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.

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.