The trouble With Manchester
Written by Matt Curtis
Written by Matt Curtis
How a beer city copes with being one of the UK’s best
Last issue I made the case for London being a great beer town. It’s been my home for almost 12 years, so naturally I feel a strong affinity towards the city and its infectious beer culture. Over the course of this year I’ve also spent a great deal of time in Manchester. The gravity of the city’s beer culture is so great at the moment that rarely a few weeks pass by before I’m once again boarding a train at Euston Station to make the short two-hour journey into the northwest.
As a result I’ve developed a keen fondness for the city, along with its multitude of great cafés, bars and breweries and I often find myself daydreaming about when I might get the chance to visit again. Mancunians are fiercely proud of their beer culture. This should come as no surprise due to Greater Manchester’s strong beer heritage, which still exists via breweries such as Joseph Holt’s, Hydes, Robinson’s and of course J.W. Lees. It’s also still represented globally thanks to the proliferation of Boddington’s. The actual beer, which is now produced by global brewing giant AB-InBev, is today a shadow of its former pale and bitter self.
However, it has kept Manchester on people’s minds the world over, while the seeds of modern brewing once again began to take root in this northern city. Over the past decade – as with the rest of the UK – Manchester’s interest in beer and brewing has once again skyrocketed. The Greater Manchester region is now home to almost 90 breweries and these days the city is hogging plenty of the spotlight on the global beer stage.
The arrival of Cloudwater in 2014 – who this past winter were voted the fifth best brewery in the world according to RateBeer.com – has been a major influence in drawing that attention.
However it would be extremely unfair to shoulder a single brewery with all of this praise. It’s the diversity of Manchester’s beer scene that makes it such an exciting one. Be it the deliciously dependable beers of Runaway, the abstractly fermented sours of Chorlton or the intriguing beers from the wood from Beer Nouveau. When this new wave of brewers is set against the city’s existing brewing heritage it’s hard to deny that there really is something for everyone.
Marble brewery has been producing beers in Manchester for almost two decades now. Jan Rogers, one of the brewery’s managing directors, has seen the ebb and flow of the Manchester beer scene shift a great deal over this time. I posed to her what seemed like a simple question: “Is Manchester the best beer city in the UK?”
“I think it’s more positive to see places – whether that’s venues, cities or regions – as complimenting each other rather than competing,” Rogers says. “It’s been a long hard fight to get independent beer, both traditional and new wave, into public consciousness, so it doesn’t feel right when I see internal splits. Although it is worth noting that it makes for lively discussion.”
Marble is perhaps one of the few breweries in the UK that manages to straddle the line between modern and traditional, along with the likes of Derbyshire’s Thornbridge and Yorkshire’s Rooster’s. With a solid range of cask ales such as Pint and Manchester Bitter it still appeals to the traditional ale set, while simultaneously being progressive enough to keep the most ardent craft beer fan amused.
With this in mind, it could be said that Marble adds a certain level of maturity to the Manchester scene. Its pub the Marble Arch and sister bar 57 Thomas Street in the Northern Quarter are often a healthy barometer of what’s currently happening within the city’s beer scene.
For Rogers, it’s the diversity of the scene that really makes it stand out within the UK. “Whether you want the comprehensive beer selection of Port St, the subdued sophistication of Cafe Beermoth, the community ethos being established at the Pilcrow, a beatnik vibe at Grub, friendly chaos at any Marble venue or a pint or two at numerous brewery taps, there is something to cater for every beer drinking mood,” she says. “And that’s before you’ve even stepped into any pub run by a family brewery here.”
“[When it comes to brewing] from Cloudwater’s ground breaking DIPA programme to the beauty of a pint of Track Sonoma to the comfort of a half a Robinson’s Old Tom, there are a multitude of brewing styles at play,” Rogers adds.
She’s also quick to point out the success of Manchester Beer Week, which launched in June 2016 and heaped praise on its organiser, Connor Murphy.
One of the bars that Rogers mentions, Grub – an outdoors food market – is another great indicator of the Manchester scene’s rude health. Not just because of its great food and drink selection but because of how it takes craft beer and turns it into something that manages to appeal to a more mainstream audience. This in turn is helping the craft beer bubble to become a little more inclusive, one pint at a time.
I asked its manager, Nick Duke, the same question I posed to Rogers. Does he think that Manchester is the country’s greatest beer city? “Given its relative size compared to London and rich brewing history,
Manchester is absolutely up there with the UK’s great beer cities,” Duke says. “In the last 5 years there has been an explosion of great beercentric venues which care about what they’re putting in front of customers and the quality of the product they are presenting. Added to this we’re now starting to see advancement in the quality of the microbrewery output, which in some cases is getting worldwide recognition. That coupled with the city’s ever-vibrant nightlife is making for a potent mix.
It’s not just the city’s modern beer culture that makes it so appealing, however. As I’ve already mentioned, Manchester is home to some of the best traditional beer culture in the country and I spoke to beer writer and Stockport CAMRA branch-chair John Clarke to find out why that is. “There are very few pubs or bars of note that don’t have a decent cask offer alongside other beers,” Clarke says. “I also like the co-operation and collaboration between brewers to move the city’s beer scene forward – Manchester Beer Week sums this up perfectly.”
On this evidence, it’s easy to see why Mancunians are inherently confident that their city’s beer scene is one of the UK’s best. It can be all too easy to fall into complacency though – I’ve certainly experienced that when fighting the corner for London’s beer scene in the past – so with this in mind I asked my panel of experts if they thought Manchester’s beer scene had any negatives.
“Sometimes there’s not enough dedication to commitment and quality across the board,” Clarke says. “Some of the satellite towns are being a bit slow to catch on to the modern beer scene too – there’s a lot of dull cask out in the sticks.”
“I also think that at times there’s a bit of ‘us and them’ division, probably because within the Manchester beer scene everyone seems to know everyone else,” he adds. Grub’s Nick Duke is a little more pragmatic in his response. “I think there’s a great deal of hype coming from outside of Manchester that overshadows a ton of great breweries that work just as hard but perhaps get elbowed out of the way, despite making really, consistently remarkable beers. When people from outside the city talk about Manchester they often only talk about one or two breweries.”
For Rogers, the Manchester beer scenes biggest problem is perhaps of it’s own creation. “There is some divisiveness, exemplified as traditional ale drinkers versus new wave beer drinkers and this is sometimes very apparent on social media,” she says. “Another issue is that bad beer doesn’t always get called out. It’s wonderful to have so many new people drinking beer in the city but they’re sometimes overly kind about sub standard produce.”
Every scene has its flaws however, and life would be inherently dull if there was little to break down and discuss. In Manchester’s case, despite a few foibles, the positives exemplified by its healthy beer culture hugely outweigh any negatives. Before this year’s Manchester Beer Week, which took place in June, it was revealed that Manchester had the greatest selection of cask ale within its city centre, with 411 hand pulls in operation. This survey put Sheffield into second place with 385 pumps – another city that has often staked its claim as the U.K.’s best for beer. One of Sheffield’s ardent supporters is beer writer Pete Brown. I asked him what the Yorkshire town has that Manchester doesn’t.
“Manchester and Sheffield both have different attributes, but with Sheffield the beer thing goes back longer,” Brown says. “[In Sheffield] real ale never really went away, and there’s a thriving microbrewing scene that goes back to the nineties.” However, Brown’s love for Sheffield didn’t stop him from revealing a soft spot for Manchester, too.
“The most fascinating thing about Manchester is how it’s pretty much the only part of the country where loads of family brewers resisted being swallowed up by the big nationals,” he says. “Boddingtons disappeared but Robinsons, Hydes, Holt’s and JW Lees all carried on, all brewing beers that were similar to each other. There’s no other town or city I know of where the scene survived so intact. And I think that’s why the city has more than its fair share of grand pubs.”
It’s safe to say that Manchester is one of the great beer cities in the UK, but I think it would be wrong of anyone to call it the greatest. In fact it would be a mistake to single out any single town or city in the UK as the country’s best beer city – we are, in fact, spoiled for choice when it comes to finding fantastic beer in metropolitan hubs. London, Leeds and Manchester might be more obvious examples of these but cases could be made for almost any city in the UK, be it Belfast, Birmingham Bristol, Newcastle, Norwich, Edinburgh or anywhere in between.
The future, though, will not be isolated islands of great beer culture that is only to be found in these metropolitan hot spots. The past few months has already seen craft beer's gradual encroachment into suburban and rural areas – it’s certainly not everywhere yet but as early adopters grow older and leave their city homes behind, they’ll want to bring their creature comforts with them as they begin to seek a more relaxing lifestyle.
One of those is craft beer, but of course by the time craft beer is easily available everywhere within the UK we’ll have probably forgotten all about the c-word entirely.
What is certain is that right now Manchester’s beer scene is buzzing and you’d be a fool not to go and lap up the atmosphere to be found within its great selection of pubs, bars and taprooms as soon as you can. It also feels that Manchester’s modern beer scene is still only in it’s formative years, and we can expect to see plenty more progress over the next 5 to 10 years, as Grub’s Nick Duke explains.
“Manchester’s always in a state of flux and change, and I know a few breweries are starting to expand in small increments, investing in additional capacity to be able to brew more frequently, and have the ability to experiment more,” he says. “The beer in Manchester has long been speaking for itself in terms of quality, innovation and diversity, so that makes my job of selling it incredibly easy. Which is nice.”
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