Manchester city centre is already blessed with a number of very fine pubs and alehouses: The Marble Arch, The Angel, Common, Bar Fringe, Knott Bar, The City Arms, The Crown and Kettle, The Bank, The Bull’s Head, and The Smithfield Hotel to name just the ones within walking distance of the tram that Jo and I drink in fairly regularly and I can remember off the top of my head.
Well, last Saturday Jo and I popped in for a couple of drinks at a newly opened establishment which I think already stands head-and-shoulders above the majority of the rest, and is surely set to be recognised as one of Manchester’s very finest: The Port Street Beer House. Here’s why:
First: the location. At the Piccadilly end of Manchester’s Northern Quarter, about 5 minutes walk from the tram stop in Piccadilly Gardens, it’s far enough off the beaten track to avoid attracting passing hoardes of alcopop-seeking teeny-boppers (is that the right technical term? I’m terribly out of touch these days). Perfect.
Next: the pub itself. From the highly polished wooden flooring (which is quite lovely) to the sophisticated decor, muted lighting, eclectic-yet-comfortable furnishings in the upstairs lounge and the light jazz playing softly in the background, it’s a very grown-up sort of space. Which is just the sort of space I like, seeing as I’m well over the hill and accelerating comfortably into middle-age. Again, perfect.
And finally, the beer selection. Oh, my word, the beer selection…
Five cask pumps, which on the night in question were offering beers (from left-to-right) by Dark Star, Acorn, BrewDog, Thornbridge and Prospect. Another ten or so keg taps; two more BrewDog, a couple of continental (Czech or German, I think) lagers, one American guest and some others I failed to make note of. And then a couple of six-foot fridges half full of bottled delights from the UK, Europe, the US and probably Asia and Australia as well, with another two pallet-loads en route, so I was told. To be fair I will say that some of the bottles in question sounded like they were a little bit on the pricey side. But then, quality costs, you tend to get what you pay for and we really are talking about the sort of beers that you definitely aren’t likely to see in many other places outside of their country of origin (again I forgot to note down specific examples, so I’ll make a quick list next time I’m in). Caveat emptor if you’re picking stuff from the fridges at random, is all I’m saying.
Anyhow, the first pint of the evening for me: Thornbridge Hark. A light, session strength golden ale, with bags of hoppy freshness up front and then a long, dry, biscuity finish. Very drinkable, quite moreish, easily the sort of ale you could stick with all night. Meanwhile, Jo tried a half of Dark Star M&M Special Porter. This 6.5% ABV, dark, rich porter was massively smoky and spicy (chorizo!) with sweeter liquorice to follow. Maybe a bit of a challenging flavour profile, but if smoked beers are to your taste then this one is definitely worth trying.
Next up, I chatted to one of the chaps behind the bar about just how bloody marvellous it was to see Brewdog Hardcore on draught and as a result ended up with a half from the keg. In bottles, this 9.2% ABV imperial IPA is pretty damn amazing. On draught it’s… just awesome. All the burnt-orange citrus flavour, dry hop bite and incredible tropical-fruit aroma of the regular version, but with a silkier, richer mouth-feel. Quite splendid. Jo meanwhile had gone for a freshly-tapped cask ale: Prospect one-twenty. At 4.0% ABV, this light malty ale with a dry, biscuity finish and a slight orange-citrus tang (think orange shortbread, but not at all sugary) was another excellent session choice. Jo said she could quite happily drink this all night and wouldn’t have complained if it was the only cask beer on.
At this point, I decided to step away from the monster IPA and renew my acquaintance with an old favourite: Acorn Gorlovka. This 6.0% ABV stout is smooth, dry and packed full of delicious flavour: high-cocoa milk chocolate (think Green & Blacks), with a lingering roast-malt finish and a faint coffee bitterness giving it a distinctly mocha profile overall. Very, very good indeed. And at this point in the proceedings, I brought Jo a half of Left Hand JuJu Ginger. Jo likes a good ginger beer, but this one turned out to be not quite gingery enough. It was cucumber-fresh and not too sugary (which is a good thing), with a tangy, lemony after-taste, but the ginger did’t linger (which is a bad thing…) and by the end of the half it was a case of lemon, lemon and more lemon. “Lukewarm lemon tea”, Jo concluded, and went back to the Prospect one-twenty for the rest of the evening.
I blame my early-doors dalliance with Hardcore for what happened next: a pint of smooth, hoppy, malty and delicious BrewDog Punk IPA – again, imagine the bottled version, but then add a good 50% to the quality of the mouth-feel. It was cask rather than keg and I have no idea whether it was old-recipe Punk or new-recipe Punk, but whatever the case, it was high-quality stuff and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Then I went for a pint of BrewDog Zeitgeist – their Czech-style black lager. 4.9% ABV, packed with burnt coffee flavours and possessed of an incredibly refreshing hoppy bite. Lovely stuff once more and I was very glad indeed that I’d been able to try three BrewDog favourites on draught, be they cask or keg, old recipe or new, they were all very, very good indeed. Then there was one more half of Gorlovka for the road and then Jo and I called it a night – a truly excellent night – and headed for the tram back home.
So, what do I think of Manchester’s newest specialist beer emporium? Frankly, I absolutely love the place. I’ll be closely following developments on the Port Street Beer House blog and keeping an eye out for new beers announced via their Twitter account. And whilst I’m sure Jo and I will still frequent our other favourite drinking places on a regular basis, if our visits don’t more usually turn into stops en-route to an end-of-the-evening session at the Port Street Beer House, I’ll be quite surprised.
John Clarke is the editor of Opening Times, the free CAMRA regional magazine covering the cities of Manchester & Salford, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford, NE Cheshire and Macclesfield. He’s been kept very much in the loop by the owners of the soon-to-be-opened Port Street Beer House, and very kindly sent me the following progress report to share:
Manchester is about to get it’s very own speciality beer bar – and it promises to be something of a star turn. Taking its inspiration from Leeds’ North Bar and London’s Rake, the Port Street Beer House (@portstreetbeer) is scheduled to open on 27 January. It is the brainchild of the team behind the increasingly impressive Common (@common_bar) on Edge Street in the Northern Quarter but will operate on a much bigger scale.
Situated just around the corner from former cask ale flagship the Crown & Anchor (Hilton Street) and a few minutes from Manchester icon the Jolly Angler (Great Ducie Street) the Port Street Beer House will drag the Northern Quarter’s burgeoning beer scene a few hundred yards south – but it will be worth the journey.
The cask offering will come via five handpumps – three will respectively feature the products of Thornbridge, Dark Star and Prospect breweries and the other two will feature a wide range of micro-brewed guest ales. There will be 14 draft foreign beers (although there is room for 20 products over time) and will include products from the likes of Lefthand, Amarcord, Sierra Nevada and Great Divide. From the UK expect to see BrewDog (inevitably) plus Moravka, arguably the best craft brewed lager currently being made in the country. Some of these will be fixtures and some changing guests.
Eventually there will be about 150 bottled beers although the opening range will be 60 – 80. Included in the opening range will be beers from Rouge, Caldera, Ballast Point, Unita, Victory, Smuttynose, Buckbean, Amarcord, Baladin, Delborgo, Great Divide, Odell, Flying Dog, Dogfish Head and Left Hand. There will also be a range of Belgian, German and other world beers.
This will be a blast.
Port Street Beer House
39-41 Port Street
Closed Mondays; Open 5 – 12 Tuesday – Friday; 12-12 Saturday & Sunday
[copyright (c) John Clarke, 2011, used with kind permission]
Jo and I planned our visit to this year’s Great Northern Beer Festival with military precision. Friday 29th booked off work? Check. Early finish on Thursday 28th? Check. Trip to Tampopo to fill up on nasi goreng (one of the best stomach-lining beer-soak dishes known to man, bar none)? Check and double-check. Which meant that come 7.00 p.m. we were ready to hit the bar.
On the way in the door we paid our £2 deposit for a half-pint pot (a proper, Northern style half-pint pot, with a line to mark the half and enough room it he top for a decent head) and grabbed a programme. A cornucopia of Northern delights revealed itself, but which of the many fabulous-sounding beers in its pages were going to be available on the night? There was only one way to find out.
I wasn’t sure quite how the Palace Hotel would work as a venue, but it turned out to be an excellent one: I had no idea there was a cavernous function room in the basement, complete with a suitably temperature-controlled cellar / bar at the back, which the SIBA folks had put to good use as a beer store in the week leading up to the event.
The main room was busy, with a healthy hum of cheerfully beery conversation, but it wasn’t horrendously packed by any means. We headed over to the bar, which took up most of one side of the huge room. I didn’t do a full count, but there must have been 30 or 40 beers on offer at a time, an impressive selection by anyone’s standards. But it’s been scientifically proven that human beings have great trouble making a decision when presented with more than 7 (+/- 2) options, so we narrowed it down a bit: focusing on the first quarter of the bar, we plunged on in and made our initial selection.
Jo started with Hexhamshire Blackhall English Stout, which was a lovely, almost opaque black and big on coffee tones, with a very dry after-taste. I went for the interesting-sounding Old Mill Yorkshire Porter, but I think something had gone wrong somewhere; either the person who served me poured from the wrong tap, or there was still some water in the pipes, or Old Mill have a bit of an odd idea of what a porter should taste like. Whatever the reason, the stuff I got was chestnut-brown, thin to the point of wateriness and almost tasteless. An unfortunate way to start the evening and I was quick to head back to the bar for a second attempt.
I opted for Great Heck Dark Force Treason Stout. Very dark, smoky flavours dominated, with plenty of liquorice, damsons and just a hint of charcoal. Just the sort of big flavours I look for in a hefty stout and a 5.4% ABV that gave it a pleasantly warming alcohol kick as well. Much, much better.
Next up: Prospect Dragon Ale for Jo, which turned out to be a well-balanced, tasty golden ale packed with root ginger. Jo’s a big fan of alcoholic ginger beers (I’ve been nagging her to do a comparison piece for me for ages) and she really enjoyed this one. I’d wandered further along the bar and had spotted Allgates Mad Monk, a 7.1% Imperial porter, which had won the SIBA strong ale award earlier in the day, and I just couldn’t resist. It was delicious. Lot of big, chewy, sugary flavours: toffee, brown sugar and molasses, all present and correct. I thoroughly enjoyed this one and would happily have sat and slowly supped a pint over the course of an hour or so.
After the Mad Monk I thought I ought to calm things down a bit so I went for a Coach House Gunpowder Mild. At 3.8% I was hoping for a refreshing, light, but tasty beer and that’s exactly what I got: slightly sweet with a fruity flavour. Very nice indeed.
After that I decided it was high time I tried the SIBA Supreme Champion beer for the year: Elland 1872 Porter (which was also named CAMRA Winter Beer of Britain back in January). Now this was what I expected from a porter: lovely dark, roast-malt flavours with a decent hop-bite; well-balanced and not too dry, with hints of both chocolate and coffee merging to mocha perfection. Quite delicious and definitely a worthy supreme champ.
By this stage of the evening we’d met up with a friend and a mutual acquaintance or two, so the company was as convivial as the beer was good. By now I’d moved on to Stringers Mutiny. Described in the brochure simply as ‘Large Stout’, this 9.0% ABV monster was a lovely, nearly opaque black in tone and was packed with big, sweet flavours: toffee, booze-soaked dry fruit, rich fruit cake and more than a drop of coffee liqueur or dark rum. Another delicious beer, thoroughly enjoyable.
Jo had sent also me back to the bar for something she hadn’t tried yet and I happened to spot a new addition to the range, one which we’d noted and asterisked in the programme earlier: Hawkshead Damson and Vanilla Stout. Not too strong at 4.5% ABV but packing the most incredible aroma of fresh damsons, with a huge, fruity-sweet flavour rippling through the smooth, roast malts, this one made a big impression in a very short space of time. Jo said afterwards that a half was probably enough though; flavours that intense could’ve been a bit much if they’d lasted to the end of a pint, she reckoned. But definitely one to try if you see it anywhere, especially if, like me, you’ve long-harboured a sneaking distrust of the whole fruit beer oeuvre. This one might help to kick-start the process of changing your mind.
At this point, they called last orders and I reckoned I was okay for one more, so I nipped back to the bar. I was sorely tempted by a repeat of Mad Monk, 1872 Porter or Mutiny, but I decided to play it a little safer and opted for an Allendale Winter Dunkel. I’ve been interested in trying more German lager styles since reading about them in Great American Craft Beer. The Winter Dunkel was light and refreshing with a good balance of fruitiness and roast malts. It was a pleasant end to the session, but I think I’d have appreciated it a bit more if I hadn’t tried the three big, boozy beers right before.
In conclusion: Jo and I had a fantastic time and between us sampled plenty of excellent beers. We didn’t make the return trip on the Friday or Saturday so there were probably a fair few equally excellent ones that we missed out on, but we felt we’d definitely gotten our money’s worth. We’d only been to a one proper beer festival before now – the first Altrincham Bottle & Cask back in 2009 – and this one was a definite step up. Huge congratulations to Bar Manager Tandleman and his stalwart crew of willing and extremely able volunteer servers on an extremely smoothly-run operation. If more beer festivals could guarantee the same sort of high-quality delivery, speedy service and excellent range as this one then we’d definitely make the effort to go to more of them.