A brand new bar, a familiar bar under new ownership, and a classic city centre local make up the list of places visited as I once again venture across the Pennines....
I was on the train. The journey was nearly over. Familiar buildings glided into view. The outline of the Marble Arch stood beyond the old tobacco warehouses. I smiled to myself, giddy with excitement that I was going somewhere different after all these months. We reached Victoria, I stood up, and lurched towards the doors as the train slowed to a bumpy halt.
I had a couple of targets on this return to Manchester, only my second visit in well over 12 months. The previous day Cragg Vale-based Vocation Brewery had opened a dedicated bar in the city, whilst a few months ago Aberdeen brewers Fierce had taken over the premises formerly occupied by Marble Brewery at 57 Thomas Street in the Northern Quarter. Two brewery-led bars bringing even more choice to the one of the country's best drinking cities. It was a promising line-up for the day, with the opportunity to visit some of my old favourites as well if time permitted.
The rain was coming down, Manchester rolling out a traditional welcome to eager returnees like myself, the city streets paved with hope, the regular toot and roll of the yellow trams a welcome backdrop. I walked over to St Peter's Square, and then on towards Bridgwater Hall, found Barbirolli Square across the road from the Manchester Central events venue and the Midland, but where was Vocation?
Down some steps which led to a large pool with a fountain amid a tree-lined square was a glass-fronted building displaying 'Society' on a yellow neon-look sign. And it was in there, amongst a non-street setting for a host of independent street food vendors.
|The home of Vocation Manchester|
Vocation is the first thing you see once you have cleared the now-standard post-Covid welcome formalities, a long gleaming bar boasting 4 hand pumps with an array of over 30 further beers served from taps along the back wall. The beers are listed on mini-blackboard signs above and I have to admit it was a real kid-in-a-sweet-shop selection. Amongst a healthy number of Vocation's own rather excellent beers were some superb guests from some of the best brewers around. Discipline, Christopher! So with limited time and at least one more place to visit, I allowed myself 3 beers.
I decided I would go for beers from the back wall, despite Vocation's Heart and Soul, currently in the form of its life, being one of the options on hand pump. I plumped for their Hop, Skip, and Juice, a hazy 5.7% pale ale featuring Simcoe and Citra hops which provide lots of tropical fruitiness and a slightly bitter finish. I followed with two of my absolute favourites, also from the taps, Factotum from the always-reliable Pomona Island from nearby Salford Quays and Steady Rollin' Man from Gloucestershire brewers Deya. Three fantastic beers to start the day.
What about the venue you ask? Well it is in a modern canteen style with the food venues down to the left as you go in and your neighbour on the bench is just as likely to be devouring a Neapolitan pizza or a char sui pulled pork bun as a third of a pint of DIPA. It was certainly informal and relaxed when I visited and the friendly staff could not have been more helpful. The soundtrack was pretty decent and the plan is to get DJ's in from time to time to add to the vibe. The one slight beef I had though was that you have to order via an app and it was a bit of a faff as I had to keep starting again. Experience has taught me that concrete and exposed ducting are not a friend of wi-fi so I don't know if that was part of the problem. But that aside, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit, the beer choice was excellent, and I look forward to visiting again.
|The view outside Society, home of Vocation Manchester|
Next on the list was a return to 57 Thomas Street in the Northern Quarter. For several years this was run by Marble Brewery, but since the autumn it has been in the hands of Fierce Beer. Despite running bars in their home city of Aberdeen and in Edinburgh, this first venture in England was something of a surprise when the news was announced and having enjoyed their beers on the rare occasions I had encountered them, I had wanted to visit for some time but not had the chance. Visits by a number of friends had also whetted my appetite.
With the rain lashing down, I decided to catch the tram from St Peter's Square to Piccadilly Gardens from where I dodged the showers as best I could in the few minutes' walk to Thomas Street. I spotted the familiar building, now displaying the distinctive evil-looking hop cone logo of Fierce Beer. There was plenty of covered seating in front of the bar and neighbouring enterprises but very few seats were occupied on this grim afternoon. I headed inside, the bar was pretty empty, and took a seat facing the bar. Layout-wise, it was still very much like it was in the Marble days.
|Welcome to Fierce Manchester....|
Unlike Vocation, the Fierce Bar is a keg-only affair, and the beers were listed on a menu on the table as well as being displayed on a screen behind the bar. I ordered a pint of Late Shift, a 5.6% hazy New England style pale ale with tropical and citrus flavours courtesy of the Azacca and Citra hops. Very nice, although I preferred the half of the 5% Hazy IPA which followed, another hazy number featuring Chinook, Mosaic, Citra, and Amarillo hops, and which was very well-rounded in flavour.
The guys behind the bar were friendly and when a friend messaged me in response to the post I had put out on twitter about being there saying he and his wife were thinking of calling in that evening, they happily advised about availability of tables and booking in, which I duly relayed back. Whilst the bar was quiet when I was there, they had plenty of bookings for the evening, and I think that would be the best time to really assess the place. I look forward to visiting again when I have more time, but it was an enjoyable first visit.
|Glass porn at Fierce|
|The bar at Fierce Manchester|
I headed over to Swan Street, looking forward to a quick pint at the Smithfield before the train. However, when I got there the door was locked. I checked my watch, I had forgotten that it doesn't open until 3, and I didn't fancy waiting 10 minutes in the rain. So I wandered over to Shudehill and called in the very traditional Hare and Hounds. In contrast to Fierce, it was heaving, but I managed to get a seat in the room beyond the bar where I was shown to a table occupied by an elderly Irishman, who chatted away very amicably between slurps of Guinness, although I could only really nod politely as I couldn't tell a word he was saying. A pint of Holts bitter was brought to me, at £2.90 easily the cheapest beer of the day after an hour or two on the kegs. It was spot on, a much milder version of the beer that was that bitter when I first came to Manchester in the mid-70's that it would make a grown man cry.
|Classic city centre pub: The Hare and Hounds, Shudehill, Manchester|
The Hare and Hounds is one of those timeless city centre pubs that provide an escape from the bustle of the world beyond, and is about as far away from a modern bar like Vocation as you could get. But for atmosphere and decent beer it can't be faulted and with an eclectic mix of drinkers it is a real microcosm of the city beyond its doors.
A city I had been glad to re-visit after many months. Even with the rain....
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