Tastings School - Treasures of the north west

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Treasures of the north west

In this issue Dominic Roskrow looks at the family brewers of Manchester as well as Lancashire, Cheshire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside

The folk of Manchester understand better than most that if something isn’t broken, you don’t fix it. And being a pretty down to earth bunch they don’t do fancy for fancy’s sake. On the contrary: Manchester does gritty, grainy and genuine better than anyone else.

And so it is when it comes to beer.

For Manchester has a selection of ales which it holds close to its collective heart. There are, of course, family brewers across the United Kingdom, but Manchester has a concentration of them without comparison elsewhere.

Their names are etched on the old factory walls of the city, and they are part of its industrial heritage and history. Beyond the city boundaries, however, they remain an enigma. And to be frank about it, that’s pretty much the way they like it.

A few years ago a colleague editing a trade magazine thought that one of the Manchester family brewers would make a good feature, so he phoned them and left messages but without joy.

He tried several times and finally he spoke to someone, who dismissed his offer out of hand.

Why would we be interested in talking to you when we have a tied pub estate within a dray’s delivery of the brewery, through which we sell every drop of beer we can physically produce? What benefit could there be?

The people who know and drink our beer don’t need to read about it. And anyone reading about it and wanting to taste it would have to come to Manchester and buy it in one of our pubs, effectively depriving one of our regulars of his drink.

My colleague was affronted, but I have always had a sneaking admiration for that attitude. The logic is faultless, the delivery undoubtedly bloody-minded, and the message un-reconstituted, quaint and decidedly Mancunian.

You might interpret it as oldfashioned, but too often these days the term is used only as a negative and it shouldn’t be. If it ain’t broke, there’s no need to fix it, and there’s something genuinely endearing about a company making mild or bitter the same way as it always has and selling it to a loyal customer base in the same way as it has done for generations.

And it’s not to say that any of them aren’t adverse to a good idea or to adopting strategies that will keep them relevant and thriving in to the future.

Old-fashioned in the best possible sense of the word yes, backward, not at all.

That’s why they remain successful.

Oh Boddingtons might well have made the claim that it was the cream of Manchester, but the quartet outlined below are the city’s bread and butter.

So at the risk of incurring the wrath of at least one of them by drawing them to the attention of beer drinkers across the world, please meet Manchester’s finest…

Next year JW Lees will be celebrating the 180th anniversary of the decision by retired cotton manufacturer John Lees to buy some land and to build a brewery.

This was a time when Manchester was at the centre of the industrial world, and workers’ thirsts were large.

Since then there have been six generations of Lees, and the company has gone from strength to strength and today is not only a supplier of fine beer but also of wine through its company Willoughbys, now more than 150 years old itself.

The JW draught beer range includes Bitter (4% ABV), GB Cask Mild (3.5%) and three smooth beers. It also produces a lager called Golden Original (4%), a summer golden beer called Scorcher (4.2%), and a strong beer named Moonraker, and named after a local legend in which some farm workers mistook the reflection of the moon in a lake for Lancashire cheese, and fell in when trying to rake it out.

“We think of ourselves as oldfashioned and cutting edge,” says the company, and it points to its traditional beers and progressive-thinking pubs to prove it.

Robinsons is another Manchester family brewer with something to celebrate next year, when it will celebrate 170 years of brewing.

The Unicorn Brewery in Manchester takes its name from the old Unicorn Inn which stood on the site and was bought by William Robinson in September of that year.

His son Frederic joined the company in 1865 and from then on the company began expanding. By the time of Frederic’s death in 1890 the brewery had 12 public houses.

A new building was opened in 1908 followed by new offices in 1913 and a new brew house in 1929.

Since then the company has continued to grow and adapt, opening a bottling plant in the 70s. Like JW Lees, Robinsons has its sixth generation of family members, and there are currently six direct relatives of the founder employed there.

It now has more than 400 pubs stretching north in to Cumbria, west to Wales and south to Staffordshire and Derbyshire. Its beer range includes Hatters Original Mild (3%), Double Hop Bitter (5%), Old Tom Strong Bitter (8.5%), Unicorn (3%), Old Stockport (3.5%) and two smooth beers including a dark one.

The brewery also brews Hartley’s and Wards.

Joseph Holt’s Derby Brewery was established in 1849 and has remained in the family for four successive generations.

Joseph was born in 1813 and was the son of a weaver. As the city expanded so Joseph was drawn to it, and he started work as a carter at Harrison’s Strangeways Brewery.

In 1849 he married Catherine Parry, a Welsh governess and together they bought a small brewery behind a pub. They moved to a bigger brewery six years later and started building up a pub estate. And in 1860 they moved to the current site, where they had built a new brewery.

By the time he handed over the business to his son Edward in 1882 he had established a chain of 20 houses. Since then the business has remained in the family and the current chief executive is the great grandson of the founder.

The company says it is unashamedly old-fashioned but is not backwards looking. It has continued to expand and to reinvest in the brewery. It serves more than 125 pubs, most of which it owns and all lie within 25 miles of the brewery.

The brewery keeps it simple when it comes to its beers, marketing only a mild and bitter on draught.

“And we have never changed our most successful formula,” says the brewery. “And that’s a quality pint at an inexpensive price.”


Hyde’s has not only managed to remain a family business but it has expanded to become one of the top 10 regional brewers in Britain. It puts its success down to a ‘fastidious commitment to quality in every aspect of the business – the quality of the people we employ, the quality of the beers we brew, the quality of the pubs we run and the service we provide to our customers.” The business was started by Alfred and Ralph Hyde in 1863, and over the coming generations it has been run by various family members. Its expansion as a business means that it has relocated on several occasions. Hyde’s settled at its current Queen’s Brewery location in 1899, and under the leadership of William Hyde it started acquiring a pub estate.

Although the current site is more than 100 years old, Hyde’s has continued to invest in the modern equipment and has diversified its business. It now has 80 tied houses in the North West of England and North Wales, and includes restaurants and café bars in its estate.

Its range of beers includes Original Bitter (3.8% ABV), Jekylls’ Gold (4.3%), Hyde’s Mild (3.5%), 1863 (3.5%), dark beer Owd Oak (3.5%) and winter ale XXXX (6.8%).

Manchester boasts two other breweries of special note – Marble and Boggart Hole Clough.

Marble is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. It started life making organic beer and such was the demand that it went totally organic soon after. It has the approval of the Soil Association and the Vegetarian Society. It produces four core beers and a number of seasonals, and owns two pubs.

Boggart Hole Clough was set up in 2001 by Mark Dade, former brewer at Marble. It brews seven regulars including Boggart Brew (4.3%) and Dark Side (4.4%), as well as monthly specials. The brewery also allows visitors to design and produce their own beer in a dedicated 2.5 barrel plant.

In case you were wondering (or missed the explanation in our feature on page 22), a boggart is a mischievous, sometimes malicious imp, a hole is his home and a clough is a northern word for a deep wooded ravine.

Another brewery with a long family tradition is Robert Cain & Co in Liverpool, but these days it’s heading off in a whole new family direction altogether.

Now in the hands of brothers Ajmail and Sudarghara Dusanj, who bought it five years ago, it’s now benefiting from a huge investment programme, the development of some fantastic new initiatives, and a bullish approach to brewing that have won it a clutch of major awards.

And in 2008 it is set to enjoy an even higher profile as it becomes the official beer of Liverpool’s celebrations as the European Capital of Culture.

Of particular note is the brewery’s cask lager, which is cold-conditioned for 90 days.

The Breweries

Beartown, Congleton
Choice beer: Bear Ass (4%)

Borough Arms, Crewe
Tel: +44 (0)1270 254 999
Choice beer: Bitter End (3.9%)
Northern Brewery, Sandway, Northwich
Choice beer: Spellbinder (4.1%)

Spitting Feathers, Waverton
www.spitting feathers.org
Choice beer: Old Wavertonian (4.4%)

Station House, Ellesmere Port
Choice beer: Lady of the Stream (3.9%)

Storm, Macclesfield
Tel: +44 (0)1625 431 234
Choice beer: Twister (4%)

WC Brewery, Mickle Trafford
Choice beer: Gypsy’s Kiss (4.1%)

Weetwood, Tarporley
Choice beer: Old Dog Bitter (4.5%)

Woodlands, Wrenbury, Nantwich
Tel: +44 (0) 1270 620 101
Choice beer: Oak Beauty (4.2%)

3 Rivers, Stockport
Choice beer: Pilgrims Progress (4.2%)

All Gates, Wigan
Choice beer: Young Pretender, (3.8%)

Bank Top, Bolton
Choice beer: Bad to the Bone (4%)

Bazens’, Salford
Choice beer: Flatbac (4.2%)

Boggart Hole Clough, Moston
Choice beer: Angel Hill (4.2%)

Greenfield, Saddleworth
Choice beer: Evening Glory (4.2%)

Hornbeam Brewery, Denton
Choice beer: Hornbeam Bitter, 3.8% (ABV)
Hyde’s, Moss Lane West
Choice beer: Original (3.8%)

Hopstar, Darwen, Lancs
hopstar @theblackun.co.uk
Choice beer: Smokey Joe’s Black Beer (4%)

Lancaster Brewery, Lancaster
Choice beer: Duchy 3.9%

Moonstone, Burnley
Choice beer: Tiger’s Eye (3.8%)
Moorhouse’s, Burnley
Choice beer: Pendle Witches Brew (5.1%)

Porter Brewery Co, Haslingden
Choice beer: Rossendale Ale (4.2%)

Red Rose, Great Harwood, Lancs
Choice beer: Old Ben (4.3%)

Thwaites – see feature on page 16
Choice beer: Double Century (4.8%)

Three B’s, Blackburn
Choice beer: Doff Cocker (4.5%)

Betwixt, Sandiway
Choice beer: Sunlight (4.3%)

Brimstage, Wirral
Tel: +44 (0)151 342 1181
Choice beer: Rhode Island Red (4%)

Cambrinus Craft Brewery, Warringto
Tel: +44 (0)151 546 2226
Choice beer: Deliverance (4.2%)

Canavans, Aintree, Liverpool
Choice beer: Dublin to Liverpool (4.5%)

George Wright, Rainford
Choice beer: Kings Shillin’ (4.5%)

Higson’s, Liverpool
Choice beer: Higson’s Bitter, 4.1%

Robert Cain & Co, Liverpool
Choice beer: Dark Mild, (3.2%)

Southport Brewery, Southport
Tel: +44 (0)7748 387 65
Choice beer: Bothy Beer (3.9%)

Wapping Beers, Liverpool
Tel: +44 (0)151 709 3116
Choice beer: Baltic Gold, (3.9%)