Manchester UK – All the Cask Ales

I couldn’t possibly define the most authentic English city for beer anymore than an Englishman traveling through the United States could define the most authentic city for beer. In my visits to England, I have only enjoyed drinking in London and Manchester. Last year I also visited nearby Dublin Ireland.
I spent a good full four drinking days mostly visiting pups, eating curry, and chilling/hanging out in our hotel room occasionally working and sometimes reading. People would ask me in the pubs every once in a while what I was doing and Manchester. My response typically was I am here to drink all the cask ales. Some found this strange and others applauded me for my choices. One wanted to give me a hug because he loved this reason.
A bartender serving a beer on cask.
I won’t use this article to badmouth London. You can read about my experiences a few years back in a separate article that I posted. I found the much smaller town of Manchester, including staying inside an area considered the city center to be much more my style of place to visit. There were a few delightful pubs within a five minute walk from our hotel, a bit more on the north side of the center. And then there were other parts of town where you could easily stumble between 5 to 10 different pubs in a single night if you were so inclined.
You may be wondering what the hell is a cask ale and why should I care to come all the way to Manchester to drink some. I have written about the style in a few posts about other breweries in America including Yorkshire Square brewing Company, close to monkish brewing and located sort of southern Los Angeles in its own little town of Torrance. I have also discussed cask ales in my post about Hogs Head brewing in Denver and The Civil Life brewing in St. Louis Missouri.
If you have visited any of these breweries, or even had a cask ale at San Diego’s local new English brewing Company, you can appreciate somewhat how difficult it is to find beers of this style within the United States. But it is only after visiting Manchester and tasting the delightfully low alcohol beers, under 4% and occasionally under 3%, that you realize a style and a true session beer that American craft Beer has not yet embraced.
In the majority of my time drinking in Manchester pubs, I tried to order beers that were 4% alcohol or lower and whenever possible a beer on cask. I can’t speak for whether this style is slowly disappearing or not but it is noteworthy that on my visit to Cloudwater, the local craft brewery that is most well known outside of Manchester, they did not have a single beer on cask.
I had my first pint in Manchester at the Smithfield market Tavern, where I got some great recommendations from the bartender for some local pubs connected to local craft breweries that I was not aware of before my visit. It was early in the day and locals were not drinking so I got a bit more time to chat with the bartender than I might have otherwise. Most notable from this visit was my taste of a delicious beer from track brewing Company called Sonoma. This is there flagship pale ale that is quite low alcohol and has a lovely hop presence reminiscent of West Coast style American craft beer without the bitterness. Though I visited track brewing later the same day, nothing at the brewery was as impressive as this delightful cask pint of Sonoma that I drank as my 1st pint in Manchester. A few other local pale ales came close and somewhat surpassed this delightful beer.
I visited Cloudwater brewing two days in a row trying various beers that they had. I had tasted their hazy IPAs before and held them in high regard but did not realize how expensive individual cans were going to be at the brewery. And for whatever reason, I did not care for the hazy beers they had on tap during my visit. Thankfully they had a few interesting other beers that I really enjoyed including a smoked beer and a wine barrel aged Imperial Stout. At Cloudwater, they charge 8 pounds per can of most double IPAs. For comparison, most breweries in the US selling similar double IPAs in 4packs would charge around $22 for 4 beers, or $5.50 per can. And depending on the exchange rate, 8 pounds is closer to $9 or $10 per can.
A few notes about visiting both track and Cloudwater, they both had more of the brewery feel as opposed to all of the other pubs that I visited. While I previously would’ve lamented the lack of ability to visit breweries directly in Ireland prior to my trip, I actually preferred the experience of visiting pups connected to breweries as opposed to visiting breweries directly. Cloudwater has a unique enough tasting room that it is worth visiting at least once and trying a few of the beers but it isn’t noticeably more enjoyable than visiting the local pubs.
I won’t go through the list of all the various other beers that I tried at various pubs over the next few days. It is simple enough to state that I was generally impressed by the quality of flavorful low alcohol beers with tons of hop aroma. I was especially blown away by a 2.8% hazy session IPA from Northern Monk Brewing Company, a beer I drink during two separate visits to their pub and brought a few cans back with me. For comparison sake, it is difficult if not impossible to find a flavorful beer in the United States that is under 5% alcohol.
I don’t mean to say that every pint was the pinnacle of epic or exploding with flavor. Some styles are not meant to be that way and the traditional English mild, English bitter, or English dark mild or not intended to be incredibly hoppy or full-flavored. They are however generally enjoyable to drink and I never had a difficult time finishing my pint even further beers that I might’ve preferred to have a little more flavor.
Even during my stops into pups that locals later referred to in unkind language surprised that I would stop by such an establishment, the local beer was perfectly good enough for me to enjoy my pint and move on even if it didn’t have the same explosion of flavor as Track Brewing Company’s Sonoma pale or Northern Monk’s delightful session hazy IPA. One such simple beer was a lovely 3.6% English mild served at a spot called pie and ale. During their lunch special, I was able to get a pint of the beer with a vegan savory pie for 10 pounds. I ended up having two additional pints of the same beer because it was crisp and delicious.
Vegan pie with a pint of bitter.
Even classic established beers like J W Lees Bitter and Wainwright Golden ale hit the spot and made decent starts to the day of drinking. I also recall quite fondly my experience visiting The Marble Arch, a classic pub connected to Marble brewing Company. Aside from enjoying some lower alcohol beers here, I also had two lovely barrel aged old ales. One was aged in Barbera wine barrels and the other in bourbon barrels. They also had some incredible quality food.
I can’t say whether Manchester will be my favorite city in England forever but suffice it to say, it was a lovely experience and I would happily return solo for a few days of drinking if I happen to have reason to travel to Scotland or other areas nearby. If you can find a reasonable priced flight and are interested in enjoying English cask ales, you can’t go wrong with Manchester. It is a lovely way to experience English Cask Ales.

Paul McGuire

Paul McGuire is a craft beer enthusiast. He likes to travel with his husband and enjoy the great outdoors. In his day job, Paul is a divorce attorney serving clients in San Diego California.

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One thought on “Manchester UK – All the Cask Ales”

  1. Hi Paul!

    As a queer Brit real ale enthusiast who has just moved to SD from Manchester I really enjoyed your article! I’m on the hunt for cask ales here in SD, do you have any recommendations?

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