Sonder, Truro’s Craft Beer Bar

How had we not heard about Sonder, a six-month-old craft beer bar with, 12 keg taps in Cornwall’s county town?

We did know about Newquay’s craft beer venue, No. 5 Brewhouse, but our plan to visit that was foiled by its closure for a private party. Sonder, meanwhile, we merely wandered past on our way to Truro bus station.

It caught our eye because it gives off all the correct signals as prescribed in the Craftonian manifesto: dark paintwork, neon, modern typography and, of course, liberal use of the phrase CRAFT BEER on the frontage. Inside we found more of the same. Edison bulbs? Check. Recycled pallet wood? Everywhere. Staff in black T-shirts? Several. ‘Street food’? A menu full of it.

Pallet wood seating.

Based on stopping for two drinks, one on Friday afternoon, another on Saturday evening, we can’t presume to pronounce judgement, but our first impressions are good. Like a lot of would-be craft beer bars outside big cities (Truro is technically a city but, well…) it has an endearingly un-hip micropub quality, with customers of all ages and types chatting around the bar.

Edison bulbs.

The beer list is unusual with few of the usual suspects, suggesting direct supply rather than middlemen, and is displayed on electronic screens behind the bar. Turnover seems brisk with several beers on the list having changed between our visits. Tasters are positively pushed, too, which makes up for the obscurity of some of the beers on offer. On our first call, Buxton Axe Edge and Chorlton Mulled Lager were classical and fascinating respectively, the former crystalline, the latter hazy. On take two we had Pilsner Urquell served in a cute, chunky branded mug, and an IPA whose name we forgot to write down from a brewery we’d never heard of. (We’ve only been doing this for a decade — cut us some slack.) They were served weirdly without any head but we managed to whip some foam up with a plastic straw once we’d cleared an inch or two.

The bar at Sonder.

We mention that last point partly for the sake of honesty, and partly to underline that this isn’t a super-slick operation — the phrase ‘labour of love’ crops up on the Facebook page, and that’s what comes across. It simply feels like a happy place to be, if not yet quite comfortable in its own clothes. We remember, though, when Cask at Pimlico, the first pub in the Craft Beer Co chain, felt much the same, and look how that turned out.

It’s good, finally, to have an at least tentative answer to a question we get asked fairly frequently — where’s good for craft beer in Truro? — having never been able to back The Hub wholeheartedly. We’ll certainly be adding Sonder to our own regular and slightly eccentric Truro crawl along with The Old Ale House* and The Railway Tavern, a former working men’s club next to the station which we like for reasons other than its beer.

* We popped into The Old Ale House on Saturday but left after one — how is it possible for what is meant to be Skinner’s flagship pub, a venue with lots to commend it otherwise, to be serving beer that tastes so tired? Exasperating.

beer and food

HubBox, Truro: Better Beef than Beer

The small Cornish beer’n’burger chain Hub took over trendy bar The One Eyed Cat in Truro last year, having previously traded as a ‘pop up’ on Lemon Quay.

We’ve been to the St Ives branch a couple of times but never quite cottoned to it but, as we were in Truro running some errands, and had recently heard good things about the beer on offer, we dropped in for a look on Saturday.

They’ve certainly gone all in on the makeover, covering the walls in colourful murals and friezes by David Shillinglaw, and paying homage to the previous temporary premises by using chunks of shipping container to form the back wall. Those bits of warehouse chic, along with stripped wood, exposed girders and the ubiquitous Edison bulbs, makes it feel rather like a misplaced BrewDog bar.


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.


Top Ten Cornish Pubs (So Far)

Vintage sign at the Blue Anchor, Helston.

UPDATED APRIL 2013: a new list of our favourite Cornish pubs is now available here.

As more beer geeks start to plan summer trips to Cornwall, we’ve been getting odd one-off queries about breweries, beer and pubs and so thought we’d put together a couple of posts with advice for visitors, of which this is Part the First.

The following list is of Cornish pubs we like and can recommend a visit to, if you’re in the area. Those we’ve starred are worth going out of your way to get to.

Note: we’re based way out west, so our choice is influenced by that.

The Driftwood Spars, St Agnes*
You often have to choose between great beer and a great view, but the Driftwood Spars does both. It’s a fabulous old, multi-room building with its own brewery, overlooking a beautiful secluded cove. A must visit. (Blog post.)

Star Inn, Crowlas (Penzance)*
Home of our beer in the year for 2011. The on-site brewery produces clean, precise and characterful real ales; both those and guest beers, usually from up north, are perfectly kept. You’d be mad not to drink Pete Elvin’s own stuff, but it’s also your best chance of getting non-Cornish beers in Cornwall. (Blog post.)

The Front, Falmouth*
Friendly staff, great range of ales and cider, bring your own food — what’s not to like? (Blog post.)

The Dock Inn, Penzance
Our usual choice 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. Friendly welcome and good food, too. (Blog post.)

The Blue Anchor, Helston*
The beers brewed on site might be an acquired taste, tending towards West Country sweetness; and they reportedly had a bad patch a couple of years ago (but before our time); but this is nonetheless a Cornish institution, and a truly characterful pub. (Blog post.)

The Watering Hole, Perranporth
The beer is by no means great (it’s fine) but this is a pub on a beach. Not overlooking a beach, or near a beach — on a beach, with tables on the yellow sand. The teenage staff were a bit diffident last time we went but we can’t help but love a pub which feels so unusual and relaxed. (Blog post.)

Logan Rock Inn, Treen
A St Austell joint selling almost the full range; cosy in bad weather, with a bona fide beer garden for nicer days. A good place around which to plan coastal walks.

Old Ale House, Truro
Recently taken over by Skinner’s, this is the place to try their beers and stand a chance of enjoying them. It’s a nice cosy pub with some lovely old furnishings. Free peanuts too. (Blog post.)

Hand Bar, Falmouth
Where we go for an indulgent treat. Cornwall’s only craft beer bar. Classics from USA and Belgium are supplemented with occasional specials. If you’re from anywhere else in the country, you will probably have easier access to a better selection at cheaper prices, but we don’t, so it makes our list. (Blog post.)

St Austell Brewery Visitor Centre, St Austell
The obvious place to try St Austell beers, which occasionally offers the opportunity to try Roger Ryman’s experimental brews. For best results, go on a Friday afternoon when the staff knock off: there’s a great buzz and you might get to discuss your pint with the people who made it.

If you’ve got other first-hand recommendations, feel free to mention them in a comment below. If you’re a publican wondering why we haven’t mentioned your pub, why not drop us an email?

beer reviews pubs real ale

Brewery Taps are a Good Thing

Edwardian glass screen advertising the Redruth Brewery Company Ltd

We struggle a bit with Skinner’s, one of Cornwall’s bigger small breweries. On the one hand, there is lots to like about the company (committed localness, charity work, openness) but, on the other, we’re just not fans of their beer. Betty Stoggs, their flagship bitter, is one we’d choose over Sharp’s Doom Bar, but certainly not over St Austell Tribute. (The three are often seen on the same bar in Cornwall.) We’ve had the occasional excellent pint, but many more slightly nasty ones. Others seem to enjoy it, though, so it might be that we just don’t get on with their yeast.

Recently, they took on the Old Ale House in Truro, within walking distance of their brewery, and have made it their tap, to all intents and purposes. Truro is short of good pubs but the OAH was always the most appealing, as a building, at least, with gnarled wood, dark corners and Edwardian livery for the defunct Redruth Brewery.

Skinner’s, like some other ‘brown beer’ brewers, are stretching themselves a bit. Porthleven (4.8%) is a hoppy blonde ale, introduced as a seasonal last summer and back for the new season. Last year, we found it disappointing — sweet and, er, ‘Skinnersy’ — but, yesterday, it was excellent. Four unplanned pints in the mid-afternoon excellent, in fact.

Betty Stoggs was the best we’ve tasted it, too — surely the result of proximity to the brewery and hands-on quality control?

The excellence of those other beers was only highlighted by the oddly named ‘Kiddlywink’, which had the cardboard and plastic yickiness we’re more used to from Betty Stoggs. Not off, just not good.

If you’re passing Truro, and aren’t averse to Skinner’s beers, the Old Ale House is worth a visit, if only to enjoy the free shell-on peanuts from a barrel by the bar.