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Cask at a crossroads?

The decision by Manchester brewer Cloudwater to cease production of cask beer has raised questions about its future. So where next for this uniquely British product?

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The party's over... but the journey has just begun

By Connor Murphy, Manchester Beer Week organiser

Standing alone at the entrance to the darkened, desolate Workshop space at Old Granada Studios the morning after Manchester Beer Week’s closing party, a wave of emotion crashed down upon me.

Looking into the empty space felt like staring into an endless void – such was the contrast with the previous day’s festivities – and it became difficult to swallow the growing lump in my throat.

The party was over and Manchester’s first city-wide beer festival was consigned to history. All that remained was a worn poster clinging stubbornly to the doorway, a handful of errant programmes scattered across the welcome desk and splashes of beer being slowly absorbed by the concrete floor.

But the emotion didn’t originate from a desire to do it all over again – as an organiser it’s near impossible to fully enjoy any event you’re responsible for – rather they came from an overwhelming pride in the Mancunian spirit.

For 10 days, the people of this city, both native and adopted, threw themselves wholeheartedly into an unknown and unproven festival, supporting all manner of events at pubs, bars, restaurants and breweries across Greater Manchester.

And the closing party encapsulated this better than any other event. Young, old, families, friends, ale lovers, craft beer geeks, intrigued bystanders and even furry friends of the four-legged kind – they all came together to enjoy an afternoon of carefree celebration.

Manchester might be famous for its ingrained cynicism, but its people took the festival to their hearts in a big way, expressing a simple, uncomplicated love for the city’s favourite drink, for its pubs and for one another.

For that, I will be eternally grateful.

Manchester Beer Week was established largely through a desire to unify the city’s beer scene and break down the unnecessary Chinese walls between different factions within that scene. Reflecting on the first year, it feels as if strong progress has already been made towards that goal.

Some critical observers may initially have questioned JW Lees’ key role in the festival but Manchester’s oldest family brewer embraced its ethos with enthusiasm and an open mind, quickly dispelling any doubts.

Their collaboration with Cloudwater for the official festival beer would have been unthinkable just six months ago, such was the gap between the two organisations in terms of size, style and approach.

And although the process was not without its challenges, the final product possessed genuine symbolic importance. Regardless of your opinion about MCR Fold, it represented an exciting step into the unknown and, incredibly, JW Lees head brewer Michael Lees-Jones was even heard to remark ‘we didn’t go far enough’.

Paul Jones, co-founder of Cloudwater Brew Co, and Michael Lees-Jones, head brewer at JW Lees, share a drink.

Paul Jones, co-founder of Cloudwater Brew Co, and Michael Lees-Jones, head brewer at JW Lees, share a drink.

The hope is that this experiment will help to open new pathways between traditional brewing and modern ‘craft beer’, extending the hand of friendship across typical boundaries to develop a more collaborative Mancunian beer scene.

On top of this, the strong support provided by CAMRA and the wide variety of people who attended events proved it is possible to unite folk from different walks under one common cause – a love of good beer.

Putting aside personal preference on matters such as beer style or dispense method, much more can be achieved by working together to raise awareness of the outstanding work being done by hardworking, passionate producers, both on our doorstep and across the country.

The most exciting thing is we’ve only scratched the surface.

On the day of Manchester Beer Week’s closing party, three other major events were running simultaneously across the city – the Blackjack Brewtap, GRUB’s food fair at Runaway Brewery and the FC United Beer Festival – and all were swelled by large numbers of happy revellers.

There has barely been a more exciting time for beer in this city. It’s up to us to grasp this opportunity.

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Give the yeast some

Nobody ever remembers the drummer.

John Bonham laboured beneath the considerable shadow cast by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Clyde Stubblefield was hard to spot behind James Brown’s writhing form, and Al Jackson Jr was ‘the Human Timekeeper’ for a series of soul stars.

Regardless of the genre or era, the drum is too often overlooked in favour of more fashionable and flamboyant elements, despite its crucial role in shaping the final sound.

Yeast is the drum of the brewing world.

Beer simply could not be made without it, yet it is constantly underappreciated and underestimated, lost amid excited chatter about different hop varieties.

New World hops such as Citra, Centennial and Simcoe are the brash, showy frontmen stealing all the adulation, while yeast quietly sits in the background laying the perfect track for them to perform on.

But yeast has superstar potential too, which is why Manchester Beer Week teamed up with Lallemand to showcase this humble ingredient in a unique event at Brewdog Manchester.

Lallemand has been producing dried brewers yeast since the 1990s and conducted research into more than 2,000 strains at the company’s Siebel Institute in Chicago, so there is nobody better placed to extol its virtues.

“Yeast is very much an underappreciated ingredient,” says Robert Percival, UK Technical Sales Manager for Lallemand. “A lot of brewers, particularly on the smaller side, find fermentation and yeast biology a bit of a mystery and don’t feel that confident with biochemistry so it’s an area that is sometimes neglected.

“But the flavour contribution from yeast is the most important element of a beer. Although a lot of the more trendy hops will dominate the flavour profile of a beer, especially in the quantities they are added, the contribution made by the yeast is still crucial to the best presentation of these flavours.

“There is a lot of work to be done on elements such as the interaction of yeast with hop oils, for example, and we’re only scratching the surface in this area. Yeast is too often overlooked, except in a handful of very obvious styles, so there is huge potential for it to be used in a better way and for drinkers to be educated about its impact.”

The event at Brewdog Manchester is a unique experiment, where four brewers have brewed the same base beer – from malt bill and mash temperature to the hops used (Lubelski) – and fermented with a different yeast strain.

Torrside used a clean ale yeast, Thirst Class used a German wheat beer strain, Runaway used a saison yeast and Tickety Brew used their house strain, which is a Belgian strain originating from Westmalle.

Robert adds, “We’ve got four very good brewers involved so you can be confident of the quality of the beer that will be produced and we should be able to demonstrate just how extreme yeast flavours can be.

“We’ve gone for a standardised recipe and selected four very different styles, not only in the way they perform and the styles they are associated with, but also in terms of flavour profile and genetic origin.

“The Nottingham ale yeast being used by Torrside is a very traditional English ale yeast, which is a very robust, top-fermenting strain but can also be used at lower temperatures for lager-style beers. A lot of British strains give a high ester profile but Nottingham is quite clean, which is why it has become popular amid the trend towards more hop-forward beer.

“The saison yeast we are using, Belle Saison, is a Belgian-derived strain. Unlike most yeasts, which leave residual sugars for body and mouthfeel, it can utilise complex sugars and dextrone material to leave the beer very dry. It has a high temperature spectrum and generally produces citrus and peppery notes.

“Our wheat beer strain, Munich, is a German strain acquired from the Doemens yeast bank in Bavaria, which has low to medium flocculation, meaning a lot of yeast is left in suspension. The flavour profile is well balanced but should produce typical hefeweizen flavours of banana and clove.

“The Westmalle strain used by Tickety Brew will usually produce spicy, phenolic flavours with less fruitiness than other Belgian yeasts so it will be interesting to see how it turns out.”

Events like this are crucial to the education process for both drinkers and brewers, and Rob will also be giving a free talk and tasting at Manchester Beer Week’s Big, Buzzin’ Party at Old Granada Studios on Saturday June 18.

“A crucial part of my role is in providing brewers with the support they need to be able to better understand yeast performance and how they can improve the fermentation process,” adds Rob.

“Rather than just acting as a yeast provider, I feel it’s important to provide advice and support as education is key to improvement in the brewing industry. My background includes work at breweries of very different sizes producing very different types of beer, and the sharing of knowledge across the industry is very important.”

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My favourite Manchester pub... edition four

Stalybridge Buffet Bar

Stalybridge Buffet Bar

Words by Mark Johnson

Given the final decision, it may come as a surprise to most that I truly thought long and hard about my choice for favourite pub in the (Greater) Manchester area. We are blessed with many marvellous pubs for a variety of reasons; be it heritage, quality of beer, atmosphere or just the clientele. Yet I can't deny that I was only reaching and searching for anything beyond the obvious choice that all who know me would well expect me to choose - because, for me, there is no greater Manchester pub than Stalybridge Buffet Bar.

If there are the predictable groans and eye-rolls concerning my choice (I’ve written about it a lot) then allow me to talk of the pub away from my own personal affection as to why it deserves the title, including a little history.

Stalybridge Buffet Bar is housed on the current platform four of the busy Stalybridge Railway Station. The station itself opened in 1849 as part of a link between Sheffield and Lincolnshire. It was with the station expansion as part of a North West to London line that the first license was granted to John Beaumont in 1860 for a station refreshment rooms. In this period it consisted only of the small room that now houses the pub’s bar area.

There are vague details and stories for nearly a hundred years of the bar that was open for that entire period. My personal favourite tale involves one Hugh Toney in the 1870s, who was sentenced to seven days hard labour for stealing a 6d glass from the Refreshment Rooms as well as being drunk and disorderly. Why do I find that amusing? Let's just say my sentence would probably be a bit longer these days.

In the late 1960s the princely sum of £3,000 was spent renovating the Buffet Bar, including the famous stained glass windows in the conservatory. This period also saw the development of the station’s former ladies first class waiting room that still forms part of the pub today.

The Stalybridge Buffet Bar circa 1989

The Stalybridge Buffet Bar circa 1989

Things started to deteriorate in the early 1990's, with changes of hands and pub habits leading to the Buffet Bar's closure. The entire building was due to be demolished to make way for a more modern station, but tireless campaigning led to its salvation. With many intervening, including the mayor, the building was allowed to stay despite still being technically unused. At this point it had been left derelict for eight months and hadn't been venerated for much longer.

It was proudly saved though and reopened (officially) in January 1997 with John Hesketh at the lease. Famously in these parts, Mike Field wanted to take the helm of a pub he much adored and, when he lost out, decided to open his own Stalybridge Buffet Bar tribute bar at Dewsbury Station, the West Riding Refreshment Rooms. 

In 2013 Mike did take up the reins, with the Buffet Bar becoming an addition to his expanding, but always excellent, Beerhouses group. It has been open over 150 years yet still this pub retains much of its natural charm. The original marble bar remains. The conservatory has been renovated only where necessity has dictated, yet still maintains much of its shape and famous windows. The wide array of wonderful railway memorabilia still adorns nearly every inch of every wall. The old converted first class ladies waiting room still feels like a miniature railway museum. 

Railway memorabilia at The Stalybridge Buffet Bar

Railway memorabilia at The Stalybridge Buffet Bar

Yet it is its lifelong promotion of excellent beer that is Stalybridge Buffet Bar's most important feature. 

Cask is almost autocratic here with ten handpumps and I can't think of another pub across the borough that perfects the cask balance of styles regimentally. Two lines are permanently dedicated to cask cider, including the Holmfirth produced Pure North Cider. There is a dedicated Stout line at all times, as well as one permanently for mild. A final residency for Timothy Taylor’s Landlord alongside five rotating lines ensures that all demographics are catered for here.

It’s the assignment of the lines, especially that for mild, that sets this apart from other pubs offering similar-sized ranges. All pubs offering so much should be able to answer questions such as “have you got a best bitter?” “have you got a stout?” or “have you got a mild?” with a simple yes. I may not drink mild often personally, but it sells so well continuously that having it as a choice is well worth it. It provides the inclusivity that newer bars in the region are lacking. I am amply served among the rotating guests but all good beer drinkers should find something here. 

Over the past couple of years we’ve seen a myriad of the best of British beer presented on these pumps. From modern Scottish breweries, to London’s new 'crafties', to local stalwarts still producing excellence. If they make cask beer, there’s a good chance they’ve graced this bar. In fact, the greatest struggle here is competing with the city centre pubs – both on availability and price – for Manchester’s more recent cask producers.

Two guest keg lines show the steps it is taking into more modern dispensaries, though they are still outsold and outstripped by the cask by such a margin that there is no need to make this a focus. A range of modern bottles and cans fills the final hole in the market, as well as providing refreshment for the following train journeys at a discount.

Did I mention they still have a real fire?

Did I mention they still have a real fire?

Lazy researchers and pub traditionalists will speak of Stalybridge Buffet Bar's 'famous black peas' (Michael Portillo was only there in early May and still asking about them), but that comes from the old food traditions the pub is putting behind it. Now it is more likely to see a mouth-watering array of in-house made pies and pastries, as well as jerky cooked with local brewery beer available at the bar. The touch of simple but well-made food baked in a kitchen ten feet away from where you order your pint is the final jigsaw piece for me. Once you have your heritage pub, well-kept beer and beautiful food, all that remains is the people to fill the place. 

You don’t need to be a local to feel welcome at the bar and strike up a conversation with a regular (though beware of those with stupid quiffs and an unwarranted air of superiority).

The pub is especially busy on Saturdays with those partaking in the Transpennine Rail Ale Trail. People often ask me if the pub could survive without this added weekend-business-come-tourist-night-out. I find this insulting. Busy with commuters, travellers and regulars, the Buffet Bar is already an attractive visitor destination without the added novelty of a pub crawl. This place already has what too many modern drinking establishments often lack; an abundance of history, character and the busiest of busy walls.

Pubs play a huge part of Manchester's rich beer heritage. The pub culture is still thriving; providing that second home for regulars and occasional visitors alike. For me, there is no place quite like Stalybridge Buffet Bar. Far removed from what it means to me, it is a unique and continuously successful pub with all the required attributes on any tick list. 

The Manchester beer scene is all about providing local pride with a welcome invitation to the world. You can't see it better than in a railway station bar in a town once dubbed 'Staly Vegas'.

Read more from Mark on his excellent blog Beer Compurgation.

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My favourite Manchester pub... edition three

Words by Beers Manchester

Manchester is a city blessed with some truly beautiful pubs. How to choose your favourite?

You could quite easily torture yourself with this question. With stunning buildings like The Britons Protection, The Peveril of the Peak, The Lass O’Gowrie, The Hare and Hounds, The Marble Arch? All just lovely places to drink beer.

To get me in the gut, a pub has to have 'soul' an almost indefinable quality. Let’s call it 'feel'. It should have history. Therefore, it should be reasonably old. It should also have good beer – obviously.

But, when all is said and done and you list all of Manchester’s really lovely hostelries, it comes down to a question. “Where do I drink the most?"

And that means The Crown & Kettle on the 'New Cross' junction of Great Ancoats Street and Oldham Street.

There has been a pub on this site since at least 1734, when this part of what we now know as Manchester was within the distinctly separate area of 'Ancoates'.

“An interesting drawing hidden away from the public view in a volume stored in one of our public buildings” (now held at Manchester Libraries!) shows “….an alehouse with the curious designation of The Iron Dish and Cob of Coal” [1]

The image is faint, but the description in the book (a fine read) clearly relates to the view from Oldham Street to Newton Lane (now known as Oldham Road). It is also reasonably certain that this premises would occupy a fraction of the site of the current pub! At that time, 'Ancoates' would have been little but a hamlet and not yet swallowed by its near neighbour.

It seems that the current building was built around 1800 and various historical sources have lists of the various licencees of 'The Crown Vaults' or 'The Crown Inn' in the mid-1800s. Ancoat(e)s at that time was notorious slum area heavily populated with immigrant Irish labourers and their families, as was nearby Angel Meadow.

There is also an image on the Band On The Wall website – dating from 1820 – clearly depicting a sign of a Crown and a Kettle next to market stalls for New Cross market.

The pub eventually became the property of Wilsons Brewery of Newton Heath and was known as very popular with Manchester City fans. An incident in 1989 inside the pub lead to a United fan (allegedly) getting stabbed and led to the closure of the pub. For 16 years.

A large part of the reason for this prolonged closure was a fire attack on the pub, which caused extensive damage to the interior.

The pub came into the hands of the current owners in 2005 when – with the assistance of English Heritage (the building was Grade II Listed in October 1974) – it reopened for business.

I only really started going myself about two years ago or so. But in that small time, it has worked its charm and wormed its way into my heart.

Victorian Gothic in style, the pub originally had a central bar for a large open space, but this was restructured internally to create two smaller rooms to the rear of the bar. The ceiling in the main room bears the scars of the 90s fire damage, ceilings on both sides having netting in place to protect against any of the ornate plaster work falling onto unwary customers. You can’t help but crane your neck to admire though. Truly beautiful.

The ceiling in the small rear room is intact (although still with protective netting) and another cricked neck is worth risking to admire its beauty.

With the TV now effectively out of commission, this is a great place to indulge in some truly excellent beer and chat with friends – the normally unobtrusive background music is usually right up my street too!

The beers are sourced (mostly) from local micros, both on cask and craft keg, and there is an extensive selection of real ciders to choose from if fermented apple juice be your thing.

This pub just... sums up Manchester to me.

It’s different. It’s got history. It’s damaged. It’s a survivor.

It has a Mancunian Soul. And I love it.

Read more just like this at the Beers Manchester blog


[1] “Manchester Streets & Manchester Men” by T Swindells (1908)

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My favourite Manchester pubs... edition one

Union Arms, Tyldesley

Union Arms, Tyldesley

Words by Deeekos

I was asked to write this piece for Manchester Beer Week and figured whereas most of the focus will generally and inevitably be towards the city centre of Manchester, there is a whole metropolitan county (erroneously formed in 1974) to focus on. And while I’ve visited some great pubs in Bolton, Bury, Oldham, Rochdale, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford and the cities of Manchester and Salford, my drinking life began and very much remains in the borough of Wigan.

So, as the evil claws of Wigan council look to stick their crest on every street sign and strip away any semblance of history and independent identity from those towns unfortunate enough to fall into their dark embrace I’d first like to make some honourable mentions:

The White Lion in Leigh and the Jolly Nailor in Atherton are excellent pubs.  Also of note is now the sadly lost Dog and Partridge in Bolton.  All have/had a fine range of beers and a warm welcome.

There are many others too but this is written as a piece of history; an ode to the first pubs I drank in and more importantly, still do to this day.

 

Union Arms, Tyldesley

I find this pub to be quite an unorthodox shape.  It is a largish pub, though deceptively so as a central bar (with two main bars and a smaller one) services five distinct rooms but all are open plan so as not to be cut-off from each other.

Entrance through the main door generally takes me through to the right-hand side of the pub, up a couple of stairs to one of the main bars and a large room with an additional raised seated section, where bands sometimes play.  It used to house the pool table (now strangely absent) and a jukebox.   When I first started going in, the main barmaid (who curiously still does some shifts there) used to whack on 20 free credits, select three songs and then leave the rest for myself and my comrades.

Union Arms, Tyldesley

Union Arms, Tyldesley

From this side of the pub you could then go up another small step to another area of about four tables where the toilets are located, along with the smallest bar and the staircase up to the landlords accommodation.

Union Arms, Tyldesley

Union Arms, Tyldesley

Down a couple of stairs and you would be greeted by a small room that kept the table football and lots of football (mainly Manchester United) memorabilia.

Union Arms, Tyldesley

Union Arms, Tyldesley

This opens up into the other main bar which had a lot more tables and a dart board.  Some gamblers and quiz machines were dotted around the pub.

Union Arms, Tyldesley

Union Arms, Tyldesley

Union Arms, Tyldesley

Union Arms, Tyldesley

Union Arms, Tyldesley

Union Arms, Tyldesley

As you can see, bench seating is prevalent in this pub.

The pub served (and still serves) a range of keg Thwaites products and Warsteiner can be counted amongst its lager offerings.  After a change of ownership there are now 6 cask lines available, along with the “usual” international suspects.

 

The Pendle Witch, Atherton

Tucked down an alley from the main town centre, the Pendle is a rather small pub, though a few large alterations opened the pub out while also brightening it up and, along with the ban of 2006, made it less smoky (oddly something I seldom noticed in the Union).

The Pendle Witch, Atherton

The Pendle Witch, Atherton

The Pendle Witch, Atherton

The Pendle Witch, Atherton

There is a beer garden to the back while the pub consists of one large room, a conservatory and a slightly smaller room where you’ll find a pool table.

The Pendle Witch, Atherton

The Pendle Witch, Atherton

There is a jukebox, which, due to the nature of most of the regulars, will play heavy metal on very heavy rotation.  It is a Moorhouse’s brewery pub and their beers make up 5 of the 10 casks on offer.

The Pendle Witch, Atherton

The Pendle Witch, Atherton

The Pendle Witch, Atherton

The Pendle Witch, Atherton

There is a wide, wide selection of international bottled beers at stupidly cheap prices and these go hand-in-hand with the regularly held bottle-tasting events.

The pubs mentioned here are all great example of a public house with a good beer selection, cheap prices, welcoming atmosphere and a wide mix of drinkers; young, old, regular and passing trade. But above all they are actually proper pubs.

What does that mean?

For me it is just a place I’d feel as comfortable in as I would my own home.  A place for both solitude and friendship and, above all, a decent drink.  In writing about these pubs I could never possibly sum up just how important they are to me because pubs are more than just a place that serves beer; they are part of the fabric of my life, integral to communities and they are worth fighting to keep because they are always more than just bricks and mortar.

Thanks for reading.

Read more from Deeekos at his blog The Boozy Procrastinator.

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