Oh here it is, down an alley, past the law courts where there’s a guy from the telly news doing a report to camera on some item, look it’s here, tucked away opposite an old church — St Thomas the Martyr, a martyr to what? — of which the city seems to have loads. Save on buses and steer yourself round Bristol by spire, make sure you know which one is which and off you go.
In through the door, the Seven Stars it is, distressed, carefully worn interior, a row of beers, West Country provenance. A bleary eyed chap, no time to shave, more important things to mind, comes in and asks for a Tally Ho, Palmers’ strong ale, dark chestnut brown, digestive biscuit sweetness, hazelnut firmness, tingle of orange — 5.5% at midday, he is some dedicated toper though I guess you would call him something else if you drank like him.
Another man grabs a pint and stands at the fruit machine, feeding coins, feeding his addiction, a daily encounter with chance that never gets any better. A glass of Butcombe’s Old Vic dark ale for me thank you very much, smoky, roasty and a light dusting of juicy citrusiness. Another? Or do I join our pal with the Tally Ho? I’ll return to the Old Vic. The man with the Tally Ho sits at the bar, ruminates, looks at his wristwatch, takes a sip from the glass and looks at his wristwatch once more. I’m waiting for someone his movements seem to say, I don’t normally engage in such non-session aleing at this time of the day. Oh why not? Says another invisible voice, the air is full of voices, drinkers, past, present and future, for what is a pub but a chamber of lost sound?
Time for another place. The Three Tuns. Ten minutes stroll, near the cathedral, on a corner, a onetime boozer now done up by Arbor Ales, gastro smartness without the pretension, wood, wood, wood, the modern pub’s equivalent of flock wallpaper, landlord’s trinkets and a row of mugs over the bar, though this has beer on the menu, both ale and bottles from BrewDog, Anchor and Guldenberg, though it’s a glass of Arbor’s Oyster Stout for me, and as if to confirm the theme of dark ales that seems to be developing, next up is Bristol Beer Factory’s Bristol Stout, dispensed through a keg tap, though I’m informed it’s unfiltered and cask, rather delicious, creamy and smoky, a nice little number for a 4% beer. A dog bowl by the fireplace gets knocked over, no big deal, some water on the floor, outside students from the next door sixth form college pass by, is that a hint of wistfulness on the face of one of them, eager to start his pub-going experience?
Here I go again, another pub to visit, one with a difference, Zero Degrees, maximum anticipation. Up and down Bristol’s roads, a perambulation taking in old pubs, a sign of the city’s brewing past on a group of flats with the name Georges etched in stone, a bright red Ushers ceramic plaque elsewhere, while there’s cider on the go at The Apple, a barge/bar, though I’ll leave that to the cider drinkers, a clan from which I am becoming retina-like detached.
Zero Degrees. Zero Degrees. Up a flight of steps that remind me of the ones down which a baby’s pram tumbled in the Battleship Potemkin, a scene faithfully reproduced in De Palma’s Untouchables, close to the Colston Yard where Smiles once brewed, modern stainless steel, space, air, light, have you been here before at the bar, try these samplers, the wheat beer is Bavarian style and has banana notes correct and ship shape on the nose, while the Pale Ale is aromatic, lychee like in its fruitiness (juicy, elegant, grown-up, thirst quenching) and sterling in its bitter finish; the Dark Lager is a creamy, coffee-like confection that drapes itself across my palate like some model doing a luxurious photo shoot (Scarlett Johansen in a glass anyone?).
I’ll have the Pale Ale, pizza with anchovies as an accompaniment, perfect pitch, the harmony of beer and food matching; I don’t need much more than this. The bar is open, modernist, stark, and naked with the brewery at the back, pipes coming straight from the conditioning tanks, plus a view over an older part of Bristol (those spires again). Brewer Chris comes over for a chat and I try the Pilsner, an uplifting waft of a flower shop in full bloom, calm gentle carbonation that puts me in mind of Augustiner, softness of newly baked bread, not long out of the oven, and a crisp bittersweet finish, more please, but it’s time for a train, steering by spire once more, farewell to Bristol for now.