Twenty-First Century Brewpub

A version of this post first appeared in the autumn 2017 edition of the Campaign for Real Ale’s quarterly magazine BEER and is reproduced here with permission.

To brewers, publicans and drinkers, there is undoubtedly something almost irresistible about the idea of making, serving and drinking beer within the same four walls.

If you’d been around three hundred years ago and ordered a quart of beer the chances are you’d be served something brewed metres away from where you drank it. The brewhouses weren’t necessarily on display but anyone who has ever visited the Blue Anchor in Helston, Cornwall, will know how a brewery makes itself known even from behind closed doors – with tumbling steam that carries the aroma of malt and hops. It seems to make the beer taste better and certainly adds to the romance.

Then, in the 18th and 19th centuries, industrial brewing developed, with production becoming ever more centralised in ever bigger facilities. By the mid-20th century a handful of big brewing concerns were operating across the country and the number of ‘homebrew houses’ had dwindled to fewer than ten.

But in the 1980s, as part of the post-CAMRA real ale boom with its rejection of the industrial and mass-produced, the ‘brewpub’ was invented. The primary driver in that was a brewery in the basement of a South London pub, The Goose & Firkin, set up by David and Louise Bruce in 1979. They opened several more pubs with their own breweries in the decade that followed, mostly in London. The Firkin chain made the Bruces’ fortune as they sold strong beer brewed on site to pubs rammed with the type of customer happy to pay a little more for something truly unique.

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Session #131: Three Questions About Beer

Illustration: 2018 BEER, constructivist style.

For this 131st Session of the ever-fragile Session (a monthly event which sees beer bloggers round the world post on the same topic) co-founder Jay Brooks has stepped in as emergency host and poses three questions.

  1. What one word, or phrase, do you think should be used to describe beer that you’d like to drink?

What Jay wants to know here, we gather, is which phrase we might prefer to ‘craft beer’, given the general derision that term elicits from beer geeks in 2018.

But here’s the thing: we don’t use the term craft beer all that often, but when we do want a shorthand phrase for These Beers which are different to Those Beers, with flexible criteria and vague category boundaries, craft beer still seems as good as any.

We don’t really care — boutique beer (pretentious), designer beer (sounds as if it wears a shiny grey suit with the sleeves rolled up), indie beer (a little more specific), or even Category X94, would all work just as well — but as craft beer does mean something (even if nobody agrees exactly what) and is in everyday use on the street, why bother fighting it?

‘Craft beer’ is fine, and we will continue to use it occasionally, if it’s all the same to you.

2. What two breweries do you think are very underrated?

Jay set the bar high on this one: “everything they brew should be spot on”. We can’t think of a single brewery that meets that standard and most of those that come near aren’t underrated. But…

Maybe our brewery of the year for 2017, Bristol Beer Factory, gets a bit less attention than it deserves. It is a touch conservative by the standards of 2018; it lacks novelty value being more than a decade old; and it can seem somewhat faceless. Those beers, though. Oh, those beers.

And we’ve been very pleasantly surprised by some of the small West Country breweries on rotation at our new local, The Draper’s Arms, many of which we’d never heard of and/or never tried. There are a few that might end up filling this slot, when we’ve really got to to know them. Kettlesmith, for example, or Stroud, or Cheddar Ales, all of which have now moved from Risky to Solid in our mental list of trusted breweries, with potential to progress further.

3. Which three kinds of beer would you like to see more of in 2018?

Mild. Dark, ideally, but with flavours defined by sugars rather than out-of-place roastiness. (Mild does not just mean baby porter.)

Pale-n-hoppy. It’s not there aren’t lots of them, just that we don’t come across them quite as often as we’d like. Ideally, every pub would have at least one on offer, just like they’d have one mild/porter/stout, but that’s not our experience so far in Bristol pubs.

Imperial stout. Although people complain ‘that’s all you get these days’, we still hardly ever encounter them in pubs. Bottles would be fine — this is one style that can sit in the fridge for months just getting more interesting. The funkier and scarier the better, but ideally fruit/chocolate/coffee free.

Every Pub in Bristol: The First 100

Collage: Bristol pubs.

On moving to Bristol in the summer of 2017 we commenced a mission to visit every single pub in the city. This is what we’ve learned in the first six months.

Completely unsurprisingly, the pubs we visit most frequently are those near our house. We have (well, Jessica has) been keeping notes in a spreadsheet recording each visit which means with the click of a button we can see our most-visited pubs.

At number one, by a massive margin, is The Draper’s Arms — not only the nearest pub to our house by any measure but also, clearly, the best pub in the area and one of the best in the city. We’ve been there together 28 times (plus the odd solo visit for one or the other of us that doesn’t count for the purposes of this count) which equates to about once a week.

The Inn on the Green is at joint third with five visits; The Wellington joint fourth with four visits; and The Golden Lion joint fifth with three.

The Barley Mow near Temple Meads station is our clear second favourite with six visits — one a month — and it is indeed a pub with which we continue to be very taken.

In general, any pub we’ve visited more than once despite (a) this daft mission and (b) our general excitement at new turf to explore must have something going for it. So, without filtering or comment on individual pubs, here’s the complete list of those we’ve been to at least twice.

Draper’s Arms 28
Barley Mow 6
Inn on the Green 5
Grain Barge 5
Wellington Arms 4
Hillgrove Porter Stores 4
Golden Lion 3
BrewDog 3
The Old Fish Market 3
Snuffy Jacks 3
Highbury Vaults 3
Commercial Rooms (Wetherspoon) 2
The Canteen (Hamilton House) 2
The Strawberry Thief 2
The Bridge 2
The Mardyke 2
Zero Degrees 2

With more data we’d expect a proper top ten to emerge in the next six months and suspect some of those names will drop away from the lead group.

Capsule Reviews

Another column on the spreadsheet records in a few words our impression of each pub. These are great fun to write and sometimes a bit snarky (“nice beer, filthy glasses”) but their purpose is to help us recollect the pub months and hopefully even years after what might be one visit. We tested it last night (in pub #103) and it worked:

Marston’s without the Marston’s? The Pump House. Belgian brown cafe vibe? The Grace. Crazy folly, now a Flaming Grill? The Black Castle. Cosy, smells like a swimming pool? The Victoria. (It is next door to a lido.)

The Next Stretch

We’ve got no more local ticks so it’s bus rides and shoe leather from here on. At the moment there’s a long list of pubs we’ve seen or heard of and are keen to visit — The Post Office Tavern at Westbury on Trym, for example, AKA ‘The Pot at Wot’; The Seven Stars in the city centre which we visited before we moved to Bristol but haven’t been to since; and The Colosseum, a rare post-war survivor in Redcliffe.

Rather than let the less immediately inviting pubs pile up so that we have to slog through them at the end, we’re trying to get to them on the way. So far we’ve found that a lot of Bristol pubs which look dodgy from the outside are at worst fine, and at best very pleasant surprises — full of warmth and community feeling even if the face they show the world might suggest otherwise. Just in case, though, we’ve given ourselves a get out clause: if we’re made to feel unwelcome in some active way, we can count it as a tick without stopping for a drink.

FAQ

How many pubs are there in Bristol?
We don’t know exactly, and don’t need to know at this stage, but we’ve seen estimates of about 450 which feels about right.

How are you defining ‘pub’?
We’re not — we want to be flexible and retain the right to play it by ear. Having said that, if we can walk in off the street, buy draught beer without feeling obliged to order food, and take a seat without reserving a table, then it’s probably a pub. In other words, we’re going broad rather than narrow, including tap rooms, bars, social clubs, and maybe even some cafés.

What counts as Bristol?
We keep changing our minds but probably the Bristol Built-up Area. Again, this won’t become an issue for a while — there are plenty of obviously-in-Bristol pubs to tackle before we start worrying about marginal cases, but we do particularly want to tackle suburban pubs and those on the outskirts, while still finding some way to limit the challenge.

Session #129: None of Our Beer Styles Are Missing

A pint.

This month’s edition of the Session, hosted by Eoghan at Brussels Beer Cityasks us to consider ‘missing local beer styles’ and for us, still coming to grips with a new city, this has been rather heartening: Bristol has all the beer styles.

First, there are the standards. There are tons of bitters, best bitters and pale-and-hoppies — too many to mention. Brewpub Zero Degrees (of which more in a moment) has a decent pilsner while Lost & Grounded produces a widely available Keller Pils that has just a whiff of craft about it without being scary or weird.

Then there’s the second tier styles. To pick just one example, Moor brews a straight-up cask stout, called Stout, primarily for the Italian market, which we think is just wonderful. Bristol Beer Factory has its Milk Stout which is also bordering on ubiquitous, not only cask and keg in pubs but also bottled in delis, cafes and restaurants. And there are other local milk stouts available. Milk stout!

In fact, here’s a (no doubt incomplete) list of styles currently being produced on a regular basis by breweries in and around Bristol, and fairly easy to find:

  • Barley Wine
  • Black IPA
  • Bock
  • Brown Ale
  • Brown Porter
  • Double IPA
  • Dubbel
  • Dunkelweizen
  • Eighty Shilling
  • Farmhouse ale
  • Gose
  • Imperial stout
  • Kölsch (terms and conditions apply)
  • Kriek
  • Porter
  • Rauchbier
  • Saison
  • Stout
  • Table Beer
  • Tripel
  • Weizen
  • Wit

And remember, that’s just what’s being brewed here — once you get into specialist bars, BrewDog, the flagship Fuller’s pub or Wetherspoon’s, you can probably tick off every other style that might come to mind if you have a particular craving for, say, dubbel or altbier.

If there’s something we’d like to see more of (stuck records that we are) it’s mild, although we’ve managed a few pints of that here and there since arriving in town, too. And, of course, we’re keen for someone to explore Bristol Old Beer. But, really, what do we have to complain about with all that lot listed above to explore?

This post would be quite different if we didn’t live in a city although even Penzance, a short ride from Land’s End, where we lived until the summer, had its own porter, mild, imperial stout…

The point is, if you’re interested in the full range of beer styles — not everyone is — then 2017 is a hell of a time to be alive. It’s just not much of a time to be writing plaintive blog posts about missing beer styles.

Vienna Beer at Zero Degrees

Graffiti outside Zero Degrees.

As part of our mission to visit every pub in Bristol* we popped into Zero Degrees on Saturday where, to our surprise, we encountered a beer of the year contender: a Vienna lager of astonishing perfection.

Something like fifteen years ago (wow) we used to swoon over Meantime’s Golden Beer, which was a kind of doppio malto affair, darker and heavier than a standard Pilsner but not sickly or sweet. It disappeared from Meantime’s roster more than a decade ago; thankfully, the Vienna Lager (5.3% ABV) at the Bristol branch of the Zero Degrees brewpub is a dead ringer.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Zero Degrees, a similarly lager-focused brewery founded at around the same time as Meantime in the same part of the world and targeting the same market, should sometimes produce beers that resemble Meantime’s. We haven’t dug into it but suspect some of the same staff have rotated in and out of those two breweries, too, over the years.

But, the Vienna… It was indeed golden — not quite amber, but definitely deeper than yellow — and balanced magically on the knife-sharp edge between all-about-hops and all-about-malt. It was advertised as dry-hopped but that didn’t translate into brashness. This is the kind of beer that stopped us shrugging about lager all those years ago — the kind of beer that makes us say, ‘Wow!’ without having any particular prominent feature to point at. (Further reading.) The wow factor is in the perfection of its structure, the precision with which each part does its job, the taming of weed and seed into perfume and biscuit when they can so easily end up all grass and mud. In the past we’ve had beers at Zero Degrees that lack life but this sparkled and glowed, and had a decent head, without being fizzy or like a bubble-bath.

An Oktoberfest beer also on offer was less successful (dense and dark, but sticky with sugar) and a sour cherry beer was almost brilliant except that the sourness had a faint suggestion of hangover sweat about it.

Overall, despite our ongoing problem with the chilly pizza restaurant vibe, we resolved to visit Zero Degrees again soon, and more often in general. Anywhere that is consistently brewing these Continental sub-styles, with only tasteful ‘twists’, deserves a bit of love.

We’re expecting this to take several years. We’re making the rules up as we go along, defining ‘pub’ as somewhere primarily defined by the availability of beer, and ‘Bristol’ as — gulp — the ONS definition. Visits made to pubs before we moved here in July don’t count; we both have to be present for a visit to register; but only one of us has to consume an alcoholic drink. We’re up to (checks) 72 so far.