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bristol pubs

Bristol Pub Guide: Our Advice on Where to Drink

First published 07.06.2018; last updated 12.01.2022
Bristol has a huge number of pubs and bars and an ever-growing number of breweries. If you’re in town for a few days or hours, where should you go to drink?

We’ve been asked a few times for advice on this and so decided that, rather than keep typing up the advice in emails and DMs, we’d give it a sort-of permanent home here.

We haven’t been to every pub in Bristol, although we’re not far off having been to 264 and we’ve visited most of those in the city centre, and most several times.

In general, Bristol pubs are pretty easy to find, and fairly easy to read – chain pubs look like chain pubs, craft bars look like craft bars, and so on – so you won’t go too far wrong following your instincts. There are lots of hidden gems in the suburbs and up side streets, too, so do explore.

And if you want to keep things loose there are some decent crawls with varied and interesting pubs:

  • St Michael’s Hill – Zero Degrees, The Open Arms, The Robin Hood, The White Bear (sometimes), Beerd, The Highbury Vaults.
  • Gloucester Road – too many to list but start at The Inn on the Green and keep going until you’re done, or in town.
  • Kingsdown – The Hare on the Hill, The Hillgrove Porter Stores, The Kingsdown Vaults, The Green Man, The Highbury Vaults.
  • King Street – Small Bar, The Royal Naval Volunteer, The Beer Emporium, Llandoger Trow (German lager specialists), The Old Duke (jazz), among others.

Before we get down to business we must once again thank Patreon supporters like Jonathan Tucker, Peter Allen and Andrew Brunton who justified us spending a bit too much time putting this together. If you find this post useful please do consider signing up or at least buying us a pint via Ko-Fi.

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bristol pubs

The Hare on the Hill and the mysteries of pub atmosphere

It’s great when a pub suddenly levels up, even if it’s not always easy to work out what’s changed or why it’s better.

The Hare on the Hill is one of a cluster of pubs in Kingsdown, a hilltop neighourhood north of Bristol city centre.

We’d visited a couple of times in the past and it simply didn’t click with us.

Once, we recall, we were told by the staff behind the bar that we should probably go to a nearby brewery tap if we wanted decent beer.

In general, our impressions were of a lack of warmth and atmosphere, as if it was permanently ten minutes from closing time on a wet Wednesday in February.

Then last year someone told us we really ought to give it another go. It is under new management and, according to our informant, much improved… somehow.

We’d missed the relaunch, perhaps because it happened, unfortunately, in spring 2020. When we could finally get out to pubs again, The Hare wasn’t high on our list of priorities.

When we made our first visit to the new incarnation just before Christmas, we were immediately impressed.

Pot plants at The Hare on the Hill.

It felt as if the heating had been switched on. There was both more light and more warm shadow.

The walls were covered with greebling that we’re certain wasn’t there before: paintings, prints, posters, signs, vases, jugs, kitsch ornaments, Boba Fett figurines and what felt like hundreds of beautiful pot plants.

Interesting music played softly from a record player on top of a piano.

On the bar were several cask ales from local breweries, a choice of lagers from Lost & Grounded, and a selection of Belgian and British beers on keg.

“This is like a different pub,” we said to each other.

As we left, we noticed a fridge full of Belgian and German bottles: Orval, Duvel, Cantillon, Augustiner, Jever, Schlenkerla – a nice slice of the classical canon.

Last night, we went back after dark, and found it no less appealing.

Sitting on a table for two by a radiator, we listened to conversations crossing over each other in the gaps between tracks on Love’s 1966 album Da Capo:

“…it’s about using your bishops tactically…”

“…that little pub in Hotwells that looks like a converted terrace house…”

“…she said they hooked up before Christmas…”

“…I’ve been obsessed with Talking Heads lately…”

“…earned a pint after walking up that bloody hill!”

Looking back at photos of the pub in its previous form, we wonder if it’s as simple as the paint on the walls. It used to be blue, now it’s mostly brown, burgundy and nicotine beige. Proper pub colours.

Or maybe it’s that you can tell it’s being run by people who live in the flat upstairs. There’s a sense of personality and personal investment that was never there before.

Whatever magic has been wrought, it’s rocketed up our Best of Bristol list and will be a regular destination from now on – especially as its proximity to several other excellent pubs invites a crawl.

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bristol

Alpha: a craft beer bar without the hard edges

Alpha Bottle Shop & Tap opened in Bedminster, south Bristol, back in May and has been on our to-visit list ever since. Yesterday, we finally made it – and liked it quite a bit.

Bedminster is made up of multiple neighbourhoods, from the theatre and coffee shop gentrification of Southville to the betting shops and greasy spoon caffs of East Street. The pubs there tend to be either (a) busy and down-to-earth, with stern warnings to shoplifters in the windows; or (b) shut.

The borders, though, have fuzzy edges and are porous and, as you might expect, the gentrification is leaking. There are now vegan delicatessens and houseplant emporiums alongside branches of Gregg’s and Poundland.

Alpha occupies a retail unit in a 1980s red-brick shopping arcade, across from a kebab house and next door to a charity shop. It feels out of place, for now – but probably won’t in five years’ time.

It’s a small establishment, about the size of most micropubs, with two full-size tables, a couple of smaller ones, and a ledge in the window lined with stools.

The opposite wall is taken up with fridges presenting a wall of colourful canned craft beers, with a handful of German and Belgian classics studded among them.

Newbarns Stout.

Behind a small bar, there are five taps for draught beer.

The menu suggests measures of one-third, half or two-thirds of a pint, and beers come served in modern tumblers or delicate stemmed glasses.

The selection struck as well thought through:

  • Donzoko Northern Helles | 4.2% | £3.80 ⅔
  • Beak Brewery Feathers pale ale | 4.5% | £3.95
  • Newbarns Stout | 5.0% | £3.95 ⅔ (we think, fuzzy photo)
  • Kernel Mosaic IPA | 6.9% | £4 something (fuzzy) for ⅔
  • Pilton Murmuration cider | 5% | £3.50 ⅔

Newbarns Stout was the standout draught beer, being one of those straight-up better-than-Guinness stouts we’re always pleased to encounter.

Donzoko Northern Helles slightly confused us, resembling lager very little. As a lemony pale ale, however, it worked well enough.

As a special Christmas treat, we paid £17 for a 750ml bottle of Burning Sky and Beak Brewery Bière Piquette at 5.9%. They’re good, Burning Sky, aren’t they? You could relabel this pink, tastefully tart beer as Cantillon and nobody would bat an eyelid.

As with a lot of ‘contemporary spaces’, the acoustics were a problem: we could hear people on the other side of the room more clearly than we could hear each other. Those dangling mufflers they have at The Good Measure and The Drapers Arms would come in handy here.

It’s also the kind of place which attracts the owners of small dogs. If you like dogs, that’ll be a selling point. We only tripped over them once or twice. It was fine.

Nitpicking aside, the fact is, we felt warm towards Alpha. Bare brick and low light made it cosy and continental, rather than clinically austere.

Compared to, say, Small Bar in the city centre, it felt owned, not managed, and distinctly grown up.

It certainly deserves to be on the trail, despite being out of the city centre, and will be going into our Bristol pub guide when we revise it.

At the same time, Bedminster currently has something for everyone and we hope it stays that way.

One or two craft beer bars are a welcome addition but there has to be space for The Barley Mow and The White Hart, too.

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bristol pubs

The best pint of Guinness in Bristol?

“They reckon this is the best pint of Guinness in Bristol.”

“Where have you heard that?”

“Er… I just read it on the wall of the pub, over there.”

“You’re such a sucker for marketing.”

It was good, the Guinness – or at least, if you like Guinness, you’d have nothing to complain about at The Star in Fishponds.

It’s an Irish pub without being an Irish Pub (see chapter 7 of 20th Century Pub for more on that distinction) with signs pointing the way to (a) the toilets and (b) Craggy Island, and customised Guinness posters all over the walls.

One such poster has the famous Guinness toucan dangling Ronald McDonald in its beak – the pub is at war with the drive-thru McDonald’s next door, though we’re not sure the feud is reciprocated.

There is cask ale on offer (lacking life) and lager (Czech-style, UK-brewed) but Guinness does seem to be the thing.

It gets its own stretch of bar where an illuminated font in the shape of the famous harp trademark dominates. Regulars know the drill: order at the front, report to the side to receive their pints when ready.

Our peers in Ireland tend to roll their eyes at the idea that one pint of Guinness is different to any other, from Dublin to Ulan Bator. It’s a pasteurised, packaged product, brewed for consistency, after all.

But we did enjoy this a little more than usual.

Perhaps because it’s autumn when stout is the thing.

Perhaps because the environment was sympathetic – dark beer, dark corners, Bristol-softened Irish accents around the bar.

Perhaps because (rightly or wrongly) there seemed to be genuine reverence for the product rather than PR-driven ‘theatre of the pour’. That’s driven by homesickness somewhere along the line, we’d guess.

Or maybe it’s just that they get through a lot of it, if you think that makes a difference. In the time it took us to drink two rounds, the Guinness font didn’t get left alone for more than 30 seconds at a time.

There are other pubs in Bristol with a reputation for better-than-standard Guinness – Seamus O’Donnells, for example, on one of the city centre’s main Going Out streets. We’ve also enjoyed pints of it there, on quiet weekday afternoons, with the fire going. (Not so much during the Friday and Saturday night Stagmaggedon.)

The Star probably wins, though, not least because its Guinness costs about £1.50 a pint less, somehow clinging on to the sub-£4 price point.

Whether that makes the beer taste better (delicious bargains) or worse (price as stand-in for quality) will depend on your attitude.

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Beer history breweries bristol

The Stokes Croft Brewery, Bristol, 1890-1911: Purity and Strength

Among the many bits of breweriana at the Kirkstall Brewery taproom was an enormous enamel sign advertising R.W. Miller of Stokes Croft, Bristol – another historic brewery of which we’d heard nothing and seen no sign.

There’s a closer view of the brewery as depicted on the sign available via an online auction website…

SOURCE: Antiques Atlas.

…and also, shown in the main image at the top of this post, a similar view shown in the Western Mail for 26 December 1893, via the British Newspaper Archive.

Depictions of breweries on letterheads and advertisements often take a bit of licence but, even so, we can’t ignore a landmark like this.

First stop, then: the Brewery History Society website. This gives us the street address which was 48 Stokes Croft. Next stop: the National Library of Scotland historic maps website which shows us the area around 48 Stokes Croft in 1901.

SOURCE: National Library of Scotland.

We were about to start researching dates and details from scratch when we came across this incredible piece of work by Mike Slater for his West Country Bottle Museum website.

It gives chapter and verse on the founding and evolution of the Stokes Croft brewery, including its various owners and operators over the years.

This kind of thing makes us feel fortunate to live in a region with such active local historians, both professional and amateur.

In summary, the dates Mr Slater gives are as follows:

  • Brewery possibly established c.1717 (or is that a later marketing claim?)
  • 1842-43 – brewery rebuilt
  • 1843-73 – Foll; Foll & Turfrey; Foll & Abbot
  • 1873-78 – West of England Pale Ale Brewing Company (Abbott & Gardiner)
  • 1878-89 – Harvey & Co
  • 1889 – R.W. Miller moves to Bristol from Hereford and takes over
  • 1890-1911 – R.W. Miller’s Stokes Croft Brewery
  • 1911 – taken over by George’s

Re: that founding date – if the brewery did exist in 1717, it wasn’t on the same site. The incredible Know Your Place website (a hyper-local, hyper-detailed equivalent of the NLS maps website above) provides a composite map from various late 18th century sources which shows a ‘Dissenting Charity School’ taking up the entire block.

SOURCE: West Country Bottles/Carol L. Lester.

Mr Slater also provides what is apparently a portrait of Robert William Miller in his prime (above) and directs us to a useful source, The Ports of the Bristol Channel Wales and West, published c.1892. It’s the kind of directory in which business pay to be included so we should probably take this glowing description with a pinch of salt:

After passing through the spacious and well-appointed general offices, affording every convenience for the numerous clerical staff employed, we proceed through the special offices and private rooms provided for the use of travellers, &c., and reach the private office of the principal, which is richly and elegantly furnished. From this private office a fixed bridge affords communication with the manager’s office, which is also admirably appointed. Leaving here we come eventually to the brewery proper, and pass through the fermenting-room, the mash-room, the malt-room, and other departments associated with the brewing process. Order and cleanliness are everywhere apparent, and we note the efficiency of the various appliances in use, all of them being of a highly improved type. These several departments are situated one above another, and the highest point is reached when we come to the large tank for washing the refrigerators… The hop-room at the Stokes Croft Brewery contains an immense stock, and besides this the firm holds large quantities of hops in London… In connection with the Stokes Croft Brewery are large cellars, and on entering these the visitor is sure to be impressed with the vastness of the stock on hand, an index to the magnitude of the firm’s business… Crossing Moon Street, which runs at the back of the Stokes Croft premises, we enter another cellar, where the firm keeps a great quantity of their special “I.P.” ales. Here also we find a vat warehouse, coopers’ shop, and stores for the old ales, stouts, and porters… Leaving these premises, and crossing Back Field Lane, we reach the firm’s wine and spirit stores, containing large and choice stocks of champagnes, hocks, moselles, ports, sherries, clarets, liqueurs, whiskies, brandies, rums, gins… 

A similar but more detailed description (possibly written by the same person) appeared in The Bristol Times and Mirror for 20 February 1892. This is a long one so get comfy:

The brewery… stands in a splendid business position, having a large frontage to Stoke’s Croft. At the entrance there is a newly-erected porch of freestone, artistically carved, and having the name of the firm emblazoned upon it in picturesque lettering. Entering through two new doors, constructed of specially-selected pitch pine, which, by the way, is one of the features of the recent alterations to the premises, the visitor finds himself in a lobby made of the wood mentioned previously, and having a pretty tessellated tiled pavement. A door, set off with Muranese glass, leads into the brewery; but taking a turning to the left, one obtains access to the counting-house. The two folding doors leading to it are pretty in design, the upper parts being of cathedral glass, with rural scene in the centre. The counting-house is a well-lighted room, the recent alterations having considerably enlarged it… The apartment is lighted with the well-known Wenham burners – one also being in the porch – and five standards supply ample light for the clerks at the desks. The fittings of the office are of walnut and oak, and have very handsome appearance. Opening out at the far end of the room is the telephone room, lavatories, and the strong room. At the end of the counter a screen of pitch pine, with Muranese glass, is constructed, and this leads to the travellers’ office and private room. The former is a lofty apartment, and is designed for the use of the large staff of travellers and collectors in the employ of the firm. The walls are cased with pitch pine, giving the room, which is over 30ft in height, an imposing appearance. From here a well constructed staircase leads to the principals’ private rooms and the sample room. On the right hand is the principals’ private office, and on the left is a large and spacious room, elegantly fitted up, for the use of Mr R. W. Miller. From this apartment access may be obtained into the brewery; but before this is visited it is well to take a peep into the laboratory, which is the sanctum of Mr J.H. King. This gentleman holds the important position of brewer and manager, and comes to Bristol with the highest credentials, having had many years experience at Exeter and the Ale Metropolis, more familiarly known by the name of Burton. The art of brewing has now become science with modern brewers, and therefore the necessity of knowledge of chemistry is only too apparent. In Mr King’s laboratory are all the appliances for carrying out the testing, &c., so necessary in the manufacture of high class ales. Under the care of Mr King, a visit to the brewhouse discloses some interesting particulars. Entering the mashing-room, one notices the mashing plant, which was designed and fitted by Messrs G. Adlam and Son, the well-known engineers of Bristol. One of Steele’s mashing machines and inside rakes, similar to those used in most large breweries, is here; the adjoining compartment, which is called the copper room, has a spacious underback with coils, and adjoining it is a large copper for boiling the wort. Close to the copper is the hop back, from whence the wort is pumped to the cooling room, which is at the top of the building. Ascending a flight of stairs, the malt room is reached, outside which there are two large mashing backs for heating the liquor. The malt room is filled with sacks of malt, and in the corner is a bin, into which the grain is placed, and from there it runs to the crushing mill on the next floor, and thence, by series of ‘Jacob’s ladders’, is conveyed to the grist case in the centre of the room. From there is taken into the mashing tub below. The cooling room is situated at the top of the premises, and is a large building some 40 or 50 feet square, and in this are placed coolers. From receptacles wort proceeds to one of Lawrene’s refrigerators, where it is cooled and conveyed to the fermenting vessels, which are placed in the room beneath. Here a gas engine is employed to drive what is called the ‘rousing’ machinery. Passing this important part of the building one comes to a large apartment, really apart from the main structure, and the delicious scent once apprises the visitor of the fact that this the hop-room. Pockets of the choicest varieties are to be seen, and piled around the room they make an imposing array. Descending to the next floor, a room is entered which is fitted with dropping backs and slate tanks for the storage and preservation of pitching yeast. On reaching the ground-floor one enters a spacious room fitted with three large racking vessels and containing casks of the firm’s beer. Leading out from this is the engine-house, in which is a powerful engine and the pumping machinery mentioned before. Now descending into the ‘depths of the vault below,’ there are thousands of casks of beer housed. The casks are of different sizes, and each bears hieroglyphics upon them, which the manager would tell the uninitiated were intended to represent the quality and strength of the beer. For instance, in one cellar nothing but bitter beer is kept, and in another only mild beer. The pale ales compare most favourably with finest Burton productions. There are four qualities, the prices ranging from 10d to 1s 6d per gallon. The mild ales are full bodied, and are preferred by many to the more bitter qualities. The beer has also been found most suitable for bottling, compares favourably with the productions of other firms. Crossing the road at the back, one finds that the firm has cellars there, where there is a large storage of bitter and old beers, and stouts and porters. Going through the main entrance of this building, a large and spacious room becomes visible, and this is filled with 37 huge vats of malt liquor. Here also is where the famous old beer of the firm is stored. In reaching the offices again a covered yard is passed, where a number of men are engaged in washing casks; and in an adjoining room there is a special engine and fan, erected for the purpose of sending a current of pure air through the casks and thus making them dry and fit for immediate use. The firm has stores at Plymouth, Cheltenham (No. 100 High street), and Bath, besides in other towns, and their motto is ‘Strength and purity’.

There’s a bit of information about the beer itself there and a bit more again is given in The Ports of the Bristol Channel advertorial:

The cheapest beer brewed by Messrs. Miller is that at 10d per gallon (X mild or FA bitter). This beer is really excellent in quality, as we can testify from experience, and is capital value for the money. The AK bitter ale, at 1s per gallon, is a special brew of extra quality, for which there is a great and increasing demand. The PA and IPA beers are ales of fine character, respectively 1s 2d and 1s 6d per gallon. Of the IPA ales there are two different brewings, one in March and one in October. All the above-mentioned beers bottle splendidly, and have an immense and steadily-growing sale. In the old malt-house of the brewery, now used as a cellar, there is a large stock of mild ales. The 1s porter is an excellent article, always in demand, and the 1s 4d stout is one of the best in the market, being admirably suited for invalids. The celebrated old beers of this firm are known respectively as the ‘Bristol Old Beer’ and the ‘West of England Old Beer’, and are greatly esteemed by connoisseurs.

And here’s a newspaper ad from 1891 listing all the beers on offer:

SOURCE: Central Glamorgan Gazette, 17 July 1891, via the British Newspaper Archive.

Wait – what’s GPA? Golden pale ale? Gloucestershire pale ale? This one’s new to us.

It feels as if we’re getting a pretty good idea of what it must have been like to wander through Stokes Croft and see this substantial brewery occupying most of a block.

But here’s one more nice little detail, from a court case of 1894, as reported in The Bristol Mercury for 4 October that year:

A BREWER FINED FOR OBSTRUCTION.

Robert William Miller, of Stoke’s Croft Brewery, was summoned for causing an obstruction, by allowing thirty barrels to remain in Moon Street, and eight boxes on the footway in Upper York Street, for three-quarters of an hour. The evidence of the police showed that the obstruction was noticed on the afternoon of the 19th… Evan Drew, a cooper in the defendant’s employ, and John Lewis, defendant’s mineral water foreman, gave evidence… and declared that these cases were only left on the pavement after being delivered by the railway company for time sufficient to allow of their being examined… Supt. Croker said that Drew in 1893 was summoned on behalf of Mr Miller for obstruction and fined 5s and costs; and in August last Mr Miller was  fined 20s and coots for a similar offence. The Bench now imposed a fine of 40s and costs.

So, as well as those smoking chimneys and the smell of the mash, you might also have noticed carts coming and going and found the pavements cluttered with casks and boxes.

Frustratingly, what we can’t find is a photograph of the brewery. There are shots of Stokes Croft with it just out of view but none of the brewery itself. Even the usually reliable Britain From Above collection only gives us a murky, grainy, distant image of a box-like shape that might be the brewery as it looked in 1921. If you know of any images we’ve missed, do shout.

What is there to see today? Not much. The corner where the brewery once stood is now home to a modern block of shops and flats although the Lakota nightclub on Upper York Street does occupy an old brewery building – the former Victorian malthouse, later the mineral water bottling plant.

At the time of writing, you can also pop across the road and visit Basement Beer, one of Bristol’s newest breweries. So new, in fact, that we’ve not had a chance to drop in ourselves.