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

  1. This reminds me of an inter­est­ing region­al­ism that is found in Hartle­pool. There, tra­di­tion­al­ly, they serve a large head that sits frothy and proud above of the rim of the pint glass like a 99 ice cream.

    Just like this:

    Maybe it works best with Camerons Stron­garm. I don’t know.

  2. 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.

    1. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 10 miles a bit fur­ther south in Bish­op Sut­ton, any­thing that is on cask is served flat as stan­dard, its just how it is, and it’s great!

  5. 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.

    1. 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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