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.

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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.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 14 October 2017: Lost & Grounded, Guinness, Heisler

Here’s all the writing that’s entertained, educated or amused us in the world of beer and pubs in the last week, from marketing disasters to beer nerds in the wild.

For Good Beer Hunting Matt Curtis profiles Bristol brewery Lost & Grounded, putting them into context in terms of both the beer scene and their place in this particular city:

Keller Pils is one of two Lagers in Lost and Grounded’s core range, which, unusually—and perhaps bravely, giving to their current popularity—for a modern British brewery, doesn’t include a single Pale Ale or IPA… [The] German-leaning styles that lead Lost and Grounded’s portfolio are joined by beers including Hop-Hand Fallacy, a Belgian-influenced Farmhouse Ale, and No Rest for Dancers, a Dubbel masquerading on tap lists as a Red Ale. Although the influences in Lost and Grounded’s beers are clear, they also each have a point of difference that sets them apart.

(We probably latched on to this piece especially because, despite having been in Bristol ourselves for several months, we’ve still only just scratched the surface of what’s going on with its beer.)


Guinness Light

This next piece was published on 3 October but we noticed it too late for last week’s round-up. It’s an extract from a memoir by marketing consultant David Gluckman who in 1974 worked with Guinness to work out why nobody wanted to drink a new product called Guinness Light that market research had promised would be a huge hit:

Everything was perhaps best explained by a single young man we interviewed in one of our focus groups in Galway. He described his first encounter with Guinness Light: “I walked into my local bar and it was decked out with Guinness Light material. It was everywhere: posters, and beer mats. There were even special Guinness Light pint glasses. It all struck a chord. I remembered seeing a TV advert for it and I decided to order a pint. It appeared in its special glass and looked pretty tasty. But as I put it to my lips a hand tapped me gently on the shoulder and a man said ‘You’re cheating. You’re drinking ladies’ Guinness.’”


A Vermont tap room.
One of Sarah Priestap’s photographs accompanying the Washington Post article.

And while we’re at it, here’s another piece from just the wrong side of last weekend: for the Washington Post Jason Wilson gives an account of a tour of Vermont breweries undertaken in the company of his beer geek brother where the obnoxiousness of the culture overwhelmed them:

We wander outside to the deck, and as we sip, a short guy in a long coat with a trimmed beard stands next to us holding forth to his significantly taller girlfriend and another couple, all of them in their 20s. “So she had a 10 percent sour double bock, and I ordered a barley wine. And I was, like, so surprised. I mean, does anyone still make a barley wine?” Ha-ha-ha-ha, they all laugh. I hear plenty of wine snobs and cocktail snobs hold forth all the time. But rarely do I get a chance to hear a beer snob in his natural habitat, peacocking in full roar. Tyler and I edge closer to eavesdrop.

“So how long have you guys been into beer?” asks the beer snob’s friend.

“Oh, at least since 2013, 2014. I mean, my dad was a beer drinker, but never anything good.” Yuengling is his dad’s favorite beer. “I mean, Yuengling is okayyy … if there’s nothing else in the fridge.” Chuckles all around. “I mean, they use caramel malt, but at least you can drink it and not be repulsed.” More chuckles.

We’re including this piece beacause it’s nicely written, not because we agree with it, by the way. So often, these articles about the ‘winefication of beer’ are written remotely — hacked together listicles or Hot Takes — and this piece benefits from field reporting and the personal angle. Having said that, it still reads to us like two judgemental beer nerds being judgemental about other beer nerds. But perhaps that’s the joke.


1950s TV.

We first spotted the fictional Heisler beer in an episode of My Name is Earl about a decade ago and have been fascinated by it. For Draft magazine Zach Fowle investigates the Hollywood prop house that makes not only Heisler but also Cerveza Clare, Pensburg and the classic Premium Light:

Real-world breweries pay big bucks to have their brands represented on-screen—it cost Heineken a reported $45 million to get James Bond to forego his trademark vodka martini for one of the brewery’s stubby green bottles in the 2012 movie Skyfall. But even if the money behind product placement is substantial, it’s often more trouble than it’s worth. That’s because beer—which has been known, on occasion, to get people drunk and do silly things—is often used as a plot device that breweries might not approve of…


A nice little story: a few months ago we watched a conversation unfold on Twitter about the beer being pulled in an archive photo of the Oxford Bar in Edinburgh — what was Leith Heavy, and how might someone go about reviving it? Last week author Ian Rankin pulled the first pint of a version of the beer brewed by Steven Hope with the blessing of the original brewer’s daughter.


A thought-provoking nugget: on the one hand, we have bigger breweries aping the look and feel of ‘craft’; on the other, there are small American breweries trying to evoke the everyman appeal of ‘macro’. The lines are grow ever more blurred.


Brewery takeover news: Western Australian brewery Feral has been acquired by Coca-Cola Amatil, a major soft drinks manufacturer which bottles Coke in Asia and the region. (Via The Crafty Pint.)


And finally, via Twitter, a new craft brewing manifesto from Denmark:

Dead Fox

From the Western Daily Press, 8 October 1975:

The Old Fox, Bristol’s newest old pub or oldest new pub, will be officially opened this afternoon, but the trouble is no one knows exactly how old it is… The people from CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, whose laudable ambition is to keep alive the taste for beer from the wood, bought The Old Fox in Fox Road, Eastville, when it was due for demolition… And so far they have traced it back to 1758 when it was mentioned as being up for sale.

Landlord Peter Bull… with his wife Sylvia will be serving devotees with pints of strange sounding brews like Six X, Brakspears beers and South Wales United… Architect Edward Potter has created a pleasantly archaic black and white interior, a world away from rustic brick and plastic horse brasses and workmen put the final touches to his £25,000 renovation scheme yesterday.

Peter Bull.

From ‘All Things to All Men’, Financial Times, 7 April 1976:

The Old Fox, overlooking a dual-carriageway cut and a scrap-yard, may not be everyone’s idea of smart pub decor, but at least it is worth it for the quality of some of the beer it sells. It also reflects some of the tolerance traditionally shown in this most tolerant of cities.



From What’s Brewing, February 1982:

[The] Old Fox Inn in Bristol, one of [CAMRA Investments] smaller and less profitable houses, has been sold to Burton brewers Marstons for £120,000. It was felt to be badly sited in a city had many free houses… Investments managing director, Christopher Hutt, denied suggestions that the company was deliberately drawing back from being a national chain of free houses into a South East/East Anglia/East Midlands firm.


You can read more about the story of CAMRA Real Ale Investments in Brew Britannia and about the history of the Old Fox in this blog post by pub historian Andrew Swift.