Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Bristol beer

Last month I wrote a piece on the Bristol beer scene for the Western Daily Press, which was printed at the start of the month. As far as I can see it’s not online so I thought I would post the article as I filed it to the newspaper (don’t think it was changed much), mainly because I think there’s a lot of good stuff happening out there at the moment and — personally — I’m off to Arbor Ales to brew on Friday, a rye mild dry hopped with Tettnang with possibly some Golden Naked Oats in the mix…

Milk stout is the beer style that time forgot. Think about that bottle of Mackeson tucked away on the lower shelf in the pub, usually in the company of the equally obscure Gold Label Barley Wine. Mackeson is seen as a beer for the elderly, a nostalgic beer (‘by golly it’s good for you,’ said actor Bernard Miles in a 1960s TV advert), utterly forgotten. Or is it?

Back in 2006, Bristol Beer Factory had other ideas when they released their Milk Stout in time for the Bristol Beer Festival. They were obviously doing something right as the 4.5% newcomer went on to win beer of the festival. This creamy dark delight is now a regular in their portfolio.

‘We found out that the Ashton Gate Brewery produced a milk stout at the beginning of the 1900s,’ says Bristol Beer Factory’s Managing Director Simon Bartlett. ‘When Georges took over the brewery the Milk Stout was one of the beers, possibly the only one, that they kept brewing. We thought it would be a great idea to revive the style.’

Even though most would argue that Bristol is first and foremost a cider city (recall the furore over Blackthorn’s recipe change in 2009?), it also has a formidable brewing heritage. In the late 18th century, Georges was sending porter to Ireland and over the next 150 years became a major regional force as it devoured the city’s breweries. This included Ashton Gate in the 1930s, and as fate would have it Bristol Beer Factory is based in the brewery’s former fermentation block. Georges were then bought out by Courage who themselves left the city at the start of the 21st century.

There was plenty of other brewing action. The real ale revolution of the 1970s saw the creation of Smiles and Butcombe, while in the 1990s Bath Ales (paradoxically located in Bristol) brought their own sense of beer style and pubs to the city. The city of Bath got in on the action in 1997 with Abbey Ales.

Now there’s another wave with Bristol Beer Factory, Arbor Ales and brewpub Zero Degrees leading the charge, (while Ashley Down Brewery came into being last year). Over in Bath, Abbey Ales continue to rule the roost, while surrounding areas harbour Great Western, Cheddar and Dawkins. Local beer and brewing is on a roll.

There is a wonderful diversity of beers being produced. Zero Degrees is a brewpub in the American model — stainless steel aesthetics, brewing kit on show and great modish food including fantastic pizzas. The beers include a dark lager, a well hopped Pale Ale and a Bavarian wheat beer amongst others.

Bristol Beer Factory and Arbor also look westwards for their inspiration, towards the American craft beer brewing revolution, which has influenced beer lovers in the UK and throughout the world. For a start this influence means lot more hops. It also brings experiments — beer aged in whisky casks or beer with various fruits added.

This influence was notably seen last year when Bristol Beer Factory produced the ‘12 stouts of Christmas’. This include a variety of themes on the ubiquitous dark beer — a couple were matured in whisky casks; another was infused with raspberry, while the chilli chocolate stout was a luscious success.

According to the brewery’s Business Development Manager Andrew Cooper, the 12 Stouts of Christmas was one of the reasons the company won ‘Best Drinks Producer’ in the BBC Food and Farming Awards. ‘They said that they loved the idea, but also our involvement in the local community and the sense of looking forward and our attempts to grow the beer scene in Bristol.’

Arbor Ales opened in 2007 after network engineer Jon Comer took redundancy and decided to make something of his home brew habit. ‘I was commuting to Reading and had had enough,’ he tells me as we sit in Arbor’s Three Tuns in the Hotwells area.

‘The idea to start the brewery was born in the Hobgoblin pub in Reading, which a good friend of mine was running at the time. I'd taken a small barrel of my beer down for him and it ended being served up to the pub regulars. The beer disappeared in no time followed by plenty of calls to quit the day job.’

He was originally based in a Bristol pub but the brewery has recently moved to an industrial estate in the Lawrence Hill area. Jon does the majority of the brewing, while brother-in-law Namaya Reynolds looks after the pub side of things (Arbor also own the Old Stillage in Redfield).

‘My brewing philosophy is simple,’ says Comer in between sips of his nutty Mild West. ‘We brew beers we like drinking ourselves. I never look at the price of anything that goes into the beer until after I've made it and need to work out how much to charge for it. The main aim is to keep things interesting, both the beers themselves and the work involved in making them. I'd get bored to death making the same copper coloured beer week in week out.’

Some of the experiments have included a 500-minute IPA, where hops were added to the boil over eight hours and 20 minutes, which Comer says was ‘pretty exhausting’. There is also the so-called Freestyle Friday. ‘This is when we rock up at the brewery and ask ourselves what we are going to brew.’

With all these breweries chasing a tough market you would think that they would be at each others throats. It’s a fact of business life that beers have to be sold, but there is also a sense of community, which manifests itself in so called collaboration brews.

Last year, Arbor, Bath, Bristol Beer Factory and Zero Degrees collaborated on a strong Belgian style Tripel. It was well received. This year, the four of them are joined by Weston Super Mare’s RCH — at the time of writing there are rumours of an American-style Double IPA, once again for the Bristol Beer Festival in March. (They subsequently produced a stout)

‘Mostly it's just for a bit of fun,’ says Comer. ‘But it’s also an opportunity to learn a few tricks from each other. The big collaboration we're doing with all the other Bristol breweries is something a bit different as there are so many involved. The aim here is to showcase the Bristol brewing scene and draw some attention to the great beers that are being produced here.’

And what about Bath Ales, those relative veterans of the brewing scene? They have not been sitting still. They recently opened Beerd in Cotham, a modern beer bar serving a mixture of real ale and keg draft beer from around the world. The focus is on good beer whether real ale or keg, though forget about Watney’s Red Barrel making a comeback. The keg beers of today are flavoursome stouts, IPAs and lagers.

‘We do three keg beers and we are currently experimenting with a wheat beer and a non matured lager style,’ says Bath Ales Managing Director Roger Jones. ‘The decision is dictated by the saturation of cask beers and the demands of more experimental younger beer drinkers.’

These are exciting times in beer and Bristol is riding this wave. It’s a city that has not always been that well known for beer with Smiles Best, Courage Best and flat Draught Bass (as served in the Star in Bath) being particular favourites. No one is taking anything for granted.

‘There is still a perception in Bristol that beer is yellow, cold and fizzy, or brown, warm and flat,’ says Jon Comer. ‘A lot of education is needed and it is a battle we will continue to fight. I’m pretty sure we won’t win the cider battle but we will win the ‘beer education’ battle’.

Five of the best
Arbor Ales Breakfast Stout, 7.4% — As dark as a moonless night with a creamy, mocha-like character on the palate. Has real coffee beans and chocolate in the mix. www.arborales.co.uk
Bristol Beer Factory Southville Hop, 6.5% — Dark gold with ripe peach skin and grapefruit on the nose; a big blast of tropical fruit and citrus on the palate precedes a lingering bitter finish. www.bristolbeerfactory.co.uk
Zero Degrees Pale Ale 4.6% — Aromatic, lychee like in its fruitiness alongside a juicy malt character. A fabulous thirst-quencher or drink with one of Zero Degrees’ excellent pizzas. www.zerodegrees.co.uk/location-bristol.html
Bristol Beer Factory Raspberry Stout 7.7 % — Sticky black molasses on the palate are counterbalanced by a juicy raspberry fruitiness; there’s also a tartness that works very well with the earthy sticky sweetness of the strong stout. www.bristolbeerfactory.co.uk
Bath Ales Dark Side 4% (on keg) — Think roast coffee beans with hints of chocolate on the nose, while the creamy palate also has a bittersweet character edging towards mocha and chocolate. www.bathales.com


  1. Nice round-up - enjoyed that!

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