Manchester Union Brewery
Central European lager, Mancunian swagger
Saturday 14 January 2023
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“Central European lager brewing with an Mancunian swagger,” promises Manchester Union, with characteristic directness. As co-founder of the city’s first and only dedicated lager brewery, Jamie Scahill is crystal clear about what he does and why; namely, producing lagers that this famously exacting beer city can be proud to call its own.
Manchester Union’s story starts around 2016, when Jamie was running a bar, buying beer from his eventual co-founder Will Evans. “He kept talking to me about lager and how it was going to be huge on the craft side of things,” recalls Jamie. “We had plenty of Czech and Belgian cans in the bar, but couldn’t get hold of anything British, so decided we should do something about it.
“It was an idea we kept coming back to over beers, but it didn’t go anywhere until we met Ian [Johnson] at a beer festival at Blackjack Brewery, who’d brewed this Czech-style pilsner that absolutely blew us away. So we told him what we’d been talking about, and he kind of said ‘that sounds ace’ and we figured we could probably do it on not much money.”
Ace it certainly was, but inexpensive it sadly was not. At a time when the vast majority of UK craft drinkers were only just considering the possibility that lager wasn’t inherently evil, the tiny team at Manchester Union were absolutely committed to doing it right, which meant going to the trouble and expense of buying a Czech-style decoction mash brewhouse.
For readers unfamiliar with the technicalities of traditional central European lager brewing, decoction is essentially a system under which a portion of the mash is separated out and passed from tank to tank at much higher temperatures, releasing a compound called melanoidin, as well as a small quantity of tannins. This gives the finished beer extra body, a smoother mouthfeel and a certain dryness that really complements the snappy bitterness of most lager styles.
For brewers, it’s probably only something you’d bother with if you were confident your audience cared enough about lager to notice the difference. For Jamie, Will and new head brewer Ian, opening up in late 2018, it was a real leap of faith.
With hindsight though, Will’s instincts about the ascent of craft lager were absolutely bang-on, and Manchester Union has gone from strength to strength. Concentrating on building its presence in and around Manchester, it enjoys fantastic relationships with local bars and bottleshops, and its taps and tanks can be found in many of the city’s most prestigious venues.
So, has lager’s battle for the hearts and minds of Mancunians been won? “It’s got a lot better over the years, definitely. There's some good lager breweries in the UK now, and I think that’s raised the level of understanding. We did a big lager festival in Manchester in 2019, with a load of different breweries, mainly European, but the ones from the UK were unbelievable. But yeah, there is a lot of people who still see it as a price point thing, who won't want to try that £6 lager when they can get a £4 lager.
“The challenge now is when you get to different styles. Everyone knows what to expect from a pilsner or a helles, but we have a black lager on just now, and some people struggle trying to get their head around why it tastes sweet. They're expecting bitterness, like a Porter, so this kind of blows their minds. You’re seeing more of a range of lager styles out there now though, and craft drinkers like something new, so I think it’s just time really.”
Seeing its beer hitting tens of thousands of Beer52 subscribers across the UK is a real departure for Manchester Union. While Jamie is excited about the new fans it could create, he is clear that the brewery’s soul is and will always be in Manchester.
“It was important to us to have that Manchester in the title, you know, the Lion Bee in our logo comes from Concillo et Libero (Wisdom and Effort) on the Manchester crest, and we put a lot of thought into the brand itself and what we stood for – central European with a Mancunian swagger. And that's what we do, from the brand all the way through to the beer and the kind of events we get involved with.
“Manchester’s a small city. You can walk the city centre edge-to-edge in like 15 minutes. But there's always a lot going on, and we’ll associate ourselves with any kind of music events; I'm a club promoter, and Will's got his fingers in different things. Between us, with our friends and colleagues, we get involved in lots of different events and venues – it’s really important to us that we can support that culture and be supported by it. It’s a small city, and we all lift each other up.”
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