Magical Mystery Pour #19: Verdant Headband

The first beer in our fifth round of Magical Mystery Pour beer tastings is Verdant Headband pale ale, chosen for us by Rebecca Pate (@rpate) of Brewing East.

Here’s a quick recap of what Magical Mystery Pour is all about and how it works: we ask a fellow blogger, Tweeter or otherwise interesting person to suggest five or six beers they think we ought to try, and try them. We buy them with our own money which is why our only restriction is that altogether they shouldn’t cost an absolute fortune, and we should be able to buy them all from one online retailer. The idea is that this will get us out of our comfort zone and nudge us to try beers we might not necessarily be drawn to ourselves, or make us reconsider beers we’ve encountered in the past.

This time, we screwed up. Rebecca chose a selection from Honest Brew but we didn’t get round to ordering them all immediately which meant that, to get the full set, we actually had to place three online orders at different retailers. But it’s fine — we now have a very well-stocked beer cupboard, overflowing with old favourites and other things that caught our eye.

The first beer we tackled from Rebecca’s list is from a Cornish brewery based near beer-geek destination Falmouth. We’ve tried Verdant’s beers on draught a few times and been impressed — they’re full-blown big-city-type craft beers (def 2) of the kind not often found this side of Bristol, with haze and hefty helpings of hops.

This beer was hard-won — we had to hunt around until we found a single can on offer at Beer Hawk (taken over by AB-InBev at around this time last year) at £2.49 for 330ml. It has 5.5% alcohol by volume (ABV).

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QUICK POST: Gathered Round the Fire

The fire at the Farmer's Arms.

The Farmer’s Arms opened a bit late on New Year’s Day. Can an entire pub can have a hangover?

The weather had finally, at last, come cold, and we were hoping to find the fire lit. It was, just, but struggling along, with too much blackened paper and damp wood refusing to catch.

One of the regulars, unlit roll-up in mouth, was trying to fix the problem and engaged our friend in a discussion about tactics. Eventually, he left her in charge.

We sat pitching in advice as she moved some logs around to give the fire air. Between us, we spectators retrieved a dryish log from the store under the bench and hacked it into smaller chunks with a pen-knife while she rolled some paper into twists. The paper went up, the wood steamed and then started to blacken, and smoke was sucked away up the chimney. Confident it was off and away our friend loaded the fire up and, for the next hour, kept a watchful eye, making occasional adjustments with the shovel (the only implement at hand) to keep the flames healthy.

We didn’t mind when it cracked like a whip and spat sparks our way — that was all part of the pleasure. Fires and the sea are two things we can stare at for hours, and if an open fire in a pub on a cold day is a joy, one you’ve had a hand in lighting is ten times better again.

The photo is actually from early December and isn’t our finest work but you get the idea.

UPDATE: Every Pub In Penzance

Last December we made a new year’s resolution to visit during 2016 all the pubs in Penzance we had until then overlooked.

In fact, what we said was that we wanted, in general, to go to…

More and different pubs. We don’t even need to go far afield: there are pubs in Penzance we’ve never been in. This is ridiculous, and we will sort it.

With trips to Birmingham, Bolton, Dudley, Hartlepool, Manchester, Newcastle, Stevenage and a whole bunch of other places, with the specific intention of visiting pubs not necessarily known for their beer, we’ve achieved our broader goal. But the pubs of Penzance remained stubbornly unfinished until the weekend past.

The beer garden at The Pirate.

We started out well, visiting The Pirate at Alverton and The Sportsman at Heamoor in April, liking both enough that we’ve made return visits despite them being out of our way. The Pirate especially has got something about it: Adnams Broadside, a verdant beer garden, a carpeted and cosy old-fashioned interior, and a proper crowd of locals who (all we ask for) don’t look at us twice. It’s become a little treat for us to wander out that way on a lazy weekend afternoon when we’re not on a train or bus somewhere up country.

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Sonder, Truro’s Craft Beer Bar

How had we not heard about Sonder, a six-month-old craft beer bar with, 12 keg taps in Cornwall’s county town?

We did know about Newquay’s craft beer venue, No. 5 Brewhouse, but our plan to visit that was foiled by its closure for a private party. Sonder, meanwhile, we merely wandered past on our way to Truro bus station.

It caught our eye because it gives off all the correct signals as prescribed in the Craftonian manifesto: dark paintwork, neon, modern typography and, of course, liberal use of the phrase CRAFT BEER on the frontage. Inside we found more of the same. Edison bulbs? Check. Recycled pallet wood? Everywhere. Staff in black T-shirts? Several. ‘Street food’? A menu full of it.

Pallet wood seating.

Based on stopping for two drinks, one on Friday afternoon, another on Saturday evening, we can’t presume to pronounce judgement, but our first impressions are good. Like a lot of would-be craft beer bars outside big cities (Truro is technically a city but, well…) it has an endearingly un-hip micropub quality, with customers of all ages and types chatting around the bar.

Edison bulbs.

The beer list is unusual with few of the usual suspects, suggesting direct supply rather than middlemen, and is displayed on electronic screens behind the bar. Turnover seems brisk with several beers on the list having changed between our visits. Tasters are positively pushed, too, which makes up for the obscurity of some of the beers on offer. On our first call, Buxton Axe Edge and Chorlton Mulled Lager were classical and fascinating respectively, the former crystalline, the latter hazy. On take two we had Pilsner Urquell served in a cute, chunky branded mug, and an IPA whose name we forgot to write down from a brewery we’d never heard of. (We’ve only been doing this for a decade — cut us some slack.) They were served weirdly without any head but we managed to whip some foam up with a plastic straw once we’d cleared an inch or two.

The bar at Sonder.

We mention that last point partly for the sake of honesty, and partly to underline that this isn’t a super-slick operation — the phrase ‘labour of love’ crops up on the Facebook page, and that’s what comes across. It simply feels like a happy place to be, if not yet quite comfortable in its own clothes. We remember, though, when Cask at Pimlico, the first pub in the Craft Beer Co chain, felt much the same, and look how that turned out.

It’s good, finally, to have an at least tentative answer to a question we get asked fairly frequently — where’s good for craft beer in Truro? — having never been able to back The Hub wholeheartedly. We’ll certainly be adding Sonder to our own regular and slightly eccentric Truro crawl along with The Old Ale House* and The Railway Tavern, a former working men’s club next to the station which we like for reasons other than its beer.

* We popped into The Old Ale House on Saturday but left after one — how is it possible for what is meant to be Skinner’s flagship pub, a venue with lots to commend it otherwise, to be serving beer that tastes so tired? Exasperating.

QUICK ONE: Tinnies in the Pub

Stella Artois advertising c.2007.

Some might regard the sale of canned big brewery lager in pubs as a bad sign but there is a definite silver lining.

This year, we’ve been making a special effort to break routine and go to pubs that, for one reason or another, we’ve ignored or avoided in the past. (Which, by the way, has been great fun.) As part of that, on Friday, at a loose end between trains in St Austell, we went to the first pub we came across on exiting the station — The Queen’s Head Hotel.

Some context: St Austell is a working town rather than a tourist destination, dominated by the brewery up the hill with its slick Hicks’ Bar, but oddly lacking a destination pub at its centre. We’ve tended to end up in the over-large, over-bright White Hart on previous visits because we could at least see inside. Often quiet in the evenings, the town is even more so in November and early December.

The Queen’s Head is an old building with two entrances and, though lacking partitions, indicates the lingering class divide with soft furniture and carpeting. All the action was around the bar and the pool table where regulars of various ages, all male as far as we observed, were chatting and joking with the young woman behind the bar.

There was cask ale on offer, and it was in decent condition, but we were surprised to see how many people were drinking pint cans of Stella Artois, straight from the tin. There is one obvious reason for that choice: it was £2.60 a pop, whereas the going rate for a pint of draught lager is more like £4.

For beer folk, this might seem like bad news, even a bit depressing — what hope for breweries if people don’t want or can’t afford to drink the beer they produce? And it does feel a bit like the pub has given up — the equivalent of turning up for work in your pyjamas.

But here’s that silver lining we promised: doesn’t this say something quite hopeful about the institution of the pub?

Given that you can buy Stella at the supermarket for the equivalent of about £1.30 a pint — exactly the same product, served in the same way — why would you pay even as much as £2.60? The pub, even one that isn’t all that special, is adding value.

People have to go out once in a while to be with other humans, and the pub is still the best place to do it.