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

Six new-to-us Bristol pubs in one day

Our #EveryPubInBristol mission had begun to stagnate a little with hardly any new ticks in weeks. Then, the Saturday before last, we managed six new pubs in one go. As ever, this concerted attack was eye-opening.

We started at The Assembly in Bedminster, a huge pub with the football on at ear-bursting volume and a sense that it was drowsing, just waiting for Saturday night to kick off. The kind of place where the woodwork has teeth-marks. Jess’s half of Doom Bar came in a dainty stem glass, though, and didn’t taste bad.

The Windmill

The contrast between this and the next pub, up Windmill Hill on the other side of the railway line, was powerful. The Windmill feels like the kind of place you might find in a middle class outer London suburb, all scrubbed wood, burgers and jazz. The couple on the table next to us seemed to be on holiday in Bristol and had apparently come out of their way to get to this particular pub – is it in a foreign travel guide, maybe? It’s for sale, we hear, which might explain the faintly gloomy mood. Overall, we liked it, even if it did seem to be looking at us down its nose, just a touch.

The Rising Sun

At the top of the hill, The Rising Sun appealed to us immediately: a Victorian orphan alongside a modernist tower block, windswept by default, it brought to mind the Cumberland at Byker. Inside, we found a lampshade pub with plush seating and kitsch details. Bluegrass music played on the stereo and the young publican told us he was a musician. Bohemian might be a good word for this pub and we can imagine detouring to get to it again.

The Brunel

Things went downhill after this, literally, as we tottered down a tatty alleyway between terraced houses to The Brunel, AKA The Engineers Arms – a huge pub extended or rebuilt in the 1920s, despite its supposed 1897 founding date. It’s a Greene King joint so you can probably picture it with 80% accuracy if you’ve ever been in another anywhere else in the country. But we liked the cheerful staff, the stained glass windows and the remains of the old multi-room structure: the real drinkers were in what was obviously the Public. It’s not our kind of place but there was certainly a buzz.

The Victoria Park

Next stop was The Victoria Park, a somewhat famous gastropub in 1990s style, with Michelin stickers and more. We didn’t expect to like it but the hillside beer garden and Edwardian exterior were hard to resist, and inside we had no trouble finding a corner to drink in. The other customers were mostly exhausted parents rocking pushchairs or bouncing babies on their chests. This one, we thought, would fit an upmarket resort in Devon or Cornwall, and the beer was mostly Devonian, as it happened.

The Star & Dove on the edge of Victoria Park has a fascinating story. Ray’s been before, with his brother, when it was a full-on gastropub with slow-cooked pork belly and so on. That venture folded, though, and in the space of a year or two, it’s reverted to being a normal, down-to-earth drinking pub with somewhat harsh lighting and the downstairs dining room locked. The internet seems generally confused about whether it is still trading (it definitely is) and whether it still has food at all – sometimes, we think? Still, not often you encounter de-gentrification these days.

There’s something about this particular approach, every pub, that really makes sense of the scene as a whole and how things fit together. Posh pubs are uphill, less fancy ones at the bottom; chains are sometimes where the action is; and there’s almost no pub that’s not OK for at least one round on a Saturday afternoon.

Two years, two hundred pubs

We’ve now been in Bristol for two years and have logged every single official Pub Visit since arriving.

We started doing this mostly to remind ourselves where we’d been for the sake of #EveryPubInBristol, but also decided to log subsequent visits to each pub, providing us with an interesting data set revealing our habits and favourites.

Our definition of a Pub Visit for this purpose is that it has to be a pub, both of us have to be there, and at least one of us has to have an alcoholic drink.

(We’ll return to the subject of what makes a pub in a separate blog post, as this exercise has given us a real impetus to define it better.)

We have chosen to define Bristol as the unitary authority of Bristol, plus any bits that join up to it without a break. So the pubs of Kingswood and Filton (technically South Gloucestershire) are in, whereas the wonderful Angel Inn at Long Ashton isn’t because there is, for now, at least one open field in between the village and the ever-increasing spread of South Bristol.

Overall stats

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.

Our pace of visiting new pubs has slowed: we went to our first 100 in six months; our second 100 took a year; and we’ve only added 16 in the last six months.

This is partly because of geography – the pubs we haven’t yet visited are harder to get to and more spread out – but also because we’ve come across so many pubs that we like and want to revisit, rather than ticking new ones.

Here’s a list of all the pubs we’ve visited more than once.

Drapers Arms | 150
Wellington Arms | 16
Highbury Vaults | 16
Barley Mow | 15
Zero Degrees | 14
Brewdog | 13
Small Bar | 11
Inn On The Green | 10
Grain Barge | 10
Hillgrove Porter Stores | 9
The Old Fish Market | 7
Bottles And Books | 7
Merchants Arms | 6
The Volunteer Tavern | 6
The Orchard | 6
The Annexe | 6
The Bank | 5
Bristol Flyer | 4
Strawberry Thief | 4
The Good Measure | 4
Golden Lion | 3
Royal Oak | 3
Commercial Rooms | 3
The Canteen (Hamilton House) | 3
The Old Duke | 3
Snuffy Jacks | 3
Hobgoblin | 3
The Hare / The Leveret Cask House | 3
Colston Arms | 3
The Grace | 3
The Victoria | 3
Christmas Steps | 3
Corner 33 | 3
The Cottage Inn | 2
Nova Scotia | 2
The Bridge | 2
Pump House | 2
Mardyke | 2
Hare On The Hill | 2
White Lion | 2
Robin Hood | 2
The White Bear | 2
Beerd | 2
The Sidings | 2
Gloucester Road Ale House | 2
Kingsdown Vaults | 2
The Knights Templar (Spoons) | 2
The V Shed | 2
The Royal Naval Volunteer | 2
Bristol Brewery Tap | 2
St George’s Hall | 2
The Gryphon | 2
The Greenbank Tavern | 2
The Oxford | 2

Are they really your top pubs?

Mostly, yes.

Our top 10 includes two pubs that are there simply because they are close to our house – The Wellington and The Inn on the Green.

The Wellington scored particularly highly during last summer’s heatwave, because it has Sulis, Korev and reliable Prophecy. The others are all clear favourites of ours and appear in our guide to the best pubs in Bristol.

Porter
A pint of porter at The Good Measure.
If you’ve visited more than once, does that mean it’s good?

Not always. We’ve had one accidental second visit, to St George’s Hall, a soon-to-be-closing Wetherspoons, having forgotten we’d already been.

Sometimes a second visit might be to check out a change in ownership or offer.

It might also reflect convenience. The Knights Templar, AKA Hellspoons, is right by Temple Meads station and so a convenient stop before catching a train. Now the bridge to The Barley Mow has reopened, and The Sidings has decent Harvey’s Sussex Best, we don’t expect to need to go there again.

But three or more visits and it’s probably safe to say we like it. (Although we’ve fallen out with the Hare in Bedminster now it’s the Leveret Cask House.)

Not quite science

Of course the keeping of this information distorts our behaviour from time to time.

If we’ve got a choice between two pubs, we’ll sometimes pick the one we think ‘deserves’ to be higher up the rankings. And we occasionally give a pub a swerve because it feels as if it’s coming higher up the charts than it ought to.

It’s still an expression of preference but… Well, it’s complicated.

Wishful thinking

There are certainly some pubs that would be higher up the list if they were easier for us to get to.

The thing is, your local is your local. Part of the magic of pubs like The Oxford in Totterdown or The Plough at Easton is that they reflect and serve the communities they’re in.

We’ll drop in if we’re in the area, and sometimes daydream about how nice it would be if we did live nearby, but it would be daft for us to schlep across town to go there every week because… We’ve got a local. One that’s, you know, local.

We wouldn’t necessarily expect these pubs to creep up the rankings in the next year, even though they are excellent.

Pubs such as The Good Measure, on the other hand, probably will, because they offer something distinct we can’t get close to home.

(And in that particular case, it’s reasonably handy for the Highbury Vaults so makes a good end to a St Michael’s Hill crawl).

Some thoughts on Bristol pubs

In general, Bristol pubs are good.

They tend to be friendly, even if they don’t always look it.

They’re extremely varied – hippy hangouts, old boys boozers, gastropubs, craft beer exhibitions, backstreet gems, family hangouts, and so on.

They mostly have real ale, even those that might not if they were in any other city. We reckon we’ve counted three (four if you think BrewDog is a pub) that didn’t have anything at all on offer.

They’re loyal to local beer, even if there’s no single dominant historic city brewery.

Your chances of finding Bass, Courage Best, Butcombe or some other classic bitter are very high. The likelihood of finding mild is almost zero. Hoppy beers tend to be hazy, soft and sweet. (Not that we’re grumbling but we do sometimes crave paler, drier beers of the northern variety.)

And we’re still finding good pubs: we only visited The Annexe for the first time late last year; The Coronation in Bedminster we discovered for the first time a couple of months back. No doubt in the final hundred or so there will be a few more crackers.

We’re not as scientific about cataloguing pub openings and closures as the local CAMRA team in the excellent Pints West magazine but our feeling is that pubs are not closing as fast as they were and that more pubs or other drinking establishments are emerging.

Unsurprisingly, reflecting national trends, pubs are more at risk in poorer areas, and are (re) opening in wealthier or ‘up and coming’ parts of the city.

Final thoughts

This has made us think hard about what makes pubs attractive to us – although granted, we’re not necessarily typical customers.

Yes, it’s important for pubs to have a unique selling point to stand out (that’s the pub with the heavy metal, or eight types of cider, or amazing cheese rolls) but, when it comes down to it, our drinking habits are primarily influenced by convenience.

We suspect that’s fairly universal.

The Distant Gleam of a Backstreet Pub

There’s something Narnia-magical about looking along a silent terraced street at night and seeing a corner pub throwing its light out over wet asphalt.

You know the feeling – walking up the centre of the road because there’s no traffic, TV light flickering behind curtains here and there, and the sound of your boots crunching and echoing in the quiet.

It’s special, too, because by our reckoning, after pubs on housing estates, this is the most endangered species.

Last Saturday we made a concerted effort to ‘tick’ a few pubs for our #EveryPubInBristol mission and so ended up in Totterdown, across the river from Temple Meads, wandering among rows of humble Victorian houses.

Sign: "Booze, food, tables & chairs".

Our first target was The Shakespeare, a pub we gathered from the 1975 guide was once a bit naughty…

The pub that one of us came very close to being beaten up at… [but] pub guide writers can run faster than nice young men with Nazi badges!

It looked mysterious and inviting, like one of those West London mews pubs, hidden from casual punters. To find it, you’ve got to live in the neighbourhood, or be hunting for it, or be a bit of an explorer.

Inside, it’s all scrubbed wood and mild gastro tendencies, but by no means pretentious: “Unfined? We don’t sell that hazy shit here.”

Less than a minute’s walk away, deeper into the maze, there’s the curiously named New Found Out – another corner, another spill of yellow, but also an air of mischief.

It was plain, bright, and lively in that way which makes it hard to quite relax. But, still, there was a bloke reading Brian Aldiss between puffs on his asthma inhaler, and everyone seemed friendly enough, even if we did feel as if we were drawing a few stares.

The Oxford in half darkness.

Our final pub, The Oxford, wasn’t quite on a backstreet, but was hardly on the main road either. We felt like Goldilocks here: if the first pub was too posh, and the second too rough-and-ready, The Oxford was just right.

It sat in the sweet spot between scuzzy and characterful, with a ska band, a lot of Spaniards, and a bloke in a pork pie hat who looked as though he’d been sat in the same seat since 1968.

Every Pub in Bristol: The First 100

Collage: Bristol pubs.

On moving to Bristol in the summer of 2017 we commenced a mission to visit every single pub in the city. This is what we’ve learned in the first six months.

Completely unsurprisingly, the pubs we visit most frequently are those near our house. We have (well, Jessica has) been keeping notes in a spreadsheet recording each visit which means with the click of a button we can see our most-visited pubs.

At number one, by a massive margin, is The Draper’s Arms — not only the nearest pub to our house by any measure but also, clearly, the best pub in the area and one of the best in the city. We’ve been there together 28 times (plus the odd solo visit for one or the other of us that doesn’t count for the purposes of this count) which equates to about once a week.

The Inn on the Green is at joint third with five visits; The Wellington joint fourth with four visits; and The Golden Lion joint fifth with three.

The Barley Mow near Temple Meads station is our clear second favourite with six visits — one a month — and it is indeed a pub with which we continue to be very taken.

In general, any pub we’ve visited more than once despite (a) this daft mission and (b) our general excitement at new turf to explore must have something going for it. So, without filtering or comment on individual pubs, here’s the complete list of those we’ve been to at least twice.

Draper’s Arms 28
Barley Mow 6
Inn on the Green 5
Grain Barge 5
Wellington Arms 4
Hillgrove Porter Stores 4
Golden Lion 3
BrewDog 3
The Old Fish Market 3
Snuffy Jacks 3
Highbury Vaults 3
Commercial Rooms (Wetherspoon) 2
The Canteen (Hamilton House) 2
The Strawberry Thief 2
The Bridge 2
The Mardyke 2
Zero Degrees 2

With more data we’d expect a proper top ten to emerge in the next six months and suspect some of those names will drop away from the lead group.

Capsule Reviews

Another column on the spreadsheet records in a few words our impression of each pub. These are great fun to write and sometimes a bit snarky (“nice beer, filthy glasses”) but their purpose is to help us recollect the pub months and hopefully even years after what might be one visit. We tested it last night (in pub #103) and it worked:

Marston’s without the Marston’s? The Pump House. Belgian brown cafe vibe? The Grace. Crazy folly, now a Flaming Grill? The Black Castle. Cosy, smells like a swimming pool? The Victoria. (It is next door to a lido.)

The Next Stretch

We’ve got no more local ticks so it’s bus rides and shoe leather from here on. At the moment there’s a long list of pubs we’ve seen or heard of and are keen to visit — The Post Office Tavern at Westbury on Trym, for example, AKA ‘The Pot at Wot’; The Seven Stars in the city centre which we visited before we moved to Bristol but haven’t been to since; and The Colosseum, a rare post-war survivor in Redcliffe.

Rather than let the less immediately inviting pubs pile up so that we have to slog through them at the end, we’re trying to get to them on the way. So far we’ve found that a lot of Bristol pubs which look dodgy from the outside are at worst fine, and at best very pleasant surprises — full of warmth and community feeling even if the face they show the world might suggest otherwise. Just in case, though, we’ve given ourselves a get out clause: if we’re made to feel unwelcome in some active way, we can count it as a tick without stopping for a drink.

FAQ

How many pubs are there in Bristol?
We don’t know exactly, and don’t need to know at this stage, but we’ve seen estimates of about 450 which feels about right.

How are you defining ‘pub’?
We’re not — we want to be flexible and retain the right to play it by ear. Having said that, if we can walk in off the street, buy draught beer without feeling obliged to order food, and take a seat without reserving a table, then it’s probably a pub. In other words, we’re going broad rather than narrow, including tap rooms, bars, social clubs, and maybe even some cafés.

What counts as Bristol?
We keep changing our minds but probably the Bristol Built-up Area. Again, this won’t become an issue for a while — there are plenty of obviously-in-Bristol pubs to tackle before we start worrying about marginal cases, but we do particularly want to tackle suburban pubs and those on the outskirts, while still finding some way to limit the challenge.