The strand of British brewing I'm looking at in the last of my posts from Bristol is the one that mostly ignores what has gone before, taking its cues from the brewing practices of other places.
The company at the forefront of that movement is BrewDog, whose rapidly spreading pub estate eschews cask ale and cosy fittings, going for a much starker style-conscious vibe. From the couple of visits I made to BrewDog Bristol I could tell that the style is backed up with plenty of substance: the staff being more service-oriented, more knowledgeable about beer and more generally pleasant to be around than those in the vast majority of traditional pubs. Special edition beer of the moment was Vote Sepp, a thin pink 3.4% ABV thirst-quencher tinted with hibiscus flowers. There's a nice red berry flavour which gradually builds, backed by light digestive biscuit malt. It's fun for as long as it takes to drain a half-pint but I wouldn't go much further than that.
Seeking a bit more substance I switched to Clown King, BrewDog's 12% ABV American style barley wine. It's alcohol all the way here, starting with the port-like aroma and continuing with the blast of boozy heat that scorches the back of the palate on swallowing. There's lots of heavy umami in the flavour, the only light relief coming from the cherry-chocolate liqueur notes. An acrid bitterness in the background suggests that the hops have been laid on almost as heavily as the malt. It's a little bit of a mess but, like Vote Sepp at the other end of the strength spectrum, enjoyable for one. Thankfully there are plenty of good, less extreme, options on tap at BrewDog Bristol.
Moving from BrewDog to Zero Degrees was like stepping back in time. Even though the chain only dates from 2000 and the Bristol branch is four years younger again, it feels like a period piece from a time before bare wood and distressed lettering, when iconoclastic British beer meant cavernous halls, bare concrete and steel gantries. The vast brewpub is built into the side of a hill overlooking Bristol city centre, the main floor area stretching away beneath your feet when you come in via the main entrance above it.
Before pale ales were the styles that upstart British breweries made their name on, it was all lagers and wheat beers. I'd enjoyed Zero Degrees Black Lager on a visit to their London branch some years ago and was pleased to see it is still in production, but it was Zero Degrees Mango Wheatbeer that really caught my eye this time. Sadly it's a bit of a half-hearted effort, all sticky-sweet fruit syrup, lacking a decent head and proper cleansing fizz. The aroma has some nice grainy notes, but any good beer flavour has been buried under the mango goop. There was a nod to contemporary beer fashion in the form of an American Rye ale: 5.2% ABV, dark red and this time completely headless. There's a little rye grassiness but also a surprising amount of chocolate in the flavour. It seems all about the malt until the finish when a bitter and acidic bite kicks in. It's the sort of beer that reminds me why I never used to like rye as an ingredient. A serious dose of hops is needed here.
And that's where we left Zero Degrees. It wasn't short of customers so maybe it can keep doing what it's doing, but I departed with the distinct impression of a speciality beer house that no longer offers what the speciality beer drinkers -- a bigger market than ever -- want to drink. Perhaps I should have had a black lager.
For a better take on the grungy faux-industrial pub style, I recommend The Grain Barge, about twenty minutes' walk along the river from the central harbour. It is, as the name suggests, a barge, and the drinking deck commands wonderful views across the water. It's one of a number of pubs owned and operated by Bristol Beer Factory. Two of their pale ales were on cask. Sunrise is a very light gold colour, 4.4% ABV and popping with bags of grapefruit zest and lime marmalade. The pith takes a little getting used to, but it's very drinkable once you're in. Beside it was Nova, a little darker though weaker at just 3.8% ABV. The aroma is all heavy tropical fruits: chew sweets and breakfast juice. There's a definite fullness to the body which adds weight to the bubblegum fruit flavours but which also leaves the bitterness very restrained. It's not a beer that holds the attention very well, however.
Bristol Beer Factory is well known for its stouts, with the Milk Stout being the one I've heard most about. The dryness in the aroma was a pleasant surprise here and there's lots of fruit in with the milk and the chocolate, strawberries in particular. The texture is super-smooth and while it's sweet this doesn't interfere at all with the drinkability. Belgian Conspiracy is BBF's saison, a dark hazy orange colour and a massive 7.5% ABV. The hallmark saison pepperiness is there (a hallmark missing in manys a modern saison; just saying) and there's a Duvel-like gritty earthiness while a pithy hop bitterness finishes it off. It took a little while to get used to everything that was going on but I found I enjoyed it more and more the further down the glass I went, and I'm not putting all of that down to the effect of the alcohol.
Before leaving the Barge I had to try one of the guest beers, Weird Beard's Hit the Lights, just because I'd heard good things about it. It's an IPA of 5.8% ABV, arriving from the keg a bright hazy orange. It's very sweet for an IPA, with lots of pineapple and apricot (Nugget, Target and Aurora are the hops), and not too fizzy. I could quibble about the lack of bitterness, but it still has plenty of refreshment power without it.
No fashion-chasing beer hunt would be complete without a burger in a brioche bun and some mac 'n' cheese, and Spyglass at the end of King Street sorted us out for that. To wash it down there was Tiny Rebel Fubar. Like Hit the Lights, it's another tropical fruit delivery system, this time all peach and mango. Again nothing too assertive, just good drinking.
We'll finish the trip in Bath, and an excursion to the city's only brewpub, The Bath Brew House. It's a large premises, looking like it was once a rambling down-at-heel superpub but has now been given a lick of varnish, some mismatched furniture and the James Street Brewery. The beers are in fairly traditional styles but done rather well and I think the dimple glasses they serve them in are ironic young-person dimples, not anachronistic old-man dimples: an important distinction.
Gladiator is the name of the best bitter, a dark amber colour with lots of light and tannic lemon tea notes. Fantastically sinkable, packing lots of complexity into the 3.9% ABV. There's a "hoppy pale ale" too, called Emperor. This was served in an unpleasantly warm mug and was a little lifeless as well. Oranges are the main thing it has going for it: freshly squeezed jaffa in both the aroma and the flavour. There's a certain astringency which makes the first few mouthfuls nicely refreshing but which grows as it goes, resulting in a pint that's just too puckering by the end. Stick to the bitter, is my advice.
There was a house wheat beer too but I didn't get to try it. My one for the road was by Wiper & True, a 5.1% ABV kegged pale ale with the irresistible name Kiwi Lilt. I was a little disappointed to find it's not very Lilt-ish at all, being far bitterer for one thing. There's a peachy aroma and while the implied tropical fruits are present, there's lots of bitter pomegranate in with the mango, no pineapple to speak of, and an unsettling blast of coconut. "Kiwi Bounty", anyone?
And that's where this West Country adventure ends. Regardless of what genre you feel like drinking in, Bristol and Bath have you well covered. Just bring your own beermats.
Westmalle Dubbel - *Origin: Belgium | Date: 2008 | ABV: 7% | On The Beer Nut: October 2007* It's a longtime favourite today. Westmalle Dubbel goes back to the very beginnings...
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