Pubs and beer all spick and span

With a week off work we finally managed to make it to a few pubs the week before last – and, more importantly, get our hands on some cask ale served as it should be. The experience has given us reason to feel optimistic.

First, the beer has been outstandingly good even in pubs where there’s no particular reason to expect that to be the case.

Perhaps it’s absence making the heart grow fonder, or the heart overruling the palate, but we don’t think so.

It might be a phenomenon observed by Martin Taylor and others last summer, though: cleaner than usual lines and everyone putting their best foot forward.


The Butcombe Bitter at The Colston Arms was always reliably decent but, a couple of Saturdays ago, tasted like the showroom display pint with all the optional extras. Leafy hop character, cracker-crust malt, a hint of rustic mystery from the yeast… A great way to break the cask fast.

At the same pub, Timothy Taylor Boltmaker tasted as good as we’ve ever had it and Wye Valley WPA was polished, peach-perfumed, golden perfection.

It was on the Monday when we schlepped out to South Gloucestershire to meet Ray’s brother and partner, however, that we really started to notice some promising signs. Literally, that is.

We walked past pubs that had previously struck us as tatty, or on their last legs, but which had clearly received fresh coats of paint and smart refurbs – the one upside to being closed for several months, we suppose. And perhaps, in some cases, they’d also benefited from investing government support grants.


Our destination was The White Harte in Warmley, an already-smart almost-country pub which has gained a large, sturdy teepee-type covering over its beer garden – a feature that helps it comply with COVID-19 regulations, of course, but which will also no doubt be helpful in English summers to come.

Though, as with Timothy Taylor, we’ve still got St Austell on the naughty step for last year’s beer duty reform shenanigans we were glad to be offered Tribute as the only cask ale. Again, it tasted like the Tributest Tribute that ever Tributed – flowery, fresh, full of electric energy.

Finally, towards the end of our week off, we walked across country from Pensford to Keynsham, hoping we might be able to find a pub with space for us on spec. The Lock Keeper, just outside town, is a Young’s pub. It has a large beer garden with grass, trees and the sound of a fast-flowing river – almost up to German standards. 

Masks, sanitiser and check-ins notwithstanding, there was a sense of business as usual. We’ve all got used to this and, at least in more sedate pubs, the processes have been nailed.

The pints of Young’s Ordinary we ordered arrived within about 30 seconds of hitting ‘Submit’ on the app. (Will table service disappear after all this?) And, what do you know, they were extraordinarily good – summery hops, a long train of fresh-bread malt and a pleasing terminal dryness.

Proper Job

St Austell Proper Job? Also outstanding. Clean is the word we keep coming back to. You know how you don’t think the windows need cleaning but then you get them done and suddenly there’s twice as much light? Something like that.

On our final Friday off work we took a train to Bath and walked for a few hours over the hills that look down on the city, re-entering via Lansdown and The Hare & Hounds. There, with a view of what felt like most of England, we came back to Butcombe Bitter. And, again, it was to exhibition standard – and certainly the right beer for that place, at that time.

Next up, we suppose, pints inside a Bristol pub. We haven’t braved it yet – we’re both first-dosers and quite happy sitting outside, even when the weather is rough – but we can’t deny we’re excited at the prospect.

Beer history pubs real ale

Raw, rough and rude

Kingsbridge Inn, Totnes, Devon.

Many of the new breweries from the 1970s ‘real ale revolution’ didn’t survive the 1980s but Butcombe did, and their Bitter is, as far as we can work out, one of the few beers from that time (1978) still readily available in British pubs.

At its best (as at the Kingsbridge Inn in Totnes, Devon) Butcombe Bitter illustrates perfectly why people were so excited by real ale in the 1970s: a leaning, Falstaffian mound of froth; a rather stern, chalky bitterness; and a raw, rough-edged rudeness. Compared to some of the beers we enjoyed in Bristol (of which more later) it might seem a little fuddy-duddy or sepia-toned, but that would not have been the case when the alternative was borderline sickly-sweet, weak, smoothed-out keg bitter. (Inflation of expectations.)

“It tastes like the first time I tasted beer, when I was five, and I dipped my finger in my Dad’s pint,” said Boak.

“It smells like the cold air that used to waft out of the door of Newmarket on a summer afternoon,” said Bailey.

“It’s really… beery.”

Regardless of how it tasted, after a couple of pints, we were ready to dash our mugs to the floor, board longboats and set sail for new lands. Rargh!

Does anyone know of other beers from breweries that opened between 1972 and 1980 which are still on the market?

pubs Somerset

Country pubs and Butcombe IPA


As we’ve mentioned before, the pubs in my home town aren’t much to get excited about, but there are some nice places hidden out in the countryside.

The Red Tile at Cossington, for example, is a perfect cosy country pub. On Boxing Day, it was busy with diners (there’s an unpretentious pub menu) but I managed to find a corner in which to enjoy a pint of Butcombe Brunel IPA. I’m a fan of Butcombe’s beers but I’m happy to admit that regional chauvinism makes it hard for me to be objective. Butcombe ‘ordinary’ is brown, very bitter and slightly sulphurous. The IPA is quite different — less bitter, if anything, but with a warmer orange colour and pronounced flowery hop aroma. A good example of the English session IPA.

Also worth a look is the Burtle Inn. This pub is even cosier: dark, but not gloomy, with light from wonky 18th century windows and several fierce wood fires. Although the staff looked exhausted and the pub’s supplies were depleted (“We’ve only got parsnip crisps left”) the real ales were in good nick and were also available hot and spiced! In London these days, we take it for granted that a pub will have Czech lager, wheat beer and Leffe on tap, but it’s less common in the depths of the West Country.

Finally, there was Crown at Catcott, which my Dad called “old Fred Vernon’s place” after a landlord he remembered from his youth. It’s up a winding track on a particularly windy spot on the Somerset levels, so its burning fires and low ceilings were very welcome. There was a selection of West Country ales on offer from larger brewers like Sharp’s and Butcombe. The Butcombe ordinary was, well, extraordinary — perfectly fresh and in such good condition that the head didn’t move even in the stiff breeze whistling under the old wooden door.

In short, if you’re in Somerset, ditch the towns, get yourself a designated driver and go on a crawl across the levels. It’s likely to be a lot more fun than Bridgwater, Taunton or Yeovil.