New book 'Manchester's Best Beer Pubs and Bars' gives a big broad picture of the city beer scene
“Beer!” my father would brawl whenever some elder would chide his tippling. “Beer is my food!” To maintain his strength he seldom drank less than four quarts a day. Many men, like him, had come to believe the common nineteenth century myth that ‘bees’ wine, as they called it, was vitally necessary for their health.
That’s Ruth Roberts writing about Edwardian Salford.
Manchester’s Best Beer Pubs and Bars is a lovely and useful publication, a fine Christmas gift
Matthew Curtis (main picture) loves his beer too and while he might not maintain his strength with beer it appears he maintains an income. This is completely deserved. Curtis’s knowledge of his chosen subject/passion/delight is infectious, his enthusiasm bursts from every page of the excellent Manchester’s Best Beer Pubs and Bars published by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA).
There is perhaps a reflection of the opening quote in Curtis' potted biography. ‘In his early 20s he began to experiment with the beers he drank, largely encouraged by his dad, Frank, who introduced him to strong Belgian beers.’ That’s a paternal duty properly performed. Well done, dad.
Lincoln-born Curtis carried on drinking but he also toured with his band Brontosaurus Chorus. Was the band's name inspired after a second bottle of an Antwerp Belgian beer at 14%? When his dad moved to the States, the ale revolution was in full flow, and he fell in love with an IPA from Odell brewery in Colorado.
In 2012 he started a blog called Total Ales encouraged by his partner, Dianne, and his friends, to stop him going on with himself about beer. Curtis and Dianne saw the light in 2019 and moved from London to Greater Manchester. Presently Curtis has a very popular online beer magazine called Pellicle together with his brewing friend Jonathan Hamilton. He’s also got a couple of beer books to his name.
Manchester’s Best Beer Pubs and Bars is his latest book and, like its title, is very comprehensive. It provides an in-depth listing of Greater Manchester pubs and bars but it’s much more than a litany of drinking dens.
For instance, there’s a splendid section on the history of beer in the region and not just the surge in brewing in the last twenty years. Thus, among other topics, there's a description of the four classic breweries in Greater Manchester, JW Lees (1828), Robinsons (1838), Joseph Holt (1849) and Hydes (1863).
As Curtis writes: ‘Manchester is unique among other notable UK brewing cities in that four of its breweries from (the nineteenth century) have survived the dramatic period of consolidation from the 1960s onwards’. London has no independent nineteenth century indie breweries left, nor Liverpool, nor Leeds with Tetley, now owned by Carlsberg, probably the gassiest beer in the world.
Only Manchester has retained such a depth of brewing tradition. Why though? Curtis quotes John Clarke of Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA: “It’s down to sheer bloody mindedness. They make it very clear they see themselves as custodians for the next generation.”
The eighties and nineties ‘innovators’ are of course included with Tony Allen, Brendan Dobbin, James Campbell and others. This part of the history will be a trip down memory lane for older beer monsters. We’re brought smack up-to-date too with Marble (although this has a venerable pedigree), Track, Cloudwater, Seven Brothers, Blackjack and so many others.
One problem the writers of the 1975 Manchester Pub Guide, which we featured in this article Draught Bovril and Topless Barmaids, didn't have is the sheer variety of places selling beer in 2023.
In 1975 there were pubs selling beer. Bars were called wine-bars and sold cocktails with names such as 'Slow Comfortable Screw Against The Wall' and Babycham. Restaurants sold crap lager.
Curtis has ten beer selling categories: modern pub; traditional pub, bar; club; taproom; restaurant; food hall; bottle shop; venue and hotel. It’s interesting to see restaurants such as Higher Ground included for their huge beer range. Have a crawl from City Arms via Beermoth, Bundobust and Mackie Mayor to the Hare and Hounds and onto Sadler’s Yard and the variety of hoppy experience is extraordinary.
It’s a shame this marvellous variety is largely confined to the city centre and, often, the plusher suburbs. Outside these charmed areas the beer situation has gone backwards. 1975 was better.
It’s particularly sad to note how so many suburban pubs, often those magnificent ones the size of battlecruisers, have largely ceased to function as pubs. Places such as The Plymouth Grove, The Whalley, The Racecourse Hotel, Kersal and The Trafford Park Hotel have been converted to other uses or, in the latter two cases, boarded up. A great many have been demolished. Survivors such as The Gorse Hill Hotel are a mess with terrible fitouts and rundown.
These huge pubs with their function rooms once catered for local audiences from the cradle to the grave, literally, given they hosted christening parties, wakes and everything in-between.
Beer is increasingly lurching towards the middle classes. Let’s hope it staggers back at some point to enhance it's 'diversity' of appeal to everyone. The greatest examples of this tendency are beer-tastings which sound like wine-tastings. Please, no ale snobbery, that misses the implicit but robust honesty of beer drinking completely. Some modern beer drinkers seem to drink with their little finger cocked.
If I have a gripe about Curtis' book is its cautiousness, that 2023 paranoia over causing offence when none could possibly be taken. Curtis writes at one point: ‘I’ve included one or two beer trails (a term I’ve used because it doesn’t have the negative connotations of a ‘pub crawl’)'.
It’s news to me that a ‘pub crawl’ is a negative and if a beer trail is in effect a pub crawl why even bother changing the well-used phrase?
That aside, the theme of this book is one of celebration.
Grab a copy and you can wend a merry, no doubt increasingly merry, ‘beer trail’ through all parts of the city centres of Manchester and Salford, through parts of Trafford and across Wigan, Bolton, Bury, Rochdale, Oldham and Stalybridge (although, in the smaller boroughs it might be a considerable stagger between drink stops).
Manchester’s Best Beer Pubs and Bars is a lovely and useful publication, a fine gift. It’s colourful, clever and exhaustive. Famed nineteenth century Manchester brewer Henry Boddington would have approved of the book. He considered beer ‘the perfect drink from breakfast to supper’. Tea and coffee Boddington considered ‘dangerous stimulants’.
Let’s not go that far, although with this guide in our pocket, maybe we should. Pint, or eight, anyone?
Manchester's Best Beer Pubs and Bars by Matthew Curtis is out now. It's £16.99 in all good bookshops as they say and also from www.camra.org.uk
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