Belgium bottled beer pubs

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.

6 replies on “The Strawberry Thief: Belgium in Bristol”

The addition of non – belgian beers is a relatively recent phenomenon, driven partly I expect by the high prices for belgian beers you cite. The belgian beer menu is somewhat unadventurous but its always nice to be able to sample the classics in this environment.
We like the bar for an occasional visit but the loud music does grate.

I like the fact it categorically isn’t either of the last two alternative types you mentioned. It’s good to start on a fresh canvas.
Plus, to give a new bar a direct link to something local (the William Morris wallpaper design) is always a bonus in my book.
When I was a beer newbie I visited the Lowlander Cafe on Drury Lane and misguidedly insisted that the beer I got (it was probably Duvel) was given in pint measure. I basically paid for two at once and nursed a migraine shortly after. When you’re young you know it all, you see?

“I like the fact it categorically isn’t either of the last two alternative types you mentioned.”

Yes, us too. Not sure why there aren’t more Belgian-style bars in the UK but guess it’s because it’s a 1990s-00s thing that went out of fashion. Hopefully coming back now, although the fact that it’s difficult to sell Belgian beer at anything less than eye-watering prices might be a limiting factor.

Just visited a new Belgian-focused beer place myself – the Bøck Bière Café [sic] in Manchester – although I was there in the afternoon & only stopped for one. Obviously I noticed that I was buttonholed on my way in & invited to sit down, but that was about the only strikingly ‘different’ thing about the place, apart from the awful name and the excellent range of beers. Thinking about it now I’m struggling to say I liked the place, although it’s hard to put a finger on any reason why not. Tables a bit too small? Low-hanging lights a bit too bright? Maybe, but on both counts I’ve seen worse in Belgium. Where they did lose a point or two was serving my St Bernardus Abt in an unbranded glass – you wouldn’t see that in Belgium. But it definitely fills a gap in Manchester; I’ll be checking it out again, particularly as they’re promising to start doing frites.

I went there a few weeks back. I was busy (stressed, anxious) carrying out interviews so not paying close attention but it did feel a bit as if it hadn’t quite settled in. Still, a nice thing to have, and busy from what I could see, too, which bodes well for its future.

My issue with the Strawberry Thief is that its pricing isn’t really justified by its selection of beers. I would absolutely go in and be happy paying £10 for a 375 if they had Cantillon, or even Boon available on the regular, but as it is, if I want an interesting Belgian beer I’ll go to Small Bar ahead of it all day every day.

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