not a classic of the genre – beer or pub – but each was good in their way. The third factor – the occasion – had its style rather cramped by the larger situation, though. One of my main memories of that visit is of standing well back from the bar when ordering, and attempting to keep a safe distance when the bartender circulated to collect glasses; it struck me that two metres is quite a long way.

Soon after I got home that day, the prime minister made a statement urging people not to go to theatres or cinemas – or pubs. Over the next few days, a series of cinemas, restaurants and theatres announced that they were closing; I realised I wasn’t going to get to see Portrait of a Lady on Fire, or The Invisible Man for that matter. Pubs, though, were mostly still open – and were starting to suffer from people staying away. I wondered about dropping in on one of my locals mid-afternoon, when they’d be quieter, but worried about maintaining two metres from the bartender and any other drinkers – and besides, I wasn’t actually free mid-afternoon (busy with work, as I mentioned). There was some talk on social media of bars offering growler fills, which involved paying a fiver for a resealable two-pint bottle and then getting it filled with draught beer – cask beer, even, while that lasted. Again, though, I was busy during the day, on top of which I couldn’t quite imagine how I’d maintain the two-metre thing. (Besides, £5 for an empty bottle?)

On the Friday – quite late on the Friday, as I remember – the prime minister announced that pubs (and much else) were going to have to close – and close that night, early as you like. I belatedly decided I would check out the growler situation, at one of the local bars that had said they’d be offering them. When I got to the bar, three or four people were smoking and chatting outside, a sight which already looked considerably less normal than it used to. I seriously considered holding my breath as I passed them (no offence, lads), but then realised that there was just as high a density of people inside. I pressed on and opened the door. The air inside hit me in the face; it was warm and thick, and I swear it was moist. The next thing that struck me – almost literally – was the noise: raised voices, rhythmic clapping, cheering; it felt as if I’d walked into a rugby club social. Social distancing was very much not in effect; in fact people were two or three deep at the bar. I couldn’t see anything of the bartender(s?) but an arm raised high above the crowd, to pass somebody their gin and tonic. At this point I did hold my breath, for as long as it took to turn tail and get back out on the street.

So if anyone asks me about the last time I went into a pub before the lockdown, if I’m being strictly honest that’s when it was. But the swift half to collect my thoughts on a quiet afternoon in the Outpost, and the couple of pints at the weekend at Pilcrow, are what I’m going to remember; they’re what I look forward to doing all over again. Not to mention the pint at the Crown and Kettle that I never even had – I’m sure it would have been a good one. As the man said, Farewell to the gold that never I found…

Times change

A bit less than eight years ago, I visited a new bar and came away with a substantial list of grievances. I didn’t have any problems with the beer I tried: it was an interesting beer with a big, complex flavour – at least, it was once I’d let [it] warm up and got rid of some of the CO2. But, as well as over-carbonating and over-chilling their beer, this bar had a number of disqualifying features, which I documented in some detail; an edited extract from the original post follows.

  1. High prices for ordinary beers: say 25% higher than I’d expect to pay anywhere else in Manchester for the entry-level draught beer, and 100% higher than you’d pay in some places.
  2. Very, very high prices for mildly unusual beers
  3. Ridiculously, insultingly high prices for really unusual beers [was that really three separate points? Ed.]
  4. Overpriced halves [half of £3.95 ’rounded up’ to £2.15]
  5. Short measures … 2mm of froth below the line in my glass
  6. Obtrusive branding: your average pub doesn’t brand every visible surface with the same company image.

More trivial annoyances included chalking up the most expensive beers with an even higher price than the price in the printed menu (which was already insanely high) and giving the cheapest beer on the board a deliberately off-putting name (an annoying little trick, familiar from the wine lists of restaurants with a student clientele).

Which might suggest that the same chain’s newest ahem ‘outpost’ is a venue that I wouldn’t have set foot in – and not that it would become a regular after-work hangout and a bar I spent more time in than any other, over the four or five weeks up to and including last Monday.

Well, we can all change our minds; for one thing, I no longer read nefarious intentions into getting a price wrong on the menu, or naming a beer “Dead Pony Club”. (Apparently it was originally “Grateful Dead Pony Club”. Yeah, well… exits muttering…) Another thing that’s changed over the last eight years is my employment contract & consequent spending power – points 1-3 don’t bug me the way they used to. The prices were still high – all the pints were priced in the £5-6 range, and so were the beers advertised in smaller measures (2/3, a half or even a third, depending on strength). Point 3 above continued to irk me for a lot longer than 1 and 2, but I got over it; in the end I was a lot more bothered by the thought of a beer being priced at eighteen quid a pint!!! than I was by actually paying £6 for a third of something unusual (and very strong).

The changes weren’t all on my side, either. No short measure that I noticed, and no price-gouging on the change front; with halves, thirds and 2/3s on sale, opportunities for creative ’rounding’ abounded, but I never saw a price rounded up further than the nearest 5p. Even the company branding had calmed down a bit, although what you could call a broader ‘hipster hangout’ branding was in full effect – if you don’t like huge railway-sleeper refectory tables in pubs, or posing tables with high spindly chairs, you wouldn’t have liked the seating options in this place, which consisted mainly of posing refectory tables. (Who knew there was such a thing?)

And the beer? Well, it wasn’t excessively cold and fizzy – another change for the better. They even had a cask tap for a while – and served some very nice porter from it – although they’d quietly discontinued that a couple of weeks ago. That cask porter aside, I will say that it wasn’t really a place to go for a pint; the only time I wasn’t crazy about the beer was when I went for a full pint of 5 a.m. Saint. Don’t get me wrong, it was good – not as good as the cask version I tasted once, but there we go – but at about the 2/3 point it did cross my mind that it had cost about the same as two pints of Landlord I’d had the previous night. Not one but two pints of Landlord is a high bar for any beer to meet. The up side was considerable, though; further off the beaten track – on the ‘guest’ side of the board, out among the bretted beers and imperial stouts – they served some of the best and most memorable beers I’ve had in a very long time; I always looked forward to what I was going to try next, and I was very rarely disappointed.

And that’s how I made my peace with BrewDog – at least with the BrewDog Outpost – and even became a bit of a fan (again). Memorable is what those beers are going to have to be, of course – what with one thing and another – and possibly for a very long time. But I’m already looking forward to going back. Perching on a high chair holding a funny-shaped glass containing less than half a pint of something smelling of blackcurrant and old socks probably sounds like a vision of hell to some of my fellow beer bloggers, but – to my surprise – I found it could be a lot of fun.

Bah, humbug!

CAMRA’s Winter Warmer Wander is going to have to manage without me this year. I got off to a reasonable, if rather belated, start – the Winter Warmer Wander seems to come round earlier every year…! In Manchester town centre I picked up stickers for Titanic Plum Porter at the Paramount, a chocolate and vanilla stout at the Castle and a chilli stout at the Crown and Kettle; a visit to the Petersgate Tap also let me tick off Ashover‘s uncompromisingly-named Liquorice, which I can honestly say is the most liquorice-tasting beer I’ve ever drunk. It’s only a pity I can’t stand liquorice. (Fortunately it didn’t have the (ahem) medicinal effects that I remember from Ticketybrew‘s liquorice-infused Invalid Stout – but then, I did have multiple pints of that.)

After that I was a bit busy for the first half of December, and then I caught my usual pre-Christmas cold, and then there was really no time to fit in enough beers for the 24 stickers I’d usually aim for. I thought I might be able to manage the 12, though, and headed Stockportwards.

The Wine & Wallop had a better dark beer selection than I’ve seen there sometimes, with two to choose from; Yeovil Yeo Ho Ho was a rather nice hoppy stout. From there it was a short – well, no, quite a long – walk to my current favourite bar, Burnage’s Reasons to be Cheerful. I never have a beer in Reasons without seeing one or two others I’d like to try, and this time it was more like five or six.

Stockport was calling, though. A bus journey and short walk later, I was in the Crown on Heaton Lane. I’ve seen pubs in decline before; generally the symptoms include a severely truncated beer range, dilapidated fixtures and fittings, and a pervasive smell of bleach. The Crown looked – and smelt – immaculate: heavy wood furniture, buttoned leather bench seating, etched mirrors and windows, even bellpushes in the panelling; a better example of the old-school multi-room pub you couldn’t hope to find. The beer range had been reduced since the last time I was in, but six handpumps – mostly serving well-respected local breweries – is still more than most pubs can boast. But the heart seemed to have gone out of the place, and the customers seemed to have followed; on a fine Saturday afternoon, the barman and I were the only people in the place. The only dark beer on was Titanic Plum Porter; it’s a good beer when it’s kept well, and it was here.

One of the nice things about coming to Stockport for the Wander is getting the chance to drink Old Tom on draught; there was a time when Robbie’s pubs in Manchester would have a pin of Old Tom on the go at this time of year, but I haven’t seen it outside Stockport in a long time. So I made a beeline for the Swan With Two Necks, where I had a half of Old Tom and eavesdropped on a late entry for Scariest Conversation of 2019: what initially sounded like somebody describing a film (“so he reckoned he had to get his revenge on the drug lord who killed his brother”), but then didn’t (“so I said, I’m not going out there for the funeral, I’m not going anywhere near it – my uncle went in the end, and even he was shit-scared”). Stockport, eh?

One of the really nice things about coming to Stockport for the Wander is getting the chance to drink two halves of Old Tom on draught in succession. The Baker’s Vaults isn’t a pub I’ve warmed to since its refurb – perhaps it’s just me, perhaps it’s just the circumstances in which I usually see it, but it has that indefinable “not entirely welcoming to solitary middle-aged men well on their way to getting thoroughly drunk” air about it. At least since the last time I was there they’ve put in some chairs at floor level, if you see what I mean. Anyway, I was mildly tempted by the 6.5% ‘special reserve’ version of Titanic Plum Porter, but they had Old Tom on – there was no real competition. (It cost about half as much again as it did in the Swan, incidentally.)

I said earlier on that Reasons to be Cheerful is currently my favourite bar; I think it’s because it gets the basics right and doesn’t really bother about anything else. R2BC doesn’t look “craft”, or look anything in particular; it’s a reasonably nice-looking space, with reasonably comfortable seating, and the range and quality of the beer is consistently excellent. Remedy, on the other hand, is quite a lot about the look of the thing; I’ve never actually been to an Edison lightbulb showroom, but I think it would look a great deal like that. I plonked myself down on a railway sleeper and had one of their own beers – Missing Slippers, a 5.5% “marshmallow stout” – which was fine.

And that – apart from an obligatory scoop at the Petersgate Tap (a third of Ashover Moscow, a 9.5% imperial stout) – was it for Stockport. Sadly, with only ten stickers I was obliged to… what’s that, Sooty? I could get the last two tomorrow? I could have gone out today? Yes, well. Even more sadly, the location of those ten stickers is currently not known to me; somewhere between Remedy and Chorlton, the sheet they’re attached to went missing. So I’m back down to zero, with far too little time to get to 12. So long, WWW 2019.

I am going to spin part of it out for a bit longer, though. When planning my 6- to 8-pub route, I did feel a pang for all the further-flung pubs I would normally have tried to fit in – Poynton! Romiley! Stalybridge! So I’m going to hang on to the list and make a personal challenge of it: I’ll tick off all 45 of them, at least once, before WWW 2020 comes round. Watch this space…