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Ship Shape And Bristol Fashion

Added: Sunday, May 1st 2005

Signs outside the Wellington Hotel in the Horfield district of Bristol a couple of months ago announced "Beer Seminar with Roger Protz". Even though I've been conducting public beer events for a decade or two, I approached this seminar with a more than usual amount of nervous apprehension.

It was my small contribution to the Campaign for Real Ale's National Pubs Week initiative. Usually I do ticket events, which means the people who turn up will have a degree of interest in the subject, but this was an open house evening. Anyone who happened to be in the pub could listen, sample the free beer on offer and offer their opinions. Such events can easily get out of control.

I conducted one in a pub in Romford, Essex, some years ago where some vocal members of the audience made it clear they thought I was talking rubbish. They got louder and more abusive as the free pints went down.

But the event in the Wellington was a success. The pub has been transformed by its owner, Bath Ales, and landlord Paul Tanner. Not long ago it was a pool and lager pub. The only cask beer was Courage Best, which accounted for one nine-gallon firkin a week.

Since Bath Ales took over, it has become a Mecca for beer lovers. It disproves the absurd notion that there is no demand for cask beer. The Wellington now sells 22 18-gallons kils a week of the brewery's Spa, Gem, Barnstormer and Festivity. The pub is a spacious one, with a large main bar and several smaller ones to the side. The place was packed, standing room only. False modesty aside, they were there primarily for the beer but, as several people told me later, to also learn a little about the history of brewing.

There was no trouble at all. The sizeable audience listened attentively and then asked intelligent questions when I took them through a tasting of the Bath beers. They were fascinated - and so was I, as I am not a regular drinker of the beers - by the varying aromas and flavours as a result of using different blends of malt and hops.

Spa, for example, is a fine example of modern golden ales with only a hint of darker malt. Both Gem and Barnstormer use some chocolate malt and I was pleased to note that many people in the pub nodded in agreement when I pointed out that the dark malt gives a pronounced and delicious bitter chocolate character to the beers.

This can be dangerous territory. Tell people their beer tastes of chocolate or - with some North American hops - grapefruit and lychees and eyeballs start to rotate as the audience marks you down as a certifiable lunatic.

But this audience was on my side. I didn't have to convert them from lager to cask beer. They revelled in the character given to each beer by pale and roasted malts and such different hop varieties as traditional Fuggles and Goldings and more modern Challenger and First Gold.

earlier this year Bath Ales won the Old Ales and Strong Milds class at Camra's Great British Winter Festival in Manchester. It was a splendid victory for the brewery and also for brewing in the Bristol area: despite the name, Bath Ales, which originated in Bath Spa, is now based in the Warmley district of Bristol.

Bristol brewing needed a boost. It has never recovered from the savage closure of the vast Courage plant in the city, better known by its historic name of George's. And just a few weeks ago the long-running independent, Smiles Brewery, closed its doors as a result of financial problems.

Bath Ales has been joined by a second brewery. The Beer Factory is based in part of the site of the Ashton Gate Brewery that was taken over and closed by George's in the 1930s. One partner in the brewery is the leading architect George Ferguson, who has turned parts of the old Wills tobacco factory in the area into a bar, restaurant and theatre complex. It was a short but inspirational visit to Bristol, which is slowly recovering its great brewing traditions.