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.