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.