Friday, 1 May 2009

Bath’s best pub beer gardens

It is an official sanctioned bank holiday, the Met Office has promised a sunny summer and we live in a nation where the ‘retail experience’ passes for high culture and our national pastime is panicking about the forthcoming aporkalypse. So what is there left to do for those of us whose spare time hangs heavily like a whore’s guilt? Get drunk, obviously, but with the twist of getting drunk outside.

But where to can you go to enjoy the cool breeze against your skin and the cold sting of real ale against your liver? Because while Bath is a beautiful city with its narrow cobbled streets, widescreen Georgian vistas and even wider tourists, the choice of beer gardens is still distinctly small.

Most of Bath’s great pubs are what could euphemistically be called ‘winter pubs’. From the dark wood dominated Star and the gloomy Salamander to the almost windowless Old Green Tree, they only make sense as a retreat from the outside world, not a place to embrace it.

Instead to find a good pint and a beer garden in Bath you need to do something the tourist never do and most of the locals will rarely attempt – to leave the city centre.

The Hop Pole
Hidden between the greenery of Victoria park and the equally green River Avon, this Bath Ale pub’s secluded beer garden is far and away the best in the city. The problem is that most of the other residents know that too.

Instead of being a converted car park or adjunct to a busy junction, it is a designed and planted blend of greenery and gravel. Pergolas and flowering climbers contort with patio heaters and wrought iron furniture to persuade that it you are in the formal garden of a country house, and that a jelly in Laura Ashley is about to approach you about the wellbeing of her Tricky Woo.

Except that your peace and quiet has as much chance of remaining unbroken as a Frenchman's wedding vows because its swing and slide proximity means that The Hop Pole is where parents drag their beloved for regular Nutrasweet re-ups.

And what a delight it is to see Jocaster and Lexmark, kids whose free-spirited nature sorely needs a few boundaries imposing primarily through the medium of a clenched fist. However, you can mostly ignore them since the beer is good, if predictable, and the food is decent, if pricey.

The Royal Oak
It might only be the other side of the bridge from The Hop Pole but The Royal Oak is a world away from its sedate seclusion. For this is a pub for drinking in, not really using the toilet in or eating in. But while it’s rougher around the edges, with bench seating and the odd weed poking between the paving stones; it’s also far more innovative and interesting.

Here the ten beers on offer are all from SIBA breweries, ensuring a selection of some of the most exciting and strange ales from around Britain, along with Budvar light and dark and four local ciders. It’s also home to the fledgling Art Brew of North Chideock in Devon.

Despite the garden being only a fence’s thickness from a busy road where Novas with neons drown in seismic bass, it still manages to be quiet - primarily because the pub remains mostly child-free. That isn’t because this slightly scruffy freehouse isn’t nipper-friendly, more because it is a less pretentious pub created, for and by, people who love beer.

The White Hart
Instead of a thousand words, here is a picture and they are meant to be interchangeable after all - unless you attempt that substitution during an A-Level English exam. It is one of the pub's own pictures too, with all their rights reserved and such.

Like the rest of Widcombe this former locals’ pub has been scrubbed and bleached to fit into a street newly filled with Aga shops, piano merchants and an organic-coffee house. And it is solid and pleasant, much like the Butcombe they serve.

The Bell
If The Royal Oak is worn, The Bell has spent most of its harrowing life stuffing purloined cans of White Ace into its string-supported trousers. Favoured by multi-coloured bowler mad-hatter drinking Westons Organic, its narrow collection of benches attracts all social classes from street drinkers to upper-middle class trustafarians playing at being street drinkers.

The beer is as varied as the conditions it is kept it. Otter, Gem and Pitchfork are among the seven regulars but everything from the green Sign Of Spring to Spingo have appeared alongside a good selection of very strong Belgian bottles.

Everything about this pub is bohemian, so if you are looking to get served quickly the best way is to strike up a decade long friendship with the staff before attempting to order.

Coeur De Lion
With no greenery, no space and no actual garden, the Coeur De Lion’s strip of pavement probably doesn’t tick many of the boxes you might look for in outdoor drinking. But if you can get one of the eight or so seats on offer it can be a wonderful place to spend an evening.

For with this tiny pub, concealed just metres from both the Guildhall and the Abbey, you get all the benefit of the glorious architecture of the city centre - and views of the stained glass front window - all in a location that many residents still struggle to find. And if all the seats are taken, try the almost as diminutive Volunteer Rifleman’s Arms for a similar effect.

Anyway it is probably better to spend your time outside as this one-room pub, as it is far too small to actually go in, except to order from one of the well kept Abbey ales.

The Rest
With its position beneath the historic Pultney Bridge and next to their weir, The Boater almost has one of the best locations in Bath. However neither are actually visible from its endless rows of tree-shaded tables populated either by rugby thugs or the underage. Like The Boater, The Crystal Palace uses its tourist-trap position and walled garden to entice but its over-priced and often ‘creamy’ beers should repel. For a much better pint try the The Pig And Fiddle but be prepared to drink it sat in the warm backdraft of traffic and the splash-range of warm vomit.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Breast Bitter: Pumpclip Idiocy from Cottage

Boobies, tits, melons, bazongas, headlamps and midgets’ crashmats: These are all words that I can write here without cringing. That is provided they are delivered with my tongue wedged so far into my cheek that it looks likes I’m pleasuring a blue whale. However, they are not crudities that I should be forced to speak, in conversation, in a pub, with a person, on a Jesus’s own Sunday.

After all I’m English and so sexually repressed that this talk of jiggling meat-pillows only causes stiffening in my upper lip. So why do Cottage Brewery want to turn us all into an infantilised Sid James by naming their beer Breast Bitter?

Perhaps the news has taken longer to reach Castle Cary - probably because it is a town that still drowns those who use flush toilets - but the 70s are over. Reg Varney is dead, accept it and move on. In our modern world giggling over lactoids, breasticles and silicon-zeppelins is as funny as remaking The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin with all the human warmth of Threads.

But it isn’t just the misogynist moniker of this beer that bitchslaps your decency. Nor the sheer ineptitude of the crayonjockey they hired to Parkinsons out the pumpclip pictured above. Granted it is actually both of those things, but it is also the gawping uselessness of the pun.

Breast Bitter doesn’t work. The name fails to conjure up thoughts of what is actually a nice, slightly hoppy mostly malty 4.6% beer. Instead it creates visions of mummy milking rooms where distended upper-udders are ‘expressed’ 24/7. Or worse it fills your dreampipes with Oedipal fear. And if they really, really like this pitiful pun, it should have at least been attached to a Milk Stout.

But Breast Bitter isn’t alone there are plenty of others out there too. So what names or pumpclips have caused you to ignore an ale? When have you been too ashamed to order a Top Totty? Have you preferred pointing to uttering the words Rite Flanker? Or is the only word that has ever put you off a pint been Stella?

Friday, 10 April 2009

Pub Review: The Old Green Tree

The Old Green Tree
Green Street

They come from the bus tours, they come from the ghost walk, they come straight from central casting. Padded by Taco Bell, clad in velour and as cacophonous as a jet plane, they clog the narrow oak-panelled chambers of The Old Green Tree like chunky cholesterol. Roughly guided by The Lonely Planet and armed only with a lack of self or spatial awareness, these are they are Americans in search of a ‘genuine experience’ of a ‘genuine’ British pub.

It isn’t fair to criticise this Bath institution for the intermittent arrival of these stereotypical irritants, but it would be unfair not to warn you. For this superb pub, situated right in the heart of the centre, isn’t just on the tourist map of the Georgian city– it is one of the annotated highlights.

Part of the problem is that The Tree is small. Not that small though, not compared to the nearby Volunteer Riflemans Arms or the Cour de Lion - a pub whose floor plan is so diminutive that a recent lock-in had to be investigated by The Howard League for Penal Reform. But since The Old Green Tree has just two thin rooms and a bar area between them, you’d generally get more elbow room flying economy on Lilliputian Airways.

It is also quaint. Not that quaint through, because the dark wood panels on the walls and the antique fixtures and fittings are actually faux. In fact the single-roomed original pub was expanded and refitted in 1923 to appear Victorian – making it one of the first theme pubs around.

Despite this ersatz extension the Tree still retains a feeling of times past, not least because of the lack of natural light and the absence of music but also because of the unfailing obsequiousness of the landlord, Tim. In novelty ties and fixed grin, he bows and scrapes to all. And with our overseas guests he displays the kind of studied geniality unseen since P.G’s iconic manservant Jeeves, calmly explaining that drinks need to be ordered at the bar not from a sitting bellow.

Tim’s forelock also receive a extensive tugging behind the bar. For he and his staff are always happy to take you through the six real ales from a varied selection of mainly Somerset beers. The only fixtures being a light lunchtime standard from Blindman’s named Old Green Tree, RCH’s rebelliously zesty Pitchfork and one of Butcombe’s own bitters.

The cider is the flavoursome but bubbly Broadoak and the lagers are standard German and Czech numbers while a number of ineptly coloured posters highlight an extensive list of Belgian beers. Wine and whisky drinkers are also well served with a broad range of bottles and vintages.

The food is also very good. Not the ‘specials’ though, as they are merely nice. So while the blackboard’s offering are mostly experimental, opening the leather-bound menus reveals a range of rehearsed classics: mussels, duck, sandwiches and sausages. It’s all beautifully made in the tiny kitchen above but the rare roast beef salad is the standout option, primarily because these slices of cow-flesh radiate their vibrant pinkness like an autumnal sunset.

All in all The Old Green Tree is a hidden treasure. Not that well hidden though, thanks to Fodors, Footprint, Good Pub Guide, The Rough Guide, The Lonely Planet, The Good Beer Guide…

The Old Green Tree, 12 Green Street, Bath. 01225 448259.
Food served 12 - 3pm Monday to Saturday.

Follow this link for more Bath pub reviews.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Bristol’s Star & Dove shuts. Are more gastros to go?

Update: The Star & Dove is again open and seemingly under new management. Details to follow...

Totterdown’s gastropub and restaurant Star & Dove has closed, at least in the short-term. But can we judge anything from this experiment in food and beer mismatching?

Despite its prime parkside position, expensive and extensive refurbishment just two years ago and a location on a Yummy-Mummy thoroughfare, the pub seemed to have been in trouble for some time.

At first the new owners tried to do everything: a restaurant upstairs with a pub and bistro below. Then as the gastro element stalled there was a Thai night, a steak night, a quiz night and a jazz night. There was everything, except a reliable supply of real ale, lager or cider.

Of late the top-floor top-price restaurant remained firmly shut and the pub itself kept its doors shut in daylight, opening only in the evenings and weekends. And while the current owners Eamon and Christiane have lined up someone to take over, it is clear that this vast landmark is going to be shut for sometime.

But is this just one business dream that went wrong or an early example of tougher times for the gastro?

A few years ago the received wisdom was that the ‘wet trade’ was dead. We were told that those pubs that traded on drink sales alone were as definitely doomed as Damocles’ beenie.

It was handed down as gospel that only those establishments who ran a 24 hour hot and cold all-offal buffet of potted oxen and lark’s spleen catapulted it directly into the ballpool and family fun area could survive.

But sometimes the world doesn’t just turn on its axis. Sometimes it sashays, it shimmies, it grinds its bits in your face like a lap dancer who needs the extras to pay her orthodontist.

Now it looks like the world has once again turned and the only pubs that seem to be able to thrive in this new climate of enforced austerity are the beer-only paradises whose culinary range extends no further than the holy trinity of the British tapas: crisp, pickled eggs and nuts.

The gastros’ other rivals also seem to have better equipped to deal with the downturn: Takeaways takings are up, fast food is selling more swiftly and the chain restaurants are thriving in a flurry of vouchers. Even the top end restaurants are discounting with lunch deals and lowered prices.

Are the gastro pubs caught in between them? After all they are the very middle of the middle market: too informal for big birthday or anniversary meal but too expensive for a casual dinner or a working lunch.

So is this the start of a trend? Are the gastros starting to suffer? Are drinkers’ pubs near you busier than those that went gourmet? Is dinner money being spent on drink and then a takeaway at home?

The evidence here might be anecdotal but for the gastro Star & Dove in Totterdown it must seem real enough for Eamon and Christiane at the Star & Dove.

Read our pub review of The Star & Dove here.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Liberal Democrat MP's second home is revealed as the local pub.

One MP is making allowances in the battle to save the pubs of Britain from over-taxation and over-moralisation. At great personal expense one member of the otherwise apparently corrupt and venal House of Commons, is doing his bit to make sure that the frothy intoxicant we call beer is still available across Great Britain. And at a price that ordinary hard-working families can afford.

You won’t have heard of him though, he’s a Liberal Democrat. But his name is Greg Mulholland MP and he’s the Lib Dem’s shadow Health Minister. That’s right, he’s Ben Bradshaw’s shadow-shadow.

Now you might call him a friend of the people but don’t call him a friend of the pub, that just sounds like a euphemism for the human litter you see hammering on the door of a warehouse-sized ‘Spoons at 8.58 am. And he’s not that, he’s the people’s chosen representative for the sober hard working families of Leeds North West.

But this MP has made the pub his second home, but not literally - we are sure his expenses are completely in order - more figuratively because proof of Greg’s heroism can clearly be seen in the current roster of Early Day Motions. Yes, when it comes to EDM, Greg is first among unequals, a man with a plan, and a pen.

For not only has this brave middle-of-the-roader decided to support the CAMPAIGN TO SAVE THE GREAT BRITISH PUB and the COMMUNITY PUB INQUIRY, he has also added his support to the four strong Parliamentary call to support NATIONAL PUB DAY.

By there is more. Brave Greg his scrawled his spidery signature on PUBCOS AND THE SUPPLY TIE and even got his minions to typed out the following EDMs: CLOSURE OF LEEDS TETLEY'S BREWERY, TESCO AND THE CONVERSION OF PUBLIC HOUSE SITES and the ALL PARTY PARLIAMENTARY SAVE THE PUB GROUP.

But the fight goes on. Now he is fronting a solo campaign to get the House to support NATIONAL CASK ALE WEEK. Which as you all know by now runs from 6 to 13 April 2009 in support of lovely brown booze.

So thegoodbeerblog proposes that we should all join the mighty Liberal Democrat Greg Mulholland MP in his heroic campaign, and hoist a drink with him to saving the British pub*.

Cheers to Greg Mulholland, MP for Leeds North West, friend to drinking types nationwide and all-round good egg.

*Although obviously we can’t actually drink with him as the bars of the House of Commons (despte being heavily subsidised) are members only.

Brewdog and The Independent: Extreme Beer and Extremely Poor Journalism

Feisty beer-makers Brewdog have made themselves another enemy, blandsheet newspaper The Independent. Now perhaps sharing an office with The Daily Mail has unaligned the chakras of this previously mild bunch of hacks but it does seem that someone has micturated in their skinny lattes.

So in this article under the attention grabbing, Google-snagging, and largely unsupported by quotes headline of Health fears over 'extreme beer' craze, they set their soy-milk fed attack dog (answering to the name of Martin Hickman) on those scamps at Brewdog, Otley, Thornbridge Hall and Dark Star.

However what remains of their poor old subs desk don’t seem to have been quite on message with this crusade against slightly strong(er) beer for slightly young(er) people and so have left the piece riddled with errors, from the misspelling of Adam Withrington’s name to failing to correct Alcohol Concern's miscalculating of the alcohol content of a 10% beer in units.

Strangely the loudly bugled health fears never actually materialise in the copy and especially not in the form of a quote from anyone within the medical establishment. As for the craze element of that headline, only one of the ales listed in available in supermarkets while the rest are mostly sold in pubs or via the dusty shelves of a few specialist retailers, where they are ‘boldly marketing’ apparently, through labels, on their bottles. However some credit must go to the gluten-free Martin Hickman though, as both of the other elements of the headline - ‘over’ and the reported speech ‘extreme beers’ are 100% correct.

As usual proper beer writer Pete Brown makes sense of it all with a clarity and purity that shames the words that tumble out of here, so please go read this walking wall of common sense’s rebuke to the Indy here.

Go on, there is nothing else here.


Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Golden Goodbyes: Swindon’s Archers The Brewers Gets Credit Crunched

Archers brewery has gone into compulsory liquidation, making it one of the first of the real ale producers to go under in this recession.

Pub paper the Morning Advertiser tweeted the news yesterday that the Swindon-based brewer, which was created in 1979, was to be liquidated just over a year after a takeover saved it from administration. Now, with an insolvency practitioner appointed, Archers are hoping to find a buyer to keep their beers in production.

When it was just estate agents and bankers, it was funny. Then the Credit Crunch started to chewing up ordinary ‘hard working families’. And me. Now, somehow, watching society slough away like putrefying flesh isn’t the endless source of chuckles it once seemed. Especially after news like this.

Because while the loss of any brewer of ale moistens the ducts, Archers feels closer to home, mainly because it was, a Google Map close. For as someone who pretty much started their ale-drinking career with pints of Golden in an Archers pub only a few hundred metres from the brewery, today my mucus membranes have become almost desiccated.

To guess why and how this 10,000 barrels-a-year plant and its 20 staff have ended up surplus to requirements would be to indulge in wild, pointless speculation based on no inside information whatsoever...

But this is a blog, it’s what we do.

Part of the problem must have been the sheer range of beer, produced in addition to the core four of: Golden, Village, Best and Crystal Clear. Back in 2007, then administrators PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP quoted Archers’ beer range as 190 brews strong. The stupidly comprehensive Beermad also list 274 ales produced, although they have 194 of those down as dead or deleted.

And if you could ever identify an Archers’ beer you liked from this ever-changing range, finding them in the South West seemed to increasingly be a problem.

Despite living in Bath for a decade the amount of times an Archers ale turned up in any pub could be counted on the webbed fingers of one hand. The same goes for that former Archers pub in Swindon in which I did so much of my formative drinking. Never again has a beer from 400 metres away made it across the tracks to former freehouse The Gluepot. Instead various Golden-like pints were spotted and sunk on days out in Stoke, Huddersfield or Oldham, but never seen again in Swindon.

So was it a case of aiming too far and too wide? Who knows but one landlord I spoke too even said that he found the brewery difficult to deal with, with them preferring answerphones to answering calls or answering his questions.

For most beer drinkers Archers were probably a producer of some pleasant but samey straw coloured ales but for some of us, Swindonians mostly, it will be missed. Even if we haven’t so much as seen a beers of theirs in ten years.