Words by Boak & Bailey
As part of the Manchester Beer Week City Clash, which will see six brewing teams from five cities go head-to-head in a unique competition, we asked beer writers from around the country to tell us what makes the beer scene so special in their cities. Noted bloggers and authors Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey make the case for Bristol.
Bristol’s beer scene is catholic, compact and fizzing with energy.
We first noticed the chain reaction occurring here while researching our first book in the winter of 2013. In the space of a few months a string of craft beer bars appeared on King Street offering something like 60 unique draught beers within a 100-metre run. Bristol already had many great pubs and well-regarded breweries (notably Bristol Beer Factory and Arbor) but this was the start of a new phase.
In 2014 the established Somerset brewery Moor moved to the city. Another Somerset brewery, the Wild Beer Co, made Bristol the base for a flagship bar in 2016. At the same time a slew of completely new breweries appeared, notably Left Handed Giant, which this year smashed crowdfunding targets with the intention of building a city centre brewpub, and the ambitious, lager-focused Lost & Grounded. The founder of Left Handed Giant, Bruce Gray, is a Scot; Annie Clements and Alex Troncoso of Lost & Grounded are Australian; and Justin Hawke of Moor is from California. They could have gone anywhere but chose Bristol.
Veteran beer writer Tim Webb, co-author of the World Atlas of Beer (and, disclosure: co-publisher of our last book) moved to Bristol two-and-a-half-years ago and is enraptured by the vibrancy of its brewing industry. “Bristol is the UK’s first city of beer,” he has said to us, and to anyone who will listen, on more than one occasion.
His Bristol Craft Beer Map published at the end of 2017 lists 39 of the best pubs and bars and 15 breweries within the city boundaries. (This figure is, of course, a moving target.) “In Manchester you’ve only got ten – it’s all imported from outside,” he says. “And it’s the same with Norwich, Derby, and Sheffield.” (He is well aware, of course, that this is fighting talk – in 2018, beef equals buzz.)
If there is a nit to be picked it is around consistency and quality, with most new breweries still in furiously experimental mode, and sometimes rough around the edges.
But it’s not all about craft beer. Determined conservatives could drink their way across the city on Courage and Bass in cosy ‘proper’ pubs, while veteran microbreweries such as Butcombe (founded in 1978) and Bath Ales (founded in 1995, now owned by St Austell) offer continuity.
There’s a sense overall that Bristol is a city where the schism between cask and keg, trad and mod, CAMRA and the Kraft Kids, feels less pointed. It’s a cliché to describe Bristol as laid-back but it seems to be borne out in the ease with which brewers collaborate on beers and events such as tap-room trails.
Stephen Powell of Bristol Beer Week suggests that while elsewhere there might be one or two dominant superstar breweries, Bristol has more of the feel of a true collective. “The mood is positive,” he says, “but now is the time to show to the rest of the UK we can compete.”