A pub with a guv’nor

The Bag of Nails pub, Bristol, photographed by Stephen Powell.
The Bag of Nails pub, Bristol, adapted from a picture in Stephen Powell’s blog post, linked below.

There are some publicans who aren’t managers or tenants merely ‘living the brand values’ for a year or two on their way somewhere else, but who are part of the pub, just as the pub is part of them.

We arrived in Bristol with a print-out of Stephen ‘Blue Giant Beer’ Powell’s very tidy pub crawl and, just as Michael Jackson’s 500 Great Beers used to be ‘The Book’, it became ‘The List’ — an authority to turn to in moments of confusion. One of the pubs on The List is the Bag of Nails in Hotwells which, along with the Three Tuns and the Grain Barge, offered a neat crawl-within-a-crawl. If we didn’t like one, we figured, we could move on to the next, finishing in the Grain Barge as a safe bet.

We approached the Bag of Nails cautiously. Luke, the guv’nor, isn’t ashamed to describe himself as ‘ranty’. Online, he occasionally gets angry at CAMRA and also at Brewdog, amongst other things. We’ll be honest: we were a little nervous — what if it was an angry pub? Then we remembered we were adults, gave ourselves a pep talk, and went for it.

We walked into the warmth and our spectacles (we are both four-eyed) fogged up as we stumbled towards the bar. As we commenced peering at the pumpclips, hoping that this atrocious hesitation wouldn’t get us thrown out, someone sitting on a high stool kindly leaned in: ‘I’d strongly recommend this one.’ We ordered a pint of that one, whatever it was, and a pint of something else, and scurried off to a free table. That is, mostly free — we were sharing it with a cat, but he didn’t seem to mind us too much.

In the cubby hole next to us were several boxes of records and a turntable. The walls were covered with admirably clear, detailed instructions on their use, only lightly peppered with the gentlest of threats: ‘Do not fuck up my records.’ After a while, the guv’nor came to change the music. We all but held our breath as he went about it, not wishing to invoke his wrath. ‘You can put the next one on when this side finishes,’ he said. It seemed, somehow, a much friendlier gesture than any ‘have a nice day’ scripted customer service speak ever does.

As the evening wore on, the crowd thinned out, and we realised for the first time that there was a tiny black kitten — as if from a Disney cartoon — prowling up and down on the bar. The guvnor was teasing it with a dangling key-ring. Perhaps not so scary after all?

We didn’t make it any further on our mini crawl and, in fact, had one more pint than we’d intended to because we were so comfy and contented. We thought it was a great pub, but not everyone will. Go and make your own mind up.

American and German-style beer in Bristol


It was nice to pop into the Bristol Beer Factory again. Their Acer and No 7 (pale/hoppy and darker/malty respectively) continue to impress with their powerful breadiness and sheer gulpability. Acer is one of my all time faves – it’s only 3.8% but tastes more substantial.

We also tried some good bottles. Southville Hop is an American-style IPA and extremely convincing at that. I probably prefer Acer (and my liver definitely does, as Southville is almost twice as strong) but only because Acer is so superb — there’s certainly nothing wrong with SH. Bristol Hefe is also excellent, nailing the clove and banana flavours that define the real thing but also being a little more sour and bitter than its Bavarian counterparts.


Bristol Tap Needed Urgently

Waiting for a train to Keynsham at Bristol Temple Meads station this weekend, we found ourselves wishing that someone would roll the Sheffield Tap concept out across the country.

As it is, we went without a pint, not much fancying a light lager or keg bitter in a in plasticky pub/cafe/newsagent, with an atmosphere of oppressive gloom.

Opening a decent pub on the platform at Bristol would be easier said than done, though. Unlike Sheffield, where you can wander onto platform one without a ticket, Temple Meads is locked down tighter than Checkpoint Charlie. They’d have to redesign the whole station around the pub, which, we suspect, is not going to happen.


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.

Traps for drunk people

The fruit machine at the White Lion Hotel, Bristol. WTF?

The White Lion Hotel in the centre of Bristol is an outlet for Gloucestershire’s Wickwar Brewing, which is what lured us in.

The pub itself is very strange. It has a tiny public bar and, when we were there, the clientele comprised hard blokes, mad northern ladies in hats, and French labourers drinking Grolsch. And (surely this is more trouble than it’s worth?) there is a rickety, wobbling, narrow spiral staircase leading to the gents toilet downstairs. It nearly did for Bailey and we can’t help but wonder how many people have died happy clattering drunkenly down it over the years.

As for the beer,the award-winning Station Porter was the standout — intensely fruity, with a sour blackcurrant flavour. Like Fuller’s London Porter, it seems to be a beer that ripens when it’s been in the cask for a while. We’d say it was on the very edge of being off, but we think we caught it just at its peak. It’s also just nice to see a porter on offfer on the pumps in a more-or-less normal pub.

Banker’s Draft is the one they’re really pushing with posters all over the place. ‘Wacky’ topical name aside (it’s not their worst) it probably deserves the hoo-ha, being a very drinkable, somewhat interesting pale, fruity, sweet ale with an elderflower-like hop flavour.

Wickwar are clearly a sort-of OK brewery who’ll we’ll look out for in future.