The thrill of the new

For ages, we’ve thought the trick to showing Ray’s parents a good time was taking them to proper pubs. It turns out we should have been going to craft beer bars.

Now, we’ve had some bloody good fun with them in places like the Merchant’s Arms and the Annexe, playing euchre and sharing bags of pork scratchings over pints of Butcombe or London Pride.

The other weekend, though, as we crawled around central Bristol with them, we were inspired to take them to Small Bar.

The specific trigger was a round of awful, buttery Sam Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter at the William IV – a pub which rarely has any atmosphere at all but does at least usually have cheap, decent beer.

We left feeling down in the dumps, the session in jeopardy, and Small Bar, Bristol’s craft beer central, seemed as if it might be the antidote – a short, sharp shock to jolt us all back to life.

“You might not like it,” we got in, preemptively.

Ray tried to identify something vaguely like Dad’s usual bitter and the staff reacted rather wearily, as if they get asked this all the time. In the end, it was two-thirds of Lost & Grounded Kellerpils that did the job. Ray’s Mum, who drinks lager when she’s not on whisky, got a murky pale ale – the kind of thing we don’t really enjoy, as a rule. And do you know what? She loved it.

In fact, they both thought Small Bar was great. It had a vibe, a bit of a crowd, and despite being the oldest people there by some stretch, they didn’t get looked at twice.

After that we thought we’d try them on BrewDog, which they also liked a lot: Punk IPA, it turns out, is a decent substitute for Butcombe. (Not sure BrewDog will be pleased to hear this, mind.)

They’re now planning to bring a couple of friends up for a craft beer crawl later in the summer.

For our part, we’ve learned a lesson: don’t make assumptions about what people will enjoy based on what they’ve enjoyed in the past, or based on their age.

Next time, we might take them on a taproom crawl – they’re probably cool enough to enjoy it, unlike us.

News, Nuggets and Longreads 9 February 2019: London, Chuvashia, Viborg

Here’s everything that struck us as especially interesting in the world of beer and pubs in the past week, from the origins of craft beer to best practice in bars.

A couple of years ago we put together a short history of beer weeks with input from Will Hawkes, then involved in organising London Beer Week. Now, Will has written his own piece revealing just how much stress and work was involved, and for how little reward:

It had all been a terrible error. I should have known that I was doing something very stupid before I started; I’d asked around to see if anyone else in the London beer demi-monde was interested in helping, and got a series of responses along the lines of “Good idea! No, sorry, I’m too busy,” generally from people with enough time to be discussing the idea with me in a pub in mid-afternoon… Not only that, but I was never really sure why I was doing it: it just sort of kept on happening, for four long years.


For The Takeout Kate Bernot writes about the experience of drinking out as a woman, and how much she appreciates concrete steps taken by bars to make women feel safe:

The Rhino bar in Missoula, where I live, has posted flyers indicating its bartenders have undergone “bystander intervention” training. The bar has also hosted police-led classes on the topic. “What our training specifically talked about was intervening in things like sexual assault,” Missoula Police Deparment detective Jamie Merifield told KGVO years ago. “When you see someone in trouble, the training helps you to intervene, and not just turn a blind eye. Most people would want to help, they just don’t know how.” In a similar vein, other establishments around the country have introduced “angel shots,” drinks that people can order as a signal to bartenders that they’re in trouble.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets and Longreads 9 February 2019: London, Chuvashia, Viborg”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 17/11/2018: Cloudwater, Collaboration, Klein-Schwechat

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the world of beer and pubs in the past week, from yeast family trees to the curse of good press.

First, though, let’s have a bit of good news: John Prybus, the character behind the cult status of The Blue Bell in York, will continue to run the pub after a vigorous local campaign to prevent the pub company that owns it booting him out in favour of a manager.


Cloudwater cask beers on a bar in Manchester.

Cloudwater abandoned cask-conditioned beer, but have now come back round to the idea. While some have bridled at the hype surrounding this event (controlled launch of cask beers into selected pubs, lots of social media buzz) it’s prompted some thoughtful debate. For example, there’s this cautious welcome from Tandleman, who avoids the knee-jerk anti-craft response:

Cloudwater has been seeking out pubs where their cask credentials are such that they will look after the beer properly, going as far as having a little interactive online map where you can seek out those who know how to coax the best out of beer from the wickets. Additionally, a vetting process, which while hardly the Spanish Inquisition, at least gets enough information about prospective sellers of the amber nectar to judge whether they’ll turn it into flat vinegar or not. Good idea. Quality at point of sale is paramount and Cloudwater are to be praised for making such efforts as they have in the name of a quality pint.


Handshake illustration.

At Pursuit of Abbeyness Martin Steward has been thinking about collaboration brews. While acknowledging the downsides, he avoids cliched cynicism and reflects pleasingly deeply on how this relatively new commercial practice fits into the evolution of our beer culture:

Craft beer distribution today has little to do with tied public houses, or even national bar chains. The off-licence trade revolves around independent bottle shops that stock mainly local products, and the global mail order services facilitated by the internet and advances in canning and logistics technologies. The on-licence trade consists of specialist craft-beer bars and brewery tap rooms which, like the bottle shops that are sometimes also on-licence tap rooms, have a distinctly local bias… Collaborations enable brewers to expose their brands through those fragmented modern distribution networks, and an Instagram story of a collaborative brew day instantly reaches the followers of each collaborators’ brands, wherever they are around the world.


One of our favourite writer-researchers, Andreas Krenmair, continues his obsessives probing into the history of Vienna beer with the unearthing of a water profile for the brewery well at Klein-Schwechat:

By pure accident, I stumbled upon an analysis of the brewing water (well water) of the brewery in Klein-Schwechat, in the book “The Theory and Practice of the Preparation of Malt and the Fabrication of Beer, with Especial Reference to the Vienna Process of Brewing” by Julius E. Thausing. It’s actually the English translation of a German book. One problem with the analysis is that it doesn’t specify any units for most of the numbers. It does specify the amount of residue after the water has been evaporated (in grams), but that was it… So by itself, the analysis is unfortunately not really helpful. If anybody knows how to interpret the numbers, I’m grateful for any help with it.

The open, collaborative groping towards the truth continues.


Macro shot of text and diagram: 'Yeast'.

More deep level research, this time into yeast strains: Kristofer Krogerus and qq who comments here from time to time continue to collaborate on unpicking the ever-increasing pile of genetic information on brewing yeast:

Wyeast 1469 West Yorkshire – Was fully expecting this to be a Beer2 strain! 1469 is meant to come from Timothy Taylor, who got their yeast from Oldham, who got their yeast from John Smith’s. The John Smith yeast also went to Harvey’s (the source of VTT-A81062, a Beer2 strain). So it’s a bit of a surprise that 1469 is in the heart of the UK Beer1 strains, closest to WLP022 Essex (‘Ridleys’). So either the traditional stories aren’t true, there’s been contamination/mixups, or we’re looking at John Smith being some kind of multistrain with both Beer 1’s and Beer 2’s in it.


Pete Brown's chart of cask + craft sales.

Pete Brown has shared more of the background research that informed this year’s Cask Report, observing that the cask ale and craft beer segments of the market, if viewed together as ‘flavourful’ or ‘interesting’ beer, tell an interesting story:

Drinkers who say they understand what craft beer is and claim to drink it were asked to name a craft beer brand. A majority of them – 55% – named a beer the researchers felt was a ‘traditional ale’. Tellingly, the [Marston’s On-Trade Beer Report’s] authors say that 45% ‘correctly’ named a brand they deem to be craft – implying that those who named a traditional brand were incorrect in doing so… Perhaps you agree. Perhaps you’re sitting there thinking, ‘Blimey, over half of people who think they’re drinking craft beer don’t even know what it is.’ Maybe to you this is a sign of how bigger brewers have co-opted the term ‘craft’ and made it meaningless. Maybe you just think these people aren’t as knowledgeable about beer as you are. Or maybe – just maybe – they’re right and you’re wrong.


Black Sheep bottle cap.

Another possibly related nugget via @LeedsBeerWolf: one of the financial backers of Yorkshire brewery Black Sheep is attempting to mount a coup against the founding family because they are“failing to capitalise on an exploding demand for craft beer”, as reported by Mark Casci at the Harrogate Advertiser. (Warning: the site is rendered barely readable by aggressive ads.)


Closed sign on shop.

This week’s not-beer longread (via @StanHieronymus) is food writer Kevin Alexander’s piece for Thrillist about how he killed a restaurant by declaring it The Best in the US national media:

Five months later, in a story in The Oregonian, restaurant critic Michael Russell detailed how Stanich’s had been forced to shut down. In the article, Steve Stanich called my burger award a curse, “the worst thing that’s ever happened to us.” He told a story about the country music singer Tim McGraw showing up one day, and not being able to serve him because there was a five hour wait for a burger. On January 2, 2018, Stanich shut down the restaurant for what he called a “two week deep cleaning.” Ten months later, Stanich’s is still closed. Now when I look at the Stanich’s mug in my office, I no longer feel light and happy. I feel like I’ve done a bad thing.

A grim tale worth bearing in mind next time you see, or get asked to contribute to, a listicle about pubs.



If you want more links, check out Alan’s Thursday round-up at A Good Beer Blog.

Craft Lager and Whatever IPA

Whatever IPA.

We’ve been observing the way people, including some of our own friends and colleagues, order their drinks in pubs these days.

Here’s a fairly typical exchange:

“What you having?”

[Pointing at the keg taps] “Whatever IPA they’ve got.”

“Maltsmith’s?”

“Yeah, fine.”

Maltsmith’s (Caledonian/Heineken, 4.6%) is the same as Samuel Smith India Ale (5%, coppery, English hops) is the same as BrewDog Punk (5.6%, pale, pungent) is the same as Goose Island IPA (AB InBev, 5.9%, amber, piney).

We’ve noticed more or less the same tendency with ‘craft lager’ – a phrase we geeks could probably lose weeks bickering over but which to most consumers has a fairly clear meaning: something with CRAFT LAGER written on its label, and a brand invented in the past decade.

Fuller’s Frontier, Hop House 13 (Guinness), St Austell Korev, Camden Hells (AB InBev), Lost & Grounded Keller Pils… They’re all seen as avatars of the same thing, despite the vast divergence in flavours, and regardless of ownership, independence, and so on.

It was weird the other night to be in Seamus O’Donnell’s, a central Bristol Irish pub, and see on draught not only Guinness stout but also a Guinness branded golden ale, citra IPA, and two crafted-up lagers – Hop House 13 and Guinness Pilsner.

This line-up is what people expect to find in 2018, and breweries are obliged to respond if they don’t want to lose space on the bar to competitors.

The frustration for beer geeks is that this feels and looks like what they wanted, what they clamoured for, but the beers themselves are so often disappointing – hops a little more in evidence than the old mainstream, perhaps, but rarely more than that.

And if you’re wedded to ideals of independence, quality and choice, it’s all a bit worrying: most consumers are apparently easy to befuddle, or don’t care, which is bad news for those who do.

A Surprising New Local

Our neighbourhood has a new place to drink, and a new type of place to drink at that: a specialist bottle shop with bonus beer on tap.

Bottles & Books opened as a shop only at about the same time we moved to Bristol last summer. Combining beer with comic books it never quite seemed right, with not quite enough room to look at anything comfortably, or to fit more than two browsing customers at once. A month or so ago, though, it moved into the empty shop unit next door, to great effect.

Bottled and canned beers are clearly organised and laid out with plenty of space to browse. The hippest of hoppy beers are refrigerated while most other styles are on open shelves for now – perhaps not perfect by 2018 standards, but a marked improvement on another nearby beer shop which keeps many of its beers on display in a hot window.

It’s an indie shop so costs a little more than the supermarket, but not outrageously so, and the range is certainly more exciting.

Keg taps.

The draft setup is neat and discreet — a handful of taps on the wall behind the counter with a small menu chalked on a board. The selection tends towards the strong, intense and trendy — Verdant and the like. They are served in measures of one-third and two-thirds and there are tables in the window and (for now) on the pavement outside.

We’ve popped in a couple of times now and found it surprisingly busy. On another occasion, walking home from work, we looked across the road and saw it heaving. So there is clearly pent-up demand for the craft beer experience out here in the suburbs.

The owners of the local micropub, The Drapers Arms, seem sanguine about what might look like competition because, actually, there is almost no overlap: Bottles & Books is about keg and packaged beers, The Drapers cask only; the former is focused on foreign beer and High Craft, while the latter tends towards the traditional.

From our point of view, it looks like the convincer to get people on the bus and out to Horfield where there are now the makings of a decent afternoon’s crawl with enough variety and quality for anyone.

Bottles & Books is at 354-356 Gloucester Road, Bristol BS7 8TP, and is open six days a week, 12-9pm. It currently closes on Sunday but there are plans to open seven days a week down the line.