Isle of Man
Last Updated : 14/12/09
ever one to turn down a free works trip anywhere, especially where Dash-8's are involved, I've just been to the Isle of Man for the first time in 12 years. Strangely enough, the last time we were there it seems like we scooped just about everything going and no new brewers have opened in the meantime so, consequently, the beer scene hasn't moved on that much since my last visit!
I'd read about a prospective brewpub which was allegedly being created on North Quay opposite the Lord Street bus stops from the Clarendon pub and the derelict shop next-door but investigation revealed that nothing has been done to either the pub or shop and it remains a run-down bar with nothing to recommend it, although obviously this transformation may still happen. Of the 4 possible Okells house beers I'd read about only one actually materialised, the Raven's Claw at the Raven, Ballaugh, which was the second-best Okells beer I had and definitely not a re-badge! The others that I didn't see were one at the Creek in Peel, Jough's Ale at the Albert, Douglas (I had this during my last visit but it wasn't on this time), and one at the Woodbourne in Douglas.
The Island isn't a great place to drink cask ale, that's for sure, with Okells beers being particularly "old-fashioned Regional" in taste (apart from the Aile and Raven's Claw) and Bushys beers all tasting very similar which is okay if you don't expect any hops and enjoy toffee-maltiness! The single brew from the Shore Hotel was thin, slightly phenolic and disappointing... and, beer-wise, that's about it apart from "imported" guest beers. In order to sample a decent range of these head for the Sidings at Castletown (10 pumps!) followed by the Bay Hotel (Bushys and guests) and Falcon's Nest (4 beers) in Port Erin and then the White House in Peel (up to 8 beers, some UK guests).
I spent a good few hours searching for gen on the island’s beer scene but found little of interest apart from an Isle of Man beer guide that, according to the author, “CAMRA don’t want you to see”. Hmmmm, can’t see why not as it was simply a list of (I presume) all the Island’s pubs with the beers they sell listed alongside! A few leads were gleaned from this site, although not enough to give me any enthusiasm that I’d actually score many beers, plus I’d discovered that a few pubs had Okells “house beers” which I thought I may as well try and get despite their inherent dodginess! Speaking of dubious beers, I was amazed to see that a house beer we’d scored back in 1998, Jough’s Ale in the Albert, was apparently still available and still the same ABV as Okell’s bitter!
Monday 26th October 2009.
FlyBE – up to their usual standard.
I met up with my colleagues at Birmingham airport and proceeded through the usual farce of security before settling down to wait for our flight to Ronaldsway. We were flying with FlyBE and, going on my previous experience with them, I wasn’t expecting much in the way of punctuality or the plane actually turning up! My fears were proven well-founded as, with 30 minutes to departure, our flight was suddenly flagged up as “delayed” for “technical reasons”; cheers then, but at least this was in work time and not mine... twenty minutes later, just as I was predicting we’d not get away, all was suddenly rectified and we trooped off to the gate where a bus was waiting to trundle us a few hundred metres across the tarmac to our waiting Dash-8.
Once aboard the captain informed us that we’d got a replacement aircraft as the one which had done the morning flight from the Island had developed a fault; not really what you want to hear when sat on the same type of plane! Squeezing into my seat, I’d forgotten how narrow Dash-8’s were – it’s nothing to do with me being a fat bastard, honest – although, fortuitously, there was no-one sat next to me so I had plenty of room to spread out during the 45-minute flight during which most of our delay mysteriously vanished resulting in us landing a mere ten minutes late.
We trudged through the drizzle into arrivals only to find no ID checks at all (I’d assumed there would be a cursory check, but no!) and were soon on the bus into Douglas, passing the Bushy’s brewery on the way as well as the farm where “stored unserviceable” horses from the town’s horse trams are shunted when their usefulness at pulling fat tourists up and down the prom ends!
Winners of the unexpected.
After a half-day at work we checked into our hotel, a faded example of Victorian grandeur which was definitely a little frayed around the edges, before I set off back into the centre for a wander around some of the pubs my comprehensive research had unearthed. My first call was the Railway Hotel opposite the dinky steam railway station which had been flagged up as having a good foreign beer list; this wasn’t really what I was after but, in the absence of any winners, some FM would do just fine. Sadly, the foreign beer list turned out to be particularly unimaginative with nothing I’d even consider drinking and so a half of Okells Bitter it was and I was pleased to discover this wasn’t as bad as I’d feared, possessing an amber colour, aromatic malty aroma then a fairly plain, dry malt taste with just a suggestion of fruity dryness in the malty aftertaste; not my kind of beer at all, but well made and properly kept.
My next stop was Bushy's Rover’s Return pub in the centre of town which seemed my best chance of a few scoops on the whole island – although I wasn’t really expecting anything scoopable – and was fully intent on trying the full range in good condition without worrying about ticking anything... therefore I was comprehensively withered to discover a winner on the bar, two more on the taunting pole, plus other Bushy’s beers that I hadn’t had for years; result! I quickly scooped Helmsman (4.5%), a balanced amber brew with a thick malty finish, and then re-visited Manx Bitter (3.8%, which may even be a scoop...) with it’s thin, dry blandness and finally Ruby Mild which was full of sweet toffee and caramel and therefore way too sweet for me, although I’m sure it’s a decent beer if you like that kind of thing!
The barman told me that my two scoops on the taunting pole should be on in a few days and so, with the prospect of two more winners to cheer me, off I went to my next call, the Prospect. This pub was certainly impressive to look at from the outside and was equally as Edinburgh-esque inside with much wood panelling on the walls and a very ornate ceiling, but I wasn’t there to critique the architecture (although it was admittedly striking) but to check out the promised Okells seasonal beers of which Red seemed to be the only one available.
I’m not 100% sure if this is the same beer that featured at the recent McSpoons beer festival but if it was it certainly didn’t taste as sweet and sticky as it had done there! Admittedly this example wasn’t in the best condition but, even so, I was able to pick out a winey, sweetish taste which became dryer towards the finish with an Olorosso sherry character and a treacly sweetness to end; not my kind of beer at all – oodles of crystal malt and all that – plus it hadn’t been in great condition, but at least the surroundings had been good!
Tailing off to nothing.
Next up was the Woodbourne, IoM CAMRA’s runner-up pub of the year, for a possible house beer and full range of Okells beers. After a lengthy trudge uphill along a main road I finally reached the pub which was an imposing brick building of some considerable size and still in possession of it's traditional multi-room layout including a timewarp back bar adorned with well-executed caricatures of locals and, more importantly, six handpulls! There was no sign of a house beer and Okells Autumn Dawn had just run off, but there was a scoop in the form of the new Okells Alt, a 5% deep brown toffee-malt flavoured brew with sticky treacle toffee, wort and an overly sweet malty finish; not my cup of tea at all even if it did contain (according to the poster on the wall) Nelson Sauvin hops!
For old times’ sake, and as it was the first pub I’d seen it on sale, I tried a half of Okells mild but it seems as if volumes for this beer have fallen to a point where it’s had to be “made” from another brew with the addition of caramel. Obviously I’m not certain this is the case, but the thin body and caramel-sweet flavour certainly gave the impression of a parti-gyled ale rather than a properly brewed mild which, in any case, are rare beasts these days, even given the inclination of many brewers to drop the word mild from the name to make the beer more attractive to casual drinkers!
I’d arranged to meet up with my colleagues for a meal at our hotel and so it was steeply downhill all the way down to the seafront (if I’d walked up to the Woodbourne, as originally intended, I doubt I’d have bothered having set eyes upon this hill!) with some considerable inclines along the way. The standard of the food was way above that the condition of our hotel had suggested although the best the bar could muster was “smooth” Okells; no thanks, I huffed, and hurried out of the door to explore my remaining beery leads along the seafront towards the Tram station.
It was a 10-minute plod along the prom to the termini of the horse and electric trams where, next to the horse tram sheds, I found the Terminus Tavern. I didn’t know what to expect in here apart from what several websites had nebulously described as “guest beers” so, as I entered and saw only two pumps with beers on, I wasn’t too hopeful until I clocked one as being Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted! With the other option being Okells bitter it didn’t take me long to make a decision on my choice of beer and I was soon furnished with a half of Harviestoun which, happily, was as good as I remember it being possessing a pale colour, dry nettley flavour and long, bitter, grassy finish with European hops much in evidence; not bad, and the hoppiest beer I’d had thus far (and, it turned out, the hoppiest I’d have during the whole week!)
I’d expected the pub to be a shrine to trams of all manner of traction but, looking around, I was disappointed in the bland decor, bad wallpaper and lack of appropriate homage to the vehicles which (in summer, at least) gather out front at their respective termini. Despite the beer being in great condition and attractively hoppy I was feeling the pace of my early morning start by this point and so decided to make my way back via a couple of other “maybes” I’d found. The Queens Hotel had two guests, but a second was enough to tell me they were Black Sheep and Marstons so I made a swift about-turn at the bar, then I managed to find the Glen Mhor hotel although all was in darkness and I feel that I may have been mistaken and I really wanted to find it’s namesake out on the other side of Laxey where the rare beer from Old Laxey’s Shore Hotel may – or may not – be found. Ah well, an early night then...
Note - What I should have been looking for was the Glen Mona hotel on Mona Drive which, apparently, stills sells Old Laxey beers!
Tuesday 27th October 2009.
The North face of the Eiger.
I made my escape from work early and made straight for the kettle station for the bus eastwards to Laxey where I planned to visit the Shore Hotel brewpub, the only one on the island (with the possible exception of another I had scant information on) and I was keen to re-visit as not a lot of scoopers have actually visited the pub in person, although the beer has been sporadically spotted out and about on the mainland for a number of years.
The bus driver confirmed that the nearest halt to Old Laxey was the amusingly-named “Fairy Cottage” stop where, as the bus departed in a blast of diesel fumes, I saw not the alluded to enchanted cottage but a few pebbledashed bungalows and a garage promising cheap Biodiesel; not quite what the name implied, but then again fairies don’t exist so I hadn’t really been expecting to see one... had I? I remembered from my visit back in 1998 that the hill back up from Old Laxey to the main road had been particularly precipitous and wanted to see if it really was so steep that I remembered it 12 years on so off I trudged, following my map for Old Laxey’s harbour.
The hill began as a shallow incline and as I plodded downgrade over the MER tracks it didn’t seem anywhere near as bad as I remembered it; maybe we’d gone the wrong way last time, I wondered? As I neared the old harbour, however, the road began to twist and dip alarmingly and, as it swung round a ferocious hairpin bend at what seemed to be a near-vertical gradient, I looked with alarm back up the road with the knowledge that I would have to climb back up this very hill shortly; where were those bloody fairies with their gossamer wings to pull me back up the hill when I needed them, eh? Bloody no-good layabout bone-idle mythical bastards...
I soon found the pub right at the bottom of the hill where, inside, a debate was going on about “a pub in London that serves 18% beer in thirds for £6” which one bloke stated must be fortified as “yeast can’t get that strong”. I’m not sure if they believed me when I told them I knew the Rake’s bar manager (Tom, who used to be the cellarman at Glasgow’s Blackfriars) but they were suitably impressed that I knew the pub and had a Brewdog – for the beer is Tokyo* - label on the front of my HV green scooping book!
My pint of Old Laxey Bosun’s bitter was as average as I remember it being and, luckily, no-one asked me my opinion of it which saved me either having to lie (not my strongest card) or hurt someone’s feelings! “Amber, thin, slightly phenolic and with a toffee-malt character and dryish finish with a hint of hops” say my notes in comparison to those of 12 years back which describe the beer as “Deep amber, dry, winey and slightly bitter”; pretty similar really! Any hopes of a scoop were crushed when I asked if any more beers were available and was told an emphatic “no” and, even more cuttingly, that the beer I was drinking was the same recipe as when they first started brewing!
“Same bloody barrel, more like” came the gruff retort from the old bloke sat next to me which brought forth a chorus of laughter from the immediate bar area and a shake of the head from the barman (and I think brewer), followed by
“Cheeky old bastard!”
I was taking no chances with my hill-climbing abilities and had allowed 20 minutes for the half-mile climb back up to Fairy Cottage bus stop and so, with the beer forced down, I set off up the hill with a look of fierce determination on my countenance. This didn’t last long, however, and I was soon gasping like an ICI beagle as I stomped up the precipitous hill, silently entreating the fairies to flutter down and assist me in my ascent; no such fairytale aid was forthcoming, unfortunately, so I settled down into a slow plod which quickened slightly as the gradient eased towards the MER tracks whereupon I saw, in a Sahara oasis-esque moment of delirium, the garage at the hill’s pinnacle which grew slowly larger as I wheezed closer until I surmounted the summit and allowed myself a short rest, looking with disbelief back down the local version of the North face of the Eiger that I’d just climbed!
Waste of a ticket.
I was soon at the bus stop and pretty much exhausted from my exertions although, the Shore Hotel being such a rare brewpub, I suppose it had been worth the climb despite the beer being distinctly average. The bus arrived promptly and ferried me to Ramsey where I hoped to find some beer worth drinking – although I had zero expectation of finding any scoops – but I’d thought that I might as well cover the whole Island in my search for beer and be as comprehensive as possible... plus, I had 12 bus tickets to use and only three days to use them!
Ramsey didn’t seem immediately appealing save for it’s illuminated swing-bridge, but I had 90 minutes there (at least) so made good my trek out to the furthest pubs first. Things began badly when the Ellan Vannin, allegedly a Bushy’s pub, had no cask ale available and by the look of the knuckle-dragging, fizzy piss-swilling clientele didn’t look as if they’d sell much even if they did put some on. Next up was the Schooner bar in the Mitre hotel, a bizarre place along a beige corridor and up some musty-smelling stairs, where it seemed time hadn’t moved on in the last 20 years, customers and all! I acquired half of Old Bushy Tail – against my better judgement – and soon found that it was as sweet, crystal-malt laden and treacly as I remember it being the last time I’d tried it... Bushy’s original beer it may be, but it’s not my thing at all.
The town’s premier cask ale pub was next, the Trafalgar, where I found a couple of guest beers in the form of Moorhouse’s Black Cat and Sheps Spitfire so, obviously, I decided on a swift half of the Black Cat despite the suggestion of the barmaid that the Spitfire was “selling well, it’s a lovely pint”... hmmmm, don’t think so! My beer was in cracking condition, a great example of a Northern-style Dark Mild, and I could happily have drunk several pints of it had I not made the decision that I’d go for the next bus and get the hell out of Ramsey as I’d now run out of places to drink real ale, plus I didn’t want to waste another 90 minutes wandering around pubs in the vague hope I’d find something drinkable on the bar.
I had twenty minutes to get back to the bus depot and so meandered along, peering into pubs along the way and seeing nothing but Okells bitter which was mainly in keg form, reinforcing my decision not to hang about in Ramsey any longer than was necessary! Back at the bus depot, a quaint old structure which wouldn’t look out of place in Camberwick Green, I waited in the blustery wind whilst amusing myself watching a group of chavs being hassled by the coppers and then trying to get run over which, sadly, didn’t happen. My bus arrived and departed to time and I bagged my usual top-deck front seat for the hour run back to Douglas via Laxey which, as we wound above the harbour on the horseshoe top road, showed me just how far I’d descended earlier to the Shore Hotel! As we accelerated into the darkness I planned my moves for the next couple of days which, hopefully, would provide me with more beer than I’d seen in Ramsey and less mountaineering than I’d done in Laxey!
Wednesday 28th October 2009.
Port Erin was my destination tonight so I snuck out of work early for the 16:40 direct bus. I say “direct” but in reality I mean via every country lane going on the island; an hour for 15 miles? I was in my usual seat at the front on the top deck and so had an admittedly impressive view of the landscape ahead with the setting sun casting a greyish-pink light over proceedings as it set over the low crags of the Island’s western coast.
Arrival at Port Erin was greeted by the mouth-watering smell of fish and chips which drew me magnetically towards it until I saw the size of the queue; maybe later! I made do with a cut-price butty from the Co-op which I munched whilst trudging towards the seafront, still trying my best to ignore the chipshop smell which taunted my olfactory senses incessantly until the bracing ozone blast of the Irish Sea took over. I passed the Falcon’s Nest – which would be second stop – before plunging down a surprisingly vertiginous hill (yes, another one) to the seafront and my first call of the evening, the Shore Hotel where, so a chance discovery on the internet had told me, Bushy’s were holding a mini beer festival during this very week!
I wasn’t expecting any scoops and, in that regard, I wasn’t disappointed by the cask range of which I sampled Bushy’s Castletown bitter (diacetyl, toffee and a dull fruitiness) and Triple fff Pressed Rat & Warthog (toasty and surprisingly bitter with chocolate in the bitter finish) plus a bitterish, dry Bushy’s Weiss from tap – unpasteurised, presumably – whilst casting an eye over the impressive collection of pumpclips which adorned the walls and just about everywhere else inside the large yet cosy room and included Pictish Willamette and Swale Indian Summer! I don’t know if all the beers have actually appeared here but, if they have, it’s a pretty impressive range they’ve had over the years.
A second, smaller, room contained – bizarrely – a motorbike plus, on the bar, two heritage keg fonts in the form of Watney’s Red Barrel and Double Diamond along with even more pumpclips of impressively rare beers. Having seen the festival list I felt somewhat unlucky in the range of beers that evening but, despite my bad luck, I was glad that I’d made the trip out west and so, with an hour to go before my bus back to Castletown, it was time to visit the Falcon’s Nest to see what St Erin’s “other” must-visit had on sale.
Inside the hotel I found a cosy bar with a real fire cracking away to itself and an air of peace reigning over everything. Four beers were on sale including Dr Okell’s IPA which, as expected, wasn’t IPA-ish in the American sense although it did have slightly more hop character than is normal for the island with a slight fruitiness in the malty finish and a dab of bitterness too. Sat at the bar, sipping my beer, I felt right at home and had there been more beer I wanted to drink then I’d have stayed for another without a doubt, but as it was I was on a tight schedule and so, reluctantly rejecting the idea of a few drams from the wide-ranging whisky collection calling to me siren-like from above the bar, it was back to the bus stop but this time I stopped off at the chippy for what turned out to be a meal that tasted as good as it smelt and, as a bonus, mushy peas were on the menu plus work were paying, too!
It was only 20 minutes to Castletown and we actually passed my first call, the Gluepot, as the lumbering double-decker (which are far too big for many of the Island’s roads!) almost removed it’s gable end as we negotiated the narrow corner between the harbour and square. I’d read on the net that a beer tasting would be in progress at the pub including Okells’ new Alt beer – which I’d already scooped in Douglas – but thought I’d visit anyway as the pub itself looked real and I had an hour before my next bus.
The pub is an attractive stone building right on the harbour next to the castle and I’d imagine that in summer it befits it’s nickname as a gluepot for tourists although, on a fresh October evening, it wasn’t exactly mobbed. Inside I found a welcoming traditional interior with two Okell’s beers on the pumps, Aile and Alt, so I requested a half of Aile only to be told that
“The beer’s free tonight; it’s donations in the pot!”
I’ve visited a lot of pubs in my time but I can’t remember many having free beer! The barman pulled my beer into a stemmed 500ml glass and handed me the vessel virtually full of the brooding black brew for which I clinked my pocketful of change into the tin; all well and good, you might think, but I’d only wanted a half in case the beer range in the Sidings – apparently the island’s widest beer choice – comprised more scoops than I now had time for!
Stoically, then, I gulped the black, bitter and toasted brew which impressed more than any Okells beer I’d tasted thus far with it’s full-on burnt grain, bitter and liquoricey finish and it seemed to vanish far quicker than I’d feared so that, within ten minutes, my glass was empty and so I headed for the Sidings to see what I’d find there. I had fairly high hopes for this pub as during my intensive research of the Island’s beer scene it had featured in every search where I'd specified “choice of beer” or “good beer range” and thus, although I was under no impression that I'd get any winners, there was the hope that I'd at least have a decent choice of beer.
The little lane from Castletown's harbour up to the railway was annoyingly long and straight although this was somewhat mitigated by the stream alongside upon which all manner of waterfowl paddled and quacked. Eventually I reached the main road where, bidding farewell to my feathery companions (they'd been paddling furiously alongside me presumably in the hope of soliciting some bread!), I saw a bus stop immediately opposite the pub; result, this meant an easy escape back to Douglas plus more drinking time/less walking time!
A quick glance at my watch revealed a mere 35 minutes to go before my bus back to Douglas and so in I went; I’d seen the Sidings from the bus on the outwards journey and so knew exactly where it was. Inside the pub I was disappointed to see it full of footy veg glued to the large screen and grunting in a Neanderthal fashion as if they somehow believed their guttural baying might have any impact on the final result of a match played many miles away without a direct audio link to the Sidings in Castletown, although you’d never have guessed it as the Neanderthals noisily implored “their” team to play better but, curiously, the two-way TV relay didn’t seem to be working…
I, conversely, was there for the beer so cast my mincers over the bar and saw the largest array of handpumps I’d seen thus far; ten of them, no less! Most of the beers seemed to be from the mainland and so, as it was a scoop, I plumped for Robinson’s Wags to Witches (crap beer, great name!) which had the usual Robinson’s bland, thin, dry vaguely peppery taste with not a lot else going on at all. As I supped I gazed around the walls which were almost covered with pumpclips and, in solidarity with the Bay in Port Erin, there were some right whoppers in amongst them including some I’d not heard of, although as I’m relatively empty-book these days that’s maybe not as surprising as it seems!
I got talking to the barman who seemed rather impressed that I’d bothered to trek out to the pub just to drink a few beers, and looked even more chuffed when I told him that I was looking at the best beer range on the Island!
“Well, maybe…” he muttered, hiding his blushes…
I had time for one more half and so tried a beer I’d not had in years, Bateman Salem Porter, but one sip told me exactly why I gave up drinking Batemans beers years ago… the black fluid didn’t taste of beer at all but rather a bizarre chemical concoction of hideous, sweet caramel and what tasted suspiciously like Aspartame; not what I’d call quality beer or even beer, so after forcing a few sips down this was handed back to the surprised barman with a comment along the lines of
“It’s not your cellarmanship at fault, mate, but I just can’t drink this crap!”
He looked amused as I explained my issues with the beer – which took a good few minutes to reel off – and so I settled for an even swifter half of something I’ve totally forgotten (can’t have been that exciting, then!) as he explained to me that a company called Nectar supplies imports most of the “mainland” beer onto the island and installs handpumps, too.
My beer drained and time at an end I offered my goodbyes and was out of the door at some speed before, a mere 20 seconds later, I was at the bus stop with a couple of minutes to spare where I realised that I could see the bus coming towards me along the lane I'd walked up half an hour earlier. Suddenly, a strange feeling came over me and I suddenly became aware that I was on the Isle of Man and not just another part of the UK; I didn't know why but, for a fleeting moment, this little bus stop alongside the best beer pub on the Island suddenly seemed a long way from home... stupid, I know, but it was the same kind of feeling I'd had standing Prague for the first time all those years ago! As the bus pulled up I glanced at the stop and realised why these bizarre thoughts had been parading across my mind; the bus stop was in Manx and read “Stad Barroose” (bus stop!)... Subliminal advertising or what?
I was in time for a visit to the Rover’s Return where I hoped to claim the two winners which had been on the taunting pole the previous day, but to my dismay the one I'd been looking forwards to on account of it's name (Hop tu Naa) had been and gone in 36 hours and the barman took unnecessary pleasure in telling me how tasty it had been, how everyone had loved it and how there was none left! Bemoaning my bad luck and tardiness in visiting the pub – which was visible from the window at work – I supped miserably on the other beer, Manx Pride, an amber and very “Bushy’s” beer with plenty of malt, fruitiness and a bitter/malt finish which was, admittedly, rather moreish but I just wasn't in the mood after being denied the potentially only hoppy beer I'd have all week! Bollocks, it had all been going so averagely until now...
Thursday 29th October 2009.
All that way for this.
My final evening on the island started as all the others had with an early dash from work to catch a bus from Lord Street. This time I was heading North to Peel and it’s decent-sounding pubs but, before that, I'd decided to try a remote pub out in a village on the northern fringes of the TT course which, according to gen I'd read, had it's own house beer “specially brewed” by Okells. The reports didn't specify exactly how they manage to concoct a unique beer on their 40BBL plant but, not being totally consumed with cynicism, I decided that the report had sounded genuine enough and maybe, just maybe, they had a testplant for such things? After all, a Maris Otter beer dry-hopped with American hops sounded like it was worth an hour on a bus to me...
I didn't feel so sure 45 minutes later as we careered along a particularly bumpy stretch of road missing oncoming vehicles by what I imagined was millimetres; I really needed a piss, the bus was rearing around like a colt and I'd no idea exactly where this pub was... had this been the best move, I wondered? A quick check of the timetable allayed my nerves – but not my straining bladder – and as we passed through the last village before my stop I decided to play it safe and go downstairs to remind the driver I wanted to get off; after all, if I missed the stop I'd have to go to Ramsey and, after the previous evening's explorations, there was no way I was doing that again!
The driver remembered me from an hour back and cheerfully reminded me that
“Buses from here are really bloody infrequent” and that “they do a good pint in here, enjoy”
Before roaring off, leaving me alone in a quiet village, hoping that the beer I'd come for was on;
“Maybe I should have rung first to check” I thought, pushing the door open gingerly, not wanting to look at the bar lest I be withered by no scoops... always wise after I've cocked things up, me!
The sigh of relief when I saw the Raven's Claw clip must have been louder than I realised as the landlord walked up and commented “Here's a young man who needs a beer!”
“Bloody right, mate”, I thought, “I've just sat on the world's bumpiest bus for a fucking hour to come our here to your pub for one pint and I really need a piss!”
“Pint of Raven's Claw, please” I requested, then “Back in a second!” as I rushed to the bogs to unleash the mother of all pisses (that sounds like a Macc Lads song!).
When I returned, feeling much better, a deep amber pint was sat on the bar much to my consternation; I'd been hoping for a pale beer to show off the hops and this didn't look promising! Still, here I was, so I took a swig of beer and studiously swirled it around my tastebuds to find that the hour of crossed legs and my head hitting the roof had been worth it as this was, even to my travel-hardened and scoop-weary senses, a decent beer! More ruddy than amber, it had a fruity hop aroma with some treacle followed by a decent bitter taste and some cloying crystal malt, then a sweetish malt aftertaste with a decent balance of malt, hop, treacle and fruit and a final burst of leafy hops to finish... not bad, not bad at all!
It was a shame that the atrocious bus schedule allowed me either half an hour or two hours there else I'd have had another pint of what I think is one of the best beers on the Island but, with my transport to Peel calling and limited time there to do the pubs, it was with surprising reluctance that I bid the landlord goodbye, swilled the remaining third of my pint down my throat and clattered out of the door to the bus stop which was comprised of a hut built into a hefty roadside wall albeit with the disadvantage that anyone in the shelter couldn't actually see what was coming around the corner necessitating standing out in the road itself; it's a good thing roads aren't busy on the Island!
Thanks to my lurking on the public highway I was able to flag down the bus which, had I been sat in the shelter as normals are expected to do, would probably have sailed straight past meaning another 10 pints of Raven's Claw until the next one appeared and my missing Peel altogether! Happy that I'd managed to catch my intended bus I suffered another bout of excessive oscillation as we hurtled into Peel where I hoped to follow up a few leads and, maybe, find some decent ales.
I made my way down to the Creek, a free house, which allegedly had an Okells house beer named after the landlady's baby... excuse my cynicism, but exactly how are Okells making all these house beers, I wondered to myself, as I negotiated the narrow cobbled alleyways of Peel which, even under the orange glare of the arclights, seemed the prettiest place on the Island by quite a wide margin.
I soon located the pub opposite the town's old railway station were we'd seen rails still embedded in the road alongside the old freight yard during our last visit although it was way too dark to view any such antiquities this time. The pub itself was a big 'un and had a distinctly bipolar personality with two very distinct sides to it, a public bar which was fairly scuzzy and dimly-lit then a completely opposite lounge with comfy chairs and relaxing decor aimed, presumably, at the wealthier end of the clientele as the food menus seemed rather expensive to me!
Beer, that's what I was there for, and the five handpulls were dispensing a right old mix of brews although the promised house beer was nowhere to be seen and neither was was the beer I was secretly hoping to find, Bushy's Hop tu Naa. Allgates 50 Marks, Moorhouses Pride of Pendle, Okells bitter plus two other beers I forget were on pump and so I had the luxury of settling for a winner in the Allgates! Happily, their beer seems to have improved immensely in quality and flavour recently and this was no exception; a very pale brew, it possessed a vaguely citrussy aroma and flavour with a restrained dry, bitter citrus hop finish, all in moderation and balance. As I supped I cast an eye over the pumpclips and saw quite a few “mainland” beers had been through the pub with a fair proportion of them being rare; this was a scooper's pub alright!
Finishing my scoop I considered a swift half of Moorhouses but common sense prevailed as I realised I didn't have that much time in the White House before the bus back into Douglas and so off I went, back up the narrow winding alleyways, which seemed to amplify the clumping of my Magnums tenfold to the point I half expected residents to begin twitching the curtains and peeping out just to check that a foreign power hadn't invaded and the incessant boot noise wasn't an invading army on the march through their little town!
White House, real pub.
We'd visited the White House on our last visit and what little I remember of it still held true in that it was a multi-roomed pub with a load of character and decent beer range. Amongst the 7 beers on handpull were no scoops and no Hop tu Naa either, although Moorhouse's Pride of Pendle was a decent enough reward for my finding this cracking little pub again. It was also only the second place I'd seen Okells Mild and this kind of cemented my theory that it's not a “proper” brew any more but simply an engineered version of another of their beers, maybe bitter, possibly with added caramel (as my only sample in Douglas had suggested) although I'd never suggest such a thing...
Summoning my best “curious tourist” demeanour I asked the landlord if he had any Hop tu Naa in the cellar (this beer was becoming an obsession by this time as I'm sure you've realised) to which he replied in the negative and even tacked on a comment that
“We've only had it once and it was terrible, we've not bothered since”
Which did little to ease my aggravation at having missed such a sitting duck of a beer and also suggested that, if it was indeed as hoppy as the name suggested, then it would only be right that the islanders – unused to the taste of hops - wouldn’t like it; everything made sense now and I felt even more gutted at my scooping incompetence!
Had there been any chance of a scoop from the cellar, which was certainly implied by the landlord as he told me the next beer on was Bushy's Bramble beer, I'd have happily stayed ensconced in my personal little bar for another couple of beers but, as it was, I had just enough time to scurry along for the next bus back to Douglas and thence a final beer in the Rover’s and so, bidding the sociable landlord good night, off I trotted for my bus which I only just made owing to some confusion over exactly where it stopped... but you don't want to know about that, nor about the world's politest chavs who apologised to me for their taking up the whole pavement as I reached the bus stop and pushed past them!
The bus deposited me back at Lord Street bus station, a place to which I was becoming rather sick after having been there at least twice a day all week, where I had a quick look at the Clarendon “potential brewpub” where no work at all had been done in converting the pub and derelict shop next door into a smart new brewpub cum eatery so, seeing the Albert just across the car park, I decided to try and find out if their Okells house beer, Jough's, was the rebadge I suspected it was; after all, it had been burning a hole in my conscience for the past 12 years it had been on my beer list... these things matter to me!
I remembered the pub from our last visit as being akin to an old-fashioned Labour club in a dingy, smoky way but all had changed with the passing of years – and smoking legislation – and it was now simply an old-fashioned boozer with a decent atmosphere and veritable forest of handpumps! The house beer wasn't on sale so I made do with a swift half of Bushy's Castletown as I watched the landlord and a volunteer customer lift a knackered and very heavy-looking old TV set down from above the bar which provided great entertainment in a slapstick Laurel and Hardy manner; all that was required for perfection was a giant gorilla to begin chasing them across a rope bridge accompanied by some “silent film” piano music!
The comedy continued when a chavvy bloke insisted on playing with his phone's ringtones which prompted a tirade from an extremely heritage Irish bloke on the other side of the pub; after taking what seemed to be ten minutes to hobble over to the bar, he told him in no uncertain terms where he could stick his “feckin' phone”;
“Oi've got a knackered hearing aid and oi can still feckin' hear yer noise, will yer feck off and play with it outside!” he bellowed indignantly before shuffling back to his seat, happy in the knowledge that he'd made his point! The chav obediently skulked off outside...
Somehow tearing myself away from the catalogue of comedy that was the Albert (and Holts Joey's, amazingly!), it was a short walk to the Rovers where I'd decided upon a few halves before heading back to the hotel for the final time but – and I'm crap at building up suspense so you'll have guessed hours ago what I'm going to say now – to my amazement, what should be on the bar but Hop tu Naa!
The barman looked almost worried when he saw me as if I were going to club him to death with a blunt object for not imparting the gen about this second cask of Hop tu Naa in the cellar, although he relaxed somewhat when I ordered a pint and supped it... and guess what? No hops, nothing, nada! Seeing my bemused expression he explained that Hop tu Naa – pronounced “Hop too Nay” – is the Manx Halloween and the beer comes out every year... plus he'd forgotten that they had another couple of firkins down the cellar!
Now it all made sense and now I wasn't expecting a hop monster the beer wasn't too bad if typically Bushy's in a sweetish, malty and fruity way. With plenty of time to enjoy the beers and elation at having clawed back such a whopper I indulged in a half of Bramble beer to finish my week on the Island, a week that had shown me there was no way I'd want to live there but, even so, the beer choice was far better than it had been a decade previously and, maybe when I next return in 2021, the island will have morphed into a thriving brewpub mecca with scoops aplenty... yeah, right!
All that remained was to take my flight back to Birmingham although, during our final day of work, we were discussing films and suchlike with the local IT bloke.
“Ever seen Ratatouille?” enquired my colleague.
The local's eyes opened wide as if we’d suggested he sleep with his Granny.
“You can't say that!” he almost whispered, glancing around in case anyone else had been offended by my confused workmate's outburst,
“You can't call them rats! They’re called long-tails here!” he hissed, panic-stricken.
We both considered this information for a few seconds before shouting “RATS!” at the horrified teenager who looked as if the lynch mob would be along shortly with blazing torches and pitchforks.
“Shut up, I'm serious!” he pleaded, which only brought on a further raucous chorus of “RATS!”
“Long tails?” I chortled, hardly able to speak with laughter, “and there's no such thing as Faeries neither, nor Father Christmas while I’m on the subject” I informed him before launching into another mirth-filled “RATS!” outburst...
Back home, checking up on the rats thing, it seems that he was right! This quaint practice dates from the times of sailing ships where to see a rat aboard was considered bad luck; whatever, it kept me amused all the way back on the plane and I was half-tempted to shout “RATS!” just to see if anyone would break out the pitchforks... sadly, I bottled out and so will never know!
I've said this before about various places, I'm going to say it now and I don't doubt that I'll say it again; don't go there for the beer! The island has three breweries and I suppose it depends on what kind of beer you like as to your opinion on them, but suffice it to say that hops don't feature heavily on any of their purchase orders! Bushys beers are solid, generally quite fruity and flavoursome and in my opinion the best all-round range on the Island, although Okells seem to be upping their game in some areas especially with Aile, a superbly complex and flavoursome stout, it's just a shame they seem to have dumbed down and parti-gyled their mild. The island's only brewpub, the Shore Hotel in Old Laxey, brews a single beer which hasn't changed recipe for a decade (according to the landlord of the pub whom I suspect was also the brewer) and I feel it's ripe for a sister brew with more of everything to keep it company.
And, beer wise, that's about it apart from the small amount of guest beers from the mainland which, so I was told in the Sidings, are brought in by a company called Nectar Supplies. These vary from the mundane (Greede Kerching IPA!) to the bizarre (Holt's Joey's Bitter) and looking at some of the arrays of clips – especially in the Shore, Sidings and Creek – has included some downright rare and interesting brews amongst the chaff, enough to make beer drinking life on the island potentially bearable for any beer lover who may be visiting.
Most of the island's pubs are reasonably old-fashioned in character and most are seemingly tied to Okells leaving the rest for Bushys. Genuine free houses are few and far between (or, at least, free houses which choose to sell interesting beers are) so to find anything different you'll have to seek out pubs such as these;
I scooped a few beers during my trip, more by luck than judgement, but I'd suggest the best course of action is to expect nothing so any winners will be classed as a bonus! Saying that, you'll find some decent beers around – sometimes in unexpected places – so it's not as bleak a picture as I'm painting if I'm honest.
Beer aside, the Island has plenty to offer. Douglas itself is a tatty run-down town which looks like Morecambe with trams (like Blackpool, really!) but other places, especially Peel, are well worth a look in their own right. The Island also has Viking and pre-historic remains plus plenty of other stuff such as the huge Laxey water wheel, although I'd definitely recommend a summer visit as the darkness takes away the main attraction which is the Island's varied scenery.
Obviously there's the famous TT race if you're into bikes but, for those of us who prefer our internal combustion engines to run on Rudolph Diesel's terms, there's not a lot of interest. The Island once had a substantial rail system which was cut back in the 60's to a single line between Douglas and Port Erin (via the airport, making Ronaldsway probably the world's only steam-served airport!) worked by minuscule old steam engines. There's also a tramway along the promenade, powered by horses and running in summer only, then at the far end an electric tramway which trundles it's way eastwards to Ramsey and utilises some extremely old tramcars. The island's mountain, Snaefell, has it's own railway which runs up to the summit using similar trams to those on the “main line” plus there are a couple of tiny tourist railways near Laxey which run in summer only.
So, to sum up, not a place to go if you're simply after a load of scoops (although Old Laxey does count as one of the rarest beers in the British Isles so may be worth the trip for completists) but if you find yourself there on holiday or through work then, with a little effort, you'll be able to find some decent beers and, as a bonus, it's almost all “LocAle” too.
Getting there and getting around there.
The main way of getting to the island is by plane with FlyBE supplying flights from a surprising number of UK airports direct to the small airstrip at Ronaldsway, connected to Douglas, Castletown and Port Erin by the half-hourly No.1 bus which stops outside arrivals. The airport is also – uniquely – served by the infrequent steam trains which serve the same places as the bus albeit at a snails' pace. Other carriers fly into there too, the most interesting being Manx2 which operate their tiny aircraft from Blackpool, East Midlands and Gloucester (!).
One thing to note is that none of these air routes are cheap and tickets may seem excessively expensive just to cross a few miles of sea. In that case, check out the quaintly-named “Isle of Man Steam Packet company” which operates sea crossings between Douglas and Heysham/Liverpool, although these aren't generally that cheap either!
Once on the Island, the surprisingly good bus service is your friend. The weekly “Explorer” tickets are expensive (although they also include the heritage railways) but there's another option in the form of what the Dutch call a “Strippenkart”, basically a ticket with 12 notches which the drivers punch each time you make a journey. The island is divided into zones and you can buy 1, 2 and 3 zone tickets which allow trips within the stated number of zones, for example Douglas to Peel is 2 zones whilst Douglas to Port Erin is three. I asked the drivers to punch my 2-zone ticket twice for 3-zone journeys which they always did so a 2-zone ticket (£15) is all you really need for a few days' travel. You could, of course, always buy single tickets although the zone tickets work out a fair bit cheaper and should be bought from the “Welcome centre” down by the Lord Street bus stops and ferry terminal.
Pub of the week.
The island has a surprising amount of cosy and what I'd call “proper” pubs although not many of these sell interesting beers. Despite the Rover’s Return being a great little boozer and possessing the best beer range in Douglas it loses out to the Sidings in Castletown with it's whopping ten handpulls serving beer from the island and mainland, by far the most interesting range I saw during my visit, although this is obviously relative and it certainly wouldn’t get pulses racing back in the UK! Add to it’s beery attractions the proximity to Castletown rail station and bus stop plus the attractive little harbour, castle and Castletown itself then the Sidings is well worth a visit.
The White House in Peel is also a strong contender although, despite being a lovely old proper pub, it's beer range isn't quite as interesting as that in the Sidings so it has to settle for second place just ahead of the Rover’s Return. The Bay Hotel in Port Erin impressed too although I visited during a beer festival so don't know if the range is as good at more normal times!
Beer of the week.
This all depends on whether I go with the beer I chased around all week, Bushy's Hop tu Naa, or the best-tasting beer I had! I sampled eight Bushys beers during my visit and, although they're well made and solid brews, they simply aren't my thing and while I'd drink them if nothing else was available I'd not search them out if you see what I'm getting at. Likewise Okells whose multitude of beers tend to the bland side with the notable exception of Aile plus the surprisingly tasty Raven's Claw house beer made for the Raven in Ballaugh. I've already dissed the Shore Hotel's beer adequately so you know my opinion on that, which leaves “imported” beer; I had some decent Harviestoun Schiehallion, very good Moorhouses Black Cat and atrocious Batemans plus a few other bits and bobs, which leaves my beer of the trip decision a simple mathematical matter of comparing scores to find a winner.
Okells Aile it is, then. A dense, brooding “bible black” coloured liquid with a thick consistency, bitter, burnt roasted and liquoricey flavour and long, complex bitter, roasted malt, molasses, liquorice and dry finish; overall, this beer stands out way ahead of anything else Okells – or anyone else on the island – produces and is a superbly complex stout in it's own right, although it's even more impressive when you compare it to the other Manx beers and see just how extreme and ground-breaking it really is. Top stuff, and here's to a proper Manx IPA next... !
© Gazza 11/12/09. V1.0.
My Google map of the island, all fully updated, is here.
Here are some useful links.
IoM CAMRA site
Their map of pubs
A "real ale guide" to the Island.
|Dash-8 over the Irish sea||Terminus Tavern and horse tram depot, Douglas||Shore Hotel brewpub, Old Laxey||Bay Hotel, Port Erin||Ravens Claw, the house beer at the Raven, Ballaugh|