This is how a pub scene should work

by Jason Foster

Manchester has always had a reputation as the archetypal British working-class city, and deservedly so. The people are unassuming, and the architecture is an eclectic mix of impressively historic and quirky modernist.

It’s never going to be known as a world-class tourist destination in the same league as London — but man, it sure can grow on you quickly.

I was there for a work conference this past summer, and I immediately fell in love with its pub scene. Manchester has a lot to teach North American cities about how to encourage socializing in pubs.

Not shockingly, as a beer geek, my first Manchester pub experience came as quickly as I could make it happen.

About an hour after I landed, I wandered into the Waterhouse. This pub goes back to 1877, and retains architectural features that go much further back. The two-storey location is divided into multiple cozy rooms, has a casual feel and offers more than a dozen decently priced local cask ales. There’s no TV in sight, and not a single note of music. All you can hear was the clinking of glasses and people chatting — relaxing and refreshing.

I discovered fairly quickly that this is something of a theme in Manchester pubs. Some are louder than others (including ones that actually play music), but I don’t remember seeing a single TV — and the emphasis was always on the beer.

Far too many bars in Canada push shooters and cheap beer, but Manchester pubs let the beer do its own talking. What really I loved is that they don’t try to talk you into anything; if you ask about the different offerings, they give you a fairly straight description and then ask which you prefer. That’s all.

Beer may always be the focus, but there’s definitely a lot of diversity when it comes to pub atmosphere. I hung out in places known for their social atmosphere, such as the Lass O’Gowrie, as well as the more aggressive Salisbury, a pub catering to punks and metalheads who also happen to like good craft beer. The oddest pub I found was The Temple, a tiny underground pub that had taken over what once was a subterranean public urinal. Barely eight feet wide and no more than 30 or 40 feet long, it offers a tight, intense beer experience.

I sat in low-key pubs that offer no more than a handful of quality cask ales, and I tipped pints in soaring, majestic rooms that screamed history. I even frequented quirky, alternative pubs where piercings and tattoos abounded. Such are the makings of a quality pub scene.

One of my favourite stops was The Marble Arch. A little off the beaten path, this always-busy pub has architectural features that give it some serious historical street cred. Even better, they brew much of the beer they sell themselves, and it’s of award-winning quality.

Some places, especially closer to the oldest parts of the city, emphasize their elegant historical features (the Old Wellington Inn, for example, can trace its roots back to the 1500s). Meanwhile, newer pubs cater to a more cosmopolitan crowd — places like Bar Fringe, which has no interesting architecture but a decidedly modern feel.

Even the small towns in the area have amazing pubs. I took a day trip to Wigan, which is a very unassuming place — a former coal mining town that’s seen better days. I went both because I am a huge George Orwell fan (see: The Road to Wigan Pier), and because I’m probably the Wigan Athletic Football Club’s only Canadian fan.

Another positive? One of England’s oldest remaining pubs stands in Wigan — The Royal Oak, which dates back to the early 1600s. It’s had an exterior renovation recently, but the old wood, classic multi-roomed design and long stand-up bar hearken back to its origins. Plus, it does a good job of serving casks made by Wigan’s TWO local breweries, Allgate and Prospect. Can you imagine a town of 80,000 in Canada having two active breweries?

Manchester is proof that a great pub scene requires three things: first, a focus on local or regional beer, as it immediately gives the pubs a character that can’t be found anywhere else; second, diversity of atmospheres — different pubs need to cater to different crowds, but without giving up the essence of what makes a good pub; and third, a good pub scene puts conversation and sociality at the forefront. Beer is a social drink, so a pub needs to be  a space where people can talk, argue and discuss without feeling crowded out by loud music or a hockey game.

On all three points, we have a long way to go here on the Prairies — very few places score on even two of the criteria.

But seriously: if working-class Manchester can do it, why can’t working-class Saskatchewan do it too?