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A Lurk in the Irk Valley....

It has been Manchester Beer Week this week, and my visit last weekend took in a couple of breweries in a hitherto rundown part of the city....

Manchester Beer Week for me started after I had left work on Friday night. The annual Beer Festival was taking place at the Stalybridge Buffet Bar, handily situated a mile and a half from work. I enjoyed a half of Beach House from Rivington, followed by Pale from current favourites Pomona Island. I couldn't try more due to my mode of transport, but Phil, the amiable bar-cellarman,  kindly gave me his copy of the beer list, which featured some marvels, mainly from Greater Manchester, on both cask and keg that were due on over the weekend. An excellent start for me, and I am sure a good time was had by all who visited the Buffet Bar over the weekend.

Saturday came, sunny once again, and I was back in Manchester for the second week in succession, having caught up with some old friends the first time for a tour around some of the city's finest. This time, I was planning to check out a couple of breweries in the so-called Green Quarter that had opened their tap rooms for the weekend. Where's that, you may ask? Well, it is situated in the area that slopes away from behind the enormous Co-op HQ and Rochdale Road into the Irk valley, and it has become home to a host of breweries recently who, as in the more-famous Piccadilly Mile across the city, have taken advantage of the many railway arches and similar spaces that lie beneath the tracks that run into the nearby Victoria Station. At the last count, Marble, Blackjack, Runaway, Beatnitz Republic, and Shindigger have all based themselves in the area, but if anybody knows of any others, please let me know.

Marble Brewery of course used to based within the Marble Arch on Rochdale Road before they out-grew it, and it was to that pub that I headed for my first pint of the day, a delicious Tuckerlovsky Session IPA, which seems to be appearing here and there quite often these days. At 4.7%, and with plenty of citrus hoppiness, it just hit the spot on a very warm day. A couple of Croatian brewers who had come over for MBW were in the pub, and were asking for directions to Blackjack, which was my next destination after I had finished my pint.

To get to Blackjack, turn down Gould Street at the side of the pub, and after about 5 minutes, passing flats and the former CWS tobacco factory, as the road starts to drop away more steeply, and on the left in the arch below the railway line, there is Blackjack Brewery, although there is no big sign or flashing lights to announce its presence. There is a yard, in which was  situated several tables and seating, and a food tent, with the brewery situated in the arch beyond. The bar was by the door, and to kick things off, I had a Mosaic Pale, from the brewery at the back. The Croatians had found there way there. The lad behind the bar thought he recognised me, and it turned out it was Lee, who used to visit the Buffet Bar regularly when he worked nearby for currently closed brewers Tickety Brew. I took my pint out into the sun, and got talking to a couple who were part of a group from Wigan CAMRA who had come over for the day. The rest of the party arrived, and as you invariably do when beer lovers get together, you get chatting and swapping recommendations and tales of favourite pubs and breweries. They were a friendly bunch, and were planning to visit the Marble next. I tried another beer, this time a Hawkshead Key Lime APA, and sat enjoying the sunshine. Blackjack doesn't open very often, but based on this enjoyable visit, you should check it out. It looks like this:

Blackjack; unassuming but friendly
Next on the agenda  was the Runaway brewery, which was located nearby. I left Blackjack, passing an old bath that had been dumped on the pavement. No frills about this area, but like so many towns and cities up and down the country, it is often run down areas that attract creative, cultural, and green-themed people and their ideas. Like the Northern Quarter, or the Ouseburn Valley in Newcastle, or Water Lane in Leeds used to be. As I wandered around looking for Runaway, I passed a building with a sign over the door saying 'Working Girls Home' and 'Charter Street Ragged School' on one side, further signs of the fact that for years this was one of the most blighted parts of the city. This was an area of extreme poverty and the conditions he observed amidst the teeming tenements here and in other parts of Manchester informed the views of Freidrich Engels, the 19th century German philosopher, who along with Karl Marx, founded Marxist Theory. The river Irk back in Engels' day was effectively an open sewer, and is still fairly polluted in stretches today, wending its way from its source near Royton towards Manchester, where it decants into the river Irwell just past Victoria Station.

After a few minutes wandering around, I found the Runaway brewery, which was just across the road from Blackjack, with a sign on the pavement advertising it, which, in my eagerness to get there, I had completely missed! At the end of a big yard, with other businesses occupying some of the arches, was the Runaway Brewery. I walked in and was surprised to see a bank of 4 hand pumps staring out at me. This was a rare sight indeed, as Runaway don't brew cask very often. I shouldn't have been surprised though, as the event had been billed as 'Casks and Cassettes', and every now and again, people would turn up with a handful of their old cassettes, which meant there was an excellent retro backdrop, from Tamla, to rock, and back to Northern Soul. I tried a pint of the 4% Manchester Pale Ale, which was very good, and I think that based on this, the odd cask here and there would make a worthy addition to the range. I spotted Rob from Blackjack, and had a quick chat with him before he went off to check things over the road. It turned out several other brewers were present, including Thornbridge, who had taken over the Crown and Kettle for a week, and Hawkshead, who were due on later at the Smithfield for a Meet the Brewer session which I was planning to attend.

I headed upstairs, where there were several taps on offer, basically a split between Runaway and Squawk, who are at the far end of the Piccadilly Mile, but hadn't opened themselves. I got chatting to one of the lads behind the bar, and it turned out it was one of the brewers, Mark, whose Mum was also helping out. I was introduced to Oli and Graham from Squawk who were there for the day, and on their recommendation I tried a new strawberry-infused beer of theirs which was on tap, and was very refreshing. Their beers are very popular in some of pubs I visit in Halifax and Calderdale such as the Market Tavern in Brighouse and the Victorian Craft Beer Cafe in Halifax. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Runaway, and unlike Blackjack, the taproom is open every Saturday from 12 to 8pm.

A rare sight: Runaway cask ales!
Mark from Runaway and his mum....
Flying high: Oli and Graham from Squawk
Like so often, I had got caught up, and ended up staying longer at Runaway than I had planned to, so I was late setting off to the Smithfield Tavern. I walked up the steepish road towards the shiny and futuristic Co-op building, walking past new flats and construction sites, with the odd old building bravely hanging on against the tide of development. Ten minutes later, I arrived at The Smithfield, where the Hawkshead team had done one, but had left in their wake a rapidly depleting selection of Lakeland cheeses and some merchandise. I missed out on the cheese, but managed to win a tee-shirt by responding to a competition on Twitter the bar was running. I enjoyed a couple of beers, including a Hawkshead, and sat out in the sun in the pleasant little garden at the back of the bar, before I had to leave for Victoria to catch the train home.

All in all, it was an excellent afternoon, and I am already looking forward to MBW19....

Blackjack Brewery and Tap
Railway bridge and arches 


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