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.