South Manchester, the domain of Clarkey* and his pals, is a bit of an unknown quantity to me. I don't often go there and don't really know it that well, but visit I did on Saturday afternoon. My destination? Chorlton - or Chorlton-Cum-Hardy to give it its full moniker, is the Notting Hill of South Manchester and an area I lived in very briefly, for about three months, more than twenty years ago. Then it was leafy, posh and had one or two decent pubs. Now it is leafy, posher and has loads of new bars, yes, bars to have a go at. None were there when I padded these streets and nor were the Worker's Hand Knitted Yoghurt Co-operatives, Organic Delis and such like which the "yummy mummies" need to make their existence complete. Still they all added colour and variety. Chorlton had changed and to my mind, had changed for the better.
I went with my oldest mate Mike, who was armed with the splendid crawl which appeared in the summer edition of "Beer". Now Mike is of the ilk that when he has a pub crawl in his sticky mitt, deems it essential to follow it to the letter. Thus we started at the only bit of Chorlton I recognised and that's only because the supermarket and railway are still in the same spot. The supermarket then was Safeway, but now is Morrisons. I know we lived near there, but buggered if I know where.
There is much talk about whether bars can replace pubs, or complement them, or just be there for those that want something a bit more modern, trendy, cosmopolitan and different. Chorlton provides at least a circumstantial case, that done well, bars are a great alternative to pubs - sometimes at least. Now it has to be said that on a lovely sunny Saturday afternoon, with a decent pint in your hand, a place outside on the pavement and the prospect of one of the finest and most compact pub crawls around, it would have taken a dedicated curmudgeon not to enjoy it. This is of course the limiting factor. Outside, pavement drinking and watching the world go by makes these place. Inside they all tended towards the gloomy, constructed as they they all were out of former shops. While gloom may have suited the butcher, baker and candlestick maker of yore and may well suit the trendy young things at night, it would have been a bit of a melancholy experience to be inside in the peeing rain. Still, it wasn't raining and they shone brightly like the sun.
Two things struck me. The cheerfulness and friendliness of the staff, who all seemed genuinely happy to be there and the very high standards of the "offer" generally. Posh food was available in all it seemed. There was a plethora of interesting imported beers in both bottle and on draught and all offered cask ale. Most in fact offered very good cask ale, carefully chosen and in top form. All were amazingly clumped together, as if the bar fairy had carelessly dropped them all from his sack. A lot were next door to each other, which gave an opportunity to compare and contrast and to try and divine why one was chosen by customers over another.
Now here's the thing. While all were enjoyable (bar one) they were all pretty samey and herein lies a possible catch. Pubs, apart from JDW that is, are all different. Bars are superficially at least, much the same. I think then that the "offer" is the distinguishing feature and they fight for custom on that basis. That is a good thing. I have severe doubts if I'd have found them quite so attractive and enjoyable at night with packed, dark interiors and their outside drinking areas dominated by smokers rather than people watchers, but for a different and very pleasant afternoon crawl, it was enjoyable and refreshing.
So what were the highlights? I have to say all were good. The standouts for me were the first stop which was Oddest (there is an Odd and an Odder in Manchester) with stumblingly charming service and superb Mallinson's beer and the two Marble outlets, which frankly, on this showing, served better quality beer than the main brewpub itself. We had one pint that perhaps wasn't at its best, (in Pi I think) though Mike was mollified by a delicious (so he said) asparagus and mushroom pie - yes Pi sells pies! Oh and the title of this piece? One bar, again I can't remember which, had no customers at all. We checked it out. Only Pedigree and Hobgoblin and run of the mill lagers here. Maybe that's why? All the other bars had carefully chosen local ales and a selection of imports. The difference showed. To paraphrase Mr Clinton, "It's the offer stoopid".
I think my conclusion is that when bars are done well, when the circumstances are right and when you can drink outside, bars can be every bit as attractive as pubs. But pub or bar, it is all about the offer.
Despite Mike's best efforts, we missed out quite a few on the crawl, but we'll be back to finish them off. On a sunny Saturday of course.
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 and at the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival from 2013 to date. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink.
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