Six new-to-us Bristol pubs in one day

Our #EveryPubInBristol mission had begun to stagnate a little with hardly any new ticks in weeks. Then, the Saturday before last, we managed six new pubs in one go. As ever, this concerted attack was eye-opening.

We start­ed at The Assem­bly in Bed­min­ster, a huge pub with the foot­ball on at ear-burst­ing vol­ume and a sense that it was drows­ing, just wait­ing for Sat­ur­day night to kick off. The kind of place where the wood­work has teeth-marks. Jess’s half of Doom Bar came in a dain­ty stem glass, though, and did­n’t taste bad.

The Windmill

The con­trast between this and the next pub, up Wind­mill Hill on the oth­er side of the rail­way line, was pow­er­ful. The Wind­mill feels like the kind of place you might find in a mid­dle class out­er Lon­don sub­urb, all scrubbed wood, burg­ers and jazz. The cou­ple on the table next to us seemed to be on hol­i­day in Bris­tol and had appar­ent­ly come out of their way to get to this par­tic­u­lar pub – is it in a for­eign trav­el guide, maybe? It’s for sale, we hear, which might explain the faint­ly gloomy mood. Over­all, we liked it, even if it did seem to be look­ing at us down its nose, just a touch.

The Rising Sun

At the top of the hill, The Ris­ing Sun appealed to us imme­di­ate­ly: a Vic­to­ri­an orphan along­side a mod­ernist tow­er block, windswept by default, it brought to mind the Cum­ber­land at Byk­er. Inside, we found a lamp­shade pub with plush seat­ing and kitsch details. Blue­grass music played on the stereo and the young pub­li­can told us he was a musi­cian. Bohemi­an might be a good word for this pub and we can imag­ine detour­ing to get to it again.

The Brunel

Things went down­hill after this, lit­er­al­ly, as we tot­tered down a tat­ty alley­way between ter­raced hous­es to The Brunel, AKA The Engi­neers Arms – a huge pub extend­ed or rebuilt in the 1920s, despite its sup­posed 1897 found­ing date. It’s a Greene King joint so you can prob­a­bly pic­ture it with 80% accu­ra­cy if you’ve ever been in anoth­er any­where else in the coun­try. But we liked the cheer­ful staff, the stained glass win­dows and the remains of the old mul­ti-room struc­ture: the real drinkers were in what was obvi­ous­ly the Pub­lic. It’s not our kind of place but there was cer­tain­ly a buzz.

The Victoria Park

Next stop was The Vic­to­ria Park, a some­what famous gas­trop­ub in 1990s style, with Miche­lin stick­ers and more. We did­n’t expect to like it but the hill­side beer gar­den and Edwar­dian exte­ri­or were hard to resist, and inside we had no trou­ble find­ing a cor­ner to drink in. The oth­er cus­tomers were most­ly exhaust­ed par­ents rock­ing pushchairs or bounc­ing babies on their chests. This one, we thought, would fit an upmar­ket resort in Devon or Corn­wall, and the beer was most­ly Devon­ian, as it hap­pened.

The Star & Dove on the edge of Vic­to­ria Park has a fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry. Ray’s been before, with his broth­er, when it was a full-on gas­trop­ub with slow-cooked pork bel­ly and so on. That ven­ture fold­ed, though, and in the space of a year or two, it’s revert­ed to being a nor­mal, down-to-earth drink­ing pub with some­what harsh light­ing and the down­stairs din­ing room locked. The inter­net seems gen­er­al­ly con­fused about whether it is still trad­ing (it def­i­nite­ly is) and whether it still has food at all – some­times, we think? Still, not often you encounter de-gen­tri­fi­ca­tion these days.

There’s some­thing about this par­tic­u­lar approach, every pub, that real­ly makes sense of the scene as a whole and how things fit togeth­er. Posh pubs are uphill, less fan­cy ones at the bot­tom; chains are some­times where the action is; and there’s almost no pub that’s not OK for at least one round on a Sat­ur­day after­noon.

Supplementing the 2020 Good Beer Guide: some Bristol tips

It’s new CAMRA Good Beer Guide season and across the land can be heard the familiar cries of “I can’t believe X is/isn’t in!”

Most peo­ple who are into beer know that the Good Beer Guide is not the be all and end all – it doesn’t claim to be.

It’s an assess­ment on the qual­i­ty and con­sis­ten­cy of cask beer, so pubs with­out cask beer will not get in, no mat­ter how stun­ning the keg selec­tion.

Selec­tion process­es vary from dis­trict to dis­trict, as we under­stand it, but the Bris­tol branch has clear­ly doc­u­ment­ed process­es which seem to be about as thor­ough and demo­c­ra­t­ic as is pos­si­ble to be, but obvi­ous­ly will still favour pubs that are pop­u­lar with active CAMRA mem­bers.

We’re not real­ly socia­ble enough to con­tribute to this sort of thing so of course we don’t get to com­plain if we don’t like the entries. And actu­al­ly, in Bris­tol, there isn’t much to grum­ble about from our per­spec­tive.

(Unlike in Pen­zance where to our eter­nal baf­fle­ment The Cor­nish Crown got in year after year, some­times as the only entry; it’s fine but we could think of three or four con­sis­tent­ly bet­ter cask ale pubs in town.)

In the two and a bit years we’ve been here, the Bris­tol selec­tions are gen­er­al­ly a good rep­re­sen­ta­tion of qual­i­ty beer and also reflect a range of dif­fer­ent pubs and oth­er drink­ing estab­lish­ments to suit all tastes.

There are a cou­ple whose inclu­sion we might ques­tion based on our vis­its but the main issue is the omis­sion of some par­tic­u­lar favourite pubs, prob­a­bly down to the space allo­cat­ed to some degree.

With that in mind, we’d like to sug­gest a cou­ple of sup­ple­men­tary entries for 2020.

The High­bury Vaults
This is a vet­er­an GBG entry but not includ­ed this year. It has a mul­ti-room lay­out, includ­ing a snug and a toy train, and can’t help but be cosy. The gar­den, or yard rather, has an odd­ly good atmos­phere. There are Young’s beers, includ­ing Win­ter Warmer in sea­son, and a selec­tion of bot­tles. It has good old-fash­ioned pub snacks (pork pies, baps) as well as home­ly home­made food.

The Good Mea­sure
We assume this didn’t make the GBG as it only opened in Decem­ber 2018. The team at Good Chem­istry are behind this so their beers obvi­ous­ly fea­ture but also sev­er­al guests, usu­al­ly from the north, which makes a refresh­ing change in Bris­tol. Tim­o­thy Tay­lor Land­lord is often on, for exam­ple. There are keg beers, too. We par­tic­u­lar­ly love the con­tem­po­rary yet clas­sic feel of the inte­ri­or.

The Can­teen (AKA Hamil­ton House)
This was in the guide in 2019 but isn’t any­more. It’s not real­ly a pub, more a com­mu­ni­ty cafe with an empha­sis on all things local, which is per­haps why it’s not in our main Bris­tol pub guide, but reg­u­lar­ly has four or five cask ales from Bris­tol Beer Fac­to­ry, New Bris­tol and oth­ers. Being round the cor­ner from Jess’s most recent job, it’s also some­where she got to know well and found the beer to be in con­sis­tent­ly good con­di­tion.

In com­ing up with the above list, we’ve kept to GBG cri­te­ria and haven’t includ­ed keg bars, cider hous­es and so on.

We’ve also left out a cou­ple of pubs we real­ly like but we haven’t vis­it­ed enough to judge the con­sis­ten­cy of the ale – maybe we’ll sug­gest them for 2021.

For more on our over­all rec­om­men­da­tions see our Bris­tol pub guide and also our analy­sis of our vis­its in the first two years of liv­ing here.

It would be inter­est­ing to read sim­i­lar sup­ple­men­tary guides to oth­er cities and regions from oth­er blog­gers. How well does the GBG rep­re­sent your town, city or region?

What we’re up to in October: Cider Season

We’ve decided it’s time to make a concerted effort to get our heads round cider which is why we’re declaring it the drink for us in October.

We reached this deci­sion at The Orchard, one of Bristol’s best cider pubs with a long menu of exam­ples of farm­house scrumpy.

It frus­trates us to be pre­sent­ed with so much choice and have so lit­tle clue.

We order almost at ran­dom and some­times it pays off, some­times it doesn’t.

So, that’s our aim for the next few weeks: to try dif­fer­ent mak­ers, dif­fer­ent styles, and form some Opin­ions.

We could read books – and maybe we will dip into the odd one – but this isn’t about hunt­ing down world clas­sics, it’s about know­ing which of the prod­ucts we’re like­ly to encounter in Bris­tol and around are worth order­ing twice.

By way of a base­line, we’re going to make an effort to try and think about some of the big brands, too.

It also gives us a great excuse to vis­it or revis­it all of Bris­tol’s cider pubs and under­stand bet­ter their tra­di­tions, rit­u­als and his­to­ry.

And who knows, we might even final­ly try a tin of Natch.

Pints West: a mine of information

We’ve found ourselves getting a bit excited when we find a new edition of the local CAMRA magazine, Pints West, in the display holder at The Drapers Arms, because we always learn so damned much.

The lat­est issue, for autumn 2019, is just out and is a good exam­ple of why we like it so much.

First, with #Every­Pu­bIn­Bris­tol in mind, there’s a com­pre­hen­sive update on what’s going on with local pubs based on exten­sive field­work from the Bris­tol Pubs Group. It tells us which pubs have closed, reopened and changed hands, usu­al­ly before we hear via social media.

We’re fas­ci­nat­ed by the fate of The Merchant’s Arms in Sta­ple­ton which just sits there with its big, blank, board­ed-up facade; Pints West always gives us an update – stale­mate, appar­ent­ly, with the own­er deter­mined not to re-open it as a pub despite its ACV sta­tus.

But there’s more: we don’t dri­ve (and wouldn’t dri­ve to the pub if we did, obvi­ous­ly) so the pub crawls focused on walk­ing and pub­lic trans­port are always inspir­ing. This quar­ter, Vince Mur­ray sug­gests a cou­ple of trips in South Glouces­ter­shire by bus while Dun­can Shine gives a run down of all the pubs along the Bris­tol-Bath Rail­way Path. We’re already work­ing out ways to tack­le some or all of those on the list.

We were also struck by a piece in the last edi­tion by Robin E Wild on the best val­ue pubs in the area – a pos­i­tive way to address the fraught issue of the some­times exclu­sive price of beer.

In gen­er­al, there’s an open­ness about it that shows CAMRA at its best. All brew­eries are cov­ered with enthu­si­asm and hon­esty, regard­less of their par­tic­u­lar cask-ale cre­den­tials. Licensed premis­es of all kinds get a look in and there are heart­en­ing tales of local activism to save appar­ent­ly doomed pubs.

Now, dis­clo­sure, before some­one brings it up: in the past, before we moved to Bris­tol, we pub­licly rolled our eyes at one of the car­toons in the mag­a­zine. It irri­tat­ed us then and look­ing back, it’s still irri­tat­ing. But we haven’t noticed any­thing like that since.

Any­way, our piece said, we’re off to explore a cou­ple of the pubs men­tioned in the most recent edi­tion – and isn’t that what a local CAMRA mag­a­zine ought to inspire?

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.