08 August 2018

Bristol odyssey

Quite a few of the pubs for which Bristol is famous won't be mentioned in this, my second post from a recent visit. My guiding principle when I went crawling was places I hadn't previously been. And which weren't too far out of my way. Before the work event for which I was in town kicked off, I took a full day to explore, guided mostly by Boak & Bailey's recommendations.

Fresh off the bus, I began in The Commercial Rooms, a grand high-ceilinged Wetherspoon in Bristol's old town. Seeking something gulpable I picked a pint of cask session IPA: Four Point Blanc, brewed at Hook Norton in collaboration with Devils Backbone. Hallertau Blanc is the signature hop and boy does it show through: a bright and quenching honeydew melon topnote. This is... I was about to say "balanced", but it's more accentuated, by dry tannins, adding an even more refreshing air of lemon tea. It's not a pint to savour, however. The charm starts to fade as it warms, the fruit giving way to a floral perfume that grows stronger and more concentrated. I didn't leave it long enough to find out how far that goes, draining the last of it so I could leave with a fond memory.

The day's real beer tourism began later at the Moor Brewery. It's an interesting taproom in that it appears to double as the brewery's front office, with orders being taken, events organised and supplies negotiated all around. Justin was entertaining a group of distributors, or possibly just potential distributors, visiting from Barcelona. If you want to know when Moor is going to be bought out, just sit in the taproom and wait for the guy with the big-brewery branded ballpoint.

It was only just gone noon so All Dayer session IPA seemed appropriate. This arrived an almost luminous orange colour, 3.5% ABV and tasting strongly of passionfruit to begin with. There was a mildly yeasty bitter twang after this, and then a watery finish which probably shouldn't have surprised me. It's sufficiently tasty given the strength, but quite one-dimensional and certainly nothing like the Founders beer echoed in the name.

Just launched was Simpils, Moor's first lager, which was enough of a novelty to get my business. It's thick and waxy -- bock-like at 5.5% ABV. There's lots of crusty bread and then a smack of nettle on the end. Like the session IPA, it's decent but unspectacular; noble pils by-the-numbers. I would have preferred lighter and crisper but that's just how I like my lagers.

Before heading off, a go of their English IPA Return of the Empire. Deep orange and low in carbonation, even from the keg, it looked well. The flavour was way off, however. Musty, funky, cheesy, earthy and dense: my least-favourite dwarves. IPA, even English ones, should be fun, and this one was a real downer. Up the Rebellion!

I bought a takeaway can of Moor's famous old ale Old Freddy Walker and left it by the powerful air conditioner in my room while I was out for the evening. This one has been around for years and has won CAMRA's Winter Beer of the Year twice. I've been very aware of it but never tried it before. It lives up to the hype, even in summer. The balance is exquisite, mixing creamy coffee and strong dark chocolate with the fruity bitterness of plums and blackcurrants, plus a sharper herbal liquorice kick. At 7.3% ABV it packs heat, but not too much, staying smooth and drinkable throughout. A recipe thoroughly out of fashion but not to be tampered with.

Back to the afternoon, and just around the corner from Moor's brewery is The Barley Mow, a pub owned by Bristol Beer Factory and among the best reputed in the city. It has a bit of a country inn feel to it, sited in a double-fronted Georgian-style house with long tables and a big fireplace inside.

I opened my tab with North to the Future by BBF themselves, a 5% ABV IPA brewed with Centennial and Denali. It poured a dazzling golden colour from the cask and smelled perfumed. The texture is a little sticky, emphasised by a honey-like flavour, and then the perfume begins to infuse into it as well, bringing a sweet note of rosewater. A savoury bitter finish brings it home on a complete about-face which still fails to improve it. It's a slightly odd beer, and not in a good way.

I switched to keg for the next one: Bristol Beer Factory's Teardrop IPA. This claims to be down-wit-da-kids double dry-hopped with New Zealand varieties. It's 5.2% ABV, a clear amber colour and has a very attractive aroma, the enticing diesel scent I get from Gewürztraminer wine. The flavour doesn't quite deliver on this, focusing more on the malt, with a stodgy porridge effect and even a sharp hit of smoke. A grassy bitterness slices unceremoniously through it, providing balance of a sort, but no subtlety. This is one of those beers that's worth a half for the aroma alone.

A quick stop in the plush King's Head for an old-time's-sake pint of Harvey's Best, then it was off to the 'burbs. The draw was The Draper's Arms, my very first micropub. It matched expectations by and large: one room with tables arrayed around the edges and beer served from a stillage in one corner. With England preparing to march to victory against Croatia in the World Cup, the house had less than its usual selection: just three beers on offer.

I began with Twisted Oak's Fallen Tree, billed as a "session amber" which is how English breweries are increasingly badging their dull brown bitters. I hope nobody's fooled. This definitely has a feel of Doom Bar about it: the same soft-biscuit cereals with just a tiny hint of peppery spice. At least it makes some sort of effort, but otherwise it's inoffensive and bland, perfect for those who want that in a beer.

L: Subtropic; R: The Usual
When Boak and Bailey arrived in, as they regularly do, they were straight into Bristol Beer Factory's Subtropic, a 4.4% ABV pale ale. It proved worthy of their enthusiasm too. This is quite a simple beer, arguably one-dimensional I would say, but the flavour is so bright and clean that it doesn't matter that there's only one: a sharply invigorating citrus punch. It gets support from a malt base that adds just the right level of density to prevent harshness but without becoming part of the flavour picture itself. This makes for very easy drinking in quantity.

Not for me, though, obviously. The line-up needed to be completed, and that meant The Usual by Milk Street, another brown bitter but not such a boring one. Light caramel meets sweet tea, flavoured gently with dark forest fruits. It's sticky on the lips and perhaps a little overclocked at 4.4% ABV, but it finished nicely clean and doesn't build on the palate. Grudgingly, I can see how the name might be apt.

An essential feature of the micropub experience is getting kicked out when it's still daylight, and so at 9.30 we moved down the street to the nearest unmicro pub, The Royal Oak. It seemed quite a large and rambling place, with multiple bars and plenty of punters as the football ended. Just the one tick for me: Beachcomber, still presented under the Gale's label but really brewed by brand owner Fuller's. It was light and fresh with plenty of lemon and grapefruit: pretty much as advertised, and about as good as a 3.7% ABV golden ale is going to get, after ten hours of drinking anyway.

The following day, with a spare hour in the early evening, I left the hotel and headed in the opposite direction from King Street, for a change. This brought me to The Three Tuns, a bright and bohemian corner pub on the north-western edge of the city centre.

I decided to go all-cask for this set, beginning on Budding, a 4.5% ABV pale ale from Stroud Brewery. This is another one of those honey-and-flowers jobs, but it develops as it goes along, bringing in a harder green bitterness, starting on celery and intensifying towards asparagus. This is enough to balance it and make it enjoyable, although on that particular afternoon it would have benefited from being a few degrees cooler.

Big Cat stout is also from Stroud, and while it's the same strength, it's much heavier going. A tarry texture carries heavy and pungent chemical-herbal flavours. I thought liquorice at first, but it's more like whatever the Satanic blend of spices and minerals that goes into Fisherman's Friend throat sweets is. I think this may be an aquired taste. While it was extremely full and flavourful, I found it just too intense.

The other brewery on the handpumps was Plain Ales, from Warminster. I began with Inntrigue, their "ruby best bitter". Another variant on "session amber ale", then. This is, indeed, well inside the boring brown bitter boundaries, though not offensively so. Crumbly oat cookie meets light treacle, finishing on a barely-there tan