Neil Sowerby taps into Manchester's taps and downsizes to microbars

Confession – I’ve spent a lot of time in pubs. You meet people and beer there, which I like… but it’s not always a winning combination. Hostelries are still closing in droves and many that remain smell of chips or ersatz Thai curry, the bar lined with the usual cask suspects, Doom Bar, Wainwright, Hobgoblin, Greene King’s sallow take on IPA – a grim phalanx of often poorly kept ales. Add a few tellies devoted to Sky Sports and fit-outs from hell and you understand why cheap supermarket booze and your own home telly devoted to Sky Sports suddenly seems a welcoming alternative.

The best traditional pubs, well-run, true to their heritage, can make a go, of course. Check out Pete Brown’s glorious recent celebration, The Pub – A Cultural Institution (Penguin £22.50, but under £8 via Amazon), which features an admiring profile of our own Briton’s Protection.

But things have moved on. Witness entire districts such as Chorlton or the NQ where bars, invariably selling interesting beers, way outnumber old school pubs. More fascinating is the new wave of taps inside microbreweries and the rush to open micro pubs (with minimal overheads) in former shops. 

So let’s tap into the Zeitgeist. My two favourite Manchester pubs are the Marble Arch and the Smithfield Tavern and I’m not alone in holding them in high regard. Both are essentially brewery taps, rich in well-sourced guest ales but essentially a platform for their own Marble and Blackjack beers respectively.

Most taps these days, though, are inevitably under a railway arch, among the tanks and barrels, as small indie brewers in a keg eat keg cut-throat bar market seek to cut out the middle man by installing a small bar, tables and chairs, heaters and blankets.

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Alphabet Brewery bar

With an events licence, often just for the odd weekend, they can showcase fresh innovative brews, maybe chucking in some street food and a DJ, much like recent Saturday sessions at Alphabet and Runaway Brewing Co, neighbours of Marble and Blackjack in the Green Quarter. Now Runaway brewer Mark Welsby is set to create a permanent mezzanine bar at the Dantzic Street site, where beer lovers can drop by more regularly to sample his keg-conditioned core range – Pale Ale, IPA, American Brown Ale and Smoked Porter plus seasonal specials.

Just up the hill on Red Bank the latest addition to Manchester’s thrilling roster of craft breweries is Beatnikz Republic, tucked into Unit 4 and promising an on-site tap as soon as the brewing’s underway. The name is inspired by owner Paul Greetham’s love of the US Beat movement of the Fifties and Sixties and iconoclastic kindred spirits who have revolutionised the American (and world) beer scene since. I love the cool as f**k branding on the new cans for signature Beatnikz beers such as US-style pale ale Beach Bum and Afrobeat (Ethiopian coffee bean infused porter), both created as he made the leap from home brewer.

The Republic bit comes from Paul’s view of beer as a democratic, affordable drink. Affordable is what governed this former events producer’s move up from London – more bang for your buck in pinning down premises. More room. He knows Manchester well after being a student here a decade ago. His major brewing influences may have come from US explorations, but they were sparked in Manc bars such as Big Hands where he “discovered Brooklyn beer on tap and Schneider Aventinus in the fridge”.

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The Beatnikz unit in Red Bank

We are in for a treat if he can create a tap as cosy as the new Cloudwater one, set in their barrel store on Sheffield Street behind Piccadilly Station (neighbours are Pollen Bakery and Track Brewing). The snug arch’s main purpose is to age Cloudwater’s multi-award winning beers in wood and hints of bourbon and oaky vanilla in the air add to the charm. It had certainly won over visitors we met from Norway and France, lured by Cloudwater being named one of the world’s best breweries by RateBeer. What is good, too, is the pricing policy where you pay £3 for each beer from the pumps – the size you get (third, half or pint) depending on the ABV strength of each beer.

Not to be outdone, the rest of the so-called Piccadilly Beer Mile seems to be getting its tap act together after I bemoaned last summer (read here) that this community of indie brewers had not co-ordinated the promised trail. 

Twitter suggests that Track/Squawk, Chorlton, Manchester Brewing Co and Beer Nouveau might all be opening their doors on the Easter weekend along with the Green Quarter’s Runaway and Blackjack (the latter in their original rustic tap at their Irk Street brewing hub). Check individual brewery websites to confirm the rumours.

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Cloudwater Brewery

Beer Nouveau, which started as Britain’s smallest commercial brewery in a Prestwich garage, now has much more room at its 75 North Western Street premises, spreading across a further space into Temperance Street.

So in addition to its regular 4pm-10.30pm Fridays and noon-10pm every Saturday taps it is also renting out its second bar to guest breweries for pop-up brew taps. These take place on the first and third weekends of the month and kicked off with Rammy Craft Brewery from Ramsbottom. Next up is Liverpool’s Neptune Brewery.

CONFESSION No2: Exciting though the experience can be, I don’t want to spend every weekend in an industrial unit drinking beer out of plastic glasses and squirting kimchi down my front. Welcome then to the raft of micro bars that are contesting the suburbs with trad boozers.

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Beer Nouveau

Latest up is a real gem. Reasons To Be Cheerful Beer Café in Burnage is named after an Ian Dury song. The name is in honour of co-owner Elena Rowe’s late uncle, a huge Dury fan. The local ales pouring from six keg lines and three cask pumps are a tribute to the beer nous of Elena and partner Andrew Munro, who first met while working at The Marble Arch.

That pub and micro pioneer Heaton Hops in Heaton Chapel – Manchester Food and Drink Festival’s Best Craft Ale Bar 2016 – are role models for RTBC, a real family affair with Elena’s parents David and Estelle also co-owners. Elean told me: “What Damian O’Shea did with Heaton Hops has been an inspiration for what we are trying to do – be independent and create a friendly and inviting space for all the community. This looked the right spot rather than in Chorlton or Didsbury, which are packed with bars.”

The bar, a thing of beauty on a budget, is open from 3.30pm to 10pm, Wednesday and Thursday, and from 1.30pm to 11pm, Friday to Sunday. Follow @R2BCBeerCafe on Twitter for the latest beer lists.

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Elena of Reasons to be Cheerful, Burnage

Urmston is another less obvious spot to be sharing the craft beer revolution, but it’s got a new microbar on the way, provisionally called The Urmston Tap (follow its progress @UrmstonTap), to join the Prairie Schooner, self-styled drinking parlour and off-licence, and the new craft retailer Bottleshop Brewtique, respectively at 33 and 74 Flixton Road. Plus the old post office on Higher Road is also being transformed into an alehouse called The Barking Dog. Could Urmston be the new Monton?

Even cagier than Urmston Tap is Secret Sip, which promises to be a tap house and bottle shop for Royton, but its website isn’t giving much away. Keep tabs via @thesecretsip. Like some underground revolution the crafty hop shoots are cropping up everywhere.

READ MORE: Confidential’s Top 10 Craft Beer Bars