Arbor Ales: Not for Us

Arbor Ales at the Three Tuns, Bristol.

After more than a year, we have come to the conclusion that, despite widespread acclaim, Bristol’s Arbor Ales just don’t do it for us.

Their ‘brand’ has always appealed — adventurous-sounding beers in a wide range of styles, often with experimental hops or other strange ingredients, and modern-looking design. Very ‘craft’, if you like. We were predisposed to be fans, and perhaps that set us up for disappointment.

Wanting to try the widest range of their beer in the best possible nick, we visited their own brewery tap, the Three Tuns, for the first time in November 2012. Bristol is now over-stuffed with ‘craft beer’ bars, but the Tuns was one of the first, and several people recommended it to us. We came away, unfortunately, without finding a beer — cask, keg or bottle — that we really enjoyed, and feeling that Bristol had better places to drink.

But everyone else loved Arbor and the Tuns, and we’d only visited once, so we doubted our judgement and didn’t write about it.

We tried more throughout the year but, still, no magic struck. (A bottled Dr Rudi IPA was a notable disappointment.)

This week, we returned to Bristol wanting to have our minds changed. We really wanted a transcendent experience that would allow us to say something like this, but it was not to be.

Motueka, a single-hopped pale ale at 3.8% ABV, was barely drinkable: there was no fruitiness from either hops or yeast; a savoury, stock-like note with something of bay leaves; and (probably the pub’s fault) a lack of condition which only emphasised the rather thin body.

Alechemy, a 7.3% ‘Red Oz IPA’ brewed as an ‘anti-Christmas’, had some depth and complexity, and reminded us somewhat of Blue Anchor Spingo Special — big and sticky. It was, however, rather too raw, with an eventually over-powering flavour that reminded us of a beer brewed with chestnuts. Again, it was let down by poor condition. (UPDATE: this beer was a collaboration with Alechemy and is actually called, we think, ‘Anti-Christ-Mas’.)

We abandoned both, unfinished.

Now, we know the post-Christmas lull is not a great time for pubs, and we’ve been told that both managers at the Tuns were on their post-Christmas break. But if you can’t get a brewery’s beers in good condition at its tap, then isn’t something wrong? And if a pub doesn’t have the necessary staff or turnover to serve good beer in the week after Christmas, should it really be open?

There was one little glimmer of hope, however: at the Crofter’s Rights (a trendy barn-like junk-shop of a craft beer bar in Stoke’s Croft) we found kegged Arbor Breakfast Stout (7.4%) not only drinkable, but rather enjoyable. A deep tan head and unctuous body made it resemble a cafetière of coffee before plunging. That oily chestnut character was present again, but drowned out by much more pleasant intense cherry-cocoa flavours.

So, not for us, but not yet completely written-off.

We were planning to write this post anyway but it happens to fit conveniently into the theme of this month’s beer blogging Session #83, hosted by Bake & Brew which asks ‘what beer do you say “no thanks” to that everyone can’t get enough of?’

28 thoughts on “Arbor Ales: Not for Us”

  1. I’ve a soft spot for their Motueka single hop, it was the first of the new wave of single hop beers I ever had back around 09/10. Remember enjoying it, haven’t had it for years now though.

    I like Arbor’s beer but I would like to see more of their sensible stuff like the Brigstow Bitter or Oyster Stout available. Seems all they send out now are IPAs which are a bit crap with pork scratchings or dry roasted nuts.

  2. They’re in my vague “inconsistent but I’ll still risk trying anything new from them” list. Along with *most* of these young(ish) breweries that’re popularly exploring the world beyond Boring Brown Bitter – such as all these damn new London ones I can’t keep up with. Don’t see much Arbor cask/keg here though – think Milton has brought some into Cambridge in the past & it was never in great form when I got to it. Have had good new-wave-hoppy beers from them in bottle, a couple have been rank though. And often too murky – which every hipster lad seems think is awesome “hop haze” these days… FFS.

    I’m getting a bit tired of these breweries producing a plethora of one-off brews TBH. Most of them with incredibly inconsistent quality… and so often bottle conditioning issues. I do keep buying the stuff, but I’m increasingly picky with bottles — I found myself rebuying more consistent “old” favourites as 2013 drew on. (Just wish more of a range of the likes of Magic Rock, Summer Wine, & Buxton was regularly available.)

    1. I have an interesting trail of Arbor breadcrumbs in untappd. I went from being highly interested in them in March’13 due to Down Deeperer through to saying in Oct’13 “a bit mealy in the ‘Arbor way’ (in my experience)” about Limelight. (I’d link… but untappd idiots have utterly broken the usability of their website on mobile devices… le sigh.)

  3. I’m surprised. They are very well regarded up here in the cold North and their bottles fly out. I’m a big fan of Hoptical Delusion, myself. On cask their Yakima Valley is terrific and that and Triple Hop were two of the stars of the SIBA festival at Hawkshead.

  4. I’ve had a couple of theirs and liked them. Liked, not raved – I can’t off-hand remember the actual beers, or even the styles.

  5. they certainly have a house character, especially in the pale ales which i always describe as slightly “yoghurty”. I’ve had about 30 of theirs ranging from solid to unfinished with a few standouts.

  6. When Weird Beard first started up I had really mixed results (cask and keg) and was worried they fell into the ‘avoid’ category. Thankfully everything I’ve tried recently has been tip-top, particularly their decadence stout, which is bloody lovely, cask-like stuff from the bottle.

  7. Keg and Cask were on at a club I was in over christmas. Both proudly described as ‘un-fined’. Both tasted good, not great. Both were so murky you couldn’t see through them. I’ve homebrewed in the past and never used finings of any kind, and yet all I ever had was haziness, not a pint you couldn’t see through. Someone at the brewery needs to alert licensees to the need to cellar unfined beers for long enough to settle naturally, unless of course this is what the beer is supposed to be like…

  8. Npt been impressed in that there London. Had some in both ET and Pelt Trader and very unimpressed. E thought them horrible. Not quite on my “avoid” list but not far off it.

  9. “…getting a bit tired of these breweries producing a plethora of one-off brews TBH…”

    Thought that popped into my head: speed dating. After a while, one wants commitment from both sides in a relationship.

  10. I would like it to be noted that, if you aren’t enjoying your pint or think there is something wrong with it, it is customary to mention this to the bar staff at the time, so that they can rectify the issues, rather than writing a blog about it after the fact when nothing can be done about it.

  11. Bar staff — thanks for commenting.

    If this was all about the beer being *off*, then that would be a fair point, and that is what we usually do.

    In this case, it wasn’t off — just not, in our view, well made in the first place. Lack of condition didn’t help, but wasn’t the heart of the problem.

  12. Regardless of anything else, it’s pretty pathetic that you didn’t air your grievances with the bar staff. This is beer blogging at its worst.

    Reminds me of countless reviews I’ve read of restaurants on Trip Advisor where people bitch and moan without ever speaking to the businesses involved about the issues they have.

    Did you even contact the brewery about these issues before publicly slating them?

    1. Brian — ‘at its worst’? Blimey.

      Our aim was to appraise the brewery’s products with a view to writing about them — not merely to get a satisfactory drink.

      We exchanged a few emails and DMs with the brewery before posting, but nothing that was said changed our opinion, formed over the course of more than a year.

  13. It is incredibly poor form to write a blog with the SINGLE intent of denigrating a brewery. Surely people are wise enough to make their own choices based on their own experiences. What exactly do you hope to gain from this kind of outlandish negativity? A private message & a privately shared opinion would have shown infinitely more class.

    Deplorable, damaging & hideous blogging.

    1. That’s an interesting response.

      “It is incredibly poor form to write a blog with the SINGLE intent of denigrating a brewery.”

      We went with the intention of writing an honest review, and really hoped to be able to write a good one. It doesn’t give us any pleasure to write bad ones, not least because people shout at us when we do.

      “Surely people are wise enough to make their own choices based on their own experiences.”

      We don’t tend to form opinions based on other people’s reviews, so you’re probably right. In which case, no damage done..?

      1. It is clearly the case that a lot of people have a positive experience with beer from Arbor… since they do have a good reputation. I actually expected more defence of their beer in response here and was surprised that there has been very little.

        The recent attacks do not count as a defence, they really seem to be little more than affronted grumpiness. “Ohhh! How dare you!” I think the last 3 comments are unfair… and anyway, what’s up with this idea that all-blogging-should-be-positive-news and all-negative-feedback-should-be-direct-and-private? The blog post seems fair & reasoned – it is based on experience over a period of time too, not a single moment. It certainly does not suggest the reader should agree – quite the opposite really.

        (Waving my little flag in support… “against the grain” opinions are valued, and often needed – especially in public where they can hopefully attract some useful & informative debate.)

  14. Great to read honest blog not written with SINGLE, or should that be sole, intent of being part of a brewery’s marketing drive.

  15. There is absolutely nothing wrong with slating a beer, a brewery, or a pub in public, if the criticism is honest and justifiable. The market is a public arena. Brewers and pubs are offering their beers for sale to the public. It is up to them to ensure that they are good before offering them for sale.

  16. While I’m not arguing with your experiences – they are yours, not mine – I am surprised by them.

    I’ve drunk mostly their bottled beers, and while the occasional Freestyle Friday might have wide of the mark (mostly in conception rather than execution, and much better in the last 12 months, with their latest, a saison collaboration with Wiper & True, being Very Good), I have them pegged as being solid to good, with occasional excellence.

  17. Looking at r***beer they do seem to have an awfully large number of one of brews. Not every brewery can be the kernel.

  18. My first experience with them was a Freaky Friday black IPA that had the Olympic rings on the label. I thought it pretty good, good enough that I was excited to try the next.

    I went through a phase where I didn’t think a lot to the next 4 or 5 beers I had from them, so was ready to sack them off.

    In the last couple of months I’ve had a few that have been good. There was one that was better than good on keg. About 4 that were good (keg and cask). I wasn’t really fond of the Motueka single hop. I thought the breakfast stout on cask was worth a second.

    I can’t remember where the bottle was from, I think I bought it postal from Zak. The rest have been from Port Street and Font in Manchester.

    I am in total agreement with littlemark about the beers needing more time to settle. I’ve noticed this quite a bit recently that beers are being put on the bar early. This doesn’t always mean they’re cloudy, as some drop bright fairly quickly, but the flavours are just a bit off. sometimes sulphury, just not nice. Yet the same cask a day or two later, is bang on, and you would swear it’s a different beer.

    On a different note, I didn’t realise that we had already voted in the bartender spokesperson yet. I thought we had agreed we would do that at the AGM in March?

  19. Surprised by some of the responses on here. We can’t all like every beer from every trendy brewery.

    I’ve had a few beers from Arbor now, and I’ve found them very variable.

    The best of them such as “Whole Nine Yards” and “Why Kick A Moo Cow” were among my top beers of 2013. I really like their Motueka as well but I have no issue with this blog disagreeing with me on that. However, there have been some of their beers have I really haven’t enjoyed at all.

    Personally, I prefer Bristol Beer Factory, whose beer I find to be excellent and enjoyable on a much more consistent basis. I know there are plenty of people who disagree with me on this but life would be boring if we all liked the same thing wouldn’t it?

    1. Only partly tongue-in-cheek… that’s actually quite a good question. Would life be boring if we all liked the same thing? Before answering, you should of course assume that “the same thing” equals anything and everything that you personally like: i.e. all your vain attempts to track down Spingo or Orval or white Stilton would be over, because everyone would recognise them as the gift from God that they are. (And conversely nobody would waste your time trying to persuade you to try quadruple IPAs or 13% barrel-aged imperial stouts, or anything on keg. Or kvass.)

      Part of me thinks that wouldn’t be boring at all…

  20. I’ve had a similar experience myself. Very rough around the edges. Hoppy beers are too much and astringent and often a bit flat from the bottle. I remember them being very soupy in appearance. Personally sediment plays havoc with my guts so I’m all for filtering or nicely packed down yeast, no cheese, peas and carrots please.

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