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bristol pubs

Your friendly neighbourhood craft beer bar

Somewhat against the odds, a new bar opened on Gloucester Road over the summer.

Sidney and Eden is the latest development from the team behind Bottles & Books, which had previously evolved from a comic book and bottle shop into a teeny-tiny tap room.

Technically S&E isn’t an additional bar on the scene as it takes the place of something vaguely bar-like that existed in those premises before. But this is very much a New Venture, with a clear idea of what it wants to be – a neighbourhood craft beer bar that can compete with city centre destinations.

It has 20+ taps and, from our observations, makes a point of covering a range of styles within that. It’s weighted towards the IPAs and exotic stouts but there’s also room for local standards such as Lost and Grounded Kellerpils and Belgian classics such as Saison Dupont.

Prior to Lockdown 2 it seemed consistently busy, at least by the standards of interregnum levels of activity. We saw a number of people we know from the Drapers in there, suggesting that, like Bottles & Books before it, it provides a complementary offer.

Pastry stout.

We managed a couple of sessions there before lockdown, under the awning in our woollens, including a truly delightful evening trying a succession of silly pastry stouts and enjoying them immensely.

We hadn’t really thought about the neighbourhood craft beer bar as a concept before. Our assumption has been that this sort of specialist tasting venue is still sufficiently niche that it only really makes sense as a city centre destination.

Sidney and Eden is a good 40 minutes walk from the centre, or 15 minutes on the bus. It’s well connected on public transport if you’re coming from the centre or from Filton but not if you’re in any other part of the city. With that in mind, it really has to appeal to sufficient numbers of local people to be a success.

But if you’re going to do it in any neighbourhood, this one is a really good choice.

It’s directly on Gloucester Road and thus benefits from (a) the presence of other good pubs nearby and (b) the general independent spirit and commitment to shopping local.

We suspect there was plenty of pent up demand in the nearby residential streets. If house prices are a measure of wealth then it’s a pretty prosperous area (we rent and, in fact, are having to move away from the area to somewhere cheaper) and yet, despite the large numbers of drinking establishments nearby, none had a serious craft offer (definition 2) until now.

Sidney and Eden certainly improved the quality of our lives in the couple of months it was open, and we really hope it survives the winter and thrives beyond. It’s currently open for pre-ordered takeaway beer.

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bristol pubs

Notes on pubs in Tier 1+

Humans are terrible at risk assessment, aren’t they?

People who were not going out when new cases were at around 20-30 a day and were stable or falling, are now happily visiting pubs with cases at 250 a day and rising. Great British Common Sense in action.

Graph of cases in Bristol showing steep rise.

Daily cases in Bristol as of 30 October 2020 via Public Health England.

At the time of writing, Bristol is in something the local authorities are calling ‘Tier 1+’ and is, we think, the biggest English city not to be facing higher-level restrictions.

We’re not really sure why – the rate of infection is actually higher than in some Tier 3 locations.

It’s possibly because hospital admissions remain low (although we know how that goes) or perhaps we just haven’t flashed up on the superforecasting spreadsheet yet.

Tier 1 isn’t completely unrestricted. It still requires pubs and restaurants to be closed by 10, seated table service and masks to be worn when not seated. As for who’s allowed to meet where… Well, this is part of the issue.

We seem to have moved completely away from principles – try to minimise your social contacts – and into a series of overlapping and confusing rules that give the impression that all is well and that you have permission to socialise.

This, plus limited support for pubs, along with a sense that it might all be taken away any day now, creates this weird moral pressure for consumers like us who love pubs and desperately want them to survive.

We’re not the only people we know who have upped our pub-going in the last month, despite the fact that it’s almost certainly more dangerous now in Bristol than it’s ever been.

Even in the comparative luxury of Tier 1, things certainly don’t feel normal.

We spent an hour in a pub in a student area on Saturday afternoon, sitting outside near the entrance, and saw some perhaps understandably bizarre behaviour.

“How many are you?” asks the bouncer.
“Er… two groups of four.”
(The limit is six.)

Then there was this:

“Please put a mask on if you’re standing up and moving about the pub.”
“I can’t. I’m only going for a fag. Uh, I’ve lost it.”
“Have a disposable one.”
“Ugh, fine, whatever.”
The mask is crammed into a pocket.

The staff were working so hard, and doing their utmost to stay cheerful, but it must be utterly soul destroying dealing with this lack of consideration, day in, day out, while knowing you’re still probably not making enough with reduced opening hours to pay the necessary army of greeters and serving staff.

Having said that, a few times lately, we’ve gone out with the intention of supporting our favourite pubs only to find them too busy to accommodate us.

It’s good news for them, maybe, but also worrying.

When you see a pub full to (reduced) capacity with condensation running down the windows you can’t help but think… What the hell are we doing?

This was inspired by Rowan Molyneux’s excellent piece about moving into Tier 2.

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bristol pubs

Another advantage of ordering via app

We’ve been to Small Bar, the best of Bristol’s full-on craft beer bars, a couple of times in recent weeks and it’s in places like this that ordering by app works especially well.

How it used to work most of the time:

  • Shuffle around in a disorderly queue squinting at the blackboards trying to work out what’s on offer.
  • Get to the front; harried member of staff asks, “What would you like?”
  • Panic; choose something you’ve had before for convenience; scurry off to a table.

Now, though, the app allows you to browse the extensive beer list at leisure and, best of all, to filter it by beer style.

You’ve even got the option to nose around online to see what your fellow beer geeks have to say about a particular beer, reducing the risk of spending too much on something disappointing.

And, in fact, there’s another advantage: no more conversations about whether this bar or that does third-pints, or surprise that (as in the case of Small Bar) the largest measure on offer is two-thirds.

Of course there’s a downside: when there are lots of beers on offer you’ve never heard of, tasters are the traditional approach to narrowing the field, and making that work via app would be quite a challenge.

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20th Century Pub bristol pubs

A gap where the pubs should be

Our exploration of Bristol has been biased towards the north where we live so, in an effort to address that, we decided to take a bus as far south as possible and then walk back.

Or at least, that was the intention, but we were seduced by the sexy new Metro Bus M1 with its phone chargers and free wi-fi so ended up in Hengrove Park, which isn’t quite as far south as Bristol goes. It’s still terra very much incognita for us, though.

Preliminary research indicated we probably wouldn’t find much in the way of targets for #EveryPubInBristol.

We expected a lot of Sizzling Horse chain pubs in retail parks, then a bit of a gap before getting back into the much more heavily-pubbed areas of Bedminster and Totterdown.

We began at The Wessex Flyer, a Brewer’s Fayre attached to a Premier Inn, on the other side of Hengrove Park from the shiny new hospital and college. It pleasingly over-delivered, managing to feel more pub-like than The Bristol Concorde and with Proper Job on in decent condition.

Why did this one feel more like a pub?

Possibly because there was a partition for eating (‘Please wait to be seated’) which concentrated the drinkers in one corner. There were only a few punters in, watching the football mostly, but they were gathered together which made it feel more lively. The staff were also way more pleasant than they had any need to be – human beings who talked to us like human beings.

We then went for a long walk across the pub desert that is Knowle West.

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bristol pubs

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.