Categories
pubs real ale

Variety is the spice of life

Our beloved local, The Drapers Arms, reopened last week as a takeaway. We’ve had a couple of takeouts so far and it feels like a significant, wonderful step towards normality.

Of course, if you’d asked us in January how we’d feel about getting four pints of beer in a placcy milk bottle to drink in our front room, we’d have said, meh, we love pubs, we don’t really drink at home much – why on earth would we ever want to do this?

We wrote a month ago about our new lockdown routines and where we were buying packaged beer.

Since then, we’ve added mini-kegs to the repertoire – Jarl one week, Harvey’s the next.

This has helped recreate a reasonably authentic cask ale experience. Surprisingly good, in fact – we’re fully won over to mini-kegs in principle.

But the reopening of The Drapers is definitely next level, game-changing stuff. Not necessarily because every single beer is utterly brilliant, but because:

  • We suddenly have access to a range of cask beers, not just one at a time.
  • We don’t have to decide a week in advance what we want to drink, and we (probably) don’t need to worry about running out between deliveries.
  • The range that’s been on offer so far includes things we would not have been able to get hold of easily. It also includes new-to-us beers that we wouldn’t have wanted to risk buying in bulk, on spec.

The last point was particularly important for us.

Part of the joy of a good pub is being able to dabble in things you might not necessarily fall in love with. You might discover a new gem or, alternatively, it’ll make you enjoy the stuff you really do like a whole lot more.

Being presented with limited options in a range chosen by someone else, can be oddly liberating. The agony of choice and all that.

Hopefully other beer drinkers feel the same and haven’t decided to just drink the world’s best beers at home forever.

The takeaway cask model could offer a lifeline to pubs that will be too small to reopen safely in the next few months.

Categories
Beer styles real ale

The BADRAG effect – a choice of milds

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.

Categories
bristol pubs real ale

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 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.

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?

Categories
Generalisations about beer culture real ale

Perfect Pride and the fear of the shred

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.

Categories
pubs real ale

Bristol, Where Headless Pints are a Feature, not a Bug

A Bass pale ale advertising lantern.
The William the Fourth, Staple Hill.

Here’s a thing: the perfect Bristol pint doesn’t have foam. It comes up to the very brim, and the merest  hint of scum might draw a tut.

At least that’s what we’ve been told by several different people on several different occasions that this is the case, and that Bristol historically likes its pints ‘flat’.

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.

But we can’t say that in practice we’ve encountered many flat pints in Bristol, though, and one of the few handy sources, Fred Pearce’s 1975 guide to the pubs of Bristol, features plenty of shots of white-capped glasses.

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.