The Pub That Does That One Beer Brilliantly

You know the kind of place we mean: it’s perhaps a bit curmudgeonly, perhaps a little old-fashioned, and everyone knows it’s the place in town to go for a perfect pint of [BEER X].

Most often these days, it seems, BEER X is Bass. Certainly in the West Country that’s the case, and there are famous Bass pubs in Penzance, Falmouth, Bristol and no doubt many other places. Here’s a bit we wrote for our now defunct Devon Life column:

Several pubs that sold great Bass 40 years ago are still doing so and one of the country’s very most famous Bass pubs is in Plymouth… The Dolphin on the Barbican is a place to drink, not to dine or pose. There is a range of ale on offer but the main event, as it has been for as long as anyone can remember, is undoubtedly Bass. An ornate plaque outside the front door advertises ‘Bass on draught’; a huge Bass banner hangs behind the bar; and the beer comes in straight-sided vintage-style pint glasses bearing the famous logo…. Though Bass may not be the beer it once was, at The Dolphin under the stewardship of veteran publican Billy Holmes, it still has some of its old snap and crackle, with a chalky dryness and a wonderful mild funkiness. It is unfussy but certainly not bland…. The Dolphin is by no means the only Bass stronghold in Plymouth, however. At the Artillery Arms in Stonehouse Belinda Warne has been learning its ways for 20 years. ‘It’s temperamental,’ she says, reflecting the popular mystique that surrounds the beer. ‘I’ve known it be fine and then, bang, there’s a clap of thunder outside and it’s turned bad in an instant.’

Becky's Dive Bar, photographed by Grant W. Corby (we'd still like to get in touch with him) and supplied by Eric Schwartz (pictured right).
Becky’s Dive Bar, photographed by Grant W. Corby (we’d still like to get in touch with him) and supplied by Eric Schwartz (pictured right).

Becky’s Dive Bar, all the way back in the 1960s and 70s, made its reputation on being one of the few places in London you would ever find Ruddles, for example, and we once made a pilgrimage to Putney in search of Timothy Taylor Ram Tam. (That pub sadly gave up on this unique selling point.) The Museum Tavern in Bloomsbury, a nice pub but otherwise unremarkable, is a go-to place for Theakston Old Peculier.

We reckon the King’s Head here in Bristol is on its way to gaining a reputation for its Harvey’s Sussex Best which seems to be permanently on offer and as good as we’ve ever had it. The Bridge Inn round the corner seems to have a similar relationship with Dark Star Hophead, a beer we still love despite its ups and downs.

For this model to really work the beer ought to be from another part of the country, the further away the better, and ideally one that doesn’t have wide national distribution through Wetherspoon pubs or other such chains and pub companies. But that doesn’t have to be the case: the selling point is really absolute reliability. If you fancy a pint of BEER X, the pub will have it, and because they always have it, and perhaps not much else, they’ll both know how to care for it and get through plenty. (See: Proper Job at The Yacht Inn, Spingo at The Dock.)

The publican has to hold their nerve, of course, when all the other pubs in the area are offering three, five, ten, twenty guest ales, plus kegs, plus bottles. How long does it take to build a cult reputation and a steady clientele around selling one beer really well? Years, probably — perhaps decades. And if a customer craving BEER X turns up and it’s not there you might find yourself back at square one.

What are some of your favourite One Beer Done Well pubs? Let us know in the comments below.

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.

Beer for Breakfast on Flora Day

At a little before 7 a.m., as the first dance nears the centre of Helston, its arrival heralded by the brass and drums of the town band, we see our first pints of Spingo Middle.

They’re in plastic glasses and the man and woman drinking them look like they need strong coffee rather than beer, but that’s not what today is all about.

We hit the Blue Anchor at not much after 8:30 a.m. and find it busy already. Breakfasts are being served to the small army of temporary staff and to tourists. Some lads from up country make macho noises but slyly nurse their pints, not wanting to fall by the wayside too early in the day. Some older local men, experienced drinkers, aren’t being remotely cautious. This is, after all, Helston’s great debauch — bigger than Christmas and New Year put together. We don’t, in all honesty, enjoy our pints. Our mouths taste of coffee and toothpaste and we end up feeling slightly queasy.

Back outside, with the seemingly never-ending children’s dance underway, we notice the crowd parting, not for a top-hatted local VIP, but for a pin of Spingo — a blue-striped metal cask — being wheeled from the Blue Anchor to a private party somewhere in the back streets by two grinning men who look like they’ve won the lottery.

It’s not all Spingo. Youngsters sitting on walls and first-floor windowsills neck Budweiser, Corona and Magner’s cider. Before long, every alleyway we cut down is scattered with empty bottles and cans. Wedges of lime squish under our feet. Through back garden gates, we catch glimpses of parties where everyone is holding a glass of wine or a small green bottle of French supermarket lager.

By the evening, as we return to the Blue Anchor for a last pint before the bus ride home, we find a huge bouncer in attendance. Physically intimidating, yes, but his manners are impeccable, and he shows great diplomacy in steering one drunk after another out of the pub and pointing them back towards their houses to sleep it off.

They keep coming, the happy inebriates, walking imaginary tightropes, chuckling to themselves, hands on the walls for support. A glass smashes and we tense momentarily, but there are apologies and laughter, and the guv’nor, whose pub has been heaving for twelve hours, clears it up with a huge smile on his face.

This last pint of Spingo is not the best we’ve ever had — it’s a little warm and rather buttery; an inevitable result of upping production for the Big Day, perhaps — but it’s a pleasure just to be there amid the warm glow of a community at play.

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.

Two Cornish Sports Day Beers

We’d like to have been at the meeting at St Austell where they brainstormed legal names for a beer to tie into the, er, imminent, um… seasonal sporting event. They settled eventually on the suitably tangential ‘Podium’. This is yet another pale-and-hoppy but, at only 4%, is a much lighter-bodied, drily bitter beer than the same brewery’s Proper Job. Another beer we’d be delighted to see available all year round.

Spingo Ales at Helston have not beaten around the bush: in typically Cornish anti-authority style, they’ve called theirs Olympic. Bold as brass. It’s an interesting beer: golden, yes, but also made with smoked malt for a whiff of the Olympic flame. Now that’s an interesting approach to a seasonal tie-in.

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.

New Variant Spingo

The sign of the Blue Anchor pub and brewery, Helston, Cornwall.

The Blue Anchor in Helston has been brewing for several hundred years. Its Spingo ales are a Cornish tradition, available in only a handful of select pubs, and something of an acquired taste.

Generally, they play to a West Country palate — sweet, brown and not too ‘light’ (hoppy). One of their range, in fact, is ‘Bragget’, with no hops at all and a good slug of honey.

Their brewer, though, has begun to feel the urge to experiment, hence Flora Daze. At 4%, it’s the weakest beer on offer; it’s also the lightest in colour, by far the hoppiest, and being launched ahead of the summer arrival of ‘foreigners’.

By the standards of many other UK breweries, it is not a remarkable beer, being similar to Harvey’s session-strength IPA or Fuller’s Chiswick, but it was certainly generating conversation amongst the chaps spoofing at the bar in the Blue Anchor: “It tastes… like a pint with a slice of lemon in it.”; “I’ll be sticking to Middle.”

As far as we could tell, they were only drinking at all because the first few pints were free. Not everyone is drawn towards the new, and the point at which a beer seems ‘extreme’ is culturally defined.

We really liked Flora Daze and hope it does well this summer, though we know that brewers have to make cask ales that will sell. The Blue Anchor Beer Festival runs until Sunday 1 April.

Where's the catch?

The Dock Inn, Penzance
Photo nicked from the Dock Inn website.

Yesterday evening, we finally made into a Penzance pub that we’d been meaning to visit for a while. We’d noticed through both traditional methods (looking through the window) and on Twitter that the pub in question served Spingo Middle (5%) from the Blue Anchor in Helston, a cult local beer which, for us, is usually a long, expensive bus ride away.

So, why did it take us so long? Partly because we don’t yet know how to read Cornish pubs like we used to be able to read them in London. We just can’t tell from the outside, in the dark, whether we’ll find a scary atmosphere, or a cheery greeting. So we dither, not wanting to wander into a… situation.

From the moment we entered the Dock Inn,  however, we felt comfortable and at home. It hits a sweet spot being clean, cosy and characterful all at the same time. Properly worn in, but not tatty. It has partititons and corners, sofas and tables, a fire and — most importantly — people behind the bar who talk to you like human beings whether you’re a regular or not.

The beer was good, too, although on the cold side, which, as it happens, we don’t mind at all. Spingo is Spingo, and in the sweet, malty West Country style which you either love or hate. (Although, this time, not at all sour.) Skinner’s Christmas Fairy (3.9%) was… a Skinner’s beer. The occasional pint of Betty Stoggs has impressed us but, sadly, we might have to face the fact that we just don’t get on with them. There was no faulting the condition, though, and this amber-gold beer could not have looked any more appetising in the squeaky clean glass.

This is our new favourite pub in town, without doubt. What a relief to have found it.