I went out on Good Friday with a group of friends, reviving an event that has been a regular happening over the past couple of decades or more whereby we travel to a northern city and visit some of its finest drinking establishments. After a covid-induced hiatus, our first trip since 2019 took us to Manchester....
There had been a growing sense of anticipation. Ever since the trappings of Covid started to fade away, conversation started to turn to where to go on Good Friday, and pretty soon Manchester became the location of choice. It had also been where we had been last time around, and has certainly been a regular port of call on the trips I have made, but Leeds and Wakefield have also featured in recent years. The original trips took place before I moved to Brighouse, with the participants featuring a cohort of regulars from the Red Rooster in nearby Brookfoot, but there have always been a number who came from other parts of West Yorkshire with the intention of sampling some of the best real ale to be found in some of the best pubs. The trips became the stuff of legend, and on one occasion an incredible 43 people turned up! This year the number was a more modest 18, but it was still more than I could remember on the ones I have been on. The ages this time ranged from 17 to 70, reflecting a strong family influence with a number of parents and their offspring within the group.
The Brighouse contingent met for breakfast at the Station Cafe, before heading around the corner to catch the 10.50 to Manchester. It was a bright sunny morning, and the good weather followed us over to the other side of the Pennines. After a few delays due to missed tram connections and the odd wrong turn, we arrived at Escape to Freight Island, the huge entertainment and leisure space created from the former Mayfield railway freight depot, on the Fairfield Road side of Piccadilly Station. With a large area of covered seating in a garden area outside, the inside features a number of restaurants and bars including the tap for Salford-based Pomona Island Brewery, which is where we made for. The bar itself was quiet, with just a couple of guys enjoying a beer at the bar. No cask was on offer, so I opted for a 4.2% Factotum, an always-reliable choice which made for a solid enough start to the day. Not sure if I would like to visit Escape to Freight Island when it was busy, though.
The plan was to call at a number of brewery taprooms, but the first, Alphabet, situated in a railway arch a few minutes walk away and which I had visited before, was closed. Next up was Track who, along with Cloudwater, have moved out of the railway arches of Sheffield Street to a brand new shiny brewery. Not being aware of this and lagging behind the rest of the party, a couple of us mistakenly headed to where Track had been based on my previous visit. Sure enough it was open, but closer inspection revealed it was in fact selling soft furnishings and the like! With not a NEIPA or West Coast Pale in sight, I resorted to Google Maps to take us to the correct location. Situated just over 5 minutes walk away on the Piccadilly Trading Estate in the midst of Toolstation, Screwfix, and the like, the Track Brewery Taproom is an impressive place. You enter into a large area with a bar on the right. Long tables and bench seats to the left. Large potted plants were dotted around the room, with stylish artwork and prints hung on the walls. Opposite the bar, a guy was making pizzas in an open kitchen. Beyond are the gleaming tanks of the brewery. It is very light and airy, with a chilled atmosphere, the perfect antidote to the feverish urgency I sensed at our previous stop. The beers were listed on a board behind the bar, from which the majority of us opted for pints of cask Sonoma, which was absolutely spot on (no scores today folks as I had no notebook with me!). Track moved here from their railway arch in Autumn 2021, and have created an excellent taproom here, definitely one of the best I have visited.
The excellent Track Taproom
It was more or less across the road to the Cloudwater Taproom, which reminded me slightly of business offices I have visited during my working life as we walked up the stairs to the bar. It was a smaller affair than the one across the road, but nonetheless, it was quite a pleasant spot made more interesting by the view afforded of the wooden barrels stored below. There was a wide variety of beers from mainly Cloudwater listed on a large screen on the wall opposite the bar, from which I went for Betty In Your Heart, a 4.4% pale on cask which was pretty good. Most of the tables were occupied, so the majority of us stood in one corner, although one or two took advantage of some large bean bags situated on a stage in front of the display screen. Another good taproom, probably a little more low-key and chilled than I had expected.
Barrels galore at Cloudwater
It was then back through the back streets towards the city centre. On the way we passed the sadly now-closed Jolly Angler which I had last visited with another group of friends a few years ago. Once back in the fringes of the Northern Quarter we called in first Northern Monk and then Beatnikz Republic, two popular modern bars, both selling a range of their own beers on cask and keg. At Northern Monk, where the sign in the opening picture is displayed, I sampled a rather nice traditional bitter on cask the name which I think was called Don't Mess With Yorkshire Bitter, whilst at Beatnikz we commented on the fact that for at least the third time that day we had been served our beer in a traditional barrel glass with handle, suggesting that they may be back in fashion. It was certainly the first time I'd drunk their excellent flagship pale Beach Bum in such a vessel!
Maybe fashionable again?
We moved on this time to a more traditional-looking pub, although it has in fact only been open around 11 years, having been a shop in its previous incarnation. The place in question was the Port Street Beer House, situated on, not surprisingly, Port Street. It has a range of 7 beers on cask and several available on tap, but I cannot for the life of me remember what I had, but I seem to recall it was pretty good. That's what can happen when you are having a great day out with friends! The pub is spread over two floors, but we decided to go and sit outside in the small area at the back, where we managed to fill up the remaining seats. There was a large umbrella which seemed to cover most of the outside area, the opening and shutting of which seemed to provide some entertainment for one or two of our group! The atmosphere was pretty convivial and relaxed, which hasn't always been the case here, particularly in the early days when I thought it seemed to take itself a little too seriously. One of the best places we called in all day.
Good vibes and good beer at Port Street Beer House
We were on the homeward straight now, as we made our way to the Crown and Kettle, a prominent pub at the junction of Oldham Road and Great Ancoats Street. Despite its many awards and accolades, it doesn't feature in the current edition of the Good Beer Guide, but to be fair to the local CAMRA guys, there is simply so much competition in Manchester. The pub was busy when we walked in with our passage to the bar blocked by a group of carrots. It turned out they were a group of lads from Bristol who were here for a stag do in the city. It is only a few years that I was here doing the same thing here with my brother, although I can assure you our group were not dressed as carrots! The pub has been lovingly restored over a number of years and it rambles over a number of room, with a large central bar. The beer choice here always leans towards the eclectic, and when I got sight of the beers on offer I spotted a Cinder Toffee Stout from one of my favourite breweries, the somewhat underrated New Bristol, the only dark beer I had all day. It was delicious, described on the brewery's website as "liquidised Crunchie bars in a stout." And I can't argue with that! Another of the day's highlights.
Our party taking over a corner of the Crown and Kettle, with a stray carrot at the bar
From there, we moved on to the Smithfield Tavern, a few minutes walk away on Swan Street, always a reliable place to stop off for a pint or two. Here I opted for a Blackjack Session IPA, and enjoyed it sat having a natter whilst some of our number took over the dartboard, from where a loud cheer would emanate every few minutes as a dart hit the right number or bounced off the board and hit the floor. It was quieter here than some of the places we had visited earlier, but it good to have a few minutes to chill as our day in Manchester drew towards a close.
The Smithfield Tavern, Swan Street, Manchester
We had time for one more place before our train, and swerving Mackie Mayor with its own Blackjack bar, we moved on to the recently re-named Pilcrow situated in an attractive square in the midst of the many Cooperative buildings that occupy the area of the city between Victoria Station and Rochdale Road. The pub is now called Sadler's Cat and is owned and run by Cloudwater. It was the first time I had been in since the name change, but apart from a new sign, it seemed very much as I remembered it being. The atmosphere was pretty chilled and most of us went outside to enjoy the early evening sun. Once again, I couldn't remember the beer we had, but I suppose it had been a pretty packed day with a lot to take in....
We finished our drinks, and made our way the short distance to Victoria Station, where some of our paths parted. It had been a most enjoyable day with friends, a proper catch up after a long time, with plenty of laughs, conversation, and decent beer, and plenty of walking too! So busy that we hadn't even managed a visit to the Marble Arch. Most of us were on the train back to Brighouse. Where it had all begun several years ago....
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