Do you know how nice it is to be able to go into your local two nights in a row and order a decent ordinary dark mild?
Bristol and District Rare Ales Group, or BADRAG, campaigns for wider availability of stout, porter, old ale and mild. This year, hacked off with the madness of May as CAMRA’s official month of mild, it decided to launch its own bonus mild event in November, when dark beer has much more appeal.
As that happened to coincide with a beer festival at The Drapers Arms, we were treated to something remarkable on Saturday: a choice of three milds.
Sarah Hughes Ruby Mild is a classic, of course, but at 6%, not one you can settle on. No, the beer that caught our eye (and Ray’s especially) was Future Proof, a 3.3% traditional dark mild from Bristol Beer Factory.
We’ve got a soft spot for this well-established Bristol brewery even though, as one of our fellow drinkers put it, “They’re having some sort of midlife crisis at the moment”, no longer being hip or new.
With that in mind, dark mild is an interesting choice. We’d like to think it suggests confidence – so we’re middle-aged, deal with it – but it might just be the BADRAG effect.
Tasting notes on mild, like tasting notes on ordinary lager, can be a struggle, like trying to write poetry about council grit bins. Good mild is enjoyable and functional but, by its nature, unassuming, muted and mellow.
Still, let’s have a go: dark sugars and prune juice, the body of bedtime cocoa, hints of Welsh-cake spice, and with just enough bite and dryness to make one pint follow naturally into the next.
It’s a really great example of this endangered style, in line with the best of the output from the old family breweries.
Is mild ‘back’? Is a great revival underway? Well, probably not – you win some, you lose some – but it feels like good news that we’ve been able to manage two sessions on mild in the past month without making a special effort.
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 have generally been a good representation of quality beer and also reflected 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.
Last night at our local, The Drapers Arms, we enjoyed perfect London Pride: solid foam, dry bitterness, a subtle note of leafy green, wrapped in marmalade, with a lantern glow.
Delightful as this was, it also triggered a sense of frustration, because lots of people won’t believe us, because they don’t believe that Pride can be that good, because they’ve never had a pint that isn’t half-dead.
The thing about beer, and cask ale especially, is that all the subtle variables make recommending or endorsing any particular product a risky business.
It’s as if you’ve told people about a great song…
…and then when they try to act on your advice and listen to it they get, nine times out of ten, the shred:
Or like giving a film five stars but the only version on the market is the studio cut, pan-and-scan, VHS-transfer with burned in Dutch subtitles.
That’s why these days we tend to talk about specific pints or encounters rather than saying “Pride is a great beer” or “Tribute is fantastic”.
Or, alternatively, give mild endorsements with multiple caveats.
The best you can hope for, really, is that a beer will more often be good than bad when people encounter it in the wild.
A footnote: The Drapers had Pride’s beer miles listed as 6,120. It’s not as if it’s being brewed in Japan in the wake of the takeover, of course, but ownership matters.
A few months ago we had to negotiate heads on our beers with a member of staff in a pub more often frequented by elderly men who angled the glass and trickled the last inches with great care: “Look, I agree with you, but I’ve been working here for a while and this lot have got me trained to serve it flat.”
At which point, an interruption from a grey-hair with a sad-looking decapitated pint: “Yeah, proper Bristol style, we’re not up north now.”
To Jess, this idea doesn’t seem so alien: she recalls a general preference for completely headless pints in East London before about, say, 2005.
There, it often seemed to be tied to the question of value, and a refusal to be at all influenced by the superficial: foam’s a marketing trick to make mug punters pay for air, innit?
In Bristol, we wonder if it’s a combination of that, plus the influence of scrumpy cider drinkers, whose pints are froth-free by default.
Maybe we’re having our legs pulled, or perhaps this is more complex than we’ve realised – maybe only certain brands or styles get the millpond treatment – but either way, it would be a bit sad if a genuine bit of local beer culture has been lost.
Even if it’s good news for us as drinkers who very much prefer a bit of dressing around the top of the mug.
As you might have guessed, this is really our way of flushing out more information. Do comment below if you can tell us more.
Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the world of beer in the past week, from cask anxiety to Berlin boozers.
The latest Cask Report was published (PDF, via Cask Marque) but for the first time in a few years we couldn’t summon the energy to read it, hence no mention in last Saturday’s round-up. But there has been plenty of commentary in the past week and a bit which we thought it might be worth rounding up:
Martyn Cornell – “Why is finding a properly kept pint of cask ale such an appalling lottery in Britain’s pubs”?
Ben Nunn – “[Are] we… heading for a world where real ale is, like vinyl, a niche product – not really for the mainstream, sold only in specialist outlets and usually restricted only to certain styles or genres?”
Pub Curmudgeon – “Maybe it is also time to question whether handpumps can be more of a hindrance than a help.”
Steph Shuttleworth (Twitter) – “[We] don’t currently have any reports that are nuanced or in-depth enough for the industry to rely on… Cask is a significant part of many craft breweries e.g. Marble, Magic Rock, Thornbridge, but we can’t draw lines as to who is in which market…”
Where are we in the cycle? At the point where seeing Elland 1872 Porter, Timothy Taylor Landlord, Thornbridge Jaipur, Fyne Ales Jarl, Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted and Bank Top Mild on offer in our local is tremendously exciting — that’s where.
Andy Hamilton, who writes about booze and foraging, and foraging for booze, is promoting a book and convinced the Drapers Arms to hold a mini festival featuring some of the beers it mentions.
The Drapers has a pretty serious commitment to local beers, listing distance travelled for each beer, and average distance for the entire list, on the menu blackboard.
In fact, that’s a trend reflected across Bristol: it’s not unusual to walk into a pub and find the whole beer list made up of beers from within the city boundaries.
That can be great — we’ve discovered some impressive West Country breweries this way, and it’s certainly fuelling the Bristol brewery boom — but is also mildly frustrating.
Let’s consider Jaipur. It’s a beer that’s well into its second decade and has gained the status of a classic. In bottles, it’s reasonably easy to find in supermarkets. But how often do we get to drink it on cask? Twice, maybe three times a year? And that’s mostly in Wetherspoon pubs.
Old Peculier is another beer we’ve encountered on cask only a handful of times in more than a decade of beer blogging, and which we’re hoping will still be on when we pop round to the Drapers after posting this. We felt a genuine thrill when we saw the A-board outside the pub announcing its arrival last night.
All this has made us think that as well as our longstanding wish for more pubs to make a point of having one of each colour (brown, yellow, black) perhaps there ought to be another axis: big classic + standard + local/new.
We can imagine going into a pub with that kind of mix and starting on the classic, trying the newcomer, and then deciding where to stick for a third round depending on how the first two tasted.
In the meantime (this kind of thing is always fun) what’s your suggestion for a line-up which covers brown/yellow/black and classic/standard/local-new?
Old Peculier, London Pride and Bristol Beer Factory Nova would do us nicely, for example.
We were recently in a pub serving a range of beers we know well enough to realise that they’re never supposed to be hazy.
But, of course, the beer we ordered was served with a light haze, Moor-style, which we gently questioned.
“Oh, it’s been like that all day. It probably didn’t quite settle out right before we tapped the cask.”
It was said pleasantly enough, but dismissively — a variation on “Nobody else has complained” crossed with a watered down “It’s meant to be like that”.
Because we did know the beer, and wanted something particular from it — crispness, hop perfume — we pushed back: would it be OK, we wondered, to taste the beer, and if it had a noticeably different character than usual, or wasn’t at least as good despite the difference, have it replaced?
The manager was consulted and everyone agreed (after a bit more time and effort than one drink deserved) that this was a good idea.
Sure enough, it tasted fine — not sour or nasty — but noticeably muted, and rather dull, so we rejected it.
We — knowledgeable consumers, relatively speaking, and confident about speaking up — were able to navigate this situation to reach a satisfactory conclusion, but we can imagine others coming away thinking ill of that beer and brewery, and probably unimpressed with the pub.
But why would the manager make the choice to keep serving a beer they know isn’t right? Incompetence? Indifference? Our suspicion is that it was an unintended consequence of the corporate setup within which the pub operates prioritising the need to minimise wastage over quality.
Others, though, might argue that this is further evidence that increased acceptance of haze in certain beers is causing confusion and justifying shoddiness more generally. If that’s the case then complaining when possible (quietly, politely), making it more trouble than it is worth, might be part of the solution.
The ‘Real Ale Twats’ strip first appeared in the adult comic Viz in 2001 and has a cult following among beer enthusiasts, because they recognise in it either themselves, or The Enemy.
We’re long-time Viz subscribers and spent a bit of time researching the RATs, as they are abbreviated, when we were writing Brew Britannia. A couple of people had suggested to us that the RATs might be the source of the popular stereotype of the bearded CAMRA member, assuming incorrectly (as did we) that it had first appeared as far back as the 1980s. That proved to be a dead end for the book but gave us a fresh appreciation for the strip, especially on those occasions when it felt as if the author was eavesdropping on beer social media.
Then, when we happened to connect via Twitter with its creator, Viz veteran Davey Jones, earlier this year, we took the opportunity to ask him some questions about how the strip came to be, and the source of its often painfully accurate observations.
The following Q&A was conducted by back-and-forth of emails with some light editing for clarity and flow.
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What prompted the idea of the Real Ale Twats? Was there some specific incident or person you had in mind?
I’ve always been a fan of the band Half Man Half Biscuit and they had done a song called ‘CAMRA Man’ which made me want to draw a strip along those lines. It’s got lyrics like “Weekend vintage car show, Dr Who aficionado” and so on.
Also I’ve spent quite a lot of time in pubs and the characters are sort of composites of types that I encountered. There was a bloke who used to come into my local in Newcastle who had a big beard and a beret and always seemed to be carrying several shoulder bags. He may not even have been a real ale enthusiast – I don’t think I ever heard him speak – but he had the right look, so I drew him. Probably very unfairly.
How did the editorial team react to the idea when you pitched it?
Back then I was part of the editorial team – there were five of us at the time, I think. I’ve since gone back to being a freelancer, working on my own. But in 2001 we were sat around in someone’s back garden, trying to come up with ideas, and I mentioned wanting to do this strip about real ale drinkers. As we were chatting about it, Simon Donald, who did the Sid the Sexist strip, started talking in this stupid ‘stout yeoman of the bar’ voice – “Hither barlord, a foaming tankard of your finest” and all that, and that seemed to fit.
The first strip involved the three characters going to a pub called The Murderer’s Arms by mistake, and ends with the main character getting a pint glass shoved in his face. Which is something that happens quite often in Viz cartoons.
How does a strip typically come together? How do you go about finding the seed for a story?
I just try to think of a pub-related theme that I haven’t done yet – vaping, or pub grub, or whatever. I enjoy doing ones that are vaguely autobiographical, or at least are exaggerations of thoughts that I’ve had myself. For instance, I’ve caught myself inwardly grumbling about all the people who only go to the pub over Christmas, crowding the place out and not knowing the correct rules of behaviour at the bar. So I got a couple of strips out of that, with the Twats pontificating about “amateur drinkers” and so on. It can be quite satisfying to make fun of yourself, especially if you’re the only one who knows that you’re making fun of yourself.
That’s interesting. It makes it seem a bit less ‘mean’, for want of a better word.
Yes, I do regard myself as being a bit of a Twat. It takes one to know one, to some extent.
But what about real ale – have you ever been a CAMRA member yourself?
I never got round to joining CAMRA. I don’t know why. I love pubs. When I was younger I spent a lot of time sitting in pubs on my own, and there’s nothing quite like it. You just sit there drifting from thought to thought, and tuning in and out of conversations going on around you, as the drink settles in. As I’ve got older I do less solitary drinking, but sometimes think I should go back to it a bit more, because you get to observe all these weird social dynamics and power games going on around the bar. All the boasting and one-upmanship. When you’re having a sociable drink with friends, you tend to miss all that, probably because you’re doing all those things yourself.
I drink real ale and like it, but I’m not knowledgeable about it. If it’s about 4 to 4.5 percent, and got ‘summer’ or ‘blonde’ or ‘golden’ in the name, I’ll probably give it a go. But by the time I get home, I’ll have forgotten what I was drinking. Having said that, my favourite beer is Wye Valley Brewery’s Butty Bach. I’m from Hereford, where Wye Valley Brewery is based, and whenever I go back to visit family I’ll have a few pints of that. Part of the reason they’re my favourite is that they sent me a free box of their HPA when I mentioned them in a RATs strip. I also like Wylam Brewery who are based in the North East, and who once sent a couple of crates of their assorted beers to the Viz office.
One of our local pubs in Bristol, a fairly down-to-earth place that doesn’t tend to have real ale on offer, has one of your RAT strips pinned on the wall, and that’s something we’ve seen a few times up and down the country. It feels a bit like a warning to us, or perhaps just an expression of frustration on the part of publicans. How do you feel about that kind of thing?
Yeah, I’ve occasionally seen them pinned up in pubs. I don’t think it’s necessarily a sign that they hate real ale enthusiasts. I’ve never worked behind a bar, but I imagine it’s a job that often involves putting up with bores. Not all pub bores are real ale bores of course, by any means. But the main RAT character with the beard is definitely a bore, and I quite often have him holding forth to the bar staff, because they’re a captive audience. And as you say it must get quite frustrating to be subjected to someone’s pompous opinions for hours. But in general the strips are intended as a fairly affectionate piss-take, so I hope they’re pinned up in the same spirit.
What has been the feedback from readers over the years?
Readers will sometimes send in pictures of lookalikes who they’ve spotted in the pub. Some of them are, er, quite remarkable.
And CAMRA members? Have you ever received any complaints?
I don’t think CAMRA has ever complained, as far as I know. The Real Ale Twats are doubtless CAMRA members but they’re not really supposed to be representative. They’re stereotypes of a certain kind of pub-goer, really.
On a related note, what do you make of the number of real life real ale drinkers who identify themselves as Real Ale Twats?
It’s quite odd. I recently became aware of a Real Ale Twats group on Facebook, which has thousands of members. Which felt strange. I don’t suppose they’re all familiar with the Viz cartoon, but if they’re happy to laugh at themselves that’s probably a good thing. I think.
In recent years it’s felt as if the strip has fallen into sync with ideas around ‘mansplaining’ and the latent sexism of a certain type of know-all bloke. How consciously have you set out to make that kind of point?
It was never a conscious attempt to make a point, I don’t think. The characters just lend themselves to those attitudes. The types of people the RATs are based on are ones I’d see in the pub, a bit socially inept, coming out every night and making ham-fisted attempts at flirting with the barmaid. I’d imagine that a lot of women who do bar work can feel their hearts sink when they see a particular regular coming in through the door – someone who is going to spend the whole night on a barstool regaling them with witty banter, and spraying crisp crumbs in their face. And blokes going on and on about their divorces – “Best thing that ever happened to me!” repeated over and over throughout the evening. I think the RATs are scared of women but try to cover that up with bravado, which is fuelled by booze. A bit like Sid the Sexist in that respect, come to think of it.
Do you still think, in 2018, that real ale drinkers are a target worth satirising? Is there any chance of the RATs morphing into the Craft Beer Twats at any point, for example?
That’s a good question. I don’t know if the beardy, pot-bellied stereotype is a bit outdated. Maybe it is. Viz has always dealt with quite broadly-drawn stereotypes, but the characters somehow develop lives and personalities of their own. To some extent it becomes more about the characters than about satire. So as long as you keep thinking of situations to put them in, you keep drawing the strips. Actually there was a strip a few years ago which had the RATs looking down their noses at craft beer-drinking hipsters. I think it ended with the RATs starting up a ‘Campaign for Real Real Ale Campaigners’ or something.
Of all the RAT strips you’ve produced over the years are there any you think stand up particularly well?
I think my personal favourite was one where the RATs set off to their local, talking about the wide range of fascinating characters you meet in the pub, and then there’s a big picture of the pub interior and all the customers look, and talk, just like the Twats. The reason I like that one is that I spent quite a long time on the drawing and was quite pleased with how it turned out. Which doesn’t always happen.
Have you ever thought about a Real Ale Twats book? We suspect all of us beer bores would buy it.
Yeah, I’d like the idea of doing a collected book, but all the copyright belongs to Viz and the publishers, so it would be up to them, really. (I retired from the editorial six years ago, and went back to being freelance). I’m not sure there’d be enough material to justify a book just yet. But cheers for the vote of confidence.
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You can read ‘The Real Ale Twats’ in Viz on an irregular basis, in the Christmas annuals, and there is a sample on the official website. Images in this post were supplied by Davey Jones.
Trying to visit every pub in Bristol takes us out of our way sometimes, as on Saturday when the mission nudged us up a side street towards The Beaufort Arms.
It’s on a steep, narrow lane called, oddly, High Street, which feels more like part of some windswept coastal village than somewhere two minutes walk from Whiteladies Road. Backstreet pubs are an endangered species in general which made this one seem all the more noteworthy.
“It’ll be poshed up,” we thought, but as we approached we saw plastic patio chairs lined up on the pavement outside, signalling otherwise. A young man was sat on one of them eating a Miss Millie’s fried chicken meal from a box nesting in a carrier bag, swigging from a can of energy drink.
Inside we found a single large room psychically divided into public bar vs. games-room/deadzone. Everything was brown and warm, dim and well-worn, the walls covered in nick-nacks and in-jokes, photographs cut from newspapers and holiday postcards from regulars. The accents were West Country, not west London. Most people seemed to be drinking cider, including cans of Natch, the availability of which divides a certain type of serious, old-fashioned Bristol boozer from the designer-gin and craft-beer lifestyle exhibitions.
In this context we were rather startled to see Theakston Vanilla Stout on offer. No, scratch that: we rather startled to discover the existence of Theakston Vanilla Stout, and even more startled to find it here. Not as startled as the woman behind the bar seemed when we ordered a pint of it, though, along with a half of St Austell Tribute as a safe fallback.
Our astonishment intensified further when it turned out not only to be in good condition, but also a quite brilliant beer. We (Jessica especially) have been fascinated by Tiny Rebel’s Stay Puft Marshmallow Porter for the past few months, half-repelled by its kitsch, artificial character, but unable to stop dipping back in. This Theakston beer was in remarkably similar territory, loaded high with sickly candy-bar flavouring, but somehow also irresistible — full of beans if you like, ho ho. But also cleaner than the Tiny Rebel beer, and without any pretence of being hoppy. If Young’s Double Chocolate is to your taste, or those Saltaire beers that seem like they’ve had Nesquik syrup squirted into them, then you’ll enjoy this one, too.
That’s two impressive “cask craft” (their phrase, not ours) beers from Theakston in the past year, for those who are keeping count. And another pub for our growing list of The Proper Pubs of Bristol.