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bristol pubs

We’ve been to 300 Bristol Pubs (at last)

On Thursday night we quietly ticked over another milestone: we’ve now visited 300 different pubs in Bristol.

Our pace has definitely slowed. It took six months to do 100 pubs, 2 years to do 200, and it’s been six and half in total to get to 300. 

Now, of course, there were two COVID years in the middle of that.

And what we found in the first year or so after COVID was that we wanted to check in on all of our favourite pubs rather than tick new ones. And there are a lot of good pubs in Bristol. 

But even accounting for all that, it’s been a slow journey to 300. But not unenjoyable.

Part of the reason for the slow down is that we’re now mostly down to pubs that are scattered out in the distant suburbs.

They’re a pain to get to and present fewer options for crawls.

We hit upon a good formula immediately post-COVID: one new pub, a revisit of somewhere we’ve been to once, and an old favourite.

The problem is, this resulted in us discovering some new, er, old favourites, such as The Old Bookshop and the revived King’s Head.

As a result, we became even less likely to explore new pubs with these gems beckoning.

Further observations on local pub culture

We wouldn’t change much from our observations in 2019 when we were reflecting on the first 200 pubs, despite the upheaval caused by COVID.

From a quick skim through the spreadsheet we would say that in Bristol there are more openings than (permanent) closings, and the vast majority of pubs still have at least one cask ale on.

The Pied Horse in St. George, for example, is a down-to-earth neighbourhood pub where everyone seemed to be drinking lager and cider. And yet there was cask Bass on the bar, tasting as good as it gets.

Perhaps some of the suburban pubs feel a bit tattier. Maybe there are more people drinking cheap cans of Coors or Natch than there used to be.

And a couple of pubs we’ve been to lately felt cold and damp, as if they’d switched off the heating to save money.

But, overall, it doesn’t feel as if there’s been a total collapse of local pub culture.

It’s also interesting that some pubs have become pubbier, or reverted to their essential pubbiness, shutting their kitchens and focusing more on cask ale.

In our first year or two of ticking Bristol pubs, we often ended up drinking pints in the corners of what felt like restaurants, to all intents and purposes. That hasn’t happened for a while.

We were going to write about how we intend to finish the mission in 2024 – but then we remember thinking at the start of 2020 that there wouldn’t be long to go, and look at what happened then.

A reminder of the rules

We have this spreadsheet to help determine if it’s a pub and therefore whether we need to tick it.

To count as ‘a visit’ both of us have to be there, and at least one of us needs to drink something alcoholic.

‘Bristol’ in this context is the unitary authority of Bristol plus any settlement not separated from the city by a field – so a good chunk of South Gloucestershire is included.

And to prevent arguments about the various settlements along the A30, it’s bounded by the M4 to the north.

We don’t have a definitive list or know how many we’ve got to go, but we know it’s at least 20, and suspect it’s more likely to be around 50.

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bristol pubs

Our pub statistics for January 2023

We’ve rebooted our approach to logging pub visits for 2023 so we can over-analyse our behaviour with even greater accuracy.

Jess in particular has always been keen on logging things – cash spent, books read, miles walked and run, miles of yarn in the knitting stash, the contents of the larder…

So, when we first moved to Bristol, she started logging our pub visits on a spreadsheet, mostly so we could keep track of our #EveryPubInBristol project.

But it also meant we could produce reasonably detailed stats on our pub-going habits.

For example, see this piece of ancient history from 2019, when we were two years into the exercise:

We have logged 516 pub visits in total.

Almost 30% of these were to our local, The Drapers Arms.

We have visited 216 different pubs.

Reading it through made us think about how much has changed since then, both in terms of pubs (“The likelihood of finding mild is almost zero.”) and our habits.

We’ve moved across town, for starters, so The Drapers is now almost an hour away as opposed to a 3-minute walk.

Our data gathering also went screwy during COVID.

There would be months of nothing, and then further months in which we prioritised places with outdoor space.

And we’d got out of the habit of logging pub visits so couldn’t always be sure our data was accurate.

In our sheer glee at being back at a particular pub for the first time in perhaps a year, did we always think to tippy-tap it into our spreadsheet? Maybe not.

With that in mind, we started a fresh spreadsheet in January 2023, and we’ve now got a month’s worth of data to look at.

Here’s an initial snapshot.

  • In January we made 18 pub visits in Bristol, with a further 9 on a long weekend in London.
  • The Bristol visits cover 15 different pubs.
  • Our only repeat visits were to The Swan With Two Necks (×3) and The Barley Mow (×2).
  • We only ticked two new pubs in January 2023, The Bulldog and The Green House, although that’s better than some months in 2022.

What might be behind these numbers?

We were quarantining before Christmas and therefore keen to visit pubs all over the city, once we were free.

And, though we don’t have a local, because our neighbourhood is publess, both of our most visited pubs are about 20 minutes walk away.

So, local-ish.

It’ll be interesting to see which does end up as our most visited pub by the end of the year and thus our non-local.

As for new pubs, there’s an obvious problem there: most of the pubs we haven’t yet visited are on their own in far-flung suburbs.

That means we have to make a special effort to visit them, walking for hours or battling with Bristol’s awful public transport. (And some of those pubs don’t look terribly exciting, either.)

The spreadsheet only includes pub visits, by the way, so trips to Lost and Grounded and other tap rooms aren’t logged. Not yet, anyway.

Maybe it’s time we accepted that we sort of do like taprooms after all, especially when they’re the very nearest places to get a pint.

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bristol pubs

When it comes to pubs, you’ve got to have a system

When you’re faced with overwhelming choice, you need a strategy. Last weekend, we adapted an approach that’s worked with Belgian beer lists to help us choose which pubs to visit.

For beer, it goes like this:

  1. drink something completely new to us
  2. something we’ve not drunk for a long time
  3. and one that’s a stone cold classic

In category two you’ll often find things like Charles Quint or the various Duvel knockoffs. They’re beers we don’t remember especially fondly, or at all.

Category three is where you find Duvel itself, Westmalle Tripel, de la Senne, De Ranke, and so on.

This really works for us as it balances our desire to try new things with our increasing unwillingness to waste alcohol units on something we have to slog through – especially when the best beer in the world is so readily available.

For pubs, we hoped, the same might hold true.

We still have between 50 and 100 new pubs to visit for our #EveryPubInBristol challenge. Covid killed our momentum on this and we’ve been struggling to pick it up again.

The problem is, they’re increasingly far flung; rarely near each other (or, indeed any other pubs at all); and, let’s be honest, not particularly attractive from the outside. 

However, we probably do better at visiting completely new pubs than revisiting ones that for whatever reason we just didn’t click with.

There’s been many a time when we’ve finished a visit to a new pub, and said something like “That was fine, wasn’t it? If we lived round here we’d come here more often.”

Which means, in practice, that we never go again.

But pubs do change ownership and direction, sometimes for worse, sometimes very much for better, and we know we could be missing out on some newly-polished gems by sticking to reliable favourites.

To put the theory into practice, we planned a trip to Southville which would include The Avon Packet (new to us), The Old Bookshop (we went once in 2018) and then a city centre favourite, to be confirmed based on how the afternoon had gone.

This was a great success.

We’d heard various positives about The Avon Packet even though it doesn’t look all that welcoming from the wrong side of the heavy net curtains. Anything could be going on in there.

We came in as the server was part way through the biggest bank holiday lager-and-chaser order of all time. That gave us time to take in the decor, barely changed from the photo in our 1975 pub guide.

Of key interest to us was the mirrored Bass box on the bar because the pub is famous for its Bristol-style (flat) Bass.

Flat Bass (Ray) and creamy Guinness (Jess) duly obtained we went out into the unexpectedly huge and bird-filled garden. There is a duck enclosure and, possibly due to the supply of feed, a deafening chatter of birds from the nearby hedge.

The atmosphere was great and the pub very much ‘proper’ making this yet another great example of why we do #EveryPubInBristol – to make sure we don’t overlook hidden gems through sheer laziness or cowardice.

The Old Bookshop.

When we visited The Old Bookshop almost four years ago we wrote a note: “Is it a pub? More like a cool bar in Kazimierz.” (Think Krakow’s answer to Shoreditch.) We can’t remember what we drank but the fact we didn’t write anything down suggests it didn’t especially grab us. 

We’d heard the offer had been revamped, however, so were hopeful of an interesting round or two. But we weren’t expecting to like it as much as we did.

We’d assumed that the relaunch of a bar in trendy Southville might mean more cans from breweries like Deya and Cloudwater – not our thing.

We were totally wrong.

What we found was a small, well-curated and varied beer list, including Tegernsee Helles, De Ranke XX, a cask beer from Elusive, and an enormous range of lovingly described ciders and, er, mezcals.

It isn’t cheap. Tegernsee was towards £6 a pint, for example. But there is a house ale at just over £4 and third-of-a-pint measures are available. More to the point, a lot of thought and care has clearly gone into this list and its presentation.

The place had been opened out, too. There’s now some pavement seating and a lot more air and light inside. The bar is, still, slightly bizarrely, an old piano.

We stayed for a second round and considered a third, thus immediately promoting it into the category three. Wanting to complete our plan, however, we headed into town to the Llandoger Trow.

This is a pub that has similarly made the transition for us from ‘once in a blue moon’ to regular haunt.

It’s fascinating because the crowd is the same as before, and the location puts it squarely on the route of stag dos and pub crawls, but the beer offer is probably the best in Bristol right now in terms of range.

Lager is a speciality, in all its forms, including Märzens, Weissbiers and Dunkels.

There’s enough local keg to keep visitors happy but also four real ale taps, usually including at least one northern classic. This time it was Plum Porter. That promise will keep us coming back for a good while yet.

https://twitter.com/BoakandBailey/status/1482774221285699585
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pubs

Every Pub In Bristol: the new, the remixed and the uncounted

It didn’t feel right to resume our #EveryPubInBristol quest until restrictions were lifted in full.

Even now, almost two months later, it’s not clear if we’re really getting a sense of any new-to-us pubs, based on our experiences of going back to pubs we do know well.

But then we thought, well, the point of this exercise isn’t to make a value judgement. We’re not reviewing.

And in the beforetimes, we wouldn’t necessarily visit a place at the ‘right’ time to really understand it and its place in the community – just whenever we happened to be in the neighbourhood.

So, we’re now back on the trail.

Our first tick since October 2020 was The Langton, in St Annes, which we mentioned in this post about grey makeovers, and which might be a candidate for our new local. 

However, we felt it almost didn’t count as a real tick as Ray had been before, both before and after its refurbishment. (Our rule is that both of us have to be present at the visit and at least one of us must have an alcoholic drink.) Still, that did mean we had a sense of what normal felt like.

Our first experience of jointly crossing the threshold a definitely new-to-both-of-us pub came a few weeks later, at The Wackum Inn. 

This was a great reminder of the point of the #EveryPubInBristol project.

A Greene King pub on a main road in an unprepossessing suburb we don’t know well wouldn’t seem especially appealing.

We were greeted at the bar by a very friendly team, however, and had a great pint of Greene King IPA (no, really) while the music ramped up to mark the transition from Saturday afternoon football to Saturday evening party mode.

There was a range of ages, from children hovering around the pool table to well-groomed youths to older folk watching the football or comparing tans.

It struck us as a well run pub with a guvn’ing couple (we think) working very hard to make sure their place has something to offer everyone while retaining some kind of distinct community character.

It’s given us quite the taste for more ticking.

***

One of our occasional debates is whether a refurbishment or a reopening after a long period closed counts as a new tick.

A visit to the newly-reopened Llandoger Trow sparked the argument anew.

Last time we visited, it was essentially a dingy Premier Inn breakfast room with far too many people in it and yet, somehow, zero atmosphere.

It’s now under the ownership of the Euston Tap team. It has been stripped right back and now feels a lot like a European multi-roomed beer hall – an impression underlined by the seriously impressive lager list.

It’s quite a change, in both mood and offer, but we decided it didn’t count as a new tick because, fundamentally, it’s the same type of business: an establishment on one of the most popular drinking runs in the city.

We’re delighted to have a place in town that takes good lager seriously but we suspect most of the clientele would go there whatever they sold, crawling in one direction or another.

***

We’ve been visiting tap rooms a lot this year, including some new ones. They don’t usually count as pub ticks because when applying the Is it a Pub? test, they usually fall into the ‘possibly’ rather than ‘probably’ category.

And we don’t tend to write about them much on the blog because, well, if we’re honest, most are kind of similar, with similar customers and similar weedy IPAs. We’ve simply always preferred pubs. 

However, new to us this year, and now one of our most regular haunts, is the Lost & Grounded tap room.

This is partly because of proximity to our house, partly because it has a large outdoor space that seems to always have a table free, but mostly because of some (usually) excellent Continental style beers.

It’s still not a pub, though. Maybe we need an #EveryTapRoomInBristol hashtag, too? And #EverySocialClub, while we’re at it. Short on pubs though it may be, our new neighbourhood has a few of these to explore.

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20th Century Pub bristol pubs

A gap where the pubs should be

Our exploration of Bristol has been biased towards the north where we live so, in an effort to address that, we decided to take a bus as far south as possible and then walk back.

Or at least, that was the intention, but we were seduced by the sexy new Metro Bus M1 with its phone chargers and free wi-fi so ended up in Hengrove Park, which isn’t quite as far south as Bristol goes. It’s still terra very much incognita for us, though.

Preliminary research indicated we probably wouldn’t find much in the way of targets for #EveryPubInBristol.

We expected a lot of Sizzling Horse chain pubs in retail parks, then a bit of a gap before getting back into the much more heavily-pubbed areas of Bedminster and Totterdown.

We began at The Wessex Flyer, a Brewer’s Fayre attached to a Premier Inn, on the other side of Hengrove Park from the shiny new hospital and college. It pleasingly over-delivered, managing to feel more pub-like than The Bristol Concorde and with Proper Job on in decent condition.

Why did this one feel more like a pub?

Possibly because there was a partition for eating (‘Please wait to be seated’) which concentrated the drinkers in one corner. There were only a few punters in, watching the football mostly, but they were gathered together which made it feel more lively. The staff were also way more pleasant than they had any need to be – human beings who talked to us like human beings.

We then went for a long walk across the pub desert that is Knowle West.