Category Archives: Love/hate relationship with JDW’s

Goodbye, TicketyBrew

The ‘free advertising’ side of beer blogging has never sat well with me (although I’ve taken, and written about, the odd freebie over the years). I often catch myself writing about having a particularly nice pint of Scruttock’s Best down at the Pig and Whistle, and think, is that the stylishly-refurbished Pig and Whistle with a wide range of artisan gins and food service from 12.00 till 9.00? good old Scrut’s, with its surprisingly fruity note that lingers on the tongue? Not really what I’m about. Not unless they were paying me, and in that case it definitely wouldn’t be what I’m about.

But there’s one brewery I’ve made an exception for, almost since the first time I encountered their beer; there’s one brewery which could always count me as a dedicated and vocal fan. I’ve referred to TicketyBrew in 35 posts on this blog, going back to 2013, including seven posts devoted to their beers alone. It started in July 2013, when I nominated their Pale, on cask, as my beer of the year; I didn’t think I’d taste anything better in the remaining five months of the year – and as it turned out I was right. I wrote: The aromatic wallop of a good contemporary pale ale runs head-on into the soft herbal richness of a Tripel, and they dance. Which still seems about right. On cask, the Blonde was pretty amazing too – not to mention the Jasmine Green Tea Pale, the Golden Bitter, the Invalid Stout, the Marmalade Pale… On keg and in bottle, there was a really nice Dubbel, a superb Tripel, the East India Porter, the Rose Wheat, the Rhubarb Weiss, the Ginger Beer and some terrific hoppy pales… the list just went on. Not to mention more or less experimental styles – Munchner, Grodziskie, Mumme – and dotty one-offs like Marmite Stout or Tea and Biscuits Mild.

Golden Bitter, Invalid Stout, Marmalade Pale, Rhubarb Weiss – it feels like I’m reeling off lists of ancient paintbox colours or weird Victorian sweets, rich, mysterious, unattainable. And I’m afraid that unattainable is what they are. Duncan has wound up the brewery and the company; his partner Keri, who left a career in marketing to start TicketyBrew back in 2013, has gone back into marketing.

I’m really sorry they couldn’t make it work. In the last couple of years TicketyBrew had had all-new brewkit, taken on new staff (the last time I saw Duncan he was complaining about how little brewing he got to do these days) and even had a redesign. Distribution didn’t seem to be a problem, either. When I saw the Blonde and the Pale in Wetherspoons fridges across central Manchester – and particularly when I ordered a Blonde for my Leffe-drinking son, and saw his reaction – I thought they were set up. Perhaps appearances were deceptive. For whatever reason, it doesn’t seem to have worked out.

I wish both Duncan and Keri all the best – and I hope this won’t be the last the world of beer hears of Duncan. Not all of the styles he tried his hand at were equally successful, but his hit rate was ridiculously high. The East India Porter, the Green Tea Pale, the Golden Bitter – in fact, almost all the beers I’ve listed – were solid, solid beers, and a couple of them were classics: I’d put the Pale and the Blonde in that category, as well as the Dubbel and the Tripel.

Looking more broadly, I guess this is another example of a small brewery falling by the wayside, like Quantum and Offbeat. Only this isn’t just another small brewery – this is TicketyBrew, with the mad bottle labels and the pump clips you could spot from the street (very handy, that’s been) and the ‘Pale’ that was like a cross between a Tripel and a best bitter and the Stout that tasted of black treacle and the ‘Manchester Tart’ that actually tasted of Manchester Tart, and the small bottles for everything and the first few large ones just coming in (9% in 750 ml, really?), and the Invalid Stout with real liquorice and the Marmite Stout with God knows what (probably not real Marmite), and the Blonde that me and my German friend got absolutely pasted on and the way the Pale was right at the start and that amazing Seville Orange Pale, and the bottled Blonde that was probably a bit over-primed and the Grodziskie that practically exploded (Polish champagne, they call that), and the cherry Weiss and the rhubarb Weiss and the Citra Pale that was just as good as anyone else’s Citra pale, and the, and the…

I’m really going to miss them.

TicketyBrew, 14/2/2013 – ??/5/2018

Adieu, adieu, TicketyBrew
Image credit: Beerbods

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Around Manchester on a half of mild – 4

At last, the long-awaited, and only partly forgotten-about, final instalment of my Mild Magic 2018 travels.

As noted last time, I’ve identified six recurring Themes in my visits to (mostly) unfamiliar pubs, most of them not particularly cheerful:

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

Also, I’ve written about 36 pubs – no fewer than 30 of which had a mild on – and got up to the letter S. The home straight beckons.

Smithfield, Manchester city centre
I’ve had good experiences at the Smithfield before, and this visit was no exception. While I couldn’t exactly say I remember the cask mild they had on, I remember liking it at the time; on balance it was a bit more successful than the bretted strong IPA on keg that I followed it with. For lo!, the Smithfield is a Pub That Does Both, and does ’em well. Food had been a bit of a contentious issue for me the night I was there (see Crown and Anchor); the Smithfield offered bar snacks, in the (slightly eccentric) form of hand-made pork pies stored in a large glass jar. I ordered one and was pleasantly surprised to find that (a) it was bigger than it looked in the jar and (b) it came on a board, complete with a knife, a dish of pickles and a choice of mustard. It was a fine pork pie and went well with both beers; my only slight regret was that it wasn’t quite a full meal (see Piccadilly Tap). Great pie, great beer, great pub.

Smithy Fold, Glossop
Glossop was my last stop on a long trail involving multiple beers and multiple forms of transport (see Harewood Arms, Cheshire Ring, Joshua Bradley etc). My recollections of this large, unusually quiet Spoons are consequently rather limited. I’m pretty sure they had a mild on, though.

Sportsman, Hyde
“It’s an oddity, the Sportsman, as it doubles as the Rossendale brewery tap and a Latin American restaurant,” I wrote in 2015. Relations with Rossendale are currently strained, but the Latin American food is going strong; this time round I had the place pegged for a lunch stop. Once before I’d found the pub completely deserted – including the bar area – and had to go out to the kitchen at the back to ask where everyone was; this time, there was someone behind the bar, but the kitchen was rather conspicously silent. I asked about food and was told, “she’s just popped out to Morrison’s”. I decided to have a pint rather than a half. The Sportsman has two bars, both served by the same central bar area; all the handpulls are on the carpeted ‘lounge’ side, so that’s where I went. After ten minutes or so the cook made it back with her shopping and orders could be taken. At this moment, the lino-floored ‘public’ had a bit of a rush on, with the arrival of a group of lager-drinking regulars – all of whom, by Sod’s Law, also wanted food. All told, it was the best part of an hour between my arrival at the pub and the arrival of my Cuban Sandwich (which was essentially a cheese and ham toastie, heavy on the mustard). Which was very nice – and good value – but also, by that stage, very welcome. File under Pub Food Isn’t Dead Exactly, But Sometimes You Can See The Appeal Of Spoons.

Station Buffet Bar, Stalybridge
I’m not going to describe the Buffet Bar; if you don’t know what it’s like, that can only mean you haven’t visited, and you really should – it’s a great little pub. (Also does trains!) The bartender apologised for the condition of the Howard Town Milltown Mild, which was approaching the end of the barrel – it was a bit ‘slack’ but basically fine. I followed it up with Ticketybrew Yanks for the Memories, a session-strength IPA with American hops and an awful name. My timing was clearly out, as this was approaching the end of the barrel as well – but, even warming up and losing condition, it was absolutely superb. I had a 6% keg IPA from Marble that evening; when I finished it I could still taste the Ticketybrew.

Tim Bobbin, Urmston
No mild at this Spoons, and a very long hunt for stickers; by the time the sheet had been located I’d finished my half. Leaving the pub, I found I was looking directly at a very ‘crafty’ bottle shop (with, I think, some kind of ‘on’ licence) called Brewtique. (Theme 6: Craft Is Everywhere.) Spurning its charms (well, I did stick my nose in) I went 100 yards down the road and had a half at the Prairie Schooner, which was pleasantly busy that prevening; I had a ‘blood orange IPA’, from Moorhouse of all people. The rebrand, the Greene King tie-in and now this – what’s happening up there?

Tweed Tap, Hyde
A micropub with three or four people in feels pleasantly busy, which can’t be said of a full-scale pub (see Park Inn). Unfortunately a micropub with no bugger in at all (see Grove Alehouse, Malt Disley) feels much the same as a full-scale pub, ditto – perhaps even worse; in most pubs you can at least tell yourself that there might be somebody round a corner. I had the Tweed Tap to myself, despite it being a sunny Saturday lunchtime. The Chester Mild was really good, though – and in good nick, so somebody must be drinking it some time.

Victoria, Withington
Going back to the Vic now I see no trace of the big single-room boozer I used to go to in the mid-80s – no bellpushes, no white-coated glass collector; nobody remembers the sharp-edged bright yellow bitter I used to drink there, either. (Unless I was on lager in those days? That would explain a lot.) Anyway, what I do see when I go to the Vic now is the same pub I visited for last year’s Mild Magic, and the year before that, and the year before that (to say nothing of the Winter Warmer Wander) – which makes my memories of any particular trip a bit less than vivid. The dark mild’s OK, even with its terrible name.

Victoria Lounge, Glossop
Looks like a backstreet pub until you get inside, whereupon it turns into a rather opulent hotel lounge; also, seems larger on the inside. No mild AFAIR, but the beer was fine, if a bit more pricey than I was expecting in Glossop (although, to be fair, I had just come from a Spoons).

Waterhouse, Manchester city centre
Midway between the Vic and the Sedge Lynn on the ‘multiple visits’ front – I go to this pub on every CAMRA trail & several times in between. Not a scooby what it was like this particular time, although I’m pretty sure there was a mild on.

White Hart, Cheadle
To my dismay, the White Hart’s mild offering was Coach House Gunpowder Mild – a mild (and a brewery) which I prefer to avoid. I knocked it back – and, to be fair, it wasn’t positively unpleasant – and followed it with a half of draught Bass, which was a lot nicer.

Wilfred Wood, Hazel Grove
Spoons. Big. Main road. Titanic Nautical Mild. Er… that’s it.

Wine and Wallop, Didsbury
There was no mild on here. When I made the obligatory polite inquiry (see Ford Madox Brown, Head of Steam) the bartender lost several points by launching into a long and confident ‘splanation (see Head of Steam) of how they didn’t very often have mild on as such, it wasn’t a very popular style in this area, they had tried putting draught mild on but they’d had trouble selling it, and of course with draught mild you do need to be sure it’s going to sell, so they probably wouldn’t be having it on again, at least not very often, and so on.

QUIZ! Should I have
a) throttled him
b) said “That’s all well and good, but in that case why did you sign up for Mild Magic?”
c) said “The actual name of the bar is Wine and Wallop! What do you think ‘wallop’ is? It’s mild – that’s what it means! You’ve actually put ‘mild’ in the name of the bar!”
d) nodded politely and ordered something else

I went for d), of course – a pale ale from RedWillow, and very nice it was too. But still – spare me ‘splainers!

Nine pubs with mild on, three without; six (non-JDW) free houses, four Spoons, a Hyde’s pub and a brewery tap. Overall totals: 13(!) Spoons, 22 other free houses, 7 Holt’s, 4 Hyde’s and one each for Greene King and Tweed. Also, 39 with mild on vs 9 without, which isn’t too bad. (Also, two closed when they should have been open.) Ten pubs memorably busy (four of them Spoons), five completely deserted (three of them micropubs) – plus another four or five big pubs doing micropub levels of business. Most visits were at the weekend, with some weeknights and some weekday lunchtime visits; no weekday afternoons (in case you were wondering if that was why some of the pubs were deserted).

So, what’s going on out there? Pub-going is changing; like Spinal Tap, its appeal is becoming more selective. The progressive denormalisation of alcohol and social drinking, as a part of everyday life, is continuing to drive pub-going numbers down – or rather, it’s ensuring that losses in pub-going numbers (which are inevitable with social and cultural changes, plus the march of time) aren’t being made up by equal numbers of  new drinkers. There is a new breed – or a number of separate, partially overlapping new breeds – of drinker; it’s not just a few hundred hipsters, but on the scale of the population as a whole their numbers are tiny. We can get a false impression from looking in the wrong place, I think. People come from miles around to destination bars in the town centre (and Chorlton), and those bars get pretty crowded at times – but if they’re in town, those people aren’t drinking in the pubs where they live. Thanks to a range of social changes, many of them positive, pubs have lost what used to be their steady clientele (defined roughly as “every unmarried male over the age of 14 and a large proportion of the married men”) – and people who know their Beartown from their Beavertown aren’t going to fill a gap that size.

There are places where an old style of pub-going doesn’t seem to have gone away, but there are many others where it seems to have died completely, leaving big multi-room pubs waiting for a clientele that isn’t to come back (or not more than a couple of times a week). One strategy of adaptation is to forget about pub food, or else to go big on ‘dining’; Holt’s seem to be trying to do both at once, with predictably mixed results. (Perhaps they’re taking a leaf out of Sam Smith’s book; there are some very nice Sam’s ‘dining pubs’, as well as the more basic ones most of us are more familiar with.) Another strategy – which Holt’s, again, were early to adopt – is to grab a bit of that ‘craft’ market; that may be necessary, but it’s not going to be sufficient to keep big estates of big pubs afloat. (Going for the ‘craft’ market may not even be enough to keep a micropub afloat.)

“Do you drink something every day?” a friend who worked in public health once asked me. When I said yes, more or less (one or two dry days a week, and so forth) she said “Really?”, and looked at me as if I’d said I regularly put chip fat on my cornflakes. More precisely, her expression wasn’t so much disapproving as incredulous – a Regular Drinker! I never thought I’d actually meet one!. That’s the world we’re in now, pretty much; unless that wider trend towards denormalisation can be reversed, the pub industry’s going to be facing lean times – or rather, even leaner times.

(On the bright side, there is some excellent beer to be found out there – Great Heck Voodoo Mild, Tweed‘s Chester Mild and Stockport Arch 14 Mild (at the Grove Alehouse) were all impressive, and Hyde’s don’t-call-it-a-light-mild is still a very nice drop.)

Around Manchester on a half of mild – 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

 

Brighton by the pint

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

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

Mmm, murk…

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

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

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

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Ironically, a sure sign of what it isn’t

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

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

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

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

There’s a B in both

We spent a weekend in Exeter recently. We stayed in a Premier Inn just opposite the main station; handy as far as it goes, although we soon discovered that getting anywhere at all from there (e.g. the city centre or the university) involved climbing a steep hill. Visitors beware!

At the top of that hill, though, you’ll find the Imperial, a huge and rather extraordinary Wetherspoons; you can read about the history of the building here. Rather than pay Premier Inn rates, we had our breakfast there; to be more precise, we took our breakfasts in the Orangery. There, indeed, is posh. We also went there one evening, and it’s actually the beer I had then that I want to write about: an American Pale Ale from Long Man (a Sussex brewery named after the nearby hill figure). What was interesting about this was both what it was and what it wasn’t. For a start, it wasn’t yellow, or even a pale amber; it may have been a ‘pale ale’ in style terms, but it certainly wasn’t an ale that was pale. It wasn’t particularly bitter, and it certainly wasn’t a hop-bomb. With a dense, almost chewy body, it was well adrift of Gazza Prescott’s ‘mid-Atlantic‘ style guidelines (“The malt is here to give body, alcohol and a suggestion of flavour and not to balance the hops; if you have balance then there’s something wrong!”). On the other hand, it wasn’t just a brown English bitter with a misleading name: there were (aroma) hops in there, making fruity and herby patterns above the luxuriant ground-level maltiness. I enjoyed it.

The following night we were down on the Exeter waterfront – a hip and happening location which, unless I missed something, offers 3 (three) different places to eat and drink. We ate at the Humbledy Ha Hum… a pub of which I remember very little other than that it had a commendably short food menu and advertised itself as part of the Heaviside layer chain. I do remember the beer, though, which was Otter OPA. As the initialism implies, this was another pale ale; it was also amber rather than gold and light rather than bitter, and it also featured aroma hops doing their thing on a malt crashmat.

Well, that’s the South-West for you, you might say; craft hasn’t really made it that far down the M5, you might say. And I might agree with you, if – returning to Manchester – I hadn’t tried Marble‘s new Tuckerlovsky Session IPA. What’s that I can taste? Fruity aroma hops. What’s that I can’t taste? Marble‘s usual, tonsil-scouring, bitter finish; all very light in that respect. And what else is that I can taste? Yes, it’s malt; it’s a big, malty body, of just the kind I always looked for when I first came up here. (Course, I’ve acquired the taste for the big golden hop-monsters now. Too late now.)

Two’s coincidence, three – in different parts of the country – starts to look like a trend. What’s up, then? Is it something to do with the rumoured hop shortage – are people being forced to ring some changes on styles with a reduced hop bill? Or is brown (but hoppy) bitter coming back into fashion? If so, I promise not to go around saying I was into it before it was cool. (I totally was, though.)

Choice

I’ve noticed an odd tendency recently in some of the more ‘craft’ places where I drink; a tendency towards differentiation and homogenisation, you could say. If you wanted to be less pretentious about it, you could also call it the development of two different ideas of ‘craft’: one that’s mainly focused on a ‘craft’ style of beer (viz. IPAs and PAs), and one that’s focused on variety and innovation.

On the ‘variety’ front, take the Dulcimer in Chorlton (four pumps, one reserved for Wainwright) and the Gaslamp in Manchester (four pumps, one or two usually off). The last few times I’ve been in each of those places, it’s been quite hard to get anything closely resembling a pint of beer. The odd, innovative and interesting are heavily represented – and sometimes they’re very good – but brown bitters, or even golden bitters, are conspicuous by their absence. I became aware of this at the Dulcimer when I overheard an anxious conversation elsewhere in my group: the Wainwright had run off, so what were they actually going to drink? The 6% stout? The smoked porter? The red rye IPA, 7.5% and a bargain at £4 a pint?

On the other hand, I was at the Font in Chorlton earlier today, where I was greatly impressed with the range of breweries on the bar (RedWillow! Magic Rock! Dark Star! Steel City! Buxton! hey, Buxton, we’re going to miss you!). The range of styles and strengths? Not so much. There was a pale ale, another pale ale, another pale ale… in fact there were eight pumps and eight pale ales. Strengths ran from 3.6% to 5.2%; four were below 4% and only two were 5% or above. I’m guessing there was some weird and interesting stuff on the keg taps, but as far as the cask range went you could basically have a sessionable pale ale or a slightly less sessionable pale ale.

For a third data point, this contrasts oddly with the local Spoons, which – despite fridges now boasting Lagunitas Flying Dog Erdinger Duvel ect ect – is not what most people would call a craft beer bar. Seven pumps were on the last time I was in there, offering two golden ales, three bitters, an old ale and a porter; strengths ranged from 3.7% to 6%, with only one beer below 4%. The breweries weren’t as exciting as those at the Font: two pumps were occupied by Ruddles and Abbott, two more by Moorhouse’s Blond Witch and Phoenix Wobbly Bob (both more or less permanent ‘guests’); the remaining beers came from Phoenix (again), Elland and Blakemere, none of which is likely to be on the front cover of CRAFT any time soon. But a bar serving that range of styles looks more like my idea of a decent pub selection than the Font‘s. (The pub itself looks nothing like my idea of a decent pub, admittedly, but the Font’s not much better.)

Anyone else noticed this tendency for craft beer bars to develop either into a dedicated weirdie showcase or into a Pub With No Beer (Except The Pale Grapefruity Kind)? Or is it just a Chorlton thing?