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.