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.