There Are Other Pubs in Helston?

We’ve given the Blue Anchor in Helston, Cornwall, plenty of attention in the past and so last Friday, in town for Flora Day, we decided to make a point of drinking elsewhere.

Of course, this is no normal trading day, and all the pubs were on an emergency footing to cope with crowds of visitors and thirsty locals, so we’re not going to pass judgement based on these single visits. Still, there is something instructive in how they handle the chaos.

Our first stop was the Red Lion — not a common name for pubs in Cornwall where the default tends to be the Star or the Seven Stars — on Church Street. It’s a plum spot for watching the dancers emerge from the museum in the ‘Ancient Furry Dance’ at midday (the main event). It also seems to be the preferred destination for members of the Helston Town Band to wet their whistles and, before we could enter, we had to make way for a procession of merry blue-coated brass musicians off to join their colleagues.

Hand-drawn Tribute pump-clip.

Though the pub was busy, it was very orderly, and we got served immediately. We were tickled by the handmade pump-clip for St Austell Tribute and, as we took our photo, the person serving us chuckled and said:

Good, isn’t it? We can’t draw, but we know how to spell. We’re not really a real ale pub, as such — more a lager pub. We find if we serve real ale, it goes off in the lines. Today’s different, though — we know we’ll sell it. So we’ve got Tribute and Doom Bar in, special.

(She also told us the pub was for sale and asked if we were interested in buying it. We are not.)

It was not, to be honest, the best Tribute we’ve ever tasted, and was served at near-freezing temperature in plastic glasses, but we didn’t mind, especially as we sat drinking it in a coveted window seat with a view of the parade. A classic ‘not about the beer’ moment.

Next, we tried the Angel Hotel on Coinagehall Street. Tried is the right word because we couldn’t actually get served and, as our buzz began to fade, decided that we didn’t want to spend any more time waiting for two pints of St Austell Trelawny, and left.

A little further down the street, effectively acting as overspill for the Blue Anchor, is the Seven Stars. (See?) Like its near neighbour, it is housed in a cavernous historic building but seems to attract a different, younger crowd. Big screens were showing distinctly un-fun General Election post mortem coverage. The bar staff seemed overwhelmed, though they remained resolutely friendly, and pints of Caledonian XPA were all but undrinkable — gritty and acidic. Normally, we’d take them back, have a discreet word, and so on, but a Friday afternoon masquerading as Saturday night wasn’t the time. We abandoned our glasses and scooted.

The Rodney on Meneage Street is nominally a St Austell house and we had high hopes of finding trusty old Korev lager. We had no such luck so instead ended up with a bottle of Hoegaarden for Boak and a pint of Proper Ansome from (gasp!) Devon for Bailey. The entertainment was a huge TV tuned to a music channel while completely different tunes were played over the PA system — torture! The atmosphere was rather pleasant, though, with extended families occupying the front of the pub, grandparents fussing over babies and toddlers while young mums and dads partied moderately hard. Everyone seemed to be eating piping hot pasties, taking advantage of a ‘bring your own food’ policy.

After all that, we had to finish up the Blue Anchor. There were bouncers on the door, and the entrance corridor, which seems cute when the pub is quiet, was a moving game of sardines with plastic pint glasses in the mix, just for fun. That ordeal over, however, we managed to get hold of two beers without any waiting thanks to several temporary bars, including one marked BEER ONLY operating out of the stable-door to the pub cellar, underneath the brewery. We had pints of Flora Daze, served by Gareth himself, that tasted drier and more citrusy than in recent months. Spingo Middle, which we’ve sometimes found a bit rough around Flora Day, presumably as production is stepped up to meet demand for the big event, was also on impressive form.

There’s a reason the Blue Anchor is the only pub in Helston you’ve heard of.

Mellow Brown vs. the Amarillo Kid?

The tension between new world and old school is being played out at Spingo Ales in sleepy Helston, Cornwall, but which side has the upper hand?

A brewery has operated from the rear of the Blue Anchor, a rambling granite-built pub on Helston’s main drag, since at least the turn of the 20th century, and to say it has a cult reputation among enthusiasts of traditional British beer would be an understatement.

It was as we were winding up an afternoon drinking session that we first met the head brewer, Tim Sears, in the back yard of the pub and asked whether he would mind telling us which variety of hops were used in Spingo Jubilee IPA. (We were obsessing over East Kent Goldings at the time.)

“Amarillo,” he said, with a just-noticeable curl of his lip.

An American variety noted for its pungent pop-art tangerine aroma, Amarillo was first released to the market in 2000. There are pint glasses at the Blue Anchor that have been in service longer.

“That’s Gareth’s doing,” he continued. “He’s the brewery manager. See those sacks of spent hops?” He pointed to a corner by the gents’ toilets. “That little one’s mine; his is overflowing! I tell him he uses too many.”

“Fascinating,” we thought, Spock-like.

A few weeks later, we got hold of Tim’s email address and explained that we were interested in finding out more. “Tension is a bit strong!” he replied, “but I know what you mean.” And so, on a paint-peelingly hot afternoon in July, Bailey took a trip to the brewery.

* * *

Poster for the Bruges Beer Festival at the Blue Anchor.
Poster for the Bruges Beer Festival at the Blue Anchor.

As he lives in Penzance, Tim agreed to pick me up and save me a bus fare, “As long as you don’t mind me smoking and Dutch music… Gezondheid, tot dinsdag!”

Sure enough, as we hurtled along the coast road, weaving around tractors and convoys of German tourists, the car stereo played a stream of oompah-ing Nederlandse pop-rock.

“What’s the Dutch connection?” I asked.

“Belgian beer,” he replied. “About ten… twelve… ten or twelve years ago, we went on a trip, a coach trip, to Belgium, and I loved it. I got on well with the bloke who ran the hotel where we were staying and now he’s sort of a pen pal. I write to him every week, in Dutch.”

Tim isn’t a native Cornishman but has been brewing Spingo Ales at the Blue Anchor in Helston since 1981. “I’d been home brewing for a while and winning awards,” he said, lifting a hand from the steering wheel to circle his cigar in air for emphasis, “so when I saw that they were advertising for a new brewer I said, ‘Yes, please! I’ll have some of that.’” The landlord gave him a six week trial: “I never did find out if I’d got the job.”

People sometimes talk about the Blue Anchor as if it’s been exactly the same, and brewing the same beer, for 400 years. It’s more complicated than that, but ‘Middle’, its flagship beer, is certainly nearing its 100th birthday, having first been brewed to celebrate the return of Helston boys from the First World War, in 1919. “As far as I know, it’s the same recipe,” Tim said, “but the original paperwork isn’t available. It’s been 1050 OG, Goldings, as long as I’ve been brewing it.”

Ye Olde Special Brew.

Elsewhere, there have been tweaks: Spingo Special went from 1060 to 1066 to celebrate the marriage of Charles and Diana in 1981, and at some point, crystal malt got added to the recipe. “Devenish [a defunct regional brewery] used to supply the malt and they weren’t too careful cleaning out the chutes for our order, so we got pale malt with a bit of crystal mixed in, which I used for specials. Nowadays, we mix it ourselves.”

To put some space between it and the amped-up Special, Christmas Special went up to 1076. (It’s now back down to 1074, to avoid the higher duty bracket.) Spingo Best, too close in gravity to Middle, got quietly dropped, as did a 1033 ‘Ordinary’: “We called that Mrs Bond, because she was the only one that drank it.”

Tim is clear about his own tastes: “I don’t like a hoppy beer. I prefer that malty sweetness – that sort of Cornish traditional taste.”

(We have long felt that West Country ale is almost a style in its own right — less attenuated, heavier in body, with barely any discernible hop character. If you’ve tried the bland, sweet Sharp’s Doom Bar, or St Austell’s HSD, then you’d recognise Spingo Middle from the family resemblance, though it’s less smooth, and less consistent, than either of those bigger brewery brands.)

“Obviously, you’ve got to have hops,” he conceded, “but they’re there for bitterness. They shouldn’t make your beer smell of fruit. I can’t stand when people say they can smell lemon or citrus or passion fruit, or whatever.”

“I can’t stand when people say they can smell lemon or citrus or passion fruit…”

A couple of years ago, his colleague Gareth, and Ben, a son of the Blue Anchor’s licensees, went on a three-week course at Brewlab in Sunderland. They came back with new ideas. The stout Ben designed for his coursework is now a regular at the pub, and is called, obviously, Ben’s Stout. Cornwall isn’t stout-drinking country, but it ticks over. “Ben doesn’t drink it, though,” said Tim. “He drinks my Bragget – no hops, malt, honey, apple juice, first brewed to commemorate the town’s charter, granted by King John in 1201.”

But it was Gareth upon whom the course had the most profound effect. “The IPA, that was my beer originally, brewed for the Queen’s Jubilee in 2002. But then Gareth got hold of it and now it’s all–” A faint shake of the head. “Amarillo.”

At the pub, Tim, in sleeveless T-shirt and wellies, disappeared up the granite staircase into the steam of a brewery which is cramped and hot on the best of days, and handed me over to Gareth, who was just concluding his morning shift.

We had developed a picture of a maverick young hipster obsessed with ‘craft beer’, perhaps riding around the brewery on a skateboard. In fact, though he is younger than Tim by some years, he is softly-spoken, practically-minded, and, in his black working t-shirt, more mechanic than artist. A Helston local, he worked his way up to the post of brewery manager from cleaning barrels and the occasional stint behind the bar.

“I do like hoppy beers,” he said, sipping instant coffee from a chipped mug at a plastic table in the pub’s garden, “but I mostly drink more mellow things, if I’m honest. Middle, St Austell HSD – things like that.”

“I mostly drink more mellow things, if I’m honest.”

This did not bode well for our hopes of finding a British version of the feuding Bjergso brothers: Tim and Gareth do not hate each other. They are definitely not ‘at war’. So I decided to poke the nest with a stick: what did Gareth think of Tim’s assertion that hops should really only be used to add bitterness?

“I disagree with him about that,” he said, with something just approaching roused passion. “Hops should be there to give flavour. Definitely.”

Another new Spingo ale for which Gareth takes the credit (or perhaps the blame, from Tim’s perspective) is the 4% golden Flora Daze. When we first tried it on the weekend it was launched, in March 2012, it seemed startlingly different to its stable-mates, and we observed conservative regulars at the bar recoiling at its lemon-zestiness.

“We have our beer distributed through Jolly’s – LWC – and they wanted something lighter and hoppier,” Gareth said. “I’d just learned recipe formulation at Brewlab and Flora Daze is what I came up with.”

Gareth (left) and Tim, at the brewery door.
Gareth (left) and Tim, at the brewery door.

A short while later, we all three reconvened at the top of the steps by the brew-house, where Tim was stirring the mash with a wooden brewer’s paddle. He finished it by swinging a great wooden lid onto the blue-painted tun dating from the 1920s, and covered that with eight old malt sacks, for insulation.

Perspiring and out of breath, he leaned on the stable door and took a long draught from a cool pint of Spingo Middle. “Jolly’s wanted something under 4%,” he said, picking up the Flora Daze story, “but we just can’t go that low. Spingo Ales are strong – that’s what makes them special.” He admitted, though, that he did roll his eyes on first seeing the recipe. “Gareth usually brews it, but I can do it, and have. I follow the recipe and stick to the spec.” He paused before delivering the punchline: “I just don’t drink the stuff.”

In the quiet tug of war, Tim seems to be slowly getting his own way, and Gareth acknowledged that both the re-vamped IPA and Flora Daze have, at Tim’s urging, become less intensely hoppy. “I’m happier with them as they are, though,” Gareth said. “They’re more in balance now.”

Gareth’s real influence is in the pursuit of consistency, as he explained showing me around the crowded pub cellar which doubles as a home for six hot-tub-sized fermenting vessels. “Our beer is slightly different every time,” he acknowledged, with a mix of pride and anxiety. “It’s a small brew-house, we do everything by hand, and the malt and hops vary from batch to batch. The weather, too — that can have an awful effect. Oh, yeah – a big effect.”

But he is working on this problem and has instituted lots of small changes. In the last year, for example, he has taken the radical step of having lids fitted to the fermenting vessels, so that the beer is no longer exposed to the air. Nothing fancy, though – just sheets of Perspex. There’s a sense that, with too much steel and precision, it would cease to be Spingo.

Fermenting vessels at the Spingo brewery.
Fermenting vessels at the Spingo brewery.

But perhaps this most traditional of British breweries will see more change yet. Tim, not perhaps as conservative as we thought, confessed that he had sometimes wondered about brewing something to reflect his interest in Belgian beer. And Gareth, somewhat wistfully, and almost embarrassed, muttered: “I have… Well, I have thought about a single-hop beer, Amarillo – something a bit stronger.”

A US-inspired Spingo IPA?

“Yeah, I suppose that’s the kind of style I’d be going for…” He shook his head. “But, no, we’ve got enough different beers for now.”

* * *

In the end, what we found at the Blue Anchor wasn’t high drama or a bitter feud, but a kind of dialogue, and our original choice of word, tension, feels about right. We suspect that similar debates are occurring in traditional breweries up and down the country, and around the world, perhaps not always in such a civilised manner.

If you enjoyed this, check out the #beerylongreads hashtag on Twitter for other people’s contributions, and also (need we say it?) get hold of a copy of our book, Brew Britannia, to which this is something of a companion piece.

Doing the Rounds

Blue Anchor beer casks.

In February, we wrote about the fraying tempers and stale beer to be found in Penzance out of season. Now the holidaymakers have arrived and both the atmosphere and the ale has become much livelier.

Even in the middle of the afternon, the Star Inn at Crowlas (our ‘pen portrait of which is in the latest edition of CAMRA’s BEER magazine) had a steady stream of visitors, mostly middle-aged couples who had paused in the middle of a long bike ride, walk or drive to try the fabled Potion 9. The Potion — always good — was at another level of brilliance.

In Penzance, the pubs near the railway station and the harbour seem permanently busy, filled with wealthy and healthy-looking visitors from Scandinavia, Germany, Australia and America. The Dock Inn was buzzing on our visit this week, and the Spingo was in tip-top condition.

At the Lamp & Whistle — perhaps more of a cosy winter pub than a summer haunt — we noticed that Orval had appeared alongside Duvel and Chimay in the fridges.

At the Yacht Inn on Thursday, the St Austell Proper Job IPA (which disappears in the depths of winter) was back and tasting superb — perhaps better than it has anywhere in the last six months or more.

After a thunderstorm on Friday night, which cleared the air, the pubs became even more crowded. The sounds of live rockabilly, laughter and chatter filled the street outside one pub; acoustic blues leaked from another. In lieu of any really convincing bars to pose in, lots of eighteen-year-olds were out and about, warming up for a night of clubbing with pear cider, lager and outrageous flirtation.

Yesterday, we rounded off the week with a mid-afternoon visit to the Blue Anchor in Helston. Some beers were better than others, and the crowd was different than in Penzance: older, more experienced drinkers, comparing notes on the health of their livers, symptoms of gout and whether mutual acquaintances were dead yet.

They were having a lot more fun than it might sound from that description.

Top Ten Cornish Beers 2013

Chocolate vanilla stouts.
Chocolate vanilla stouts from Harbour and Rebel. (Honourable mentions, below.)

Last year, as the season approached, we put together lists of our favourite Cornish beers and pubs. Those lists were fine then, but things are changing fast on the beer scene in Cornwall, and we though we ought to revisit our ‘top tens’ before the new season. (Though floods, hail and gales suggest it’s not here quite yet.)

So, for 2013, here are the cask-conditioned beers we’ve particularly enjoyed in pubs in Cornwall in the last year. We could easily have named five beers from Penzance Brewing Co., and another five from St Austell, but have tried to ‘spread the love’.

  1. Driftwood Spars – Dêk Hop (3.8%). Pale amber, flinty and tannic; hoppy without being flowery. (What we said last year.)
  2. NEW ENTRY Harbour Brewing – Light Ale (3.2% when we tried it). Super-pale, with lemon peel zinginess, tonic bitterness and a restrained aroma.
  3. Penzance Brewing Company — Potion 9 (4%). A ‘pale and hoppy’ which continues to blow our minds every time we drink it: sessionable but complex, with the same fresh bread maltiness we find in the best Czech lagers.
  4. Penzance Brewing Company — Trink (5.2%). Potion’s big brother, edging towards Thornbridge Jaipur territory. Deeper in colour, stronger, and more honeyed than Potion, but with a distinct Eden Project exotic floweriness — Citra?
  5. NEW ENTRY Rebel Brewing — Eighty Shilling (5%). Somewhere between a stout and a mild in character; plummy, with a touch of roastiness, and a little coffee cream.
  6. Skinner’s — Porthleven (4.8%). You wouldn’t know this gently-perfumed golden ale was from the same brewery as Betty Stogs. Not outrageously flamboyant in its aroma, each pint leaves the throat just dry enough to demand another.
  7. NEW ENTRY Spingo — Ben’s Stout (4.8%). As served at the Blue Anchor, one of the few decent dark Cornish beers, even if it is a little variable. We find ourselves craving it. Like black tea with brown sugar, in a good way.
  8. Spingo — Middle  (5%) A classic, and an illustration of a typical sweetish West Country beer. Keeps improving, too, and now has a little more dryness and a good malty snap.
  9. St Austell — Proper Job (4.5%) The best of St Austell’s regular beers, but not found in all of their pubs. It was modeled on a US IPA and, though lighter-bodied than many of those, does provide a satisfying whack of citrus hop character.
  10. St Austell — Tribute (4.2%) With Sharp’s Doom Bar and Skinner’s Betty Stogs, part of the bog standard line up on a Cornish free house bar, but by far the best of the three. Actually an interesting beer (custom Vienna-type malt, US hops) and, on good form, a delight. (We said the same last year.)

Honourable mentions

  • Few of Sharp’s regular beers really float our boat but their specials (e.g. Hayle Bay Honey IPA) can be very characterful, and we loved their Connoisseur’s Choice bottled beers.
  • Harbour and Rebel are both making some very interesting bottled beers, e.g. chocolate vanilla stouts.
  • St Austell’s Korev Lager, which we hated at first, continues to rise in our estimation. Not a ‘challenging’ beer, it is certainly very satisfying, especially on a hot summer’s day. Their spring and summer seasonals tend to be variations on Proper Job but lower in alcohol and were stunning last year. And need we mention 1913 Stout again?

As before, breweries who aren’t mentioned and think they ought to be should drop us an email, or comment below, and we’ll tell them why.

New Variant Spingo

The sign of the Blue Anchor pub and brewery, Helston, Cornwall.

The Blue Anchor in Helston has been brewing for several hundred years. Its Spingo ales are a Cornish tradition, available in only a handful of select pubs, and something of an acquired taste.

Generally, they play to a West Country palate — sweet, brown and not too ‘light’ (hoppy). One of their range, in fact, is ‘Bragget’, with no hops at all and a good slug of honey.

Their brewer, though, has begun to feel the urge to experiment, hence Flora Daze. At 4%, it’s the weakest beer on offer; it’s also the lightest in colour, by far the hoppiest, and being launched ahead of the summer arrival of ‘foreigners’.

By the standards of many other UK breweries, it is not a remarkable beer, being similar to Harvey’s session-strength IPA or Fuller’s Chiswick, but it was certainly generating conversation amongst the chaps spoofing at the bar in the Blue Anchor: “It tastes… like a pint with a slice of lemon in it.”; “I’ll be sticking to Middle.”

As far as we could tell, they were only drinking at all because the first few pints were free. Not everyone is drawn towards the new, and the point at which a beer seems ‘extreme’ is culturally defined.

We really liked Flora Daze and hope it does well this summer, though we know that brewers have to make cask ales that will sell. The Blue Anchor Beer Festival runs until Sunday 1 April.