Bristol has always been a great place to visit for beer drinkers. It has more Good Beer Guide listed pubs than you can shake a stick at. With Bristol Beer Factory and Arbor Ales making a real impact on the national “craft” market, BrewDog setting up shop in October and the Euston/Sheffield Tap people searching for premises, Bristol’s set to become a bit of a West Country beer destination.
If you ask me, and you kind of are by reading this article, Bristol is a not just a good city, it is great city. Why is it great I hear you ask (this is a pantomime post, did I not mention?). It’s great because it has everything a big city has but in a nice little compact 2 mile radius that you can cover in an afternoon (the city centre that is before I get jumped on by a load of non-central residents).
So, beer tourists + compact historical city with loads of good pubs = ideal pub crawl.
Before we design the route we should probably question what constitutes a good pub crawl. These are the things I usually look for but they are by no means a definitive list.
- 10 pubs seems like a good number, sensible use of half pints should see you through
- If you’re just visiting the city then you probably need to start and end at the station
- Walks between pubs should generally be no more than 10 minutes
- It’s always nice to see a fair bit of the city
- Food is important, the old adage of “eating is cheating” is for alcoholics
- A few beer gardens en route is nice if it happens to be decent weather
Incidentally, I’ve taken it as a given that “shit loads of amazing beer” is the main priority of the crawl.
So, yer ‘tis (that’s Bristolian for “here it is” for all you middle class home county dwellers). A small caveat on the directions front, they are brief, bring a copy of the map or have it on your phone!
Arrive via train at Bristol Temple Meads station, marvel at your first taste of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s quite phenomenal engineering. Walk out the back door (not left into the taxi-rank melee), turn left on the Friary (if you can see a Starbuck’s you’re in the right place), cross over the roundabout and onto Victoria Street. Just off the back of Victoria Street you’ll find Bristol’s most famous gig venue, the Fleece and Firkin (and the building where they filmed that Stephen Mangan detective comedy if you’re interested). Next door is the pub where you’re as likely to find a famous band playing pool as you are a 10% Arbor Ales Breakfast Stout, The Seven Stars:
1) The Seven Stars
The Seven Stars is as spit and sawdust as this crawl gets and a perfect place to start. Try to resist the inevitable Arbor and Bristol Beer Factory on tap for we will encounter plenty of these later. Go for a local West Country ale, or some other UK region if you’re visiting during one of the pub’s regular “beerodicals”, settle down with a hot Pepperami and whack on some Smashing Pumpkins on the seemingly infinite jukebox. You’ll soon realise why this pub is regularly voted Bristol’s best by CAMRA.
Turn left out of the door then right before you hit the water, left again and over Bristol Bridge to experience your first glance of Bristol’s maritime heritage (or water as it is often known). The bridge is a seagull shooting range so try not to get shat on or attacked. At the other side of the bridge look to your left. If it’s October, you’ll see BrewDog’s shiny new addition to its bar portfolio. If it’s before then you’ll see a building site.
Look, whatever you think of BrewDog, they run some bloody good bars with some bloody good beers (their own and a huge range of guests) and people will inevitably come to Bristol solely to go there. It’s a bit of a wild card featuring a pub that’s yet to open but having been to the Camden branch, and knowing the recently appointed assistant manager, this is somewhere you simply must visit. Housed in the old O’Brien’s sandwich shop (it used to be a pub, but I forget what it was called), right next to the water, it’s sure to be a winner.
Cross over the road, bear left slightly, past the Old Fish Market pub (stop in there if you want to add to your pub tally and bag a quick bit of Thai food to boot) and up the steps into St Nick’s market in the old Corn Exchange. If you want to stop for another bite, Pieminister and Source are the highlights, but all of the stalls are excellent. But best not to dither so move straight on to the Rummer Hotel.
3) The Rummer Hotel
The Rummer has nothing to offer in terms of keg or cask (or hotel rooms weirdly) but it makes up for this by offering around 20 bottles of carefully selected world beer, including the unsurpassed Schlenkerla rauchbier. If you happen to be with some companions who aren’t that beercentric (probably not the best for a beery pub crawl) then The Rummer also offers the best selection of spirits in the South West.
If you’re just a bit obsessive like me you’ll have counted every spirit on the shelf and done a broad approximation of just how much their insurance premium must be before you’ve finished your first bottle of Ceddar Ale. But enough dawdling, push your way through the velvet draped exit and turn right. Then stop for 30 seconds to contemplate your next move. The next pub is 15 minutes walk away (I know, I’ve broken one of my rules already). You can miss it out and go straight to pubs 5, 6 or 7. You’d be an idiot of course because the Hillgrove Porter Stores is about as good as Bristol pubs get. Follow the map on this one as it’ll take me far too long to explain.
4) Hillgrove Porter Stores
For several years I walked straight past the Hillgrove on my merry way to the Bath Ales pub, Hare on the Hill (another place worth a visit if you want to extend the itinerary). For some reason I found the pub a bit mysterious and threatening (probably due to the frosted windows). It could easily be a hostelry in which the jukebox stops and everyone looks around when you walk in. The truth, of course, is the polar opposite. The crowd at this Dawkins pub are young musicians, artist and friendly locals, supping on any one of 10 real ales, playing board games and listening to a few tunes on the house turntables. Just don’t ask them for a pint poured from the redundant BrewDog tower, it’s a bit of a sore point.
Turn left out the door and left again up the short hill. Left on to Somerset Street then onto Kingsdown Parade where the Bristol massive fought off Cromwell’s New Model Army in the mid 17th Century. A right left and a right left takes you on to St Michael’s Hill to Bristol newest “Craft Beer” pub and pizza joint, Beerd.
Beerd is run by Bath Ales, the West Countries true brown ale pioneers. I’ve given it a fair share of stick since it opened in the back end of 2011, mainly for trying to be something it isn’t (a “craft beer bar”) rather than making the most of what it is (a decent bar with a reasonable selection of local and world beers and a proper pizza oven). It’s probably time for some nosh now so sit down for the aforementioned pizza and some deep fried pig skin and crack into a bottle of Nogne O IPA or kegged Flying Dog. If you’re feeling like you want to moderate the pace a bit this is currently the only establishment in Bristol that serves beer in two thirds of a pint measures.
On the way out of the pub do your best to ignore the Highbury Vaults (beautiful homely pub but, sadly, mostly Young’s beer on tap), turn right and walk about 200 metres (past the student Mecca that is The White Bear, possibly the first pub I ever visited in Bristol) and on to The Robin Hood, the most popular “head wetting” venue in Bristol, given its location right next door to St Michael’s maternity hospital.
6) The Robin Hood
The Robin Hood is a bit of a limbo pub. It doesn’t have terribly good footfall so can be a bit slow at times. But it fits perfectly into the pub crawl route and offers around 25 bottles of modern world beers (Flying Dog, Einstok, Little Creatures and so on) and five hop-forward real ale pumps. If you love Moor beer then you’re in luck, there’s usually at least two on tap (So’Hop or Nor’Hop are staples). It’s also a perfect place to watch some sport in a very un-sporty atmosphere (i.e. not full of twats) for an hour or two.
Walk down the hill, past the church on the right and the amazing smelling (but very average tasting) Greek kebab house on the left, glance at the shiny FV’s in Zero Degrees but focus your eyes on the Colston Yard, former home of Smiles Brewery.
7) Colston Yard
Colston Yard is a Butcombe Brewery pub. Butcombe Best Bitter is one cornerstone of the triumvirate of West Country beer, the other two being Sharp’s Doombar and St Austell’s Tribute. The three beers that a lot of pubs put on to appease the masses (not terrible, just a bit meh). Fortunately Butcombe saw fit to appoint Seb and Dean as managers, two beer geeks whose remit is to push the pub beyond its traditional routes. They’re up to 9 pumps and 5 keg taps with more to come and they’re the only pub in Bristol recently to have Thornbridge, Nogne O and BrewDog on tap. It’s bloody good now but it’ll only get better as time goes by.
Turn left, past the beautiful 17th century Christmas steps, turn right when you see the Gryphon, Bristol’s only hard rock real ale pub, then walk through central Bristol’s gay quarter, under Park Street (look up for the genuine “man climbing out of the window” Banksy) and toward the Three Tuns. You’ve probably had an Arbor Ales recently, and loved it. Well get excited for one of their two tap houses.
8) The Three Tuns
78 Saint George’s Road Bristol, Avon BS1 5UR
0117 907 0689
The Three Tuns sells Arbor Ales beers before anyone else sells them. It also sells a load of other awesome beers such as Steel City, Harbour and Art Brew. It has roast beef monster munch behind the bar and free wi-fi. If you need any more compelling information you’re dead to me.
Turn left, walk past Bristol City College then look down to the water front and marvel at the shitty mess Crest Nicholson have made of the harbourside development. Look over the water and spy the SS Great Britain, Brunel’s majestic ship, the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic (and bus a few convicts over to Aussieland). Stop at the roundabout and veer to the right slightly, stopping at the Bag of Nails.
9) The Bag of Nails
If you know Bristol pubs, you’ll know Luke. He’s worked in just about every single one in the last 10 years, and not shaved his goatee during that time. I challenge you to find a barman that pours a bottle of unfiltered German beer with more care (I’ve seen him waste entire bottles because they weren’t “quite right”). Luke is a Real Ale purist. You won’t find any craft keg on at the Nails. But you will find modern local breweries showcased and regular beer festivals. Just don’t, whatever you do, mention BrewDog. You won’t like Luke when he talks about BrewDog (or more likely, he won’t like you).
So we’re nearly there. You’re probably completely leathered by now, but hold it together for one last stop off. I’ve mentioned Bristol’s maritime history more than once already and the last pub is about as fitting as I could plan. Walk out of the nails, over the road, bear left and walk along the river with the water on your left. Stop at the next boat that has a massive “Grain Barge” and “Bristol Beer Factory” painted on the side.
10) The Grain Barge
We’ve been to the Arbor tap, now it’s time for Bristol Beer Factory’s finest. The Grain Barge actually used to be a grain barge (funny that). It was built in the 1930s with no engine so that it could be towed across the Seven Estuary with its delicious cargo of barley and wheat. Up until a few years ago it was a bizarre 1970s style restaurant but was rescued by BBF and is now an eco, design, arty, muso beer sanctum. If you’ve not picked up enough beer and snack calories on the way then the food is top notch and if it’s not dark and freezing, the top deck offers just about the best sun trap in Bristol. If your liver can take it, drink Southville Hop, officially the UK’s best strong bottled beer.
Climb back down the gang plank without going for a swim, turn left and walk about 10m to the Bristol Ferry stop. There is, of course, no better way to experience Bristol’s waterways than by boat. Look down stream and you’ll catch a glimpse of Brunel’s breathtaking suspension bridge, look up to the left and see Cliftonwood’s multicoloured terraces, look to the right and see Bristol ship yards, unchanged for decades. The ferry takes you back to Bristol’s floating harbour. Jump off and walk the 10 minutes back to Temple Meads (past a couple more boozers on the way) or jump on another ferry that takes you right back to the station.
These are not necessarily the best pubs in Bristol but this is, without doubt, probably one of the better than average pub crawls you could attempt. I hope you enjoy it and please let me know how you get on.