Originally written and posted for the MCR Beer Week blog here.
Given the final decision, it may come as a surprise to most that I truly thought long and hard about my choice for favourite pub in the (Greater) Manchester area. We are blessed with many marvellous pubs for a variety of reasons; be it heritage, quality of beer, atmosphere or just the clientele. Yet I can't deny that I was only reaching and searching for anything beyond the obvious choice all who know me would well expect me to choose - because, for me, there is no greater Manchester pub than Stalybridge Buffet Bar.
If there are the predictable groans and eye-rolls concerning my choice then allow me to talk of the pub away from my own personal affection as to why it deserves the title, including a little history.
Stalybridge Buffet Bar is housed on the current Platform four of the busy Stalybridge Railway station. The station itself opened in 1849 as part of a link between Sheffield and Lincolnshire. It was with the station expansion to a North Western to London line that the first license was granted to John Beaumont in 1860 for a station refreshment rooms. In this period it consisted only of the small room that now houses the pub’s bar area.
There are vague details and stories for nearly a hundred years of the bar that was open for that entire period. My personal favourite tale involves one Hugh Toney in the 1870s, whom was sentenced to seven days hard labour for stealing a 6d glass from the Refreshment Rooms as well as being drunk and disorderly. Why do I find that amusing? Let's just say my sentence would probably be a bit longer these days.
In the late 1960's the pricely some of £3000 was spent renovating the Buffet Bar, including the famous stained glass windows in the conservatory. This period also saw the development of the station’s former ladies first class waiting room that still forms part of the pub today.
It was proudly saved though and reopened (officially) in January 1997 with John Hesketh at the lease. Famously in these parts, Mike Field wanted to take the helm of a pub he much adored and, when he lost out, decided to open his own Stalybridge Buffet Bar tribute bar at Dewsbury station; the West Ridings Refreshment Rooms.
In 2013 Mike did take up the reigns with the Buffet Bar becoming an addition to his expanding, but always excellent, Beerhouses group. It has been open over 150 years yet still this pub retains much of its natural charm. The original marble bar remains. The conservatory has been renovated only where necessity has dictated yet still maintains much of its shape and famous windows. The wide array of wonderful railway memorabilia still adorns nearly every inch of every wall. The old converted first class ladies waiting room still feels like a miniature railway museum.
Yet it is its lifelong promotion of excellent beer that is Stalybridge Buffet Bar's most important feature.
Cask is almost autocratic here with ten handpumps, and I can't think of another pub across the borough that perfects the cask balance of styles regimentally. Two lines are permanently dedicated to cask cider, including the Holmfirth produced Pure North Cider. There is a dedicated Stout line at all times, as well as one permanently for mild. A final residency for Timothy Taylor’s Landlord alongside five rotating lines ensures that all demographics are catered for here.
It’s the assignment of the lines, especially that for Mild, that sets this apart from other pubs offering similar size ranges. All pubs offering so much should be able to answer questions such as “Have you got a Best Bitter?” “Have you got a Stout?” or “Have you got a Mild?” with a simple Yes. I may not drink Mild often personally, but it sells so well continuously that having it as a choice is well worth it. It provides the inclusivity that newer bars in the region are lacking. I am amply served amongst the rotating guests but all good beer drinkers should find something here.
Over the past couple of years we’ve seen a myriad of the best of British beer presented on these pumps. From modern Scottish breweries, to London’s new “crafties,” to local stalwarts still producing excellency. If they make cask beer, there’s a good chance they’ve graced this bar. In fact, the greatest struggle here is competing with the city centre pubs – both on availability and price – for Manchester’s more recent cask producers.
Two guest keg lines show the steps it is taking into more modern dispensaries, though they are still outsold and outstripped by the cask by such a margin that there is no need to make this a focus. A range of modern bottles and cans fills the final hole in the market, as well as providing refreshment for the following train journeys at a discount.
Did I mention they still have a real fire?
Lazy researchers and pub traditionalists will speak of Stalybridge Buffet Bar's "Famous Black Peas," but that comes from the traditions the pub is putting behind it. Now it is more likely to see a mouth-watering array of in-house made pies and pastries, as well as jerky cooked with local brewery beer. The touch of simple but well-made food baked in a kitchen ten feet away from where you order your pint is the final jigsaw piece for me. Once you have your heritage pub, well-kept beer and beautiful food, all that remains is the people to fill the place.
You don’t need to be a local to feel welcome at the bar and strike up a conversation with a regular (though beware of those with stupid quiffs and an unwarranted air of superiority.)
Of course the greatest part of the pub is the people involved. You may be "lucky" enough to be served by the wonderful Lyndsey and Sunita who will ensure that your coat pockets or bag find their way home stuffed full of sachets of various condiments. You may be lucky enough to meet the incredibly handsome Jason Dean at the bar and hear his laugh rip out your eardrums. You may be lucky enough to spot the brilliantly named Bearon Rango lurking, though sight of him is rarer than sightings of White Humpback Whales. You may be lucky enough to see Hayley and her (sometimes) beautiful hair. *
And then, of course, there's manager Caroline, who insists she doesn't need to be mentioned in any article, all in a tone that suggests that if I forget to mention how brilliant she is again I may be barred from the pub for life. She's a brilliant manager and has a terrific knack of making me feel like I'm always in the wrong (which she will tell you I always am.) **
The pub is especially busy on Saturdays with those partaking in the Transpennine Rail Ale Trail. People often ask me if the pub could survive without this added weekend-business-come-tourist-night-out. I find this insulting. Busy with commuters, travellers and regulars, the Buffet Bar is already an attractive visitor destination without the added novelty of a pub crawl. This place already has what too many modern drinking establishments often lack; an abundance of history, character and the busiest of busy walls.
Pubs play a huge part of Manchester's rich beer heritage. The pub culture is still thriving; providing that second home for regulars and occasional visitors alike. For me, there is no place quite like Stalybridge Buffet Bar. Far removed from what it means to me, it is a unique and continuously successful pub with all the required attributes on any tick list.
The Manchester beer scene is all about providing local pride with a welcome invitation to the world. You can't see it better than in a railway station bar in a town once dubbed Staly Vegas.
*DISCLAIMER: Nobody involved in the pub knew that I was writing this article prior to its release, but those mentioned almost certainly insisted this paragraph was included.
**DISCLAIMER: Caroline IS a wonderful manager and didn't ask me to include this part, nor threaten to bar me. She did, however, give me "that look."