Across The Tracks – All Steam Ahead

Some times, you just appreciate an opportunity.

I needed a chat. About “stuff”. (More later) But Gareth suggested Trackside in Bury. 10 minutes for him, 1 hour and 45 for me. But hey, for what was to come……

The “stuff” will be subject of another post – I hope – to chat with the boy Williams is always a pleasure (not to mention the “surprise” from the lovely Kate!) . But the pub – if I can call it that – was kind of the pull. The lure. I think that the sneaky bastard knew that he’d had me when he pitched the location.

You see, I’d become disillusioned with Trackside. It had descended to something a bit banal. The beer selection had gotten…… lazy. A bit boring.

Then along comes Will.

You see, I’d always loved this building, if struck me as a bit like an ancient Saxon Longhouse, maybe a Feasting Hall. But with hand pumps. And keg fonts.

I’m a bit of an English history nerd you see.

I love the fact that it’s part of the East Lancashire Railway set up. Friends of mine with absolutely no interest in beer come for a Steam fix. That cross between Thomas the Tank Engine & Casey Jones.

But you see, from a beer perspective – for me – this place now sells itself. I mean, if I lived in Bury, I certainly wouldn’t be catching the Metro to Manchester!

And the beers I tried – on cask – were bloody lovely. Cwrw Ial, Squawk, Brewsmith & Brass Castle all superb. I know from recent tweets that he’s had some North Riding on too – and I was gutted to miss it.

I think there may be a trip in the air.

The pub is located on the platform of the Bury stop of the East Lancashire Railway. At the end of the line is the Sister pub – The Buffer Stops. If this has a range anywhere close….. And I’m told that it has…

Just, you know…..

Call me an old romantic if you will, but there’s something that just grabs me. The bar itself is lovely and comfy. The tunes were right up my street, superb background tuneage and I regularly caught myself with a “never heard THIS in a pub before…”

But this isn’t a club night. It’s about a pub. And a custodian. Who is taking the place forward. Doing the right things. Getting in great beer and serving it perfectly.

Now the Moses Gate Bridge is back open, I think me and The Lovely One will be paying a few visits.

Go see the yourself. It’s only 5 minutes from the Bury Metro terminus. Just down the side of the ELR station.

You won’t regret it.

Back soon. Jx

Manchester Crawl Series 1 : Swan Street – How Much Longer?

Whilst excellence never gets boring, I crave something different from the “same old, same old”. It’s so easy to settle, create habits that become almost unbreakable.

Yes, there will always be favourites you can rely on to consistently deliver, but – just sometimes – something “different” is called for. But something undemanding in terms of physical effort. Then it struck me.

Swan Street. A street burned in my soul.

And whilst we didn’t start on Swan Street itself (we started just around the corner), we kept faith with part of the original N/4 pub crawl.

Just don’t call it “Northern Quarter”. I’m in retro mode.

The Angel – Angel St (Jct w/Rochdale Road)

Get off the Metro / bus at Shudehill and walk halfway towards The Marble Arch and on the left – at the junction with the inner ring road you’ll find this unheralded gem.

Briefly known as a place where chef Robert Owen Brown forged his reputation, The Angel has been through many guises. It has been knocked about and reshaped over the years since I’ve been drinking there, but still maintains a quaint Mancunian trait, a sense of “otherness”. A quirkiness.

There’s nothing quite like it in Manchester.

I had my first beer here in December 1984. On my first “works Xmas do”. The pub was then called “The Weavers”. It had – in those days – a second room, roughly bounded by the far end of the bar to the back of the pub.

It was…. narrow. It had a pool table. A colleague fell asleep under that pool table that night. An unforgettable evening.

The pub changed hands. Became one of the early Manchester free houses. It had that room knocked through. It transformed into “The Beerhouse” and developed a reputation for an eclectic beer range. You’d find beers there that you wouldn’t elsewhere.

Now being The Angel – named after nearby Angel Meadows (look it up on Wikipedia), it maintained that reputation. It continues to do so, being the only place I know to get Kissingate beers (Horsham, Sussex), notable for their catnip like ability to attract the Arch Nemesis. I put a call in. He couldn’t resist.

Yes. That’s a Baby Grand. In a pub in Manchester. And it does get played…..

To the point, The Angel is a large single room in a kind of wide L shape. At about 170 years old, it retains a Mancunian sensibility, that “Soul” I need to actually love a place.

And those who “know” The Angel do love it.

Last night, the Hawkshead Windermere Pale was as good as I’ve had it, razor sharp and tasty. The KissingateSmelters Stout” was rich, smoky and delicious. A lovely Stout.

The Angel rarely gets talked about in the pantheon of great Mancunian pubs. But it really should.

It may not be pristine and shiny, may be a little “rough around the edges”, but it’s a Manc classic.

Go. Just go.

From The Angel, cross Rochdale Road and turn right. Head towards Shudehill and then left on Swan Street.

Jack In The Box at Mackie Mayor – Swan Street

Apparently a transplant of a successful outlet/operation in Altrincham, there was a lot of excitement when word got out that this beautiful old building was being taken on.

I’ve seen messages from far and wide that testified to its impact since opening. Tonight, I thought I’d have a butchers.

The classical frontage doesn’t prepare you the the visual impact of the interior. The “WOW” factor. I couldn’t stop taking pictures.

I was surprised at the small size of the bar, but it’s Black Jack. And – for me – they’ve hit a sweet spot. The “You Bet” that I had was pin sharp. Jaz had am excellent beer from Siren, Jock had an Uber sharp Oakham Citra (a criminally overlooked beer).

This place is all about the food though.

That lovely Margherita from Honest Crust didn’t last long. Delicious. Having had them before, I expected no less. Tasty.

Stomach sated.

This place is stunning. It gets busy. It’s a big space with all the traders on the perimeter. With a mass of seating.

The beer is excellent, but I can’t get over the fact of Big Brother next door. But this is a destination venue. An Atkinson’s coffee, an Honest Crust pizza, a wine from Reserve Wines? I’d rather give these guys my money than any chain.

So. Walk out of the Swan Street door. Turn right. Walk 10 yards

The Smithfield – Swan Street

I’ve been a fan since Black Jack first took the plunge and got out the paintbrushes. They took an old run down beer tickers pub and brought it into the 21st century.

A bit of TLC. A hug and a kiss. They worked wonders.

It’s rarely quiet these days. It’s found a place for itself, gained a reputation for great beer. It has A BAR BILLIARDS TABLE!

And a dartboard. And that board gets use.

I didn’t take loads of pics in here. I just enjoyed a gorgeous pint of Jarsa by Brew York and chatted.

The Smithfield does all of those simple things incredibly well. And – when my lot are out – is one of the places we meet. Or end up.

Or both. A Manc essential.

Leave The Smithfield, cross the road, turn right. Walk 30 yards along Swan Street.

Bar Fringe – Swan Street

You will NOT find a quirkier, more charming pub / bar in Manchester.

Just wander in. Keep your eyes open. And drink it all in.

This place is simply a diamond. Cherish it. It won’t be here much longer.

A long room. With something for – almost – everyone. 4 cask beers. Draught Belgian. Excellent bottles. Brilliant eclectic jukebox.

And just, again, an old soul. A feeling.

It doesn’t matter how many times I come in, there’s always some detail I miss. Like that painted rat…..

Beer. Panda Frog from the North East. Pale. Unfined. Amarillo. I’m easy to please. I could bury my head in a bag of Amarillo and die happy.

And herein lies the core of this post. This side of Swan Street is slated to be demolished. “Developed”. Have the Mancunian element and history flattened.

To be replaced by glass and concrete. More flats.

Always more flats.

Eviscerating the history and soul from a city. Bastards.

Fuck your “progress”. Same to Manchester City Council for destroying the soul of this beautiful city. Block by block.

But I digress. Enjoy the Fringe. This little diamond. While you still can.

Leave the Fringe, turn left. Cross (the rather busy) Oldham Road.

Crown & Kettle – Oldham Road

Another Manchester classic.

A place that seemed to have lost its way in a beer sense. But – in recent months – with a new female custodian (I hate the term “landlady”), the beer has started to sing the sweetest of songs.

Yes. The C&K is another Mancunian jewel. But the beer range and quality had started to wilt.

But, with that new custodian, it’s now a “go to” again.

3 separate rooms. The small room behind the bar was closed last night, but when it’s open, just look up. And gawp.

That beautiful ceiling…..

The current pub is about 130 years old, but there has been a pub on this site for almost 300 years. You can see images/drawings of the area from that time if you scour the net.

The place is beautiful and now – again – has the beer to match. A Northern Alchemy Tawny Port Stout was the beer of the evening. Just lush.

The Brass CastleLittle Imp” was stunning too at 2.8%! Almost a session Stout, really full bodied the that abv.

Again, the C&K needs to be visited. Great beer (again) and a beautiful pub.

But all good things come to an end.

Distance wise, a short crawl. But it forms a snapshot of Manchester. A Manchester we’ll lose a part of in the next few years.

Enjoy it while you’ve got it. I will.

(I never get bored of this!)

Back soon. Jx

Hello There Old Friend : Stalybridge Buffet Bar

Each post I write needs an inspiration. A prod or a prompt. Frequently, writing about something is the furthest thing from my mind. Until the “inspiration”.

This one started with a tweet.

I immediately started to check for train times to Stalyvegas. This is one of the joys of having a County Card. I can catch a train to anywhere in Greater Manchester.

You see, this was the beer that I most wanted at the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival. The top of my “to do” list. The variant on my favourite beer of 2017.

And – owing to being on the now infamous Bar 2 – I missed it. Along with about 60% of the beers on that bar, it wasn’t available on the Wednesday. It went on on Thursday. And sold out.

The running commentary from Barbara was “amusing”.

I had to accept it was a beer I was unlikely to taste in its draught form.

Until that tweet.

Sometimes, you can lose track of something special. That “something special” is Stalybridge Buffet Bar.

For me, the place will be forever associated with the (now infamous) Rail Ale Trail. With being sat on the platform with Pete, eating black peas.

It’s part of my history. And now, it belongs in my present. Because it is a magnificent place. A magnificent place to drink magnificent beer. A magnificent place to spend a few hours.

It’s more than just a stop on a train line.

I came for the Fudge Brownie Stout. What I actually got was a lovely evening of warmth and conversation. And soul. Lots of soul. And soul – in a pub – is, for me, essential.

But a pub or bar can have all the soul, yet without the good beer within, who will ever know? And “The Buffet Bar” has good beer. By the bucket load.

Whilst I was talking with Mark, drinking an immaculate (and simply stunning) Fudge Brownie Ski Sundae, I started to drift back to North Riding Brewpub on Friday evening. And the similarities between the two places.

  1. A beautiful place.
  2. Great beer. Served perfectly. Cask conditioned beer in peak condition. As it should be.
  3. A lady running the pub. Keeping the cellar just right. Ordering the beer.

Yes. That’s right. Two of the best pubs I’ve been in. And a female “cellar man”.

It’s not a coincidence. Karen (NRB) and Caroline (Buffet Bar) know what they are doing. And they do it bloody well. (But that’s for another post)

It became obvious during the evening that this place is loved. It isn’t a transitory place. It’s a “local”. With a coterie of friendly “regulars”, chatting away, that pleasant buzz and hum that’s the soundtrack of all the best pubs.

With 4 separate drinking areas, a real fire, it’s almost as if it was designed with me in mind. And only 15 minutes from Victoria on the train!

I went for just the one beer. And stayed four hours. Daylight became dark, trains passed. And I didn’t care.

It’s that kind of place. It’s that good.

It was a delight to see Mark. A loveable scamp who has an unnerving ability to get me to open up. I put the phone down. And forgot about it. We talked. Talking matters. I chatted with Caroline and unsurprisingly felt her deeply felt passion for beer. The care that she shows it. It’s obviously a calling.

And it shows. The warmth of the place, the atmosphere, the exceptional beer. That’s all down to her.

She knows her stuff. She has my respect.

She has a bloody good bar here. If I lived in Stalyvegas, I’d probably never catch that train to Manchester. I’d stay in a room on a train station platform.

It’s worth the journey. REALLY worth it. Catch that train.

A Pilgrimage – An evening at The North Riding Brewpub

Being someone who has perfected the art of professional mediocrity, I am drawn to those with talent. And the ability to extract the most from that talent.

Which is – in my usual rambling and roundabout way – how I found myself, on a Friday evening, in Scarbados. At The North Riding Brewpub.

If I may explain…

I first met Stuart Neilson about 5 years ago one afternoon in Snaith, at Yorkshire Ales. I was there to buy some Yorkshire beers, an abiding passion. Stuart was there launching one – something to do with Hearts football club if memory serves. At that time, I knew nothing about North Riding Brewpub. That was to swiftly change.

I did some catching up. Damn fine beer.

Then, in 2015, Stuart took the plunge. And invested in a 10bbl brewkit, installed in a unit outside Scarborough, at East Ayton. And went from strength to strength. Me and others mithered to get his beers over here (Manchester).

And then people got the point.

Others started raving about his beers. Good beer sells. And Stuart Neilson brews good beer. If you’ve had it, you know. I can’t stand Untappd & Ratebeer, but rating North Riding as one of the UKs top breweries, at least we agree on one thing.

And having upscaled to that bigger kit, the Brewpub kit was left in the capable hands of Stu’s stepson. And the beers didn’t miss a beat.

So. I’d had the beers in bottle from both the Brewpub & the Brewery (self-deprecatingly nicknamed “The Factory”). I’d had beers on draught from both too (we’ve had North Riding at each of the ISBF bashes). But there was a gap.

I hadn’t been to The North Riding Brewpub.

It became an obsession.

I finally got to go in 2015 when Stuart agreed to “collab” on a beer for #ISBF2016. Red Citra. If was stunning. But the night before – in the pub – was even better, with a beer list on cask and keg that was a succession of Beergasms. No filler. Just fabulous beers.

I’d been a couple of times since. And it just felt like a place to belong. So when The Lovely One & I wondered what to do on New Year’s Eve, I put a call in. And we stayed the night.

It goes without saying, it knocked the living shite out of a night of bottles and Jools.

Because – and here’s the thing – it feels like a combination of Destination Pub and Local. Somewhere you go for the exceptional beer, but end up feeling like Norm from Cheers. It had Superb North Riding beers from both. Cannonball on keg.

It even has a permanent Kernel line!

Then, that evening, Stu dropped some news. A Magic Rock Tap Takeover. On 9th Feb. Complete with collab beer launch. So, next morning, I asked about rooms at the pub.

They’d all been taken. By people coming to the TTO.

I had a word with some of my regular accomplices. Arrangements were made for a team outing “over the hills”. They were excited, not just for the TTO – as ace as Magic Rock beers are – but to visit the pub. And drink North Riding at source.

After a 3 hour drive, I couldn’t wait to get sat down and get some of that there Stu’s Company (Stuart Neilson & Stuart Ross – see what they did there?). Sit down? If was absolutely RAMMED.

The beers? Let me just say, that the “Stu’s Company” collab is stunning. 4.5%. Totally sessionable. Hopped up. Cryo hopped with Chinook. Just WOW. 2 Casks sold out before closing.

Karen knows how to look after beer. That much I already know. But that Ringmaster. Oh my.

I haven’t really enjoyed Ringmaster since its name changed from Curious. Just never seemed as sharp. But Sweet Baby Jesus it was stunning in the NRB on Friday night.

As much as we love Magic Rock, I – and others – were gutted, on initial view, to find no North Riding on the bar. But a little nip to the other room revealed Doomguy. The Chocolate Orange Porter that we had at #ISBF4. We hit it. Some of us hard. Yes Barbara, I’m talking about you…. Again. Stunning.

The beers were flying. As the Magic Rock casks ran out, North Riding went on. Mosaic Pale. Again, stunning.

I could go on. And frequently do.

But, for me, this was never about the TTO, undoubtedly excellent that the beers were. Especially Stu’s Company. It’s the pub.

Stuart and Karen bought the pub in 2005, installing the brewkit (2bbl) in part of the capacious cellar in 2011. And good beer flowed, building a reputation. One that encouraged the move to a bigger premises with greater capacity in 2015.

These beers have a dedicated following from both pubs and drinkers

From the first moment I walked in two years ago. I felt it. That thing I crave more than anything else. Soul.

I’ve felt welcome from the first steps through the door. A real and fundamental warmth. Welcome. Local Heart & Soul. Chatter, laughter.

You’ve got a skilled landlady in Karen. Someone who makes you realise that with a little care & attention (and no little skill) Cask conditioned beer can rock your world. The right product. In the right hands. Rocket science it ain’t.

We had a little mini tour of the mini brewery. Where the original Magic Spanner was discovered – and we feared for Magic Rock’s Lewis….

Of course, the company makes the evening. I’d arranged a chat with Malcolm to discuss East West. But, you know, too much fun was being had to deal with that. Although I was privy to some seriously ludicrous info about one or two beers coming to The Red Shed.

Bloody hell! Is it EVER going to be an ace bash!

There was great beer. There was warmth. Soul. There was great company. It’s quite simply a great pub. My favourite.

Enormous thanks for the company. I’m thrilled that James, Steve & Jock had a great time and loved the pub – I knew they would. The best of company.

It was lovely to meet and chat with Lewis, a young man “Living The Dream” (Stu’s words) brewing at Magic Rock. Great to meet Rich (I hope you made shed loads of cash for Surfers Against Sewage).

Great to see Graham and Ann again. Lovely people. I “nicked” Grahams raffle prize, I’ll bring him something special next time I’m over! (Sorry Graham!)

Stu & Karen. You know MY thoughts already. This is my favourite pub. It has it all. Simply the best kept cask beer. Brilliant keg lines. Heart, Soul, great beer, somewhere to sleep it off.

Each time feels like a tick on my bucket list. It should be on yours too.

If I was religious, I’d say it was my Santiago de Compostela.

And this was my pilgrimage.

CAMRA Revitalisation : “One Step Beyonnnnnd!”

“I am an American aquarium drinker. I Assassin down the avenue….”

(“I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” – Wilco)

“Hello. My name is Jim. And I’m a member of CAMRA……”

I live my social life in a bubble. My particular bubble has beer at its core. Talking /drinking/socialising about/around it. This bubble leads to the formation of an “echo chamber” mentality. One that reinforces your personal belief systems, because no other system intrudes.

Let me be clear however. My beliefs are mine. I own this bullshit myself. The fact that others share them makes them equally intelligent / deluded (delete as appropriate).

On and off, I’ve been a CAMRA member for 30 years or so. I wandered in and out initially having become massively underwhelmed – having got “involved” – at the cliqueyness (a real word?) of branch meetings.

I was young – at least 20 years younger than the majority – and obviously had no place speaking up. I’d wandered in to a “club”. And I needed another membership to join in.

It felt like walking into “The Slaughtered Lamb”. I gave up.

Then, 6 years ago, I started to pay attention to beer again. Something in beer had changed. There was a new feeling, something refreshingly carbonated. It had a name “Craft Beer”. I was intrigued.

I felt like Pizarro. I wanted to explore this New World of beer. To slash away at the undergrowth in the jungle to reach the temples, uncover the gold. I drank my first Human Cannonball. I’d found gold. I wanted more.

I started blogging. And I’ve never looked back.

Through that I started to meet some of the leading lights of CAMRA locally. Passionate people, who cared about BEER. In all its forms.

Yes, their pre-eminent adoration was “Real Ale”, but they weren’t blind to the charms of good beer not served from a cask. They just loved good beer. Their hearts were open to change. They campaigned for change.

In Venn diagram terms, there is an intersection there with that bubble. These guys have a foot in that intersection. Call them “progressives” if you like.

But that bubble, is tiny. As anyone who attended the enormofest that is The Manchester Beer and Cider Festival can attest. Beer Nerds were completely swamped by “Beer Drinkers”. People who may never attend a beer festival NOT run by CAMRA. For whom the organisation is some kind of guarantor.

THESE are the people who keep pub cash registers opening and closing. Not Beer Nerds like me.

THESE drinkers or – to further distil – the Silver Card toting CAMRA Members – are the people to whom the recently launched “Revitalisation – Proposed Changes” are aimed. The ones who have the final “Yay or Nay”

And that is what worries me.

CAMRA had – at AGM – gone some way to recognise “Craft” Beer with the Key Keg Fudge. Getting some craft ‘in” with reference to secondary fermentation in the vessel.

Or – to allow paraphrasing – “Not all Keg is Evil”

Some of us even had our little bit of fun….

May I be so bold as to say GOOD BEER IS JUST THAT. GOOD BEER.

Bollocks to divisiveness. If it tastes good, it IS good. It really is THAT simple.

So, to me, the key change elucidated in the Revitalisation proposals is this one. The one that may be hardest to swallow with the Silver Carders…

  • CAMRA’s scope widens to include quality beer of all types

Think about that the a moment. It is tectonic in its shift.

“…. quality beer of all types…..”

WOW.

THAT is going to be the Devil’s own job of a sell to the voting masses!

Now then, before I get slaughtered, those who know me well know, I adore cask conditioned beer and did myself – until about 5 years ago – prefer it to any other method of dispense.

Then I slowly started to recognise (and truly appreciate) that hoppy Pale styles of beer actually benefited from gentle carbonation. That it actually lifted the hop flavours. Yes, I’ve got an issue with temperature, but I quickly found a solution. Give it a minute or two to adjust. It’s not rocket science.

But don’t try persuade me about Stouts and Porters (not to mention Mild). Cask (and – being a militant Northerner – through a sparkler) is the only game in town on the dark side. For texture and flavour, unbeatable.

And another “recommendation”….

  • CAMRA will campaign for and promote all on-trade venues where quality beer, cider and perry is sold, not just traditional pubs and clubs

I kind of get the point. But Clubs? When pubs are in crisis, with the value of the land they occupy worth more than the business? With pubcos sitting on property riches? I’d stick to supporting and campaigning for traditional pubs.

Don’t get me wrong, some pubs aren’t worth the effort.

But that’s one area where I’d narrow the focus.

A big personal bugbear is this next one though….

  • CAMRA will not extend its current support of the off-trade

Now there’s a thing.

I’ve lost count of the number of breweries in this country, is it 2000+ now? How many of them thrive on draught beer alone? For those – and I guess that’s not a small number – that don’t, small pack is vital. Without it, they couldn’t survive.

Personally, I like the choice of breweries we have. And the choice of beer they bring.

Breweries need to make money. In the competitive market as it stands, draught beer  alone doesn’t do it for many.

It sickens me to hear of excellent beer producers folding under the pressure of work, trying to master all elements of the business, running to stay still. The sheer stress.

It isn’t practical for all breweries to have “brewtaps”. The graft involved is immense – especially for small operators – and these guys need other ways of getting beer in people’s mouths. And that means small pack.

There are numerous small independent retailers pushing out. Supporting Micros. Giving them shelf space. Selling exceptional beer. Why should THEY not be supported too? If the Campaign is prepared to support “clubs” which have other sources of income – membership etc – why not Independent off-sales? (And balls to undercutting supermarkets)

That one is a burr under my saddle.

And don’t get me started on Cider & and Perry.

I keep hearing about almost 200k people being members of the campaign. I truly wonder for how much longer these numbers will be sustained.

The CAMRA NEC Revitalisation proposals need to walk a very fine line to carry the membership. There has been some good mood music coming from CAMRA HQ recently. Although it shouldn’t have taken a prompt from the likes of Jaega Wise to kick start the obvious.

And I saw some of the vile filth that the likes of Jaega and Melissa Cole had to put up with on Social Media. Much of which would have been trolls with no interest in beer, just in being offensive.

But change scares some people. Traditional beer drinkers among that number. This “Revitalisation” is important.

The Campaign needs to change to remain relevant to modern drinkers as well as its traditional hinterland. It simply NEEDS to embrace good modern beer along with more traditional ales.

Alongside (and in partnership with) SIBA, it needs to support the producers. In particular independent Micro Breweries and their other (equally vital) outlets.

The outcome of the vote won’t please all. And many membership cards may hover near the shredder depending on the outcome.

Mine included.

Be kind to one another.

Jx