Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Manchester Craft Brewery Crawl

If you've spent any time with me, you've heard my lecture along the lines of "Well you know, for us cask ale is an especially good kind of craft beer, but in England the cask ale lovers hate 'craft beer'".  It's true.  The CAMRA crowd consider craft beer to be too expensive, too strong, too gassy, and too pretentious.  When I'm travelling there, I fall in with the real ale crowd and spend almost all of my time in real ale pubs.  That's my own pretentiousness showing, though I sincerely love the pub atmosphere and the lower-alcohol beer.  And I appreciate a bargain.

On a trip to Manchester this month with Pub Night charter member Lindsey, we mostly focused on cask places, but we did set aside a day for a craft beer crawl.  We started at the venerable Northern Monk Refectory in the Northern Quarter, continuing on to Cloudwater, Track, and Sureshot in the industrial area on the wrong side of the tracks behind Piccadilly train station.  Balance Brewing a few doors down from Sureshot was closed for our crawl so we visited it a few days later.

Tip: Google Maps gives horrible walking directions in Manchester.  It will never tell you to take the scenic canal walk from Northern Monk to Cloudwater shown on this map.  Instead it will march you along 4-lane thoroughfares the whole way.  And the canal path is such a cool walk!  See how the map shows the canal going under Store St?  When you walk it, you discover that the canal is lifted up over Store St.  It's delightful.  One way to get better walking hints is to turn on the bicycle layer in Google Maps -- it will show nicer streets or paths to walk on.  Maybe Google's deficiency isn't Manchester-specific -- I was also mystified by some of its choices in Liverpool and a small town in Wales.

Northern Monk

I first learned about Northern Monk on a visit to Leeds -- where they are based -- a few years ago.  Then on my last pre-Covid trip abroad in December 2019 I checked out the Manchester location which wasn't far from my hotel.  Rare among craft beer taprooms in England, NM has a guest kitchen serving hot food like Lindsey's meatball sandwich there.  On our visit they had a number of good hoppy ales on tap, along with a pastry stout and a couple of lagers.  There were a handful of guest taps, and three cask engines were on.  As a general principle, don't order cask ale at craft brewery taprooms in England -- it is not their strong suit and you will get better cask at pubs that know what to serve and how to handle it.  That principle held mostly true on this pub crawl:  we were usually disappointed in the cask offerings, here included.

One interesting recent development at Northern Monk is their commitment to make more non-alcoholic beers and hop waters.  For example, the two smaller glasses in the picture here are the flagship hazy pale ale Faith at 5.4% -- delicious -- and Holy Faith at 0.5%.  I didn't try A Little Faith (4.0%), but Holy Faith was a really good AF beer, one of the best I've tried.  They use the Holy prefix on their alcohol-free beers.

Cloudwater Brewery

Cloudwater is one of the most respected craft brewers in the UK, so popular that you sometimes see it distributed in the US.  The taproom atmosphere is pretty basic, but the tap list offers a lot of variety.  There are a couple of cask engines (as I said above, probably not the best play) and 20 keg beers including a nitro tap and an AF IPA.  Some pretty creative offerings when we visited -- I enjoyed the perry-barrel-aged saison, but I wasn't crazy about the hopfenweisse.  Imperial Gose?  I wonder what royal family needed sturdy export beer from Goslar.  And of course plenty of hoppy offerings.

There is also a refrigerator full of cans from Cloudwater and guests, if the taps don't cover you.  There's not a kitchen as such, but the £6 cheese plate was generous enough to power us on to three more bars that evening.

Track Brewing

Right across the street from Cloudwater is the taproom for Track Brewing (warning -- McAfee doesn't like this website, and in my desktop Chrome there is an annoying news popup that won't go away).  On my previous visit it was even closer, since Track was renting the space underneath Cloudwater's taproom.  It looks like they moved into their permanent location in mid-2021, and it's a spacious and comfortable industrial space that opens onto the brewhouse.  Twenty kegs and two casks.

The beers at Track were my favorite of the crawl, and that is high praise indeed because Northern Monk and Cloudwater are nothing to sneeze at.  That includes the cask ale we tried -- I wasn't taking good notes, so while I think it was the flagship Sonoma, it might have been the barrel-aged helles.  It was the only craft cask that night that I thought was up to the mark.  The staff on duty were unable to tell me if the "wet-hopped" pilsner was what is more correctly called "fresh-hopped", but I kind of doubt it.  The local terminology is usually "green-hopped", and it didn't seem to have the fresh hop notes I would expect, though it was pleasant enough for a 7.2% monster.  The smoked helles was tastefully done, and I loved the barrel-aged Vienna lager.

Sureshot Brewing

For the last decade or so, the Victorian-era brick railway arches behind Piccadilly station have provided cheap digs for a number of Manchester craft breweries.  Track started in a railway arch, and relative newcomers Sureshot and Balance (see below) have made very pleasant taprooms under the arches.  I really enjoyed our visit to Sureshot, but somehow I came away without a single photograph of the place, maybe because we struck up a conversation with a dapper young fellow who turned out to be a delegate to the Conservative Party convention that was taking place that week in Manchester.

"Hey, you're wearing a suit, are you with the Tories?"

[Looking around]  "shh, shhhh.  As a matter of fact, I am."

"Next round's on you!"

"Please turn your phone off."

The beer at Sureshot is not bad, but I would say it isn't yet up to the caliber of the other places on the crawl.  Nevertheless, it is well worth a visit, because the place is fun, even when you are talking politics.  Since I don't have a picture of the taproom, I can offer up a picture of the souvenir cans I went back and bought later.  Clever packaging that someone put a lot of thought into.  Pictured here are We'll Burn that Bridge when We Come to It Pale Ale, Let Me Tell You about My Mother DDH Pale Ale, I've Started so I'll Finish DDH IPA, and Double Dipped Chip Double IPA (not pictured: I Cannae Change the Laws of Physics American Pale Ale, with the image of Starfleet Lt. Cmdr. Montgomery Scott).  Double Dipped Chip was a big hit when I sampled it out to Austin friends.

Balance Brewing & Blending

A few doors down from Sureshot is Balance Brewing & Blending, which is well worth a visit if you have any interest at all in sour beers.  They've filled the back of their railway arch with barrels and foeders containing their mixed-culture concoctions.  In the front is a laid-back tasting room, where the 6 taps have a combination of house and guest beers, all of the wild variety.  When we were there, they had three of their own on, two tasty fruit beers from Crossover which is improbably located between Luton and Cambridge, and a nice table beer from Burning Sky, more believably situated just outside of Brighton.  My favorite when we visited was Balance's Apricot Wild Ale, but if I remember right, Lindsey favored their Saison de Maison.  I also liked one of the Crossover beers a lot -- I think it was the Raspberry-Plum one called Purple Bell, but it might have been the Cuckoo flavored with Cherry and Blackcurrant.  They have some cans and bottles for sale to go, but they were out of my price range.

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