bristol pubs

The beginning of the end: back at The Drapers

On Saturday we did something we’ve been dreaming about for months – we sat at our favourite table at The Drapers Arms and drank a few pints.

Like a lot of things these days, it was somehow both highly emotional and completely normal. Our brains couldn’t quite cope: did we do this a week or so ago, or is it a brand new experience?

The pub has changed. Vince, one of the founding landlords, has moved on to pursue his own pub project. We guess that explains why some of the familiar pictures and nick-nacks have disappeared, the gaps filled with new-old items of greebling.

The barman did the rounds watering the hanging baskets and pot plants and Jess said, “They’re new.”

“Oh, that’s all Zee’s doing,” he replied. Zee worked behind the bar for years and seemed like the manager even before she was. Which she now is.

During last year’s sort-of opening up, The Drapers operated with chunky partitions between tables and the long central leaning post removed. Now, the partitions are gone and a new, slimmer central island has been installed. We wonder if people will look at the screw holes in the wall and ceiling in years to come and remember why they’re there.

We’d been there for perhaps five minutes when a regular we recognised arrived. Across the floor, we chatted, comparing notes on the beer and reminiscing about holidays in Germany and Belgium.

Two middle-aged men came in.

“Daft question but I don’t suppose you’ve got any gluten free beer, have you?”

Above his mask, the barman’s eyes popped.

“I’ve got two!”

He did, and all.

We managed four rounds before we had to start thinking about heading home. Last time we drank there, we lived around the corner. Now it’s an hour-long walk. We didn’t want to leave, though – God, no.

Our suspicion is that this thing we’re all living through won’t end on some universally acknowledged Freedom Day. There won’t be a big bang, just a gradual fizzle out. One small, everyday event after another, we’ll eventually find ourselves living a life that feels somewhat normal. For us, this was a big step.

pubs real ale

Variety is the spice of life

Our beloved local, The Drapers Arms, reopened last week as a takeaway. We’ve had a couple of takeouts so far and it feels like a significant, wonderful step towards normality.

Of course, if you’d asked us in January how we’d feel about getting four pints of beer in a placcy milk bottle to drink in our front room, we’d have said, meh, we love pubs, we don’t really drink at home much – why on earth would we ever want to do this?

We wrote a month ago about our new lockdown routines and where we were buying packaged beer.

Since then, we’ve added mini-kegs to the repertoire – Jarl one week, Harvey’s the next.

This has helped recreate a reasonably authentic cask ale experience. Surprisingly good, in fact – we’re fully won over to mini-kegs in principle.

But the reopening of The Drapers is definitely next level, game-changing stuff. Not necessarily because every single beer is utterly brilliant, but because:

  • We suddenly have access to a range of cask beers, not just one at a time.
  • We don’t have to decide a week in advance what we want to drink, and we (probably) don’t need to worry about running out between deliveries.
  • The range that’s been on offer so far includes things we would not have been able to get hold of easily. It also includes new-to-us beers that we wouldn’t have wanted to risk buying in bulk, on spec.

The last point was particularly important for us.

Part of the joy of a good pub is being able to dabble in things you might not necessarily fall in love with. You might discover a new gem or, alternatively, it’ll make you enjoy the stuff you really do like a whole lot more.

Being presented with limited options in a range chosen by someone else, can be oddly liberating. The agony of choice and all that.

Hopefully other beer drinkers feel the same and haven’t decided to just drink the world’s best beers at home forever.

The takeaway cask model could offer a lifeline to pubs that will be too small to reopen safely in the next few months.


The best seat in the pub

The best seat in the Drapers Arms, our temporarily takeaway-only local pub, is at the table tucked away beside the front door.

That sounds as if it might be draughty. It’s not. It’s protected from the door by a short projecting wall, making a corner that keeps out the worst of the breeze.

It’s somehow private, too. Someone might sit to your left, but never to your right, so you can’t get too badly squeezed.

And from this little table you can see every other drinker in the pub. You can see what’s going on, hear the best bits of the conversation and avoid being taken by surprise. (The last thing you want in the pub is to have your fight-or-flight response triggered.)

So that’s why it’s the best seat, as far as we’re concerned, and we had assumed our criteria for judging this would be universal.

That’s why back in those BC days when we texted friends to say ‘We’ve got the best seat in the house and the Gorge Best is good’ we were surprised when they asked us which table we meant.

We’d thought it was obvious.

But then when we think of other regulars at the Drapers, it’s clear they have their favourite tables too, and that they’re different from ours.

Our next door neighbours gravitate to the opposite corner, near the bar. Mr Priddy, who is in his late eighties, seems to prefer a bench midway along the wall. Some people, inexplicably, choose to sit on the pew near the bins, even when they don’t have to. The rack of CAMRA magazines at the other end of the bench from our favourite seat seems to lure lone drinkers. And Big Bantering Lads generally prefer standing along the centre bench.

We wonder what psychological factors impact on where people like to sit. Proximity to the bar? The ease of inviting others to share their table? The appeal of nesting by the warmth of the radiator? Being able to see who’s entering in case you need to escape?

Beyond the psychological, there’s the physical: some people like hard seats, others soft ones, while some daren’t sit down at all for fear of seizing up. If you have to nip out for a cigarette every five minutes, that uncomfortable perch in bin corner might seem more appealing.

In our case, it’s probably that we’re used to going into a range of pubs and have got into the habit of finding the ‘safest’ spot – one where we’re least likely to draw attention to ourselves which gives us some control over interactions with staff and other customers. We’ll end up at a similar seat, at a similar table, almost anywhere.

Which is your favourite spot in your favourite pub, and why? (Any seat in any pub looks pretty good at this point, mind you.)

Beer styles real ale

The BADRAG effect – a choice of milds

Do you know how nice it is to be able to go into your local two nights in a row and order a decent ordinary dark mild?

Bristol and District Rare Ales Group, or BADRAG, campaigns for wider availability of stout, porter, old ale and mild. This year, hacked off with the madness of May as CAMRA’s official month of mild, it decided to launch its own bonus mild event in November, when dark beer has much more appeal.

As that happened to coincide with a beer festival at The Drapers Arms, we were treated to something remarkable on Saturday: a choice of three milds.

Sarah Hughes Ruby Mild is a classic, of course, but at 6%, not one you can settle on. No, the beer that caught our eye (and Ray’s especially) was Future Proof, a 3.3% traditional dark mild from Bristol Beer Factory.

We’ve got a soft spot for this well-established Bristol brewery even though, as one of our fellow drinkers put it, “They’re having some sort of midlife crisis at the moment”, no longer being hip or new.

With that in mind, dark mild is an interesting choice. We’d like to think it suggests confidence – so we’re middle-aged, deal with it – but it might just be the BADRAG effect.

Tasting notes on mild, like tasting notes on ordinary lager, can be a struggle, like trying to write poetry about council grit bins. Good mild is enjoyable and functional but, by its nature, unassuming, muted and mellow.

Still, let’s have a go: dark sugars and prune juice, the body of bedtime cocoa, hints of Welsh-cake spice, and with just enough bite and dryness to make one pint follow naturally into the next.

It’s a really great example of this endangered style, in line with the best of the output from the old family breweries.

Is mild ‘back’? Is a great revival underway? Well, probably not – you win some, you lose some – but it feels like good news that we’ve been able to manage two sessions on mild in the past month without making a special effort.