bristol pubs

When it comes to pubs, you’ve got to have a system

When you’re faced with overwhelming choice, you need a strategy. Last weekend, we adapted an approach that’s worked with Belgian beer lists to help us choose which pubs to visit.

For beer, it goes like this:

  1. drink something completely new to us
  2. something we’ve not drunk for a long time
  3. and one that’s a stone cold classic

In category two you’ll often find things like Charles Quint or the various Duvel knockoffs. They’re beers we don’t remember especially fondly, or at all.

Category three is where you find Duvel itself, Westmalle Tripel, de la Senne, De Ranke, and so on.

This really works for us as it balances our desire to try new things with our increasing unwillingness to waste alcohol units on something we have to slog through – especially when the best beer in the world is so readily available.

For pubs, we hoped, the same might hold true.

We still have between 50 and 100 new pubs to visit for our #EveryPubInBristol challenge. Covid killed our momentum on this and we’ve been struggling to pick it up again.

The problem is, they’re increasingly far flung; rarely near each other (or, indeed any other pubs at all); and, let’s be honest, not particularly attractive from the outside. 

However, we probably do better at visiting completely new pubs than revisiting ones that for whatever reason we just didn’t click with.

There’s been many a time when we’ve finished a visit to a new pub, and said something like “That was fine, wasn’t it? If we lived round here we’d come here more often.”

Which means, in practice, that we never go again.

But pubs do change ownership and direction, sometimes for worse, sometimes very much for better, and we know we could be missing out on some newly-polished gems by sticking to reliable favourites.

To put the theory into practice, we planned a trip to Southville which would include The Avon Packet (new to us), The Old Bookshop (we went once in 2018) and then a city centre favourite, to be confirmed based on how the afternoon had gone.

This was a great success.

We’d heard various positives about The Avon Packet even though it doesn’t look all that welcoming from the wrong side of the heavy net curtains. Anything could be going on in there.

We came in as the server was part way through the biggest bank holiday lager-and-chaser order of all time. That gave us time to take in the decor, barely changed from the photo in our 1975 pub guide.

Of key interest to us was the mirrored Bass box on the bar because the pub is famous for its Bristol-style (flat) Bass.

Flat Bass (Ray) and creamy Guinness (Jess) duly obtained we went out into the unexpectedly huge and bird-filled garden. There is a duck enclosure and, possibly due to the supply of feed, a deafening chatter of birds from the nearby hedge.

The atmosphere was great and the pub very much ‘proper’ making this yet another great example of why we do #EveryPubInBristol – to make sure we don’t overlook hidden gems through sheer laziness or cowardice.

The Old Bookshop.

When we visited The Old Bookshop almost four years ago we wrote a note: “Is it a pub? More like a cool bar in Kazimierz.” (Think Krakow’s answer to Shoreditch.) We can’t remember what we drank but the fact we didn’t write anything down suggests it didn’t especially grab us. 

We’d heard the offer had been revamped, however, so were hopeful of an interesting round or two. But we weren’t expecting to like it as much as we did.

We’d assumed that the relaunch of a bar in trendy Southville might mean more cans from breweries like Deya and Cloudwater – not our thing.

We were totally wrong.

What we found was a small, well-curated and varied beer list, including Tegernsee Helles, De Ranke XX, a cask beer from Elusive, and an enormous range of lovingly described ciders and, er, mezcals.

It isn’t cheap. Tegernsee was towards £6 a pint, for example. But there is a house ale at just over £4 and third-of-a-pint measures are available. More to the point, a lot of thought and care has clearly gone into this list and its presentation.

The place had been opened out, too. There’s now some pavement seating and a lot more air and light inside. The bar is, still, slightly bizarrely, an old piano.

We stayed for a second round and considered a third, thus immediately promoting it into the category three. Wanting to complete our plan, however, we headed into town to the Llandoger Trow.

This is a pub that has similarly made the transition for us from ‘once in a blue moon’ to regular haunt.

It’s fascinating because the crowd is the same as before, and the location puts it squarely on the route of stag dos and pub crawls, but the beer offer is probably the best in Bristol right now in terms of range.

Lager is a speciality, in all its forms, including Märzens, Weissbiers and Dunkels.

There’s enough local keg to keep visitors happy but also four real ale taps, usually including at least one northern classic. This time it was Plum Porter. That promise will keep us coming back for a good while yet.