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.

Top Ten Cornish Beers (So Far)

Potion 9 pumpclip at the Star Inn.

UPDATE 22/03/2013: Our revised top ten Cornish beers list for 2013 is now available here.

For a county (sorry — Duchy) with a permanent population of only around 540,000, Cornwall has quite a few breweries, and more are appearing every month. There are some whose wares we’ve yet to try; others we rarely see except in bottles; and a few we simply can’t recommend with a clear conscience.

This list, then, is of beers we’ve particularly enjoyed in pubs in Cornwall and would advise visitors to seek out. As before, our location in the far west means that we’ve got an unintentional bias towards breweries whose beers make it down this way.

  1. Driftwood Spars — Dêk Hop (3.8%) Pale amber, flinty and tannic; hoppy without being flowery.
  2. Driftwood Spars — Bolster’s Blood Porter (4.8%) Reminded us of something from the 1909 Syle Guide, with stewed bitterness and very little hop aroma. A touch of pleasing sourness. Very refreshing after a long walk to St Agnes.
  3. Penzance Brewing Company — Potion 9 (4%) Our beer of the year for 2011. Golden, with US hops (Amarillo, last time we checked) and great for a session.
  4. Penzance Brewing Company — Trink (5.2%) Potion’s big brother, edging towards Thornbridge Jaipur territory. This is the one the regulars at the Star Inn get really excited about.
  5. Penzance Brewing Company — Scilly Stout (7%) A chunky, chewy stout that would be perfect for export; poised between bitter/sweet, and more of a plum pudding than a cup of coffee.
  6. Skinner’s — Porthleven (4.8%) We’re not huge fans of Skinner’s (we blame their yeast) but this pale and hoppy beer was a very pleasant surprise. We drank many pints at the Old Ale House in Truro and then went back for more a few weeks later. Keeps getting hoppier, too, as the recipe evolves.
  7. Spingo — Flora Daze (4%) The newest addition to the Spingo range and yet more evidence that pale and hoppy might suit Cornish water. By no means a hop bomb, but the dry-hopping at least is aggressive enough to trigger hayfever.
  8. Spingo — Middle  (5%) A classic, and an illustration of a typical sweet West Country beer — an acquired taste, but not actually flawed. Has become more bitter and cleaner in the last year or so.
  9. St Austell — Proper Job (4.5%) The best of St Austell’s beers and found (we estimate) in about a third of their pubs. Almost too hoppy: can start to feel palate-stripping after three pints.
  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’ve also enjoyed everything we’ve tried from Coastal, though they’re hard to find and we rarely see the same brew twice, so can’t recommend a particular beer.

As with our Cornwall pub list, if you’re a brewer wondering why your beer hasn’t been mentioned, email us and we’ll let you know.

Beasts of Bodmin and the Price of a Pint

The heritage railway ran beer festival visitors from Bodmin Parkway into town.
The heritage railway ran beer festival visitors from Bodmin Parkway into town.

Unlike at most beer festivals, we found room to breathe at Bodmin. There were no queues for anything and we had little trouble getting a seat. This, of course, probably means that it was fatally undersubscribed, but we won’t worry about that for now.

Working our way through the beastly strong Burton Ale candidates on the menu, pondering the “West Country Ale” as a separate useful descriptor for certain types of sweet, strong brown beer, we became aware that the chaps at the other end of the table wanted our attention.

“Do you know where the local Wetherspoon’s is?”

We didn’t, but we ended up chatting to them for a while, and very nice they were too — veterans of Exeter CAMRA with the bulging, twenty year old tickers’ notebooks to prove it. Once we’d compared notes (literal in their case) on the beers at the festival, the conversation turned to Exeter. As we’d struggled to find a good pint there, we decided to pump them for information.

We were interested to note, however, that their comments went something like this: “The Old Red Lion — now, that’s a nice pub, £2.90 a pint, about four handpumps.” For them, the average price of a pint was a key piece of information, and they had an estimate for every pub in Exeter.

When they asked us about Penzance, we had no specific idea of the price of a pint in any pub. Are we odd?

We enjoyed St Austell Big Job ‘double IPA’, Driftwood Spars Alfie’s Revenge, Spingo Special, as well as beers from Coastal and the Penzance Brewing Company.

The Driftwood Spars

The Driftwood Spars pub and brewery viewed from the beer garden.

It might not be easy to get Belgian, German or American beer in Cornwall, but the native brewpub scene continues to offer exciting alternatives.

The Driftwood Spars is a great pub in a great location, nestled amongst huge sand dunes overlooking a lovely cove just outside St Agnes. St Agnes is well connected by bus, and it’s a 10 minute walk from there, so you could leave the car at home.

It spreads over three levels and so has plenty of room for everyone, from motorbike-riding locals to well-off German tourists. It also has a “best of Cornwall” cask ale selection, taking advantage of its free house status to offer two from Sharps and two from St Austell (including the sublime Proper Job).

Of course our main reason for coming was the beer they brew on site.

We started with Red Mission, a 4% red-tinged best bitter. We enjoyed it a lot. More crystal malt than we usually like worked here because it was well balanced with a hard bitterness throughout, and a sulphurous, hoppy kick at the end. Not at all floral and, in that, perhaps a bit like a Duesseldorf Alt?

Dêk Hop was next and this really was a cracking beer. At 3.8%, it was pale amber and distinctly hoppy. Again, though, it was a hard, robust hop flavour– not floral, citrusy or delicate.  It was also very spicy. We wouldn’t be surprised to hear there was coriander in the brew. We spent a long time listing flavours and characteristics. It was many-faceted and complex. Did it remind us of a saison? Were we tasting German hops? (Coppery, minty.)

They had more beers in bottles (also for sale in their off licence) but, as we were coming down with heatstroke*, we called it a day, vowing to return, frequently.

* Heatstroke is a common cause of headaches and nausea the day after enjoying a beer garden.