Harley Young speaks to Wyn Rhys about the Belgian beer scene in Altrincham and beyond
From former senior psychology lecturer to successful Belgian beer distributor and stockist, Wyn Rhys, owner of Altrincham bar Mort Subite shares his journey and adoration for the European beer trade.
“The year I finished my degree," says Wynn Rhys, "I was appointed as a senior lecturer. I did a couple of academic years there supervising final year degree students for dissertations and mentoring them through their final year. I did a year and a half to two academic years of that before realising it really wasn't for me. I was never a kind of ‘yes’ person to be in that role in the department in academia at that time. I was far too anarchic and off the wall.”
Wyn Rhys, academic-cum-entrepreneurial Belgian beer enthusiast reminisced about his past as he sipped on a bolleke (fancy chalice-type glass) of De Koninck in one of Mort Subite’s ornate chairs.
Watch this space. The rest of this year is going to be a really exciting time for Belgian beer in Manchester
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting Belgium, Brussels in particular, you’ll be familiar with the decor that art noir-style basement bar, Mort Subite gives the nod to.
Mort Subite is different from any other bar in Greater Manchester. You make your way down the cobbled alley off Greenwood Street, led only by an A-board that says ‘open’ with an arrow pointing to a door. Above it is an ominous red neon sign with another arrow and the word ‘mort’ - French, of course, for ‘death’. Open the gilded door and you’ll be greeted by a troupe of eerie vintage marionettes that beckon you down the stairs to a curtained entrance. Those brave enough to pull it back will wonder if they’ve stumbled upon a glitch in the matrix and travelled back in time to 1920s Belgium.
Vintage French songs crackle and whirr, cascading around a candlelit room adorned with expensive-looking old-timey furniture. Ceilings are flocked with heavy drapes, worn, vermillion and gold in colour, creating an even more intimate and dark feel to an already snug space. Walls tastefully littered with antique art, mirrors and taxidermy. It’s secretive, special, unsettling almost, but oh so intriguing.
Speaking about the catalyst that sparked his interest in Belgian beer, Wyn starts his story from the beginning. As a young man, he studied psychology, eventually moving on to specialise in visual perception and neuroscience before trading it all for his love of the sweet Belgian nectar and its relaxed, somewhat ‘sleazy-looking’ bar scene.
“I'd worked in a couple of pubs just for fun. I was very much into cask beer, so I was a pioneer for cask beer in those days. A potential job came up with Whitbread, so I applied for it and became a trainee area manager working in the specialist beer sector. I was busy sourcing cask beer at the time but we were starting to import Belgian beer, so I began looking after their Belgian beer range and implementing Belgian beer in the UK,”
He continues, adding that during his role “the opportunity to take over the Hogs Head came up.”
Wyn began a lease on the Hogs Head, taking it on as his own business in the late 90s and renaming it the Old Market Tavern as it’s still known today (pictured below, as taken by Flickr user: Dayoff171).
“That was the start of specialist beer in Altrincham. It was quite unusual at the time; we had twelve cask beers on, four cask ciders, sixty Belgian beers and around a hundred whiskies. It was a big range back in those days.”
After spending some years living between Holland and Belgium, Wyn’s fascination with the Belgian beer scene grew and he knew he had to bring his passion closer to home.
“I wanted to take it to the next level, be my own boss, doing the full Belgian table service, where people are seated with menus, the whole hit. Which I eventually did in 2002, setting up my first Belgian bar called The Trappist here in Altrincham.”
“It was a really radical departure, very extreme from what I'd done before. It was absolutely Belgian beer only, there was nothing else [stocked] other than Belgian beer. Not even a cider or Guinness. People said I was absolutely insane.”
The Trappist was such a hit it was even nominated for the Manchester Bar of the Year Award in 2003. A determined bloke, Wyn is living proof of the phrase ‘you never know unless you try’.
“Why bother dipping my toe in when I can just do it fully? If it doesn't work out, do something else in life, y’know?” he smiles, swigging the last gulp of his beer before gesturing to his colleague for another.
As well as all things Belgian booze, Wyn’s used his brainy past to become something of an engineer, building his own custom Harley Davidson motorbikes in his spare time. Before the birth of Mort Subite 16 years ago, the space was quite nondescript, despite its petrifying past as an old mortuary for the hospital across the road.
“It was just a dimly lit back street, cobbled, with sodium lights. No one came down here at night. And then you had the old hospital - it was a place where no one normally went.” Wyn adds that Mort had been home to a few bars beforehand, as well as a Mexican and Spanish restaurant to name a few, but had always failed due to being “on the back end of nowhere, to put it politely."
However, Wyn could see a prosperous future for the odd little venue. “I just had this concept - it was absolutely perfect. I just knew it would work. The mezzanine, the feel of it, the outside seating, it had potential.”
When the bar originally opened in the mid-2000s, it served traditional Belgian food including steak and frites before Wyn and his team realised that simple nibbles were in fact the way forward given the intimacy of the place.
As one of Greater Manchester’s unique and authentic Belgian bars, it’s no surprise that Wyn has had multiple offers to buy the venue over the years. Of course, being his fondest project to date, he politely declines each one.
Just around the corner, down another inconspicuous alleyway, is his other project; Bier Zot. “I've sublet it out, in a partnership with a young guy called Owen. He's running Bier Zot and that's just recently began reformulating itself, so we're doing live music there and unusual specialist beers. That’s another interest."
It’s not just locals who stumble into Wyn’s duo of Altrincham-based Belgian bars either. Mort Subite and its sister bar, Bier Zot, have gained notoriety from far and wide, even picking up fans in the US.
“We've got a [customer] coming from Texas in three weeks. He visits the UK twice a year. He’s a corporate banker from Houston. Every time he’s in the UK, he spends at least a week in Altrincham just to come here.”
It’s not always been a breeze to get Belgian beer-loving punters into the bar though, and not because of a lack of demand. In fact, Mort Subite has gone through more challenges than most.
“From 2016 until 2020, part of Greenwood Street was dug up to make way for the new hospital building. You couldn’t even get to the venue from the street. At the same time, you have so many fantastic businesses opening up while we were virtually closed.”
At the time, Mort Subite couldn’t even put any outside seating or signs out to give them a chance of being seen by potential punters. Paired with the noise of the construction and the 20ft barriers cordoning off the section of the road, it was near impossible for Wyn and his team to operate for a long four years. Thankfully, they were able to persist and keep their head above water, surviving both Brexit and COVID.
However, since Brexit, Wyn’s found it increasingly difficult to import the Belgian gems he once proudly stocked Mort’s fridges with due to imports not being as easy to obtain and specialist beers having a much higher price tag than before.
“I'm not 100% happy with the beer range that we've got now, compared to what we did when we started. I was importing a lot more then. Pre-Brexit, pre-taxation, pre a lot of things that occurred - pre-COVID, even… it was easier to get lots of specialist beers.”
“Now there's only one or two Belgian beer importers at the moment and they're all importing the same old safety lines. There's nothing very exciting.”
Wyn even tried his own hand at running his own Belgian beer import company after selling his first successful take, The Trappist. It was a big distributor for quite a few years until the recession hit towards the end of the 00s.
Not shy of giving things a go, tenacious entrepreneur Wyn has big plans in the pipeline. As well as musical and theatrical offerings year-round at Mort Subite and Bier Zot, the mention of a new partnership and the promise to bring even more Belgian beer to the people of Manchester sounds intriguing.
“Watch this space.” he grinned, hinting at something bigger than ever before on the horizon.
“In the next three-to-six months we're going to be importing some ultra specialist Belgian beers again. The rest of this year is going to be a really exciting time for Belgian beer in Manchester.”
With that Wyn leans back and takes another swig of his trademark products.
Morte Subite, 28-32 Greenwood St, Basement, Altrincham WA14 1RZ
Follow Harley Young on Twitter @Harley__Young
If you like this story...
Read again: English Whisky: What the hell is it?
Read again: April Food and Drink roundup
Get the latest news to your inbox
Get the latest food & drink news and exclusive offers by email by signing up to our mailing list. This is one of the ways that Confidentials remains free to our readers and by signing up you help support our high quality, impartial and knowledgable writers. Thank you!