The famous expression “all ship-shape and Bristol fashion” originally described the sea-worthiness of boats built to withstand heavy tides in the city’s harbour. Today it neatly sums up the resurgence of beer and good bars in this busy and thriving hub of the south-west.
My first port of call was the Bristol outlet of the fast-growing Brewhouse & Kitchen chain. The group now has nine bars and was launched by Kris Gumbrell and Simon Bunn, using the government-backed Enterprise Investment Scheme.
The Bristol bar is on Cotham Hill in the up-market Clifton district of the city. It’s surprisingly big, with most of the airy and open interior given over to dining.
But on the left as you enter there’s an attractive and eye-catching small brewery with highly-polished copper vessels where the house beers are produced. It’s a sign of the times that Gumbrell and Bunn, who have just opened two new outlets in fashionable areas of north-west London, consider beer-making to be the central theme of the chain.
Brewer Mark Wainwright told me his kit is made in China where the manufacturers have had to turn their attention from making lager equipment to meet the demands of traditional ale brewing.
His regular beers reflect today’s tastes. Alongside Crockers Bitter, named after a 19th-century brewer and wine merchant who operated on the site, there are two heavily hopped American-style pale ales, Yankee Cabot and Animator Pale Ale.
Belgian IPA shows how a once-English style of beer is reaching out to the most surprising parts of the world — there are IPAs being brewed in Belgium itself — while Hornigold Blonde is another golden ale bursting with the citrus character of American hops.
I was impressed with the beers, the attentive and knowledgeable bar staff, chefs beavering away in the kitchen — you can view that, too — and the quality of the attractively-presented food.
Beer lovers are heading in droves for King Street in a revived and trendy part of Bristol close to Temple Meads and the fashionable Harbourside. Cheek-by-jowl are the Famous Royal Navy Volunteer Inn, Beer Emporium, Small Bar and the King William.
With the exception of the King William, a pub owned by Sam Smith’s and a long way from its home patch of Tadcaster, the other bars reflect the fast-changing nature of beer drinking in Britain today.
The Royal Navy Volunteer is housed in what’s described as “a fashionable 17th-century town house”, which means it was probably owned by people who grew rich on the slave trade. The striking white-painted facade, with a jutting first storey, leads into a spacious interior with stripped wooden floors and plenty of room for dining, a real plus in a gastropub.
The beer offering is vast — there are so many beers that they are listed on boards on the wall adjacent to the bar. They are clearly divided into cask and keg. As I’m open-minded about these things, I bought two pints of “craft keg” and was astounded to get no change from a tenner... in Bristol.
A local brewer told me that modern keg beers are four times as profitable as cask. I think both taste and my bank balance suggest I should stick to cask in future.
There’s a similar cask-and-keg theme in Beer Emporium next door, but the venue could not be more different. It’s based in three tunnels reached by a lift and has a bar and a kitchen, as this is yet another food-oriented outlet. It has 12 cask ales, a large number of kegs and a beer shop on the ground floor offering beers from around the world.
Over the road, Small Bar is not that small. It rambles over three rooms, including an upstairs one with comfortable sofas. Downstairs, there’s a tiny brewing kit to one side where trial beers are made and then produced on a bigger scale by the Left Handed Giant brewery in the city.
Once again, the beers are listed on the wall and are divided into cask and keg. Inevitably there are American-inspired hoppy pale beers. I thought it best to avoid Crazy Shit beer and couldn’t make out whether Flat White was a beer or a coffee. I was relieved to find a Bristol Beer Factory Milk Stout — I’m showing my age, but that’s a style I can relate to.
The beer world is clearly changing at a fast rate of knots, but CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) is keeping pace with it all. I dropped into Small Bar just as the local CAMRA branch was presenting it with its Pub of the Month award.
A few years ago, the campaign would have steered clear of a pub or bar with a large keg offering, but it’s recognising the need to adapt and attract younger drinkers.
Brewing is also flourishing in Bristol, of which more next time. Or should I say, Moor next time...