Returning to the Isle of Man is always good for me. It reminds me of my plooky youth, when as an 18 year old I came with my mates to drink beer (it was here I first encountered Watney's Red and Worthington E) and chase women, who unlike their Scottish counterparts, weren't wearing three of four layers of clothing, topped by an Arran jumper. This was back in the day when Douglas was as busy as Blackpool - well on a similar scale anyway - and when boats full came in daily from Ardrossan, Workington, Belfast, Dublin, Liverpool and elsewhere. Happy days.
One thing has changed. There is now little by way of wandering totty, visitors are fewer, there is a preponderance of Liverpudlians and Northern Irish bar staff (and residents) and far fewer pubs. (You see I can drag myself back to beer from my lusty reminiscences.) Such was my praise for the place after the CAMRA AGM, that my pub friends wanted to go. I did warn them it is a deeply unpleasant place when pissing wet, as it often is, but they insisted. Well we struck lucky. Sunshine from start to finish and a chance to explore the island and its pubs. We had a good time.
The Old Dog Inn was our favourite way back then, but it is long gone. The island is dominated by Okell's, owned by the ubiquitous local company of Heron and Brierly, who also have a stranglehold on pub ownership. (Bushy's is the other local brewery). Now I am generally against monopolies, but I have a sneaking admiration for H&B, who are up against it in many ways. With a resident population of only 80,000 and visitors dropping down to around the 350,000 mark, they have clearly closed a lot of pubs in an attempt to make things viable, but they did build a spanking new German equipped brewery for Okells which I toured a few years ago. I can certainly confirm it is a smasher and H&B's commitment to the IoM seemingly isn't in doubt.
In fact, even in Douglas, pubs aren't thick on the ground. You'd kind of imagine then wouldn't you that those that remain are wonderful examples of the genre? Sadly they are not. They mostly range between unspoiled dockside boozers which I love, but which most people won't set foot in, to relics from the 70's and 80's with largely indifferent beer and with vastly overpriced and doubtful food. Many appear attractive on the outside but with poor, brown, sticky interiors and a very unwelcoming atmosphere. H&B could do with having a think about how to overcome this. Maybe they need a Wetherspoons to take all the good for nothings into one central location? Hush my mouth.
But there are a few gems. I have always liked the Mines Tavern in Laxey with its simple bar and neat beer garden and views of the comings and goings of the Manx Electric Railway and good beer from Okells and Bushy's. After a trip to the top of Snaefell, it was a must visit. Sadly it is now owned by Okells and the beer range is restricted, but the beer was good. Unfortunately though, the food was ridiculously overpriced and poor. Another decent pub, this time in Douglas is the Queen's Hotel. Okell's again with guests from Across (as the Manx put it) and very good food, which though expensive is home cooked and generous.
Out in Port Erin, a pretty train ride away on the steam train, was the Falcon's Nest, full of genuine Manxmen rather than Scousers, Scots and Irish and with spectacular views over the cliffs and harbour. Bushy's Beer and guests from Across made a welcome change there. Bushy's Pure Manx Gold was the pick of the bunch, with biscuity malt and piquant First Gold hops. Castletown Brewery is long closed, but the town itself is extremely attractive with its enclosed harbour and ruined castle. The famous pub here is the Sidings, right by the Steam Railway station and with excellent beer, both from Bushy's and from Across and its own Bushy's brewed version of the long gone Castletown Bitter. It is a nice, neat pub with a sheltered beer garden and possibly the best beer on the island. Best beer on the island? Well maybe not. A close challenger is the Rovers Return in Douglas. A sort of bikers pub, with an eclectic mix of customers and excellent Bushy's beers plus guests. Oddly far more welcoming than most pubs. Here we watched England's demise in the world cup, and drank Bushy's Pure Gold. Lovely. Apart from the result that is.
A last comment about the pubs. You certainly aren't welcomed with open arms. Quiet reserve from the native Manx and mumbling indifference from most of the imported staff is the norm, but once you get out of Douglas, there is something for everyone on this lovely island. I doubt if the beer will disappoint too much, though Okells is firmly in the Family Brewer's malty camp, but be sure to take lots of money! In good weather, picnic stuff from M & S is, sadly, a better bet than food in most pubs.
Top tip: Spend the extra few quid and stay in the Hilton. The breakfast will obviate the need for poor lunches elsewhere.
A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, local CAMRA Chairman and activist, beer writer, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer. He lives in the North West of England and London. Despite his CAMRA membership, he does not limit himself to cask conditioned beer, though he believes that cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation. He is a strong supporter of Northern methods of beer dispense and avidly detests poorly presented beer and dislikes pasteurisation. He regularly visits Germany, has conducted corporate British and German beer tastings for CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival where he has worked for years on Biere Sans Frontieres and was Deputy Organiser at CAMRA's very successful National Winter Ales Festival in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink.
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