King Street Revisited

Shnoodlepip from the cask.

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?

Arbor Ales: Not for Us

Arbor Ales at the Three Tuns, Bristol.

After more than a year, we have come to the conclusion that, despite widespread acclaim, Bristol’s Arbor Ales just don’t do it for us.

Their ‘brand’ has always appealed — adventurous-sounding beers in a wide range of styles, often with experimental hops or other strange ingredients, and modern-looking design. Very ‘craft’, if you like. We were predisposed to be fans, and perhaps that set us up for disappointment.

Wanting to try the widest range of their beer in the best possible nick, we visited their own brewery tap, the Three Tuns, for the first time in November 2012. Bristol is now over-stuffed with ‘craft beer’ bars, but the Tuns was one of the first, and several people recommended it to us. We came away, unfortunately, without finding a beer — cask, keg or bottle — that we really enjoyed, and feeling that Bristol had better places to drink.

But everyone else loved Arbor and the Tuns, and we’d only visited once, so we doubted our judgement and didn’t write about it.

We tried more throughout the year but, still, no magic struck. (A bottled Dr Rudi IPA was a notable disappointment.)

This week, we returned to Bristol wanting to have our minds changed. We really wanted a transcendent experience that would allow us to say something like this, but it was not to be.

Motueka, a single-hopped pale ale at 3.8% ABV, was barely drinkable: there was no fruitiness from either hops or yeast; a savoury, stock-like note with something of bay leaves; and (probably the pub’s fault) a lack of condition which only emphasised the rather thin body.

Alechemy, a 7.3% ‘Red Oz IPA’ brewed as an ‘anti-Christmas’, had some depth and complexity, and reminded us somewhat of Blue Anchor Spingo Special — big and sticky. It was, however, rather too raw, with an eventually over-powering flavour that reminded us of a beer brewed with chestnuts. Again, it was let down by poor condition. (UPDATE: this beer was a collaboration with Alechemy and is actually called, we think, ‘Anti-Christ-Mas’.)

We abandoned both, unfinished.

Now, we know the post-Christmas lull is not a great time for pubs, and we’ve been told that both managers at the Tuns were on their post-Christmas break. But if you can’t get a brewery’s beers in good condition at its tap, then isn’t something wrong? And if a pub doesn’t have the necessary staff or turnover to serve good beer in the week after Christmas, should it really be open?

There was one little glimmer of hope, however: at the Crofter’s Rights (a trendy barn-like junk-shop of a craft beer bar in Stoke’s Croft) we found kegged Arbor Breakfast Stout (7.4%) not only drinkable, but rather enjoyable. A deep tan head and unctuous body made it resemble a cafetière of coffee before plunging. That oily chestnut character was present again, but drowned out by much more pleasant intense cherry-cocoa flavours.

So, not for us, but not yet completely written-off.

We were planning to write this post anyway but it happens to fit conveniently into the theme of this month’s beer blogging Session #83, hosted by Bake & Brew which asks ‘what beer do you say “no thanks” to that everyone can’t get enough of?’

Gallery: Pubs of Bristol

These are some of the interesting looking pubs we saw but didn’t get chance to drink in on our recent trip to Bristol. Pictures were snapped on a camera phone so aren’t of the highest quality, but you get the idea.

All Change for Bristol Beer

The Barley Mow, Bristol.

Bristol has long been a worthwhile destination for a beery weekend but these days, it’s in another league.

When we first went to the Capital of the West Country with beer on our minds, back in 2009, we found just about enough to keep us stimulated. Last weekend, however, we found that an explosion of new beer-focused pubs and bars meant that a weekend wasn’t long enough. We did, however, make it to three new venues targeting the beer geek market.

Maui Brewing Co Lemongrass Saison.

The Bristol Beer Factory abandoned ship at the Grain Barge earlier this year and their flagship pub is now the Barley Mow. Sitting in the middle of a eerily quiet industrial estate near Temple Meads, its location does not seem promising, but it is certainly worth the detour.

The now-obligatory back wall keg taps were dispensing beers from the Sierra Nevada and Maisel, and we just missed Schnoodlepip, the Wild Beer Company’s collaboration with Mark C. ‘Formerly of Dark Star’ Tranter and Kelly Ryan. (CAMRGB had drunk it all, perhaps, having passed through mere hours before us, leaving a trail of beer mats behind them.)

The seven cask beers were a good mix of pale’n’hoppy, brown’n’sweet and black’n’roasty, though perhaps not in absolutely tip-top condition, with Moor Radiance in particular seeming a little tired.

The beer that really knocked our socks off was from a can — Maui’s Lemongrass Saison (5% ABV). It couldn’t have tasted any fresher and the pleasure of it was its simplicity: more like a mildly grapefruity lager than a funky Belgian barnyard beast.

The pub’s interior is perhaps a little lacking in character, but that will come with time.

Gents toilets at the Royal Navy Volunteer, Bristol.
Gents toilets at the Royal Navy Volunteer, Bristol.

Elsewhere in town, we enjoyed the just re-opened, freshly-painted, entirely reinvented Royal Navy Volunteer. Like the Barley Mow, it needs ‘wearing in’, but it certainly had interesting beer, from both from keg and cask. The highlight was Siren Soundwave American Pale Ale (5.6%), an excellent example of the type of beer most breweries In That Other Beer Market Category have at the heart of their range. (The new ‘boring brown bitter’.)

Beer Emporium, Bristol.

Almost next door, we did not find much to enjoy at the Bristol Beer Emporium. The setting has huge potential — a vaulted cellar with exposed brickwork which reminded us of being in Germany — but something about the fixtures and fittings made it feel like a chain pub or hotel bar. After a long wait, we were   v e r y   s l o w l y   served expensive, lifeless Sierra Nevada Torpedo in half pint tumblers, because all the nice glasses were dirty. We did not have a good time, but perhaps we caught it on an off-day.

If you’d like to go and investigate Bristol’s beer scene yourself, you might want to time your visit to coincide with Bristol Beer Week, which runs from 3 to 9 October this year.

What’s Up With Zero Degrees?

Beer pumps at Zero Degrees, Bristol, 2009.
Zero Degrees Bristol, 2009.

Zero Degrees is still, as far as we know, the only chain of brewpubs in the UK. They make beer which is usually decent and often excellent, on shiny kit, in nice-looking, spacious bars. But, for some reason, they’re just not cool.

In the last six months or so, we’ve been to both the Bristol and Reading branches between us. Because no-one talks about them, we assumed they must have gone off the boil but, no, the beer was excellent on both occasions, notably a very clean, polished Rauchbier in Bristol, and a floral Pilsner in Reading which we’re calling ‘crunchy’, because it was more than crisp.

And yet both bars were mostly empty.

Having been brewing since before the ‘craft beer’ craze kicked off in earnest c.2007/08, and with those lovely city centre premises, they ought to be riding the crest of a wave. Instead, they’ve got a downtrodden, sad-sack feel, as if they’ve run out of puff not far from the finish line.

Perhaps their brand got derailed early on — more ‘style bar’ for people on the pull than beer geek destination — or maybe they’re simply lacking PR nous. Who exactly is behind it? We don’t know, and it’s not easy to find out. Not a problem for Brewdog, you’ll note, who are doing rather well with a personality-led brand.

Our feeling is that they need to re-brand (it’s all a bit corporate and very 2005) and expand, or they’ll wither away.