On the map: Stockport
Colin Drury’s new monthly tour of the UK’s lesser-known beer hotspots continues in the Greater Manchester town of Stockport
Saturday 04 June 2022
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There is perhaps little doubt what Stockport’s most famous drink is: Old Tom by Robinsons Brewery has been dubbed the world’s “original craft beer” and twice named the planet’s best ale.
In the 123 years since it was first brewed in 1899, it has won more than 50 gongs recognising its rich and malty goodness. One judge at the 2007 World Beer Awards described the 8.5 per cent behemoth as like a “Mozartian symphony”.
“I think there’s just a wonderful variety of flavours packed into it,” says Oliver Robinson, the brewery’s co-director and great great great grandson of founder William Robinson. “Personally, I won’t drink it out of a pint pot because it doesn’t give you the full experience. You need a wine glass to really savour it.”
Yet, if this historic tipple is Stockport’s most legendary drink, a new generation of brewers are now turning the Greater Manchester town into something of an all-new beer hot spot.
While the family-run Robinsons continues to thrive – it owns more than 260 pubs across the north west – a number of independent and micro-breweries are springing up here.
Places like Ventile Brew Co, the Stockport Brewing Company and Assembly Brew Co, as well as pubs such as the Petersgate Tap, Project 53 and the Magnet, have all helped create a small-town beer scene that could arguably rival any in the UK.
“It’s terrific,” says Robinson. “Stockport has always been a big beer town. When Robinsons started [in 1849], it was because William [the founder] was running a pub and wanted to make his own beer. But that wasn’t unique. There would have been a good number of pubs doing the same thing. Now, to see that same creativity coming through again – it’s wonderful.”
Prime among the newcomers is the aforementioned Assembly, founded by brothers-in-law Scott Power, 40, and Sean Robinson (no relation), 36.
The pair ran a couple of pubs – the Assembly and BräuHaus – in nearby Urmston. Then, early last year they decided they’d have a crack at brewing too.
“We were thinking we’d get a 100 litre system and install it upstairs in one of the pubs,” says Robinson. “But things got a bit out of hand and we ended up with a 1,600 litre system instead.”
Needing a place to set up, they stumbled on a unit in Stockport. It was cheap rent, a good-sized space and another company – Ventile – was already next door.
“It was perfect,” says Robinson. “Then we got to know Stockport a bit better and it’s just exactly the kind of place we wanted to be, great town, loads of knowledgeable people.”
Their own first beers – a West Coast IPA called I Get Along and a hazy pale named Go With The Flow – went down a storm when they dropped in October, and they’re now investing in a canning machine and a tap room set to open this summer.
But Robinson’s favourite bit of being here? Having Dave Foulger, head brewer at Ventile, right next door. “We’re both lone brewers so he’ll pop round on a cig break, cup of tea in hand, and we’ll knock around a few ideas. It’s lovely.”
That moment when you're in a pub and you see someone enjoying your beer - it's the biggest kick
It’s hard-work too, of course.
At the Stockport Brewing Company, Andy Pass – a one-time British Gas engineer – says he never knew work could be so all-consuming until he founded the business. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” the 55-year-old says. “But that moment when you’re in a pub and you see someone enjoying your beer – it’s the biggest kick.”
As a relative veteran of the new scene – he’s been knocking out real ale since 2014 – he has his own theories on why Stockport has become a hot spot. Cheap rent and a well-known beer history play their part, he reckons, but just as important are its wide variety of independent pubs and the excellent links to Manchester – there are 11 trains an hour.
“You’ll get people coming over for a day in the pubs,” he says. “That was almost unimaginable 20 years ago.”
A decent crawl would take in the Magnet (with it own micro-brewery), the Bakers Vaults (where you can sample Old Tom), Project 53 (tap of the Mobberley Brewhouse) and the Produce Hall, a sublime foodie venue where the bar serves an ever changing rotation of craft ales. And then, of course, there’s the wonderful Petersgate Tap.
Opened in 2016 in a refitted bookies, the place has six cask lines, six keg pumps and a clientele that are constantly looking for something new and from nearby.
“We never specifically said we’d always have something local on,” says Chris Gent, the 37-year-old owner and one time baker. “But it sort of works out that way because when we do, it flies out. People feel a real pride in drinking something that has been made down the road.”
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