Bristol Lambic?

Beer maturing in vats.
George’s vats as pictured in the Illustrated London News in 1909.

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:

  1. Did cider in 1943 taste like cider does now? (We can’t see that it tasted less sour or funky.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Understanding New Turf

Cranes on the waterside in  Bristol.
Cranes along the waterside in central Bristol.

We’ve spent the last five days relocating from Penzance to Bristol, mostly stressed and exhausted, but with a bit of time to begin exploring the pubs in our neighbourhood.

What we’re going to do this time, having learned valuable lessons in Penzance, is going to every single one, at least once. Even the ‘shite hole full of clowns’, at some point.

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:

  • one micropub
  • 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.

The Strawberry Thief: Belgium in Bristol

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.

The walls and ceiling at The Strawberry Thief.

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.

A Brief History of Beer Weeks

It’s Sheffield Beer Week this week (14-22 March) which got us thinking about beer weeks in general — where did they come from, what are they for, and where are they going?

In the UK arguably the original beer week is Norwich City of Ale, which first took place in May 2011. It involves mini-festivals in pubs across the city featuring breweries from the region, and special events designed to create a buzz such as tasters of beer being given out in the street. It was the brain-child of lecturer Dawn Leeder and publican Phil Cutter, AKA ‘Murderers Phil’. As Dawn Leeder recalls there was no particular inspiration except perhaps, obliquely, Munich’s Oktoberfest. Its launch was covered by an enthusiastic Roger Protz in this article for Beer Pages which concludes with a call to action:

It’s an initiative that could and should be taken up other towns and cities in Britain with a good range of pubs, craft breweries and a public transport network. Nottingham and Sheffield, with their tram systems, spring to mind.

Red Routemaster bus with Norwich City of Ale livery.
Norwich City of Ale promotional bus, 2013. SOURCE: Norwich City of Ale website.

Glasgow’s beer week first ran in 2011. It was inspired equally by US beer weeks and by the Glasgow Beer and Pub Project organised by Eric Steen in 2010, a six-week arts and culture event which culminated with a home-brewing event in a pop-up pub. Glasgow Beer Week co-organiser Robbie Pickering recalls some of the difficulties faced by amateur volunteers:

We had our disasters, like the time we managed to schedule a meet-the-brewer in a pub where a live band was playing on the same night. I am very lucky that brewer still speaks to me. I am still proud of some of the events we put on even if hardly anyone came to them. We did the first beer and cheese tasting in Glasgow and the first UK screening of the US Michael Jackson documentary, and got Ron Pattinson over to speak about British lager together with people from the Scottish Brewing Archive Association. And I have a lifetime’s supply of beautiful letterpress beer mats with a spelling error.

It ran for three years the last being in 2013:

I think GBW collapsed in the end because of lack of interest. After the first year most of the other people involved had moved away and I was left running around on my own… I announced the dates for 2014 before deciding not to go ahead with it. Nobody ever asked what had happened to it which kind of suggests it was the right decision.

From our distant vantage point it also seemed to bring to a head tensions in Glasgow’s beer community with expressions of ill-feeling still being expressed via social media three years later.

Robbie Pickering sees some positives in it, however: the kinds of events that the Beer Week was built around now occur organically and frequently in Glasgow negating the need for a special event.

In 2012, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) ran a London City of Beer celebration piggybacking on the surge in visitors to the capital during the Olympic Games. But it was two months long, not a week, and didn’t turn into an annual event.

The next British city to get a beer week proper was Bristol. It launched in October 2013 when, having bubbled under as a beer destination for a few years beforehand, the city was just on the cusp of a boom in specialist bars and breweries. The initial idea came from Lee Williams who was born in Bristol but lived in the US for ten years where he ran a blog, Hoptopia, and wrote a guidebook called Beer Lover’s Colorado. When he returned to Bristol to work in the beer industry he brought with him experience of several US beer weeks and suggested the idea of running something similar to a friend and fellow beer blogger, Stephen Powell.

Bristol Beer Week featured more mini-festivals, talks, tastings and special one-off beers brewed in collaboration with beer writers who duly plugged the event.

Continue reading “A Brief History of Beer Weeks”

Bristol’s Top Taverns, 1815

There are many readily available old books and articles about London drinking establishments but other cities had their notable boozers, too.

Here, for example, is a handy list from an 1815 guide to the inns and taverns of Bristol:

Text: "There are many excellent and accommodating Inns and Taverns in the City, among which the following are the chief, viz. Bush, Corn-street; White Lion, White-Hart, Broad-street; Talbot, Bath-street; George and Saracen's Head, Temple-Gate; Full-Moon, Stoke's-croft; Greyhound, Broad-mead; White-Hart, Horse-fair; Rummer, All Saints' Passage; Montague, Kingsdown Parade; Bell, White Lion, Three Kings, and Three Queens, Thomasstreet; Queen's-Head and Angel, Redcliff-street; Hole in the Wall, Princes-street, and many others which would be too numerous to insert."

(In the original that text runs across a page break but we’ve stitched it together.)

The author was probably more interested in their hospitality (rooms and food) than in the drinks on offer but, still, it’s something to chew on.

Continue reading “Bristol’s Top Taverns, 1815”