The Smithfield Tavern: Return of The Pub
Manchester microbrewers Blackjack talk to us about their new Northern Quarter taphouse, and what makes a proper pub
The proper pub is a hard-to-define concept. For some it’s a dingy tavern with Victorian tiling and a big range of handpulls, while for others it’s anywhere with a decent pool table. The guys at Blackjack brewery have decided a ‘proper pub’ means historic features, plenty of games and a cracking selection of beer.
The Smithfield Tavern is undoubtedly a genuine pub. One of the city’s oldest, it’s been a big part of Manchester’s beer heritage long before the new wave of microbreweries popped up. It has a sterling reputation as a great spot for the beer drinker, despite a few ups and downs in recent years. It seems sort of natural, then, for it to become the taphouse for one of the city’s best breweries.
We visited the Smithfield on a sunny Sunday to drink a few pints, play a few games of chess and ask Rob and Darcey Hawkins at Blackjack about the renovation.
"A proper pub with really smart beer"
“We wanted to make a proper pub, which is first and foremost a boozer, but also just happens to have some really smart beer,” says Rob. “We’ve always liked to drink in old school pubs, and we’d much rather that than a bar or tasting room.”
To Blackjack's credit, it does feel like a proper boozer. There are timbered floors, vintage wooden furniture and a big jar of pickled eggs on the bar. In terms of entertainment, you’ve got a stack of board games as well as a dart board, table skittles and an ancient looking shove ha'penny board. The Sunday papers being out on a counter is a great touch; you could imagine yourself sitting in the Smithfield in the morning with a pint and the crossword.
That the beers are “smart” is a bit of an understatement. Blackjack handle distribution for some of the best breweries in the country, so we were a bit spoilt for choice across the seven cask and 11 keg lines. The Blackjack Stout on Nitro went down really well, dry and clean with a slight bitterness. Burning Sky’s Saison L’Ete was a treat; thirst quenching and fruity. Arbor Ales' single hop Motueka was on similarly good form, light and creamy with citrus notes.
The Smithfield has already hosted live music, as well as a beer launch by nearby Runaway Brewery. We asked Rob about what else is planned for the future. “We could do some more beer events I suppose, meet the brewer and the like,” he says. “But that’s not entirely what it is about, we don’t want beer to be the sole focus. You’re more likely to see a darts or backgammon tournament, if I’m honest.”
Asking about the renovation process causes Rob and Darcey to exchange a knowing look. “It was about a month from having the idea of opening a pub, to getting hold of the keys,” explains Darcey. “Then we had eighteen days from getting the keys to actually opening to the public, so you can imagine we have had our hands full.
“It was a real in-house job, we didn’t hire a decorator, we didn’t use outside help and we had a tiny budget. Everyone just sort of pulled together and grabbed a paintbrush. We did the place up in less than three weeks with the help of our friends and quite a few beers.”
It would be fair to say the shoestring budget has impacted on the decor of the pub. Anyone who’s been to one of Blackjack's brewtaps will recognise some of the same DIY ethic coming through in the Smithfield. It seems appropriate, however, for a pub so ancient to be a little rustic in design.
Rob seems really keen for the Smithfield to be an inclusive space. “If people want to come and start a knitting circle, or a poetry corner or anything we’d love to see that. At the same time, I want anyone who comes in to be able to enjoy a few beers regardless of what’s going on.”
“It’s important to us that it’s a really relaxed space anyone can come and drink in if they want to,” adds Darcey.
In fact, we’re finding it hard to think of reasons why you wouldn’t want to drink in the Smithfield; whether you’re really into beer or just fancy a pickled egg and a game of backgammon.
37 Swan Street, Manchester