Okells is the main brewery on the island and owns 48 of the pubs; most sell real ale though often this is just the pleasant but unexciting Bitter. A few sell the delicious fruity Mild but I only found their best beer, the well-hopped Dr Okells IPA, in two pubs. There are guest beers in some pubs though they tend to be of the Bombardier/Pedigree variety.
Okells took over and closed the rival Castletown Brewery in 1986 but now face strong competition once again. This comes from Bushy’s, which started as a brew pub in 1986, but now own four pubs themselves and supply many of the island’s free houses. They offer a bewildering variety of ales, many of them seasonals. I particularly liked a golden ale called Faerie Bridge (the IoM is big on fairies) while Castletown Bitter, presumably an attempt at recreating what Okells destroyed, is an excellent session beer.
Our pub visits were confined to the towns so I can’t report on the rural outlets, though most looked pretty foody from the bus. Douglas, the capital, is very well pubbed, especially around the North Quay area but beer choice was a bit limited. The Rovers Return hidden away in Church Street had the best selection and you could drink in no less than eight separate rooms. My favourite though was the superbly basic Albert Hotel, all wood-panelling, big windows and bare board floors (and a fine drop of Castletown Bitter).
Our favourite town on the island was Peel (which is also where I’d stayed all those years ago). It’s got all the ingredients – sandy bay, big ruined castle, harbour with real boats, lots of narrow winding streets – and two great pubs. The Creek Inn, next to the gimmicky House of Mananan “visitor attraction”, had a superb Bushy’s beer called Manx Pride plus Okells and some British guests. Even better was the White House, the local CAMRA pub of the year; Okells Mild (and Bitter) here along with several offerings from mainland micros. This is another multi-roomed affair and with very friendly staff and locals.
We also very much liked Castletown as a place – it has an impressively well-preserved castle and the old parliament building along with, again, two fine pubs. The Sidings, next to the railway station, had the widest selection of ales we encountered (nine), a good mix of island and mainland beers. The Castle Arms, squeezed between harbour and castle, had several guests including what turned out to be the Beer of the Holiday. Surprisingly this was a Marstons brew, a special called Long Hop which tasted like a best bitter version of their wondrous but high-powered Old Empire.
The final town we visited, courtesy of a trip on the electric railway from Douglas, was Ramsey. Here we found the Mitre (four real ales and terrific views across the harbour), the Swan, with great Okells Mild and the Trafalgar, a fine free house with Okells Bitter and Moorhouses Black Cat Mild as regulars and two micro-guests.
We very much enjoyed our time on the island and can thoroughly recommend it, particularly if you’re into things like heritage, railways and, of course, beer and pubs (oh, and motorbikes). Getting there was easy – from leaving home to touching down at Ronaldsway took just four hours. Luckily for me I’ll be back there soon because Douglas is the venue for next year’s CAMRA national conference.