Hoptimystic at the Star Inn

‘I’m not putting it on until you’ve drunk that one,’ we overheard as we approached the bar of the Star Inn, Crowlas, on Friday afternoon. There was definitely what passes for A Buzz in sleepy West Cornwall.

‘What’s coming on then?’ I asked Steve the barman, eagerly studying the ‘Coming d’reckly’ part of the chalkboard beer menu.

‘Hoptimystic. It’s new.’

Cribbage in the pub with pints.We did our bit to help finish off the blocking cask by ordering a couple of pints of a perfectly decent Blonde from Great Heck and sat down to play cribbage in the corner by the fire.

Then, a couple of rounds in… Was there a sudden hush among the garrulous gang of middle-aged pals at the bar? Somehow, anyway, we just knew it had arrived and so drained our glasses before dashing up to to get in on the action.

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The Quiet One

This is our contribution to #BeeryLongreads (Twitter/Facebook). The main image above is adapted from a photograph by Darren Norbury (@beertoday on Twitter).

The Penzance Brewing Company’s Peter Elvin isn’t a rock star brewer. He doesn’t stand up on counter-tops and give talks so that people can ‘engage with his brand’ and he isn’t likely to have his own cable TV series any time soon.

You might not even spot him in his own pub, the Star Inn at Crowlas – he does not hold court. You won’t find him behind the bar much these days but he can sometimes be seen shuffling in through the door behind the counter, in well-worn polo shirt and Crocs, from where he slips quietly onto a stool at the end of bar, or makes conversation with a few regulars in a corner, a half-smile under his drooping white moustache. Unless he’s talking directly to you, you won’t hear what he’s saying: he is, as the cliché goes, a man of few words, and those words are spoken softly when they come.

We’ve been admirers of the beer at the Star for years but have only spoken to Mr Elvin on a couple of occasions. Once, in around 2013 we had a brief chat about the hop shortage. Then, a year or so later, we caught him in animated mood during Penzance’s yearly vintage bus weekend when hordes of real-ale-drinking public-transport-spotters from the Midlands make the pub their home. He spoke then with quiet enthusiasm about the suspension systems of heavy vehicles, which was rather lost on us.

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One of Those Trendy Milds

On Saturday, we made the 15 minute bus trip to the Star Inn at Crowlas, home of the Penzance Brewing Co, to meet a couple of friends who’d never been before.

They’re fairly into beer but like what they like: malty bitters and porters, and definitely not anything that smells of grapefruit. It is fortunate, then, that Peter Elvin, head brewer at PZBC and landlord of the Star, has recently taken a break from brewing pale’n’hoppy golden ales to produce what we understand is his first ever dark mild.

We were, frankly, excited to see it, so starved are we of mild down here in Cornwall.

At 3.6%, it was perfect session strength. Mr Elvin being obsessive about beer clarity and vocally critical of brewers who use caramel for colouring, we weren’t surprised to find it perfectly transparent — deep conker-brown rather than black. It was surprising, however, to find that it tasted like stout-lite, with plenty of roasted grain character, and the balance more towards bitter than sweet.

But what can you usefully say about a fairly by-the-book mild? It was flavoursome, good value (£2.60 a pint), and kept out the increasing wintry chill without getting us legless.

And this might count as a ‘top tip’: it was especially good alternated with pints of citrusy, fruity Potion 9, each beer making the other taste more essentially of itself by contrast.

Beerwolf Books, Falmouth

Beerwolf Books

We’d heard a few mentions of Beerwolf Books, which opened in Falmouth, Cornwall, in the run up to Christmas, and had understood that it was either a bookshop with beer, or a pub with some books for sale. Either way, it sounded like something different, and so we made sure it was on our list of places to visit during a weekend away in the coastal town.

Even approaching Beerwolf feels like you’ve stumbled upon a secret: it’s up an easy-to-miss alleyway between chain stores, in a beautiful eighteenth century building on Bells Court. Through the red door, there’s a creaking wooden staircase and a view of shelves of books. So it is a bookshop. Then the smell of beer and the sound of chatter drift down. So it is a pub.

With deep red walls, dark wood, furniture neither too neat nor too tatty, and just enough daylight through small-paned windows, the pub part of Beerwolf (the bit we were most interested in) appealed immediately. The book shop, off to one side, and with a place to rest your beer while you browse, sets the mood, positively inviting long reading or writing sessions amid the buzz of conversation.

The beer is good, too. Very good. Among five cask ales, none of them the usual suspects, were 80 Shilling from local brewery Rebel (grainy, dark and silky), Marble Manchester Bitter (the kind of pale and hoppy beer that makes us consider a move up north some time) and our favourite Penzance Brewing Potion 9. In the fridges, a few Belgian standards such as Kwak and Chimay — not the stuff to excite hardened beer geeks, perhaps, but little seen in Cornwall.

We set up camp for the afternoon, watching and listening. What appeared to be a contingent of local CAMRA members staked out the bar and worked their way through the full range, murmuring their appreciation. Students came in pairs or gangs, buying piles of books and lots of lager, tea and coffee. Middle-aged couples came for the books and stayed for a pint. A stag do came for pints and walked away with some books. “Wow!” said more than one person on reaching the top of the staircase.

Struggling book and record shops: we urge you to find a struggling pub and pair up. Supermarkets, with their idea of offering several services on one premises, might just be on to something.

Top Ten Cornish Beers (So Far)

Potion 9 pumpclip at the Star Inn.

UPDATE 22/03/2013: Our revised top ten Cornish beers list for 2013 is now available here.

For a county (sorry — Duchy) with a permanent population of only around 540,000, Cornwall has quite a few breweries, and more are appearing every month. There are some whose wares we’ve yet to try; others we rarely see except in bottles; and a few we simply can’t recommend with a clear conscience.

This list, then, is of beers we’ve particularly enjoyed in pubs in Cornwall and would advise visitors to seek out. As before, our location in the far west means that we’ve got an unintentional bias towards breweries whose beers make it down this way.

  1. Driftwood Spars — Dêk Hop (3.8%) Pale amber, flinty and tannic; hoppy without being flowery.
  2. Driftwood Spars — Bolster’s Blood Porter (4.8%) Reminded us of something from the 1909 Syle Guide, with stewed bitterness and very little hop aroma. A touch of pleasing sourness. Very refreshing after a long walk to St Agnes.
  3. Penzance Brewing Company — Potion 9 (4%) Our beer of the year for 2011. Golden, with US hops (Amarillo, last time we checked) and great for a session.
  4. Penzance Brewing Company — Trink (5.2%) Potion’s big brother, edging towards Thornbridge Jaipur territory. This is the one the regulars at the Star Inn get really excited about.
  5. Penzance Brewing Company — Scilly Stout (7%) A chunky, chewy stout that would be perfect for export; poised between bitter/sweet, and more of a plum pudding than a cup of coffee.
  6. Skinner’s — Porthleven (4.8%) We’re not huge fans of Skinner’s (we blame their yeast) but this pale and hoppy beer was a very pleasant surprise. We drank many pints at the Old Ale House in Truro and then went back for more a few weeks later. Keeps getting hoppier, too, as the recipe evolves.
  7. Spingo — Flora Daze (4%) The newest addition to the Spingo range and yet more evidence that pale and hoppy might suit Cornish water. By no means a hop bomb, but the dry-hopping at least is aggressive enough to trigger hayfever.
  8. Spingo — Middle  (5%) A classic, and an illustration of a typical sweet West Country beer — an acquired taste, but not actually flawed. Has become more bitter and cleaner in the last year or so.
  9. St Austell — Proper Job (4.5%) The best of St Austell’s beers and found (we estimate) in about a third of their pubs. Almost too hoppy: can start to feel palate-stripping after three pints.
  10. St Austell — Tribute (4.2%) With Sharp’s Doom Bar and Skinner’s Betty Stogs, part of the bog standard line up on a Cornish free house bar, but by far the best of the three. Actually an interesting beer (custom Vienna-type malt, US hops) and, on good form, a delight.

We’ve also enjoyed everything we’ve tried from Coastal, though they’re hard to find and we rarely see the same brew twice, so can’t recommend a particular beer.

As with our Cornwall pub list, if you’re a brewer wondering why your beer hasn’t been mentioned, email us and we’ll let you know.