Last year my brother and I struggled to get our Christmas pint in before Christmas so this year we decided to meet up early and make sure we did. My brother hates it when I drag him round book and music shops so I decided to go out early, have a bit of a nosey about then meet him later for drinks. In particular I was on a quest for that rare item in British pubs today, dark beers; stouts, porters and mild.
Manchester in December is nothing short of an absolute madhouse. The streets were packed, as were the shops. I had a look round a couple of my favourite shops but the rain was relentless and so I retreated into the Arndale centre to dry out. There are a couple of cheapie book shops in there that I always look at and then there is the – actually a shop I can’t remember the name of but it sells all kinds of geeky stuff that appeals to me; CD cases, electronic items, leads, blank media and so on, so I always spend a lot of time looking round there.
Feeling a little hungry I wandered over to the market area and realised it was actually years since I had been there. To my surprise, there was a whole hall of small stalls and shops that I had never seen before. As I moved further inside I discovered a sort of street food area with some tasty looking food. The whole area seemed to be screened off from the rest of the Arndale which is probably why it was relatively quiet compared with everywhere else. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve been in this part of the Arndale since it was redeveloped years ago.
The Micro Bar.
In the street food area there were stalls selling various types of food. I spotted Mexican, Thai, Chinese and Indian stalls but then I came across a Greek takeaway and picked up some Greek Gyros in pitta bread with salad and some cooling yoghurt for £4. Lovely! I wandered about looking for a table and sat myself down only to find I had settled down in front of what was a small bar, appropriately called the Micro Bar, selling some tasty real ales. The barman offered me a taster of the porter he had on. Sadly it was a plum porter, a dark beer flavoured with a plum essence. It wasn’t for me! There seems to be a trend in drinks today calling for fruit flavoured drinks. Various flavours of gin are available in pubs. I even saw a rhubarb gin the other day I shudder to add. Cider is another drink that comes with various fruit flavoured varieties.
I called for a pint of a tasty golden ale to wash down my Gyros and sat back and waited for my brother, watching the horde of shoppers and office workers braving the lashing wind and rain down the High street.
The Grey Horse.
We decided to take in some of the old and the new of licensed premises in the city. First stop was our old favourite, the Grey Horse, one of the smallest pubs in Manchester but also a pub that serves that classic dark beer, mild. Don’t you just hate it when you go in a pub nowadays and the teenage barman looks at you like you are a nutter when you ask for a pint of mild just because the average teenage barman has never heard of it? Well in a proper pub like the Grey Horse that just never happens.
I think I have mentioned before, in the evening of my years (just a minute, late afternoon surely?) I have moved away from lagers and closer towards the darker beers to be found in life’s brewery. As often as not I end up drinking Guinness or some random guest beer but in the Grey Horse they serve a lovely dark mild.
Pubs and bars are driven by the younger generation and their drink of choice is lager which explains the distinct lack of porters, stouts and mild available these days. For me, I must admit I do drink lager but it’s mild and Guinness I’m always on the lookout for.
As the afternoon moved into early evening we decided to take a wander down to the so-called ‘Northern Quarter’ of Manchester. Really the Northern Quarter is just a PR exercise, a rebranding of the older and more run down area of Manchester, actually Ancoats, so that younger and less savvy people like myself can be lured into small bars that were once probably shops or offices and now charge incredible prices for drinks.
Luckily it was my brother who got saddled with a ridiculous bill for two drinks and not me but now armed with this new information, that the rebranding of this area is just an excuse to double prices, we wandered back to more sensible pubs.
For one last pint we went into Albert’s Schloss, a sort of modern German Beer Keller sort of place packed with people and serving lager at inflated prices. (Though not as inflated as the Northern Quarter!) No dark beers to be found there but Albert’s was actually a fun place full of city centre workers spending their hard-earned cash. I enjoyed that pint of pilsner. Pity I couldn’t have had one last dark beer.
Dark Beers in Classic Film.
Back in the war years dark beers were the more accepted drink for men in the UK. I remember watching ‘The Way to the Stars’, a 1945 war picture in which John Mills, a ground controller at a world war 2 airfield, stays behind when his squadron is posted overseas. The new squadron are a US Army Air Force group flying B-17 Flying Fortresses. John Mills’ character takes the Yanks out for a few beers and is surprised to see them drinking pale ales which he and the other Brits consider a little ‘ladylike’ to use his words! Straight away he introduces them to some dark beers.
Which classic film buff can forget John Ford’s The Quiet Man? John Wayne plays a retired American boxer returning to his roots in Ireland. He steps into the pub, looks around and orders ‘one of those black beers’. John Wayne knew a good pint when he saw one.
St Annes on the Sea.
A couple of days later, back in St Annes, Liz and I popped into the Number 15, one of our favourite local pubs. The premises used to be a bank and what was once the bank vault is now a cosy room at the back. The great thing about 15’s is that along with many guest beers they serve one of my absolute favourites, Theakston’s mild.
I ordered the drinks and waited eagerly at the bar while the barmaid went off to pull our beers. She was back a moment later with an apologetic look. ‘Sorry’ she said, ‘I’d forgotten, we’re not serving mild any more. There’s no call for it these days!’
Clearly I hadn’t been drinking enough of it!