‘Mancunians aren’t cocky - they’re rightly proud of what they’ve got’

03 Jun 2016

In his latest column for Craft Beer London, Fuller’s head brewer John Keeling turn to his attention to his home city as Manchester prepares for its inaugural beer week. It’s a city that has always brimmed with good beer and strong opinions ...


“Mancunians have never been very nice about London beer. I remember when I first got my job at Fuller’s in 1981, all my Mancunian mates said: ‘You don’t want to go and drink that weak London piss! How can you be making that?’ I defended Fuller’s, I said they had a good reputation, but I kept my powder dry. I knew I would get my own back later.


The first time they came down to London was to see Manchester United play at Spurs. We were out the night before and they said, ‘So what do you drink in London?’ ‘Oh,’ I told them, ‘everyone drinks light and bitter.’ ‘What’s light and bitter?’ ‘It’s a half of that ESB (at 5.5 per cent ABV) and a bottle of Golden Pride (at 8.5 per cent) - and while you’re there, get me a pint of Chiswick (3.5 per cent).”


After they had a night on that, they didn’t think London beer was that weak after all! They couldn’t get out of bed to get to the match, even though it kicked off at 3pm. That showed them.


But Mancunians like that banter; some people think they’re cocky but I think it’s a veneer. You can see it in a band like Oasis, but I think if you challenged them you’d see it wasn’t cockiness. Manchester has always stood on its own two feet and they’re rightly proud of that.


I’ll be up there soon for the first Manchester Beer Week (which runs from the 10th to the 19th of June ). I’m doing a tasting of Fuller’s Vintages at Beermoth. I’m not sure which ones we’re going to do, but it should be interesting. I guess it depends if Fuller’s let me take some of the more expensive ones! I haven’t too many Vintage tastings - maybe seven in the last 15 years, and most of them in London, so it’s quite special.


I don’t get up to Manchester at often as I used to; twice a year, perhaps. My family has moved away - my mum is living in Yorkshire now - so I’ve nowhere to stay anymore. I occasionally get to see United but it’s harder and harder as they’re always sold out, and it’s impossible to book a hotel as United are at home. It takes some organising.


The city has changed a lot since I was working there, for Wilson’s, back in the mid-1970s. I think the biggest change is the number of people living in the city centre compared to how it used to be. Back then everyone would get on the nightbus home when the pubs closed: in most of those pubs, there weren’t even people living upstairs. The centre of the city was given over to shops and nobody really lived there. That’s all changed - it’s a city of warehouses, many of which have been converted into dwellings now.


But then so many of Britain’s cities have been revived over the past 20 years. That’s really obvious in food and drink: you see independent businesses, bakeries, breweries, opening up everywhere. The focus is on flavour and taste, not price. The culture has changed, just like the cities.


Manchester is an interesting city for beer because it’s the last place that the so-called ‘Big Six’ targeted. Virtually every city had been taken over, so you’d get the same products - Bass, Watney’s, Whitbread- wherever you went. Except Manchester, which had a wide range of local breweries, who all made very different products. Hyde’s tasted very different from Holt’s, which was different from Oldham Brewery, which wasn’t like Boddington’s.


There’s a new generation of Manchester breweries, too. The last time I was up there, for Indymanbeercon in October, I was on the same panel as Cloudwater’s James Campbell, who I knew from his days at Marble. And now the head brewer at Marble is James Kemp, who used to be here at Fuller’s.  


They’re more than just local Manchester breweries, though - the internet means that as soon as a brewery gets a reputation for quality, everyone knows about it. You’ve seen that with Cloudwater. If you make good beer, you can be sending it from Manchester to Edinburgh and London three months after you opened.


I’m sure there’ll be some banter when I’m up there for Manchester Beer Week. I’m hoping that someone will say ‘What’s a London brewer doing here?’ I hope I get some comments, maybe on Twitter. I’ll put them right!”