BWOASA: Fuller’s comes through

Fuller's barley wine.

After our depth-testing was a bit of a failure last week, we were starting to get really worried: was this going to be a month of posts about the absence of barley wine, old ale and strong ale?

Then we realised there was at least one safe bet: Fuller’s.

The Old Fish Market isn’t a pub we’re mad keen on, tending to the businesslike in terms of atmosphere, though it does the job from time to time when we want a fix of one of our favourite London breweries.

Crucially, we also know it carries both Golden Pride and 1845 in bottles, and so on Friday night, before Ray caught a train to London, in we went for a bottle of each, with a chaser of ESB.

We don’t drink Golden Pride often, perhaps once every couple of years. There’s a lingering sense in our minds that it’s a bit… trashy, maybe? It’s not bottle-conditioned, it’s less complex than some other Fuller’s strong ales, and has a less interesting backstory. Which is why a mission like this is helpful in focusing the mind: it’s a great beer, and we’re lucky it still exists.

Copper-coloured and jewel-like, it delivered everything we expect from the ideal barley wine: sweetness, fruitiness, richness. Sherry, fruitcake, dates and prunes. Golden syrup, honey and brown sugar. An avalanche of marmalade.

Again, we found ourselves wondering where the boundary between this type of beer and old-school double IPA might lie. Perhaps side-by-side the distinction would be clearer.

Anyway, yes, here it is – the official standard reference barley wine, against which others should be judged.

* * *

We used to love 1845, the classic bottle-conditioned strong ale, but apparently we’ve grown apart.

Perhaps it was the close comparison to Golden Pride but, even at 6.3%, it seemed thin, harsh and unpleasantly earthy. As it warmed up, it gained some weight, and the bitterness fell back into something like balance, but it lacked fruitiness.

Its main effect was to make us really, really want a pint of ESB.

* * *

We’re lucky to have ESB, too. At its best – and on Friday, it was at its best – it’s a beer that brings the depth and density of a nip-bottle-sipper into the pub pint glass.

Even after drinking Golden Pride at 8.5%, ESB at 5.5 tasted chewy, charming and luscious. You know the flavours but, just in case: marmalade, fruitcake, mild spice, cherry and orange zest. Hot cross buns perhaps sums it up.

Maybe this is why we don’t drink Golden Pride more often – because ESB provides 80% of the pleasure with far less boozy intensity, while still feeling like a special treat.

* * *

We floated out of the OFM quite happy, feeling that we were finally on the right track.

New To Us #2: Cocksure

Our mission to try beers from breweries we don’t know has stalled in week two: almost everywhere we went at the weekend, it was familiar names only.

We did manage a single (ugh) ‘tick’, though – Cocksure African Hibiscus & Honey golden ale, 4.8%, at the Drapers Arms. Its style was listed as ‘Wacky’.

Cocksure is based in Totterdown having moved into Bristol from Gloucestershire last summer, just as Moor relocated from rural Somerset to where the craft beer taproom action is a few years back.

This particular beer didn’t taste of hibiscus to us, or honey; we mostly got yeast-bite and peaty phenols. Still, at least it was different – not generic hazy cask session IPA.

Everyone in the pub seemed intrigued by it and we saw lots go over the bar. On Sunday, when we went back, it was still on (perhaps not a ‘same again’ beer?) and still generating interest, and positive noises from some of the regulars.

So Cocksure goes on to the interesting, jury’s-out list.

The bare minimum

The above Twitter conversation got us thinking once again about ‘proper pubs’, and reaching a conclusion: barebones isn’t everything – there are some minimum entry requirements.

We had a perfectly fine time on our visit the Myrtle Tree and, a little sleazing aside, we were made to feel reasonably welcome.

But, still, we’re not sure it’s a ‘proper pub’, because it lacks atmosphere and that sense of timelessness that you find in, say, the Merchant’s just up the road.

A ‘proper pub’ can’t have cold light and pale walls. It can’t be dominated by TVs and flashing fruit machines. If you need to have a conspiratorial conversation, there should be a corner in which to do it. Ideally, there’ll be some sepia tones.

The Myrtle Tree fails all these tests for us and so we would classify it as something else: a plain old, straight-up, stripped-t0-the-bone boozer.

Boozers have their place, too, of course, but beyond the strange appeal of Bristol-style flat Bass, there’s not much for pub obsessives to look at or enjoy at the Myrtle Tree.

To put all that another way, ‘properness’ is a positive quality, not merely the absence of contemporary adornments.

Beer delivery vans in Bristol between the wars

“In 1929 neither estate had a pub or off-licence, and tenants had to resort to vans selling alcoholic drink which plied the area.”

That intriguing line appears in a paper by Madge Dresser called ‘Housing policy in Bristol, 1919-30’, collected in Councillors and tenants: local authority housing in English cities, 1919-1939. The estates Dr Dresser refers to are Horfield and Sea Mills.

As we discovered researching 20th Century Pub, it’s almost impossible to take a serious interest in the development of the public house without also getting into housing and social policy.

Housing estates – a new idea as the 19th century turned into the 20th, even if they’re now taken for granted – were generally dry by default until the 1920s. What was the point of moving people out of slums if the slum behaviour (as it was viewed) carried on as before?

Estates, and especially those with ‘garden city’ pretensions, were about fresh air, healthy pursuits, and the comfort of the home. If people needed to socialise, there were churches, and maybe sports clubs.

But fancying a pint with your mates every now and then isn’t weird – it’s quite normal. As a result, many people living on estates lobbied for the provision of social clubs and pubs, but Bristol’s estates were without pubs until the 1930s.

What about those booze delivery wagons? Well, a 1929 news story covering the application for an off-licence by a Sea Mills shopkeeper Thomas Prestidge (Western Daily Press, 5 March) provides a bit more detail:

There was a large number of residents on the Sea Mills Estate who had asked Mr Prestidge to make the application. The nearest licensed house was the Swan in Stoke Lane, over a mile away, and in the other direction the nearest place was a mile and half away. At present the wants of the inhabitants were supplied by three or four people who came from various districts in and out of Bristol and delivered to residents on the estate in dozen and half-dozen bottles.

So, to be clear, not only were there no pubs – there was nowhere to buy any alcoholic drink at all.

Objections to this application from local doctors and religious types argued that supply by delivery was perfectly adequate and that people who had moved to Sea Mills to get away from ‘hubbub’ would prefer drinking to happen, if it had to happen at all, behind closed doors. Nonetheless, the licence was granted on a provisional basis.

Sea Mills did eventually get a pub, and a very grand one: the Progress Inn (pictured above). It opened in 1936, but closed in 2011, and was then converted into a nursery.

That means if you live at Sea Mills and fancy a beer, delivery trucks, from supermarkets these days, might once again be the best option.

Progress? What progress?

This happens to be Sea Mills’ centenary year and the estate is the subject of a local heritage project, Sea Mills 100. We’ll be watching with interest for information on the estate’s licencing battles.

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.