Pubs come in many shapes and sizes, and are to be found in many unusual and varied locations. I’ve been to several great pubs near water, but never actually visited one on water before – until I set foot aboard the Grain Barge in Bristol, that is. As the name suggests, it used to ply a trade ferrying barley and wheat from Bristol to Cardiff across the Severn Estuary – being towed, as a ‘dumb’ barge it had no engine of its own. Built in 1936, it used to be moored in the Hotwells area of the city adjacent to a more famous rival – Brunel’s SS Great Britain. In 2007 the derelict hulk was bought by the Bristol Beer Factory and converted into a floating pub, with a dining bar above and a function room below. Nudged over to the other bank to a permanent mooring, it now overlooks Brunel’s marine masterpiece.
The Grain Barge is no gimmick; it was voted best bar in Bristol within a year of opening. The real ales on offer are all supplied by the Bristol Beer Factory, who are based in nearby Ashton. They began life in 2003 when a local architect bought the 100-year-old Ashton Gate Brewery and decided to resurrect production on the site. They have five core beers with a few seasonals, one of which (a 5.2% ESB called Exhibition) was on the night I visited the barge. Their regulars are Bristol Gold, Bristol Red, Milk Stout, No7, and Sunrise. The Milk Stout is multi-award-winning, but sadly wasn’t around when I was (although their Bristol Stout was) – with a tough choice I went for the Autumnal flavours of the No7 bitter and then the Bristol Red.
No7 (4.2%) is a premium best bitter – surely the most British of beer styles, and one which is perfect for a slightly chilly October evening. The BBF website states it goes brilliantly with food – and the £7 ‘pie and a pint’ deal was too good to pass up. Unfortunately the No7 was poured totally flat, the lovely dark chestnut colour untroubled by any trace of a head. That said, it was quite fantastic – the classic Fuggles aroma paired very well with the Challenger hops on the palate, and with the slight traces of ripe fruit, vanilla and toffee in the aftertaste, it was seriously drinkable, at a perfect session strength.
Bristol Red – or just Red (3.8%) was, as expected, darker ruby in colour than the bitter, and a bit spicier. Personally, I usually prefer bitters to red ales – and these two were no exception – but the Red was also very drinkable (and unlike the previous beer retained a decent head). It was sweet and caramelly, but with none of the cloying edges that some 80/- beers from up here in Scotland sometimes contain. Bramling Cross give the aroma to this one, instead of Fuggles, and I think impart a nicer smell as a result. Sadly after this second beer, it was time to leave – but if I ever find myself back in Bristol I’ll re-board the barge to try some more.