Spingo, Spingo, Gose, Orval

Penzance is at its lowest ebb between Christmas and the start of the season, and it’s been bleddy cold, so we really needed the cosy cheer of the pub last week.

Spingo Middle at the Dock Inn, mid-week, sparkled in the glass only a shade off ruby red, and tasted better than ever — a touch drier than usual, but still with the typical smack of unrefined sugar about it.

On Friday, our attempt at a pint of Proper Job was derailed because the Yacht Inn was heaving with rugby fans, so we went for another round of Spingos at the Dock. This time, that lanky dog was there — the one that comes over, perches its chin on the edge of the table and looks sadly at your pork scratchings — and we were surrounded by out-of-season weekend-breakers eating dinner.

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Refurbishment and the Narrative of Decline

The Star Inn, aka the Star Hotel, at the top of Market Jew Street in Penzance, has taken us on an emotional roller-coaster-ride over the last couple of years.

Its location ought to have made it successful: it sits where the four central roads (Green Market, Chapel Street, Causewayhead and Market Jew Street) converge in the very centre of town, around the grand late-Georgian domed market hall. On any week-night in the summer season, groups of hungry tourists can be observed there, looking for a decent but informal place for dinner; and out of season, it’s got plenty of passing trade from shoppers.

For a long time, however, the Star was not in a position to capitalise on its location, as it was a tatty-looking pubco property with peeling paint, grubby windows, dim-lighting, and a vaguely unwelcoming air. Tourists gave it a swerve, heading (often reluctantly, we sensed) into the nearby Wetherspoons, or one of the slightly posher restaurants on Chapel Street.

Then, last year, the Star shut down and was boarded up. We tend not to get over-emotional about pubs closing but this really was a sad sight, and bad news for a town which, from some angles, can look as if it is collapsing. The pubco began to advertise for tenants, promising a refurbishment, the computer-generated images of which were at odds with the hulking wreck upon which they were mounted.

Last winter’s storms didn’t help, either, battering and drenching a building which was already crumbling until its side wall began to bulge and emergency scaffolding had to be erected to prevent an outright collapse. We spent the whole summer expecting it to be demolished.

Then, to our surprise, the promised refurbishment actually got underway. The scaffolding came down revealing fresh plasterwork and repaired stone and brick-work. Hand-painted lettering appeared on the whitewash signalling an upgrade: this was to be a pub with aspirations. It was reborn — which doesn’t feel too strong a word — at the end of November.

It’s not, frankly, our kind of pub. For one thing, the beer is unexciting — Deuchar’s IPA, Caledonian 80′ and one guest ale, alongside the usual line-up of lagers/Guinness and their extra cold variants. The décor is also rather corporate and bland, reminding us of a Greene King pub we visited in Ipswich.

Nonetheless, it is just what the town centre needs, filling an otherwise dead spot with light and life, and giving off warm vibes.  It is welcoming, has a solid mainstream offer, and is run cheerfully and efficiently. We suspect it will do well, especially with families who are not otherwise especially well served in town.

It’s also an example of how the pubs here (we can’t speak for the rest of the country) resist the narrative of decline: we haven’t noticed a single pub close and stay closed. Instead, they come back cleaner, sturdier, and better equipped to serve the modern market.

NB. This Star Inn is not to be confused with the one at Crowlas, a village near Penzance, where we go to enjoy Potion 9 when we can scrape together the bus fare.

UPDATE 08/12/2014 10:00: we remembered one! The Peruvian Arms, a back-street pub, closed a couple of years ago and has, so far, stayed shut. There have been signs of a possible refurb in the last six months, though.

Penzance Booze Outlets, 1898

In 1898, a ‘pay to play’ business directory for Penzance listed all of its wine and spirit merchants. On this evidence, they primarly sold ‘posh’ beer from Dublin, London, Burton and Bristol, and none of them mention beer from local brewers.

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.

World Beer in Penzance

Brooklyn Lager and Duvel at the Lamp & Whistle, Penzance.

It’s taken a while but, at last, we can now go to the pub in Penzance and drink Belgian and American beer, at the Lamp & Whistle, five minutes walk from the central station in the centre of town.

When we first moved to Penzance proper, we went to ‘the Lamp’ quite a bit, partly because it tended to have St Austell Proper Job in excellent condition, but also because it is one of the few places in the area not trading to some extent on the ‘cosy Cornish inn’ image. In fact, it feels as if it has been transplanted from a street corner in a trendy bit of South London. Then Proper Job disappeared, and we decided we preferred the atmosphere in the Dock Inn, and haven’t been back for a while, though we always peer through the window when we walk past.

When Tom Goskar tipped us off to the availability of Brooklyn Lager, however, we thought we ought to investigate, and we found quite a few changes. The ceiling has been fitted with what are technically known as ‘dangly stem glass holding rack things’, festooned with Chimay, Duvel and Bacchus branded glassware; a towering, ostentatious Brooklyn Lager font adorns the very centre of the bar; and there’s a brand-new-vintage Anchor Steam plaque fixed to the wall. It would seem that the James Clay rep has been.

These aren’t beers at the cutting edge of the import market (Chimay Rouge first hit Britain in 1974, Anchor Steam c.1979, at the start of the ‘world beer’ boom) but, come on, this is the wild west, and a town with a population of c.21,000, so they’re out on a limb going even this far. We’re delighted, at any rate.

We didn’t enjoy the keg Brooklyn Lager especially — it seemed less floral than the bottled incarnation with a lot of additional toffee flavour and, yes, actual rising, burp-inducing bubbles aka ‘fizz’. Chimay and Duvel, on the other hand, were a real treat, and scarcely more expensive than they are in supermarkets these days at £4.30 a bottle. (We paid £7.50 for a 330ml bottle of local ‘craft’ stout in Truro recently, so this question about the price of Belgian beer remains.)

There was also cask ale from the lesser-spotted Penpont Brewery, and evidence that the publicans’ real passion is for spirits in the wide selection of vodkas, rums and whiskies on the back shelf. (Żubrówka!)

If you’re in the area and fancy something a bit different, in terms of both ambience and beer selection, the Lamp might be just what you’re looking for.

We should mention that the Renaissance Cafe — not a pub! — also had Duvel with lovely glassware last time we went in.