Category Archives: pubs

Falmouth: A Beer Geek Destination

Seven Stars, Falmouth.

In recent months, we’ve been asked several times by beer geeks where they should visit in Cornwall. These days, there is a clear answer: Falmouth.

This small coastal town (pop. 27k) now has enough going on that, even if it can’t compete with London or Manchester, it could be said to have a ‘beer scene’. There’s certainly plenty to keep a beer geek entertained for a few hours.

A pub crawl

Here’s our suggested route which takes a very manageable 20 minutes or so to walk end-to-end, right down the main street.

1. Five Degrees West, Grove Place, TR11 4AU

A pub that wants to be a bar, 5DW is a good place to tick off cask ales from smaller local breweries such as Rebel and Black Rock. There are usually some Belgian and American beers in bottles, though nothing out of the ordinary.

2. The Front, Custom House Quay, TR11 3JT

For a long time, Cornwall’s primary real ale destination. In the face of competition, it seems a bit less exciting than it used to, but is still a great place to find a wide range of real ales, including many lesser-spotted beers from local stalwarts Skinner’s and Sharp’s. (We’re not enamoured with either brewery, but that’s a matter of taste.) There are also several interesting ciders. There’s no kitchen but you are positively encouraged to bring along your own fish and chips or pasties from one of the nearby shops.

3. OPTIONAL: The Oddfellows Arms

To extend the crawl, or to adjust the balance towards real ale, take a detour to the Oddfellows Arms (2 Quay Hill, TR11 3HA) for pints of well-kept Sharp’s in a resolutely pubby atmosphere.

Beerwolf Books, Falmouth.

4. Beerwolf BooksBells Court, TR11 3AZ

We loved this discount-bookshop-pub mash-up from the off and it keeps getting better. We particularly appreciate the range of cask ales from outside Cornwall (e.g. Magic Rock, Salopian, Dark Star, Burning Sky) but this is also one of a handful of places which regularly stocks beers from the Penzance Brewing Company, based at the Star Inn, Crowlas. Bottled beers include Hitachino Nest, Rebel Mexicocoa and Belgian classics. There is also a choice of ciders. Its cosy atmosphere is better suited to winter than summer, though.

5. The Seven Stars, The Moor, TR11 3QA

An old-fashioned pub which has been listed in CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide since the 1970s, the Seven Stars probably won’t appeal to the ardent craftophile: it’s speciality is perfectly kept Bass Pale Ale. There are also guest ales, sometimes adventurous, but it’s not really about ticking or novelty. If you don’t stop here for at least one pint, you’re missing something great.

6. Hand Bar, Old Brewery Yard, TR11 2BY

Falmouth’s very own ‘craft beer bar’ is the very opposite of the Seven Stars — modern in style, with an emphasis on the diversity of beer. Run by a former employee of North Bar in Leeds, it feels as if it has been transplanted from a more metropolitan setting, and is popular with students. The beer can be expensive, but not unusually so for this section of the market, and there are usually some genuine rarities to be found on tap or in the bottle fridges.

7. OPTIONAL: The Bottle Bank (off licence), Discovery Quay, TR11 3XP

Right back at the other end of town, near 5DW, this off licence offers a very decent range of interesting beers from breweries such as Siren, Hardknott and even Mikkeller. It is also a good place to pick up the Sharp’s Connoisseur’s Choice range.

8. FOR TICKERS ONLY: The Seven Stars, Penryn, TR10 8EL

This otherwise unremarkable pub in Penryn, 15 minutes from Falmouth by bus, is the local outlet for Spingo Ales brewed at the Blue Anchor at Helston. We have enjoyed pints of Ben’s Stout here, in an atmosphere of glum distrust…

Beyond Beer

Apart from beer, Falmouth also has decent beaches, coastal walks, shopping, an excellent museum and plenty to stimulate the history buff. It also has some great places to eat, including, at the Meat Counter, the most convincing posh burgers and hot dogs we’ve had this side of Bristol.

In previous years, we’ve provided lists of our favourite Cornish pubs (2012 2013) and beers (2012 2013). All the places we mention in those posts are still worth a visit, and the general standard of Cornish pubs is pretty high, as long as you don’t mind Tribute, Betty Stogs and Doom Bar.

The Launch and Sinking of a Flagship

Burger King, Leicester Square, by Matt Brown.
Burger King, Leicester Square, by Matt Brown, from Flickr under Creative Commons.

Next time you find yourself picking the gherkins out of a Whopper® in the Burger King® on Leicester Square in central London, take a moment to appreciate the building’s place in British pub history.

In the 1950s, Whitbread, like many other breweries, were desperate to revive enthusiasm for the public house — to show that it could be part of modern life alongside satellites, pop music and trendy coffee bars, and wasn’t just a quaint relic of a bygone time.

Read more after the jump ↠

Dissecting a 1984 Local Beer Guide

What can we learn from the small book Real Ale in Devon published by the local branch of the Campaign for Real Ale in 1984?

Book cover: Real Ale in Devon, 1984.1. It is evidence of the increasing availability of ‘real ale’ in this period. With a hundred pages, this volume is as big as the first edition of the national Good Beer Guide, published ten years earlier. The introduction notes a huge boom in the number of ‘real ale outlets’ since the previous edition, and there 1050 listed in total.

2. Beer agencies were important players in the development of a beer geek culture. That is, distributors (middle men) who brought interesting outside beer into the region (Samuel Smith, Wadworth, Fuller’s, Theakston) at a price. Businesses of this type still exist, notably supplying kegged beer to the emerging ‘craft beer’ market currently neglected, or misunderstood, by larger distributors.

Vintage Sheppard & Mason beer agency advert.
Note cut-and-paste Letraset fail at bottom right… And here’s Mr Sheppard on Twitter.

3. Bass is an honorary West Country beer. Since veteran observer the Pub Curmudgeon pointed it out to us, we’ve seen lots of evidence to support the idea that, beyond Bristol, Draught Bass was the traditional ‘premium’ alternative to poor quality locally brewed beers. This book describes it as ‘one of the commonest real ales in Devon’.

4. It was easier to get strong dark beer than pale’n’hoppy. There are several ‘strong winter’ ales listed, but nothing described as straw/golden coloured. Small brewers back then seem to have staked their reputations on producing heavier, headier beer than the thin, weak products turned out by big brewers. Marston’s Owd Roger old ale/barley wine had people rather excited.

5. There were several stand-out exhibition pubs. Where most pubs in the guide hada single real ale on offer (e.g. Whitbread Bitter), several leap out of the text with long lists. The Royal Inn at Horsebridge had nine ales, including some brewed on the premises; and the Peter Tavy at, er, Peter Tavy, has fourteen in its listing. There are quite a few others with similar numbers, and many more with six or seven.

6. The phrase ‘guest beers’, so important in the 1990s, was in use by this time. It is the antidote to the big brewery tied house model and an expression of a certain type of beer geekery, perhaps stimulated more by novelty and variety than a simple ‘decent pint‘.

7. We need to think a bit more about cider and its place in the ‘real ale revolution’. Devon’s CAMRA activists were evidently particularly keen to defend and promote ‘real cider’, but, by this stage, seem to have had more success bringing beer from Yorkshire and London than in preserving the true native drinking tradition.

8. Blackawton was the trendiest brewery in the county. It was Devon’s first microbrewery, and one of the first in the country, founded in 1977. We wonder if the presence of Blackawton beer in a pub wasn’t a kind of Bat Signal for beer geeks, rather as a Magic Rock pump clip is today.

9. If you didn’t like Courage, Plymouth was not the city for you. See also: Bristol.

(And a personal footnote: Bailey’s parents’ pub in Exeter sold Whitbread Bitter on hand-pump. Described as a ‘Town local’ in the text, it also, sadly, features in the addendum: “[The] following pubs should now be deleted…”)

We’re very grateful to Neil Bowness (@neil_bowness) for sending us a copy of this book which he tells us his mum bought for 20p at a church fair. Bargain!

Greene King Mild At Last

Greene King sign

“It’s taken us longer to find a pint of this than it did to get hold of bottles of Westvleteren 12,” Bailey said in anticipation of his first sip of Greene King XX Mild.

Those robots among you who are able to judge beer purely on its flavour won’t understand how several years of hunting and hype influenced our ability to assess this pint of humble mild with any objectivity.

It seems odd to use the word ‘hype’ in relation to mild from a little-loved regional brewer, but that’s what we’ve been subjected to, in a quiet, rather British way — “Even if you don’t like GK IPA, you must try their mild,” uttered in a tone usually reserved for “There are some rather interesting carvings in the nave…”

We got our chance in the wake of a Brew Britannia reading in Cambridge last week when Pintsandpubs and Beertalk kindly agreed to walk us to the Free Press, a cute, historic back-street pub with a reliable supply of XX, on the way back to the station.

It was a bit of an odd experience, to be frank. The pub had several interesting cask ales and a nice selection of ‘craft’ and ‘world’ beer in bottles, so turning up with two well-known beer geeks and ordering mild earned us some funny looks. Those looks got even funnier once the Westvleteren comment had slipped out.

You won’t be surprised to hear that GKXX is not as good as WV12, but then it has only 3% ABV compared to the latter’s 10.2%. It wouldn’t be unfair to call it watery, and cask-conditioning rendered it no more complex or exciting than the various kegged milds we enjoyed (we actually did!) in Manchester the other week.

But it is a drinking beer.

If you’re prone to tasting and thinking but want a night off, it’s just the thing: your notes will be done in two sips (dark brown to ruby, chocolatey, sweetish) leaving you free to sling it back in volume, with your brain free for chatting, reading a book or completing a crossword or two.

Forcing ourselves to find something else to say, we spotted a resemblance to a Wadworth mild we tried a couple of years ago, and to home brew we made using our own interpretation of a 1938 Starkey, Knight & Ford recipe. That makes us think that it (a) contains a proportion of flaked maize; (b) uses a good slug of brewing sugar; and (c) probably hasn’t changed much in the last 60-odd years.

The final verdict: if we lived in Cambridge, Bailey would probably drink it all the time, but Boak will be quite happy if she never tastes it again. (See — we don’t always agree!)

And that’s that itch scratched.

costain

The Britannia, Brussels, 1958

The Expo in Brussels in 1958 was an opportunity for Britain to present its culture to the world so, of course, we sent a pub.

At a press conference in 1957, it was announced that 500 British ‘concerns’ were to take stands at the Expo, and that a highlight would be the Britannia Inn, to be built and run by Whitbread. They were, in the late 1950s, the single biggest exporter of British beer to Belgium, and were willing to stump up the £40,000 the project was expected to cost.

The Britannia, Expo 58, Brussels.

(They weren’t alone: John Smith’s and the Hope & Anchor brewery of Sheffield announced plans to run a more modest ‘patio bar’ elsewhere on site.)

The Britannia was intended to demonstrate the ‘warmth and friendly atmosphere’ of the traditional pub, but also that the public house, and Britain more generally, was moving with the times.

Britannia pub sign, 1958.To modern eyes, it seems to be an example of that poor, unfashionable relic — ‘the estate pub’. Flat-roofed and square-edged, it was built from pale modern brick with white wood slats, and avoided cod-Victorian brownness. Its terrace was covered with white tables and parasols, while the interior was designed to evoke the feel of the royal yacht with which it shared a name.
Whitbread also brewed a special beer for the pub, Britannia Bitter. It was considered remarkably strong by British standards (we don’t have any stats, though) and was presumably intended to appeal to the Continental palate.

Not everyone like the Britannia and C.F. Huebner of Kent wrote to the Times (17/05/58) to complain.

The serious criticism I would make of the British exhibit is that the so-called Britannia pub does not truly represent an English pub and I am amazed that the brewing firm who sponsored it, who in other respects are an excellent organisation, should not have made sure the representation was more real.

Quibbles aside, the Britannia worked well for Whitbread and almost every press report about the British stand at Expo 58 mentioned the pub as a highlight. In his 1959 review of trading (Observer, 26/07) Colonel T.H. Whitbread said of the Britannia that it had been “a much greater success both financially and from a publicity point of view than I ever thought possible”.

In the years that followed, attempts were made to capitalise on fond memories of the Expo.

Britannia Bitter beer mat.Britannia Bitter remained in production as a ‘premium’ product, sold exclusively, at first, at the Samuel Whitbread, a state-of-the-art pub on Leicester Square, from 1958.

Though the pub building was moved elsewhere in Belgium and became a private house (FT 24/10/58; does anyone know where it is?) its name, sign and ‘exhibits’ (models and paintings of ships called Britannia) were moved to Dover in the UK, where it commenced trading in 1962. It was also supplied with the supposedly upmarket Britannia Bitter, which became a national brand from 1967 onwards (Times 23/01/67).

The Britannia’s true legacy, however, is probably the idea of the pre-packaged English pub abroad. In a 1967 report for the Financial Times Christopher Meakin (29/06) made clear that the Britannia wasn’t the first pub to be shipped overseas but argued that its success gave the trend impetus. At first, they were mostly a national publicity tool accompanying British trade exhibitions, but, as Meakin reveals, brewers and entrepreneurs weren’t blind to the commercial potential:

One man at least already specialises in providing instant traditional British atmosphere for pubs abroad, and is currently negotiating a string of 200 Olde Englishe Innes to stretch coast-to-coast across America.

“We provide them with everything — false oak beams, false fireplaces, hunting prints and horns, pewter tankards, stuffed fish, warming pans and horse brasses,” Mr Leslie Kostick, managing director of K.B. Contracts told me.

Mr Kostick produces three varieties of pub for overseas use — Tudor, Victorian and Regency. So far K.B. Contracts has completed a ‘Britannia’ in Holland, ‘The Bulldog’ in Canada and the ‘John Bull’ in Portugal.

Though there are such English pubs to be found around the world today, they are far outnumbered (it seems to us — we haven’t counted) by Irish pubs, set up using the same business model.

Is it too much to say that the Britannia in Brussels begat the Blarney in Berlin?

PS. We haven’t read it yet, but Jonathan Coe’s Expo 58 is a period comic thriller set in and around the Britannia.