Tastings School - Stays Sharp's to the bottom of the glass (St Austell)

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Stays Sharp's to the bottom of the glass (St Austell)

Sharp's is challenging St Austell as Cornwall's biggest brewer. Roger Protz visited it

My wife and sons are all too familiar with the following episode during our annual summer holiday. It begins with my saying: “On the way to the beach, can we make a small detour to look at a new microbrewery that’s just opened?” It continues, some three hours later, with the sun gone and rain falling in torrents. The morning has involved (a) getting lost three times (b) finally finding the minor road but getting stuck behind a tractor and (c) discovering that the brewery is shut while the owner pursues his second job as the village postman.

It was in this manner in 1994 that I found Bill Sharp in his brand-new brewery on the aptly named (as far as my family was concerned) Pityme Industrial Estate near Rock in Cornwall.

At least Bill was there, not delivering the post.

But, scrubbing his fermenter on a warm day and with a new brew to mash in, he wasn’t able to do more than shake hands and recommend a good divorce lawyer.

A decade on, Sharp’s has become a phenomenon. It is one of the fastest-growing breweries in Britain and has long left behind the status of a micro. It is, indisputably, a regional company, vying with St Austell Brewery, which dates from the 19th century, as the biggest producer of cask ale in Cornwall. Sharp’s is still on the same industrial estate but now occupies most of it, not just one small building.

The company has changed hands. In 2003 Nick Baker and Joe Keohane bought the business but Bill Sharp remains as a minority shareholder and advisor. Nick is a lawyer who owned R&B Foods, Joe a biochemist and accountant. Together they worked on research and development for Dolmio, the pasta sauce company.

“Then we saw something exciting in cask ale,” Joe says. “We felt Doom Bar was a strong brand with great potential.” Such has been the dynamic growth of Doom Bar and the other Sharp’s beers that R&B Foods has been sold and Nick and Joe have no further connection with Dolmio.

Press stories about Sharp’s being bought by Dolmio had no basis in reality. Sharp’s is now producing 25,000 barrels a year, using equipment with a 75-barrel brew length. The company will boost that figure considerably when a new additional 50-barrel plant is installed this year. To create maximum flexibility, Bill Sharp’s original 10-barrel kit is still used for short-run or experimental brews.

Joe Keohane scratches his head in bewilderment at any talk of a ‘real ale crisis.’ Sales at Sharp’s grew by 35 per cent last year and he has seen double-digit growth every year. This success is based on a strategy to build sales both within and without Cornwall.

“Sales used to drop by half at the end of August in Cornwall,” he says. “Now tourism has changed – people are coming here in the autumn as well. But we have to expand outside the county.” Sharp’s is making a big effort to develop sales in Bristol, the Southwest and Wales. The brewery has a depot in Bristol with a sales team of three.

A bar is installed at Bristol University during freshers’ week in a bid to win young drinkers from lager to the joys of cask beer. A similar event is held at Plymouth University.

The brewery has listings for its beer with such major wholesalers as Beer Seller and East-West Ales, but 98 per cent of cask beer is delivered direct. Sharp’s has London in its sights and will tackle the capital once it has established a depot there. Further afield, bottled beers will be testmarketed in China, Italy and the United States.

Baker and Keohane have no plans to buy pubs. They target pub companies and the free trade. The strategy marks them out from St Austell, which has the bedrock of an estate of 150 pubs.

“St Austell left a free trade gap,” Joe says.

“Enterprise and Punch are buying pubs in Cornwall and we have a good relationship with them. And there’s also lots of genuine free trade.” He and his sales team scour the West Country for every possible outlet. They appear at Campaign for Real Ale beer festivals and at county shows where they offer tastings and free samples. Sharp’s brews an eco-friendly Eden Ale in bottle for the Eden Project: the beer is on sale in the project’s shops near St Austell and a cask version is available at pop and rock concerts.

All this frenzy of activity and success is made possible by one key consideration: great beer.

With lager and keg beer, gullible people may drink the advertising.

In the cask sector, breweries stand or fall on the quality of their products. One duff pint and you run the risk of losing a drinker for life.

Stuart Howe is Sharp’s head brewer. Cheerful and down to earth, he describes himself as “a gas man who liked beer.” He exchanged his spanner for a mashing fork and learned the brewing skills at the Heriot-Watt school of brewing and distilling in Edinburgh.

He later brewed with McMullen in Hertford, Brakspear at Henley and Courage alongside the M4 in Berkshire before relocating to Cornwall.

The basis of all his beers is Optic pale malt supplied by Tuckers in Devon and Crisps in Norfolk. He prefers Optic to the darling grain of most craft brewers, Maris Otter.

“Optic gives a drier flavour than Maris,” he says. He uses no cereal adjuncts or sugars. His two main hops, used in whole flower form, are Northdown and Northern Brewer. Hops are added three times during the copper boil to extract maximum aroma and bitterness.

The local water is soft and low in chloride.

Stuart ‘Burtonises’ the liquor with gypsum and magnesium in order to bring out the best flavours from malt and hops. He uses a high fermentation temperature of 63.5ºC to cope with what he calls “a very active yeast strain – there’s a massive conversion of sugar to alcohol.” He thinks the yeast may originally have come from the Hook Norton Brewery in Oxfordshire.

Ten fermentation vessels are used to magically produce alcohol from hopped wort, the blend of grain and herbs. The beer is then held in conditioning tanks for five days at 12 degrees to purge itself of rough alcohols and unwanted flavours.

“It’s important to produce beer that is userfriendly for the publican,” Stuart says. “Those five days of conditioning round out the flavour and removes butterscotch. In the lab, we brutally test every brew. We analyse the yeast, as a consistent fermentation is vital.” Doom Bar Bitter (4% ABV), named after an underwater hazard that has lured many ships to a watery grave, accounts for around 68 per cent of Sharp’s output.

It is brewed from pale and crystal malts and a touch of roasted grain. It is a highly complex beer, with a big pear drop and biscuity malt aroma balanced by hop resins. Tart citrus fruit in the mouth is joined by juicy malt, followed by a long, dry finish that offers bitter hops beneath the tangy fruit and biscuity malt. It has between 24 and 27 units of bitterness.

The cask version of Eden Ale (4.4%) is also a blend of pale, crystal and roast with a big addition of Northdown hops. It has a floral hop aroma balance by tangy fruit and juicy malt, with massive piny hops and citrus fruit in the mouth and a long, dry and bitter finish. Units of bitterness are 28 to 32.

Sharp’s Own (4.4%) has the same bitterness rating while a generous addition of crystal and roast gives the copper-coloured beer a big vinous nose underscored by hop resins.

In the mouth, winey fruit, malt and hops vie for attention, while the finish has malt and fruit notes but intensely bitter hops have the last say.

The golden, refreshing Cornish Coaster (3.6%), fruity and nutty Cornish Jack (3.8%) and dry and hoppy Special (5.2%) make up a range inherited by Stuart when he joined the brewery.

He has developed his own distinctive beer in Atlantic IPA (4.8%), which is brewed with pale malt only and has a different hop regime with Challenger, Goldings and Styrians that produce 24 units of bitterness.

This potent and dangerously drinkable golden beer has an entrancing aroma of citrus fruit, juicy malt and a hint of toffee. The mouth is packed with bittersweet citrus while the finish is dry, bitter and fruity. A donation from sales of the beer goes to the Royal National Lifeboat Institute.

The India Pale Ale has joined Doom Bar and Eden Ale in bottled form. The beers are available in selected branches of Tesco and Waitrose. It is all part of the concerted effort by Sharp’s to give the brewery both a Cornish and a national presence.

Bill Sharp may only have a walk-on part today in the brewery he founded, but he laid down a template that his successors have built on.

The astonishing growth of Sharp’s is testimony to the fact that in a modern market dominated by massively hyped global brands many drinkers are not deterred by beers booming with the rich and tempting flavours of malt and hops.

More information
When Sharp’s reached an agreement with the Eden Project to supply it with beer, the brewery had to convince the management of the project that Eden Ale is produced without damage to the environment. The experience has had a knock-on effect. Sharp’s has installed a new effluent plant that turns brewing water into drinking water.

The brewery is not producing organic beers at present but hopes to do so when organic hops are grown in England rather than imported from New Zealand.

• Sharp’s is also working with Plymouth University on a “beer and health” project that hopes to prove that anti-oxidants in beer may help in the fight against cancer.

• Sharp’s enjoys friendly relations with St Austell Brewery. Many breweries stage annual cricket or football matches but in Cornwall the two breweries take part in an annual sailing race. The boats avoid the Doom Bar.