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Monday, 30 March 2020

From The Archives

The Hyde Road Hike

This Stagger appeared in the January 1989 issue of Opening Times and is likely to have taken place in October 1988. The author is the late Rhys Jones who died in 2015. A true eccentric in the very best sense of the word, he was a great wordsmith, a friend to many, a long-time campaigner for traditional cider and perry, and is still sorely missed.

Here we go...

Hyde Road is one of the most interesting roads in town for the beer drinker, providing a fine selection of the various brews available locally. We decided to split it up and cover the outer section from about Belle Vue eastwards - as well as cutting down the legwork, this enable us to fit in one or two interesting diversions.

We started at the Longsight on Kirkmanshulme Lane. On its completion in 1985, this Banks's house was bizarrely described by one commentator as "gloomy" - this description never made any sense unless you like floodlit airport lounges, and today the pub is wearing well. The vault and lounge are well contrasted and there's also a family room. The real ales are mild and bitter on electric pumps (Hansons is keg). The bitter was rated good, the mild not quite so good but still well above average.

Next was the Victoria on Hyde Road. This Chesters pub has mild and bitter on handpump. It's good to see that the keg mild which at one time shared the bar with the handpumps has been removed. It's a one-room pub, but the layout of the former separate rooms can still be made out - no airport lounge this. Bitter was above average, mild was good.

A little further out on Hyde Road is Robinson's Coach & Horses, serving best mild and best bitter. This is a plain but pleasant two-roomer where the beer seems to be on the upgrade - both mild and bitter were judged good with the mild marginally preferred, and though I was less enthusiastic about the bitter than most other people, it was still the best pint I've ever had in that pub!

We passed the Cheshire Hunt, which was in the middle of what seems to be an extremely lengthy closure for renovation, and proceeded to the Pineapple, a modern Hydes pub set back from Hyde Road. The beers are dark mild and bitter on electric pump. The mild was no more than average but the bitter was considerably better. The pub consists of one room with lounge and vault areas defined by use than any physical division. The "lounge" has an attractive wooden ceiling and interesting photographs of the area decorate the whole pub.

Not far away is the Suburban, with Lees mild and bitter on handpump. The Suburban has always seen itself as the local social centre - witness its hosting of the September Gorton Rushcart celebrations - and nowadays the beer and the atmosphere fully live up to these aspirations. The bitter was very good and the mild was above average. However we did think that the external piped music was a bit unnecessary. 

Up to Gorton Cross now, and the Angel on Wellington St. This busy Greenalls pub has a vault and a lounge with two distinct areas - formerly no doubt separate rooms. The bitter was well above average but the mild was keg, previous attempts to sell cask having come to nought.

Next call was the Plough, back on Hyde Road. This is a very fine example of an unrenovated Robinsons pub, with a big vault - clearly the heart of the pub - complemented by three other separate rooms; good tile work and a splendid wooden gantry complete the traditional picture. Best mild and best bitter are served from electric pumps. On our visit, while the bitter was OK, the mild was sadly below average - it's a great pity that Robinsons still seem to be falling down on quality control when the beer at its best is so good and there are classic pubs like the Plough to drink it in.

Further out on Hyde Road now, to the Lord Nelson. We covered this Wilsons managed house in the recent Abbey Hey Stagger, and were, it seems, thought by some to have been unduly harsh - so this was an ideal opportunity to reconsider. Well, we can certainly acknowledge that at least some of the beams looked as if they might be real wood (editor's note - the licensee tells us that some are a couple of hundred years old). Overall however the impression was of over-loud music unsuccessfully attempting to mask the essential characterlessness of the place. The unhelpful absence of pumpclips (we saw, too late, draught mild being served) meant that everybody drank Wilsons bitter which was above average.

Ever onward to the Friendship (Marston's) on the opposite side of Hyde Road. Retaining separate rooms, the pub was well thought of. The Burton Bitter, on electric pumps, was above average but unfortunately the Mercian Mild tasted of TCP. This wasn't too bad it you could get it changed, which was done without demur, but staffing levels were such that one mild drinker failed to get his beer changed, and another of us never managed to get served at all despite waiting some minutes in a pub that was not over busy.

Readers who know Hyde Rd. will have realised that between the last two pubs, we missed one out. We knew Holt's Waggon & Horses would have the cheapest beer of the night, and we suspected that it might well have the best, so we decided to finish there. And yes, it was the night's best pint. The well modernised pub was its usual bustling self and made for a pleasant end to the evening.

All in all the Hyde Road Hike can be highly recommended. You might not agree with all our comments (after all, though written with some background knowledge, they're essentially just a record of a dozen people's reactions on one particular evening, but you're guaranteed to have a good time.

What happened next?

Well that was a marathon wasn't it? No fewer than ten pubs visited and between them selling 17 cask beers from 9 breweries - back then that was quite something.

It's worth recording that if this Stagger had started at Belle Vue and proceeded westwards then not one single pub would have survived (with one possible exception).  However as far as pub survival goes this Stagger is very much a crawl of two halves.

Despite being a new-build, Banks's Longsight closed in late 2006 with demolition following in mid-December 2007. You'll read more about this in the next Stagger to appear here.

The Victoria didn't last so long. The September 1993 issue of Opening Times records that the pub had closed due to poor trade and it was demolished in May 1994.  It's now a vacant site.

The Coach & Horses subsequently entered something of a purple patch under licensee Beryl Lavelle. Pub of the Month awards followed in May 1990 and December 1996. It was a Good Beer Guide regular, too. Inevitably Beryl retired and the pub lurched along with periods of closure. Robinsons sold it and in autumn 2005 it reopened as Brodies, a free house selling some of the worst beer I've ever been served. A Stagger in the November 2006 issue of Opening Times reported that the pub was boarded up and looking forlorn. It was  demolished in March 2008 and remains a vacant site.

The Cheshire Hunt finally closed down in early 1993. The building remains as a fast food take away.

The Pineapple lasted longer than most. Hydes disposed of the pub in January 2014 and shortly afterwards it was converted to the Dribble Drabble Day Care children's nursery.  There's a great article about the Pineapple and the surrounding area over at Modern Mooch here.

The Suburban is the most recent casualty. It was an interesting pub, comprising, at heart, and old building with lots of modern bits tacked on and was in a long slow decline for many years. It stopped selling Lees cask beers in 2014 and finally closed down in March last year with demolition following in July.

You can read about the Gorton Rushcart here - after its relaunch in 1980 it stopped again in 1991but was resurrected for one last time in 2009 to mark the centenary of Gorton becoming part of Manchester.

After that tale of woe it's good to report that the rest of the pubs are still with us. The Angel is an independent free house and hasn't sold cask beer in years.

The Plough was threatened with demolition at one point. The campaign to save it revealed there has been a put on the site since at least the last 18th century - the room on the left as you enter seems to have been a pub room all that time. It's now listed Grade II and appears on CAMRA's National Inventory. You can read all about it here.

Despite being the oldest pub in the area, dating back around 300 years, the Lord Nelson has been knocked around and opened up significantly over the years. It's flirted with cask ale from time to time but in recent times has been keg only.

The Friendship is also still open (but was 'to let' the last time I passed so whether is reopens post-lockdown  is perhaps a moot point). This pub also had a brief flowering, getting a Pub of the Month award in November 1994 and appearing in the 1996 Good Beer Guide (at which point it was also selling Bateman's Mild).  Subsequent frequent changes of licensee and the disappearance of cask beer from the bar seem to have signalled a long decline.

And finally - the Waggon & Horses is still doing the business as a thriving Holt's local. There's only bitter sold now (well that was the case when I last called)  but it remains essentially unchanged.

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Beer(s) of the Week

Welcome to another revived feature here at JC's Beer Blog. Previously I tended to look at just Dutch, and sometimes Belgian, beers.  I plan to be a bit more wide ranging this time. And so we have...

A Tale of Two Beers

Here they are. Two imperial stouts, one from 2016 the other from 2017, and both rather different. 

The Marble Portent of Usher is silent about almost everything. The bottle is entirely unadorned while the cardboard label just tells you it's 9% and the beer  should be stored 'upright, cool but not chilled."  

The barrel aged Night Drift from Brussels Beer Project has a fancy plastic label giving the impression the details have been printed onto the glass. It's a little more forthcoming, advising it's 9.9% and is a: "Double Chocolate Salted Caramel Imperial Stout aged in Kentucky Bourbon Barrels". Anyone playing Craft Beer Bingo would be well on the way to 'house' with that lot.  

Additionally you are advised the beer: "Se bonifie avec l'age" which, I guess you don't really need telling, translates as "improves with age".  

So, how do they compare? I'm not going to tell you anything about Marble Brewery in Manchester as I'm guessing many readers will be familiar with them. Suffice it to say they have a long-established reputation for making the highest quality beers across a whole range of styles.  This beer was devised by former Head Brewer James Kemp (known to everyone as 'JK') who produced a series of potent beers, many of which were subsequently barrel-aged.

The brewery website tells you this:

Portent of Usher is brewed in celebration of Edgar Allen Poe by Marble Brewery, Manchester. Originally brewed in 2016 this beer has since been awarded a Gold Medal in the International Beer Challenge. This rich, opaque beer goes heavy on the bitter dark roast coffee and treacle notes whilst maintaining sweet blackcurrant and cola bottle subtleties.

And do you know? It still performs as good as ever.  Over the years everything has perhaps blended a bit more to produce a rich, boozy and elegant beer. There's the roast, the coffee and, yes, just a hint of residual background sweetness to add some balance at the end. Glorious.

Moving on we come to Night Drift from Brussels Beer Project.  I'm going to duck out from going on at length about BBP. They have been around since 2015 and most of their beer is commissioned from Brouwerij Anders (which is another Belgian contract brewing specialist). However, their own facility in the Brussels suburb of Anderlecht is apparently in the pipeline.  In the meantime they have a small kit at their taproom  in central Brussels (188 Rue Antoine Dansaert). You can find out more on their lively website here.

Night Drift was brewed in collaboration with Basque brewers Laugar as a 'straightforward' Double Chocolate Salted Caramel Imperial Stout, and this is the subsequent barrel-aged version. It was bottled on 6 November 2017.To be honest, I approached this with reasonably high expectations but was ultimately disappointed. I'm not sure for how long it was supposed to improve with age but I think we've now passed the cut-off point. What I expected to be deep, rich and luxurious was in fact surprisingly light-bodied, slightly too heavily carbonated, and too heavy on the cola notes.

Conclusions? Marble's brilliantly crafted, straight down the line, no bells, no whistles classic still drinks superbly - and has a few more years to run, I think. On the other hand the numerous additions courtesy of BBP and Laugar seem to have fought to the death in the bottle and have simply exhausted themselves. Ultimately the message is, I think - 'keep it simple and you can't go wrong'.




Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Beermat of the Week

Butterknowle Brewery

Welcome to a new mid-week feature here at JC's Beer Blog. 

When I was still at work a colleague who was about to retire presented me with a box full of old beer mats he'd collected over the years. When I retired in 2018 I brought them home with me and have only just had a proper look at them.  There are some real relics in there and each has a story to tell so I thought I'd select one each week and relate the story of the brewery and the beer.

I'm guessing most people reading this won't have heard of Butterknowle Brewery but in their day some quite significant beers were produced. The brewery was set up in August 1990 by John Constable and was based in the old buildings of the Lynesack National School near Butterknowle in County Durham. These buildings dated from 1852 and had been disused for 30 years.

The brewing kit, with a capacity of 100 barrels a week, came from the defunct New Forest Brewery which had closed in 1988 and the brewery was opened by 'celebrity botanist' David Bellamy.

The brewery was an immediate success and won awards from beer festivals across the UK. Just two years after setting up, Butterknowle beers came runner-up in both the Bitter and Best Bitter categories at the 1992 Great British Beer Festival. Banner Bitter also went on to win Gold in the Best Bitter category at the 1996 GBBF. 

A bottling line was installed in 1995  and a visitors centre opened in the old infants' classroom. By 1997 around 150 outlets were supplied nationwide, both directly or via wholesalers. Then it all came to a halt and the brewery closed in 1998.

What was significant about Butterknowle beers was level of hopping. Conciliation Ale (4.2%), mentioned on the beer mat, was the flagship brew described in the 1993 Good Beer Guide as:

"..a full flavoured premium ale, well-hopped in both aroma and palate. Flowery and piquant."

You got more of the same in the potent High Force (6.2%). And there's the rub. This was the time was Brendan Dobbin was making waves with his West Coast Brewery in Manchester while, over in Harrogate, Sean Franklin was doing the same with Roosters. Butterknowle beers were up there with them (I know, I was drinking them at the time) with a reputation for powerful, floral hop character. However, while West Coast and Roosters beers have become the stuff of legend, Butterknowle has passed into obscurity. Hopefully this post may, in some small way, start to put the record straight.

Monday, 23 March 2020

Back Again

A little light reading

As CAMRA is in hibernation for a few months this seems like a good time to re-start this blog - last in action in January 2019. Expect the usual mix of beer reviews (I've got plenty to get through), a re-run of some old Pub Crawls from the around 30 years ago, plus one or two other things I have in mind.

I hope you enjoy this - it should at least pass some of the time until normal service is resumed. I hope that by then I'll also have got into the blogging habit again so will be able to keep it going.

So, without further ado..... 

This Stagger appeared in the December 1988 issue of Opening Times. It was written by Robin Wignall, who sadly died in 2018.

The Shaw Heath Shuffle

A few months ago I wrote to Opening Times asking for positive reporting by Stagger correspondents. The King St West and Shaw Heath Stagger landed me with the  opportunity of putting this into practice.

The Comfortable Gill on King St West was our first visit. This is a busy town centre pub across the road from the bus depot. The mock-Tudor decor gives a fairly pleasant interior, though the low ceiling can accentuate the juke box music. The Comfy has a thriving darts and crib team. On our visit we considered the beer to be on good form, though one member has an idiosyncratic dislike of Boddingtons. Both mild and bitter, on electric pumps were considered to be good to very good by the rest of the group.

Leaving the Comfy Gill we had the short walk up King St West to the Olde Vic, passing en route John Smiths' Tom Thumbs. This unfortunately remains all keg, which is a pity as John Smiths cask conditioned bitter is a palatable pint.

Once a part of the Watney-Wilson empire, Ye Olde Vic is now a free house which has acquired a growing reputation since Kay Ord became landlady and deservedly won the branch Pub of the Year award for 1987. A good array of real ale is maintained in this popular pub. From a personal point of view I think I preferred the bar and darts room of previous days, however the present interior is quite pleasant and the beer of course is a vast improvement. On our visit Taylor's Landlord, Wadworth's 6X, Marston's Pedigree and Tetley Bitter were available. Our company, now into double figures, felt the Wadworths to be good and the Taylor's to be well above average.

A little further up the hill stands Wilsons Blue Bell, an architecturally imposing building dating from 1898. A previously multi-roomed pub, the Blue Bell has been fairly tastefully opened out, and has retained a darts and pool room. Original decorative tiling remains in the entrance hall whilst the lounge seems to have been recently reupholstered. Wilsons mild and bitter plus Websters bitter are served on electric pumps, which seems odd as on one side of the bar a bank of handpumps stands idle. On our visit the mild was scored at average and the bitter generally above average.

Just round the corner is Boddingtons Greyhound, a 60 year old pub which underwent major alterations in the 1950s. It now boasts 2 rooms and a vault. Decoration is quite acceptable, if perhaps a little 'all beams and brass'. There us a prominent price list on the customer side of the bar and the beer also recommends itself. On our visit both mild and bitter were considered to be well above average and into the good category.

Across the road stands Robinson's Church. With calls so close together there is hardly distance enough to develop a stagger. The Church has been much altered, but retains rooms with separate identities with darts and pool available. This is to my mind a better piece of 'Robinsonisation' and in the opinion of some members the Church has benefited from the alteration - the brick pillar on the way to the gents looked a bit out of place though. Best Mild and Best Bitter are served on electric pumps and Old Tom is on handpump. The bitter was scored generally above average and good, if cold. The mild also scored above average though the Old Tom could have been better.

Negotiating Edgeley roundabout we reached Robinson's Armoury, a multi-roomed pub which has largely retained the character of a local. On our visit the pub was obviously very popular, perhaps because it has not been knocked around. The group felt the Best Mild to be generally above average and the Best Bitter to be better than that.

Next door is Wilson's Swan, another busy two-roomed local, whose popularity has survived alteration. A number of windows sport fine etched swans, and add to the pub's character. Darts and pool are available and there is an obvious price list. The Swan is a fairly recent gain to Real Ale, as prior to renovation it had served keg beer only. The Wilsons bitter was scored as average and above, but those who sampled the Websters in the interests of science were rather disappointed.

A stroll along Shaw Heath brought us to the Florist. This Robinson's pub is one of the local favourites, a fine multi-roomed pub with some superb etched windows. The Stagger ended here partly because of the high standard of the beer and partly because it was late anyway.  The Best Bitter  was slightly hazy but received very good scores for taste, which goes to show that we should drink with our mouths and not our eyes. The Best Mild was scored as good.

It has not been difficult to be positive in this article, as on the night we sampled generally decent beer in quite pleasant surroundings. Try the pubs for yourselves and make up your own minds.

What Happened Next? 

With so many pubs so close together there were bound to be some casualties - and time has not been kind to the pubs of the Shaw Heath area.

The Comfortable Gill is still with is as D&J's Comfortable Gill but sells no cask beer. Some time before this Stagger was written I dropped into the pub on a local CAMRA 'Monday Social' - and who should be sitting there but beer writer Michael Jackson, who attracted some funny looks as he dictated notes into his dictaphone.

Tom Thumbs did eventually sell cask John Smith's Bitter but to no avail. The pub closed in late 2005 and is now the Lost Monsoon, a well-regarded Indian restaurant.

Moving up the hill, Ye Olde Vic has had a couple of licensees since Kay Ord's time. The current incumbent, Steve Brannan, has been there for many years and is certainly a larger than life character. The pub itself was bought by a consortium of regulars a couple of years ago (disclosure - I own a couple of bricks and a slate) and has since undergone major investment. It's a regular in the Good Beer Guide with five of six cask beers on handpump.  During the enforced period of closure it's going to have a gentle redecoration.

The Blue Bell was sold into the free trade and for quite some time it sold Holt's Bitter. Its then owners also spent some time and money restoring what remained of the original features. This was not enough to save it, though, and the pub closed in late 2002. It's now been converted into flats.

There was something of a golden age at the Greyhound in the years after this Stagger was written. Irene Morris made the pub very much her own, selling a range of guest beers (once Boddingtons became the Boddington Pub Co) and earning a regular place in the Good Beer Guide. It was pretty much downhill all the way after Irene retired. It finally closed in April 2013 and is now residential accommodation.

Across the road, the Church also entered a spiral of decline and attract a 'lively' crowd. A near riot in the pub in late 2007 saw it 'tinned up' and it, too, has been converted into flats.

The Armoury continues to thrive (and doubtless will again once it is able to reopen). Sheila Barlow is the long-running licensee and the pub is known for serving some of the best Robinsons beers in town. The pubs has been slightly opened out over the years but is still a popular multi-roomed pub. 

The Swan next door was a pub that I never had a decent pint in.  On one occasion a friend of mine found the nozzle off the handpump lying at the bottom of his glass! While the Stagger mentions a refurbishment, the pub had been knocked around before that. Irene Morris at the Greyhound once told me that this was the first place she and her ex-husband took over when entering the pub business in the 1960s - and they oversaw the knocking through of the original multi-roomed interior. The Swan ended its days as a Vaux pub (as shown by the sign that still remains on the side wall) but closed in autumn 2013 following a fire. It's now been converted to offices.

The Armoury and the former Swan are shown above - the dinky half-timbered building between them is a Grade II listed former NatWest bank.

When the Stagger called at the Florist, it was run by veteran licensee Alan Stanway (who, incidentally was born in the Church mentioned above). Of course Alan retired but his successor put time and effort into the pub which continued to do well. However there were subsequent changes of licensee and the pub finally closed its doors in January 2018. Once again, it's been converted into flats.