Northern Soul – Where Beer Is Better

Northern Soul

This post has been coming for some time – but needed a bit of a ……prod. That prod came from a forthright exchange of opinions on Twitter the other evening. No enmity, just an unbridegable gap. More later….

I made a decision in the early days of this blog to steer away from non-UK beers and focus on British beers. It quickly became apparent that many blogs (including many Northern ones) splaffed what was – an inordinate amount of text inches to beers from that there London. So, a little over a year ago, I decided to narrow my focus even further. To the great beers being brewed by an ever-increasing (or so it seemed) number Northern breweries.

For those who don’t know me, I was born in Salford 50 years ago of Mancunian parents. I am proud of where I’m from and love the city that is my cultural touchstone, Manchester. I adore the musical heritage – I grew up in the late 70s – so to start my live musical journey seeing bands like Joy Division, Crispy Ambulance, A Certain Ratio, Dislocation Dance, James et al gave me a love of what was possible and what derived from this city.

I also, unsurprisingly, love this city’s beer scene. And the people who create and nurture it. And I will defend it, in the face of those who know nothing and come here thinking that they have a beery “philosopher’s stone”, when they don’t know shit about this city and its beer culture/scene.

Which kind of leads me to Piccadilly Tap. It opened one Friday afternoon in March amid much fanfare and it was the talk of social media on the day. I was in Manchester that evening for a couple of retirement dos, so thought that I’d pop my head in and see what the fuss was about. The look was…odd. And somewhat incomplete. There were no indoor toilets. Not a promising start on the aesthetic and comfort fronts.

There was a substantial beer offering clearly displayed on some boards on the wall (a good touch) and a few people that I knew, so, over an average pint of Mallinsons (which is a BLOODY rare thing!), I chatted with a few friendly faces, who over the course of time, made their ways elsewhere. I was in no rush, so grabbed myself a half of BBF Ultimate Stout and sat at the window, watching the world go by and minding my own.

A fella then came sat next to me and said that he was the owner or manager (or something – THAT bit is hazy). He asked my what I thought of the place. So I told him – and spared not the rod. If he was expecting a banal exchange of the “pink and fluffy” variety he was mistaken. His face was a picture.

He then declaimed freely about elements of the Manchester Beer Scene and two venues in particular were mentioned (you’ll have to ply me with beer in person for the details!). He was somewhat less than complimentary and even went as far as to describe one of them in the same breath as “Wetherspoons”. I took offence. I felt my index finger stiffen as I mouthed the words “You Are Wrong”. And “Wrong” is a big word in the world of opinion!

Beer writing and commentary is indeed all about differences of opinion, but I couldn’t let this go unchallenged. Following my comment about the beer list having only one Manchester beer on it (Cloudwater) out of TWENTY TWO, my advice was to grab a blanket, throw it in the air and see how many great breweries that it would cover (think Piccadilly Beer Mile and you will have an idea). Shortly after, he escaped, looking mightily relieved.

I HAVE been in since – and it is NOT on one of my regular routes. It had settled down and many of the aesthetic wrongs had been righted, that ENORMOUS bar notwithstanding. It was also great to see some cracking Northern breweries getting their beer into the venue. For all that many seem to love the place, I prefer a little more native soul in my pubs and bars.

Loads of people will disagree with me. Opinions eh?

And, for balance, I actually love two of the Bloomsbury Group’s other ventures (Euston Tap and The Holborn Whippet)

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As I said, I made that decision to focus on great beers being brewed by Northern breweries about a year ago. I am – by preference – a lover of cask conditioned beer, call it Real Ale or whatever you like. But that’s where my heart lies in a beery sense – Cask Conditioned beers, brewed in the North. There, I’ve said it. Something that I didn’t make clear on Twitter the other evening. By “limiting” myself to beers brewed up here, some may think that I’m missing out. Unsurprisingly, I would turn the mirror and argue the opposite.

It is only my opinion, but, I have been saying for some time now, that Manchester needs look to no other city for inspiration where beer is concerned. Especially not London.

Yes, there is some excellent beer brewed in that there city. I love many of the beers that the likes of Weird Beard put out (some excellent Cask stuff too) and The Kernel. I can’t deny that. But I firmly believe that, as far as Cask Conditioned beer is concerned, that the best stuff out there is Northern. From Manchester – Marble, First Chop, Black Jack, Quantum, Squawk, Track, Thirst Class are all banging out some simply excellent stuff. There are a whole clutch of former home brewers about to launch too (I’m looking forward to Torrside hugely). Also the likes of Beer Nouveau looking to expand and get some cask stuff out there.

If you widen the catchment, Allgates, Pictish, two of the longer established breweries put out some exceptional cask beer. Shane at Cheshire Brewhouse. Michelle at Offbeat. Both making exceptional beer…….

Go to Yorkshire. Atom, Brass Castle, Five Towns, Mallinsons, North Riding, ….do I need to go on?

Is it the general usage of sparklers on the pump? There could be a myriad of reasons that I, personally, don’t understand, but for the simple things like flavour, I find beers made around here are (very) hard to beat.

Some will be able to argue the case far more eloquently than I can, I’m just letting the words tumble out.

But I stand my ground on this – and this is why I “limit” myself to the best Northern Breweries for the Independent Salford Beer Festival. More on that elsewhere of course…..

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IMAG0382

(July 2015)

The Black Jack Tap

This was the reason that I sat down to write! Strange how you can become distracted eh?

Since the first time that I went down to this venue, the set up has evolved, to say the least. The first time for me was the day of the Marble 125 celebrations in August 2013. On that day, Black Jack was a welcome cool alternative to the busy and hot Arch.

Black Jack Marble 125

(Aug 2013)

It felt like there was something good going on. Good beer, tunes, shaded seating. It felt right.

Fast forward two years. The Black Jack Tap has become a bit of a fixture on the Manchester beer scene. A place where friends gather. A place where good beer is presented and drunk. A coming together of good people. And, as I’ve said on many occasions……..?

There is something rather special for me about this place. It feels like home. It feels really comforting to walk into a place without making arrangements and you just KNOW that there will be a friendly face to chat with over a nice pint.

IMAG0384

Just look at the pictures. The feeling is so relaxed. Really summery background music, excellent vegan food (provided by Gud) to chew over with some excellent Black Jack session beers on cask as well as kegged beer from all over the UK (including one from Denmark). From both a brewing and distribution angle, Black Jack are becoming a bit of a power on the local beer and events scene, that Glassworks distribution angle enables them to source some excellent beers – especially on the craft keg side – from all over the land.

The best beers that I tried however, were a Black Jack (Belgian Gold) and Quantum (Imperial Buckwheat Stout – But I’m biased!)

Between the assorted crews from Black Jack Beers, Grub & Shebeen, and the beer, music and food that they can bring together, they have created what has become a Manchester summer institution.

Long may summer last.

17 comments on “Northern Soul – Where Beer Is Better

  1. Well said Jim. Agreed on the Piccadilly Tap issue – even now the look and feel of the place is wrong. Not sure they are in a position to criticise others (port st presuming is one???). The beer list has got better but to me is overpriced (and I’m used to central manchester ‘craft’ prices).

    Interested in your thinking that you’re a cask man rather than keg – is that just a general quality/taste preference (I.e. less carbonation, generally more mellow taste profile) as I don’t really have a preference – sometimes keg is better for me when I’ve done side-by-side comparisons but depends on the beer.

    Cheers for the blogs anyway, hoping to do the road to Wigan beer after reading your ace write up!

    • No comment re the pub – got to be wary legally. But I grew up with cask. I do like keg, most of the stuff I have at Black Jack is ordinarily keg, just texturally prefer cask. Temperature too. Thank you for the comment – I took a while to post the Tap thing. But it really pissed me off then. It was actually quite comical in the end. But that’s a story to be told over a beer!

      • Indeed – anything that involves good beer and something Thatcher hated (bus travel) is good with me! Will be heading to Salford Beer Fest this year as well after your relentless (and selfless, of course!) pursuit of good beer.

  2. Piccadilly tap is over rated in my opinion,same for port street beer house,get same beer round the corner lot cheaper..pretentious clientel,who would turn nose up at a proper pint of holts’s! Coz it’s less than four quid!

    • TBH I grew up on Holts. Either it is no longer what it was, or my taste buds have shifted. That said, it was really interesting that their head brewer was involved in the collaboration beer with Marble, Black Jack & Runaway (Green Quarter IPA). Maybe they can regain former glory.

      • I agree how holts’s has changed,stir love it tho.point I making was there a bit of an elitist crowd in there,beer snobs…am I being harsh?im just getting old an bitter!

  3. I totally agree with your Piccadilly Tap thoughts mate. I really don’t like it in there. I rarely even look inside, let alone actually go in…. Despite it being right by my access/egress to your fine city.

    • It just feels wrong to me. I probably wouldn’t have posted that bit this late, but something about London the other night brought it forward.

      It was the opinion (half baked IMO) about certain Manc bars / pubs which really got my goat. I could have gone on more but kept it short.

      Since publishing last night, I’ve had several comments agreeing, but only one in support of the place. Surprising, cos I’d thought I’d take a kicking about this!

  4. Great stuff. Nothing like a bit of passion to make a really good post. But I feel I must disagree with Mark C. For all its faults I don’t find it full of snobs. Indeed I have friends who will not set foot in much of the N/4 but will happily sup in there. Which leads on to pricing. I don’t think it’s pricey, either. £3.60 for a 4.8% beer, for example, isn’t bad at all for Manchester. And I had Mallinsons Citra which, at £3.40, was far cheaper than the two other N/4 outlets I saw it on at. For me, it’s things like the decor and the toilets that really let it down. That and the lack of condition in some of the beers.

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