Mike’s Manx Musings

Mike Bird heads to the island of tail-less cats for his summer holiday

Ah, so it’s August 2021.  Holiday time.  But it’s also Covid-19 time.  Where can I go on holiday without having something shoved down my throat and up my nose, and without wearing a mask for about three or four hours whilst travelling?  OK, it’s got to be in Britain then.  But where?  After having a very soggy few days in Devon (where it was hard work enjoying oneself), and a few nice sunny days in South Wales, I needed somewhere else to go.  It didn’t take myself and J long to think of it.  The Isle of Man. 

Yep, been three times before to this beautiful island that has something for everyone (as well as being a heritage transport lover’s dream come true) but the lure of the Manx was calling again.  The island had been totally closed to visitors during the worst of the pandemic times, but had only just re-opened in time for the late summer season.  I had a look at the IOM government website to see the state of play with Covid-19 before deciding to go, and saw that there was the inevitable spike in cases after unlocking; however, it pays to look at the scale on a graph. When I saw that the maximum number of cases on the whole island was 44, I decided it was safe!

Lost to the pandemic: the defunct Hooded Ram brewery

Only one problem….. the beer, despite the fact that the island has a beer purity law dating back to 1874, similar to the one that governs production of beer in Germany.  The island is dominated by two large breweries, Okell’s and Bushy’s.  There are a few new ones that have sprung up in relatively recent years, but their products are hard to find.  Okell’s is by far the larger brewery, having started large-scale brewing on the island in 1850 and owning most of the pubs, whereas Bushy’s tends generally to be found in free houses.  For some reason that I have never been able to fathom, Okell’s seems to be the locals’ beer, whereas Bushy’s seems to be much more popular amongst the motorbiking fraternity that invades the island every summer for the TT races. 

The IOM CAMRA website states that there are five breweries on the island; Okell’s, Bushy’s, Hooded Ram, Odin’s and Old Laxey Brewing Company.  Photos show the newest premises of the Hooded Ram brewery on the south side of Douglas harbour, which is now defunct as the brewery was lost during pandemic times, and the Shore Hotel near Laxey beach which is the main outlet for Old Laxey Brewing Company beers.

Now I know it’s all a matter of personal taste when it comes to drinking beer, but I have always found on my previous trips to the island that both the major, locally-brewed beers tend to be on the thin and overly bitter side (but not in a good hoppy sense) for me – hence my comment earlier. Deciding nevertheless to forego the prospect of an excellent beer drinking week, a drive to Liverpool Airport followed by only a 20-minute flight saw us landing at Ronaldsway airport.  A quick bus into Douglas and a very short walk brought us to our lovely small hotel.

It was tumbling down with rain when we arrived, so a long walk to a decent pub was definitely off the cards.  Luckily, one of the best pubs in Douglas was our closest, so a trip to the Woodbourne was called for.  This large pub in a residential area of the town is a multi-roomed establishment, and is one of the most comfortable pubs on the island.  Entering the main bar area, despite being confronted by a good array of hand pumps with good guest beers on, I decided to see if anything had changed since my last visit and so ordered a pint of Okell’s bitter (3.7%).  It was better than I remembered but it was still a bit thin and bitter for me.  This was followed by a pint of one of their relatively new beers, MPA (Manx Pale Ale), at 3.5%.  This has replaced their mild (which is now only brewed as a seasonal and called “Olaf”) but it stretched the definition of the word “replaced”.  MPA has a citrus-type, very bitter flavour, in complete contrast to their old mild beer which was a very soft and gentle brew.

The Shore Hotel in Laxey — good for local beer

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a detailed description of every pub I visited and every pint I drank during a whole week (I nearly heard you snoring at the back there!) but just an outline of the Manx drinking scene.  Some of the other pubs visited in Douglas included the comfortable, if touristy, Okell’s Terminus (good for pub grub) at the end of the Manx Electric Railway. The Thirsty Pigeon is a relatively newly opened pub featuring Odin’s beers as well as mainland ones and which gives CAMRA discounts. The Albert, near the harbour, is a good basic free house with one of the best beers I had all week, Odin’s mild. The Prospect is opposite the Tynwald, the island’s parliament building, which is well worth a visit on the weekly guided tour.  If you are wishing to try Bushy’s beers, the Rovers Return (yes, really) behind the Town Hall in Douglas is your aim, even though the locals here can best be described as “characters”.

On our trips out of town, a visit to Castletown on the wonderful Manx Steam Railway brought us to an IOM CAMRA former pub of the year, Sidings, an excellent free house (virtually next door to the railway station) with a good array of hand pumps featuring well-kept local and Mainland brews. A visit to Laxey (beware, the village centre with its MER and Snaefell Railway station is a good 20-minute walk from the beach) took us to the Shore Hotel where Old Laxey’s Bosun bitter (3.8%) was another thin, bitter beer. 

On our last day, a bus trip to Peel, a lovely small town with a nice beach, interesting castle, harbour and excellent old kipper-smoking factory, revealed a real gem.  I was walking up one of the main shopping streets, looking in shop windows, when J said, “have you seen what’s behind you?”  I turned round to see what I believe to be the island’s only micro-pub, the Miller’s T’ale, where the author is pictured outside.  Realising we had a few minutes left before we were due to leave, we shot in and had two Mainland beers from the Midlands (one from Green Duck of Stourbridge and a strong ale from the Gloucester Brewery) out of a choice of about five draught beers and countless bottles.  A quick chat with the owner revealed his choice of beers was influenced by the fact that his wife was from the Black Country and it was then, all too soon, time for the bus back to Douglas.

In conclusion, as you may have gathered by now, most of the local beers on the island tend to be on the thin-bodied, bitter side; however, with a bit of travelling and searching, it’s possible to find some island pubs with more interesting beer appealing to wider palates, even though most of them will be from the Mainland.  The Isle of Man is a lovely holiday destination so don’t let the beer scene put you off, as you’ll be missing out in the long run.

Mike Bird outside the Miller’s T’ale in Peel — what a find!