Many years ago, when our drinking boots were made of sturdier stuff, we would routinely head over to Bristol for a pub crawl. Even in the days when a good pint was hard to come by, the city provided a decent choice of friendly drinking establishments serving a good range of real ales*, making it a more welcoming pilgrimage for beer nuts than most destinations.
It’s therefore not surprising that in these more beer enlightened days, Bristol’s real ale scene is thriving and has caught on to the craft brewing buzz with more vigour that most cities outside London. With a whole new array of pub crawl itineraries available, we decided it was high time to dust down those drinking boots and visit some old and new boozy venues, so we joined Bristol beer aficionado Andy Hamilton for a guided tour…
Thanks to our train being ridiculously late we surrendered vital drinking time before we had even began. Our loss for the evening was the Barley Mow on Barton Road, owned by one of the most popular local breweries, Bristol Beer Factory. Instead we started at a familiar old pub, The Seven Stars on Thomas Lane. We remembered this 17th century boozer as a basic affair, frequented more out of convenience for a pre-gig pint (and game of pool) before hitting the mosh pit at the neighbouring Fleece and Firkin. These days it’s much more worthy of a visit in its own right. The interior, unlike many similar pubs, has hardly changed, which now means the place has a pleasingly nostalgic appeal, and the range of beers is a revelation, all beautifully kept and expertly served. No wonder it’s an award winning favourite of CAMRA members. Between us we sample brews from Plain Ales, Fat Cat and Two Cocks** on the benches outside before moving closer to the city centre.
In contrast to the antiquated Seven Stars, the Small Bar on King Street is one of a number of trendy new craft ale dens popping up all over the city. Named for its dedication to small breweries, there’s plenty of room both inside and out for a crowd of beer drinkers. Among them you’ll almost certainly encounter a hipster or three, but don’t let that put you off – despite its obvious newness it still carries off the relaxed and welcoming vibe we associate with Bristol bars. In fact, before the first drink is even poured, the friendly bar man has already worked out that Andy is the author of one of his favourite beer books (Booze for Free) and they’re quickly exchanging beer knowledge. When we eventually prize Andy, and our beers, from the bar (he claims never to have previously met the chap) we enjoy some of the West Country’s finest ales, courtesy of Bristol’s Moor Brewery and Wild Beer, from Evercreech, Somerset, as well as a Scottish session ale, Hit The Lip, from Cromarty Brewing Company.
King Street is at the heart of Bristol’s densest collection of drinking establishments, which includes another newcomer, The Beer Emporium, and popular oldies Llandoger Trow and The Old Duke. There’s even a cider boat (The Apple), which we have to restrain Rich from boarding because, instead, we’re off to an old pub that has been given a craft makeover. The Famous Royal Navy Volunteer is one of Andy’s more regular haunts, and we quickly understand why – a vast length of bar is home to an exciting range of cask and craft ales which can be appreciated in the comforts of amply cushioned armchairs, perfectly suited for the middle-aged pub crawler. Breweries represented on our visit include The Kernel, Redchurch,Hopcraft and two more superb local representatives Cotswold Spring and Ashley Down. Such is the vast range on offer is seems a shame to prize ourselves away from our comfy seats having barely scratched the surface of the beer menu, but we’ve got one more pub to visit and a train to catch…
A royal night out
For our final destination, Andy takes us closer to the station and one of our favourite Bristol pubs, The Cornubia. Curiously located at the foot of a tenement block on Temple Street it was always one of our first choices for quality beer, lively bar banter and exceptional hand-made pork pies. These days the range of beers is even more impressive, but the previously unassuming décor has been supplanted by a royal fanfare – red, white and blue fills every space and the Queen’s visage looms watchfully over the hand pumps from behind the bar. We park ourselves on one of the courtyard benches where the royal livery is less imposing and enjoy beers from Liberation Brewery, Sunny Republic and Great Heck, regularly checking our mobiles in the hope that our return train is late enough to give us the chance to make up for our earlier pub loss. It isn’t, so we bid Andy fairwell and start planning a new Bristol pub crawl itinerary for another day.
Five of the best
We drank too many beers and made too few notes to list everything, so here are five of the most memorable beers of the night.
The Wild Beer Co & Beavertown, Rubus Maximus, 5.8%
A collaboration between two excellent breweries, this is a sour raspberry beer fermented with wild yeast. The result is an instant hit with wild beer fan Nick – a refreshing beer jam-packed with tart, fruity flavours.
Moor Beer Co, Nor’ Hop, 4.1%
This stunning pale ale had Andy drooling with glee: “American citrus hop flavours on pale base with peppery spiciness from the yeast. Lovely”.
The Kernel, London Sour, 3.2%
Desperate to avoid a hangover, Rich cannily picked a few lower strength beers on the crawl***. But this beer certainly didn’t lack in flavour – a delightfully zesty, sour tipple, immediately cutting through the blur of previous beers lingering on the taste buds.
Sunny Republic, Huna Red, 4.2%
The red hue to this brew is provided by hibiscus flowers, but the biscuity malts are responsible for most of the flavouring leg work. A good, solid pint with an unusual twist.
Andy Hamilton’s Mugwort IPA
This homebrew was given to us by Andy for the journey home. The bitterness from foraged leaves of mugwort added an exciting new dimension to the heady hop flavours and aromas. Brew us some more, please.
*Including several outstanding ales from the much lamented Smiles Brewery
**Rearrange those brewery names to create your own insult
***It worked. Nick’s lack of consideration to beer strength resulted in a pounding ‘mugwort head’