Brewers roll out the barrels
B eneath a cloudless blue sky, the distant sound of birdsong is all I can hear as I sup a pint of copper- coloured English real ale in the sun.
But, alas, this is not the rose-scented garden of a lovely old pub opposite a village green where the locals are enjoying a gentle game of weekend cricket.
It's 10am on a Tuesday morning and I am standing in the middle of a small trading estate near Lawrence Hill train station sampling Old Smiler, the first beer to be brewed by Bristol's newest brewery.
Towles' Fine Ales occupies part of the former Bristol Wagon & Carriage Works Company buildings on Easton Road and it is run by husband and wife Andrew and Anna Towle.
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Anna used to be a teacher until she gave it up to have the first of the couple's three young children.
Andrew has worked as a brewer on and off for the past 18 years, first at Archers in Swindon, then for several years at Bristol's Smiles Brewery, where he graduated to senior brewer under local brewing legend Neville Mort.
Realising he needed to develop his skills in sales and marketing, he got a sales job for an IT firm but when he was made redundant decided it was high time he realised his long- held dream of starting a brewery of his own.
His decision coincided with him hearing about the retirement of Somerset brewer James Johnstone, who had decided to sell his well-regarded Berrow brewery at Burnham- on-Sea after 30 years.
Johnstone accepted an offer from the Towles, who set about finding a central Bristol site where they could relocate the old equipment from Berrow and set up their new ten-barrel brewery.
Although they took the lease of the premises in Easton Road last August, Towles' Fine Ales was officially born this February when it produced its first beer – their own version of the Berrow 4Bs.
Andrew and Anna plan to continue brewing a few of the Berrow beers, including the popular Topsy Turvy, but it is their own-brand Old Smiler that has been creating the most interest since it was unveiled at last month's Bristol Beer Festival.
A traditional best bitter with the emphasis on the malt, rather than the hops, it's a classic English ale and although it's made to a different and original recipe, it has a richness and a dry, bitter finish, that will certainly appeal to those ale drinkers who, like me, used to enjoy Smiles Best.
"It was bloody brilliant to pull the first pint with my name on it," beams Andrew, who admits he fell into brewing by accident when he was 21 and looking for a job in his gap year after graduating in chemical engineering.
Old Smiler attracted a lot of positive feedback at the Bristol Beer Festival and Towles' Fine Ales was one of the few breweries to sell out of beer and had to restock during the weekend.
Anna says: "One of our high points was going to the festival and seeing our beer on that rack next to all the big boys. That was pretty special.
"It was very flattering to see other respected local brewers drinking our beer and really liking it.
"It was almost as special as pulling that first pint of Old Smiler. That was a big moment, as it was us tasting Andrew's first ever recipe."
Made using Maris Otter malt from Warminster Maltings and Fuggles hops from Herefordshire, Andrew says he wanted to create a bitter that was a "homage" to Smiles Best as he learnt most of his brewing expertise at the now-closed Bristol brewery.
"Old Smiler is my tribute to Smiles Best because I was there for eight years and loved every minute of my time there. That's where I really learnt my craft.
"I wanted the beer to be more about the malt than the hops because I think that's what has been missing at the moment.
"All these new breweries are doing a fantastic job but for most of them, it's all about the hops.
"I wanted to make a traditional English beer that was more about the malt.
"I don't think many beers like this have come out over the past 30 years.
"It's fashionable to make beers as hoppy as possible and people like those beers, but it's not what I prefer.
"I'm not saying we'll never go down that route. If that's what people want, I would be stupid not to make it, but at the moment I think there's more space for a Bristol brewery making malty beers rather than hoppy ones."
There are already plans to open an on-site shop and tasting room so they can host brewery tours, but with just the two of them running the brewery in between looking after three young children, the Towles are working long hours to keep up with demand as the orders keep coming in thick and fast.
Old Smiler has already been on sale in a number of Bristol pubs, including The Highbury Vaults in Kingsdown, and it has sold out quickly wherever it has been stocked.
"We keep trying to visit pubs where our beer is, only be told that it has run out," laughs Anna. "It's a bit annoying but it's great to see people are enjoying it so much!"
For more information about Towles' Fine Ales, call 0117 321 3188 or go to www.towles fineales.co.uk.
Bristol real ale drinkers have never had it better, as more and more new breweries and beers appear in the city's free houses.
Although Bath Ales and Butcombe remain the major players in the local beer scene, there are a number of fast- expanding breweries in Bristol, all of them offering something a little bit different.
These range from the larger breweries, such as Bristol Beer Factory in Ashton, Great Western Brewing in Hambrook and Arbor Ales in Lawrence Hill, to the smaller Zerodegrees in Colston Street and the Ashley Down Brewery, a one-man operation run from a converted garage in St Andrew's.
Arbor Ales recently celebrated its fifth birthday by moving to larger premises in Lawrence Hill to cope with demand.
The company started brewing in 2007 in a small outbuilding at the back of a pub in Stapleton and then doubled its output when it relocated to Kingswood.
It now produces up to 20 brewers' barrels a week (that's the equivalent of more than 5,750 pints), 75 per cent of which is sold within 15 miles of the brewery. Popular Arbor Ales beers include Inferiority Complex, Mild West and Brigstow.
Head brewer Jon Comer, pictured, says Bristol's renewed interest in real ale is down to availability as much as the increase in the number of new breweries.
"Within the next couple of years we'll see the number of breweries operating in the UK reach the one thousand mark. That's an awful lot of brewers producing a vast range of different beers," he says.
"As a nation, we've always enjoyed a pint and the fact that we now have so many different styles to choose from has inevitably led to a renewed love affair with our national drink.
"It's the real ale itself that's changing, rather than the type of drinker. Five years ago, most people would have described real ale as a flat, warm brown liquid that old men with beards drink.
"The new wave of small independent craft breweries has turned this notion on its head by producing every style of beer imaginable, from German hefeweizens to highly hopped American IPAs and everything in between.
"Drinkers are embracing all these different beers produced right on their doorstep."
Andrew Cooper of the award- winning Bristol Beer Factory, which has just secured a regional distribution deal with Waitrose, says the quality of cask beer and creativity of the brewers has increased enormously in the last few years.
He says: "There are some very exciting small breweries in Bristol making excellent beers, as well as some more traditional regional breweries producing a wide range of beers, from the very traditional to the slightly left-field styles produced by Arbor Ales and ourselves.
"I think pubs and retailers also need to excel to survive in the tough economic climate, and by stocking an interesting range of beers it helps them stand out and show quality to the consumer.
"Local food and drink, hand- made in small batches, is more exciting to the customer than mass-produced products with no discernable origin."