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.’

QUICK ONE: Tinnies in the Pub

Stella Artois advertising c.2007.

Some might regard the sale of canned big brewery lager in pubs as a bad sign but there is a definite silver lining.

This year, we’ve been making a special effort to break routine and go to pubs that, for one reason or another, we’ve ignored or avoided in the past. (Which, by the way, has been great fun.) As part of that, on Friday, at a loose end between trains in St Austell, we went to the first pub we came across on exiting the station — The Queen’s Head Hotel.

Some context: St Austell is a working town rather than a tourist destination, dominated by the brewery up the hill with its slick Hicks’ Bar, but oddly lacking a destination pub at its centre. We’ve tended to end up in the over-large, over-bright White Hart on previous visits because we could at least see inside. Often quiet in the evenings, the town is even more so in November and early December.

The Queen’s Head is an old building with two entrances and, though lacking partitions, indicates the lingering class divide with soft furniture and carpeting. All the action was around the bar and the pool table where regulars of various ages, all male as far as we observed, were chatting and joking with the young woman behind the bar.

There was cask ale on offer, and it was in decent condition, but we were surprised to see how many people were drinking pint cans of Stella Artois, straight from the tin. There is one obvious reason for that choice: it was £2.60 a pop, whereas the going rate for a pint of draught lager is more like £4.

For beer folk, this might seem like bad news, even a bit depressing — what hope for breweries if people don’t want or can’t afford to drink the beer they produce? And it does feel a bit like the pub has given up — the equivalent of turning up for work in your pyjamas.

But here’s that silver lining we promised: doesn’t this say something quite hopeful about the institution of the pub?

Given that you can buy Stella at the supermarket for the equivalent of about £1.30 a pint — exactly the same product, served in the same way — why would you pay even as much as £2.60? The pub, even one that isn’t all that special, is adding value.

People have to go out once in a while to be with other humans, and the pub is still the best place to do it.

A Weekend in Beer Town

We’ve just spent a couple of nights in Falmouth, Cornwall’s best beer destination, where we tried lots of new beers and revisited some standards.

We had a couple of beers here and there that didn’t do much for us — for example, a cask Cloudwater Session Pale at Hand could have done with more bitterness to balance the sticky candied peel hop character, and a Vocation Chop & Change Pale Ale at Beerwolf had too much bitter-leaf and onion for our palates. Generally, though, we reckon we chose well, or were lucky, and we came away feeling that our tastebuds had been given a proper going over.

We particularly enjoyed…

Two beers and a CAMRA mag, from above.

1. Rebel Eighty Shilling, 5%, cask, at The Front. We’ve had Rebel on the naughty step for a while after a string of muddy-tasting pints of this particular beer, some bland-shading-nasty golden ales, and the hit-and-miss quality of their very expensive Mexi-Cocoa in bottles. This was like a completely new beer, though — tongue-coating chocolate sauce, with much of what made Mexi-Cocoa at its best so exciting, only at something like session strength (5%). Unlike some other sweet mild-type beers there wasn’t a hint of any acrid burnt sugar about it. It made us think of Schwarzbier only chewier. Maybe there was even a hint of Belgian Christmas beer about it. Good stuff — but will the next pint we find be the same?

Two beers from 45 degrees, with beer mats.

2. St Austell Admiral’s Ale, 5%, cask, at The Chainlocker/Shipwrights. For some reason this is the first time we’ve ever actually stopped for a pint at this pair of conjoined pubs — it’s too easy to fall into the circuit of Front-Beerwolf-Hand on a day trip — and we were quietly impressed. It’s got a bit of that corporate chain feel that afflicts many St Austell pubs but there’s enough genuinely interesting weathered nautical tat on the walls, and enough grime in the grain of the wood, to give it character. We enjoyed being surrounded by boat folk, too — the down-to-earth types who crew yachts but don’t own them.  The beer line-up included seasonal special Liquid Sunshine (a kind of baby Proper Job at 3.9%, firmly bitter), the excellent Mena Dhu keg stout, and Admiral’s Ale, an old favourite of ours that is rarely seen on cask. It’s quite a different beer to the bottled version — less glassy-clean, more subtly citrusy, and generally softer. Intriguing and many-faceted. It makes HSD, also brown and at the same ABV, seem a bit old hat. We wouldn’t mind at all if this was available everywhere, all year round.

All Bretts Are Off Pump Clip design.
SOURCE: Siren Craft Brew website.

3. Siren/Crooked Stave All Bretts Are Off, 4.5%, bottle, Hand. A well-proper-craft take on English bitter with Brettanomyces — how could we resist that? The first bottle the barman opened gushed everywhere but, with a bit of teamwork, we managed to get 99% of the second attempt into a pint glass, with an insanely huge head. It smelled very like Orval (we’re still stuck on that frame of reference) and tasted really like one of our attempts at blending Orval with English ale. Or Harvey’s Sussex Best at its funkiest, and then some. Dry, light on the tongue and differently fruity — as in, apples just beginning to think about rotting in a crate behind a barn, rather than grapefruit. This is one way British brewers could be mixing things up without just turning out pretend American beers and made us want to taste takes on the same idea from breweries like Fuller’s, Adnams and St Austell. By the same token, as in this case presumably, it’s also a way craft brewers might bring themselves to brew trad bitter with Fuggles (and they might have to in years to come) without feeling too compromised.

Spingo, Spingo, Gose, Orval

Penzance is at its lowest ebb between Christmas and the start of the season, and it’s been bleddy cold, so we really needed the cosy cheer of the pub last week.

Spingo Middle at the Dock Inn, mid-week, sparkled in the glass only a shade off ruby red, and tasted better than ever — a touch drier than usual, but still with the typical smack of unrefined sugar about it.

On Friday, our attempt at a pint of Proper Job was derailed because the Yacht Inn was heaving with rugby fans, so we went for another round of Spingos at the Dock. This time, that lanky dog was there — the one that comes over, perches its chin on the edge of the table and looks sadly at your pork scratchings — and we were surrounded by out-of-season weekend-breakers eating dinner.

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The Samuel Jones, Exeter

The Samuel Jones opened just before Christmas and is an outpost of Cornish brewing giant St Austell, occupying a converted warehouse on Exeter’s riverside.

If you weren’t in the know, you might not realise this ‘smoke and ale house’ is a St Austell project. Branding has been kept to a minimum, and the décor is more stylish than most of their Cornish estate — polished copper, reclaimed wood and exposed pipework, which make it feel pleasingly cluttered, warm and, for want of a better word, ‘cool’.

That ‘coolness’ is somewhat undercut by the evidence of corporate management: staff in matching waistcoats, scripted greetings, floor supervisors with earpieces, and a slick EPOS system. On our visit, it did, at times, feel a bit like a posh Harvester, though never downright soulless, perhaps because it was so buzzing, with almost every seat, from armchair to bar stool, occupied from the moment we arrived mid-afternoon up until we left.

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