The only one I know
Guest editor Matthew Curtis explains why he believes Manchester is now the UK’s best beer city, and how it got here
Saturday 14 January 2023
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In 2014, I visited Manchester with a single objective: to unearth its beer culture, and discover why the city was becoming such a focal point for beer.
I was working on a project at the time (that sadly never came to be), and convinced myself that I would be able to unearth a majority of the city’s beer secrets in a single day. Beginning in Port Street Beer House – arguably the genesis point of Manchester’s modern beer movement when it opened in January 2011 – I worked my way through the city centre, gradually picking up a ragtag crew of beer enthusiasts as I progressed. I felt a bit like the Pied Piper, only far more pissed.
There was Mark Johnson, a well-known local beer writer thanks to his blog Beer Compurgation, and Steve Dunkley, who later would go on to launch his brewery, Beer Nouveau, a few weeks after my visit. Later on we were joined by local hospitality worker Rowan Molyneux, and another chap called Paul Jones, who was in the process of starting a new brewery he called Cloudwater. I remember him excitedly telling me about the tiles he was having laid for the brewery floor, which, honestly, I also found very exciting.
We tried to cover as much ground around the Northern Quarter as we could, then the focal point for Manchester’s beer scene. We raced up to the Marble Arch – a good 20 minute yomp from where we were in Port Street, and then gradually worked our way back into town, calling into iconic beer venues such as The Crown and Kettle, and 57 Thomas Street (which, since 2021, has been Fierce Brewing’s Manchester bar).
Jones, however, was adamant that I would not experience the best the city had to offer unless we travelled to the suburbs, and so we jumped in a car and made our way to the South Manchester neighbourhoods of Didsbury and Chorlton. There I experienced a range of exciting beer venues, from bar/restaurants like Volta, bottle shops like The Epicurean, and pubs like The Font and The Beagle.
This was eye-opening, because living in London at the time I considered myself to be surrounded by the best venues for beer in the UK. But Manchester had, quite frankly, pissed all over this from a great height, and in less than a day.
I’m pretty certain this was the moment that Manchester planted a seed in my brain, when I became hooked. I live here now. And in the years since that visit its beer scene has continued to expand and develop into what I personally believe is the most exciting city for beer in the country. Even better than that, it’s showing zero signs of slowing down.
“It's hard to tell how a place has changed when you're inside it, but the beer scene in Manchester has grown so much that it's unrecognisable,” writer and academic Stephanie Shuttleworth tells me. She grew up in the Greater Manchester suburb of Oldham, and has worked in and around its beer scene for as long as I’ve known her, from breweries such as Marble, to city centre bars owned by a large Scottish brewery that shall remain nameless. It was in the latter, on my 2014 beer tour, where we first met.
“Greater Manchester is such a diverse area,” Stephanie says. “You've got the city centre and the old industrial areas around it left empty spaces that have now been filled with breweries, taprooms and creative little neighbourhood bars. Going out a bit further, you start to hit the more rural areas with amazing country pubs and taprooms.”
The beer scene in Manchester has grown so much that it's unrecognisable
Ever since that visit, even before I relocated here in 2020, I started making regular visits, in particular for festivals like the Independent Manchester Beer Convention (which is too long a name, so everyone just calls it “Indyman”) and the now defunct Manchester Beer Week. In 2016 I wrote an article for Good Beer Hunting that tried to summarise the Manchester beer scene. It now feels woefully naive, and rather out of date.
I’m not saying it was a bad article, and reading it back it certainly feels like I had a grasp on what was going on at the time. But in it I attempt to invent a dichotomy; the fact that Manchester had a traditional real ale scene, and a modern craft beer scene, and although they coexist, they were different. This is wrong for several reasons, as I’ll try to explain.
“There is something for everyone [in Manchester],” Ross Cummins, host of local beer podcast Beernomicon, tells me. “If you want a third of heavily hopped DIPA get to Sadler’s Cat, if you want a trad pint of cask for less than £4 head to Hare and Hounds. Fancy some 3 Fonteinen bottles you can only get in a few bars in the world? Get down to Cafe Beermoth.”
The venues Cummins mentions are all within about five minutes’ walk from one another. Extend that net to a 10-minute stroll and the number of great beer venues increases to about five times that. Make it 20 minutes and, well, you get the picture.
If I’ve learned one thing about Manchester since becoming a resident, it’s that if you cut a local, they bleed beer. It’s the stuff of life, evidenced by how busy many of its pubs consistently are, despite scares like Covid-19, and the cost of living crisis. More than this, however, is the fact that with the variety on offer, you can create a Choose Your Own Adventure style beer journey, depending on what sort of mood you're in. If I want some cutting edge, freshly released beer, for example, I might head to the adjacent Track and Cloudwater taprooms (recently joined by newcomers Sureshot, just around the corner). But if I want a perfectly conditioned pint of cask beer, I might head to a pub like the City Arms, bang in the centre of town.
In fact, the City Arms is the place where my idea of Manchester being home to a modern/traditional beer dichotomy evaporates. At its heart, this is a traditional pub, small and cramped, yet there’s always somehow just enough room to squeeze in. It serves eight rotating cask beers from small, independent suppliers. Two of these are usually dark beers, one is always a bitter. There’s usually cask hazy pale ale, and sometimes Thornbridge Jaipur, which somehow coincides with the evenings when you don’t remember how you got home. It does a banging pint of Guinness, along with Strongbow and Amstel if you’re not into the craft stuff. But there’s also a couple of keg lines serving hazy, hoppy, modern beers.
This something for everyone approach is validated by the sheer variety of clientele that walks through the door. I have seen all walks of life inside the City Arms. And yet despite it very obviously being a traditional pub, there really isn’t anything to separate its vibe from Café Beermoth just down the road. Of course “The Moth” as the staff affectionately call it feels different, with its wooden booths, big glass windows and aged hop garlands catching the low, Edison-bulb lighting. But despite the many fancy bottles and keg lines, at its heart it’s serving seven beautifully conditioned cask beers, from bitters, to milds, to Belgian-style tripels.
There is no ‘modern’ or ‘traditional’ scene here, there is only Manchester, where these things are now one and the same. Perhaps it's a sign of its younger, ‘craft’ scene finally maturing, and this is what a truly integrated British beer scene looks like.
“There was a real boom in the Manchester beer scene around 10 years ago. Lots of excitement, lots of events, and a really passionate crowd of people,” says Track Brew Co’s marketing manager Stefan Melbourne. “I'd say that this still exists, but 'craft beer' has become so much more accepted in the mainstream that it's somewhat refined itself.”
“Whereas once you would only be able to go to one bar to get good beer, you'll now see an offering of great local beers spread all across the city,” he adds.
There is no ‘modern’ or ‘traditional’ scene here, there is only Manchester
It’s that spread Stefan refers to that has made Manchester’s beer scene complete. In my local neighbourhood of Levenshulme I count at least five venues that specialise in beer. If I head down the road to another neighbourhood like Heaton Chapel, Reddish or Burnage, there are more still, and when you consider the local pubs owned by Manchester’s four family brewers, that number of beer-centric hostelries increases further. While there are still some exceptions, you can be confident of dropping a pin in a map of Greater Manchester, and easily discovering several pubs, bars and bottle shops surrounding it.
What’s equally remarkable, is that (perhaps due to the inherently creative, ‘do it yourself’ attitude of the city’s residents) despite the country’s financial situation being well and truly down the toilet, there seems to be no let-up in the number of new breweries or venues joining the scene.
While it was difficult to see businesses like Beer Nouveau and Beatnikz Republic close their doors for good in 2022, newcomers including Balance Brewing, Strange Times, and the aforementioned Sureshot have arrived to ensure that brewery numbers haven’t decreased. Not forgetting Leeds-restaurateurs Bundobust opened their second venue – a brewpub no less – here recently. And soon another Leeds brewery, North, will be opening its first venue on this side of the Pennines. Thus proving that the appetite for beer up here is bottomless.
“Even though there is a lot of competition, we feel like we can still bring something to the table,” Strange Times head brewer Lauren Guy tells me. “Also, when you accidentally run out of an ingredient there's always someone down the road that'll help you out.”
Recently I headed over to the Bee Orchid in Salford, spitting distance from Old Trafford stadium, where Strange Times was launching a crowdfunder for a new canning line. Before I went, I had no idea the bar was there, let alone serving as Strange Times’ de facto taproom. I arrived with a lot of questions, namely how another brewery would fare in a metropolitan area that’s already home to over 80 competitors. But it didn’t take me long to find my answer.
“The standard of beer brewed in Greater Manchester is exceptional and the overall range, from traditional to experimental is represented so well, you couldn't ask for more,” Guy continues. “It's where we're from and who we are.”
Manchester is a beer city, just in the same way it’s a music city, or an arts city. Not only does it have an insatiable thirst for what it produces, but it backs itself. The downside of this is that egos can, on occasion, clash, but this self-assurance in what it creates is contagious, meaning – in beer terms – that there’s still plenty of empty glasses waiting to be filled, and eager drinkers waiting to sup from them.
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