Golden Pints 2023 – the best pubs and beers of 2023

These end-of-year roundups are more fun to write than to read, aren’t they?

We feel the need to do it, though, to put a neat bow on the year.

It also forces us to reflect and remember rather than rushing through the checkpoint. Our constant refrain as we put these together is, “Wait, was that this year?”

And one important guiding principle is this: it doesn’t really matter, nobody really cares, don’t overthink it.

So there’s not always great science behind our choices. It’s about feeling more than facts.

The interior of The Swan With Two Necks with old wooden tables, red walls and a beer list on a blackboard.

Most visited in 2023

The pub we visited most in 2023 was The Swan With Two Necks in St Judes, an inner-city Bristol neighbourhood not far from the main shopping district.

It’s a ‘proper pub’ in the sense that chaos occasionally intrudes to make things interesting.

On one occasion we arrived shortly after someone had vomited everywhere leading to an immediate clear out of the premises. The Blitz spirit overtook those who remained. Then a mouse appeared and, high on floor cleaner, began to run in circles around the middle of the pub.

On another occasion snooker player and DJ Steve Davis was sitting at the bar. Well, fair enough.

And then there was the time someone asked the barman for a saw, hammer and nails and, between pints, made a wheelchair ramp out of a sheet of MDF.

It’s also handy-ish for the publess neighbourhood where we live, and a convenient place to meet friends from other corners of Bristol.

The back bar at Frueh em Veedel, with clutter including receipts, napkins, photos and enamel signs.

Best new-to-us pub in 2023

The place that immediately springs to mind is Früh em Veedel in Cologne:

“You might get a visit from a waiter, if they noticed you were empty before you did. Otherwise, it was a matter of plonking your empty at the right spot on the gleaming bar and picking up fresh beer at the same spot… It suited us, this less formal atmosphere, and we appreciated the peacefulness. The only sounds were the turning of the pages of a newspaper and the occasional conversation in concrete-thick Kölsch dialect between customers and barmen.”

“What, not Lommi?” The thing is, we found Früh em Veedel ourselves, and visited on a quiet weekday afternoon, all of which contributes to a certain sense of magic.

Perhaps when we go back again we won’t like it so much. Perhaps we were lucky to catch it at its most sleepy and charming.

If you visit in 2024, let us know what you think.

Best London pub in 2023

People keep asking and we keep saying “The Royal Oak at Borough”… but maybe not in 2024. Just before Christmas we visited The Lord Clyde, also in Borough, and it stole our hearts.

The Royal Oak has become brighter, tidier and more sparse, losing a little something in the process. But The Lord Clyde, despite also having recently changed hands, feels intimate and organic.

The beer is less exciting (Landlord, Pride) but beer isn’t everything.

We look forward to comparing these two pubs on further comparative visits in the next 12 months.

The exterior of The Kings Head, a narrow old-fashioned pub with a bay window.

Best pub for 2023

The refurbished Kings Head on Victoria Street in Bristol, now run by Good Chemistry, was also a pub we visited a lot in 2023. There are a few reasons for this:

  • it has out-of-town cask ale
  • it’s the prettiest historic pub interior in Bristol
  • other contenders have lost their edge

As we’ve discussed, it’s not always the first place we recommend to others because it is very small. It’s fun to watch stag and hen parties of 10 or 12 march in, completely fill the space, and then awkwardly about face when they realise there is no hidden extra room. What you see, those few seats and stools, is it.

But if you’re in a small party, or alone, you’d be a mug to miss it.

When we bumped into Kelly and Bob from Good Chemistry at an event in the autumn they mentioned that they were looking for another pub and our first thought was, “Oh, good.” They’re a safe pair of hands and know how to bring pubs into the 21st century without losing what makes them great.

The Lost & Grounded taproom with bare tables, bunting, and an illuminated sign that reads COLD LAGER.

Most drunk beer in 2023

We have to cheat here because, unlike with Bristol pub visits, Jess doesn’t keep a log. Recording every single pint on a spreadsheet would simply be a step too far.

We are, however, fairly confident that the beer we’ve ordered most often between us is Lost & Grounded Keller Pils.

It’s become a staple in Bristol pubs, if not the default ‘quality’ lager. And on our regular spring-summer visits to the Lost & Grounded taproom, where it’s at its freshest, we always try it, and often stick.

Now, this isn’t necessarily a wholehearted recommendation.

We were gutted when earlier this year someone told us they’d gone out of their way to try it but found it disappointing. As we keep saying, but perhaps not loudly enough, it has been wildly inconsistent – though less so in 2023. And it’s at its best when fresh.

Think of it more like the product of a Bavarian village brewery, rather than a Camden Hells competitor, and it might make more sense.

The Five Points taproom in Hackney, with outdoor seating in front of an industrial building.

Best beer 2023

Here’s how this award works: every time one of us reacts very positively to a beer, it triggers a debate. If we both agree the beer in question is remarkably good, Jess adds it to a list of beer-of-the-year contenders, with tasting notes. Then, in December, we review that list and interrogate our feelings.

The contenders this year were:

  • Cheddar Gorge Best, at The Merchants Arms, Bristol BS8
  • Harvey’s Porter, at The Royal Oak, London SE1
  • Five Points Railway Porter, at a couple of pubs in London
  • New Bristol Brewery Knopperz stout at their taproom
  • La Birrofila Prima Pils in Milan
  • St Austell Anthem, in Falmouth and again at The Merchants Arms
  • Five Points Gold at the Pembury Tavern, London E8
  • Zero Degrees Italian Pilsner, at Zero Degrees Bristol
  • Lost & Grounded 10 Years on Land (landbier) at the L&G taproom
  • Moor Brewing Smoked Lager at the Moor taproom

After much debate, we’re giving this one to Five Points Gold. We remember this session fondly and especially the feeling of being unable to leave the pub, or move onto any other beer. As we wrote back in September:

We love some Five Points beers (Railway Porter, the sadly defunct Pils, and Pale) but don’t get on with their Best Bitter. We find it muddy and confused. Gold, we assumed, would be like that, but more watery (it’s 3.4%) and less interesting… But, blimey, it was good. We spent quite a bit of time thinking about Boddington’s and Young’s Ordinary as they were in the past – very pale, very bitter, mysteriously alluring.

A pint of pale beer on a pub table with Thornbridge beer mats.

Best brewery 2023

Judging this was difficult but we went back to the principle that our emotional response is where the truth lies. And the truth is that when we walk into a pub and see a Thornbridge beer on the bar, we get excited: oh, yes, this is going to be good!

Jaipur IPA in particular continues to delight us as both a cask ale and keg beer

 And Lukas knocked our socks off in, of all places, a steakhouse in London where we went for a family event.

A glass of Westmalle Tripel in a busy Belgian bar.

Best beer of all time

For the record, the tide might be turning against Westmalle Tripel.

It’s a beer we always have in the house (minimum requirement: one in the stash, one in the fridge) and love deeply

 But in 2023, we found ourselves feeling increasingly affectionate towards De Ranke XX Bitter. And De la Senne Taras Boulba. And Augustiner Helles.

For now, though, it is still Westmalle.

The attractive, colourful cover of Desi Pubs by David Jesudason.

Best book of 2023

There have been some interesting books published this year, going beyond broad overviews and beginner’s introductions.

Guides to specific cities and types of pubs, for example, or studies of particular aspects of beer culture and history. Many of them have been published by CAMRA, or self-published.

The winner for us, and almost by popular agreement, it seems, is Desi Pubs by David Jesudason. As we wrote in our review in June:

“Overall, this is one of the most exciting books about beer and pubs to have been released in recent years… We hope for, and expect, a new edition every couple of years, as more Desi pubs are found, or founded.”

A Guinness branded bottle opener and two crown caps.
One of the objects Liam has written about on his blog, a 1970s (?) Guinness bottle opener.

Best beer blog in 2023

The blog that’s most consistently made our weekly round-ups this year has been powered by an ambitious project, which is always our tip for reigniting and fuelling beer blogs. The project is ‘100 Years of Irish Brewing in 50 Objects’, the blog is IrishBeerHistory, and the blogger is Liam K.

It’s been great watching the bones of a book emerge in real time, and seeing Liam challenge the fog of marketing-driven romanticism that clouds Irish brewing history. He’s up to item 15 so there’s plenty more to come yet.

And just for added spice, he also throws in the occasional piece of pub-focused fiction or poetry, proving he’s not totally opposed to a good story.

Final reminder: we’re done with Twitter

As we explained in our most recent newsletter we’re going to stop posting on Twitter (X, if we must) from 1 January 2024. If you want to chat, find us on another platform or two. Social media is in flux. Who knows if it will survive, or which platform might eventually host the bulk of the conversation. But we’re pretty certain it won’t be there.

11 replies on “Golden Pints 2023 – the best pubs and beers of 2023”

Projectile vomiting and rodent problems? You’re not exactly selling the Swan With Two Necks to me.

Apart from that some interesting choices of beer, breweries and pubs, so keep up the good work!

Yes, if you value (harmless) liveliness as a characteristic, The Swan With Two Necks is right up there. I don’t think the Bass will ever be back. Jamie, who banned the Bass, has moved on, and Elmer, who took over, doesn’t seem to be a Bass sort of feller.

(1) “the publess neighbourhood where we live” – how did that happen ?
(2) The Royal Oak on Tabard Street remains my top London pub but my only experience of the Lord Clyde was having to hand the pint back and then taking a refund rather than an replacement because of their attitude.
(3) The Kings Head had been my top Bristol pub but last May with Harveys Sussex Best gone, the three cask beers all being hazy and/or citrussy and a ‘Card Only’ policy I had five pints in the Avon Packet and the Nova Scotia instead.

Thanks Ray.
Very interesting and sad.
I think we were born a generation or two too late.

Although I’m now departed from London, the Borough/Elephant and Castle area was my old stomping ground, and I’d agree completely with the “lost something” comment post-refurb at the Royal Oak. However, while I have a certain affection for the ‘Clyde’, I don’t think it’s quite what it was either. Hard to articulate, as not a lot has changed, and it was never a craft mecca anyway, but I found it to be somewhat moody on my most recent visit in the Autumn. In terms of a warm welcome combined with other strengths, the Gladstone, while different from what it was in the mid-2010’s, is my best bet and recommendation nowadays, much like David’s book(!)

Ah, we gave up on The Gladstone and walked out before we’d managed to get served, or acknowledged. We’ll try again some time.

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