These are some of the interesting looking pubs we saw but didn’t get chance to drink in on our recent trip to Bristol. Pictures were snapped on a camera phone so aren’t of the highest quality, but you get the idea.
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.
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.
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’.)
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.
Zero Degrees is still, as far as we know, the only chain of brewpubs in the UK. They make beer which is usually decent and often excellent, on shiny kit, in nice-looking, spacious bars. But, for some reason, they’re just not cool.
In the last six months or so, we’ve been to both the Bristol and Reading branches between us. Because no-one talks about them, we assumed they must have gone off the boil but, no, the beer was excellent on both occasions, notably a very clean, polished Rauchbier in Bristol, and a floral Pilsner in Reading which we’re calling ‘crunchy’, because it was more than crisp.
And yet both bars were mostly empty.
Having been brewing since before the ‘craft beer’ craze kicked off in earnest c.2007/08, and with those lovely city centre premises, they ought to be riding the crest of a wave. Instead, they’ve got a downtrodden, sad-sack feel, as if they’ve run out of puff not far from the finish line.
Perhaps their brand got derailed early on — more ‘style bar’ for people on the pull than beer geek destination — or maybe they’re simply lacking PR nous. Who exactly is behind it? We don’t know, and it’s not easy to find out. Not a problem for Brewdog, you’ll note, who are doing rather well with a personality-led brand.
Our feeling is that they need to re-brand (it’s all a bit corporate and very 2005) and expand, or they’ll wither away.
Wiper and True are a new ‘brewing company’ based in Bristol, and, for now, making their beer on the premises of various friendly breweries. Their first three beers are unashamedly and self-consciously ‘craft’ — talk of evangelism on the website, rye and blackberries in an amber ale and porter respectively, beer label copy in the style of sleeve notes by Andrew Loog Oldham c.1966, and so on.
We started with the lightest and weakest (or, rather, least strong) — ‘The Summer’ pale ale at 5.4% ABV. On cracking the bottle, we were hit with a very Moor-like bloom of hop aroma, not unlike the effect of dropping sliced oranges into steaming hot mulled wine. With effort, we coaxed a head from it — a touch more carbonation wouldn’t hurt — and tucked in, smacking our lips. Very generous hopping with varieties we don’t know well (Galaxy and Summer) hit us with apricot jam aroma up front, followed by a bitterness which developed like chilli burn, building in the mouth and throat.
We decided, finally, despite the colour and the talk of tropical fruit on the label, that it reminded us of blackcurrants or elderberries. We also thought of the syrup from a jar of stem ginger.
There was, somewhere in the middle of all that lusciousness, a touch of something stale and woody, but that we can forgive in Batch #1. (We’ve had worse from much longer established and well respected ‘craft’ breweries.)
Winter Rye amber (5.6%) as, in all honesty, less successful, with some nail-polish remover going on in the aroma; and, without a ton of hops, a plasticky tang had nowhere to hide.
Blackberry porter (6%) was rough around the edges but ultimately very likeable. With a malt bill including pale, brown, munich, crystal and black, cut across with a touch of tannic fruit dryness, it brought to mind dark chocolate with cherry liqueur, and puckering red wine. Again, though, a hint of something ‘off’, coming and going, kept us on our toes.
We’d like to try The Summer from cask at some point and look forward to trying later batches, perhaps when the lingering imperfections have been smoothed out. All in all, they go into the ‘ones to watch’ file.
A quick note on transparency: their website is very clear about where each beer was brewed and what is in them (hooray!), and they’re not shy, exactly, but, still, we’re not one hundred per cent sure who is behind W&T, or its relationship, if any, with Ashley Down.
These beers were free (gasp!) because Bailey’s little brother got them for us for Christmas. He said the people on the stall were ‘really, really nice’. If you can unpick how that might have influenced our review, let us know…
We don’t know much about the Wild Beer Co. other than what we’ve picked up on Twitter, from their website and from other people’s blog posts, but the very idea of a brewery based in Somerset with the following philosophy blows our minds:
By adding a Wild 5th ingredient or process to our beers we are giving you a truly memorable drinking experience… Some of our beers will be aged in oak to allow the soft vanilla and rich tannins to help mature the beer, others fermented with wild yeast strains to add layers of flavour and complexity to the beer.
We are painfully aware, however, that many new generation breweries fail to live up to their own hype — though we’re not clever enough to entirely resist their allure, big ideas and nice branding aren’t everything — and so, seeing Wild Beer Co’s beer on offer in Bristol, approached with a little caution.
Thankfully, Epic Saison (5%, keg) was a triumph. First, it had that very distinctive yeast character (orange and lemon peel, exotic spices) we know from Dupont and Van Klomp, perhaps with the ‘pear drop’ channel turned up a notch; followed by a surprising, pleasing level of dry, chalky bitterness. After several days of ‘serious’ beer drinking, it was like a hard reset for the palate (© Simon H Johnson), reaching into every corner to shut down the systems before rebooting them. With steel toe-caps.
Beers like this — clean (but not too much so…), intelligently conceived, and distinctive without being silly — go some way to convincing us that homegrown ‘European-style’ beers might one day displace at least some of those weirdly cheap and usually superior imports.
We rather liked Butcombe’s flagship Bristol ‘craft beer’ pub the Colston Yard, by the way: their own Rare Breed, all but poisonous in bottles, tasted great there, and it was fascinating to watch earnest students working their way through bottles of Cantillon in a sort of inverted-macho drinking game.