Signifiers

The City with a Thorn in its Side — Manchester, England’s Mix of Old and New

You wouldn’t think that a small piece of plastic could completely divide opinion between a nation’s beer lovers. You’d be wrong. A sparkler is a small plastic nozzle that attaches to the end of the swan-neck spout on the hand-operated pump that pulls beer from a cask. It nebulizes the naturally occurring CO2 in the beer, aerating the liquid as it’s squeezed through the holes in the nozzle. This produces smaller bubbles and, when poured correctly with the swan neck in the very bottom of the glass as the beer is pulled, will produce a frothy head of tight, creamy foam.

This tiny device is the cause of a longstanding debate between British beer lovers because of the way it’s symbolic of a supposed north/south divide in the British beer community. Order a cask beer in the south of England and the bar staff probably won’t even known what a sparkler is. Head north and you’ll find that sparklers are attached to hand pumps religiously—removing them would be considered an offense by many beer aficionados.

Manchester is just two hours away from London by train—163 miles. But the gulf between these two cities, from culture to accents, is as vast as the differences between the Florida Keys and the Pacific Northwest. In order to experience these cultural differences, you really need to observe them in person.

The short train journey from London Euston station to Manchester Piccadilly is a delightful one, all open fields and provincial towns as Manchester’s urban landscape envelops the horizon. Today I’ll attend its first-ever Manchester beer week, and I’m due to meet its organizer, Connor Murphy, for brunch.

The Northern Quarter is a 10-minute walk from Piccadilly Station. This small area of Manchester’s city center is home to the kind of condensed culture I sometimes wish we had in London. Instead, our food and drink culture is scattered among several hotspots, which means traveling between them can be a real pain. In Manchester, the Northern Quarter is vibrant hive of bars, restaurants, street art, and more. It’s no surprise this area birthed the city’s craft beer culture a few years ago.

I meet Murphy at one of the scene’s most essential spots, A Place Called Common. Murphy, who’s in his early thirties, is showing the kind of wear that comes a few days into running a citywide beer event. His hands are shaking, and his eyes are a little bloodshot and surrounded by dark circles. After breakfast and a few cups of coffee he’s back in reasonable shape.

“I think Manchester was lagging behind,” he says of the decision to hold a beer week. “The scene here has grown massively and completely organically in the last five years. The amount of breweries opening up is incredible and it made no sense that nobody had thought about pulling it together into a week of events.”

Murphy’s phone buzzes constantly. He’s in the middle of organizing the week’s grand finale, a huge beer festival inside a former television studio. Murphy’s somehow run Manchester Beer Week practically by himself—and on top of a full time job, no less. “It’s been hard,” he sighs. “Hard but enjoyable and worthwhile. Finding the time is tough, it’s a lot of getting home after work and then knowing that you’ve got another four or five hours of work to do.”

It’s more than a celebration of Manchester, though. Part of my reason for traveling up from London was to run an event at Beermoth, a tasting room and bottle shop just around the corner from Common. These “outsider” elements drew a negative reaction from a small corner of the Manchester beer scene, a reaction that was in its nature, typically and stoically Mancunian.

“Manchester can be funny in some ways, it’s a very progressive city but then at the same time quite parochial,” Murphy says. “Everyone seems to support the brewers around here, and a result of that is that a kind of ‘us and them’ attitude has appeared. Which is good in some ways, because it demonstrates that the city is immensely proud of what it’s done. But I think we need to wary of not doing that at the expense of other experiences.”

Like most large cities in the UK, Manchester has a storied beer history. It’s home to several large, traditional breweries—J.W. Lees, Joseph Holt’s, Hydes, and Robinsons. Each of these companies also owns a large estate of pubs in northwest England. You don’t have to wander far down a Manchester street to come across one.

Manchester was once also home to the world famous Boddingtons Brewery—the straw pale and super bitter beer it used to produce typified the regional beer style. At its peak in the late ‘90s, Boddingtons was exported to more than 40 countries. In 2000, Whitbread—the company that purchased Boddingtons in 1989—was acquired by AB-InBev. Following the acquisition, Strangeways Brewery was closed in 2004, including the dismantling of its iconic chimney.

“That chimney really spoke to me of Manchester with the name proudly down the side,” Peter Alexander says. Alexander’s been the chairman of CAMRA’s Rochdale, Bury and Oldham branch for more than twenty years. He’s also the deputy organizer of the Manchester Beer & Cider festival, CAMRA’s annual flagship event in the north. “Iconic is overused, but that was an icon if ever there was one.” 

“The loss of Boddingtons still rankles,” he continues. “The bitter was, as it said on the pump clip, ‘The Classic Cask Conditioned Beer of the North.’ But we have plenty of fantastic replacements from our new crop of brewers.”

One such example is The Marble Brewery’s Manchester Bitter, which is pale, zesty, very bitter, and extremely sessionable at 4.2% ABV. It’s probably the closest I’ll get to tasting anything remotely close to the old Boddingtons. Marble—which has been brewing in Manchester since 1997—is an interesting brewery because its straddles the fine line between the classic and the modern.

I always make a point of visiting its original pub, The Marble Arch, which is just a short walk from the city center. The Marble Arch is about as traditional a pub as Manchester can muster, but the offering on the taps ranges from everything such as the aforementioned Manchester Bitter on cask to American IPAs infused with Earl Grey tea, which are as delicious as they sound. It’s also famous for its sloping floor, the gradient of which increases the longer you stay in the pub.

In 2016 Manchester has more than 75 breweries that range from the very traditional Lees and Robinsons, to the incredibly modern Cloudwater, and Chorlton Brewing Company. Marble is special in that they manage to exist at the minuscule point where the Venn diagram overlaps. As an outsider, it feels like Manchester’s two separate beer cultures exist in different worlds. Marble’s Stephanie Shuttleworth disagrees.

“The Manchester beer scene is really inclusive and is largely built on favours,” she says. “Lending a bit of malt here, borrowing a bit of knowledge there. Our neighbor, Blackjack Brewery, is even brewing on our old kit!”

Chorlton’s founder and head brewer Mike Marcus agrees.

“I think CAMRA pisses off people who choose to brew non-traditionally,” he says. “But the actual breweries get on well. It's less binary here than it is in London. Most breweries here sit somewhere in the middle ground between trad and craft.”

The contrast between Manchester’s traditional, city pubs and its modern bars is so stark it’s almost startling. After a couple of pints in The Marble Arch I make my way back into town. Eventually I settle in at one of Manchester’s newest bars, Café Beermoth, which was opened less than a year ago by the folks who run the bottle shop of the same name. In appearance, Café Beermoth is about as far removed from The Marble Arch as you can imagine. Tiled walls and vintage ceilings are replaced with large, plate glass windows, sleek lines, and smooth surfaces.

You can even peer right into the cellar, which is proudly on display behind the bar. There no branding from breweries displayed next to the taps, either, with the bar making its own, very plain signage to display what’s on. Unusually, there isn’t a Lager on tap—the house draught beer is Brasserie De La Senne’s Taras Boulba Pale Ale. There are plenty of German classics stacked in the fridges along with bottles from all over the world, including plenty of rare stuff from the likes of AleSmith and Crooked Stave representing the U.S. There’s also a solid line-up of cask beer amidst all the modernity.

Both Manchester and London’s beer scenes are strongly rooted in tradition, though much more of London’s has been dismantled than Manchester’s. It feels like London had the jump on Manchester when it came to the development of a craft beer scene, with the likes of The Kernel and Camden Town having a couple of years on Manchester’s first wave of craft brewers. But then there’s Marble, who’ve been making bright, juicy, and hoppy beers here in Manchester for almost two decades. So maybe it was Manchester who started innovating in brewing, way before London ever did.

“When in London it is hard not to think of it as the centre of the universe,” Emma Cole tells me. She should know, as she moved from London to work at Cloudwater. “I think folks are realizing that the same boom and growth is happening, albeit at different speeds and though different expressions everywhere. You have to earn your stripes in the beer community here, where London folks were more welcoming to try a new thing and see how it pans out. So many customers weren't interested in giving Cloudwater a shot until they knew it was popular in London, which was something I hadn't expected at all.”

It’s an attitude that some U.S. beer makers know all too well. Chicago’s Off Color Brewing, for example, initially found popularity among the beer enthusiasts of the East Coast. Only after this seal of approval did its local market show some love. In Manchester, breweries like Cloudwater and Chorlton are feeling that same trend—an unfortunate parallel between the two regions’ booming beer scenes.

The next day it’s busy at Murphy’s grand finale for Manchester Beer Week. Throngs of people are enjoying pints and bites from street food trucks parked outside the former TV studios. Almost symbolically, Cloudwater and J.W. Lees have their stands right next to each other, old and new working together as one. Murphy even managed to convince them to collaborate on a brew together for the beer week, a hoppy Amber Ale called Manchester Fold.

“Basically it broke the hop filter,” he says of the collaboration, which used more hops in one beer than Lees would use in a week’s worth of brewing. “It would’ve been easy to put together an event that sat within the craft bubble and not have any scope beyond that. Lees have over 150 pubs across the north of England. Getting into those pubs, and putting a Manchester Beer Week beer in front of the people that visit them is a big deal.”

He’s right. Not just for getting a Cloudwater beer into more than 100 very traditional pubs, but for getting a new generation of beer drinkers interested in one of the town’s oldest and most important brewers. Perhaps if there’s a divide between Manchester’s beer culture it’s simply because the new generation of drinkers haven’t discovered the tradition it was founded on yet.

“Craft beer, if you want to call it that, has taken off in Manchester,” Murphy says. “It’s done so with a younger audience, and that’s people like me or maybe even younger still. You look at the Northern Quarter at the weekend now, the amount of bars that have a quality beer offering and the people who are drinking it is vastly different to how it was five years ago.”

For Peter Alexander, who has lived and enjoyed beer in Manchester for almost 30 years, the development of a craft beer scene and the boom in the general interest of beer is only a good thing. “Thirty years ago we essentially had bitter and milds, but now the whole range of beers from traditional to cutting edge can be found in Manchester,” he says. “Want a sour beer? We do it with Chorlton Brewery specializing. How about beers from the wood? Beer Nouveau will sort you out. Belgian style, hazy American style, cutting edge Double IPAs? We have them and more. Still fancy a pint of bitter? No problem. Our family brewers are still there.”

That this parallel between modern and traditional exists at all is why British beer culture in cities such as Manchester is so unique. One might even argue that this dichotomy is what held the UK back when U.S. craft beer culture began to gestate in the early 1980s—a time when folks in cities like Manchester were far more interested in breaking musical molds than beer ones. But now, this mixture of new and old combines to make a beer culture like Manchester’s one of the most rich and diverse in the world.

I head out for one final beer before I catch the train back to London. Settling on Smithfield Tavern at the edge of the Northern Quarter, I sit in a quiet corner with my pint. One of the taps is pouring a rare keg of Belgian Lambic that’s commanding what I would consider a reasonable price at £4 per half pint. The gentlemen at the table next to me are less than amused, though.

“Eight pounds a pint!” one of them exclaims. “This city’s going to the dogs. It’s almost as bad as London.”

Words + Photos by
Matthew Curtis

Matthew Curtis

Matthew Curtis is a British beer writer and photographer based in London, England, giving GBH a unique perspective on the British Craft Beer scene.

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