News, Nuggets & Longreads 17 March 2018: London Drinkers & Bristol Dockers

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the past week in the world of beer and pubs, from beer festivals to Friday skiving.

From Roger Protz comes a reflection on the London Drinker beer festival which has been organised by north London Campaign for Real Ale activists annually since 1985, but which this year is sadly winding up:

It’s not because the festival lacks success. On the contrary, it’s one of CAMRA’s longest running and most successful events. But the Camden Centre is due to be knocked down and redeveloped and finding – and affording – a replacement venue is difficult if not impossible….

As interesting as the news itself, though, is Roger’s account of pioneering the very concept of tasting notes in the 1980s, and being jeered at for daring to suggest that there might be chocolate notes in a dark beer.

Illustration: fanzine style picture of a pint and a packet of crisps.

Phil at Oh Good Ale seems to have found an interesting voice lately — a sort of stream of consciousness that coalesces into commentary if you let it. This week he wrote with some panache about the passing culture of Friday lunchtime pints:

1983, Chester

I knew we were on when I saw Tom going back for a pudding. Most days, we’d clock out at lunchtime, go to the canteen for something to eat – a hot meal served with plates and cutlery, none of your rubbish – and then it’d be down the Cestrian for a pint or two, or three…. On this particular Friday Tom went back to get some apple crumble and custard, which he ate with great relish and without any appearance of watching the time, heartily recommending it to the rest of us; a couple of people actually followed his lead. Then he looked at his watch with some ostentation and led the way out of the canteen…. It wasn’t a 15-minute weekday session or a standard 45-minute Friday session; that Friday, we were on.

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The Mystery of the Rock House Tavern

We spotted the above post one one of our favourite Instagram accounts the other day and thought it ought to be a doddle to track down the history of the Rock House Tavern. Well, it wasn’t, but we think we’ve got there, and the solution offers an intriguing glimpse into the past.

First, yes, Liz is right– there is no useful information online, or in our copy of the 1975 pub guide, or in newspapers archives. Searching for mention of pubs around that location in more general terms, though, did point us to a 1986 book called City Pit: Memoirs of a Speedwell Miner by Fred Moss. It might surprise some people to discover that Bristol had coal mines but it did. Fred Moss was born in 1906 and started work as a miner in 1921. Here’s what he has to say about drinking, on p.37:

[Let] me tell you about “The Long Bar”. This consisted of a lane running from Deep Pit Road to Holly Lodge Road. There were just a few houses in Holly Lodge, only a couple of miners lived there. Now about half way up this lane there was a pond called the “Lilly Pond”. It was a pool consisting of water pumped from the nearby pit. In this lane there was also a single railway track, which was used to carry trucks of coal from Speedwell Pit to the main Great Western Railway line and of course the Midland Railway line. The track was also used to take trucks of small coal to the coke ovens and washing plant.

Now, near this lane there was an off-licence beer house. The afternoon shift miners would buy beer at this off-licence and on a nice sunny day would to to this lane and have a chat and a drink before descending the pit…. There would be twenty or thirty men either sitting on a grass bank of leaning against a wooden fence drinking and chatting before working and when the morning shift came up from work, some of them would buy a drink and stand or sit in the lane before going home. Yes! I would say that was the longest bar in the world.

We find this fascinating — another reminder that people enjoyed beer in all kinds of ways in the past, not only in what we would now recognise as pubs, and following all kinds of patterns dictated by their work.

Fred’s memoir gives us some hard information to work with and we are blessed in 2018 with easy access to historic maps, satellite imagery and Google Street View which means it’s quite easy to pin all this down.

Here’s the lane we think Fred is describing as pictured in an OS map from the immediate post-WWII period, via Know Your Place:

Map showing the lane, 'Brook Road'.

The Rock House is at the very bottom left corner, marked “BH” for beerhouse; the lane is Brook Road which runs off immediately opposite passing a reservoir (the pond Fred mentions?) and crossing a small railway line on the way to Holly Lodge Road, which also fits with Fred’s description. One small wrinkle: there is another beerhouse marked on the map, also near the point where the lane spits out, so maybe he didn’t have The Rock House in mind. But we still reckon all this, especially the BH designation on the map, explains why The Rock House is so obscure: though it may have started as a proper drink-in beerhouse c.1830, it probably became a purely take-out premises in the wake of the 1869 Licensing Act.

But that’s just somewhat informed guesswork. If you know otherwise, drop us a line or comment below. We’ll keep an eye out in books and archives as we go and, as Google Maps satellite imagery suggests the lane is still there and now a public footpath, we’ll also go exploring and see what we can see.

Main image, top: Bristol miners c.1906 via City Pit.

Twenty-First Century Brewpub

A version of this post first appeared in the autumn 2017 edition of the Campaign for Real Ale’s quarterly magazine BEER and is reproduced here with permission.

To brewers, publicans and drinkers, there is undoubtedly something almost irresistible about the idea of making, serving and drinking beer within the same four walls.

If you’d been around three hundred years ago and ordered a quart of beer the chances are you’d be served something brewed metres away from where you drank it. The brewhouses weren’t necessarily on display but anyone who has ever visited the Blue Anchor in Helston, Cornwall, will know how a brewery makes itself known even from behind closed doors – with tumbling steam that carries the aroma of malt and hops. It seems to make the beer taste better and certainly adds to the romance.

Then, in the 18th and 19th centuries, industrial brewing developed, with production becoming ever more centralised in ever bigger facilities. By the mid-20th century a handful of big brewing concerns were operating across the country and the number of ‘homebrew houses’ had dwindled to fewer than ten.

But in the 1980s, as part of the post-CAMRA real ale boom with its rejection of the industrial and mass-produced, the ‘brewpub’ was invented. The primary driver in that was a brewery in the basement of a South London pub, The Goose & Firkin, set up by David and Louise Bruce in 1979. They opened several more pubs with their own breweries in the decade that followed, mostly in London. The Firkin chain made the Bruces’ fortune as they sold strong beer brewed on site to pubs rammed with the type of customer happy to pay a little more for something truly unique.

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Session #131: Three Questions About Beer

Illustration: 2018 BEER, constructivist style.

For this 131st Session of the ever-fragile Session (a monthly event which sees beer bloggers round the world post on the same topic) co-founder Jay Brooks has stepped in as emergency host and poses three questions.

  1. What one word, or phrase, do you think should be used to describe beer that you’d like to drink?

What Jay wants to know here, we gather, is which phrase we might prefer to ‘craft beer’, given the general derision that term elicits from beer geeks in 2018.

But here’s the thing: we don’t use the term craft beer all that often, but when we do want a shorthand phrase for These Beers which are different to Those Beers, with flexible criteria and vague category boundaries, craft beer still seems as good as any.

We don’t really care — boutique beer (pretentious), designer beer (sounds as if it wears a shiny grey suit with the sleeves rolled up), indie beer (a little more specific), or even Category X94, would all work just as well — but as craft beer does mean something (even if nobody agrees exactly what) and is in everyday use on the street, why bother fighting it?

‘Craft beer’ is fine, and we will continue to use it occasionally, if it’s all the same to you.

2. What two breweries do you think are very underrated?

Jay set the bar high on this one: “everything they brew should be spot on”. We can’t think of a single brewery that meets that standard and most of those that come near aren’t underrated. But…

Maybe our brewery of the year for 2017, Bristol Beer Factory, gets a bit less attention than it deserves. It is a touch conservative by the standards of 2018; it lacks novelty value being more than a decade old; and it can seem somewhat faceless. Those beers, though. Oh, those beers.

And we’ve been very pleasantly surprised by some of the small West Country breweries on rotation at our new local, The Draper’s Arms, many of which we’d never heard of and/or never tried. There are a few that might end up filling this slot, when we’ve really got to to know them. Kettlesmith, for example, or Stroud, or Cheddar Ales, all of which have now moved from Risky to Solid in our mental list of trusted breweries, with potential to progress further.

3. Which three kinds of beer would you like to see more of in 2018?

Mild. Dark, ideally, but with flavours defined by sugars rather than out-of-place roastiness. (Mild does not just mean baby porter.)

Pale-n-hoppy. It’s not there aren’t lots of them, just that we don’t come across them quite as often as we’d like. Ideally, every pub would have at least one on offer, just like they’d have one mild/porter/stout, but that’s not our experience so far in Bristol pubs.

Imperial stout. Although people complain ‘that’s all you get these days’, we still hardly ever encounter them in pubs. Bottles would be fine — this is one style that can sit in the fridge for months just getting more interesting. The funkier and scarier the better, but ideally fruit/chocolate/coffee free.

Every Pub in Bristol: The First 100

Collage: Bristol pubs.

On moving to Bristol in the summer of 2017 we commenced a mission to visit every single pub in the city. This is what we’ve learned in the first six months.

Completely unsurprisingly, the pubs we visit most frequently are those near our house. We have (well, Jessica has) been keeping notes in a spreadsheet recording each visit which means with the click of a button we can see our most-visited pubs.

At number one, by a massive margin, is The Draper’s Arms — not only the nearest pub to our house by any measure but also, clearly, the best pub in the area and one of the best in the city. We’ve been there together 28 times (plus the odd solo visit for one or the other of us that doesn’t count for the purposes of this count) which equates to about once a week.

The Inn on the Green is at joint third with five visits; The Wellington joint fourth with four visits; and The Golden Lion joint fifth with three.

The Barley Mow near Temple Meads station is our clear second favourite with six visits — one a month — and it is indeed a pub with which we continue to be very taken.

In general, any pub we’ve visited more than once despite (a) this daft mission and (b) our general excitement at new turf to explore must have something going for it. So, without filtering or comment on individual pubs, here’s the complete list of those we’ve been to at least twice.

Draper’s Arms 28
Barley Mow 6
Inn on the Green 5
Grain Barge 5
Wellington Arms 4
Hillgrove Porter Stores 4
Golden Lion 3
BrewDog 3
The Old Fish Market 3
Snuffy Jacks 3
Highbury Vaults 3
Commercial Rooms (Wetherspoon) 2
The Canteen (Hamilton House) 2
The Strawberry Thief 2
The Bridge 2
The Mardyke 2
Zero Degrees 2

With more data we’d expect a proper top ten to emerge in the next six months and suspect some of those names will drop away from the lead group.

Capsule Reviews

Another column on the spreadsheet records in a few words our impression of each pub. These are great fun to write and sometimes a bit snarky (“nice beer, filthy glasses”) but their purpose is to help us recollect the pub months and hopefully even years after what might be one visit. We tested it last night (in pub #103) and it worked:

Marston’s without the Marston’s? The Pump House. Belgian brown cafe vibe? The Grace. Crazy folly, now a Flaming Grill? The Black Castle. Cosy, smells like a swimming pool? The Victoria. (It is next door to a lido.)

The Next Stretch

We’ve got no more local ticks so it’s bus rides and shoe leather from here on. At the moment there’s a long list of pubs we’ve seen or heard of and are keen to visit — The Post Office Tavern at Westbury on Trym, for example, AKA ‘The Pot at Wot’; The Seven Stars in the city centre which we visited before we moved to Bristol but haven’t been to since; and The Colosseum, a rare post-war survivor in Redcliffe.

Rather than let the less immediately inviting pubs pile up so that we have to slog through them at the end, we’re trying to get to them on the way. So far we’ve found that a lot of Bristol pubs which look dodgy from the outside are at worst fine, and at best very pleasant surprises — full of warmth and community feeling even if the face they show the world might suggest otherwise. Just in case, though, we’ve given ourselves a get out clause: if we’re made to feel unwelcome in some active way, we can count it as a tick without stopping for a drink.


How many pubs are there in Bristol?
We don’t know exactly, and don’t need to know at this stage, but we’ve seen estimates of about 450 which feels about right.

How are you defining ‘pub’?
We’re not — we want to be flexible and retain the right to play it by ear. Having said that, if we can walk in off the street, buy draught beer without feeling obliged to order food, and take a seat without reserving a table, then it’s probably a pub. In other words, we’re going broad rather than narrow, including tap rooms, bars, social clubs, and maybe even some cafés.

What counts as Bristol?
We keep changing our minds but probably the Bristol Built-up Area. Again, this won’t become an issue for a while — there are plenty of obviously-in-Bristol pubs to tackle before we start worrying about marginal cases, but we do particularly want to tackle suburban pubs and those on the outskirts, while still finding some way to limit the challenge.