Many pubs in Bristol can trace their history back centuries. But the recent history of the Colston Yard at the top of Colston Street opposite the Children’s Hospital is more interesting than most, taking in three different breweries, success, failure, corporate takeovers and mighty fine beer.
The story starts in 1978 when John Payne founded the Smiles brewery in Colston Yard, moving from the back of Bell’s Diner in Montpelier which he then owned, and choosing the name Smiles because he didn’t want Courage overlooking Castle Park, Bristol’s biggest brewery at the time, to take him seriously.
Take him seriously they should, for within four years Smiles had its own pub, the Highbury Vaults in Cotham, swiftly followed by the White Hart at Littleton-on-Severn, near Thornbury in south Gloucestershire.
What is now the Colston Yard pub was opened as the Smiles Brewery Tap in 1991. Open from 8am, it was a breakthrough in licensing terms and although you couldn’t buy a pint until 11am, Camra awarded it the title of best new pub in Britain.
In 1992, Smiles was bought by accountant Ian Williams for £2m. That same year was Smiles’ zenith, producing 8,000 barrels of beer with a staff of 115.
But all good things must come to an end, and in 2000, Smiles sold its portfolio of 17 pubs to Youngs for £5.8m to concentrate on beer production. Sadly, Smiles is no more, with its brands last made in Birmingham by the Highgate & Walsall Brewery.
Butcombe reopened the Brewery Tap as the Colston Yard in December 2007, and their beers now dominate the ales on tap. When I visited on a Thursday lunchtime, there were Butcombe’s own Blond, Rare Breed and Gold; Arbor Ales Oyster Stout; Timothy Taylor Landlord; and Bristol Beer Factory Independence.
The bottled beer selection is one of the best in Bristol, with a menu on each table featuring more than 50. Bottles from across the world include Einstök toasted porter from Iceland, Coopers Pale Ale from Australia and the 14% Samichlaus from Austria, with Duvel and Veltins the pick of the lagers on tap.
There is a view of the original Colston Yard from the dining area at the back of the pub, which also benefits from having a large amount of pavement space out front.
Much of the decoration on the walls is beer-related, with lots of old metal signs and pump clips. And look out for old photographs of acts who have played at the Colston Hall, from Girls Aloud to Jools Holland, acquired during the foyer redevelopment.