Category Archives: Travels with beer

My my, hey hey

Here’s a puzzle for you. A nationally renowned brewpub opens a sister pub, supplying the same unique range of distinctive beers as the mothership. One or two of these beers are regular guests at a few pubs in the region, but this is the only other place where you can regularly find the full range. In other words, the number of pubs serving these rare and desirable beers has just increased by 100% – and the new pub is in a tourist town.

Yet, when I was in there the other night, there was nobody there but a handful of locals; apart from me, there were no avid tickers, no curious tourists. What’s more, I don’t expect this situation will change very much. I think they’ll do all right, but they will be catering mainly to the local trade: very few tickers are going to beat a path to their door, and they may struggle to raise much tourist custom.

What is this paradoxical establishment? It’s called Out of the Blue, which I guess marks it out as a bar rather than a pub – at least, all the other pubs in town have names including the words ‘The’ and ‘Inn’. It’s in Porthleven, where we’ve just stayed for a week; Porthleven is in Cornwall, or more specifically on the west coast of the Lizard (the bunion of Cornwall’s foot). To be precise, it’s in the old Porthleven AFC Social Club – if you put ‘Porthleven AFC’ into Google Maps you can see the location & indeed the building (although it’s since been done up). It’s roomy, as befits its former use. The thatched bar is partitioned off from the rest of the room, and most of the other punters had gathered on a little row of seating opposite. I went for the rather cavernous main room – I had a comfortable chair and something to read (and several beers to sample), so I was fine.

But what of the beer? As you may have guessed by now, the pub that the beer comes from is the Blue Anchor in Helston (hence “out of…”); the beer range, apart from a few keg taps for people who insist on that sort of thing, consists of the renowned Spingo ales. There were four on that night: Middle (5%), Special (6.6%), Ben’s Stout (4.8%) and Flora Daze (4%). This was only the second time I’d tasted Middle and Special; the first time was before my hop epiphany, so I was a bit concerned that they might strike me as a bit sweet and under-hopped. I needn’t have worried. What did I write last time?

[Middle is] a dark bitter with a rich, malty flavour touched with sourness and sweetness. It’s a deep flavour, that seems to develop and unfold as you drink it. It’s got the richness of an old ale without the alcoholic clout; the attack of a Wobbly Bob with the mellowness of a mild. It’s very, very nice. [Special is] a darker, heavier, stronger (6.6%) version of Middle … a beer to quietly sink into (and come up tasting of honey). Stood comparison with some of the darker abbey beers. … It reminded me a bit of the first time I tasted Marston’s Owd Roger, only better.

I’d endorse all of that, except to dial down some of the ‘sweet’ comments – there’s sweetness in there, but you could say the same of the red and blue Chimay. These are balanced, complex flavours, the Special in particular. Terrific beers.

The other two weren’t in quite as good nick, sad to say. I’m reserving judgment on Ben’s Stout until I get the chance to taste it again; there was a distinct sourness to the initial flavour, which I wasn’t sure was supposed to be there. Interesting and drinkable, but I think it could have been better. If the stout had suffered in that way, Flora Daze hadn’t – it was a bit flabby and lacking in condition, but flavourwise it was excellent. You could call it a lighter, more drinkable version of Middle, but with a herby, aromatic hop character which is all its own. Perhaps nothing startling within the contemporary brewing landscape, but I’d have it again; in fact, I think it joins Middle and Special in the ranks of beers I’d go some distance to drink again.

Not all the way to Porthleven, though. I didn’t know about Out of the Blue when we planned our holiday, but drinking Spingo beer was very much on my itinerary; the Blue Anchor is in Helston, and Helston is two miles from Porthleven. It’s ten minutes on the bus, or (I imagine) a leisurely 45-minute stagger if the last bus has gone: it’s very reachable. And, of course, there’s nothing on the far side of Porthleven but sea. Hence the apparent paradox I started with. As well as increasing pub choice in Porthleven by a third, Out of the Blue effectively doubles the Spingo estate; but anyone in search of Spingo is still going to head for Helston, unless they’re actually starting in Porthleven. As for the tourist trade, all the other pubs in town are big on dining and sea views – two of them overlook the harbour; precious few visitors to Porthleven are going to find their way to a former social club set back from the road out of town.

Verdict: amazing beers, curious pub, bizarre location. (When you think what they could have done with an offshoot in Exeter or even Truro…) I can only think the idea is to have a Porthleven pub for Porthleven people – all those people who don’t much care for views of the harbour, what with seeing it every day anyway, and who go to pubs for beer rather than beer-battered squid. I hope it does well, even if it’s not got much to offer incomers and tickers like what I am.

One final puzzle: if you look at the Street View image of the old Porthleven AFC Social Club, “Jolly’s Beers” are prominently advertised. Jolly’s sponsor the league in which Porthleven AFC play. Googling tells me that they’re a drinks company based in Redruth, but I can’t find any reference to brewing – and in my experience “drinks company” tends to mean distribution, with perhaps a sideline in own-brand soft drinks. So what did you get when you ordered a pint of one of Jolly’s beers? It’s a mystery.

(Bet it wasn’t as good as Spingo, though.)

Swish and flick

Or: why I still don’t get kegging.

I tried BD’s Zeitgeist on keg a while back and was deeply disappointed. On cask, at cellar temp, Zeitgeist was a superb beer – really memorable. In bottle, well, not so much. On keg, even worse – I couldn’t taste the damn thing. All I could tell was that I was drinking something very cold, very fizzy and vaguely in the dark lager area; it was quite pleasant and thirst-quenching, but no more than that. So, halfway down, I swilled it around the glass a bit to knock some of the gas out and let it warm up a degree or two. It was an absolute revelation – the aroma and the flavour burst into life. It still wasn’t as good as the cask, but it was a very nice beer – and it was still cold enough (and carbonated enough) to be pleasantly drinkable. So there you go: I can honestly say that Zeitgeist on keg, once I’d drunk half of it and given the other half a swish, was almost as nice as the cask version, and only about 50% more expensive.

Red Willow Soulless on keg tasted great to begin with, and equally great after the swish-and-flick treatment; degassing it a bit helped a bit, but there was nothing wrong with the flavour and aroma to begin with. I reckon the cask would have been even better, but the cask wasn’t on offer. This was definitely the best ‘craft keg’ I’ve had.

Magic Rock Cannonball was a disappointment, though. The Magic Rock beers I’d had before had been a pretty good match to their pump-clips – beautifully executed and insane(ly hoppy) – so I was hoping for great things from this one. And it was… OK. It wasn’t quite as chilled or as carbonated as the Zeitgeist had been, so I could taste something – just not all that much. I tried the swilling technique halfway down the glass, but it wasn’t a success. The beer didn’t so much outgas as deflate – and, since it hadn’t been ultra-cold to start with, I was left holding half a glass of warm-ish, flattish beer. Swilling didn’t do much to enhance the flavour, either, although it did liberate a blast of hop aroma in my direction – a particularly pungent, dead-leaves, old-books sort of aroma. Mmm, nice… I think.

I’m old enough to remember when keg bitter ruled the land (just about), and I did once drink bleedin’ Watney’s Red Barrel. (At least, I think it was Red Barrel – somebody else was buying, I wasn’t even 18 at the time. Actually, I don’t think I was 16 at the time.) I’ve never forgotten what it tastes like: it was cold, it was stomach-bloatingly fizzy and it tasted the same all the way through. We had a Sodastream machine at home at the time, and that was what it reminded me of – it was as if somebody had brought out a ‘beer’ flavour and mixed it into chilled soda water. My next half – some months later – was cask bitter, and it did that thing cask beer so consistently does, of presenting different aspects of its flavour in shifting combinations as you work your way down the glass; by the time I got to the bottom I was hooked for life.

Clearly, craft keg isn’t Red Barrel, but equally clearly it’s still cold and fizzy – and too much so for me. But maybe I’m missing something. Certainly that’s the impression I get when I see Rich from Magic Rock explaining (when I asked) why they put Cannonball on keg

As well as intensity of flavour/aroma we’re looking for drinkability, and temperature and carbonation help to make big hoppy beers lighter in mouth feel, they also accentuate hop aroma and clean the pallet of big flavours.

or when the Beer Nut raves about a keg IPA with (among much else) “a big carbonic bite from the incredibly busy fizz, putting yet more of an edge on it”. But it seems to me that the “carbonic bite” of pressurised CO2 has about as much to do with the flavour of the beer as the distinctive flavour of skunking (some people like that, too) – and what Rich is talking about essentially sounds like dialling down the flavour for drinkability. (The first half of that Zeitgeist was very drinkable – positively quaffable, you could knock it back no bother. I don’t know why you’d want to, though, unless you were just drinking it for the sake of the name or to look cool or something. Crazy idea, I know.)

As for the single-flavour “beer essence” effect, that has changed – I suspect it was an effect of pasteurisation, or just of Grotney’s quality control. (Grotney’s! Happy days.) Some keg beers – that Zeitgeist included – have quite big, complex flavours. They’re complex in a particular way, though. Back when I was keeping up tasting notes, I had a third of a (cask) beer from Oakham called Rollercoaster and wrote this:

An initial impression of sourness gives way to a Marble-ish aromatic hop attack, which gives way in turn to malt and caramel, before a big bitter hop finish. (Hence the name, I guess.)

That’s quite an unusual effect in a cask beer, but it seems more common in craft keg – BD’s 5 a.m. Saint on keg did almost exactly that (contrasting with cask Saint, which did the slow-developing flavour-soup thing and did it rather well). You get quite a lot going on, but you get it going on in every mouthful – which, I guess, makes it less essential to drink the beer in decent-sized measures.

So, my experiences of craft keg to date have told me that: it’s sometimes served so cold you can’t taste what you’re drinking; it’s sometimes so fizzy that you can taste the carbonic acid; it’s sometimes got strong and interesting flavours; it’s sometimes got significantly less strong and interesting flavours than cask equivalents or near-equivalents; and the flavours, however good they are, don’t develop in the same way as they do with cask. (Then there’s the price thing, obviously.)

But while they keep turning it out, I guess I’ll keep trying it.

The Bradford of the North

Quick bleg: where’s good in Leeds?

To put it another way: where’s excellent-to-unmissable, in the centre of Leeds, more or less in between the University of Leeds and the railway station? Pubs, mainly. I hear there is a particularly good offie in the town, but it’s a couple of miles too far out of the centre for me to fit it in this time out.

Suggestions in comments please!

Update: well, I’m back. I made it to Mr Foley’s (Red Willow Endless & Smokeless, Thornbridge Pollards) and, more briefly, North Bar (Kirkstall Aquitaine), where I spotted Zak at the bar and said hello. Unfortunately it wasn’t Zak. Oh well.

Mr Foley’s is a big town-centre pub with very comfortable seating and a lot of different areas; the only thing letting it down is the huge number of TV screens beaming Sky Sports in all directions. (It would be nice to have some acknowledgment that not everyone wants to watch rugby with their pint. And Wales lost.) The Smokeless (a smoked porter) was fab, one of those beers where the added flavour really blends with the underlying character of the beer. As for Endless, I commented the other day at Tandleman’s that Red Willow are stronger on sweeter and darker beers, and that what they really need to bring out is a really pale, hoppy beer. Well, Endless is that beer, but I’m afraid it confirms my impression that RW aren’t quite there yet; it’s a fine beer with a big hop attack, but there is just a touch of that characteristic Red Willow sweet heaviness in mid-mouth, which lets it down a bit. As for Pollards – a “coffee milk stout” – I didn’t really like it at all; far too sweet and very little beer character, more like a cold Irish coffee than a stout.

Later I headed out to North Bar, humming fragments of Armenian as I went. It’s a short walk from Mr Foley’s but a very different area – it looks as if the rents are lower, put it that way. The bar itself is a very different proposition: a long narrow room running back from the street, with a bar down one side and tables and chairs along the opposite wall. Four handpumps and a forest of keg fonts, all of which I overlooked in favour of the cask Aquitaine – an 8% old ale aged in wine casks. (I was tempted by the Magic Rock Curious, but I could only stop for a half so I wanted something a bit stronger.) It was only after I’d got my beer that I took a proper look at the beers on keg, which were quite remarkable – Odell’s, Flying Dog, Nøgne Ø, BrewDog, Thornbridge, Magic Rock… I really should have gone for some of that there craft keg, if only to continue my investigation of whether any of it is ever any good. (Results so far: not sure.) The BrewDog, incidentally, was something called “Everything in its right place” – a response to Simon? As for the Aquitaine, much as I love old ales, I don’t know if ageing in wine casks is a good idea; the beer was both sweeter and sharper than I expected, as well as having a kind of ‘meaty’ red wine quality. It was an odd combination which would take a bit of getting used to.

So that was Leeds. Then I came home and had yet another Red Willow (Heartless dark chocolate stout, another example of how to do beer-with-additives properly) and a Buxton (Bitter, a full-flavoured amber bitter but with that distinctive Buxton help-there’s-a-hop-teabag-on-my-tongue front-of-mouth attack). Good beer day.

Nothinginsomethingparticular

A few miscellaneous thoughts, not long enough for separate posts but too substantial for Twitter.

Firstly, Marble. What’s going on there at the moment? They seem to have gone bottle crazy. The local CAMRA mag mentioned that they’d bottled a Tripel and a Weizen (the latter brewed at 5% and bottled in a 500 ml size, which is nice to see) – but that’s not the half of it. There’s also a re-brewed Vuur & Vlam (now labelled Manchester Vuur & Vlam), and – to go with the Tripel – a Dubbel. Sadly I’m unable to tell you what most of these are like – for me, Marble’s big-bottle prices tend to come in the wrong side of a sharp intake of breath. I did succumb to the appeal of the MV&V when I first saw it, but I’m afraid the D. and the T. are going to remain a mystery for a while longer. (Unless there are any bottles going for review…?)

Secondly, Morrison’s. I mentioned this on a non-beer blog, so I might as well mention it here too – Morrison’s are currently doing rather good things with beer, including an own-brand ‘green hop’ beer brewed by Titanic and selling at £1.50. (It’s a beer in the currently popular style of Hoppy Yellow Bastard, and very drinkable indeed. On the down side, clear glass. Worth a punt, though.) They’ve also got a “four for £5.50” offer, which is stupendously good value – particularly when the beers involved include Summer Lightning, Ringwood Fortyniner, Castle Rock Harvest Pale, Butcombe Bitter, Bateman’s XXB… the list goes on. If you’ve got one locally, get down there.

Finally, That London. Where’s a good place to drink in London, then? We’ll be staying in the King’s Cross area and spending most of the time wandering around the usual Zone 1 tourist-y areas, so don’t bother recommending anywhere in Whitechapel or Archway. Also, must be big enough to swing a cat, have adequate seating, not be rammed with men in suits & generally be (Mudge, look away now) family-friendly. Family-friendly pub, central London, good and/or interesting beer. As many as you like.

Strange town

I’m travelling a lot over the next few days. I won’t have the chance to do much exploring of any of the places I’m visiting, but I will be taking the opportunity to fit in a swift half or two on the way back to my train.

So, where’s a good place to drink – in easy striking distance of the station – in…

  • York?
  • Newcastle?
  • Liverpool?

Suggestions in comments please!

Update I’m back in Manchester now, and not planning any more beer tourism. If I were, though, it would probably be in York. The Brigantes had a terrific beer range (I had York Guzzler), although the pub itself was a bit city-centre-gastro and not too comfortable for a lone drinker. The Ackhorne was more pub-like and had an equally impressive range (Rooster’s Yankee for me). ‘Ackhorne’, incidentally, is a medieval variant spelling of ‘Acorn’, which was the name of the old pub which was gutted to make way for this one. There’s logic there somewhere. Later, I found my way to the Maltings, which might as well have had a sign saying “tickers, CAMRA members and visiting Twissups this way”. In fact, larky signage is a feature of the pub, mostly featuring what you could call Pub Landlord Humour – a combination of hearty welcome, assertive jokiness and veiled menace. (“Be warned: our CHILLI will cure your CONSTIPATION!” “We don’t serve children, so DON’T ASK FOR ONE!”) If you like that kind of thing, this is the kind of thing you’ll like. If you don’t, you can always ignore the signs. Either way, this is a really great pub – basic but comfortable surroundings, a fantastic range of beers and a landlord who knows his stuff. I had Magic Rock Curious (“I hope you like hoppy beer! For a 3.8% beer, this is… bob-on.”) and SWB Nerotype #4 Herkules (“Hoppy beers all the way!”) Both were very nice indeed. The Nerotype black IPA was probably the best of the style I’ve had; as full-on as Buxton Black Rocks, but more subtle (more Thornbridge than Marble, you could say). It was also fairly lively; I was struck by the way it seemed to clear downwards, like Guinness. The Curious was… bob-on. There was a time when I wouldn’t have liked it at all – not so much “hop-forward in the modern style” as “hops smacking you about the face, in the style of a demented alcoholic Tango advert” – but fortunately my tastes have evolved.

I didn’t have much drinking time in Newcastle – just a swift one in the station bar, otherwise known as the Centurion. Just a few handpumps, overshadowed by a forest of keg fonts (nothing ‘interesting’, though; the one logo I didn’t immediately recognise turned out to be Woodpecker cider!) While I’m moaning, my pint was nothing special either – the CO2 was all in the head. But the pub itself is something else: every surface is tiled, with richly coloured and moulded tilework, and the space is approximately the size and shape of an aircraft hangar. Never mind the (beer) quality, feel the architecture.

Liverpool took me to the Swan, the Belvedere, ye Crack [sic] and the Dispensary. The Swan is a long single-fronted room stretching back from the street, with no natural light once you get about three feet over the threshold. It reminded me of bars in Edinburgh; in fact I don’t think I’ve seen this kind of pub anywhere else in England. Two more pale ones – Hopping Mad Brainstorm and Liverpool Organic Shipwreck IPA. Despite being 6%, the Shipwreck struck me as a light, easy-drinking IPA; not much more assertive than the Hopping Mad, and much less so than the Magic Rock. I know the Belvedere has its fans, but it hasn’t left much of a trace in my memory other than being a small back-street boozer where your choices are to listen to the conversation at the bar or to join it. The beer was pale, hoppy and I think it was another Liverpool Organic, but don’t quote me on that. Ye Crack, a name which is just dying to be asked about, is a multi-room pub with a big “local artists” thing going on and a substantial “we knew the Beatles before you did” thing to go with it. This wasn’t entirely my scene either, but the Gertie Sweet Dusky Maiden stout was very nice. By the time I got to the Dispensary I was jonesing for a dark bitter; I ordered George Wright Mark’s Mild, only to realise a minute later that I’d overlooked the pump serving Hawkshead Brodie’s Prime. There was only one thing for it (although I did only have a half). The mild was good stuff, but it was overshadowed by the Hawkshead beer, which is… what? A light-drinking strong porter? A black old ale? Whatever it is (and it’s in an area where beer taxonomies are having a lot of trouble at the moment), it’s very nice indeed.

Then back to Manchester, and straight to a beer festival. It’s a hard life.

The Blue Anchor, Helston

Or: what else I did on my holidays.

Helston is an unassumingly beautiful town, which has been there approximately since the Norman Conquest and seems not to have changed all that much since. It’s mainly known for two things, one of which is the Furry: an annual unofficial holiday, when everyone in the town stops for a day and either dances through the streets or goes to watch the dancers. Nobody really knows how long it’s been going on, but the song Hal-An-Tow (which is associated with a mummers’ play performed on the day) seems to refer to the Spanish Armada; also, the word ‘Furry’ is believed to derive from the Latin feriae, ‘holidays’. Pretty old, then. Nothing pagan about it as far as I can tell (sorry Ed), but it does have that air of strangeness that comes with the thought that people have been doing it for hundreds of years without ever really knowing why.

Anyway, the other thing Helston is famous for is the Blue Anchor: a brewpub dating back to the fifteenth century, at which time their main product was mead rather than beer. Inns used to brew their own beer as a matter of course, but by the middle of the twentieth century brewpubs were few and far between; at one point the Blue Anchor was, apparently, one of only four in the UK. Fortunately they kept the faith and continued to brew beers under the name of Spingo.

The name of Spingo is actually all you see on the four handpumps which confront you as you go into the Blue Anchor; the different beers are listed on a blackboard. I visited the Blue Anchor last month for the second time. The first time I went, I didn’t clock the blackboard and merrily ordered a pint of Spingo; I liked it a lot and subsequently ordered another one. This time round, I resolved to do it properly. Well, slightly more properly – I couldn’t bring myself to actually take notes, but I did work my way through the four pumps. Here’s what I remember.

Middle
This is the nearest thing to a Spingo best bitter; it’s what you get if you order a pint of Spingo. Middle, which according to the brewery was “originally brewed to welcome home those men who fought in the First World War”, is 5% a.b.v. It’s a dark bitter with a rich, malty flavour touched with sourness and sweetness. It’s a deep flavour, that seems to develop and unfold as you drink it. It’s got the richness of an old ale without the alcoholic clout; the attack of a Wobbly Bob with the mellowness of a mild. It’s very, very nice.

Jubilee IPA
This, by contrast, is a light, bitter, clean-tasting pale ale, possibly because someone said it couldn’t be done. No sweetness, although there is a fair bit of malt.

Bragget
A bit of an oddity, I have to say. Essentially it tastes like cider, or possibly mead; it’s pale yellow and heavy in texture, with a distinct apple flavour and a honeyed finish (literally – you’re left with your lips tasting of honey). 6%, but doesn’t drink it.

Special
A darker, heavier, stronger (6.6%) version of Middle, with the honeyed finish of Bragget; a beer to quietly sink into (and come up tasting of honey). Stood comparison with some of the darker abbey beers. You wouldn’t want to order a pint – or rather you would, but you wouldn’t want to have anything else planned for the next hour or two. It reminded me a bit of the first time I tasted Marston’s Owd Roger, only better. Apparently at Christmas and Easter they brew a special Special at 7.6%; that really would be a beer to spend the afternoon with.

Nice pub – they’ve stopped serving food since we were last there, but the barman suggested we get pasties and take them through to the back; he even pointed out a good pastie shop. Nice pub, lovely beer. Albeit possibly not for hop-heads. Ed:

The beers were nothing special, all being a bit sweet and under-hopped for my taste.

Ah well, more for me.

A tale of two pubs (Lizard, Cornwall)

Before our recent holiday in Cornwall I read up on the local pubs. Where the village of the Lizard was concerned, this didn’t take long. There were two choices: the Top House and the Witchball.

Commenters on Beer In The Evening were very scathing about the Top House. One wrote:

The new owners simply want to run it as a restaurant and have completely excluded their local trade through a number of means. For instance one of their first acts was to get rid of the folk evening and stop all other local fund raising events such as the quiz nights. An immediate stop to entertainment. OK so it is the summer season but you will now be asked to move if you sit at a table without buying a meal and from experience anyone who has argued has since been asked to leave. The locals are now boycotting the Top House in favour of the nearby Witchball.

And the Witchball?

A small but friendly pub with a lovely beer garden in the summer. Free house so use only local ales from a local brewery. Since the locals were excluded from the Top House we have been using the pub regularly.

(On inspection, both these comments were written by the same person.)

Anyway, I’ve been to both and can report back. The Witchball was small, pleasantly busy and friendly. It certainly appears to be frequented by locals and does an excellent range of beer; I had a pint of Chough’s (brewed a few miles up the road) and one of Gray’s Best (presumably the Mansfield brew, although the pump clip was unfamiliar). The Chough’s wasn’t in the best of nick, sad to say, but the Gray’s was rather fine. We inquired about eating there but the dining room was booked out for the evening; also, the chef hadn’t turned up for work yet, so the landlady wasn’t entirely sure what was going to be on. It was that kind of place. Great atmosphere, though – I’d go back there like a shot.

Still in search of something to eat, we headed for the Top House. I told my other half dark tales about the Beer in the Evening comments, although these lost their impact somewhat when she pointed out that we (a) weren’t locals and (b) actually wanted to eat. Fair point. My first impression was that the comments about the new landlord pitching for the food trade were not wrong: the furniture seemed to consist entirely of wooden chairs arranged around oblong tables with a number screwed on, plus a few stools at the bar. We were shown to our table by a young lad in a uniform teeshirt, and had what was actually a fairly pleasant meal. There was something distinctly corporate and impersonal about the place: the lads serving seemed to have been drilled in a few stock phrases, all redolent of an up-market chain restaurant (“OK, that’ll be with you guys shortly”; “Enjoy your meals” (I hate that plural)). Our main courses were very nice, but it has to be said that they were with us very shortly after ordering – certainly in less time than it would have taken to cook the meat through. Our puddings, on the other hand, seemed to take forever (despite only requiring fairly basic assemblage) and weren’t brilliant when they arrived. One member of the party, who has a nut allergy, ordered a dish served “with grated chocolate” in preference to one “with chocolate and nuts”; it came with chocolate and nuts, and when we complained was replaced by one with neither. And I had the cheese, which was pretty awful – a brie, a blue cheese and a smoked cheddar, all of which somehow had the same rubbery, pasty texture; I wonder now if they’d been frozen. (Nice biscuits, though.)

And yet, and yet. The locals haven’t all deserted the Top House or been barred – the bar stools at the front of the pub weren’t there for decoration, and later in the evening there was a lively conversation going on there. It also turned out to be Folk Night, much to my surprise; in practice this meant a group sitting in one corner and playing tunes to entertain the diners, rather than the more participative session you usually expect from a ‘folk night’, but it was better than nothing (or piped music). And then there was the beer, which was (predictably) a bit too cold but otherwise very nice indeed. The pub is a St Austell house and has a full range of their beers; I had an IPA (a bit of an oddity these days, with a strength of 3.4%) and an HSD, both of which were full of flavour and in very good condition.

Verdict: a friendly pub is a wonderful thing, but a bit of efficiency doesn’t go amiss – particularly when it comes to beer quality. (I’ve had some very good pints in some large and soulless Wetherspoons’.) The Witchball is still streets ahead in my personal estimation, but if I were judging on the beer alone it would be a much closer call. And it seems as if the Harvesterisation of the Top House was exaggerated, or else has been partly reversed – which serves as a reminder that reviews can’t give you the whole story. There’s no substitute for seeing for yourself.