Session #129: None of Our Beer Styles Are Missing

A pint.

This month’s edition of the Session, hosted by Eoghan at Brussels Beer Cityasks us to consider ‘missing local beer styles’ and for us, still coming to grips with a new city, this has been rather heartening: Bristol has all the beer styles.

First, there are the standards. There are tons of bitters, best bitters and pale-and-hoppies — too many to mention. Brewpub Zero Degrees (of which more in a moment) has a decent pilsner while Lost & Grounded produces a widely available Keller Pils that has just a whiff of craft about it without being scary or weird.

Then there’s the second tier styles. To pick just one example, Moor brews a straight-up cask stout, called Stout, primarily for the Italian market, which we think is just wonderful. Bristol Beer Factory has its Milk Stout which is also bordering on ubiquitous, not only cask and keg in pubs but also bottled in delis, cafes and restaurants. And there are other local milk stouts available. Milk stout!

In fact, here’s a (no doubt incomplete) list of styles currently being produced on a regular basis by breweries in and around Bristol, and fairly easy to find:

  • Barley Wine
  • Black IPA
  • Bock
  • Brown Ale
  • Brown Porter
  • Double IPA
  • Dubbel
  • Dunkelweizen
  • Eighty Shilling
  • Farmhouse ale
  • Gose
  • Imperial stout
  • Kölsch (terms and conditions apply)
  • Kriek
  • Porter
  • Rauchbier
  • Saison
  • Stout
  • Table Beer
  • Tripel
  • Weizen
  • Wit

And remember, that’s just what’s being brewed here — once you get into specialist bars, BrewDog, the flagship Fuller’s pub or Wetherspoon’s, you can probably tick off every other style that might come to mind if you have a particular craving for, say, dubbel or altbier.

If there’s something we’d like to see more of (stuck records that we are) it’s mild, although we’ve managed a few pints of that here and there since arriving in town, too. And, of course, we’re keen for someone to explore Bristol Old Beer. But, really, what do we have to complain about with all that lot listed above to explore?

This post would be quite different if we didn’t live in a city although even Penzance, a short ride from Land’s End, where we lived until the summer, had its own porter, mild, imperial stout…

The point is, if you’re interested in the full range of beer styles — not everyone is — then 2017 is a hell of a time to be alive. It’s just not much of a time to be writing plaintive blog posts about missing beer styles.

Vienna Beer at Zero Degrees

Graffiti outside Zero Degrees.

As part of our mission to visit every pub in Bristol* we popped into Zero Degrees on Saturday where, to our surprise, we encountered a beer of the year contender: a Vienna lager of astonishing perfection.

Something like fifteen years ago (wow) we used to swoon over Meantime’s Golden Beer, which was a kind of doppio malto affair, darker and heavier than a standard Pilsner but not sickly or sweet. It disappeared from Meantime’s roster more than a decade ago; thankfully, the Vienna Lager (5.3% ABV) at the Bristol branch of the Zero Degrees brewpub is a dead ringer.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Zero Degrees, a similarly lager-focused brewery founded at around the same time as Meantime in the same part of the world and targeting the same market, should sometimes produce beers that resemble Meantime’s. We haven’t dug into it but suspect some of the same staff have rotated in and out of those two breweries, too, over the years.

But, the Vienna… It was indeed golden — not quite amber, but definitely deeper than yellow — and balanced magically on the knife-sharp edge between all-about-hops and all-about-malt. It was advertised as dry-hopped but that didn’t translate into brashness. This is the kind of beer that stopped us shrugging about lager all those years ago — the kind of beer that makes us say, ‘Wow!’ without having any particular prominent feature to point at. (Further reading.) The wow factor is in the perfection of its structure, the precision with which each part does its job, the taming of weed and seed into perfume and biscuit when they can so easily end up all grass and mud. In the past we’ve had beers at Zero Degrees that lack life but this sparkled and glowed, and had a decent head, without being fizzy or like a bubble-bath.

An Oktoberfest beer also on offer was less successful (dense and dark, but sticky with sugar) and a sour cherry beer was almost brilliant except that the sourness had a faint suggestion of hangover sweat about it.

Overall, despite our ongoing problem with the chilly pizza restaurant vibe, we resolved to visit Zero Degrees again soon, and more often in general. Anywhere that is consistently brewing these Continental sub-styles, with only tasteful ‘twists’, deserves a bit of love.

We’re expecting this to take several years. We’re making the rules up as we go along, defining ‘pub’ as somewhere primarily defined by the availability of beer, and ‘Bristol’ as — gulp — the ONS definition. Visits made to pubs before we moved here in July don’t count; we both have to be present for a visit to register; but only one of us has to consume an alcoholic drink. We’re up to (checks) 72 so far.

GALLERY: Bristol Style

Bristol is famous for its graffiti and street art with entire blocks and many businesses decorated, more or less elaborately, in the familiar spray-paint style.

We’ve found the way this applies to pubs particularly fascinating since arriving here permanently in the summer. We don’t know yet if we like it, as such but we do like that it seems to be a Bristol ‘thing’ — a real expression of local identity. It also seems to signal a certain laid-back informality that you might call Bohemian if that didn’t sound ludicrously 19th century.

We’re not sure of the etiquette of photographing and sharing other people’s creations but have tried to find credits where we can and link to the artist’s websites. At any rate, consider this an encouragement to go out and look at these pubs yourself, which are far more startling and unusual in the flesh.

"The Prince of Wales" (scrolll)
In the yard at the Prince of Wales, Bishopston.
"ALES"
Art in the gaps at the Prince of Wales.
"BUTCOMBE BREWERY".
Front of the Prince of Wales by Andrew Burns Colwill.
A giant painted beer pump.
Side of the Prince of Wales.
The Golden Lion, front.
The unfinished front of the Golden Lion, Bishopston.

Continue reading “GALLERY: Bristol Style”

Chainpub Encounter

Our mission to visit every pub in Bristol means we’re going to interesting places we might otherwise give a miss, like The Old Post Office in Fishponds.

It looks, sounds, smells and acts like a branch of Wetherspoon, but isn’t, which is fascinating to us. It’s clearly part of a chain but unlike JDW pubs the brand isn’t blazoned on the building’s front or mentioned anywhere else that we could see.

“This is a daft question but… which chain is this pub part of?” we asked the person who was serving us.

“It’s not Wetherspoon’s,” they replied instinctively, even though that wasn’t what we’d asked. “Everyone thinks that but it’s actually part of a company called Stonegate. I’d never heard of them until I started working here but it turns out they’re huge. Great to work for, too — fantastic benefits and training.” (All this offered freely and apparently sincerely without any additional prompting.)

It’s true — Stonegate is a big company, running almost 700 pubs and bars from behind the cover of several well-known brands such as Yates’s, and Slug & Lettuce. The Old Post Office is part of their Proper Pubs sub-brand: “Our Proper Pubs are the perfect place to enjoy a quiet drink, grab a mid-week bite, get together at the weekend or enjoy the best sports coverage around.”

The pub itself isn’t lovely — too plastic for our taste, lacking even the distinctiveness of decor Wetherspoon pubs generally shoot for, even if they don’t always score. Nonetheless, it was absolutely crammed with families sharing meals, and groups of football fans arranged in various odd ways around their tables so that they could see the TV screens. It felt, as the cliche goes, like a pub truly serving its community — buzzy and informal, but smart with it.

The beer range wasn’t as titillating as a typical Spoons either with a smaller range of interesting bottled beers and no novelty guest ales. Instead, there were five pumps for Sharp’s Doom Bar, Fuller’s ESB, Harvey’s Sussex Best, London Pride and Wadworth 6X, with the last two tagged as Coming Soon. If you’re going to have a line-up of old-school brown beers, though, Harvey’s and ESB are good choices — enough to get us a little bit excited, anyway. Sussex Best wasn’t quite at its most thrilling but was still very good — quirky, dry, a little leafy — but the ESB… Well, that’s where we had a problem.

The member of staff who pulled it saw at once that it wasn’t right, forming no head at all. “It might be the glass,” they said, and tried with another. This time, it was not only flat but also hazy, and obviously so.

“Don’t worry, just make it two Sussex Best instead.”

But at this point what we assume was a manager got involved, apparently the final arbiter of whether a beer is off or otherwise. He said firmly, even sternly, “No, it’s meant to be like that,” and rushed away.

Now we know, and you know, that ESB is not meant to be hazy or headless, but the member of staff pouring the beer had clearly been put in a tricky position. So, chalking it up to experience, we broke the deadlock and agreed to take it, bearing in mind that it seemed to be a mere £2.40 a pint and, cosmetics aside, tasted acceptable, if a touch sweet and subdued.

Sitting outside on the patio watching the traffic go by we couldn’t help compare this experience to our recent experiences in Wetherspoon pubs, where the slightest complaint seems to trigger a full apology and a replacement without hesitation. We wouldn’t want to draw any conclusions based on one visit to a Stonegate Spoonsalike, and one fumbled transaction, but it’s certainly a first mark on the scorecard.

Disclosure: we sold a copy of 20th Century Pub to someone who works at Stonegate the other day.

Bristol: Ground Zero for Guinness in England

“In 1819 a sailing vessel ex-Dublin discharged ten barrels of Guinness porter in Bristol. It was the first bulk order for England that can be traced in the Guinness books. This was probably the first sign of the imminent expansion of the Guinness company. One might have expected this token invasion to have started at Liverpool for it is a short haul of 140 miles from St James’s Gate to the Mersey, but twice that distance to Bristol.”

The above comes from an article in Guinness Time, the in-house magazine of Guinness’s London brewery at Park Royal, for the summer of 1966. It goes on to explain that the Guinness family had relations in Bristol which might explain the oddity, but also suggests other more likely reasons: the North West was locked down by big brewers for one thing, and Bristol was effectively the nation’s second city at that time.

Dockside scene with huge Guinness tanks.
The Pluto unloading in Bristol c.1966.

In 1966, Bristol was still a major destination for Guinness, with two ships arriving every week from Dublin, carrying between 1,400 and 2,000 barrels each. Pluto (998 tons) set out from Dublin every Friday, stopping on the way at Waterford to pick up Draught Guinness tankards from the glassworks there, arriving in Bristol at 8 on Monday morning. Her sister, Dido, at 1,598 tons, arrived in Bristol every Thursday.

The Guinness Store, AKA the Dublin Store, was on Broad Quay (the long low building at the waterside, pictured above in 1910) and held the beer at 10°C ready for dispatch in bulk for bottling at 23 breweries in the region. It also held Harp Lager and Draught Guinness kegs from the brewery London. Intriguingly, there were apparently three pubs in the region still receiving ‘unpressurised Draught Guinness’ (so, cask-conditioned?) direct from Dublin at this time. We’ll have to see if we can find out which ones.

Harry Mico (seated) and his foreman, Wally Loud.

The head office for Guinness in the West Country was at Clifton, covering Swindon to Land’s End, as well as South Wales. Harry Mico, a veteran Guinness man who joined the company in 1924, managed the Store, while the Western Sales Area manager was L.J.G. Showers, a former Gurkha officer shipped back to England from India after 1947. The Bristol Office manager was Brian Vernall, a former brewer and marketing man who got the job when his predecessor in Bristol died in 1965.

We’ll have to investigate what, if anything, is left of Guinness’s operation in Bristol. The Store has certainly gone, the Quay filled in and the road diverted, but perhaps there might be some trace of the office in Clifton.

In the meantime, we’re going to have to find a pint of cask stout somewhere in Bristol this weekend.