From my previous post you might get the impression that British beer these days is all new world hops, weird ingredients and unfamiliar styles, but that's far from the case. On my few days in Bristol last month I found the home fires to be very much still burning.
The nearest pub to my hotel was The Shakespeare Tavern, a homely little traditional boozer with big screen sports sports and lager for the regulars down the back, and a cosy front parlour for tourists like me. "Shakespeare Bitter" said one of the pumpclips and I'm reasonably certain this is Greene King's House Ale, known by a number of localised names across the brewery's large estate. It's an absolutely standard twiggy brown bitter, all plums and Ready Brek. Solid if unstimulating stuff; enjoyable for the first pint but I was very happy to switch to Tribute after.
Independence Ale caught my eye when I spotted it on the bar -- it's one of those semi-guest beers Wetherspoon regularly brings American brewers to Britain to make: this time it's Devils Backbone at Banks's. 4.7% ABV, a medium gold colour and lovely wafts of sherbet and bubblegum followed by lovely flavours of honeydew and watermelon, turning even sweeter in the finish, towards canned peaches. I liked it, though it may be a bit sweet for most fans of US pale ale. I'd direct them a couple of taps over to Phoenix's West Coast, one of those classic tangy marmalade-ish English IPAs. Or a can of Sixpoint. It's all good.
So we've done Greene King, we've done Wetherspoon, that leaves one more bastion of plain English drinking, the grand-daddy of them all: Samuel Smith. We go back to King Street to find The King William Ale House, almost lost next to the other showy pubs on the stretch. It's surprisingly roomy inside and was rarely in want of customers as I was passing. But I was determined to finally have a go at their legendary Pure Brewed Lager and achieved that on a Sunday afternoon just as I was on my way to the airport. "Pure" is a valid marketing term: it's a limpid crystal gold, albeit with masses of fizz. The flavour is super crisp, all crunchy husky grains with just a handful of fun fruity extras: a bit of peach, perhaps. We're not in Munich here, nor Vienna nor Berlin, but Tadcaster will do just fine.
The range of house beers in the King William is prodigious, the illuminated cubic keg fonts stretching far along the bar. Sovereign Bitter was one I'd never seen before, though I'm sure it's hardly new. "New" isn't really a word in Mr. Smith's vocabulary. It's a rose gold colour and smells toffeeish. Malt-forward in the flavour, but barely even that. Not a patch on the more usual Old Brewery Bitter, and even that isn't exactly a world beater. Still, the authentic 1970s vibe you only get in a Samuel Smith house is part of the English beer experience not to be missed.
I took one side trip out of Bristol during my stay, to the picturesquee town of Bath. It's not exactly crawling with fine drinking opportunities, especially for those of us who aren't fans of the ubiquitous Bath Ales. But I did have a very pleasant lunch in the upstairs room of The Raven of Bath, a poky little pub entirely in keeping with the town's cutesy vibe. Their two house beers are brewed by Blindman's Brewery. Raven Gold is a straightforward 4%-er, smelling Lucozade-like of fake fruit with a springy sherbet and mandarin zip to the front followed by a sterner bitter finish. Quality sessionable stuff. On the dark side, Raven Ale is a Hobgoblinish chocolate-driven ale, a dark garnet colour rather than raven-black and 4.7% ABV. Unexciting, perhaps, but a great match for my game pie.
We'll stay in the West Country for the next post, but don't expect anything twiggy.