Just two hours from London by train, Manchester gives the British capital a serious run for its money and should be on any beer lover's travel itinerary. It's a great stopping off point for people who want to explore the north of England—the Peak District and the Lake District are close by—and it's a gateway for further travel to Scotland, Ireland, or the rest of Europe. The city itself offers a vibrant mix of traditional beer and modern craft brewing, and is home to the iconic Cloudwater brewery, voted best in all of England on Ratebeer for the last three years running. Only Fuller's has held that honor more times.
Cloudwater Unit 9 Taproom
On a nondescript industrial estate tucked behind Manchester's Piccadilly station, the malty smell of mashing in guides my steps toward Cloudwater's brewery and, next door to that, its Unit 9 taproom. It's just as well the wind is in the right direction, because I need all the help I can get finding it. There is a sign on the door but it's discreet, so you could easily miss it.
The taproom occupies a bright and airy mezzanine looking down over stacks of barrels, some sprouting airlocks like glass and rubber fungi. Long curtains hang from the ceiling enclosing the space, making it feel welcoming. Artwork on the walls recreates the brewery's beer labels. The furniture is basic but comfortable; clean lines and light colors. Among the tables and benches there is a raised platform area on two levels strewn with large cushions. On one side runs a long bar with 20 taps. You will find archetypal craft brews: hazy, hoppy pale ales; the alphabet soup of IPAs and DIPAs, DDH TIPAs, etc.; zingy sours; big impy stouts; and also some excellent lagers (in particular the helles, which is crisp as you like and twice as refreshing).
While there's much more to Manchester than Cloudwater alone, this brewery is hugely important to the city and sums up the increasingly mature craft beer scene that has grown up there: modern, confident, forward-looking, always striving for something new. But why is Manchester so good at beer? Perhaps because it also has strong ties to the past and its brewing heritage. Unlike London, Manchester has managed to keep hold of its traditional family breweries. There are plenty still operating in the city: Joseph Holt, Robinsons Family Brewery, Hydes, and JW Lees, to name a few.
This unbroken line of brewing heritage stretches back to breweries such as West Coast, which was already dabbling with American hops back in the 1980s, and further still into the past. Thus the city's newer breweries have a base to build off but also a challenge to overcome, competition to beat. "The scene is quite full already," says Cloudwater's founder Paul Jones. "People in Manchester are quite cynical and it can take a long time to convince them, for them to like you. But that's been a good thing, it's made us work harder to stand out."
Jones adds, "Manchester has always been a city that's had a lot of choice, so maybe that's why it's such a hotbed." Even looking at just the beers from the family brewers, he points out, the range of beers represented is quite broad.
The Marble Arch
You can't go “oop north” without having a proper pint of beer on cask. It would be like going to Philly and not having a cheesesteak. The north of England doesn't have a monopoly on real ale—there's plenty of that down south—but feelings for it here run deep. They do things slightly differently, too. One small but important signifier of the north of England's distinct beer culture is the sparkler—a tiny gizmo that attaches to the end of a beer tap and froths up the foam with each pour. Sparklers create a rich and creamy head that stays with you all the way to the bottom of the glass, leaving rings of lacing with each sip. For a northerner, any pint served without this simply isn't complete.
To partake of this ritual, get yourself to The Marble Arch Inn. This corner pub run by Marble Beers is a high Victorian delight. It is tiled throughout: floor, walls and barrel-vaulted ceiling, with an art nouveau frieze and mosaic floor. Framed prints from photography's early days and an ornate painted mirror liven up the walls. There are comfortable leather-bound chairs and benches set around dark wooden tables. It's hard to find a pubbier pub than this. The beer fits the bill perfectly. There are nine hand pumps serving real ales on cask, and eight taps, but we're not here for those. Order a pint of Pint, Marble's best-selling pale ale, and revel in a beer that is trad but far from boring. It's subtle, balanced, and soothing with malt and hops in perfect equilibrium.
Jan Rogers, owner and director at Marble Beers, thinks Manchester's people contribute just as much to its beer scene as its breweries. "It’s important that the beer scene is inclusive of all drinkers," she says. "There’s something about Manchester that squashes those that are overly pretentious so the hipster scene is maybe less prevalent than other cities." Drinkers in Manchester are indeed a friendly and approachable bunch. The pride they take in their local beer culture comes across as celebration of what's good, rather than comparisons and competitiveness.
You'll need food to fuel your exploration of Manchester's bountiful beer bonanza. Thankfully there are plenty of great places to enjoy food and beer together. Down by Cloudwater there's Grub, which brings together a collection of street food vendors. Further into town there's Mackie Mayor, an old Victorian warehouse transformed into a bustling indoor food market with beers from Blackjack Brewery. Here you can find a deeply comforting bao that will speak to your soul. Mine whispered sweet nothings about giving up all this beer nonsense and becoming a food writer instead.
But perhaps best of all is Bundobust in the city's bustling Northern Quarter. This friendly, communal place offers a killer craft beer selection alongside Gujarat-inspired Indian street food so good you'll want to taste the entire menu. It's all small dishes, so you can probably have a good go at it if you're hungry enough. Bundobust has 14 taps pouring beers from the likes of Cloudwater, Two Roads, and Brouwerij Alvinne. One permanent feature is Bombay Dazzler, the house beer brewed by Northern Monk. This spiced witbier complements the food perfectly. There are also plenty of options in bottles or cans from the fridges, with about 75 more beers to choose from, including gluten-free and low- or no-alcohol beers if that's what you're after.
Port Street Beer House
The Northern Quarter brims with variety and abundance. Beer bars here are packed in tight, almost on top of one another. There's one in particular that brings this feeling of plenty together under one roof: the Port Street Beer House. Three floors of beer nirvana await you in this Manchester institution. You can find it all here: modern craft, trad brews on cask, authentic German lagers, bottled Belgian brilliance. No wonder it's such a hotspot for beer fans.
The Port Street Beer House has a relaxed and friendly vibe. It's the sort of place where you soon find yourself deep in conversation with strangers, as people are bound together by the beer. It certainly gives people plenty to talk about, as you can see for yourself if you browse the beer list online. The Port Street Beer House promises its customers “craft beers from here, there, everywhere” and it does not disappoint.
In warmer weather drinkers spill out onto the street, with tables placed outside to catch the sun, and also the beer garden to the back of the bar. If it’s colder, there’s plenty of room indoors and it offers a surprisingly cozy, pub-like feel that you might not expect from the building’s exterior.
But wait, there's more
There are so many more places that I haven't had time to mention: Track Brewery, Café Beermoth, Runaway Brewery, Beer Nouveau, Britain's Protection, the Crown and Kettle, Cask, the Pilcrow...
Although Manchester's city center is relatively compact, there's so much on offer that you can never hope to cover it all in a weekend. The selection of places I've shared with you here is just a taster to get you started, but in Manchester you will find a city that's worth returning to time and again to explore in greater depth its astoundingly vigorous beer culture. Hit the north. You'll love it.
Top photo: Port Street Beer House. Photo by Seb Matthes.