beer reviews Beer styles bristol

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.

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All Change for Bristol Beer

The Barley Mow, Bristol.

Bristol has long been a worthwhile destination for a beery weekend but these days, it’s in another league.

When we first went to the Capital of the West Country with beer on our minds, back in 2009, we found just about enough to keep us stimulated. Last weekend, however, we found that an explosion of new beer-focused pubs and bars meant that a weekend wasn’t long enough. We did, however, make it to three new venues targeting the beer geek market.

Maui Brewing Co Lemongrass Saison.

The Bristol Beer Factory abandoned ship at the Grain Barge earlier this year and their flagship pub is now the Barley Mow. Sitting in the middle of a eerily quiet industrial estate near Temple Meads, its location does not seem promising, but it is certainly worth the detour.

The now-obligatory back wall keg taps were dispensing beers from the Sierra Nevada and Maisel, and we just missed Schnoodlepip, the Wild Beer Company’s collaboration with Mark C. ‘Formerly of Dark Star’ Tranter and Kelly Ryan. (CAMRGB had drunk it all, perhaps, having passed through mere hours before us, leaving a trail of beer mats behind them.)

The seven cask beers were a good mix of pale’n’hoppy, brown’n’sweet and black’n’roasty, though perhaps not in absolutely tip-top condition, with Moor Radiance in particular seeming a little tired.

The beer that really knocked our socks off was from a can — Maui’s Lemongrass Saison (5% ABV). It couldn’t have tasted any fresher and the pleasure of it was its simplicity: more like a mildly grapefruity lager than a funky Belgian barnyard beast.

The pub’s interior is perhaps a little lacking in character, but that will come with time.

Gents toilets at the Royal Navy Volunteer, Bristol.
Gents toilets at the Royal Navy Volunteer, Bristol.

Elsewhere in town, we enjoyed the just re-opened, freshly-painted, entirely reinvented Royal Navy Volunteer. Like the Barley Mow, it needs ‘wearing in’, but it certainly had interesting beer, from both from keg and cask. The highlight was Siren Soundwave American Pale Ale (5.6%), an excellent example of the type of beer most breweries In That Other Beer Market Category have at the heart of their range. (The new ‘boring brown bitter’.)

Beer Emporium, Bristol.

Almost next door, we did not find much to enjoy at the Bristol Beer Emporium. The setting has huge potential — a vaulted cellar with exposed brickwork which reminded us of being in Germany — but something about the fixtures and fittings made it feel like a chain pub or hotel bar. After a long wait, we were   v e r y   s l o w l y   served expensive, lifeless Sierra Nevada Torpedo in half pint tumblers, because all the nice glasses were dirty. We did not have a good time, but perhaps we caught it on an off-day.

If you’d like to go and investigate Bristol’s beer scene yourself, you might want to time your visit to coincide with Bristol Beer Week, which runs from 3 to 9 October this year.

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Brilliant Beer on a Boat in Bristol

A pint of Bristol Beer Factory ale aboard the Grain Barge

The Grain Barge is the brewery tap of the Bristol Beer Factory. First key fact: it’s a pub on a boat, bobbing about just across the harbour from the SS Great Britain. Second key fact: the beer is bloody marvellous.

The bitter is thirst-quenchingly good (brown, but certainly not boring) while the Red is a little sweeter and maltier. Sunrise is a wonderfully fresh golden ale. All three are dry but also full-bodied, and reminded us strongly of JW Lees beers. Do they both use sugar in the brewing process? Could it be that? We’re trying to get our heads round this issue more generally at the moment.

There were also two stouts on offer. The cask version (simply called ‘Stout’) is smoky and coffee like. The much lauded Milk Stout, only available in bottles, is quite different — sweet, smooth and chocolatey, with a beautiful pale brown head.

This is exactly the kind of place we wish we’d thought to open.