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.
The closest comparison is probably Fuller’s flagship ‘branded concept’, the Parcel Yard at Kings Cross, which is also a touch uptight but with lots of undeniably cosy corners that make the most of an interesting old building.
The beer offer — the main reason we were there — is dominated by St Austell, though the familiar pump-clips aren’t on display, replaced instead by tiny chalkboards below back-mounted taps. Unusually for a brewery which usually keeps its own pubs firmly tied, there are also several guest draught beers on offer, as well as a few bottles such as Brooklyn Lager and Anchor Steam.
We tried to order two halves to start at which point we learned just how determinedly craft this place is: there are only pints, two-thirds, and thirds. The two-third glasses are elegant and stemmed while the third tumblers are like stumpy tea-light holders.
The first beer we tried by the two-thirds was… well, we’re not sure. It was written on the chalkboards as ‘Yamika Valley’ with no brewery specified, and the barman didn’t know when asked. It was from a keg and guess that it was probably Yakima Valley by Bristol’s Arbor Ales. At any rate, it was in good condition, clean-tasting, expressing sappy American hops over a husky, rye-bread malt background.
We also enjoyed draught Saison Dupont — we’ve only ever had it from bottles before — at a fairly reasonable £3.20 (£4.26 pint), and Tiny Rebel One Inch Punch. Tiny Rebel are not a brewery we’ve especially clicked with in the past but this hoppy golden ale was fresh-tasting, light-bodied, with just a hint of funkiness to keep it interesting.
St Austell’s own Proper Job, our top cask ale of 2014, seemed a good choice for a benchmark, but it tasted strangely dull, like a bog standard golden ale rather than the zinging session IPA we know and love. It might even have been bordering on stale. Observing the bar, we noticed huge amounts of lager and cider being bought and not much cask ale, which might perhaps be a problem for them in future.
Most people were also there to eat so, for completeness, even though it’s not our territory, we should say that we found the food reasonably good value, but really just ‘pub grub’ rather than a profoundly authentic American barbecue experience: ‘spit-roasted’ chicken with chips and salad cost £10; the obligatory pulled pork roll, with no sides, was £8.
We can’t say it’s a ‘world class’ drinking place, but it’s certainly yet another welcome addition to Exeter’s beer scene, and we’ll give the final word to an enthusiastic middle-aged customer in cycling gear we spoke to at the bar as he thirstily downed a pint of Mahou: ‘Good, innit? About time we had somewhere nice like this.’