My column in the current issue of Vue Weekly (which you can read here) is the first of a series of articles that will appear sporadically based upon my summer travels. First up were my impressions of the northern English working class city of Manchester. I didn’t want to write a simple travelogue, since most readers will never go to Manchester, so instead anchored the piece around my impressions of the pub culture in the city.
I am well aware that many English cities have remarkable pub scenes, and so Manchester is not a stand out. I am even willing to hear an argument that Manchester pales in comparison to other cities. But compared to basically anywhere in Canada, Manchester leaves us in the dust.
In the piece I suggest that there are three thing that make up a quality pub scene: a willingness to put local beer upfront; a diversity of atmospheres and crowds; and emphasis on conversation and sociability. The first ensures your pubs have something no other pubs in the world can offer – fresh, local beer possibly not available anywhere else. The second means there is more space for everyone. Manchester has a dizzying range of pubs – something for everyone. Finally, I was so damned impressed with how quiet and social Manchester pubs were. I rarely saw a TV, and if I did the sound was off. Music was more common but not universal, usually linked with the crowd they were attracting. In my favourites the only background noise were other people’s conversations. It meant the focus was on visiting, appreciating the beer, and/or (in my case) slowly savouring the meaty pages of The Guardian – which may be the best newspaper on the planet.
In the interests of completeness, Manchester had its share of sports bars and lacklustre taverns with little to offer. You will understand that I didn’t spend any time in those places. CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide was a helpful companion for not wasting my time in undeserving pubs. But the point is not that every bar needs to have the right atmosphere, but that there are plenty of options available. I barely had to walk more than a couple of blocks to find a decent pub with good regional cask ale on tap.
I also have to admit that the allure of historical architecture does wonders for one’s impression of a pub. There is something innately cool about sitting at a bar that has stood for 300 years or more. Manchester (and much of England) has a huge leg up in that department. We just simply don’t have the longevity on this side of the pond. But I argue that as valuable as that history is, and admirable that they continue to embrace it, it is not what makes Manchester’s pub scene better than ours. It is the other qualities I discussed above, which can happen in a pub that has been around since Shakespeare or built a scant five years ago.
Western Canada has a long way to go to even be in the broad neighbourhood of Manchester’s pub scene. We are still caught in the grips of sterile chains with their servitude to corporate brewers. Independent pub owners are starting to come out of their beer shells, but we still have a long way to go. Things are better here than they were even five years ago, but I suspect few would claim anywhere on the prairies has a world class pub scene.