Lots of drinkers in Bristol like their pints flat. That is, completely without foam.
We’ve written about this before but in the past week got more evidence when we saw a pub manager training a new member of staff.
“No, way too much head, bit more,” said the manager. “Just give it another pull.”
“No, still too much head. You might get away with that up norf but not in Bristol, mate.”
“It’s OK, we don’t mind a bit of a head on our pints,” we said and then took the opportunity to ask a couple of follow-up questions.
The manager told us that older Bristolian drinkers especially really appreciate pints where the beer is absolutely to the rim with as clear a surface as possible.
He put it down to stinginess – “They’re afraid you’re doing them out of nine pence worf of beer.” – but confirmed that it certainly was a matter of preference, not the result of poorly-conditioned beer.
In Bristol, we’re beginning to think the default flatness of the pints is a pretty good indicator of how many born-and-bred locals drink in a particular pub.
In the city centre, where incomers, commuters and daytrippers drink, it’s quite possible to be served 450ml of beer with several inches of head (“Could I get a little top up, please?”) but that’s much less likely in backstreet pubs and the more down-to-earth suburbs.
The Drapers seems to struggle sometimes, too, with bar staff getting mixed messages from traditionalist locals and beer geeks. A few weeks ago we got served beautiful pints, foam piled high, with an apology: “Sorry, it’s very lively.”
Almost anywhere else in the UK, it wouldn’t have seemed so.
The good news is that at the pub we visited last week, the new member of staff eventually got the hang of it, pulling a string of pints with a perfectly reasonable amount of foam – neither excessively northern nor too strictly Bristolian.
When I’m not obsessing over beer I sometimes obsess over architecture which is why I’ve been reading Walter Ison’s The Buildings of Georgian Bristol.
It was first published in 1952 and revised for a second edition in 1978. It mostly comprises fairly dry research into buildings and street layouts – who designed or built what with reference to original contracts, whether the pediment is segmental or not, and so on – but you won’t be surprised to learn that there are a couple mentions of brewing that leapt out.
The first is with reference to Queen Square, which you can see from Small Bar on King Street, to give a beer geek friendly reference point. Originally marshland, it was divided up into plots from 1699 and built up between 1700 and 1718. It had a dual carriageway running through the middle for most of the 20th century but is these days once again a peaceful public space.
Ison quotes from the city records for 1699 which include the terms of what we would now call planning permission for the first house on Queen Square:
[No] Tenement [is] to be lett out to any sort of Tenants particularly no Smiths Shopp Brewhouse nor to any Tallow-Chandler or to any other Tradesmen who by noyse danger of ffire or ill smells shall disturbe or annoy any of the Inhabitants who shall build neer it…
This was a classy development for well-to-do folk and it wouldn’t do for it to pong or otherwise exhibit evidence of people working. These days in Bristol, breweries tend to be on industrial estates – the logical conclusion of this kind of zoning regulation.
The second reference comes in a description of the development of Portland Square from 1788. Here, Ison quotes for a sale notice for the middle house on the south side of the square from 1812:
[The house contains] three arched under-ground cellars, a servants’ hall, housekeeper’s room, back-kitchen, larder, brew-house, and other offices…
A brewhouse is an interesting addition to a large, fashionable house as late as the early 19th century. Other houses nearby seem to have had wine cellars rather the brewing facilities, at least according to Ison’s notes, so the owner of this one was clearly one of us.
But who did the brewing? What did they brew? Where would we even start looking to find out?
We’ve now been in Bristol for two years and have logged every single official Pub Visit since arriving.
We started doing this mostly to remind ourselves where we’d been for the sake of #EveryPubInBristol, but also decided to log subsequent visits to each pub, providing us with an interesting data set revealing our habits and favourites.
Our definition of a Pub Visit for this purpose is that it has to be a pub, both of us have to be there, and at least one of us has to have an alcoholic drink.
(We’ll return to the subject of what makes a pub in a separate blog post, as this exercise has given us a real impetus to define it better.)
We have chosen to define Bristol as the unitary authority of Bristol, plus any bits that join up to it without a break. So the pubs of Kingswood and Filton (technically South Gloucestershire) are in, whereas the wonderful Angel Inn at Long Ashton isn’t because there is, for now, at least one open field in between the village and the ever-increasing spread of South Bristol.
We have logged 516 pub visits in total.
Almost 30% of these were to our local, The Drapers Arms.
We have visited 216 different pubs.
Our pace of visiting new pubs has slowed: we went to our first 100 in six months; our second 100 took a year; and we’ve only added 16 in the last six months.
This is partly because of geography – the pubs we haven’t yet visited are harder to get to and more spread out – but also because we’ve come across so many pubs that we like and want to revisit, rather than ticking new ones.
Here’s a list of all the pubs we’ve visited more than once.
Drapers Arms | 150
Wellington Arms | 16
Highbury Vaults | 16
Barley Mow | 15
Zero Degrees | 14
Brewdog | 13
Small Bar | 11
Inn On The Green | 10
Grain Barge | 10
Hillgrove Porter Stores | 9
The Old Fish Market | 7
Bottles And Books | 7
Merchants Arms | 6
The Volunteer Tavern | 6
The Orchard | 6
The Annexe | 6
The Bank | 5
Bristol Flyer | 4
Strawberry Thief | 4
The Good Measure | 4
Golden Lion | 3
Royal Oak | 3
Commercial Rooms | 3
The Canteen (Hamilton House) | 3
The Old Duke | 3
Snuffy Jacks | 3
Hobgoblin | 3
The Hare / The Leveret Cask House | 3
Colston Arms | 3
The Grace | 3
The Victoria | 3
Christmas Steps | 3
Corner 33 | 3
The Cottage Inn | 2
Nova Scotia | 2
The Bridge | 2
Pump House | 2
Mardyke | 2
Hare On The Hill | 2
White Lion | 2
Robin Hood | 2
The White Bear | 2
Beerd | 2
The Sidings | 2
Gloucester Road Ale House | 2
Kingsdown Vaults | 2
The Knights Templar (Spoons) | 2
The V Shed | 2
The Royal Naval Volunteer | 2
Bristol Brewery Tap | 2
St George’s Hall | 2
The Gryphon | 2
The Greenbank Tavern | 2
The Oxford | 2
Are they really your top pubs?
Our top 10 includes two pubs that are there simply because they are close to our house – The Wellington and The Inn on the Green.
If you’ve visited more than once, does that mean it’s good?
Not always. We’ve had one accidental second visit, to St George’s Hall, a soon-to-be-closing Wetherspoons, having forgotten we’d already been.
Sometimes a second visit might be to check out a change in ownership or offer.
It might also reflect convenience. The Knights Templar, AKA Hellspoons, is right by Temple Meads station and so a convenient stop before catching a train. Now the bridge to The Barley Mow has reopened, and The Sidings has decent Harvey’s Sussex Best, we don’t expect to need to go there again.
But three or more visits and it’s probably safe to say we like it. (Although we’ve fallen out with the Hare in Bedminster now it’s the Leveret Cask House.)
Not quite science
Of course the keeping of this information distorts our behaviour from time to time.
If we’ve got a choice between two pubs, we’ll sometimes pick the one we think ‘deserves’ to be higher up the rankings. And we occasionally give a pub a swerve because it feels as if it’s coming higher up the charts than it ought to.
It’s still an expression of preference but… Well, it’s complicated.
There are certainly some pubs that would be higher up the list if they were easier for us to get to.
The thing is, your local is your local. Part of the magic of pubs like The Oxford in Totterdown or The Plough at Easton is that they reflect and serve the communities they’re in.
We’ll drop in if we’re in the area, and sometimes daydream about how nice it would be if we did live nearby, but it would be daft for us to schlep across town to go there every week because… We’ve got a local. One that’s, you know, local.
We wouldn’t necessarily expect these pubs to creep up the rankings in the next year, even though they are excellent.
Pubs such as The Good Measure, on the other hand, probably will, because they offer something distinct we can’t get close to home.
(And in that particular case, it’s reasonably handy for the Highbury Vaults so makes a good end to a St Michael’s Hill crawl).
Some thoughts on Bristol pubs
In general, Bristol pubs are good.
They tend to be friendly, even if they don’t always look it.
They’re extremely varied – hippy hangouts, old boys boozers, gastropubs, craft beer exhibitions, backstreet gems, family hangouts, and so on.
They mostly have real ale, even those that might not if they were in any other city. We reckon we’ve counted three (four if you think BrewDog is a pub) that didn’t have anything at all on offer.
They’re loyal to local beer, even if there’s no single dominant historic city brewery.
Your chances of finding Bass, Courage Best, Butcombe or some other classic bitter are very high. The likelihood of finding mild is almost zero. Hoppy beers tend to be hazy, soft and sweet. (Not that we’re grumbling but we do sometimes crave paler, drier beers of the northern variety.)
And we’re still finding good pubs: we only visited The Annexe for the first time late last year; The Coronation in Bedminster we discovered for the first time a couple of months back. No doubt in the final hundred or so there will be a few more crackers.
We’re not as scientific about cataloguing pub openings and closures as the local CAMRA team in the excellent Pints West magazine but our feeling is that pubs are not closing as fast as they were and that more pubs or other drinking establishments are emerging.
Unsurprisingly, reflecting national trends, pubs are more at risk in poorer areas, and are (re) opening in wealthier or ‘up and coming’ parts of the city.
This has made us think hard about what makes pubs attractive to us – although granted, we’re not necessarily typical customers.
Yes, it’s important for pubs to have a unique selling point to stand out (that’s the pub with the heavy metal, or eight types of cider, or amazing cheese rolls) but, when it comes down to it, our drinking habits are primarily influenced by convenience.
For ages, we’ve thought the trick to showing Ray’s parents a good time was taking them to proper pubs. It turns out we should have been going to craft beer bars.
Now, we’ve had some bloody good fun with them in places like the Merchant’s Arms and the Annexe, playing euchre and sharing bags of pork scratchings over pints of Butcombe or London Pride.
The other weekend, though, as we crawled around central Bristol with them, we were inspired to take them to Small Bar.
The specific trigger was a round of awful, buttery Sam Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter at the William IV – a pub which rarely has any atmosphere at all but does at least usually have cheap, decent beer.
We left feeling down in the dumps, the session in jeopardy, and Small Bar, Bristol’s craft beer central, seemed as if it might be the antidote – a short, sharp shock to jolt us all back to life.
“You might not like it,” we got in, preemptively.
Ray tried to identify something vaguely like Dad’s usual bitter and the staff reacted rather wearily, as if they get asked this all the time. In the end, it was two-thirds of Lost & Grounded Kellerpils that did the job. Ray’s Mum, who drinks lager when she’s not on whisky, got a murky pale ale – the kind of thing we don’t really enjoy, as a rule. And do you know what? She loved it.
In fact, they both thought Small Bar was great. It had a vibe, a bit of a crowd, and despite being the oldest people there by some stretch, they didn’t get looked at twice.
After that we thought we’d try them on BrewDog, which they also liked a lot: Punk IPA, it turns out, is a decent substitute for Butcombe. (Not sure BrewDog will be pleased to hear this, mind.)
They’re now planning to bring a couple of friends up for a craft beer crawl later in the summer.
For our part, we’ve learned a lesson: don’t make assumptions about what people will enjoy based on what they’ve enjoyed in the past, or based on their age.
Next time, we might take them on a taproom crawl – they’re probably cool enough to enjoy it, unlike us.
The river for the first half mile is abominably dirty, and for some distance above that is not to be called clean. In addition to the water being so dirty, very unsavoury odours assail your nostrils, at intervals, for the first mile as you pass through the parish of St. Philip’s. After the first mile or so you come into the fresh air of the country. The water here is beautifully clear, and if the weather is fine everything is very enjoyable. At one bend of the river a railway passes very near it, and to strengthen the banks it has been found necessary to build some arches which are now covered with ivy, which gives them a very romantic and pleasing appearance — quite unlike the matter-of-fact appearance of an ordinary railway embankment. After this the river is of the most pleasing description. A short distance above the ivy-covered arches is a landing for boats called Beese’s Tea Gardens. The Tea Gardens are three and a half miles from Bristol, so it is just a suitable distance there and back for an afternoon. It is quite easy to go up this length any half holiday after call over, and to be back by lock up.
Beese’s Tea Gardens opened on the banks of the Avon in 1846 as a partner business to the Conham Ferry.
Nowadays, under the name Beese’s Riverside Bar, there’s as much beer, cider and wine drunk as tea, and little evidence of Victorian heritage in the fixtures and fittings, but, still, it’s an incredible survivor.
We first came across it last summer on an evening walk, hearing the chiming of glassware and song of conversation from the wrong side of the water. From a distance it looked and sounded like a German beer garden. We didn’t stop then but made a note to come back.
Last Saturday, we approached from Broomhill, cutting from a council estate into a sloping park where teenagers flirted on the climbing frame next to a basketball court. A short walk down a wooded path brought us to a gate that might have been transplanted from Bavaria.
Down further, all the way down to sea level, we found tables scattered across a lawn and huge, old trees polished smooth by a century of clambering children.
It’s almost magical, except it’s also very British: the self-service bar feels as if it ought to be at a Butlin’s holiday camp and the service was abrupt to the point of aggression. (Though it warmed up later as the lunchtime rush passed.)
We drank Veltins, served in chunky German handled glassware for the first round, albeit with a stingy head of foam, and sat on a table in the shade.
“I used to think it was for old ladies, the Tea Gardens,” said an older woman to her friend, “but it’s nice, innit? It’s a laugh. And you can smoke, too. It’s treat to have a proper fag.”
There’s something classless about the place, and a sense that it exists outside reality, like Brigadoon. We noted Americans, Spaniards, Poles, Romanians, hippies, hipsters, families from the estate up the hill, and plummy tote-bag toters with extravagantly named free-range children, and yet no tension beyond occasional passive-aggression in pursuit of the prime seats.
It’s so peaceful that a boat passing registers as a major event, drawing people to the water’s edge to watch. We saw ferries, rowers, and even a swimmer at one point. (We worry for them; we’ve heard that swimming here tends to make you sick.)
The trees and the dancing of light through the leaves are what makes it feel like a German beer garden – a sense of being outside but sheltered, enfolded in green.
Getting the ferry across the water (£1 for a 45 second journey, but it beats paddling) was the perfect way to finish – a return to the real world in a puff of diesel fumes.
Beese’s Riverside Bar is open Friday 12:00–11:00 pm, Saturday 12:00–11:00 pm, Sunday 12:00–7:00 pm throughout the summer season.