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.

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.

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.