A Pleasingly Busy Pub

The Star Inn, Crowlas (exterior)

I took my parents to the Star Inn at Crowlas, our favourite pub, on two occasions last week and they were amazed at how busy it was.

They are former publicans, albeit almost 40 years ago now. It didn’t work out for them — they talk about Whitbread much the same way present day campaigners talk about pubcos — and kept muttering, astonished, and jealous: ‘We’d have been happy with this on a Saturday night, never mind a weekday teatime!’

Everything is stacked against the Star, on paper at least. It’s way out of town, and there’s no food. It’s a handsome building but not a quaint old inn by any measure, not with the A30 running right past the front door. Though there are campsites nearby Crowlas isn’t really a tourist destination either.

And yet, there the customers are, session after session, day after day.

A group at the bar.
Mid-afternoon at the Star back in January — a relatively quiet moment.

It’s tempting for us to argue that the Star’s success is down to the exemplary products of the Penzance Brewing Co, the onsite microbrewery, that dominate the pumps, alongside exotic guest ales from the North. Certainly that’s what gets into the Good Beer Guide and draws in at least part of the crowd — people who might otherwise not make the trek on public transport from places like Hayle, Penzance and even St Just. That the beer is relatively cheap by Cornish standards, as well as being great, probably doesn’t hurt either.

But there’s more to it than that. It’s a proper village local with a loyal core of regulars attracted, we guess, by the same thing my parents particularly liked: it’s completely unpretentious, without being rough. A tightrope walk for sure.

People come in tracksuit bottoms and trainers, overalls and work boots, tweeds and wellies, suits and ties, hiking boots and anoraks — in short, they wear whatever they like, in whatever condition they like, and no-one cares. Well-trained dogs roam about licking up pork scratching crumbs, sometimes joined by a child or two in the after-school window, drifting quietly from parents to relatives to family friends with pop bottles in hands. The management sets this familial tone — informal, low-key, bluster-free.

We’re not against food in pubs, or even anti-gastropub (see the upcoming book for more on that) but my Mum was right when she observed that it made a change not to smell deep-fat frying the whole time. The lack of dining also seems to encourage friendly groups to form in what would otherwise be inconvenient places. It also leaves tables free for scattered newspaper pages or for elbows-on-the-wood deep-level conversation. The absence of food changes the mood, in other words. It’s certainly another blow for the received wisdom that a pub can’t thrive without a kitchen in 2017.

When we left after our trip on Wednesday my Dad, not a demonstrative bloke, turned and looked back at the door. ‘Bloody lovely pub,’ he said, sounding almost annoyed to have been so seduced by an establishment 150 miles from his house.

Disclosure: the Penzance Brewing Co’s Peter Elvin has shouted us a few pints over the years, including a round for Dad and me last week.

An Ordinary Weekend

Fifth amendment pumpclip.

Quietly, slowly, it just keeps getting easier to find interesting beer, in more-or-less pleasant surroundings, in our part of the world.

On Thursday we went our separate ways for the evening. Bailey popped into the Turk’s Head in Penzance where he enjoyed St Austell’s Fifth Amendment, part of their ongoing series of one-off brews making use of the two pilot breweries they operate alongside the industrial-scale kit. A 5.2% ABV amber ale, it was quite unlike any other St Austell beer, combining tropical American hops with a spicy, toasty medievalness. The pub is one that is 80 per cent of the way to being a restaurant but lots of locals do just drink there and, as long as you don’t object to the sight of people devouring mussels nearby, it’s actually got one of the cosier, ‘pubbier’ interiors.

Boak, meanwhile, went with a pal to The Tremenheere, our local Wetherspoon pub, where Hook Norton Amarillo Gold (4.7%) provided exactly what you’d expect from such an accomplished traditional brewer, with the exotic hops enhancing the underlying fruitiness rather than suffocating everything with citrus. It was so good that one pint turned into several. The pub is tatty, occasionally ‘lively’ in a Wild West way, but it has always got a buzz, which can be hard to find in a quiet town between October and Easter.

Cards in the pub.

On Friday, we did the rounds, working our way from The Yacht on the seafront up the hill towards home. St Austell Proper Job continues to be a go-to beer and just seems to be getting better and better, capturing and intensifying the live essence of hops in the same way freeze-drying seems to do for raspberries. We had a couple. The pub itself continues to treat us mean: after visiting once or more every week for something like five years, we still don’t get any flicker of recognition from the staff. It seems to work because we do, indeed, remain keen.

The Dock, almost next door, isn’t quite the same under new management, even if the beer range has expanded to include Potion 9 as well as Blue Anchor Spingo Middle. Potion didn’t quite taste itself, perhaps suffering in close comparison to Proper Job, or because it was served on the chilly side. There was a young bloke from New York eating a takeaway in the corner, which seemed odd.

The finisher, Timothy Taylor Landlord at the never-ending faintly hippyish music festival that is The Farmer’s Arms, wasn’t the best beer of the night (it lacked zing) but we enjoyed it the most. The barman recognised us and anticipated our order; he gave us the fancy glassware reserved for trusted customers; and we got to play cards in the corner while the band finished their set with an electrified Cornish folk song. Just perfect, really.

A dog between two customers at the bar.

Saturday took us to St Ives, a quick hop on a local train from Penzance. After making sandcastles and clambering about on rocks for a bit to build up a thirst we went to The Old Pilchard Press, the town’s micropub, which was (as it always seems to be) rammed and (as often seems to happen) almost sold out of beer. We’ve grumbled about St Ives Brewery in the past, unimpressed by skunked bottles of mediocre pale ale actually brewed several counties away, but the cask version of Knill by Mouth, which is really brewed in St Ives, rather impressed us: zesty and fun, like Jaffa Cakes. Brain’s Reverend James, which we’ve not had in years, was the good kind of brown — nothing to inspire poetry, but well put together, a bit like finding a decent episode of The Sweeney on ITV4.

The Hub continues to baffle us — last time we went, they were happy for us just to have drinks; this time, we got a pass-agg guilt trip, and the menus were snatched away after we’d ordered what was intended to be the first in a few rounds of snacks. Still, the beer, and the choice of beer, is good, and different: Magic Rock Cannonball, a long way from home, was a breath of fresh air. The same brewery’s the chilli porter was pretty exciting too — a seasoning tingle rather than Man vs. Food. As we’ve said before, if people go on about Magic Rock, it’s with good reason.

We finished in The Hain Line, the town’s Wetherspoon pub, near the station. It’s got a much smarter interior than the one in Penzance and equally smart staff who, if we ran a hospitality business, we’d be poaching. We got excited by yet more foreign beer here: Salopian Lemon Dream, all the way from Shropshire. It’s a bit of a novelty brew — just a touch too sour, really, and a little cartoonish — but we enjoyed it a lot, especially at something like £2.30 a pint. The second round was more fraught — beers advertised were in the process of going off, and the generous tasters we were encouraged to try didn’t reveal anything else as thrilling — so we had a couple of forgettable festival beers. Still, we left thinking that, overall, Spoons had won.

Pints of Proper Job.

Then last night, Sunday, the sun was out, the sea was still, barbecue smoke was on the air, and we couldn’t resist one last pint of Proper Job at The Yacht. It was just about warm enough to sit outside, too, which is how we know summer is almost here. If anything, the beer tasted more exciting than on Friday, remastered and bass boosted.

As we wandered home we saw a bloke, bare-chested, staggering across the road after a full day’s drinking. ‘I’m wasted,’ he said mournfully. His companion slapped his back and replied: ‘Mate, it’s the only way to be.’

Heavy Lies the Crown

Cornish Crown is a difficult brewery for us to write about so we’re relieved to find that, finally, it might finally have come good.

It is based in an industrial unit outside Penzance and has a brewery tap here in town, The Crown on Bread Street which is the only PZ pub in the 2017 CAMRA Good Beer Guide. It’s a good pub, the pints are relatively cheap, and generally in good condition. It’s just that, for several years, the beer itself has been somewhere between indifferent and downright rough.

We said cautiously good things about the brewery when it launched, expecting it to get better, but actually, it got worse. But with decent branding, competitive pricing, and a strong local story, the beer was everywhere for a while, including places like London from where friends would text us: ‘This Cornish Crown… is it meant to taste like that?’

Every now and then someone would ask us what we thought of the brewery, on Twitter or in real life, and we’d be honest: ‘We don’t rate the beer.’ Sometimes, that would be met with astonishment, and we began to think that perhaps we were being a bit fussy. (We are, generally.) But the fact remained that for a long time we were happier to drink St Austell or even Skinner’s — another brewery towards which we are lukewarm — than Cornish Crown.

We kept checking in, though, things do change over the lifetime of a brewery (new kit, new staff, training and development) and, sure enough, last year we noticed a sudden upswing in quality. The keg vanilla porter in particular was not only passable but positively delightful. Then yesterday, prompted in part by the estimable Ellie Bennett, we made another visit to The Crown and gave the beer a fair workout.

Causeway best bitter is still not an exciting beer but was at least clean-tasting. If you like this kind of beer, there’s no reason you won’t like this particuarl example. One-Hop, the beer Ellie was excited about, was an extremely pleasant surprise, no longer muddy and cardboard-like, but popping with sweet citrus. It’s still fairly heavy-bodied and honeyish so not our favourite type of golden ale but there was nothing wrong with it at all within those parameters. Extra Stout Porter, a cask ale at 5.9%, was also sweet, mild and moreish, with no stale notes to spoil the fun. Our companion felt conned by the keg Red IPA –‘It’s more Greene King than Lagunitas’ — but it wasn’t sour or cabbagey as we have found it in the past.

We’d still rather drink a great pint of St Austell Proper Job than any of these beers but, for now at least, The Crown is back on the circuit for us, and we’re upgrading our advice on the beer from AVOID to GIVE IT A TRY.

Magical Mystery Pour #19: Verdant Headband

The first beer in our fifth round of Magical Mystery Pour beer tastings is Verdant Headband pale ale, chosen for us by Rebecca Pate (@rpate) of Brewing East.

Here’s a quick recap of what Magical Mystery Pour is all about and how it works: we ask a fellow blogger, Tweeter or otherwise interesting person to suggest five or six beers they think we ought to try, and try them. We buy them with our own money which is why our only restriction is that altogether they shouldn’t cost an absolute fortune, and we should be able to buy them all from one online retailer. The idea is that this will get us out of our comfort zone and nudge us to try beers we might not necessarily be drawn to ourselves, or make us reconsider beers we’ve encountered in the past.

This time, we screwed up. Rebecca chose a selection from Honest Brew but we didn’t get round to ordering them all immediately which meant that, to get the full set, we actually had to place three online orders at different retailers. But it’s fine — we now have a very well-stocked beer cupboard, overflowing with old favourites and other things that caught our eye.

The first beer we tackled from Rebecca’s list is from a Cornish brewery based near beer-geek destination Falmouth. We’ve tried Verdant’s beers on draught a few times and been impressed — they’re full-blown big-city-type craft beers (def 2) of the kind not often found this side of Bristol, with haze and hefty helpings of hops.

This beer was hard-won — we had to hunt around until we found a single can on offer at Beer Hawk (taken over by AB-InBev at around this time last year) at £2.49 for 330ml. It has 5.5% alcohol by volume (ABV).

Continue reading “Magical Mystery Pour #19: Verdant Headband”

QUICK POST: Gathered Round the Fire

The fire at the Farmer's Arms.

The Farmer’s Arms opened a bit late on New Year’s Day. Can an entire pub can have a hangover?

The weather had finally, at last, come cold, and we were hoping to find the fire lit. It was, just, but struggling along, with too much blackened paper and damp wood refusing to catch.

One of the regulars, unlit roll-up in mouth, was trying to fix the problem and engaged our friend in a discussion about tactics. Eventually, he left her in charge.

We sat pitching in advice as she moved some logs around to give the fire air. Between us, we spectators retrieved a dryish log from the store under the bench and hacked it into smaller chunks with a pen-knife while she rolled some paper into twists. The paper went up, the wood steamed and then started to blacken, and smoke was sucked away up the chimney. Confident it was off and away our friend loaded the fire up and, for the next hour, kept a watchful eye, making occasional adjustments with the shovel (the only implement at hand) to keep the flames healthy.

We didn’t mind when it cracked like a whip and spat sparks our way — that was all part of the pleasure. Fires and the sea are two things we can stare at for hours, and if an open fire in a pub on a cold day is a joy, one you’ve had a hand in lighting is ten times better again.

The photo is actually from early December and isn’t our finest work but you get the idea.