“Where Everybody Knows Your Name” – No Thanks.  

“There is no Chicago urban blues more heartfelt than my lament for you.

I’m a liberal guy, too cool for the macho ache. With a secret tooth for the cherry on the cake.

With a pious smile, a smile that changes what I say.

While I waste my time in regretting that the days went from perfect to just OK.”

Cruel” – Prefab Sprout (clip courtesy “thingslostinfire low” on YouTube)

Liberal. A dirty word. But I’m proud to be one. Even though it makes my drinking more expensive….

You see, I’ve never had what I could truly call a “local”, something that I’ve always yearned for. Somewhere nearby, where I could drink a decent beer or three and feel “at home”. I’ve always travelled to drink, from my underage days drinking pints of Holts bitter in “The Wellington” on Irlams o’th Height in Salford to the White Lion in Little Hulton and The Albion in Walkden and (more latterly) The Brink.

But I’ve always wanted something closer.

Then – one night about 5 years ago – my good friend Rob & I went into a pub opposite his then home. And I threw a few darts. The barmaid thought I was quite good and asked if I’d like to join their team.

I was elated. Could this be what I’d been looking for for all those years?

So, I went along for most of a season, closing my taste buds to the shit beer (Holts or Cross Bay – both kept badly) and my ears to some of the more unsavoury conversation, gently making others aware that that wasn’t the way I thought. I was the best player, I felt valued. I overlooked the negative and blocked it out.

Then, one evening after a match, I was asked if I’d like to stay behind and have a beer with the staff and landlord after closing. And my eyes were opened. 

What followed was the most vile stream of racist language and general prejudice that I had ever heard. It seemed that the simple fact that I was there, in that pub, meant that I was “one of them” and therefore must have shared their opinions and way of thinking.

I didn’t confront. I chose caution and made my excuses and left. Confrontation comes with risks that I simply wasn’t prepared to take. I know that all too well. Which is why I didn’t criticise the choice of Mark in his initial response to events posted in this – unlike some.

So I left the pub. And never went back. Even now, I childishly refer to that pub as “The Hood & Burning Cross”.

And the very next week, I posted my first thoughts about beer with this stream of drivel. Which I’m still embarrassed about. But it was a start. And we all have to start somewhere.

I don’t drink in the town in which I live. Even though I’ve lived here 26 1/2 years now and raised 3 kids here. Socially, I don’t belong here (I can hear the strains of “Creep” as I type). Nor do I drink in Bolton. There are a few decent places, (Ukrainian Club, Hen & Chickens, Great Ale) but there is a sense of threat whenever I’m in the centre of the town of an evening.

I chose (and still do) to drink – with any regularity – in Manchester.

I struggle with Sexism. Racism. Prejudice of any kind. Even my own pre-judgement of other pubs in my own area. I need to feel at ease. Amongst like minded spirits.

I inhabit a bubble. Both socially and politically. Which is why I find myself occasionally shocked by events both politically (blah blah blah Brexit, blah blah blah Trump….) and socially like those things that Mark deals with above.

There is no excuse for racism. There is no excuse for gender or any other form of sexual prejudice. Full stop.

Living and socialising in those bubbles – and the Manchester Beer “scene” is a bubble – insulates me from all of the shit that I can’t abide and – currently – handle. I’ll carry on thanks.

BeersFarnworth doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?

And as for a local? I’ll do without now, thank you.

“My contribution….to urban blues”

Manchester Beer and Cider Festival 2017 – My Dancecard 

I’m lucky sometimes. One of these occasions was when I recently had a preview 0f the beer list for the upcoming Manchester Beer & Cider Festival.

Leaving aside the established family breweries from the region (although a rare draught outing for JW Lees Harvest Ale is quite exciting), there is an extremely large selection of beers on both cask and (whisper it) keg, with some exceptional beers in there from all over the country.

I received a sneak preview of the list to facilitate a piece for the local paper the Manchester Evening News which was published yesterday. However, that piece was edited, with the two lowest abv beers edited out, hence a slight revamp here. I call it my Dance Card; beers that I will make a point of seeking out.

For me – with limited exceptions – I indulge in what I refer to as “tactical drinking”, starting with low abv beers and heading North from there. Given that I will be one of the judges for the (glory be!) Stout category, I won’t be getting through all of these at the “Trade” session. But get through them I will. (With maybe a warming Imperial Stout or two to keep out the forecasted chill)

Anyway, here goes my take on the beers to try. And for those who want to hunt their own choices down, here’s the link to the full list.

A wise Manchester blogger once told me “Manchester is a Pale Ale city”, so the accent is on the light, pale and bitter of the spectrum. With some darkness for a little fortifying variety in this cold month.

Happy hunting!

Dinner AleIlkley Brewery (Bar 1) : At only 3.3%, this sharp and zesty light Pale Ale is full of juicy flavours. An ideal beer to start the session with. And my favourite beer from the Leeds International Beer Fest 3 years ago. I haven’t seen it since.

TitchRamsbottom Craft Brewery (Bar 2) : One of my favourite beers of 2016. At only 3.6% this tart fruity Pale Ale is a delicious juicy mouthful from one of the best small breweries in the area. Full bodied too for the strength.

Galaxy Pale AleBrewsmith Brewery (Brewery Bars) : James Smith has been brewing the most consistently excellent beers for the last 3 years. His single hopped Pale Ales being singularly delicious and refreshing, this 3.9% Aussie hopped beer promises to be more of the same.

Dr. RudiPictish Brewery (Bar 2) : In my opinion, up at this Rochdale brewery, Paul Wesley is a master of brewing single-hopped Pale Ales. Expect juicy, fruity and bitter from this 4.1% beer. And superb.

US Cask LagerBrightside Brewery (Brewery Bars) : Cask conditioned Lagers are a comparative rarity. This 4.3% beer promises to be light and refreshing but with a little hoppy kick from Columbus and Citra hops.

Pale (Chinook/Junga) – Squawk Brewing (Bar 2) : My brewery of the year in 2016, Oliver Turton turns out some of the finest clean and crisp Pale Ales and IPAs in the country from his Ardwick railway arch. An absolute go to brewery whenever seen on a bar for me. Expect refreshing and sharp from this 4.3% beer.

Hoptical IllusionBrass Castle Brewery (Brewery Bars) : A Gluten Free beer made with the sorghum grain, packed with juicy fruit for a hoppy punch. Excellent in bottle, I simply can’t wait to sample this 4.3% belter, from this standout Yorkshire brewery, based in Malton.

Dry Irish StoutRunaway Brewery (Brewery Bars) : Mark Welsby has been quietly beavering away over the last 3 years near Victoria Station brewing some of Manchester’s finest beers. This 4.5% Stout is one of the few I’m yet to try. Expect big roasted flavours with a bitter and slightly sweet finish. I (personally) will not miss this!

Cherry HeartlessRedwillow Brewery (Bar 2) : On its own, Heartless Stout is a full-bodied and luxurious Choccy Stout, dark and delicious. Cherries just work so well in a dark beer that this 4.9% combination has me drooling. Think of Black Forest Gateau. Catnip for beer and cake lovers both.

Turbine PorterStringers Brewery (Bar 3) : Another Gluten Free beer, Stringers are a superb brewery based in Ulverston and I simply don’t see their beer enough in Manchester, with their IPA and Dry Stout being superb. Expect roasted flavours and slight coffee notes in this warming 5.1% Porter.

Quantum Thirst ZapperThirst Class Ale / Quantum Brewing (Bar 3) : Stepping up the strength here at 5.9%, I simply couldn’t overlook this Amber Ale. Combining the brewing skills of Richard Conway (of the criminally underrated Thirst Class – co brewers of my favourite beer of 2016) with the maverick that is Jay Krause (of the sadly closed Quantum), this Stockport collaboration beer promises big and bold hoppy flavours. Unmissable for me.

Transpennine Brown AleMallinsons Brewery / Pictish Brewery : Now to the beer that is top of my personal “to do” list. Brewed especially for the festival, this collaboration between two of my very favourite breweries had me salivating from the moment I heard. Hoppy Brown ales are a particular favourite of mine, but when made by the two breweries that master the art of drinkable hoppy pale ales.(for me), this is a must. Especially as they went against type, deliberately! Expect fruity hops galore, with a little nutty sweetness in this crackerjack 6% beer.



The Beerage : From Rags to Riches – Part II (Or “To Cask or Not To Cask? That Is The Question.”) 

​”Money money money money, money. 

Some people got to have it, some people really need it. 

Listen to me y’all, do things, do things, do bad things with it. 

You want to do things, do things, do things, good things with it. 

Talk about cash money, money.  Talk about cash money, dollar bills, y’all”

(For The Love of Money” – The O’Jays) 

Hark! Is that the sound of the first of many dominoes falling?

On New Year’s Day, Paul Jones of Cloudwater – via the medium of the brewery blog – announced that they were to stop packaging beer in cask. 

As a lover of cask conditioned beer, this news saddened me. Cloudwater have made some excellent beer packaged in cask – I have very fond memories of their first DIPA (or v1 for those beholden to such designations) in cask at the brewery tap; I was also enamoured of the IPA Nelson Sauvin that they provided for ISBF2016 – but many of their hoppier beers have worked better in keg. So, on that level, no surprise in their choice. 

What DID surprise me though, was the statement that Cloudwater are not yet in a profit situation. 

So they have partly addressed that. By abandoning the cask conditioning of some of their beers (and no, it isn’t the only reason…..) 

Now here’s the thing, I adore cask conditioned beer. When properly conditioned and looked after in the cellar, it is a tremendous thing. And therein lies the rub, those words “When properly conditioned and looked after in the cellar”. I do most of my drinking in the centre of Manchester and am fortunate that those bars and pubs that I drink in look after their beer. 

In short, the beer is (ordinarily) in excellent condition. But not all bars and pubs are so conscientious. And most micro breweries – like Cloudwater – want their beer served so that it tastes as they intended. And the one of the arguments in Paul’s blog post was that that could not be guaranteed with cask (I paraphrase, of course) 

Another reason is margin. 

In an age where Wetherspoons buy beers at £45 – £55 a cask and breweries churn out 9g casks at similar prices to pubs (and some – in addition – at “buy X,  get Y free”) quality   breweries struggle to compete and consequently lose customers as pubs demand the lowest possible prices. 

And the thing about cheap beer is? (IMHO of course!) It tastes cheap. And – due to price – it pushes good beer off the bar. Or forces breweries to race to the bottom, lowering standards to lower price. A vicious circle to those of us who love good beer. 

Keeping standards up – in terms of ingredients and equipment – is expensive. The maths is – like myself – fairly simple, brewing good beer costs. To keep doing it, the brewers need to make more money. So how? 

Cloudwater – like many new wave (I’m a child of Punk!) breweries – see their future in packaging their beers in keg for the draught market. They are not the first (Buxton went that way nearly 18 months ago, Beavertown, The Kernel…. ) and almost certainly not the last. Packaging in Key Keg means the entire cost of the beer falls upon the customer; it means no investment in expensive casks that frequently don’t return – at least directly (leading to greater cost in retrieval from the likes of Keg Watch). 

Brewing – at least for the small operations – is not just about the beer. It’s about chasing outstanding payments; it’s about chasing materials (casks); deliveries; sales and marketing; social media; (increasingly) Brewtap organising. It’s bloody long hours. Bloody hard graft. For precious little reward. Reading the message from Jay Krause (of Quantum) detailing why he was quitting his own business was heartbreaking for those of us who’ve enjoyed his journey through beer. Running a brewery is a stressful business. It must feel good just to brew beer. 

It goes back to my original premise. That beer is too cheap, certainly in cask format. So what is the answer? I’ve said some of these previously. 

1. Own your own outlet(s) – control both the quality from creation to dispense and the price. This costs, especially in an expensive real estate area like Manchester (something that Cloudwater themselves partially address with their involvement in The Pilcrow) and few have the kind of money to do this. 

2. Scale. Increase volumes – reducing percentage overheads in order to increase “profit”. Again, this comes with the cost of investment in larger kit (tuns, coppers, FVs, tanks). Unaffordable to most – especially when many chase thousands of pounds in overdue payments as part of “the job”. (Remember, pubs/bars are cash businesses…..) 

3. Brewtaps. These do provide the sugar rush of a direct cash injection. And also give the brewer control of the quality of product at the point of dispense. But these take an awful lot of time and effort to organise, eating into the functional week of the brewery. They also eat into that most underrated (yet increasingly precious the older you get) commodity. Free time. 

Breweries need to make money. They are businesses, not charities. And part of that equation is that the brewery needs to be paid an appropriate price for the beer. And if that means “more”, then it means we – the drinker – need to pay more. To me, it reminds me of myself; simple. 

Some commentators – perhaps with a “craft” agenda – are heralding the demise of cask, following on from Paul’s (Cloudwater) blog post. Those who are, are patently talking utter bollocks. There is some bloody gorgeous cask conditioned beer brewed by Micros locally, served with due regard and skill by local pubs and bars. 

But unless the breweries that make this beer can actually make profit, the number of these breweries will surely diminish. 

And that scenario is coming. It won’t be breweries dropping cask that will be the concern. It will be micro breweries ceasing to exist. 

And that will be a sadder thing. 

P. S. For an idea of the financials of brewing – from a brewers perspective – read this from Steve at Beer Nouveau.