Best Cornish Pubs 2013

Beer Wolf pub in Falmouth

Last year, we came up with a list of our favourite Cornish pubs, all of which remain worth a visit, but there has been a lot going on in the last year, and we’ve explored more, too, so it’s time for an update.

This list is personal and prejudiced — we do not have a team of inspectors in bowler hats making multiple visits with thermometers — but we hope beer geeks on holiday will find it useful.

The Driftwood Spars, St Agnes
The perfect place to end a coast walk, this pub, sitting on a beautiful cove, and with its own nearby brewery, has multiple rooms, wonky wooden beams, and plenty of cosy corners. On really nice days, the beer garden is a wonderful spot to sit and enjoy the big blue sky and the sound of the sea. (Blog post.)

Star Inn, Crowlas (Penzance)
CAMRA Cornwall pub of the year for 2013. It’s a little out of the way in a village between Penzance and St Ives, but buses in either direction stop right outside, and it does have a car park. No food, unless you count Caramacs and pork scratchings, and not remotely poshed-up, but the beer, brewed on site, is astoundingly good. Potion 9 is the one to go for. (Blog post.)

The Front, Falmouth
Though it now has competition, this large cellar pub still offers one of the more impressive ranges of local beer and cider in Cornwall. Though the beer sometimes lacks condition, most of it served on gravity, ‘bring your own food’, cheery bar staff and a warm atmosphere more than make up for it. Some ‘craft keg’ and posh bottles, too. (Blog post.)

The Dock Inn, Penzance
Our usual port of call in Penzance — one of the few places you can get Spingo beers other than at the Blue Anchor, often in better condition than on their home turf, with a very friendly welcome and good food. (Blog post.)

The Blue Anchor, Helston
This pub, with a brewery out back, is a must visit. Popular with locals and tourists, its multi-room layout still includes a bar/lounge divide, though we’ve always felt welcome in both. The best place to find their special seasonal brews, too. (Blog post.)

Old Ale House, Truro
This is as near as Skinner’s get to a brewery tap. It’s cosy with some lovely period features — not only Victorian, but also faded relics of the ‘real ale revolution’. Their best beer, Porthleven, is usually available. (Blog post.)

Beer Wolf Books, Falmouth
Opening just before Christmas last year, this pub-bookshop in a charming half-timbered building, has quickly gained a reputation for its unusual (for Cornwall) range of beer. Recently, alongside carefully chosen Cornish ales such as Potion 9 from the Penzance Brewing Company, there have been beers from Dark Star, Marble and other well-regarded ‘up country’ brewers. (Blog post.)

The Galleon, Fowey
This pub took us by surprise: despite being in a modern building, it is a free house, and offered a slightly more interesting range of beers than usual, all in very good condition. There are several pubs in Fowey and they all seem fine but, if you’re bored of St Austell’s beer, which you might well be after a few days, this is the place to come. (Blog post.)

The Lifeboat Inn, St Ives
Owned by St Austell and sitting on the harbourside, this pub is nicer illuminated by St Ives’ famously gorgeous natural light than it is in the evening, when it becomes a bit ‘orange’. We’ve been in several times in the last year and been impressed by the staff and the quality of the beer, even out of season. A good place to find St Austell seasonals, too.

The Top House Inn, Lizard (village)
A nice enough pub which we’re recommending chiefly for its location and the chance to find a few St Austell rarities (this is one of two places we’ve found their old-fashioned <4% IPA). The perfect place to finish a long walk, sitting outside with a pint of Proper Job and a bag of crisps, watching the bus stop in the village square.


General tips

  1. In any given Cornish cove, there will usually be more than one place to drink, but don’t assume by default the ‘traditional pub’ is the best option: sometimes, the contemporary beachside cafe/surf-shack is where you’ll find all the life, a warm welcome, and better beer.
  2. St Austell are utterly dominant. If they own several of the pubs in a town or village, and they usually do, the managed houses (usually with the newest signage and uniformed staff) tend to offer (of course) a more reliable experience, but the slightly run-down pubs with tenant landlords, though they can be a lottery, are often more characterful and cosy.
  3. Newer Cornish breweries such as Harbour and Rebel are hard to find in pubs, thanks to the St Austell lockdown, but seem to be making inroads into delis, cafes, restaurants and bars with their bottled beers at least. But check prices before you commit: we were charged £7.50 for a 330ml bottle of Rebel Mexicocoa in a bar in Truro.
  4. Cornwall does have some proper rough pubs, but they’re usually very easy to spot. We went in one once by mistake and weren’t murdered, though we did get asked, with curiosity rather than menace, whether we were undercover police officers on a drugs sting.

This is the type of blog post that rarely gets many comments, but which lingers in the Googletubes forever. When we’re in a new town, we always search ‘[TOWN X] beer blog’. Even if all it turns up is one post from 2009 with spelling mistakes, written by someone with different tastes to us, it still tells us more than any number of guide books. So, with that in mind, we’re also trying to put together a list of such posts, organised by region. Here’s what we’ve got so far. Let us know if you’ve seen any other good ‘uns.


The pleasure of the random pub

From Norman Garstin's 1889 painting of Penzance promenade, 'The Rain it Raineth  Every Day'. (The Bath Inn is up the road on the left before the red brick hotel.)
From Norman Garstin’s 1889 painting of Penzance promenade, ‘The Rain it Raineth
Every Day’. (The Bath Inn is up the road on the left before the red brick hotel.)

When we lived in London, we were always wandering around the city, either for fun or because public transport had collapsed, and used to visit new pubs all the time as a result: “This looks nice, let’s pop in.”

But even in Penzance, where we’ve lived for nearly two years, and which isn’t quite as big as London, it turns out there are still good pubs to be found. We must have walked past the Bath Inn a hundred times but never thought to go in, until last night, when the north wind had us seeking shelter just off the promenade.

There was the usual moment’s hesitation on the threshold (once you walk into a pub, it takes some nerve to turn on your heel and walk straight out, if its particularly hairy) followed by relief on entering: all the signs were good, from the polished brass to the homely atmosphere and sounds of murmured conversation. The woman behind the bar — surely the landlady? — gave us a smile and a bit of chat, even though she’d never seen us before. (Apparently, some publicans think you have to earn anything other than a scowl over time.)

It’s a huge building, it turns out, with two rooms at the front, a large beer garden (not a crappy yard) and, at the end of what you might call a banqueting hall, another bar. Despite its size, it felt warm, cosy and, yes, properly pubby.

We drank the new St Austell seasonal, Ruck and Roll, which, thankfully, didn’t taste too strongly of rugby, and Sharp’s Own — both in good nick — and watched Friday evening get going.

Darts players, fifteen or so of them, colonised one section, bantering and knocking back vases of lager; a few older chaps installed themselves at the bar and did some serious contemplative drinking with bags of crisps for dinner; a few young couples found quiet corners to flirt in; a party of middle-aged northerners, perhaps on an out-of-season break, ordered pints of “smooth” (for the men) and white wine (for t’lasses).

This pub seems very much alive, because it does its thing well, with confidence, and people come. Simple.

Beer history

Penzance’s 19th Century Beer Shops

From the Journal of the Statistical Society of London, Vol II (1839):

Not any families of this [labouring] class brew at home. The number of beer-shops at the same time in both places [Penzance and Madron] was 37. The number of public houses in Penzance has not varied during the last five years, with the exception of one new house opened about two years ago near some extensive rows of houses recently built. In Madron they have increased during the same period from 3 to 5. The number of beer-shops in the town and parish has been in each of the same five years, respectively, 28, 36, 41, 41 and 37… In Penzance there are only about half-a-dozen skittle-ground, called “kayle-alleys,” all of which are attached to public-houses or beer-shops; but out of the town, most of the beer-shops have them. It is stated by a person who frequents the public-houses in Penzance, that no periodical publications are taken in there exclusively for the labouring classes, and that the newspapers which are to be found in them are the provincial journals, and such of the London papers as are generally read by all classes of society.

Give or take a couple that have closed, we reckon (counting on fingers) that, these days, there are about fifty pubs in Penzance and Madron, so slightly more than in the 1830s, but then the population has tripled.


Top Ten Cornish Pubs (So Far)

Vintage sign at the Blue Anchor, Helston.

UPDATED APRIL 2013: a new list of our favourite Cornish pubs is now available here.

As more beer geeks start to plan summer trips to Cornwall, we’ve been getting odd one-off queries about breweries, beer and pubs and so thought we’d put together a couple of posts with advice for visitors, of which this is Part the First.

The following list is of Cornish pubs we like and can recommend a visit to, if you’re in the area. Those we’ve starred are worth going out of your way to get to.

Note: we’re based way out west, so our choice is influenced by that.

The Driftwood Spars, St Agnes*
You often have to choose between great beer and a great view, but the Driftwood Spars does both. It’s a fabulous old, multi-room building with its own brewery, overlooking a beautiful secluded cove. A must visit. (Blog post.)

Star Inn, Crowlas (Penzance)*
Home of our beer in the year for 2011. The on-site brewery produces clean, precise and characterful real ales; both those and guest beers, usually from up north, are perfectly kept. You’d be mad not to drink Pete Elvin’s own stuff, but it’s also your best chance of getting non-Cornish beers in Cornwall. (Blog post.)

The Front, Falmouth*
Friendly staff, great range of ales and cider, bring your own food — what’s not to like? (Blog post.)

The Dock Inn, Penzance
Our usual choice in Penzance — one of the few places you can get Spingo beers other than at the Blue Anchor, often in better condition than on their home turf. Friendly welcome and good food, too. (Blog post.)

The Blue Anchor, Helston*
The beers brewed on site might be an acquired taste, tending towards West Country sweetness; and they reportedly had a bad patch a couple of years ago (but before our time); but this is nonetheless a Cornish institution, and a truly characterful pub. (Blog post.)

The Watering Hole, Perranporth
The beer is by no means great (it’s fine) but this is a pub on a beach. Not overlooking a beach, or near a beach — on a beach, with tables on the yellow sand. The teenage staff were a bit diffident last time we went but we can’t help but love a pub which feels so unusual and relaxed. (Blog post.)

Logan Rock Inn, Treen
A St Austell joint selling almost the full range; cosy in bad weather, with a bona fide beer garden for nicer days. A good place around which to plan coastal walks.

Old Ale House, Truro
Recently taken over by Skinner’s, this is the place to try their beers and stand a chance of enjoying them. It’s a nice cosy pub with some lovely old furnishings. Free peanuts too. (Blog post.)

Hand Bar, Falmouth
Where we go for an indulgent treat. Cornwall’s only craft beer bar. Classics from USA and Belgium are supplemented with occasional specials. If you’re from anywhere else in the country, you will probably have easier access to a better selection at cheaper prices, but we don’t, so it makes our list. (Blog post.)

St Austell Brewery Visitor Centre, St Austell
The obvious place to try St Austell beers, which occasionally offers the opportunity to try Roger Ryman’s experimental brews. For best results, go on a Friday afternoon when the staff knock off: there’s a great buzz and you might get to discuss your pint with the people who made it.

If you’ve got other first-hand recommendations, feel free to mention them in a comment below. If you’re a publican wondering why we haven’t mentioned your pub, why not drop us an email?

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Spiral scratch beer

Sign of the Cornish Crown brewery.

Sometimes, you come across a band’s first single and, despite low-budget production and rough edges, recognise raw talent.

Well, that also turns out to be our experience of the new Cornish Crown Brewery which we were so apprehensive about visiting.

On a cold Wednesday night, we made it to the Crown in the centre of Penzance, the tap for the brewery which is actually based on an industrial estate a few miles away at Badger’s Cross in Gulval, where we tried pints of Bitter (3.7%) and Strong Pale Ale (4.8%).

First impressions were not promising: the thin, scummy heads on our pints did not make our mouths water.

What these pints lacked in stage presence, however, they made up for in taste. West Country beer often tends towards sweetness but both of these were bitter in that way that makes you thirsty — a very good sign. There was evidence of a heavy hand with the hops in the aroma, too. Sometimes, a good first impression can diminish as the beer warms up but, in this case, both beers were good to the last drop. Perhaps there was a hint of the burnt waxiness we associate with Skinner’s or Otter, but not enough to be a serious distraction.

The final verdict: we happily stayed for a second pint and will be keeping a keen eye on developments.

The Bitter is better than the SPA; here’s what Darren ‘Beertoday‘ Norbury had to say in a piece for the local paper; Spiral Scratch explained here; and for more beer/music analogies, see Zac’s blog; picture nicked from their website.