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pubs

QUICK ONE: Tinnies in the Pub

Stella Artois advertising c.2007.

Some might regard the sale of canned big brewery lager in pubs as a bad sign but there is a definite silver lining.

This year, we’ve been making a special effort to break routine and go to pubs that, for one reason or another, we’ve ignored or avoided in the past. (Which, by the way, has been great fun.) As part of that, on Friday, at a loose end between trains in St Austell, we went to the first pub we came across on exiting the station — The Queen’s Head Hotel.

Some context: St Austell is a working town rather than a tourist destination, dominated by the brewery up the hill with its slick Hicks’ Bar, but oddly lacking a destination pub at its centre. We’ve tended to end up in the over-large, over-bright White Hart on previous visits because we could at least see inside. Often quiet in the evenings, the town is even more so in November and early December.

The Queen’s Head is an old building with two entrances and, though lacking partitions, indicates the lingering class divide with soft furniture and carpeting. All the action was around the bar and the pool table where regulars of various ages, all male as far as we observed, were chatting and joking with the young woman behind the bar.

There was cask ale on offer, and it was in decent condition, but we were surprised to see how many people were drinking pint cans of Stella Artois, straight from the tin. There is one obvious reason for that choice: it was £2.60 a pop, whereas the going rate for a pint of draught lager is more like £4.

For beer folk, this might seem like bad news, even a bit depressing — what hope for breweries if people don’t want or can’t afford to drink the beer they produce? And it does feel a bit like the pub has given up — the equivalent of turning up for work in your pyjamas.

But here’s that silver lining we promised: doesn’t this say something quite hopeful about the institution of the pub?

Given that you can buy Stella at the supermarket for the equivalent of about £1.30 a pint — exactly the same product, served in the same way — why would you pay even as much as £2.60? The pub, even one that isn’t all that special, is adding value.

People have to go out once in a while to be with other humans, and the pub is still the best place to do it.

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beer reviews pubs

A Weekend in Beer Town

We’ve just spent a couple of nights in Falmouth, Cornwall’s best beer destination, where we tried lots of new beers and revisited some standards.

We had a couple of beers here and there that didn’t do much for us — for example, a cask Cloudwater Session Pale at Hand could have done with more bitterness to balance the sticky candied peel hop character, and a Vocation Chop & Change Pale Ale at Beerwolf had too much bitter-leaf and onion for our palates. Generally, though, we reckon we chose well, or were lucky, and we came away feeling that our tastebuds had been given a proper going over.

We particularly enjoyed…

Two beers and a CAMRA mag, from above.

1. Rebel Eighty Shilling, 5%, cask, at The Front. We’ve had Rebel on the naughty step for a while after a string of muddy-tasting pints of this particular beer, some bland-shading-nasty golden ales, and the hit-and-miss quality of their very expensive Mexi-Cocoa in bottles. This was like a completely new beer, though — tongue-coating chocolate sauce, with much of what made Mexi-Cocoa at its best so exciting, only at something like session strength (5%). Unlike some other sweet mild-type beers there wasn’t a hint of any acrid burnt sugar about it. It made us think of Schwarzbier only chewier. Maybe there was even a hint of Belgian Christmas beer about it. Good stuff — but will the next pint we find be the same?

Two beers from 45 degrees, with beer mats.

2. St Austell Admiral’s Ale, 5%, cask, at The Chainlocker/Shipwrights. For some reason this is the first time we’ve ever actually stopped for a pint at this pair of conjoined pubs — it’s too easy to fall into the circuit of Front-Beerwolf-Hand on a day trip — and we were quietly impressed. It’s got a bit of that corporate chain feel that afflicts many St Austell pubs but there’s enough genuinely interesting weathered nautical tat on the walls, and enough grime in the grain of the wood, to give it character. We enjoyed being surrounded by boat folk, too — the down-to-earth types who crew yachts but don’t own them.  The beer line-up included seasonal special Liquid Sunshine (a kind of baby Proper Job at 3.9%, firmly bitter), the excellent Mena Dhu keg stout, and Admiral’s Ale, an old favourite of ours that is rarely seen on cask. It’s quite a different beer to the bottled version — less glassy-clean, more subtly citrusy, and generally softer. Intriguing and many-faceted. It makes HSD, also brown and at the same ABV, seem a bit old hat. We wouldn’t mind at all if this was available everywhere, all year round.

All Bretts Are Off Pump Clip design.
SOURCE: Siren Craft Brew website.

3. Siren/Crooked Stave All Bretts Are Off, 4.5%, bottle, Hand. A well-proper-craft take on English bitter with Brettanomyces — how could we resist that? The first bottle the barman opened gushed everywhere but, with a bit of teamwork, we managed to get 99% of the second attempt into a pint glass, with an insanely huge head. It smelled very like Orval (we’re still stuck on that frame of reference) and tasted really like one of our attempts at blending Orval with English ale. Or Harvey’s Sussex Best at its funkiest, and then some. Dry, light on the tongue and differently fruity — as in, apples just beginning to think about rotting in a crate behind a barn, rather than grapefruit. This is one way British brewers could be mixing things up without just turning out pretend American beers and made us want to taste takes on the same idea from breweries like Fuller’s, Adnams and St Austell. By the same token, as in this case presumably, it’s also a way craft brewers might bring themselves to brew trad bitter with Fuggles (and they might have to in years to come) without feeling too compromised.

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pubs

Spingo, Spingo, Gose, Orval

Penzance is at its lowest ebb between Christmas and the start of the season, and it’s been bleddy cold, so we really needed the cosy cheer of the pub last week.

Spingo Middle at the Dock Inn, mid-week, sparkled in the glass only a shade off ruby red, and tasted better than ever — a touch drier than usual, but still with the typical smack of unrefined sugar about it.

On Friday, our attempt at a pint of Proper Job was derailed because the Yacht Inn was heaving with rugby fans, so we went for another round of Spingos at the Dock. This time, that lanky dog was there — the one that comes over, perches its chin on the edge of the table and looks sadly at your pork scratchings — and we were surrounded by out-of-season weekend-breakers eating dinner.

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pubs

The Samuel Jones, Exeter

The Samuel Jones opened just before Christmas and is an outpost of Cornish brewing giant St Austell, occupying a converted warehouse on Exeter’s riverside.

If you weren’t in the know, you might not realise this ‘smoke and ale house’ is a St Austell project. Branding has been kept to a minimum, and the décor is more stylish than most of their Cornish estate — polished copper, reclaimed wood and exposed pipework, which make it feel pleasingly cluttered, warm and, for want of a better word, ‘cool’.

That ‘coolness’ is somewhat undercut by the evidence of corporate management: staff in matching waistcoats, scripted greetings, floor supervisors with earpieces, and a slick EPOS system. On our visit, it did, at times, feel a bit like a posh Harvester, though never downright soulless, perhaps because it was so buzzing, with almost every seat, from armchair to bar stool, occupied from the moment we arrived mid-afternoon up until we left.

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News opinion

What the ‘Craft Can’ Means

St Austell Korev in cans.

St Austell have announced that they are putting their lager, Korev, into 330ml cans.

In their press release, they explicitly present this as an embrace of ‘craft beer’:

The craft beer revolution continuing to sweep America has now resulted in the unexpected return of the humble beer can as the container of choice for over 400 US breweries – and now this trend is crossing the pond.

Canned beer certainly isn’t new and you can go into any supermarket in Britain and find shelves filled with tins of London Pride, Bass and other somewhat interesting beers. But those are 440ml or 500ml containers, and have long been the budget option in a market where the upmarket choice is a ‘premium bottled ale’ (PBA).

The new generation of ‘craft cans’ are materially identical but look like soft drinks — cute little R2-D2s which sit neatly in the hand, and slip easily into rucksacks and handbags for train journeys and trips to the beach. And for stronger beers, or those that are more strongly flavoured, 330ml is plenty. Some people even report that beers taste fresher from cans, perhaps because they are better protected from the light.

Their real significance, though, in our view, is cultural.

If the Campaign for Real Ale liked traditional pubs, ‘craft beer’** likes chrome’n’neon bars; ‘craft beer’ rejects cask-conditioned ale in favour of keg; it chooses IPA over best bitter; and now it is embracing cans over the 500ml bottles which seemed so exciting when they appeared in supermarkets from the late 1980s onward.

In the post-BrewDog era, cans are yet another way to underline the changing of the guard. But they are also a way for the old guard to take a slice of the cake. After all, they do own most of the canning lines in the country.

** We’ve updated our page explaining what we mean by ‘craft beer’. In this case, we’re using 2: “…used to describe a ‘movement’ arising from c.1997 onwards which rejected not only ‘mass-produced’ beer but also the trappings of established ‘real ale’ culture”.