Bona fide barley wine in Bedmo

On Sunday afternoon, we mounted another barley wine hunt, eventually hitting a big fat bullseye at the Bristol Beer Factory brewery tap.

Now, a reminder: the hunt­ing is half the fun. We went to the Wild Beer Co bar at Wap­ping Wharf where there was noth­ing that quite fit the bill, though it was cer­tain­ly nice to check in.

We detoured via the Coro­na­tion hav­ing got into our heads that it might have Gold Label bar­ley wine in the fridge. It didn’t but (i) it was an #Every­Pu­bIn­Bris­tol tick; (ii) had fan­tas­tic Hop Back Sum­mer Light­ning; and (iii) was just a straight-up great pub we’d some­how over­looked until this point.

Even if we hadn’t found any BWOAS (bar­ley wine, old ale, strong ale) we’d have been quite hap­py with this expe­di­tion, but at the final stop, the Bris­tol Beer Fac­to­ry tap­room, we saw a very excit­ing chalk­board.

Barley wine blackboard.

It was bot­tled (but that’s quite appro­pri­ate for this style) and out of reach on a top shelf so the tall bar­man had to stand on tip­toes to fetch it for us.

It was bot­tled in Octo­ber 2015, had an ABV of c.10%, and cost £5 per 330ml to drink in. Not cheap but it seemed fair enough to us, espe­cial­ly once we got our first sip.

It’s dark and deeply coloured but not black – hold it up to the light and, yes, it gleams blood red. It smelled like stir-up Sun­day. It tast­ed stale in the his­toric sense, matured to per­fec­tion, leath­ery and lux­u­ri­ous. There was a touch of acid­i­ty, but real­ly just a touch, sea­son­ing rather than dom­i­nat­ing. It sat on the palate like hot por­ridge and gold­en syrup – oh, no, like sweet grain from the mash tun.

We were remind­ed of the one bot­tle of Good King Hen­ry Spe­cial Reserve we’ve ever tast­ed, and of Harvey’s Christ­mas Ale. Sud­den­ly anx­ious that we might nev­er get to taste it again, we sent the lad up on his toes again to fetch four more bot­tles to take away.

This mis­sion, it must be said, is going bet­ter than we ever expect­ed.

Barley wine sweep #1: two sort-ofs and a definite

Barley wines round one.

Wednesday night offered a brief window for hunting barley wines (or old ales, or strong ales – BWOASA from now on).

We found two quite sim­i­lar beers that offered con­sid­er­able food for thought: Oakham Hawse Buck­ler and Moor Old Fred­dy Walk­er.

We came across the for­mer on cask at the Drap­ers Arms, our local. At 5.6%, just at the low­er end of our ‘strong ale’ brack­et, it’s billed as a ‘black beer’, but doesn’t half look like a stout. Obvi­ous­ly. On first tast­ing, as prick­ly, sticky hops poked their way through a fair­ly dry body, we remem­bered the craze for black IPA of a decade ago.

Which is a round­about way of say­ing, it didn’t imme­di­ate­ly meet any of our expec­ta­tions of BWOASA. But the more we drank, the more we noticed a morel­lo cher­ry, for­ti­fied wine char­ac­ter.

* * *

Old Fred­dy Walk­er (7.3%) is a beer we’ve known in one form or anoth­er for years, now. It’s one of the few relics of when Moor was an old school Som­er­set real ale brew­ery rather than the urban craft beer out­fit it is today.

It was the only BWOASA we could find on offer at our local spe­cial­i­ty beer shop, Bot­tles & Books, where, frankly, we had hoped to come across at least a few exam­ples. It cost £3.80 for 330ml. It was at this point we began to get mild­ly anx­ious: what if there just aren’t any in Bris­tol right now, as blos­som appears on trees and stu­dents get their shorts out of stor­age?

Old Old Fred­dy was in the Spin­go Spe­cial style – intense­ly boozy, syrupy sweet, very brown. The cur­rent incar­na­tion, though it takes the name, is black, much dri­er, and much more evi­dent­ly hop­py. Grassy and herbal, even.

A bit like Hawse Buck­ler, in fact.

If OFW is an old ale (that’s how it’s badged) then HB can be one too – espe­cial­ly as HB seemed more lus­cious, despite the low­er ABV.

* * *

Then final­ly, last night, we found a def­i­nite bar­ley wine, also from Moor: Ben­ny Havens, 9.5% in a 330ml can, at £4.25 from Brewer’s Droop on Glouces­ter Road.

The feller behind the counter was aston­ished and appalled to realise it was the only bar­ley wine or old ale he had in stock. He point­ed to impe­r­i­al stouts and dou­ble IPAs, and had any num­ber of obscure Ger­man and Bel­gian beers, but this par­tic­u­lar style… Well, it’s just the wrong time of year, isn’t it?

We bought the one can there was and drank it at home, paired with On a Clear Day You Can See For­ev­er, dir. Vin­cente Min­nel­li, 1970.

It real­ly looked the part, this one – gold­en, bright, with a gen­er­ous white foam. Instinc­tive­ly, we thought it tast­ed right, too, more or less how we always want Gold Label to be. That is, sweet, heavy, smooth, but also with a sol­id under­ly­ing bit­ter­ness, per­fect­ly in bal­ance, just up very high. There was maybe a smoky, grainy edge to it, but only faint, and not unap­peal­ing. The hops were per­haps a bit rough and row­dy but that would no doubt pass with age. (But… can you age cans?) There were aro­mas of peach and grape, wrapped up in sooth­ing boozy fug.

Yes, def­i­nite­ly a bar­ley wine, and very decent, too.

But then, a final doubt… didn’t dou­ble IPA also taste like this once? In around 2008?

The Distributed Brewery: Simon G and Zero Degrees

Simon Gueneau is a Parisian trained in Belgium, based in Bristol, and brewing Continental-style beer on Italian kit – how could we fail to be intrigued?

We’ve long been fas­ci­nat­ed by Zero Degrees, the brew­pub chain that pre­dates the craft beer craze of the mid-2000s, with bars that nev­er quite click for our taste. Since mov­ing to Bris­tol, though, we’ve come to real­ly appre­ci­ate the beer, which, if you can ignore the is con­text, is clean, clas­si­cal and bal­anced across the board.

We had ques­tions, nat­u­ral­ly: who devis­es the recipes? Is the beer iden­ti­cal on every site? And so on.

When vet­er­an beer writer Tim Webb, who lives in Bris­tol, men­tioned that the brew­er at Zero Degrees was a pro­tege of Yvan de Baets of Brasserie de la Senne, our curios­i­ty boiled over: we had to know more.

Simon met us at the bar after his shift, wip­ing down the final sur­faces and pour­ing him­self a beer before join­ing us on tot­ter­ing stools in the main pos­ing are­na.

He has a dry man­ner, sig­nalling jokes only with a slight twitch of the eye­brows. He shrugs and purrs, waves fin­gers that sure­ly ought to have a cig­a­rette between them, and occa­sion­al­ly curls a lip, or pouts. You should see the qui­et dis­dain with which he says the word ‘Pros­ec­co’.

The Q&A that fol­lows is light­ly edit­ed for clar­i­ty and brevi­ty.

* * *

And we’ll take a quick pause here to thank Patre­on sup­port­ers such as Nathan Hamer and John Bris­tle whose gen­er­ous back­ing makes it seem less daft for us to spend our evenings and week­ends work­ing on this kind of longer post. Please do con­sid­er sign­ing up.

* * *

B&B: Let’s start with the biog­ra­phy – where are you from, and how did you end up brew­ing in Bris­tol?

I did a lot of sci­ence at uni. I did mol­e­c­u­lar biol­o­gy. I stud­ied immunol­o­gy, went for a mas­ters in immunol­o­gy, didn’t like it so much in the end, so I applied for a food engi­neer­ing course. Which was strange.

It was spe­cial­is­ing in fer­men­ta­tion – wine, beer and cheese. Wine in Bur­gundy, I did that for three, four months; beer in Bel­gium; cheese in the north of Italy. There was an intern­ship so I did it at Can­til­lon.

Then a big sci­ence project at the end which I did at Brasserie de la Senne.

B&B: We heard that Yvan de Baets was in Bris­tol and came to see you recent­ly.

Yes, it was nice. I hadn’t seen him in, like, three years. I spent six months as an intern at de la Senne, with my project to reduce the yeast deposit in bot­tle-con­di­tion­ing, four days at the brew­ery and one day at the lab, every week. I wasn’t doing every­thing – just clean­ing fer­menters, bot­tling, you know… It was a very small team at the time, in around 2012. They’ve got much big­ger since. Yvan and Bernard were still brew­ing back then.

B&B: Are you a fan of de le Senne beers?

Oh, yes, but I can’t find them much round here.

B&B: At the Straw­ber­ry Thief, maybe?

Well, yes, but last time I was there it was four months old. I’m not pay­ing £8 a bot­tle for old beer. If it’s fresh, of course I don’t mind.

B&B: We’ve real­ly enjoyed the banana milk­shake IPA here recent­ly.

Ah, I didn’t make it! The spe­cial beers, we swap them. The five core beers, every site makes them. Each site makes on spe­cial every month. I keep, say, two thirds of it. The last third, I keg it, and a dri­ver takes it to all the four Zero Degrees. That’s what I did today, I kegged the Fruit Pick­ing at Dusk, a, black cher­ry porter and Thurs­day, it’s going to be in Cardiff, Lon­don and Read­ing, and I’ll receive theirs.

For Feb­ru­ary, it’s black cher­ry porter; in March, Eng­lish IPA

B&B: How often do the brew­ers from the four sites get togeth­er?

Every two or three months we have a brewer’s meet­ing, usu­al­ly in Read­ing. The boss, Nick [Desai], lives in West Lon­don.

B&B: The core beers – are those the same at every site? Is there a spec you work to, or is there some room for cre­ative inter­pre­ta­tion?

There’s a recipe, which we agree at our meet­ings. There’s orig­i­nal and final grav­i­ty tar­gets, ABVs, and stuff like that. If you don’t treat your water, Cardiff lager is going to be bet­ter. Welsh spring water! Well, not spring water, but it’s soft­er, is what I mean.

But then you’ve got the touch of the brew­er. And how much they respect the recipes… [shrug]

B&B: It’s the same malt and hops bill?

Yeah, tech­ni­cal­ly.

The beers are all pret­ty sim­i­lar now. The beers ought to the same on all four sites these days.

Three kits are the same – Cardiff, Read­ing and Bris­tol are real­ly, real­ly sim­i­lar. Lon­don is very dif­fer­ent. Our kit is Velo-Bier­ing, so a blend of Ger­man and Ital­ian, most­ly Ital­ian. It’s com­put­er con­trolled but the automa­tion doesn’t work any­more.

The brewing kit at Zero Degrees in Bristol

B&B: Do you have an assis­tant, or do you do every­thing your­self?

Yeah, every­thing. Five days a week, eight, nine, ten hours a day.

B&B: If we came in on a Wednes­day lunchtime, we’d see you work­ing, would we?

Yes. You get the odd per­son look­ing in. But the brew­ing is not extreme­ly obvi­ous, it’s well con­tained – the odd bit of steam, some of the smell, it doesn’t make much noise. I’ve found the odd kid try­ing to get into the brew­ery as well. It’s not great, huh? Bar­rels of chem­i­cals… [shrug]

B&B: As you know, we par­tic­u­lar­ly liked the Vien­na Lager you brewed last year.

Ah, yes! I brewed it with Marc [Muraz-Dulau­ri­er] from Lost & Ground­ed. He’s French, too, but he’s left now. He want­ed to brew a beer on my kit. It was a good beer. Vien­na malt, and then just Ger­man aro­mat­ic hops.

B&B: Despite being dry-hopped, it seemed a pret­ty clas­si­cal, well-bal­anced take on the style.

Well, the crowd here is pret­ty nor­mal, let’s say. So if you do a dou­ble-dry-hopped 9% IPA, it’s nev­er gonna work.

B&B: The Bohemi­an… If you’re not inter­est­ed in beer, it’s lager. If you are, it’s a good exam­ple of the style, the Czech style–

Well, I wouldn’t call it Czech. They want to call it Czech. To me, it’s Ger­man. It’s a lit­tle too bit­ter. I drink Pils. Or pale ale, it depends… Nev­er the man­go.

B&B: If they phoned you up tomor­row and said they want­ed to scrap the man­go beer, you wouldn’t object?

I’d be hap­py. But it makes mon­ey, it’s a busi­ness, I need my wages. It’s a pale ale base with nat­ur­al man­go extract. It sells quite big. It was the sec­ond biggest sell­er but now the Amer­i­can pale ale has over­tak­en it. Pils, gold­en lager, is always going to be the best­seller.

B&B: By a sig­nif­i­cant amount? Twice as much?

Yes.

B&B: What’s your local here in Bris­tol?

Usu­al­ly the Old Stil­lage in St George’s, more for the mood than the choice of beers, but they’ve got Moor on tap usu­al­ly. Or, well, I don’t mind, I drink Carls­berg or what­ev­er they’ve got. It doesn’t kill any­one, it doesn’t taste of very much, but it’s fine. The Dark Horse is good, too. Open fires, dogs, cider.

B&B: Do you plan to open your own brew­ery one day?

No! No. I won’t be open­ing any brew­ery. I am just hap­py to offer my pro­fes­sion­al ser­vices to any­one who’s inter­est­ed.

B&B: Is there enough cre­ativ­i­ty in it?

As long as the cost­ing is not com­plete­ly crazy, any­thing I come up with gets accept­ed. I could put plen­ty of hops in a beer if I want­ed, but beers are pret­ty cheap here, £3 in hap­py hour, so… [shrug]

B&B: Do you use dif­fer­ent yeasts for dif­fer­ent beers?

Yes, two: lager yeast for the dark lager, the lager and the Vien­na; Amer­i­can ale yeast for every­thing else. Dried yeast, but I har­vest and repitch. I use a keg with con­nec­tions on it so I can sani­tise, har­vest, refrig­er­ate. I intro­duced that last year because we were using a lot of dried yeast – like, 200 pounds for a batch of lager. We were try­ing to save mon­ey by reduc­ing a lit­tle bit here, chang­ing this or that, and I said, no, no, malt is peanuts – let’s be more effi­cient with our yeast.

I need a micro­scope. I know how to do it, but where would I put a lab where I wouldn’t find peanuts or slices of piz­za? With the deck across the top, peo­ple get drunk and drop glass­es, ash­trays…

Cost con­trol is very impor­tant. It was a tough cou­ple of years, but we have con­tracts for all the big Amer­i­can hops. The Amer­i­can pale ale has new Amer­i­can hops, because two years ago we were still using Cas­cade, Chi­nook, Cen­ten­ni­al. Now, rev­o­lu­tion! We’ve got Mosa­ic, Cit­ra, Amar­il­lo. Still old fash­ioned, maybe.

B&B: A final ques­tion – what would be your three desert island beers?

Orval. Yeah, that’s it.

Three? This is dif­fi­cult.

Maybe de la Senne Taras Boul­ba.

Is there water? If not, Bud­weis­er.

I can’t choose three Bel­gian beers… Oh, why not, some­thing dark, Rochefort 10. Or maybe a pil­sner like Flens­burg­er. It’s well-made, it’s bit­ter, and not skunked like Jev­er in the green glass.

* * *

With all this infor­ma­tion, we paid a return vis­it to Zero Degrees in Bris­tol to see if it changed our per­cep­tion of the beer. It did not, except that we realised that part of its appeal to us might sim­ply be it’s rel­a­tive con­ser­vatism, and the fact that the recipes are a year or two behind the curve. We are, after all, chil­dren of the Cas­cade gen­er­a­tion.

Simon is on Twit­ter @Simonggggg. Zero Degrees Bris­tol is at 53 Col­ston Street, BS1 5BA.

Bristol Pub Guide: Our Advice on Where to Drink

First pub­lished 07.06.2018; updat­ed 07.02.2019

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 risk pub­lic humil­i­a­tion, and the fury of local beer geeks and pub­li­cans, by giv­ing it a sort-of per­ma­nent home here.

We haven’t been to every pub in Bris­tol – in fact we’re 203 down with, we think, about anoth­er 150–200 to go – but 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: St Michael’s Hill, Glouces­ter Road and King Street all have runs of var­ied and inter­est­ing pubs close togeth­er, one after the oth­er.

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.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Bris­tol Pub Guide: Our Advice on Where to Drink”

The Distant Gleam of a Backstreet Pub

There’s something Narnia-magical about looking along a silent terraced street at night and seeing a corner pub throwing its light out over wet asphalt.

You know the feel­ing – walk­ing up the cen­tre of the road because there’s no traf­fic, TV light flick­er­ing behind cur­tains here and there, and the sound of your boots crunch­ing and echo­ing in the qui­et.

It’s spe­cial, too, because by our reck­on­ing, after pubs on hous­ing estates, this is the most endan­gered species.

Last Sat­ur­day we made a con­cert­ed effort to ‘tick’ a few pubs for our #Every­Pu­bIn­Bris­tol mis­sion and so end­ed up in Tot­ter­down, across the riv­er from Tem­ple Meads, wan­der­ing among rows of hum­ble Vic­to­ri­an hous­es.

Sign: "Booze, food, tables & chairs".

Our first tar­get was The Shake­speare, a pub we gath­ered from the 1975 guide was once a bit naughty…

The pub that one of us came very close to being beat­en up at… [but] pub guide writ­ers can run faster than nice young men with Nazi badges!

It looked mys­te­ri­ous and invit­ing, like one of those West Lon­don mews pubs, hid­den from casu­al pun­ters. To find it, you’ve got to live in the neigh­bour­hood, or be hunt­ing for it, or be a bit of an explor­er.

Inside, it’s all scrubbed wood and mild gas­tro ten­den­cies, but by no means pre­ten­tious: “Unfined? We don’t sell that hazy shit here.”

Less than a minute’s walk away, deep­er into the maze, there’s the curi­ous­ly named New Found Out – anoth­er cor­ner, anoth­er spill of yel­low, but also an air of mis­chief.

It was plain, bright, and live­ly in that way which makes it hard to quite relax. But, still, there was a bloke read­ing Bri­an Ald­iss between puffs on his asth­ma inhaler, and every­one seemed friend­ly enough, even if we did feel as if we were draw­ing a few stares.

The Oxford in half darkness.

Our final pub, The Oxford, wasn’t quite on a back­street, but was hard­ly on the main road either. We felt like Goldilocks here: if the first pub was too posh, and the sec­ond too rough-and-ready, The Oxford was just right.

It sat in the sweet spot between scuzzy and char­ac­ter­ful, with a ska band, a lot of Spaniards, and a bloke in a pork pie hat who looked as though he’d been sat in the same seat since 1968.