Vessel Beer Shop in Plymouth has the range of a craft beer bar with the atmosphere of a friendly local pub.
It was opened in 2017, when we wrote about it for Devon Life:
“Katie and Sam Congdon are from Cornwall and Devon respectively but have spent the last half-decade immersed in the craft beer scene in Leeds. Now they’re back in Plymouth and ready to spread the word in their native West Country… For now, it’s a shop with some limited facilities and hours for drinking on the premises, but the plan is to make it something more like a bar in the near future. To start with, there are more than a hundred bottled beers, six keg lines, and a new innovation for Plymouth: a growler machine…”
Back then, we’ll confess, though we were rooting for them, we were a bit worried.
Plymouth, and Devon more generally, seemed resistant to anything with a whiff of up-country hipness.
Would Vessel, a little out of town, in a former cooker showroom, find enough business to stay afloat?
Then came COVID-19, putting hospitality businesses everywhere under additional pressure. We could see from social media that Vessel was still going, but struggling.
We were delighted, then, to bump into Katie and Sam at a pub in Bristol in November 2022. They were in town on beer-related business and taking the opportunity to enjoy a session on the other side of the bar.
What was clear from that conversation was that Vessel had not only survived the pandemic but to some extent found its feet, and its people.
How to describe Katie and Sam? They’re the kind of people who default to smiling. They are optimistic by nature, and full of ideas and energy.
They’d made it through the pandemic with a mix of deliveries, takeaway, events over zoom, and sheer enthusiasm.
That challenge out of the way, they told us about plans for expansion, for a brewery, for more trips and tastings.
They talked about their customers with evident affection, and with none of the too-cool-for-school frostiness that sometimes comes with craft beer culture.
As we waved goodbye on that autumn evening we decided we needed to go back to Vessel and see for ourselves how it has matured in five (challenging) years.
Return to Plymouth
When we lived in Penzance, Plymouth was where we went for big city thrills, especially out of season. It often frustrated us, though – where was there to drink, or eat?
Sure, we enjoyed pints of perfect Bass in old school maritime pubs. And, yes, there was at least one pub where we could drink Belgian beer.
But Bristol it was not. Hell, even Falmouth had more going on in terms of food and drink.
Now, even though the city centre looks more ragged than ever (the trees!) there are signs of change. It’s a crude barometer but there are now multiple places to get a decent cup of coffee, or an aspirational breakfast.
Vessel feels like part of this change. Though its surroundings remain down-to-earth, the bar itself – smartly decorated, neat as you like – could be picked up and dropped into any city in Britain, including London.
You might not like the sound of this – when you’re in Plymouth, don’t you want to feel as if you’re in Devon? But if you live way out west, rather than being there on holiday, your attitude will be different.
In that context, you just want good places to drink, where you can find beer from elsewhere, instead of the same old same old.
As it is, Katie and Sam, and their engaged customers, provide plenty of local flavour. Listen to the conversation over the counter and you’ll be in no doubt where in the world you are.
On our visit last weekend we enjoyed Sierra Nevada beer on draught, with some highly competitive pricing: £6.60 for a pint of 7.2% IPA is pretty good going in 2023.
We were also impressed by the range of bottled and canned beers in the fridges, from German classics to fascinating products from UK ‘blenderies’ and farmhouse breweries.
It makes Plymouth worth a visit
If beer is the deciding factor in where you spend your weekend city breaks, Vessel changes the equation.
You could spend three nights in the city, go to Vessel every evening, and never drink the same beer twice.
Add to the mix those previously mentioned old skool pubs, and the potential for day trips to brewery taprooms and micropubs across the border in Cornwall, and you’ve got more than enough to keep you busy.
Vessel is at 184 Exeter St, Plymouth PL4 0NQ, and online at vesselbeer.co.uk