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Bristol, Where Headless Pints are a Feature, not a Bug

A Bass pale ale advertising lantern.
The William the Fourth, Staple Hill.

Here’s a thing: the perfect Bristol pint doesn’t have foam. It comes up to the very brim, and the merest  hint of scum might draw a tut.

At least that’s what we’ve been told by several different people on several different occasions that this is the case, and that Bristol historically likes its pints ‘flat’.

A few months ago we had to negotiate heads on our beers with a member of staff in a pub more often frequented by elderly men who angled the glass and trickled the last inches with great care: “Look, I agree with you, but I’ve been working here for a while and this lot have got me trained to serve it flat.”

At which point, an interruption from a grey-hair with a sad-looking decapitated pint: “Yeah, proper Bristol style, we’re not up north now.”

To Jess, this idea doesn’t seem so alien: she recalls a general preference for completely headless pints in East London before about, say, 2005.

There, it often seemed to be tied to the question of value, and a refusal to be at all influenced by the superficial: foam’s a marketing trick to make mug punters pay for air, innit?

In Bristol, we wonder if it’s a combination of that, plus the influence of scrumpy cider drinkers, whose pints are froth-free by default.

But we can’t say that in practice we’ve encountered many flat pints in Bristol, though, and one of the few handy sources, Fred Pearce’s 1975 guide to the pubs of Bristol, features plenty of shots of white-capped glasses.

Maybe we’re having our legs pulled, or perhaps this is more complex than we’ve realised  – maybe only certain brands or styles get the millpond treatment – but either way, it would be a bit sad if a genuine bit of local beer culture has been lost.

Even if it’s good news for us as drinkers who very much prefer a bit of dressing around the top of the mug.

As you might have guessed, this is really our way of flushing out more information. Do comment below if you can tell us more.

9 replies on “Bristol, Where Headless Pints are a Feature, not a Bug”

Lovely read. For me flat Bass is far more than a cultural issue; it’s the best way to taste what is still a great but neglected beer. If/when you ever finish Bristol you should pop over to Bath and get them to pour Bass from the jug at the Star, and tell us if you’d still really rather have the look than the taste (;-0).

The banking in Stockton does little for the taste, but the turnover is so quick it hardly matters. THAT is worth the trip for the theatre of froth.

When I had the over-sparkled Cameron’s in Hartlepool, I got the strong impression that the treatment did affect the beer – knocking that much gas into the head seemed to give the beer itself a dense, soupy mouthfeel, as well as leaving it (coincidentally) a bit flat.

This was, incidentally, in a 1960s street-corner pub, whose clientele’s average age was significantly reduced by the arrival of 50-something me. I was in town for a folk festival; I’d seen this pub listed as having something on that night, & thought I’d check out the beer beforehand. As I carefully balanced my beer on a table so as not to lose any of its towering head, then worked the rucksack I was wearing off my back so that I could sit down, I attracted some attention. One old boy put two and two together and asked, Are you here to entertain us?. As I stammered out an answer, another regular chipped in – Y’ already are! Cheers, lads.

This is one of those “opposites is the reality” things, isn’t it?

Where the head is produced by a tight sparkler, the beer underneath often has all the condition knocked out of it and is actually flat.

Where the beer has no head and is called “flat” like a gravity pour, it often sparkles pleasingly on your tongue proving to be far from flat.

I’ve always believed that traditionally, beers were designed to be served by the dispense method common in the area of production. So West Riding beers, served with a tight, creamy head, would start with more condition than beers designed to be served “flat”. Might be purely my imagination, but I’ve always found that those older beers generally tasted better in the fashion of their origin. Certainly in the mid-80s, there was significant regional variation on heads – north east had massive heads, north west slightly smaller, the West Riding tight and creamy, the rest of Yorkshire varied enormously, with just about any style head possible in different parts. Heads were generally smaller the further south you went, throughout the country, with pockets of difference – the West Midlands generally had more head than further east.
Draught Bass I always thought worked better with no or minimal head. Ruddles County was the same. It was only in London I got confused – Youngs beers always seemed best headless, Fullers were better with a head IMHO.
Don’t recall any head on Harvey’s.

When I was drinking Adnams’ (?), Tolly Cobbold (??), GK (???) or whatever it was I was drinking back then, in Cambridge in the 80s, I distinctly remember the beer being so headless that you could wait for the last few bubbles on the surface to burst before you drank it. Not just a south-western thing, I guess.

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