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.

Watney’s Red Barrel – how bad could it have been?

You can’t have cops without robbers, or Batman without the Joker, and so the story of the revitalisation of British beer needs its bad guys too. Enter Watney’s.

Watney’s (or Wat­ney Mann, or Wat­ney Combe Reid) was the Evil Cor­po­ra­tion which sought to crush plucky small brew­ers and impose its own ter­ri­ble beer on the drink­ing pub­lic. It acquired and closed beloved local brew­eries, and it closed pubs, or ruined them with clum­sy makeovers.

Its Red Bar­rel was par­tic­u­lar­ly vile – a sym­bol of all that was wrong with indus­tri­al brew­ing and nation­al brands pushed through cyn­i­cal mar­ket­ing cam­paigns.

This, at least, was the accept­ed nar­ra­tive for a long time, formed by the pro­pa­gan­da of the Cam­paign for Real Ale in its ear­ly years, and set hard through years of rep­e­ti­tion.

But does it stand up to scruti­ny? What if, con­trary to every­thing we’ve heard, Red Bar­rel was actu­al­ly kind of OK?

This long post was made pos­si­ble by the kind sup­port of Patre­on sub­scribers like Matthew Turn­bull and David Sim, whose encour­age­ment makes us feel less daft about spend­ing half a week­end work­ing on stuff like this. Please con­sid­er sign­ing up, or just buy us a pint.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Watney’s Red Bar­rel – how bad could it have been?”

News, Nuggets and Longreads 19 January 2019: Bottleshares, Boddies, Brand Loyalty

Here’s everything on beer and pubs we felt the urge to bookmark in the past seven days, from coolships to kask kontroversy.

Joe Stange is now writ­ing for Craft Beer & Brew­ing and has announced his arrival with an excel­lent piece on Fran­co­nia which suc­ceeds in find­ing some new angles on this much-writ­ten-about beer region:

Here is anoth­er thing you can see upstairs, in the attic: a wide, riv­et­ed cop­per cool­ship… Or rather: You can see it, until the boil­ing-hot wort hits the pan—littered with a sur­pris­ing amount of hops pel­lets for a burst of aroma—and opaque steam rapid­ly fills the attic. After that, it’s dif­fi­cult to see any­thing in there for a while. This cool­ship is the kind of thing you might expect to see in a lam­bic brew­ery, or in an ambi­tious Amer­i­can wild-beer brew­ery, or in a muse­um. Its orig­i­nal pur­pose, how­ev­er, has noth­ing to do with sour beers. It is sim­ply an old-fash­ioned way to cool wort. Andreas Gän­staller uses it every time he brews lager… “The wort streams out real­ly clear,” he says. “The beer is much more clear because all the bad stuff goes away in the steam.”

Illustration: beer bottles.

If you’ve ever fan­cied organ­is­ing a bot­tle share, or won­dered exact­ly what a bot­tle share is, then you’ll find this primer by Rach Smith at Look at Brew use­ful. In in, she explains how the bot­tle share she runs in Brighton works, and offers tips on set­ting up your own:

Think about the order in which you’ll be pour­ing. If there are pale/low abv beers for exam­ple, start with them and leave the big, bold Impe­r­i­al stouts for last so you don’t com­plete­ly destroy your taste buds ear­ly on… [And] don’t judge. It’s not about who can bring the rarest beers, it’s about social­is­ing, learn­ing a lit­tle bit along the way and hav­ing a damn good time.


An inter­est­ing point from Ed – could the rea­son cask beer num­bers are down be because we lost a few big brands that made up the bulk of the num­bers, such as Boddington’s?

Sierra Nevade Brewing Co neon sign.

With #Flag­shipFeb­ru­ary in mind (see last week’s round-up) Kate Bernot has writ­ten about con­sumer promis­cu­ity for The Take­out:

I say this whole idea of promis­cu­ity and no brand loy­al­ty is gross­ly mis­de­fined,” says Lester Jones, chief econ­o­mist for the Nation­al Beer Whole­salers Asso­ci­a­tion. “It was pret­ty easy 25–30 years ago to find a brand that you liked and trust­ed and had rela­tions to. I don’t think peo­ple have changed, I think it’s just tak­ing longer to sift through the mul­ti­tude of choic­es.… Instead of accept­ing the fact that their job is a lot hard­er, it’s easy for brew­ers to turn and say ‘The con­sumer is fick­le. He doesn’t know what he wants.’ No, the con­sumer knows what he wants and the con­sumer is tast­ing to find what he wants, but giv­en so many choic­es, it just takes longer,” Jones says.

Generic beer pumps in photocopy style.

All this is well and good but what peo­ple real­ly want to know is this: where’s the beef at? Well, Jes­si­ca Mason wrote this piece argu­ing that the embrace of cask beer by the likes of Cloud­wa­ter sig­nals a resur­gence in the health of its image

[Cloudwater’s Paul] Jones [says] that a lot of tra­di­tion­al brew­eries up and down the coun­try are ‘com­plete pros and leg­ends’ with­in cask beer, even if they’re not turn­ing their hands to more mod­ern beer styles. ‘I think some­thing of a hybrid offer­ing from us real­ly ought to diver­si­fy what cask beer is and what it could be in the future.’

Wild Card’s head Brew­er Jae­ga Wise, who recent­ly won the title of Brew­er of the Year, will be relaunch­ing its cask-beer offer­ing next year. How­ev­er, she stress­es that it will be on the brewery’s terms, remind­ing how mod­ern brew­ers are reit­er­at­ing cask’s rel­e­vance, but are not will­ing to bow to out­dat­ed stereo­types.

…which prompt­ed this come­back from Tan­dle­man:

So we need mod­ern craft brew­ers to show us the way and revive cask? These are the same peo­ple that give you cask beer that looks like chick­en soup and under­mine the work done by brew­ers for many years to ensure clean, clear, bright beer with dis­tinct flavours.We’d more or less lost the “It’s meant to be like that” non­sense until craft got its hands on cask. Now it is back with a vengeance, as over­turn­ing the ortho­doxy has giv­en bar staff the right to say it once more, even if the beer looks like a mix­ture of lumpy fruit juices and smells like Henderson’s Rel­ish.

More point/counterpoint than beef, real­ly, but it’s fas­ci­nat­ing how the fault lines (cul­tur­al, gen­er­a­tional) con­tin­ue to reveal them­selves in new forms.

And final­ly, there’s this reminder of how many oppor­tu­ni­ties for dis­as­ter are built into the cask ale sup­ply chain:

As ever, for more links, check­out Stan on Mon­days (usu­al­ly includ­ing lots of stuff beyond beer, but still about beer) and Alan on Thurs­day (gen­er­al­ly thread­ing links togeth­er to make some sort of point).

News Pub and Old Favourites #4: The Grenadier, Belgravia

The Grenadier is one of those celebrity pubs, a London institution only a rung or two down from Buckingham Palace, on a par with the inflated walrus at the Horniman.

It’s in every vin­tage pub guide you can think of, from Green & White to Tav­erns in the Town by Alan Roul­stone.

The sto­ry (which we haven’t checked in any detail) is that it was built as a mess for offi­cers in the First Reg­i­ment of Foot Guards, became a pub prop­er in 1818, and has been trad­ing ever since.

And yet, we’d nev­er been.

The last time we attempt­ed a sur­vey of the hid­den mews pubs of Bel­gravia, the Grenadier let us down: being tiny, and being famous, some­body had decid­ed it need­ed to close while the Win­ter Won­der­land event was tak­ing place in near­by Hyde Park.

It near­ly defeat­ed us this time, too, con­ceal­ing itself in one of those folds in Google Maps that send you walk­ing round a place with­out ever find­ing it. Read­ers, we may have bick­ered, but even­tu­al­ly an alley­way appeared that hadn’t been there moments before, and we slipped through the por­tal.

Three Amer­i­cans, one shirt­less, were bel­low­ing at each oth­er: “Bro! Dude! There’s a freak­ing bug on my back! Dude!” One of his friends poured the remains of a pint over his head and called him a pussy. They stag­gered away into the night. The scene was set.

A military jacket at the Grenadier.

The mews was qui­et, but the pub was throb­bing, steam­ing, taut and ready to pop. We strug­gled through a gap in the door and through a gap to the bar and ordered a round of aston­ish­ing­ly expen­sive but very decent Tim­o­thy Tay­lor Land­lord, served with busi­nesslike effi­cien­cy.

We squeezed through the crowd to a rel­a­tive­ly less dense­ly packed cor­ner and leaned against two inch­es of shelf over the heads of a group of Amer­i­can stu­dents, two lass­es and two lads, all too tall to fit their knees under their tiny table.

Near­by, a par­ty of nine Dutch stu­dents (con­spic­u­ous flash­es of orange) had some­how gath­ered around a table for two and were forced to part like the tide every time a fresh par­ty came steam­ing towards the din­ing area, and then away from the din­ing area once they’d realised it was a din­ing area.

Scowls all round: this pub would be per­fect if every­one else would just piss awf.

There is a per­fect pub here, beneath the over­pop­u­la­tion. Like oth­ers near­by, it hasn’t been giv­en a cor­po­rate makeover, or tidied to bland­ness. The cor­ners are still gloomy, the sur­faces are dinged and rubbed, and every flat plane, includ­ing the ceil­ing, is cov­ered with tat. (Supe­ri­or tat, mind – earnest, well-earned mil­i­taria, rather than plas­tic clocks.)

Wax jack­ets, rug­by shirts and piles of shop­ping bags.

Expen­sive per­fume min­gled with wet dog and hot gravy.

Con­ver­sa­tions weav­ing togeth­er, encrypt­ing each oth­er as they pour out into a hot fog around the light­bulbs.

We did not see Madon­na or Prince William.

New Pubs and Old Favourites #3: The Bricklayers Arms, Putney

We can’t quite call the Bricklayers in Putney an old favourite because we only made it there once, about a decade ago.

On that occa­sion, we were delight­ed to find a pub in Lon­don with beer from Tim­o­thy Tay­lor. Not just the then ubiq­ui­tous Land­lord but the full range – Gold­en Best, Ram Tam, dark mild, and more.

But then we moved to Corn­wall, and while we were away, the pub changed, los­ing its unique sell­ing point and becom­ing just anoth­er Lon­don pub with a ‘great range of real ale’. Peo­ple stopped talk­ing about the Brick­lay­ers, and we for­got it exist­ed.

Then before Christ­mas, the buzz began again: Taylor’s was back at the Brick­ie.

We went out of our way to vis­it in the week between Christ­mas and the new year, despite Google’s insis­tence that the pub was closed on Fri­days. As we approached along the qui­et back­street we felt reas­sured: the lights were on, fig­ures were mov­ing behind the frost­ed glass.

Bricklayers pub exterior.

Not many fig­ures, though: we walked into an almost emp­ty pub, and the peo­ple at the bar were into the last inch­es of their pints, mak­ing their long good­byes.

It’s an excit­ing sight, a line of pumps with Taylor’s clips, espe­cial­ly when rar­i­ties such as the porter are there along­side the big names.

There’s been a lit­tle con­tro­ver­sy about this brew­ery late­ly. Depend­ing who you lis­ten to, it’s either over­looked and under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed, or over-hyped and new­ly trendy, but we like the beer and have liked it for almost as long as we’ve been pay­ing atten­tion.

This time, there were some hits and miss­es. Land­lord was off – a trib­ute to the pow­er of the brand, we sup­pose – and the dark mild was sim­ply mud­dy. Knowle Spring was sad­ly bland. The porter we’d been so keen to try seemed like a squirt of cheap cola.

But Ram Tam! Oh, Ram Tam. Anoth­er best mild, we think, and though peo­ple keep telling us it’s just Land­lord with caramel… It doesn’t taste like Land­lord with caramel. Per­haps we’re mugs being fooled by the optics, per­ceiv­ing flavours that aren’t there, but we are per­ceiv­ing them, so who cares.

A moth­er and father with moody teenage son arrived, made small talk, and agreed to try a mix of Gold­en Best and dark mild that the local CAMRA crawl had appar­ent­ly enjoyed on its sweep through.

A reg­u­lar arrived, con­ceal­ing his drunk­en­ness expert­ly until he’d been served, and then star­ing dumb­found­ed at a pint he didn’t real­ly want. “I tell you what, I’ll have a whisky,” he said, but didn’t get one.

The fire flick­ered.

The boards creaked.

Faces appeared against the frost­ed glass, scat­tered into pink points, fea­tures scrunched in con­sid­er­a­tion. To come in from the cold, or walk on? They walked on.