Last Christmas, we found ourselves on King Street in Bristol, and were astonished to note that it had become home to three self-styled ‘craft beer’ outlets. We subsequently used it as a symbol of ‘the rebirth of British beer’ in the prologue of Brew Britannia.
Back then, Small Bar had only just opened, and, even though there was an exciting sense of commitment to ‘the cause’, it was obviously still finding its feet, serving flat kegged beer, some of it poorly chosen in the first place, amidst paint fumes and an air of mild panic.
Last Sunday, we broke the journey back from Birmingham and braved a night in Bristol to check on its progress.
While the Famous Royal Naval Volunteer across the road was gloomy and mostly empty, Small Bar, was buzzing.
A mini-festival celebrating the Wild Beer Co. (who also get a third of a chapter in Brew Britannia…) and British sour beers more generally was underway, and the chalked-up beer list, with clearly-stated prices, looked especially enticing.
Having missed it entirely last year, and at the Birmingham Beer Bash on Saturday, we started off with Shnoodlepip (6.5%), WBC’s collaboration with Mark Tranter and Kelly Ryan, in its 2014 iteration. It was available from straight-up keg and also from an oak cask, so we got a half of each to compare. We didn’t detect much difference except that the former was (surprise!) cooler and had better condition. The barman promised definite oakiness, but we didn’t get it. Overall, there was something of the hedgerow wine about it. It’s tastefully done, and certainly tasty, but not a revelation.
Somerset Wild (5%), also from WBC, was more to our taste. When we spoke to Brett Ellis and Andrew Cooper last summer, they were still working up to using actual wild yeast as opposed to bought-in cultures. This pilsner-pale, appetisingly hazy, gooseberry-wine of a beer is evidence that whatever’s on the breeze in Somerset isn’t just good for fermenting scrumpy. The head disappeared quickly, but the beer had plenty of life, and felt traditional, like the kind of thing farm labourers in Thomas Hardy novels might have enjoyed. A contender for beer of the year, if we can find the opportunity to try it again.
While we were on a streak of finding long-coveted beers with a vague Brew Britannia connection, we were also pleased to encounter Lovibond’s Sour Grapes (5.4%). (Jeff Rosenmeier of Lovibond’s is quoted in the book, as a passionate and eloquent critic of cask-conditioning.) We were expecting, perhaps, indigestion-inducing FEEL THE BURN sourness, so were pleased to find it a clean-but-complex, summery beer which we could happily spend a long session drinking. “Lemon cheesecake” reads the only note we took all afternoon.
Almost everything interesting was £6+ a pint, so it’s not a cheap place to drink, but staff were generous with samples, and we didn’t feel like any of the beers we bought were bad value, insofar as, scarcity aside, they were genuinely different to anything on offer at any of our local pubs.
This was a fun afternoon session in a bar which is in the process of becoming great, and where we felt very at ease. We’ll be back.
Brett Ellis, head brewer at WBC, also happened to be there, delivering a talk to a crowd of fans — was ever there a time when more lectures were given in British drinking establishments?