Beer People – Connor Murphy of Manchester Beer Week

Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis

While I was researching my recent piece on Manchester’s Beer Culture for Good Beer Hunting I sat down for a chat with Connor Murphy, the founder of Manchester Beer Week. I was in town to host a tasting at Beermoth as part of the event and met with Connor for some brunch in Common. His phone was going crazy with constant calls and messages from folks helping him to organise the event. I’m incredibly thankful that Connor was able to give me half an hour of his time.

However, I only squeezed a minute portion of that interview into the final piece and reading it back a couple of days ago I decided it would be worthwhile sharing that conversation in its entirety. I’ve followed Connor via his blog, Beer Battered for a few years now and I think he did an incredible job with the first iteration of Manchester Beer Week. It genuinely felt like Connor and those that had helped him have established an event that will be successful for years to come. It was also a fantastic opportunity for us to discuss the wider Manchester beer scene, how it’s changed and how it might look in the future.

MC: Why did you decide Manchester needed its own beer week, what was your motivation?

CM: I think Manchester was lagging behind, you watch what’s going on in London, Bristol, Norwich – I mean Norwich City of Ale is a massive inspiration on that front.

It’s the original British beer week!

Exactly, and the impact that its had is huge. What it’s put back into local businesses, what it’s done for the city as a tourist destination – while City of Ale is on – that’s incredible. I thought “why has this not happened already?” The scene here has grown massively and completely organically in the last five years. The amount of breweries opening up is incredible and it made no sense that nobody had thought about pulling it together into a week of events.

So that was it really, and being Mancunian I thought, “why not give it a go?” 

And you’ve done this on top of a full time job?

Yeah, which has been hard but enjoyable and worthwhile. Finding the time is tough, its getting home after work and then knowing that you’ve got another four or five hours of work to do.

From a very small corner of the Manchester beer scene there was a negative reaction towards embracing beer cultures outside of Manchester. Why do you think that was?

Manchester can be funny in some ways. It’s a very progressive city but then at the same time quite parochial. The way the scene has grown here means that in some ways it’s become quite self-sustaining. Manchester breweries are finding it difficult to find space on the bar in the city because there’s so many of them, but the city does tend to support its own scene.

Everyone seems to support the brewers around here and a result of that is that a kind of ‘us and them’ attitude has appeared. Which is good in some ways, because it demonstrates that the city is immensely proud of what it’s done. But I think we need to wary of not doing that at the expense of other experiences. For example American beer is great as well, beer from London’s great. Wherever it’s from it doesn’t really matter, it’s about enriching your experience. 

I see a lot of craft beer from outside Manchester here, I mean Beavertown Gamma Ray is seemingly everywhere.

And that’s not a problem, that’s a good thing. The opportunities will only grow if the city embraces people from outside. I was speaking to a Manchester brewer recently about selling into Bristol and they were telling me how incredibly difficult that is. In their experience Bristol feels like a city that’s seemingly closed its ranks. They don’t want to buy beer that’s not being made in the city.

I found this interesting because Bristol is, like Manchester, influenced by a huge influx of different art and culture and it makes no sense that’d you’d want to preclude one element or another. 

"It would’ve been easy to put together an event that sat within the craft bubble and not have any scope beyond that." - Connor Murphy

You mentioned this “us versus them” mentality, do you think some of the newer Manchester breweries are struggling because of the long standing heritage of the traditional breweries such as J.W. Lees?

I don’t think they’re struggling because of that. They both work within very different spheres. So what you get with the traditional breweries, Lees, Robinson’s, Holts and Hydes. They’ve got their own estates and that’s where they sell into, largely. They don’t need to necessarily move beyond that because they have enough tap space to sell what they produce in the brewery.

I think in some ways it’s a mentality thing. Although craft beer, if you want to call it that, has taken off in Manchester, it’s done so with a younger audience, and that’s people like me, or maybe even younger still. Just look at the Northern Quarter at the weekend now. The amount of bars that have a quality beer offering and the people who are drinking it is vastly different to how it was five years ago. 

So you’d say that somewhere like the Northern Quarter is actually outside of the perceived craft beer bubble?

Absolutely. People who just want to go out to have a good time now gravitate towards these bars because they’re generally forward thinking in everything they do, so they’re great places to visit. But then what you also have in Manchester is a very traditional arm as well, one that’s been around for years. It’s mainly cask led, which isn’t knock on the dispense method at all, that’s just the way it is. It’s what this cities beer culture was built on. 

There’s definitely a very strong CAMRA voice in Manchester, one that seems more proactive too. Why do you think that is?

There are definitely some strong CAMRA voices in Manchester, people like Peter Alexander and John Clarke. They’re very open minded too. They’re aware that good beer isn’t just about traditional cask ale, they’re forces for good. However, there are a lot of drinkers in this city who won’t move beyond that. I’ve forgotten the amount of times I go into a pub and encounter someone who looks down their nose at a modern keg beer or IPA. There’s this idea in Manchester that if it’s not a 4% pale ale or bitter then its crazy. It’s changing but it’s still a hardwired thing with many people. 

But to that end you managed to do something amazing. You convinced a very modern brewery in Cloudwater to collaborate with J.W. Lees. What was that like?

It was a challenge.

How did the whole idea come about?

I knew when I did this whole thing that I didn’t want to approach it half-cocked. It was important to get some funding on board in terms of sponsorship, so I approached the bigger breweries such as J.W. Lees. As much as anything else I wanted to get them involved because I thought it would be good for the Manchester Beer Scene.

It would’ve been easy to put together an event that sat within the craft bubble and not have any scope beyond that. Lees have over 150 pubs across the north of England. Getting into those pubs, and putting a Manchester Beer Week beer in front of the people that visit them is a big deal. So I approached Lees and talked about doing an official Manchester Beer Week beer. That was when I asked them if they’d thought about collaborating and they said, “Not really, the last time we did one was about 15 years ago!” They don’t really do collaborations but they seemed open to it so it was then I suggested working with Cloudwater. 

It just so happens that the marketing manager at Lees had tried some Cloudwater beers that weekend and was blown away by what he’d tried. It wasn’t a difficult sell after that, the next challenge was to just get everyone on the same page, which I’m not going to lie, was difficult. 

And then Cloudwater came up with a recipe that didn’t quite work on Lees kit?

Well, yeah. Basically it broke the hop filter [laughs]. That was the point at which we felt as though we’d overstayed our welcome. We had a great day at the brewery and there’s some really good people working at Lees, Paul Wood their brewery manager is just an incredible character, I think he’s worked there for 40-odd years. Making beer is his life and he’s devoted to making sure what he puts out is the best representation of Lees beer. He knows how that’s changed through the years so he’s devoted to his craft.

But he’d never put that amount of hops in a beer before. The amount of hops we put in for the hop stand at the end of the brew was greater than Lees entire hop use for the brewing week. I think he was a bit nervy before it went in and everything seemed to be going smoothly until we tried to extract the last few 100 litres of wort – then it all went wrong! There were a lot of people swearing, arms deep in boiling hop sludge. 

So are you looking forward to doing Manchester Beer Week again next year? Would you change anything?

I don’t think I’d massively change anything. I suppose not becoming so immersed in it myself would be a good start. I’m a bit of control freak and I fully admit that, so my natural inclination with setting these events up is that I have to be doing everything for each event. I think I need to trust venues and hope that they reciprocate, which in the main they have done. You also have to take a step back and allow people to take things their own way. And as much as I have done this I could do more of that, definitely.