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A Manchester Beer Week....

This week is Manchester Beer Week, the second year the city has been home to a celebration of the pubs and breweries that help make the place what it is. Across the city and the area beyond there are numerous events taking place in pubs, bars, and restaurants, ranging from tap takeovers to food/beer pairings to themed pub crawls.

Although the festival didn't officially open until last Friday, I decided I would join in a couple of days earlier. I was staying overnight in the city as I had booked a ticket to see the Mark Lanegan Band at The Ritz. So after an excellent pizza at Rudy's in Ancoats I made my way across town. I decided to stop off at one of little pubs on Portland Street, the Grey Horse. This traditional Hydes' pub is tiny, with one room with a wooden screen acting as a divider. This and its similarly diminutive neighbour, the Circus Tavern, date back to a time long before anyone had come up with the idea of a micro pub! A very friendly locals pub. My next port of call was The Briton's Protection, on Great Bridgewater Street, behind Bridgewater Hall, with Beecham Tower looming not far away. The Briton's is a classic multi-roomed pub with a pleasant beer garden. It has hardly changed in the 40 years since I used to go in as a student. The only thing that lets it down is the choice of beer. Jennings Cumberland and Robinsons Unicorn are pretty much regulars, but then the guests tend to be uninspiring.

The Mark Lanegan Band were excellent, playing tracks from their latest, superb album 'Gargoyle', plus a few old favourites. The man himself sings, or growls, as if, as a friend of mine puts it "he gargles with gravel." The music is grunge-like but with melodic overlays. A great set was followed by an encore in which the legendary Peter Hook appeared and they performed Joy Division's 'Love will Tear us Apart', which went down a storm. Check them out if you haven't heard them. I wandered back over to Ancoats, a quick pint of Dizzy Blonde in the Castle, and then back to the hotel after a great night.

Saturday came, and I was back in the city again. I was off to see the Old Crow Medicine Show, once again at the Ritz. Before that though, I had decided I would check out a few of the 11 breweries in the city that had opened their doors as part of the Beer Week.

I caught the train to Piccadilly, then headed over to Sheffield Street, where, situated in a somewhat rundown area in a renovated railway arch is the Track Brewery, which usually opens its doors to the general public about once a month. Track brew some excellent beer, their cask favourite, the 3.8% Sonoma, was available, along with several on tap. I had the obligatory Sonoma, which was spot on, and then tried a Table Beer which, with an ABV of only 3.0%, packed more flavour than many a much stronger beer. The place was busy, people were tucking into some delicious-looking food, music was playing, and the vibe was good. Just along the way, past a garage where there was much banging and clanging and a pair of feet emerging from underneath a white van, is the Cloudwater Barrel Store.

There was a queue there when I got there as the place was full, but after about 10 minutes I got in. The store is probably slightly larger than Track, but with huge wooden barrels, the number of which I hadn't seen in one place since my days buying wine! The lights positioned amongst the barrels gave the place an ethereal, almost cathedral-like, atmosphere. The beer was all on the strong side, so I opted for one of the weakest on offer, a 5.6% Mango Sour. I was presented with a half of a bright orange liquid, which looked just like mango juice. Now I don't like mango juice, it is far too sweet for me, but the sourness made it very refreshing. The beer contains 25% fruit pulp, but whilst I wouldn't want to drink too many of them, it was a striking example of how Cloudwater are pushing back the boundaries, but beware, although all these good ideas don't come cheap; all beers were priced £3, whether it was for a half or a third for one of the stronger beers. Like Track though, there was a great friendly vibe about the place, which is open every Saturday.

I tried the more conventional and very pleasant Tremendous Ideas, a collaboration with the Other Half Brewery from Brooklyn, and then re-traced my steps. The feet were still sticking out from under the white van. I passed Track, and headed down to the next brewery grouping on North Western Street. The first place I came to was Alphabet, like the others operating from a railway arch. By comparison, this place was massive, stretching back under what be a much wider bridge. There was a DJ playing music, a barbeque, and a busy bar with very friendly staff. I enjoyed the half I had, the place had a great atmosphere, and opens every Saturday if you fancy giving it a whirl. Next door is Dan's, it was busy, the half of Dan's Pale was OK, but for some reason I didn't particularly warm to the place. Further on are Beer Nouveau, Chorlton, Manchester Brewing, and finally Squawk, but these will have to wait until another day. There is also another brewery grouping in the so-called Green Quarter between Rochdale Road and the Irk Valley, where Blackjack, Runaway, and Beatnitz Republic are based.

A couple of friends, Fletch and Rachel, had got in touch, so I backtracked and we met at Track, where this time I sampled a New Zealand Pale on tap before we got a taxi over to the Briton's Protection. It was getting near to the time for the gig, so we separated, as I went off for some food and a quick half at the Peveril of the Peak, just round the corner from the Briton's Protection, and another place I'd frequented in my student days. This ex-Wilson's house has got a wonderful green and yellow tiled exterior and traditional multi-roomed interior. I got a half of Seven Brothers Session Pale, which at £1.80 was far cheaper than their taphouse in Ancoats!

I made my way to Whitworth Street, where I joined the queue into the Ritz to see Old Crow Medicine Show. I met up with the gang, which included a number of the Rainey Street Band and Roger Davies, both of whom had been performing at the Brighouse Gala during the afternoon, with Roger also heading up to the Dent folk festival the day after. We didn't have too long to wait before OCMS appeared, marching on the stage like a military band as they played 'Rainy Day Women #12 & #35', as part of their interpretation of Bob Dylan's 'Blonde on Blonde', which they were performing as their tribute to the 50th anniversary of the album's release. The songs came thick and fast, highlighting both the quality of the tracks on this classic album and the brilliant musicianship of OCMS, who treated us to a fantastic high energy performance. The band played it over 2 sets, the time just raced by, and the band like the audience were clearly enjoying themselves. The encore included their most famous song, 'Wagon Wheel', which had originally been started by Dylan, but never finished. It was picked up some 30-odd years later by the Old Crow's livewire frontman, Ketch Secor, who added new lyrics (Dylan's working title was 'Hey Mama'), the two came to an agreement, and the song is credited to both. It was an excellent gig.

We were getting the train back from Oxford Road station, just around the corner from the Ritz. We had just enough time for a quick pint at the Salisbury, which was busy with Saturday night drinkers. It was my last pint in Manchester of last week, but the Beer Week is still ongoing. So if you've not been able to get there, why not give it a try this weekend....

Cloudwater Barrel Store
Manchester Beer Week runs until July 2nd with events in the city and beyond.
More details at www.mcrbeerweek.co.uk

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