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North West: Still very much a family affair

The North-West of England is still a healthy area for quality beer. Andrew Catchpole picks out the best buys

Howls of protest greeted the closure of Boddington’s historic Strangeways Brewery last year and the later buy-outs of both Jennings and Burtonwood by Wolverhampton and Dudley Breweries further upset aficionados of real ale.

However, this spirited region still boasts a formidable roll call of independent family brewers plus a growing number of excellent microbreweries all dedicated to keeping the craft of brewing caskconditioned beer alive and well.

Boddington’s cask is now being brewed at Hydes that, along with Holts and J.W. Lees, forms one third of the Manchester triumvirate of family-run independents, all with brewing tradition stretching well back into the 1800s.

Burnley’s 200-year-old Thwaites has returned to form with cricketing hero Freddie Flintoff heading its campaign for Lancaster Bomber Ale and Frederic Robinson’s Brewery in Cheshire is also trumpeting its renewed focus on caskconditioned ales. And on Merseyside one of the biggest stories has been the revival of the fabulous Cains brewery in Liverpool by the teetotal Dusanj brothers.

Mild, once the traditional drink of the region, is also experiencing a revival as both larger independents and smaller microbreweries feel the benefits of a Campaign for Real Alebacked campaign to promote the style.

Meanwhile, led by early success stories such as Phoenix, dozens of microbrewers such as Ramsbottom, Pictish, Bazens and Boggarts have sprung up in the last decade or two, often offering a mix of traditional bitters, milds and porters, plus an everchanging selection of small batch seasonal beers, spicing up the offering of the North West’s free trade houses.

Along with the beers, pubs and breweries come the people who make this one of the most hospitable places in the country for a beer-lovers tour.

Bazens

Salford

Another recent addition to the burgeoning micro-brew scene in the North West, Bazens has gained a loyal following for its brews since being set up by husband and wife team Richard and Jude Bazen two years ago.

Regular beers including the golden Pacific Bitter (3.8%) and malty Black Pig Mild are supplemented with seasonal offerings such as Knoll Street Porter (4.2%) and a range of bottle conditioned ales.

Brewing under the banner of ‘traditional beers for modern tastes’, Bazens mainly supplies local houses in the Greater Manchester area. Tours are possible by appointment.

Cains

Liverpool

Brothers Ajmail and Sudarghara Dusanj splashed in the news when, in 2002, they bought this wonderful red brick Victorian landmark in Liverpool’s regenerating suburb of Toxteth. Successful wholesalers by trade, they poured enthusiasm and cash into the brewery, revitalising brews such as Cains Finest Bitter, IPA and Dark and Mild.

These were soon joined by a seasonal roster of beers such as the raisin-infused Fine Raisin Beer (5%) and strong brown ale Dragon Heart (5%). Another hit was Cains Premium British Lager launched in 2005.

Much of Cains trade is via wholesale of canned beers, but the brewery owns 11 pubs with plans to open more. Cask ales now in 450 pubs on Merseyside and further afield. There are future plans to open the brewery for tours but for now the best way to taste Cains Bitter is at the fabulous Philharmonic Pub where John Lennon and Co. once drank.

Joseph Holt

Manchester

When Tesco listed Holt’s citrus-andfruit edged Humdinger (3.5%) in 2004 few casual drinkers had heard of this fourth-generation family-owned brewer. One of the reasons is that Holt’s main brews – the dark and bitter Mild Ale (3.2%) and fullish flavoured Bitter (4%) – are best known as good value beers (read low-priced) in its 130-odd pubs and other free houses in the Greater Manchester area.

However, capacity has been expanded, not least to accommodate a growing range of seasonal brews with names like Nuts & Holts (4.1%), Nearly Holt Upright (4.4%) and Thunder Holt (4.5%), and, along with the growing bottled range, the company has been gradually been expanding its reach across the North East and beyond.

Worth looking out for are the bottled beers including Humdinger (4.1%), Touchwood (4.5%), Maplemoon (4.8%) and Fifth Sense (5.5%).

Hydes

Manchester

Hydes rather grandly calls itself ‘The Manchester Brewer’ and there is no doubting both the popularity and commercial success of this 142-yearold family-run company.

Originally founded by Alfred and Ralph Hyde in 1863, who had acquired a small brewing concern from their Grandfather Thomas Shaw, the company has continued to thrive under successive Hydes, including Annie Hyde who successfully ran the brewery for a 56-year stretch until 1972.

More recently Hydes has doubled its capacity from 100,000 to 200,000 barrels a year – partially due to the contract to brew cask Boddington’s – and is planning further expansion with a £2million build on adjacent land that will double the size of the brewery. It is also looking to increase its estate of 70 pubs.

Good to its north western roots, Hydes still brews a Light Mild, a Traditional Mild and a dark, maltinfused Dark Mild (all at 3.5%), plus the balanced Traditional Bitter (3.8%) and fruitier, Jekyll’s Gold Premium (4.3%). Well worth trying are the range of seasonal craft ales, including Celebration (4%), Inspiration (4.5%) and Insulation (5%).

Brewery tours at the Hydes Anvil Brewery (book in advance) take place at 7pm, with last orders at the brewery bar at 10pm.

Jennings

Cockermouth, Cumbria

Fears that this once proudly independent Cumbrian brewer would be shut down following Wolverhampton & Dudley’s buy-out last year have so far proved unfounded, though dark mutterings still remain. For now, though, this 178- year-old company still brews in the shadow of the castle in the market town of Cockermouth where it moved in 1878.

And while ales such as the smoothly balanced Cumberland Ale (4%), warming Redbreast (4.5%) and golden bitter Cocker Hoop (4.65) are still at their best in Jennings’ 120 Cumbrian pubs, availability is now increasing across the extensive W&D estates.

Tours of the historic Castle Brewery take place daily.

J.W. Lees

Manchester

Six generations of Lees have been brewing independently for the citizens of north Manchester since 1876, making this brewer something of a local icon.

John Willie Lees, grandson of John the founder of the family dynasty, built the brewhouse on its current site and Christopher Lees-Jones and William Lees-Jones are among the several family members who remain at the helm today.

Lees now counts around 170 pubs in its estate serving a range of beers including the traditionally light GB Mild (3.5%) and full-flavoured Bitter (4%), plus beers with an inspired seasonal flavour including the summer Scorcher (4%) and Plum Pudding (4.8%) for the depths of winter.

Perhaps the most intriguing beer brewed is the Vintage Harvest Ale. It spends time in oak cask previously soaked in either whisky, rum, sherry, calvados or port and at a whopping 11.5% has proved a huge hit in fashionable bars in the United States. These barley wines are available through a handful of specialist shops and Booths.

As for tours, William Lees Jones says that the head brewer and his team like to show people around personally which accounts for the extraordinary three-year waiting list.

Phoenix

Heywood, Greater Manchester

The good news for dedicated followers of Tony Allen’s eagerly quaffed microbrew range is that the characterful Victorian-built Phoenix brewery in which he set up shop in 1992 is soon to open for tours.

Countrywide Phoenix is best known for its rich and malty Wobbly Bob (6%), though it is the lighter, hop-fresh Arizona (4.1%) that pulls in devotees in around 500 free-trade pubs across the North East.

Other highlights among the 14-odd ales are regular brews such as Black Bee Porter (4.5%) and Monkeytown Mild (3.9%), plus seasonals such as Snow Bound (4.3%).

Frederic Robinson’s Brewery

Stockport

One William Robinson bought the Unicorn Inn in Stockport in 1838 and his son, Frederic, began brewing in 1865, creating the foundations for this regional brewer, still family-run by the fifth and sixth generations of Robinson’s.

With an estate of more than 400 pubs in the North West, and beers increasingly available nationally, Robinson’s is firmly established as a major player in the region. While keg beers are brewed, head brewer Chris Hellin insists that “Robinson’s is very much cask beer orientated as a company.”

Consistency is the name of the game, with an original 1920 yeast culture and water drawn from a well beneath the Unicorn Brewery (said to be as deep as the Blackpool tower is high) used to brew a range of beers including the formidably malty, chocolate and spice Old Tom (8.5%) which is a multipleaward winning brew. Unicorn bitter (4.2%) has upbeat citrussy notes, imparted by Goldings whole hops dry hopped in cask, while other highlights include the light and hoppy Hatters (3.3%), fruity Old Stockport (3.5%) and malty-sweet XB (4%).

Sample these and other Robinson’s beers following the free brewery tour, though booking in advance is essential.

Moorhouse’s Brewery

Burnley

This 140-year-old CAMRA favourite has had awards heaped on its cask conditioned ales such as the evocativelynamed Black Cat (3.4%) and Pendle Witches Brew (5.1%) along with seasonal brews such as Santa’s Piste (4.5%) for Christmas and a cracking Halloween spectacular blended from Black Witch, Broomstick Bitter, Witches Cauldron, Witchfinder General and Witchcraft.

Managing director David Grant reports that Moorhouses’ 140th year has been its best yet and work is underway on the installation of a new brew plant boosting capacity from 300 barrels a week to 500 a week.

Moorhouse’s runs group tours by arrangement that round off a brewery walk and talk with a hearty pea and pie supper plus beer tasting across the road at the brewery tap pub.

Thwaites

Blackburn

The growth in popularity of cask ales has convinced the Yerburgh family to approach their 200-year brewing anniversary in 2007 with a welcome re-emphasis on Thwaites traditional cask beers. Good news, this, as Thwaites is by far the largest regional player with almost 450 pubs to its name and wide distribution in grocers, off-licences and the free trade.

With English cricket hero Freddie Flintoff as the face of its advertising campaign, Thwaites satisfyingly rich and fruity Lancaster Bomber (4.4%) is leading the charge, flanked by beers including the bitter-sweet Dark Mild (3.3%) and hoppy Original (3.6%). A range of seasonal beers such as the Spring-time Blooming Ale (3.9%) and Christmas tipple Good Elf (4.9%) complete the picture.

Thwaites may be the oldest brewer in Lancashire, but a visit to its pubs hints at its ability to move with the times. The company took both the Company of the Year Award and Pub Food of the Year Award at the Publican Awards in 2004.

Northeast breweries

Cheshire

Burtonwood
www.thomashardybrewery.co.uk
Selected beer: Burtonwood Bitter (3.7%)

Coach House
www.coach-house-brewing.co.uk
Selected beer: Dick Turpin (4.2%)

Northern
www.norbrew.co.uk
Selected beer: All-niter (3.8&)

Robinson’s
www.frederic-robinson.co.uk
Selected beer: Old Tom (8.5%)

Storm
No Website
Selected beer: Hurricane Hubert (4.5%)

Weetwood
www.weetwoodales.co.uk
Selected beer: Old Dog Bitter (4.5%)

Yates
www.yatesbrewery.co.uk
Selected beer: Best Cellar (5.8%)

Cumbria

Barngates
www.drunkenduckinn.co.uk
Selected beer: Chester’s Strong & Ugly (5.2%)

Beckstones
No Website
Selected beer: Border Steeans (4.1%)

Bitter End
www.bitterend.co.uk
Cuddy Lugs (4.7%)

Coniston
www.conistonbrewery.com
Selected beer: Bluebird Bitter (3.6%)

Dent
www.dentbrewery.co.uk
Selected beer: T’Owd Tup (6%)

Foxfield
www.princeofwalesfoxfield.co.uk
Selected beer: Dark Mild (3.7%)

Great Gable
www.greatgablebrewing.com
Selected beer: Great Gable (3.7%)

Hawks Head
www.hawksheadbrewery.co.uk
Selected beer: Best Bitter (4.2%)

Hesket Newmarket
www.hesketbrewery.co.uk
Doris’s 90th Birthday Ale (4.3%)

Jennings
www.jenningsbrewery.co.uk
Selected beer: Cocker Hoop (4.6%)

Abraham Thompson
No Website
Selected beer: Lickerish Stout (4%)

Tirril
www.tirrilbrewery.co.uk
Selected beer: Academy Ale (4.2%)

Lancashire

Bank Top Brewery
www.banktopbrewery.co.uk
Selected beer: Game, Set & Match (3.8%)

Blackpool
No Website
Selected beer: Golden Smile (3.7%)

Bryson’s
www.brysonsbrews.co.uk
Selected beer: Shifting Sands (3.8%)

Hart
No Website
Selected beer: Dishie Debbie (4%)

Moorhouses
www.moorhouses.co.uk
Selected beer: Pendle Witches Brew (5.1%)

Red Rose
No Website
Selected beer: Felix (4.2%)

Three B’s
www.threebsbrewery.co.uk
Selected beer: Doff Cocker (4.5%)

Thwaites
www.thwaites.co.uk
Selected beer: Lancaster Bomber (4.4%)

Greater Manchester

Bazens
www.bazensbrewery.co.uk
Selected beer: Black Pig Mild (3.6%)

Boggart Hole Clough
www.boggart-brewery.co.uk
Selected beer: Dark Side (4.4%)

Facer’s Brewery
No Website
Selected beer: Landslide (4.9%)

Greenfield Real Ale Brewery
No Website
Selected beer: Tanners Ale (4%)

Holt
www.joseph-holt.com
Selected beer: Bitter (4%)

Hydes
www.hydesbrewery.com
Selected beer: Dark Mild (3.5%)

Lees
www.jwlees.co.uk
Selected beer: GB Mild (3.5%)

Leydon
www.leydonbrewery.com
Selected beer: Raglan Sleeve (4.6%)

Lowes Arms
www.lowesarms.co.uk
Wild Wood (4.1%)

Marble
www.marblebeers.co.uk
Selected beer: Manchester Bitter (4.2%)

Milestone
www.millstonebrewery.co.uk
Selected beer: Three Shires Bitter

Owl
www.owlbrew.co.uk
Selected beer: Night Owl (3.8%)

Paradise
No Website
Selected beer: Farmers Favourite (4%)

Phoenix
No Website
Selected beer: Wobbly Bob (6%)

Pictish
www.pictish-brewing.co.uk
Celtic Warrior (4.2%)

Porter
www.pbcbreweryinstalations.com
Selected beer: Porter (5%)

Ramsbottom
No Website
Selected beer: Tower Bitter (4%)

Saddleworth
No Website
Selected beer: Hop Smacker

Shaws
No Website
Selected beer: IPA (4.8%)

Merseyside

Cains
www.cains.co.uk
Selected beer: Dark Mild (3.2%)

Cambrinus
No Website
Selected beer: Yardstick (4%)

Southport
No Website
Selected beer: Bothy Beer (3.9%)

Wapping
www.wappingbeers.com
Selected beer: Stout (5%)

Specialist Beer Shops

Carringtons
322 Barlow Moor Road
Chorlton
Manchester
Tel: +44 (0)161 881 0099

D'Fine Food & Wine
Swandy Way
Cheshire
Tel: +44 (0)1606 882 101

Legendary Lancashire Heroes
59 College Road
Liverpool
Tel: +44 (0)151 284 1992

Open All Hours
5 St. John Street
Keswick
Cumbria
Tel: +44 (0)176 877 5414

Richardson & Sons
2A Malborough Street
Whitehaven
Cumbria
Tel: +44 (0)1946 653 34