Training Day: pull it flat

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.”

Like this?”

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.

Brewing in Georgian Bristol: smells and cellars

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?

Main image: detail of ‘The Man­sion House at the cor­ner of Queen Square look­ing along Queen Char­lotte Street’, Samuel Jack­son, 1824, via Water­colour World/Bristol Muse­ums.

Two years, two hundred pubs

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.

Overall stats

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?

Most­ly, yes.

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.

The Welling­ton scored par­tic­u­lar­ly high­ly dur­ing last summer’s heat­wave, because it has Sulis, Korev and reli­able Prophe­cy. The oth­ers are all clear favourites of ours and appear in our guide to the best pubs in Bris­tol.

Porter
A pint of porter at The Good Mea­sure.
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.

Wishful thinking

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.

Final thoughts

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.

We sus­pect that’s fair­ly uni­ver­sal.

The thrill of the new

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.

Beese’s Tea Gardens – Biergarten-am-Avon

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.

R.W.W. in The Clifton­ian, 1867

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.

Tables under the shade of a tree.

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.)

Beer and cider cans.

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.”

The River Avon

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.)

Beese's from the other bank

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.