pubs real ale

Hunting for Ale in Exeter

A pint of Exeter Brewery 'fraid Not at the Waterfront pub

We couldn’t find many recommendations for pubs in Exeter on the Blogoshire, so thought we’d use our instincts and try out a few places on spec.

We started with the Wellhouse Tavern which is attached to Michael Caines’ hotel and restaurant on the cathedral square. We’re always interested when chefs say they like beer: it’s usually done in the middle of a spiel about how normal they are and how nothing hits the spot like good beer, after which they proceed to recommend Innis and friggin’ Gunn. Anyway, in this case, Chef or (at last his bar manager) turns out to have decent taste with five west country ales on offer, and not just the usual suspects. Standouts were O’Hanlon’s Stormsayer, a gingery, chunky 5% beer, and Bay’s Up and Under, a refreshing and moreish amber bitter. The pub itself can’t quite decide if it’s trying to be a real ale pub (large selection of beer), a party pub (bangin’ dance tunes and Jäger bombs) or a gastropub (sandwiches with pancetta) but definitely worth a look.

Thanks to the Baedeker raids, where there ought to be quaint backstreets and half-timbered buildings, there are post-war shopping complexes, and so the city centre seems short on pubs. We headed out of the immediate centre towards the Topsham Road and came across the White Hart. This is a proper, wonky old coaching inn with a courtyard, hidden rooms and cosy corners, despite attempts by Marston’s to turn it into a plasticky chain pub. Of particular interest is their unique house beer, Old Wallop (5.6%), brewed by Ringwood (part of the Marston’s empire). It’s got a really rich, chewy toffee character, set off nicely by that famous Ringwood yeast. Good stuff.

Down by the quayside, there is The Prospect, another large, historical pub. Unfortunately, they’ve gone even further down the chain pub route having done away with the cosy corners, leaving one great big echoing chamber. It feels like an upmarket Wetherspoons or a cut-price Pitcher and Piano. Cotleigh Old Haka, with Motueka hops, was in good nick, though, and the first beer from this brewery we’ve really enjoyed in a while.

The Waterfront, a few metres further along the quayside, was a pleasant surprise. From outside, it looked like a chain tapas bar but, inside we found attractive arched brick ceilings, friendly bar staff and regulars, and several ales in absolutely excellent condition. It’s the first time we’ve had O’Hanlon’s Yellow Hammer in a state where we could appreciate the subtle spiciness. ‘Fraidnot (4%) by the Exeter Brewery was the highlight of the trip — a golden ale with the kind of lip-smacking, doughy, bready malt flavour we associate with JW Lees Bitter and Bristol Beer Factory beers.

The Hourglass, around the corner on tucked-away Melbourne Street, is a fabulous old pub building with early 20th century brewery livery and some quirky decor, like a backstreet bar in Brussels. Lots of laptops and Moleskines about, if you catch our drift. It’s a pity that the beer was in indifferent condition and that the range included two from Otter (a brewery we just don’t get). They had another Exeter beer, Avocet Ale, which was herbal, watery and, frankly, weird tasting. This is probably an amazing place in which to drink red wine and philosophise but, on the beer front, we’d recommend the Waterfront over this.

It’s probably an indictment of the Exeter beer scene that one of our top recommendations is still the Imperial, a Wetherspoons that’s a ten minute walk from the station and occupies the old Imperial Hotel building, including its incredible orangery. The beer is reliably good and they have by far the best range of unusual local beer. We particularly enjoyed Bath Ales’ Ginger Hare (not very gingery, more like singed cinnamon UPDATE: and maybe not Ginger Hare at all, as Bath Ales tell us they’ve not done a cask for a while — did someone forget to change the pumpclip?) and Eddystone by South Hams  — a rare West Country beer with veritable hops!

We didn’t find any really top-notch pubs and began to realise the benefits of big regional brewers: with no St Austell or Fuller’s of its own, Exeter is being filled with invasive species: Marston’s and Greene King pubs. Not local and certainly not exciting.

Finally, a food tip: Lite Deelite is a very authentic Chinese/Japanese snack bar and restaurant on the Cathedral Square. We’ve been twice and been very impressed by the food on both occasions. The gangs of trendy Chinese students tapping away on their iPhones only add to the atmosphere.

13 replies on “Hunting for Ale in Exeter”

When I’ve been down there for football, we always found the Great Western Hotel near the station to be the best in town. Not been for several years though…

Shame as you were near some very good pubs.

The Old Firehouse on New North road, North Bridge Inn on St Davids Hill, and The Great Western at St Davids Station all rate above the majority of the pubs listed.

These, along with the Imperial you visited, are in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide for 2012 – none of the other pubs visited made the grade.

Weatherman — thanks for commenting. How do you and others in the local CAMRA branch generally rate the Exeter Brewery? We had one excellent beer and two that weren’t so good which we put down to the latter being poorly kept.

We’ll be going through Exeter fairly frequently so will try to check out your suggestions next time.

Old Firehouse is always my choice as well,m used to do the Great Western but a bit too grotty for me, never tried the Hop Back house and I have forgotten its name.

It’s interesting that your article should state “with no St Austell or Fuller’s of its own, Exeter is being filled with invasive species: Marston’s and Greene King pubs.”

In fact the nearest Fuller’s pub is well over 100 miles away and nearest Martsons pub +30 miles away. There is only one Greene King pub – The Ship in Martins Lane, although it’s not to my taste. However there are 2 St Austell pubs in the city and a recent addition in Topsham. I have to add I’ve never been a fan.

Your article is articulate and informative, however it gives the impression that there’s nothing else on offer. I’d strongly recommend the Fire House for a visit as previously recommended – but as it’s popular with students my preference is a visit during the day to avoid the loud ‘atmosphere’.

There’s much history in regard to the Well House, particularly with it’s identity, however they consistently offer a good range/choice and not just a selection of 4% bitters.

BTW – The Hop Back pub is the First & Last. I’m not sure they were able to deliver on their expectations when they took it on!

The Exeter Brewery is comparatively new, so don’t be put off by your experiences – you could always ask to taste before buying.

IMHO O’Hanlon’s is the best in the area, however I’m puzzled by your comment on the Otter brewery. Otter Head is among the best local strong ales and the Otter Ale is a good all rounder. Their range is varied too, so something for everyone.

Thanks for your equally informative and articulate comment! I hope we’ve been clear that this is just what we managed to find wandering about using our instincts and that it’s only our impression of the city based on what we came across.


The White Hart is definitely a Marston’s place: their “point-of-sale” material was all over the place and all the beers on offer were Ringwood or Wychwood (both owned by Marston), with Jennings and Marston beers advertised as upcoming.

Our point re: Fuller’s and St Austell was really that, unpopular as they might be amongst ale drinkers on their home turf (some love ’em, other’s don’t) they do at least ensure the presence of decent ale in their own quality controlled pubs. It can be tiresome that St Austell are so dominant where we live but we’d rather drink their beer than Greene King’s any day!

We saw two Greene King pubs — the one you mention and the Black Horse on the Heavitree Road.

We seem to be the only people who don’t like Otter. We’re coming to the conclusion it’s something to do with their yeast. We always find a sort of oiliness and a stale flavour and aroma, across the range — but they’re certainly not bland, so fair play to them.

Humble pie time!
The White Hart is an English Country Inns … which it would seem is part of the Marstons group.
The Black Horse (Longbrook Street, behind our hideous 60’s tower block in the city centre) is indeed Greene King.
I have to add in pathetic defense – neither are my preferred venues!
Cheers and beer!

On Marstons, Chaucers in the centre of town is also a Marstons pub.

On Exeter Brewery, patchy is all I can really comment, I have had great pints of Fraid Not in little country pub in the middle of nowhere but just don’t like Avocet.

St Austell are also moving in on the area, they have The Mill On The Exe on the river just down from St Davids, and have just bought the Globe in Topsham (I hope that last one is supposed to be common knowledge, if not I will be castrated).

Oh, and you’re not the only one thats not 100% sure on Otter, the Head & Bright are fine, the others not really to my taste.

The Fire House is a great little pub we went there last year and both the beer and food were very good indeed. Luckily for us it was very close to the station too otherwise we would have missed the train back to where we were staying!

Otter brewery, I can see where you are coming from as much as I love the otter artwork I’m not keen on their beers although the other half is.

Definitely beginning to get the message re: the Fire House. No excuse not to check it out, really, given that it’s so near the station. (Probably why we missed it, actually — pubs near stations aren’t always the best. Had a terrifying experience in a rough pub near the station in Hertford once.)

There’s also a Youngs pub – the City Gate Inn near the North Bridge – which was quite decent when I was there a couple of years ago. I also liked the Great Western, but wasn’t too keen on the Old Firehouse – the sort of pub that lays on the reproduction bare-boards theme with a trowel.

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