18 August 2014

King for a day

King Street is a cobbled stretch of central Bristol, linking two of the waterfronts in this inland maritime city. It is exceedingly well-pubbed, enough to warrant a mention in the opening chapter of Boak & Bailey's recent Brew Britannia as an example of the radical changes currently happening in British beer. But there's even more than that: King Street is a veritable microcosm of British pub life, from shooters to schooners and everything in between.

I spent a few days in Bristol in July and managed to darken the doors of several of the varied establishments of King Street.

The central draw for me was The Beer Emporium, essentially the cellar of an off licence with a vaulted bar and a solid range of British beers on cask and keg. Proceedings here kicked off with Soul Train from the Box Steam brewery in neighbouring Wiltshire. It's an innocent pale gold colour but exhibits intense bitter orange peel and pith. Biscuit malt flavours form a background, but no more than that. A straightforward clean and enjoyable introduction.

Hawkshead's NZPA is along similar lines only with more of everything, including alcohol at 6% ABV. A candy sweet aroma kicks it off but the flavour is all about palate-scorching high-alpha hops. Once acclimatised, one can detect notes of grass, mangoes and grapefruit. The first of these takes ultimate control of the flavour profile in the finish, as a sort of nettle juice greenness. Fun stuff, but strictly in small doses for me.

Switching to keg for one, I liked the look of Siren's Liquid Mistress, a red IPA of a modest 5.8% ABV. It's a very dark red colour with a dense off-white head and features one of my favourite beer flavour analogues: Turkish Delight. I assume it's achieved by some combination of floral hops and roasted malts and I normally find it in porters but it's here in a big way: all the rosewater and all the chocolate. There's a lot of fizz, which spoils the effect to some extent, but it's still a gorgeous beer. Whatever you say, Mistress.

Back to the beer engines to finish, and some Bleddyn 1075 by Celt Experience. This is a 5.6% ABV IPA, red-gold in colour with rich and exotic flavours of spicy sandalwood, bitter myrrh and peppery rocket. The body is full and the beer complex and satisfying.

So no quibbles about quality on emerging blinking into the daylight again. When I first came to The Beer Emporium it was lunchtime and the bar hadn't opened yet. I asked for a recommendation from the beery smorgasbord that is King Street and the off licence staff suggested Small Bar across the street.

We're definitely in craft territory here. Small Bar looks like a front room that's had a war through it, all dangling bulbs and partially exposed brick. Design is minimalist to the point of absence, with knitting-needle-thin handles on the beer engines and keg taps hidden completely out of sight below the bar. Magic Rock Ringmaster was on the blackboard so I figured I'd start with that. A lunchable 3.9% ABV, assisted by the pub's no-pint policy, it arrived looking a little sad -- all wan and headless. There's a vague dankness in the aroma and the texture is thin, like it's not really trying. It picks up a little on tasting, with some grown-up herby flavours: sage, eucalyptus, thyme, but overall it's not especially interesting and was disposed of quickly.

Having been in the West Country for hours and not had any Wild Beer Co. products yet, I followed it with a glass of Rubus Maximus, their collaboration with London's Beavertown. As billed, this is blood red, topped by pink foam. It smells decidedly girly, of sweet raspberries, and while this is present in the flavour it's buried under a massive steaming pile of dirty brettanomyces, honking like a spooked farmyard in front of any subtleties. Imagine a fresh punnet of raspberries dropped in manure. Imagine durian as a beer. Imagine... but think carefully before ordering.

Let's leave King Street for a few minutes and take a wander down the Avon. Steve had suggested a pub called the Bag of Nails and I'm delighted he did. Quirky doesn't cover this little place: festooned in plants, scattered with vintage toys, infested by tumbling kittens and operating a strict vinyl-only music policy. It has a definite community vibe, though still felt incredibly welcoming. To drink, a pint of Towles' Independents APA,  in vintage glassware, natch. It's not terribly impressive, with simple melon and pear flavours before a butterscotch finish. At a big 5% ABV it doesn't represent great value for the alcohol. Arbor's Hoptical Delusion did a much better job. This is 3.8% ABV and quite resinous, with oily vegetal hop flavours, just shading towards dank. Stimulating stuff.

Before leaving I couldn't pass up the chance to try Dorset Brewing Company's Castaway Coconut Rum Ale, despite an intense fear that it could resemble something by Innis & Gunn. It's a clear dark red-brown and tastes pleasantly of muscovado sugar: sticky, and slightly burnt. Not much rum or coconut to speak of, but on the whole it could have been a lot worse.

Back to King Street, then, and The Famous Royal Navy Volunteer, aka The Volly. A big and quite foodish pub, decorated in classic minimalist gastro style, all painted wood and leather sofas. Picking randomly from the beautifully modernist beer board I sat down with a pint of Wiper & True Mosaic Pale Ale. A sumptuous deep orange and served beautifully cold from the cask, the hop flavour blends sharp pith and savoury dank notes so fresh I could almost taste the bursting colours: synaesthesia in a glass. Behind this some quenching tannic astringency and sandalwood spices, all set on a body that's full and warming: a magnificent paradox in such a refreshing beer. An absolute virtuoso performance.

Dragging myself off King Street and back to the hotel for a quick palate-cleansing nightcap. Freedom Four lager was pouring so I gave that a go, and it was perfect for the occasion. Very crisp, dry and cereal-driven it makes for an excellent reset button.

So that's the beginning of my Bristol beer adventure. More to follow, on King Street and beyond...

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