Unexpected pubs are the best pubs

This is probably the time to admit publicly that as well as doing #EveryPubinBristol, I have a related mission to visit Every Street in Bristol.

It’s a great way to really get to know our new(ish) home and discover unexpected delights such as an Edward VIII postbox, Roman road remains, suburban substations built to resemble 1930s detached houses, Victorian urinals, municipal murals – you get the idea.

I’d like to pretend it’s something to do with psychogeography and liminal spaces but it’s actually much more to do with my completist tendencies. Anyway, there you go. Confession made.

This is background to explain why, the day after our Filton jaunt, we went out for a walk aimed at ticking streets rather than pubs. Because we felt we’d done our duty the previous day, and because of general seasonal overindulgence, I thought it would be a good opportunity to head into an area I expected to be a pub desert – the 1930s hinterlands between Westbury-on-Trym (AKA ‘WOT’) and Stoke Park.

Experience, and all that research I did into early 20th century town planning and licensing for 20th Century Pub, tells us that these sorts of areas tend to have either no pubs at all, or very large ones at major junctions.

As per my plan, we went through the centre of Westbury-on-Trym, and turned up a large suburban avenue. I had literally just said to Ray, “One thing we won’t find out here will be any pubs,” when we rounded the corner and saw not one but two pub signs close together, blowing in the wind. At a glance, both appeared to be modest sized boozers advertising real ale among other things.

Prince of Wales.

We visited The Prince of Wales first, which had lovely George’s livery outside and inside, and reminded us of a backstreet London pub, perhaps in somewhere like Ealing.

There’s the outline of a two-bar layout arranged around a corner entrance, and although the partitions are long gone, it still felt cosy.

Two small bar areas with a reasonable number of customers make a place feel busy. It’s a Butcombe house, and the Butcombe bitter was nothing short of superb.

Excitingly (for us) there was also Timothy Taylor Landlord, in equally excellent condition. The beer was so good that we downloaded the CAMRA Good Beer Guide App to rate it.

We clinked glasses, delighted in the discovery and baffled as to why we hadn’t heard of this place. We would have stayed for more but there was another pub to visit, as well as some vague hope of getting back to ticking streets while the daylight lasted.

The Black Swan was perhaps cosier again –  more like a village pub, with two small, packed front rooms and a larger (empty) space out the back. The beer wasn’t as exciting but was decent enough and the general mix of people coming and going was fun.

While we were there, we had a look at the excellent National Library of Scotland geo-referenced map of the area to see if we could determine why there appeared to be a village inn in the middle of 1930s suburbia. Sure enough, we found that we were on a little island of an older settlement, unnamed as far as we could tell, and that the Black Swan was marked on the 1880 map.

We also pondered the contrast with these two pubs with those we’d visited the day before at Filton. It seemed a good illustration of the point that it is easier to retain and create atmosphere and a sense of community in smaller pubs.

That is, regardless of the relative economic fortunes of Filton vs Westbury-on-Trym, the two WOT  pubs had the advantage of smaller size and more sympathetic design and seemed better suited to 21st century preferences.

Pubs that can make it past their first hundred years are more likely to survive in the long term.

Why not make cider?

It all began with a big sign on the window of our local home-brewing shop, the unfortunately named Brewer’s Droop: ‘It’s Cider season! Borrow our cider press!’

We’ve been blessed with apples this year. Or rather, with some extensive YouTube study and a five hour pruning session in February, I managed to get the unproductive tree in our rented property to produce hundreds of absolute whoppers. I have hitherto been almost the opposite of green fingered, so I’m inordinately proud of this.

We had already made pies, frozen puree, made apple butter and eaten apple pancakes for breakfast every day for two weeks. But, still, we had loads.

So I wandered into the shop to find out more and came out fixated on the idea. As in, Ray asking, “What are you thinking about?” as I stared into the middle distance pondering the process. As in, drifting off to sleep with visions of sweet juice flowing freely from the press.

The shopkeeper told me I could hire a scratter (pulper) and the press on a daily rate. I didn’t need any other kit as we already had fermenting vessels and campden tablets. That just left a couple of issues to sort before pressing day.

Firstly, it turned out that, though we were trying to deal with an apple surplus, we’d actually need more apples – “at least five 20 litre buckets to make it worthwhile,” said the helpful chap in the shop.

The poster I put up in the Drapers.

Fine, no problem: I contacted a couple of friends who also have apple trees and then had the bright idea of putting a sign up in The Drapers Arms. This turned out to be wildly successful and mildly stressful.

We had to get them from the pub to home on foot. Garvan, landlord of The Drapers, lent us his sack truck but, still, we still end up scattering apples around the pub and Hansel and Gretel style along the Gloucester Road.

It all worked out, though, and without any planning at all we hit upon a good mix for cider – mostly eating apples, a few cookers and some actual cider apples.

Unfortunately, not many people left their details so I have no way to say thanks to lots of the donors apart from here, and perhaps another sign in the Drapers. So, thank you all, it is really appreciated.

Next, I had to work out what processes to follow and how to use the kit.

Cider production, even more than brewing beer, seems to be a field full of contradictory advice and inconsistencies, with reputable sources disagreeing on methods.

“You don’t need muslin”, said the bloke at the shop – not much of a salesman, with hindsight.

“You definitely need a straining sock or something similar,” said two Drapers regulars, referring to a system for lifting the crushed apple out of the press when it’s done.

“You’ll need Campden tablets and a cider yeast,” said one; “I never use yeast, just let it do its thing,” said another.

I eventually settled on no straining sock but decided I would do the Campden tablet plus yeast thing.

The press in action.

I learned a few things in the thick of it:

> You need at least one other person, and preferably three or four. That way, you can be scratting while someone is emptying the previous pressing, or putting more pressure on the press, or making a round of tea without a break in production.

> Pulping apples in a hand cranked scratter is incredibly satisfying but the juice and pips will fly several metres as the fruit disappears into the maw, so either do it outside or cover everything.

> Yes, you definitely need a bloody straining sock. Digging out compacted apple cheese from a press is a lot harder work than digging out a mash tun, and you have to repeat it several times.

> The press can always be turned one more time, though it might not be worth the effort after a while.

> Size of apple really matters in estimating yield. “About five buckets of apples to one bucket of juice” said the chap in the shop. “About three times as many apples as volume of liquid,” said a cider making expert in the Drapers. I think my yield was more like one bucket of juice from six buckets of apples. I think that’s partly because a lot of our apples were huge – the bloke in the Drapers has a tree that produces lovely little red apples, hence, I reckon, his much better yield.

We learned afterwards, from books:

> As well as size of apple, amount of juice is dependent on when you pick the apples and press them. We don’t really have the room to do what most sources suggest, which is to pick the apples and leave them for up to four weeks before pressing, so we probably couldn’t have done this differently.

> We should have aimed for a balance of sweetness, acidity and tannin in the juice, and should have made adjustments to achieve it. Well, the juice we got was absolutely beautiful, but I’m not sure if it will have enough acid or tannin to make good cider.

We got 30 litres of juice in the end after about 17 hours of hard labour, mostly me but with Ray’s help in the evening.

That juice is, at present, still juice, as fermentation does not seem to be quite kicking off as it ought to.

The fermenting vessel full of juice.

One of the smaller carboys is going fairly well, though not spraying foam everywhere as promised; the other is more sluggish. Our massive 20 litre jar seems to be going nowhere, at the time of writing.

It’s all the same yeast so perhaps I used too many Campden tablets and killed it? We will probably mix up the one that is going with the one that isn’t and see what happens.

At the moment, then, we don’t know if all the hassle was worth it, and by all accounts, even if we do get cider, it won’t be drinkable for another year. Still, we’ve already gone from “Never again!” at one o’clock on Friday morning to “When we do this again next year…”

The Great Age of Steam

Beer signs at the Head of Steam bar in Birmingham.

We’ve been intrigued by the growth of the Head of Steam chain of beer bars for a while and Phil’s recent post prompted me to go out of my way to drop into the Birmingham branch while traversing the Midlands.

Founded by Tony Brookes in the North East of England in 1995, the original proposition of Head of Steam was that the pubs (with bottled beer, flavoured vodka, and so on) would be near city train stations, occupying railway property. In 1998 there were branches in Newcastle, Huddersfield and at Euston in London.

In 2009 when regional giant Cameron’s took over, with backing from Carlsberg, there were seven pubs in the Head of Steam group. There are now 15 bars, mostly in the Midlands and the North, with more on the way.

Based on my experience in Birmingham, the approach is to try to convince you you’re stepping into an individualistic place with personality and taste, not a Craft Pub Chain Concept. The signs are all ther, though: distressed and mismatched furniture, walls that’ll give you splinters, but with all the crucial bits kept conveniently wipe-clean.

Vintage pub seating and wooden walls.

There’s an off-the-peg Eclectic Playlist, of course — breathy indie switches to quirky ska and then, inevitably, to Africa by Toto — delivered through a state of the art Hospitality Background Music Solution.

And the food looks like standard pub grub disguised with a sprinkling of kimchi.

Now, all that might sound a little sour but actually I didn’t dislike the place at all.

There was an interesting selection of beer, for starters.

I was also impressed by the very chatty bartender who for all his patter knew when to pitch a recommendation and when to just pour.

As I was on a tight turnaround I only had a couple of small ones — Horizon by the Shiny Brewing Company, which didn’t touch the sides — hazy, refreshing, tart, and bitter; and an imported German lager, ABK, which struck me as pretty decent, too, in a literally nondescript way.

Cameron’s also spent some of the refurb money on ensuring there are plug points at practically every table which in this day and age is a not insignificant factor in deciding where to go for a pint in a strange town.

My first instinct was to say that it isn’t the sort of place I’d generally choose to go again but actually I had to concede that it made a good pit-stop while changing trains, being less than five minutes from New Street.

Then I found myself going a little further: if I lived in Birmingham, I reckon I’d probably end up there quite a bit.

I can imagine it appealing to non-beer-geek friends and family with its cleanness, friendliness, and vast range of drinks.

And I can certainly deal with the whiff of the corporate when there’s a cage of Orval and Westmalle to be enjoyed.

The Magic Guinness Blend c.1939

Cover of the Guinness brewing manual.

When a colleague of mine told me that her father had been head brewer at Guinness’s London brewery and wondered if I might be interested in seeing his papers, I got a bit excited.

Finally, months later, we got round to visiting to check out what was in her collection. Based on a quick audit the answer is: everything.

We’ve agreed to take possession of the whole lot, catalogue it, copy bits we might be able to use for our own research, and then help with arrangements to have the important bits taken into appropriate archives.

For now, though, here’s a nugget from the handful of documents we brought away with us on Wednesday night: insider info on how Guinness gained its once legendary complexity at the blending stage.

This comes from a typed document in a plain brown wrapper written in 1939 and updated to take account of wartime brewing restrictions. The copy we have seems to come from around 1943 but was in apparently still in circulation in the 1950s.

The first page bears the title ‘The Process of Brewing Guinness’ and the 46 pages that follow offer detailed notes on the basics of beer making (how hops are dried, for example) as well as specifics about Guinness.

Section header: "making up".

Here’s the section on ‘Making Up’:

Beer in storage vats [after fermentation] is quite flat and is cloudy and bitter and uninteresting to taste. Before it is ready for sale it must be ‘Made up’… Beer from say six different brews forms the basis. These are chosen in such proportions that when mixed with unfermented beer (i.e. wort that has been pitched but not allowed to ferment) known as gyle, their residues added to the fermentable matter of the gyle will give a suitable ‘Prime’. ‘Prime’ is the fermentable matter in beer after making up just as ‘Residue’ is the fermentable matter as the beer enters the storage vat. It is measured as the difference between the present gravity of the beer and its perfect primary.

In addition to these beers there are added:–

  1. Barm beer: this is the beer which is skimmed off from the skimmers with the yeast and is separated from the yeast in a filter press. It is intensely bitter but adds very materially to the flavour of the flat, uninteresting storage vat beer.
  2. O.B.S.: old beer storage is old acid beer that, like barm beer, improves the flavour of the finished beer although it is itself very unpleasant.
  3. Drawing: these are residues of made up beer which was not bright enough to put into the trade without further treatment. It is exactly similar in composition to made up beer.
  4. Finings: this is a solution of isinglass in storage vat beer. Only minute traces of isinglass are required but it brings about the very rapid sedimentation of all the floating particles which make the beer cloudy.

All the constituents of the make up are pumped into a ‘Racking Vat’ together and there allowed to stand for 24-48 hours.

So, there you have it. We sort of knew the gist of this but this is the most explicit explanation of the process we’ve seen in writing from a primary source, we think.

Old Haunts #1: The Brunswick, Derby

I was nervous about revisiting Derby’s famous brewpub The Brunswick, so happy are my memories of our last visit almost a decade ago.

My worry, I suppose, was that anything less than a great experience in 2018 might wipe out the warm glow around the memory of 2009.

But I simply couldn’t resist when the opportunity arose to accidentally-on-purpose arrange my trains to allow for a stopover in Derby. Too many times in the past few years we’ve sailed through, seen the pub from the train, and daydreamed about jumping off and running across the road.

I just couldn’t watch it sail past again.

So off I came, through the barriers, and out on to the road by the station (which is as lovely as most roads by stations), from where I commenced a terribly long walk over the short distance to the pub.

What if it has got worse? I wondered. What if it’s just the same but my tastes have changed so I can no longer appreciate it? What if I’m simply fussier now than I was then?

Approaching the door was odd, like being  yanked back a decade into a previous phase of my life, twenty-something and full of beans: the pub looked identical, as if it had been waiting with breath held all these years.

Inside, nothing seemed to have changed either: slate floors, well-worn wood, the buzz of conversation in local accents with beautifully twisted vowels.  A choice of rooms to park yourself in. Above all, the thing that made it great then was still outstandingly good now — the welcome from the staff. I felt like I belonged there, even though I was an obvious stranger with my southern accent and enormous rucksack.

Sat there on my own, I looked up our tasting notes from 2009 and, yes, they still apply: “[Not] especially complex or clever, but… unbelievably fresh. When people say cask ale is alive, this is what they mean… The pale and hoppy White Feather (3.6%) was the stand out — it was easy to believe that it hadn’t long stopped fermenting.”

I’m so glad I revisited this wonderful pub and I certainly don’t intend to leave it until 2027 before going again.

The Curse

I’ve been noticing worse hangovers for the last few years and put it down to ageing — I’m looking down the barrel end of 40. Whereas in my twenties I could happily go on a vodka crawl in Krakow and be up for work the next day, whistling and merry, these days, my limit is somewhere between one pint and three.

What struck me as odd, though, is that though Ray’s tolerance is also dropping (better that way than the other…) it’s consistent: he can drink about five pints in a session without having to write off the next day. Whereas on some occasions, a single pint is enough to induce an entire day of nausea in me.

So I started to do a bit of tracking on this, and began to notice a possible correlation: I appear to have much worse hangovers when I’m on or approaching my period.

My first thought was that I was actually less tolerant to alcohol during my period and this is very much the folk wisdom you’ll hear on the subject: during menstruation, the thinking goes, our blood is (a) thinner and (b) there’s less of it. However, from reading around a bit more, there isn’t clear medical evidence on this point (it would have a pretty negligible impact on blood/alcohol ratio, particularly if you keep up other fluids). However, interestingly, there is a potential link between oestrogen levels and pain perception, so it could be that the hangover symptoms simply feel a lot worse (as if that is any consolation). There is also a suggestion that you might drink more, or more quickly, while pre-menstrual (slough of despond and all that) – although I can rule out the former as I have been quite careful about recording amounts drunk, it is possible I might be boshing it at a different rate.

As someone who likes systems, processes and clear rules, it’s frustrating to me that there’s no consistency to it – some months are better than others. So I’ve started to record things in a lot more detail (e.g. looking at food intake, speed of alcohol absorption etc) and I’d be really interested to know if others have observed any trends or discovered any mitigation, other than sticking to fruit tea for half the month.

Crimes Against Tea

I’m as fussy about tea as I am about beer, but perhaps in a slightly different way.

I started drinking tea when I was about 2-years-old — weak and milky, then, out of a bottle. The not so fun side of this is that by the time I reached my teens I was on about ten cups a day and suffered withdrawal symptoms (migraine, faintness) if I missed a dose for some reason. Tea is, after all, a powerful stimulant and vehicle for caffeine, despite all the Great British Bake Off tweeness that comes with it.

Over the years I’ve got to a healthier place with a general cutting back and the odd decaff placebo, though I can still be knocked out the next day if I don’t have a cuppa mid-afternoon. And that’s one reason I often end up drinking tea in pubs, between or instead of pints.

There are other good reasons too, of course: it’s a terrific pick-me-up; it gives the palate and the liver a break; it’s warming, which can be useful on a winter pub crawl for icy-fingered folk like me; and (perhaps not universally applicable) it’s entirely historically appropriate in an inter-war improved pub. (Especially for a ladylike lady like wot I am.)

So, here are my thoughts on the quality and presentation of tea, some of which apply to pubs, and some more general.

  1. Just as with beer, how it’s treated matters. Freshness and storage conditions are the most important factors: fancy teabags stored in a glass jar on a shelf in the sun for six months won’t taste as good as basic ones refreshed frequently and kept in an airtight container in the dark.
  2. Let me put in my own milk. You are putting in too much, too early. Remember, tea for me is a substitute for espresso, not bedtime Horlicks.
  3. ‎Related: don’t rush it. Either leave the bag in, or let it brew for four or five minutes.
  4. Fancy leaf tea is fine and can be transcendent (I remember fondly a place in the City of London whose tea had an almost hoppy floweriness) but, really, bags properly looked after taste great to me. So don’t put yourself out on my behalf.
  5. Supposedly artisanal tea brands can do one. Many of the teas with the sexiest brands, biggest claims and fanciest packaging seem to be utterly mediocre — all about the upsell.
  6. Organic tea, unlike organic beer, is still a thing and, just as with organic beer, seems to taste worse than the pesticide-laden variety.
  7. ‎Local tea? Don’t be daft. You can grow tea in the UK but why bother?
  8. The worst crime of all is tea that has somehow been contaminated with coffee. I quite like coffee, I love tea, but the ghost of a stale coffee in my tea? Blech!

Now, to be fair, in my experience most pubs do a better cuppa than the average high street chain coffee shop, which might be worth remembering next time you’re in a pub and, for whatever, want something other than booze.

And, now I think about it, some of this isn’t that different to how I am with beer after all: a basic product in decent condition trumps a fancy one that’s treated and presented like rubbish.

Appy Meal

The carpet at the Imperial, Exeter.

We’d noticed Wetherspoon pubs pushing their order-at-your-table phone app but didn’t feel moved to download it until Bailey’s parents started raving.

They first used it in Exeter the other week and rang us up to tell us about it, so excited were they. Bailey’s Mum:

The bar was six deep and we were knackered and then we saw the thing on the table advertising the app, so I downloaded it. We ordered drinks and food and they arrived in minutes, no queue! Brilliant.

Then, during the house move, we ended up in Spoons with them a couple of times, where they kept up the propaganda campaign. Bailey’s Dad seemed puzzled as to why we’d keep putting ourselves through the misery of queueing at the bar when such a wonder existed.

And that’s a good question — what had stopped us?

For one thing, we had some ethical qualms — won’t this put bar staff out of work? Isn’t full self-service automation the next stop? (Probably not.) At-table ordering via apps and touchscreens has been taking off in US fast food chains in recent years (probably where Mr Martin got the idea, being a known McDonald’s worshipper) and similar debates have been underway there, too.

More selfishly, we had our doubts about how well it might work for fussy drinkers like us — would it make ordering guest ales easier, presenting them in a neat list with all the info, or simply give the basic core drinks list?

I kept thinking about all this, perhaps because I had some responsibility for procuring and maintaining electronic point of sale systems (EPOS) in my last job, and so, on Wednesday, I cracked and gave it a go.

My chosen testing ground was The Imperial in Exeter, a beautiful building so vast that (first hurdle) the app kept warning me I was 142 yards away from the pub when I was actually sat at one end. The app downloaded in seconds over the pub’s own free wi-fi and was incredibly easy to use — it was clearly tested thoroughly on real people before roll out. For ordering food, it worked brilliantly. Being on my own, with work papers and laptop, I loved the idea of being able to get served without the usual anxious glancing back and forth from bar-staff to table, worrying whether my stuff was about to get half-inched.

As suspected, though, it fell down on drinks. The Imperial has two bars each with different ales and the app ought to be a way to show picky ale drinkers everything on offer in one neat list. As it is, I could only order the cross-chain standards (Doom Bar, Abbot, Ruddles) so I ended up having to do the anxious bar dash anyway.

And, unless I’m missing something, there’s no way to apply the CAMRA voucher discount. Probably a deal breaker for many, but probably also on the project planner for a future version: e-vouchers with a pin code, saving on all that glossy paper, perhaps?

As I sat there, Billy no mates, I pondered those ethical questions and concluded that, frankly, if you’re in a Wetherspoon pub, you’ve already crossed the line — Spoonsland is a realm of pure capitalism, for better or worse. There’s also something pleasing, not to say amusing, about the idea of Tim Martin, arch Euro-sceptic, quietly introducing something like Continental-style waiter service to English pubs.

Overall, I was impressed, and can imagine using it for ordering the chicken wings to which I’m addicted, if not drinks. While that’s not quite the sci-fi future they promised us it’s pretty astonishing all the same.

Further reading: this article on the pros and cons of the app from the Independent, published back in March, is an interesting read that takes a balanced view.

First Contact

Adapted from ‘The George at Cley’ by Dun.can from Flickr under Creative Commons.

A glamorous, terrifying whirl of light, lushness and noise — that’s my earliest memory of The Pub.

I was about seven or eight and on a family holiday in Cley next the Sea, Norfolk. We usually stayed in slightly scary bed-and-breakfasts (out by ten and don’t come back until tea time) but that year, for some reason, we were in the George Hotel. My memories are of gorgeously deep red carpets and a baronial fireplace whose scale and richness are probably being exaggerated in the data recall process.

The moment I recall most vividly, the instance when my crush on The Pub was formed, is from after dark. I’d been put to bed and told to stay there with a warning: under no circumstances was I to come down to the public bar. But I needed something, in the way only small children can need something, and so I had to go down to where I could hear everyone laughing and having fun without me.

I was awed by the experience. Everything was sparkling and everyone was aglow, including my parents, surrounded by friends and gently, sociably tipsy, in the midst of a crowd of merry strangers.

The illusion was shattered when they spotted me and, in a half-panic, bundled me back upstairs with a telling off, but it was too late.

I’d seen where adults went to play, and I liked it, and thirty years on, I still do.

Magical Mystery Pour Bonus: Tempest Mexicake

Tempest Mexicake in the glass.

Tempest’s 11% ABV chilli-infused imperial stout, Mexicake, didn’t immediately appeal to me, because it sounds like the kind of beer people invent for their ‘Hur, hur, dumb hipsters’ jokes. But, wow, was it good.

This is a kind of Magical Mystery Pour deleted scene. Dina, you might recall, was our first selector more than a year ago, and very kindly sent us this and another beer as part of a Christmas gift box last December.

There are beers to which you respond intellectually, and those for which you just have a pash. This one made me go wobbly: ‘Blimey!’ was the only note I managed for the first few minutes. When I tried to expand on that, still reeling, I came out with I now know is called a malaphor: ‘That ticks a lot of my buttons.’

Then I said ‘Mmmmmmm’, three times before my brain engaged.

It was black with a dirty brown head, like something that might leak from the engine of one of those spiky cars in a Mad Max film. It felt dense, syrupy and velvety, and tasted like treacle. The chilli was subtle, almost possible to confuse with bitterness in the muddled wiring of the brain, and really worked. As it warmed up I began to think more of chocolate and vanilla but, really, there were lots of different flavours bouncing around. It might be easiest just to say, ‘It tastes of everything.’ (Except oddly, and thankfully, the advertised cinnamon.)

This was proof that big beers can also be perfectly balanced. Delightful. Bring me another!