The choice of name in this new House, built by the Bristol Brewery Georges & Co. Ltd., is of interest as it was chosen in an attempt to establish some sort of cultural connexion in an otherwise rather featureless housing estate.
Many of the roads in the neighbourhood bear the names of great English writers and it is intended that “The Blue Boy” should be a central pivot of this motive. Above the door to the large bar is a pleasing and colourful wall plaque. Elliptical in shape it is in fact a hand-painted reproduction on glazed frost-proof tiles of Gainsborough’s painting of the Master Buttall better as “The Blue Boy”. It is framed in painted hardboard that accentuates it and effectively separates it from the surrounding brickwork.
One night last week, guided by The Buildings of England, we made our way to the Shakespeare in Redland, Bristol, and gazed upon the ghost of its Bottle & Jug.
Bottle & Jug was a phrase we didn’t know six years ago which is why we found this oddly arranged historic sign on the side door of The Crown in Penzance so baffling — ‘Bottle Bar & Jug? Eh?’
We were being dim, of course — it’s Bottle & Jug, and then Bar. Here’s how Francis W.B. Yorke explains it in his manual for pub designers from 1949:
The out-door department, sometimes called ‘off licence’ or ‘off sales’, and formerly known as ‘jug and bottle’ department, is set aside for the sale of intoxicating drinks ‘to be consumed off the premises’, and by law may not be used (as formerly) for the consumption of drink. It may be planned off the general servery, or as a separate unit. It must be in direct communication with the street, quite shut off from drinking areas, and contain no seating. It is the only public room a child under the age of fourteen may enter.
The Shakespeare has a fairly well-preserved Edwardian exterior but much of the interior has been remodelled in 21st century style with every surface either grey paint or bare wood, and partitions removed to make one long bar room.
There are still odd bits to enjoy, though, such as the stained glass signs for LADIES and GENTLEMEN on the toilet doors, for example. Very helpfully for roving pub nerds there are also framed plans of the pub before and after its early 20th century rebuild.
That’s how we spotted another lingering relic of the old layout: a narrow corridor of blue and white tiles running from the front door up to the bar. Assuming they are original (they look it) are all that remains of the old Bottle & Jug. They interrupt the floorboards, insisting upon the distinction between rooms that no longer exist, across the distance of a century.
Back before World War I, take-away customers (often kids sent by their parents — the cause of much worry for social campaigners) would come through what is now the main door and, between panels protecting their privacy, and that of sit-in drinkers, and order beer to go at the long counter which serviced all three parts of the pub.
It would be nice if those partitions were still there but in their absence it’s pleasing that the old layout can at least be discerned with some imagination, like the outlines of an Iron Age settlement visible in the bumps and ditches of an English field system.
Here’s a new question for us to chew on: was the ‘Old Beer’ for which George’s Bristol Brewery was famous up until World War II an early example of a wilfully sour British beer?
We’ve been reading bits and pieces about George’s here and there for the last few months, fascinated by the long-gone local giant which built so many of the most interesting pubs in Bristol. It was founded in around 1730, and acquired by Courage in 1961 after which, to all intents and purposes, the brand ceased to exist. For a large chunk of its existence, though, its flagship product was a notable vatted ale:
Georges’ Old Beer, famous throughout the West, is matured in huge vats, some of the largest in the Kingdom, with a total capacity of one million gallons. The beer remains in the vats for at least 12 months before it is allowed to go to the consumer. (One Hundred and Fifty Years of Brewing, 1938)
Other Bristol breweries, notably Rogers’ of Jacob Street, also produced vatted Bristol Old Beer. Martyn Cornell has written about West Country vatted ales on his blog and in his essential 2010 book Amber, Gold and Black (disclosure: he sent us a freebie PDF at the time) and gives a useful summary of the tech spec:
Brewing of these West Country vatted ales always began in the autumn, using a mixture of old and new malts, often a ‘high-dried’ English malt with plenty of colour mixed with a mild ale malt. The Brewers’ Journal in 1936 was advising that such strong stock ales ‘of 30lb gravity and upwards’ (that is, OGs of around 1085 or more) should go through two or three secondary fermentations in cask before being bottled after nine or twelve months not fully worked out, but still ‘in slight “creamy” condition’.
What really grabbed our attention, though, was a description of George’s Old Beer in a 1943 article about the brewery in a technical journal (PDF):
The brewery was famed in early days for Porter, hence its early title ‘The Bristol Porter Brewery’. Afterwards ‘Old beer’ became one of the main products, and many vats of considerably over 1,600 barrels’ capacity were in use for storing the heavy beer for at least 18 months, the competition with cider no doubt influenced the character of this old beer.
This blew our minds a little.
We’ve long been fascinated by the similarity between the wilder Somerset ciders and Belgian lambic beers but this is the first time we’ve seen it suggested that the cider-friendly West Country palate might have influence how the local beer tasted. It’s certainly plausible, though, that drinkers used to the intensity of scrumpy might find fresh, bright, clean-tasting ales just a bit bland.
Now, at this stage, of course we still have a lot of questions to answer:
Did cider in 1943 taste like cider does now? (We can’t see that it tasted less sour or funky.)
When this writer implies Old Beer was equivalent to cider, does he mean that it tasted like cider (actually acidic and wild) or only that it was similar in some other way? E.g. relatively strong, or differently complex as a result of Brettanomyces, or merely very dry. A 1909 article in the London Illustrated News describes it as having ‘depth and mellowness’ which doesn’t sound much like cider.
What happened to the vats; when did Old Beer go out of production; and did drinkers in Bristol suddenly acquire the taste for ‘normal’ beer? (Guess: the Blitz; the war; no. But we’ll see.)
In the meantime, there’s an idea for some more sacrilegious beer mixing here: three parts old ale, one part scrumpy anyone?
Psst! Don’t forget to enter our competition if you want to win copies of 20th Century Pub and Brew Britannia.
One reason we didn’t do this in Walthamstow all those years ago was that Boak grew up there and so knew all the pubs, although we wonder with hindsight what we might have missed. Certainly when Bailey’s Dad dragged us into The Duke’s Head we found a pub less rough than received local wisdom had led us to expect.
So far, in our bit of Bristol, we’ve been to:
two regional-brewery craft ale gastro lounges
a community pub [further information required]
a vast back-street inter-war improved pub with no real ale
a hipstery place with tapas and board games and
one that looks like a gastropub but feels like an estate pub.
And there are a few more to explore yet, although not much in the way of ‘classic pubs’ as far as we’ve noticed.
We don’t know yet which ones will end up as regular haunts but there’s only one we’ve really taken against (terrible beer, as much atmosphere as a Debenham’s cafe).
We’ll keep you posted, no doubt, especially on Twitter where the flow of pint-n-crisps photos will be the same but different, once we’ve got comfortable and don’t feel so anxious about soiling our own vestibule.
A lot of talking and thinking about Belgium and Belgian beer gave us the taste and so, passing through Bristol, we researched the best place to find it, which led us to The Strawberry Thief.
There are few examples — no examples? — of pastiche better than the original, but it is always educational. New Sherlock Holmes stories illuminate what Conan Doyle got right by what they get wrong; Star Wars: The Force Awakens is an excellent commentary on Star Wars; The Rutles bring home how unique The Beatles really were. And so on.
The Strawberry Thief pitches itself as ‘an elegant bar’ and adopts a number of Belgian quirks. A big one — the thing that tells you this is Not a Pub and that you are not in England — is waiter service. They’re good waiters, too — just on the right side of attentive without mithering, although (pastiche giveaway #1) they don’t have quite the rumpled, resigned authority that you get with the real deal in France, Belgium or Germany.
An odd detail that boosts the Belgian atmosphere is the furniture. We don’t know much about interior design but this stuff — brown, rounded, more delicate than bomb-proof British boozer kit — evoked Brussels or Bruges in some subconscious way. (Did Proust ever have a profound moment of recall through the seat of his pants?)
The beer, and its presentation, was The Big Sell. A substantial menu of around 50 Belgian beers covered all the bases, albeit with few surprises. The prices might be off-putting to some: most of the standard-sized bottles (330-375ml) were going for more than £6. All of those we ordered came in appropriately fancy glassware, properly branded in all but one case when an unbranded chalice was provided. We reckon we spent about £10 an hour on drinks between us — we happened to choose one of the cheaper beers, De La Senne Taras Boulba at £4.50 — which didn’t feel outrageous, if you think of it as rent on the seat, and bear in mind the high strength of most of what’s on offer.
What yanked us out of our Eurostar fantasy was the background music (contemporary dance pop where we wanted Grappelli), the light-blue walls (brown is still not cool in Britain) and the secondary theme: the designs of William Morris. The latter makes complete sense given the view from the window of the ornate facade of the arts-and-crafts Everard Printing Works opposite and, indeed, is the source of the bar’s name (‘Strawberry Thief’ is a Morris wallpaper design), but it’s got nothing to do with Belgium. Another thing that didn’t quite sit with the Belgian theme was the prevalence of pints of lager – by our reckoning draught Lost & Grounded Keller Pils (a normalish beer at a normalish price-per-pint from a local brewery) was the overall bestseller.
But as night fell, candles went out, lights came down, and a crowd filled every corner, all those quibbles washed away. If you’re willing play along, it’s close enough. We wouldn’t want, and couldn’t afford, to spend five hours here every night, but as a stop on a crawl, or as mid-week, post-work treat, it’s a nice garnish on a city beer scene otherwise dominated by old school real ale pubs or pallet-wood-n-Edison-bulbs craft beer bars.