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Neil Sowerby’s Weird & Wonderful January Beer Picks

Spoilt for choice at the Festival and why we may all be turning Sour

Written by . Published on January 28th 2015.

Neil Sowerby’s Weird & Wonderful January Beer Picks

I AM under a railway arch in Ardwick. My sleeves are peppered with malt waste. In my hand a glass of Calibration Sour beer with a swirl of Sarsaparilla. Before me the man who encouraged that innovative ‘collaboration’, Mike Marcus (above) of Chorlton Brewing Co, is stirring a bucket of woodruff ‘wort’ until it almost takes on a life of it own. Welcome to cutting edge Manchester brewing 2015.

Later Mike planned to stay up in a sleeping bag to monitor the effects of his latest bacteria infusion. Tweeted as: “Spending the night wrangling souring bacteria – pH meter in hand.”

Beer is an industrious revolution in these parts. First Marble, Blackjack and Runaway microbreweries populated the arches near Victoria; now Piccadilly, Ancoats and beyond are hosting a second wave. Privateer on Temperance Street and Squawk further up were pioneers, and just across the tracks in North Western Street we’ve got Alphabet’s large arched premises and, more bijou, Chorlton, while Track nestles under the Piccadilly mainline in Sheffield Street.

The eagerly-awaited Cloudwater Brewing Co considered an arch base, too, but are breaking the mould by launching later this spring in the Piccadilly Trading Estate. A railway theme persists – it’s the site of the former Ancoats Goods Depot.

Give The Woodruff A WhirlGiving the woodruff a whirl

You could have tasted beers from most of the previous brand new breweries at the mind-blowing Manchester Beer and Cider Festival – apart from Chorlton. The reason? Mike’s keg policy puts him at odds with CAMRA’s strict definition of Real Ale. Still, an initial unveiling of bottled versions of his ‘unfiltered, unpasteurised, unfined’ Dark Matter and Calibration Sour at leading bottle shops such as Beermoth, Epicurean and Corin Bland’s High Peak in Stockport Market (soon to open a new outlet in Shaw Road, Heaton Moor) have created a buzz.

High PeakCorin Bland at High Peak Beers in Stockport Market

Both are Sour Beers, which are very trendy in British craft brewing circles at the moment as a kind of backlash against over-hoppy styles (though were some great examples of these at MBCF). Sour beers, which are intentionally acidic or acetic through the introduction of various bacteria, originated in Belgium and Germany but became marginalised before the current worldwide revival.

Calibration Sour And Dark MatterCalibration Sour and Dark Matter are fascinating brews

Goses, from Leipzig, had passed me by, I must admit. Now these weakish, tart, wheat-based beers are being name-dropped everywhere. Dark Matter is an idiosyncratic ‘Black Imperial’ take on the style, like a complex, salty, flat milk stout at 6.8 per cent alcohol. Future brews are destined for ageing in bourbon barrels. Calibration Sour is more immediately moreish, the tartness refreshingly citrussy thanks to dry-hopping with Amarillo hops – hoppy yet not bitter. Bitterness – and heady spice – was present in a hugely aromatic 7.4 per cent Sandalwood IPA that’s a seasonal work in progress but very promising.

Both Sours have featured on taps at Font Bar, Chorlton, the eponymous brewery’s spiritual if not actual home. Overheads are cheaper in Ardwick/Piccadilly. Mike moved up from London to Chorlton after abandoning  a commercial art career and apprenticing himself to Evin O’Riordain at Kernel, epicentre of craft brewing. The Chorlton Brew Co’s wine style labels mirror Kernel’s similar basic look.

Wacky Ingredients At Chorlton

I got fragrantly malty helping Mike (@ChorltonBrew) and his intern Alexx (@StereoSurrealis) shovel out used malt, destined for cattle feed, after a brew (main image). We then sampled the beers alongside earthy myrrh and opoponax gums from Somalia, which he might experiment with as a flavouring in future ales as well as the woodruff herb (traditionally used as a syrupy shot to flavour Berliner Weisse sour beers). Wild yeasts and foraged plants are also envisaged. The Sarsaparilla addition was on a sudden whim while I was there.

Later Mike planned to stay up in a sleeping bag to monitor the effects of his latest bacteria infusion. Tweeted as: 'Spending the night wrangling souring bacteria – pH meter in hand.' Boddington’s this isn’t!

On the surface Alphabet is more mainstream as craft microbreweries go. It is the project of Joe Fearnhead, who owns Northern Quarter bars Kosmonaut and the imminent Ply, which will feature a bespoke pizza oven brought over from Naples. Whether A to the K Oatmeal Stout (5.8 per cent) or the stronger, coffeeish ‘ breakfast stout’, Crate Digger, showcased at the Festival will be match for a Margherita I can’t guess.

Tom And Joe From Alphabet BrewingTom and Joe from Alphabet, which has plenty of room for expansion, below

Alphabet Has Room To Expand

Hammo Designed The LabellingEvidence of ambition was the hiring as head brewer of Tom Evans, formerly of Ossett and Hand Drawn Monkey in Yorkshire – amazingly he was the only UK applicant. Tom is a confirmed hop lover and IPA advocate, but his other MBCF entry, Space Invader, a pink grapefruit, pink peppercorn and tarragon Saison, demonstrates he can work with a wide flavour palette. The brewery name? Originally the plan was to work their way through the alphabet in naming their brews. That’s now scrapped but you won’t miss them when they are more widely available. Manchester-based Hammo (Nick Hamilton) has created some stunning labels.

Track is the brainchild of the much-travelled Sam Dyson, once of Camden Brewing. His Ozark Pale Ale is a 4.4 per cent grapefruity session beer with more substance than its pale colour suggests.

Ozark By TrackOzark on the pumps

At the Beer and Cider Festival in the Velodrome Manchester City Council leader Richard Leese announced the Champion Beer of the North West 2015 winners. Gold went to a beer from Chester, Pied Bull Black Bull Porter, silver to Hawkshead Cumbrian Five Hop and bronze to RedWillow Smokeless from Macclesfield.

Hawkshead collaborated with our own Marble Brewery to provide a Festival Special called Beer Matts – effectively a hybrid of that same Five Hop and Marble’s equally gorgeous Lagonda IPA. For hop freaks that means a collection of Centennial, Simcoe, Citra, Bramling Cross and loads of Amarillo.

McRI thought it was absolutely gorgeous and am hoping it gets a wider distribution – like First Chop’s MCR, a tribute to the classic Manchester bitter (with an extra ballast of hops) brewed in conjunction with CAMRA. I actually drank it in Yorkshire the day before the Festival and found it a beautifully balanced session beer at just 3.8 per cent. A far cry from the first beer I purchased at the Velodrome – Big Wheat (Black Lime and Tamarind), Hand Drawn Monkey’s collaboration with Peterborough’s Bexar County Brewery. At 8.2 per cent it was a dense, complex, sensory overload that was ultimately tiring.

All of which goes to prove that sometimes simpler can be best. Another pint of MCR please.


I am a huge fan of Blackjack brewer Rob Hamilton’s Saison-style beers. I remember with affection a Rhubarb Saison I tasted on draught at Port Street and whenever I find it I make a beeline for his delicate Small Saison. Now my new fave is his Dragon’s Tears Jasmine Saison, which follows a nose of bergamot, ginger and orange rind with a crisp, citrussy, grassy rush on the palate that is utterly refreshing for the style.


Fred's Ale House, Coffee Bar and Art Gallery at 843 Stockport Road is a welcome addition to the increasingly lively Levenshulme scene. This latest venture from the Hennigan family is based in what was a UCP tripe shop (below) in the 1930s. During refurbishment builders uncovered the original Art Nouveau tiles, which now form part of the entrance of this three-storey bar, which boasts its own art gallery, coffee lounge, first floor sun terrace balcony and beer garden. Expect regularly changing exhibitions and cask ales. Opening party is on Friday, January 30.

Freds Ale House As Ucp Shop

Beer Festival With BikesBeer Festival with bikes; below, plenty of beers on offer

What A Line-Up 

Follow Neil Sowerby on Twitter @AntonEgoManc

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