Surprisingly good beer, surprisingly good pub

Beer glass with Bays Brewery logo.

Fowey (pronounced ‘Foy’) is one of those ‘Islington-on-Sea’ towns, crawling with celebs and with more bistros than you can drizzle a jus on. We arrived there on Sunday after a long walk along the coast, covered in mud and gasping for a pint, and began the ritual review of the pubs on offer, settling eventually on the Galleon.

Though the signs weren’t good — ugly red brick building, Doom Bar logos, the sounds (shudder) of live sunday afternoon jazz — it was the word ‘freehouse’ that lured us in. Might we find something other than Tribute, Doom Bar or Betty Bloody Stogs? Reader, we did: there were beers from the iconoclastic Cornish publican’s foreign brewery of choice, Bay’s of Devon.

Bay’s are a perfectly OK brewery. They’re good. They’re fine. They’re not at all bad. We wouldn’t go out of our way to find them, but we’re always pleased to see them on offer. Except, on this occasion, one of the beers was better than OK: it was excellent. Devon Dumpling (5.1% ABV), while not in the same league as Thornbridge Jaipur, reminded us of it, with a similarly hefty body and orange glow, and a well-judged balance of sweetness and bitterness. We awarded it a distinction in Leigh Good Stuff’s ‘same again please’ test and drank several.

By the standards of the UK’s hottest pubs and bars, the beer selection at the Galleon was nothing special, but it was well-chosen, including Sharp’s Cornish Coaster, a 3.6% golden charmer which ought to be their flagship beer; St Austell Proper Job, by far that brewery’s most exciting draught product; and Doom Bar, the most popular choice of the old boys at the bar. (The big gang of teenagers who’d just got back from a night out clubbing in their shiny trousers were on Tequila, Stella and white wine.)

What the Galleon shows, we suppose, is that a pub doesn’t have to be ancient to be cosy, and that it’s possible to offer quality and choice, in a quiet way, without scaring the horses.

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.