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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.

Categories
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.

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pubs

Filton in the Merrineum

Filton is and isn’t part of Bristol, out on a limb where the city fades into country via mile after mile of suburb, in the land of aircraft hangars and road junctions. It certainly isn’t famous for its pubs.

We’ve passed through many times, either on foot or on the bus, and noticed the shortage. Some, we guess, have disappeared, converted to other uses, like the George VI, built in the 1930s and now a DIY centre.

Others were never built, we suppose, perhaps because Rolls Royce, Bristol and other aerospace giants had their own on-site social clubs.

Nonetheless, with our duty to visit #EveryPubInBristol in mind, we set out in the bleak days between Christmas and New Year to explore as many as possible of those that do exist.

Air Balloon interior.

First, the most prominent and visible of them all, The Air Balloon, a Greene King pub on the big roundabout next to the Airbus site. It looks like a typical 1960s pub building – sparse and modern but with, as usual, a few bits of faux-Victorian detail glued on top.

Though hardly our kind of place – every bit of character there might have been has been buffed out by the corporate makeover – it had more buzz, better beer and warmer welcome than we expected.

In the absence of a local Wetherspoon, that’s the function it seems to perform, offering reasonably-priced fast food and space for large parties to dine and drink together. There was even a corner, in front of the TV, for a handful of older, harder drinkers to bash down pints and grumble at each other.

Like Dorian Gray’s painting in the attic, though, the gents toilets perhaps revealed the true soul of the place: foul-smelling, strewn with bloody tissues, battered and broken. All the Live, Love, Laugh decor in the world can’t compensate for that.

The Plough (exterior)
The Plough (sign)

A few doors up, there’s The Plough, which isn’t part of a chain and is certainly characterful. Low-lit to the point of gloominess, slightly tacky to the touch, with evidence of a governing force. In this case, we gathered from snatches of conversation behind the bar and the astonishing range of vodkas on offer, a Pole.

You know how sometimes you approach a pub and can tell everyone is thinking, “Hello, hello, what have we got here?” The Plough was like that. Not unfriendly, just… curious, or perhaps even sceptical.

The interesting looking cask Citra pale ale from Severn was off but their keg session IPA was on, and decent enough.

At the bar, middle-aged couples gathered to exchange notes on Christmas. A young woman fed the jukebox and lined up one 1990s rave tune after another. Pool balls clicked and smacked.

We sort of liked it. We’ll probably never go again.

Inside the Bristol Concorde.
Bristol Concorde, exterior.

For completeness, and with great reservations, we decided we had to investigate The Bristol Concorde, a Brewery’s Fayre in the shopping centre. We hoped it wouldn’t count as a pub – that it would so obviously be an anonymous hotel bar that we could just skip it. But it has a unique name, a bar, cask ale… It passes the test.

It was bleak.

Like a waiting area, or furniture showroom, or old people’s home.

We wallowed in it, looking out over the bland backside of the Premier Inn as dusk fell, knowing that we’d be able to leave soon enough for what we suspected would be the most interesting of the lot.

Ratepayer's Arms (exterior)
Ratepayer's Arms (bar)

The Ratepayer’s Arms is a council-owned pub occupying a corner of the local recreation centre.

It’s an odd place. If you look towards the bar, it feels much like any other social club with plenty of charming clutter, pickled eggs, rolls and drinkers clustered round the bar. Look the other way, though, and it’s all blank walls and municipal fixtures and fittings.

Still, the welcome was notably warm, nobody paid us the slightest attention – just how we like it – and we enjoyed the buzz of local gossip and, inevitably, bitter criticism of the quality of Boeing aircraft these days.

“Fancy a crawl?” someone asked. “We could go up The Bristol Concorde after this one.”

Everybody laughed at this absurd suggestion.

There are lots of houses in the area and the pubs there are were certainly busy, which made us think the area could certainly support a micropub or two. In fact, we bet there’ll be one before the end of 2021.

Categories
20th Century Pub pubs

Running the numbers: is it a pub?

One of the most frequently asked questions about #EveryPubInBristol is how we define a pub. This is hard to answer beyond ‘We know one when we see one’.

But we thought we might try to be a bit more scientific and come up with a scoring system.

As a starting point, we took CAMRA’s guidelines, most recently updated in May 2019:

The licensed premises must:

[1] be open to and welcome the general public without requiring membership or residency and without charging for admission (a);

[2] serve at least one draught beer or cider (b);

[3] allow drinking without requiring food to be consumed, and have at least one indoor area not laid out for meals; and

[4] allow customers to buy drinks at a bar (c) without relying on table service.’

[a] except when entertainment is provided on limited occasions, when an entry charge may apply.

[b] includes cask or keg beer or cider. References to ‘cider’ should be read as ‘cider and perry’.

[c] includes service from a hatch or specific service point.

This offers a helpful baseline, effectively weeding out clubs, dedicated music venues and restaurants.

However, under this definition, something which we would instinctively call a cafe would comfortably fit and, indeed, venues of this type do make it into the Good Beer Guide from time to time.

Bristol is particularly blessed with cafes that are open until well into the evening, serving draught beer, including real ale, so it’s not outrageous but, still… They’re not pubs.

We sourced some more ideas on Twitter (months ago – this really has taken a long time to digest) and then constructed a spreadsheet for scoring.

It includes things like carpet, whether there are tablecloths, the history of the building, whether it’s part of a chain, and so on, amounting to 24 criteria in total.

Next, we tested it by feeding in a few pubs we know are definitely pubs, a handful of establishments that definitely aren’t, and everything in between.

What we’ve ended up with is a scoring system that offers four outcomes:

  • Not a pub | 19 or less
  • Possibly a pub | 20 to 39
  • Probably a pub | 40 to 59
  • Definitely a pub | 60 or more

A maximum score of 100 is possible.

For #EveryPubInBristol, we’re ticking definitelys and probablys, but won’t go out of our way for possiblys.

It’s important to note that the scores are not about the quality of a pub, or intended as criticisms of places that aren’t pubs – it’s fine to be a bar. It’s just an attempt to evaluate the essence of pubbiness.

In particular, we’re trying to work out what typical pubs have that typical cafes don’t, such as fruit machines, a mixture of standing and sitting, and so on.

And we’re doing this for our own benefit, primarily – do we need to trek to the far end of the opposite corner to visit this place, or can we get away without the hour-long bus ride?

We should also point out that we have only designed this with the English pub in mind, and our weightings may not be right for pubs elsewhere in the UK, let alone pub-type establishments in the rest of the world.

We, like CAMRA, have a fairly low bar for entry: somewhere serving draught beer in pints from a counter is already across the ‘possibly a pub’ mark (unless it has traditional cafe opening hours, for example), and cask ale and the right name or decor will tip it into the ‘probably’ zone.

When we shared a version of this post with our Patreon subscribers last week, there was a gentle challenge on carpet. That’s a good example of a marginal indicator of pubbiness to which we’ve given low weighting in the scoring system. On its own, carpet probably won’t rule out most pubs, or tip non-pubs over the line.

However, we’re sure there are further tweaks that can be made.

So, with that in mind, have a play with this Google Docs spreadsheet and let us know how well it works with pubs in your town.

You’ll have to make a copy (Sign in to Google > File > Make a copy) but then you’ll be free to play around as much as you like, adding or removing criteria, or changing the weighting to your liking.

Try to break the scoring system — find a place you know is a pub that our scoring system doesn’t rank, or a place that definitely isn’t a pub (a curry house with cask ale, a cafe) that does.

If you don’t have a Google account or don’t want to use a spreadsheet, here’s a text version so you can tot it up however you prefer.

Is it part of a chain?
Some or complete chain branding; name of chain prominently displayed on signage. Pubcos and breweries are not chains for this purpose.
If yes, -5 points

Tablecloths
On some or all tables
If yes, -5 points

Cakes on the bar
If yes, -5 points

Primary purpose of establishment is something else
E.g. hotel, bowling alley, music club
If yes, -5 points

Closed at least one day a week
If yes, -5 points

Bar and bar service
Or service hatch
If yes, +10 points

Mixture of standing and seating
If yes, +10 points

Traditional pub name
Assessor’s judgement
If yes, +5 points

In a historical pub building
If yes, +5 points

Has one or more guv’nors
I.e. someone who owns it or manages it closely – you know their names
If yes, +10 points

Has locals/regulars
Regular customers who know each other only via the pub
If yes, +10 points

Carpet
Partial or throughout
If yes, +2 points

Mixed furniture
I.e. chairs don’t all match
If yes, +4 points

Bric-a-brac
If yes, +4 points

Beermats
If yes, +5 points

At least one of Dartboard, pool table or fruit machine
If yes, +5 points

Pre-packaged snacks
Crisps, nuts, pork scratchings, Scampi Fries, or similar; not cakes
If yes, +5 points

Draught beer
If yes, +5 points

Cask ale
If yes, +10 points

Serves pints
If yes, +10 points

Eating compulsory
If yes, immediate disqualification

Need to be a member to enter
If yes, immediate disqualification

No alcoholic drinks
If yes, immediate disqualification