Tastings School - South West: Beer booming in Hardy country

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South West: Beer booming in Hardy country

The South West of England is associated with cider production but it has a thriving brewery industry too. Adrian Tierney-Jones acts as tour guide

The towns and villages of the southwest all bear traces of the region’s brewing heritage.

In Bristol, alongside the Avon, in the centre of the city, a block of bijou flats are all that remains of the brewery where Georges and then Courage made their renowned Boys Bitters.

Further south in the seaside town of Weymouth, the Brewers Quay shopping complex once housed Devenish, while John Groves & Sons were nextdoor neighbours.

Meanwhile, in the centre of St Austell there is a massive square building that marks the birthplace of St Austell brewery, who now brew on the hill above the town. All these and more demonstrate that the region has a strong and enviable brewing reputation going back centuries — though this wasn’t always seen as a good thing.

Back in the 16th century, Cornish ale was described as if pigs had wallowed in it, while the white ales of Newton Abbot in the late 1800s included pigeon droppings in the mix. Local doctors thought they were good for the sick. Georges’ logo was a carthorse, a highly appropriate image for its beers according to those that remember them.

Yet, it’s not all ancient history. The region is now home to dozens of craft breweries and the odd brewpub, trading alongside resilient and everexpanding family firms such as Badger and Palmers in Dorset, Wadworth and Arkell’s in Wiltshire and St Austell in Cornwall.

Some breweries, such as Otter in the hills around Honiton in Devon, make their beers in picture postcard locations. Others are hidden away down farm tracks, while many labour away on industrial estates at the edge of town.

It’s not a case of one size fits all either. Some such as Hop Back, Sharp’s, Butcombe and Exmoor are the size of small family regional brewers, while others are a case of one man and his mash tun went to brew a barrel.

Whatever their size, all these breweries have made this area a vibrant home for beers of all shapes and styles.

North Devon meets North America with Barum’s highly hopped IPA, while St Austell’s Black Knight is a luscious Cornish mild. How about a Wiltshire golden ale flavoured with lemongrass from Hop Back or a beast of a Somerset strong porter (appropriately called Beast) from Exmoor in the Somerset market town of Wiveliscombe. Best bitter, fruit beer, IPA, mild, speciality beer: there’s a beer for everyone in the southwest.

Bristol

Bristol Beer Factory, Bristol

Seventy years after the Ashton Gate Brewery shut its doors, 2003 saw the return of brewing to south Bristol with the Bristol Beer Factory. Based in the old fermenting rooms of Ashton Gate, this is a 10-barrel outfit with former Smiles head brewer Chris Thurgeson in charge of brewing operations.

Two regular beers are produced, No 7 (4.2%) and Gold (5%). During the summer of 2005, the brewery unveiled Sunrise (4.2%), named after the brand of beers once produced by Ashton Gate. This was especially brewed for a music festival and proved so popular that was kept on for the autumn.

Sunrise is a ferociously fruity golden ale with a giraffe’s neck of a dry finish. Also being planned is Red, which Thurgeson describes as a dark session bitter with plenty of fruity hop character courtesy of Bramling Cross.

The brewery supplies 60 outlets, mainly in the local area. Brewery visits are encouraged for a small charge. Given the compactness of the brewery what normally happens is that a couple of casks are put on for groups while Chris and the team take everyone through the brewing process. Then the glasses come out. Can’t be bad.

Bath Ales, Warmley, Bristol

Hares figure prominently in the imagery of Bath Ales but there’s more of the tortoise in the way it brews its beer, allowing proper fermentation times to produce splendidly crafted cask ales with beefed-up hoppiness, scented fruity aromas and rich seams of biscuity maltiness.

Despite the name, Bath Ales brews its beer on a site halfway between Bristol and Bath. Set up by former Smiles brewers Roger Jones and Richard Dempster in 1995, near Wincanton in Somerset, it was very much a shoestring operation at the start.

“We bought a few beer casks and a small van,” recalls Dempster, “and launched ourselves with Gem (4.1%) and Barnestormer (4.5%), which was named after the Bath City rugby player Stuart Barnes who was a mate of ours.”

Other beers in the portfolio include the brewery’s steely-eyed strong winter ale Festivity (5%), which won silver at CAMRA’s Great Winter Beer Festival in 2005, the elusive Rare Hare (5.2%) and Wild Hare, a 5% organic golden ale that is the latest addition to the family.

The brewery’s pubs are excellent as well. Six of them, divided between Bristol and Bath, are owned and they are no strangers to awards and plaudits. The Hare on the Hill in Bristol and Bath’s Hop Pole have won local CAMRA awards, while the Merchant’s Arms in Bristol was in receipt of a joint CAMRA/English Heritage award for the quality of refurbishment carried out. With lots of bare wood, cosy chairs, gleaming bar-tops and brass fittings alongside great food and wonderful ales these are true pub gems. Visit the likes of the Hop Pole or Hare on the Hill to see what I mean.

Cornwall

St Austell Brewery, St Austell

High up on the hill above the former capital of the china clay industry, sits the imposing bulk of St Austell, the oldest surviving brewery in Cornwall. Here brewing still works on the principle of the tower brewery — malt is hoisted to the top, where it is milled, while the rest of the beer-making process takes place below with the aid of gravity.

The arrival of head brewer Roger Ryman at the brewery in the late 1990s has resulted in a notable jump in product quality. First of all, a brewery mainly known for ales such as HSD — Hick’s Special Draught, or High Speed Diesel according to stand-up comedians in the snug — brought out an award-winning wheat beer, Clouded Yellow.

Its success saw vanilla pods and coriander seeds jostling for space in the brewing copper alongside malt and hops.

Ryman then celebrated the 1999 eclipse with a beer called Daylight Robbery. Such was the success of this gloriously fruity and aromatically hoppy golden ale that it became part of the brewery’s portfolio as Tribute (4.2%).

It has since gone on to become one of the brewery’s most popular beers and a regular on the guest beer circuit.

Alongside Tribute, you will find other St Austell favourites such as the evergreen HSD (5%), Celtic mild Black Prince (4%) and its regular session bitter Tinners (3.7%), which has the rare distinction of being served from wooden casks at the brewery-owned St Kew Inn.

As befits a family company with a long history, St Austell’s pubs dot the peninsula of Cornwall, while also making inroads over the border into Devon.

Like many businesses in Cornwall, St Austell’s sales dip in the winter as the tourists go home, but one seasonal treat not to be missed is the brewery’s Celtic beer festival in early December.

For one day only, the cellars of the brewery are crammed with people enjoying more than 100 cask beers from Cornwall, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, as well as from England.

What aficionados really look out for are the dozen or so specially brewed St Austell ales that Ryman cooks up in his micro-brewery.

American-style IPAs and porters jostle for space with wheat beers, St Austell’s regulars and the odd surprise. With a winter beer festival, a bank of excellent pubs, some great beers and a visitor centre at the brewery, St Austell is enjoying a health spell at the moment.

Blue Anchor brewpub, Helston, Cornwall

The Blue Anchor is a legendary brewpub where beer has been made for more than 160 years, though the pub’s history as a rest house for monks in the Middle Ages means that brewing might go back much further.

In the early 1970s, it was one of a handful of British brewpubs, a survivor of a tradition that during the 19th century had seen thousands of licensees making their own beer.

Working in the tiny brewhouse at the back of the pub, brewer Tim Sears produces the legendary Spingo strong ales, some of which are regarded as the absinthe of Cornwall. The two main beers are Middle (5%) and Special (6.6%), though a brace of 7.6% Easter and Christmas specials are produced.

The pub itself is an architectural gem: stone floors, lots of wood panelling, dark, grainy furniture, a small bar and several drinking rooms off the corridor which runs from the front to the back. It is the sort of place where people pop in for a quick one and emerge hours (or is it days later) — time is an elastic concept when you’re drinking Spingo ales.

Devon

O’Hanlon’s, Whimple, Devon

O’Hanlon’s brewery started life in 1995 in the back streets of south London and the beers were sold at their eponymous pub in Clerkenwell. However, when the attractions of city life began to pall, John and Liz O’Hanlon moved the whole enterprise lock, stock and brewers to the wilds of Devon in 2000.

It was an inauspicious start as it had been raining for nearly 100 days according to John. However, once they had dried out the brewery went on to make a name for itself with its unique beers, both in cask and bottle.

John comes from Kerry and brought with him an old traditional hangover cure — a glass of port in a stout. This inspired their stupendous Port Stout (4.8%), that was acclaimed as champion bottle-conditioned beer of Britain in 2003. Another boost for the company’s fortunes happened when they were given the contract to brew Thomas Hardy Ale (12%), a world-class bottleconditioned vintage ale that had been left to wither on the stalk by its previous owners Eldridge Pope.

It also brews the old Dorset favourite Royal Oak (5%) alongside its own beers such as the award-winning Double Champion Wheat Beer (4%) and the luscious Yellow Hammer (4.5%).

As well as supplying outlets throughout the West Country and beyond, bottles of O’Hanlon’s beers pop up in the most unlikeliest places. Liz O’Hanlon is a tireless ambassador for the brewery and so far O’Hanlon’s beers have travelled to the US, Canada, New Zealand, Germany and beyond.

When I last spoke to her, Japan and Russia were next on the list. They’ve come a long way from the back streets of South London.

Dorset

Palmer, Bridport, Dorset

Beer has been brewed at the site of Palmer’s for more than 200 years now and one of the proudest boasts of Cleeves Palmer, who runs the family brewery with brother John, is that they have never made keg bitter.

It’s a beautiful looking brewery, the only one in the UK with a thatched roof. Inside, the fermenting vessels are enclosed in wooden slats held together with black metal bands — very 19th century porter tun. Until a couple of years ago they even cooled their beer with an old vertical wort cooler, which was previously at Georges in Bristol.

The head brewer, Adrian Woods, used to brew up the road at the now defunct Eldridge Pope. In this beautiful brewery he produces half-a-dozen ales, including the rounded IPA (4.2%) and the fruity strong ale Tally Ho (5.5%).

Palmers owns about 60 pubs mainly in Dorset. Another 200 outlets are supplied and the brewery is very much on the tourist trail in summer when a tour takes place every weekday.

Somerset

Cotleigh, Wiveliscombe, Somerset

Wiveliscombe has good reason to be called the Burton-on-Trent of the southwest. Brewing first started here at the end of the Georgian era when a local family set up Hancock’s.

This eventually closed in the late 1950s, but the micro-brewery revolution of 20 years later saw two breweries set themselves up in the shadow of the closed brewery.

Golden Ale pioneer Exmoor Ales was first and was closely followed by Cotleigh, which began brewing in 1979 at a farm in Devon before moving into ‘Wivvy’, as it is known locally.

John and Jenny Aries took over the business in the early 1980s and developed a sound reputation based on their no-nonsense ales named after the local birdlife.

A couple of years ago the brewery was sold to Stephen Heptinstall and Fred Domellof. The two of them were newcomers to the brewing world: Heptinstall had spent 18 years with Seagram Drinks, while Domellof managed his own restaurant chain and a large pub on the Thames. Both were ready for a new challenge.

Since then the brewery has continued to grow. Bold designs have made the most of their point-of-sale material, while head brewer Andy Greenbank and his team have got on with the business of brewing Cotleigh’s great beers.

At the moment four regulars are produced. Tawny (3.8%) is the brewery’s first ever beer and its crisp biscuity maltiness and muscular hoppiness has been a template for many West Country ales. Golden Eagle (4.2%) is the winsome golden ale, Barn Owl (4.5%) a bruiser of a bitter, while the new 4% beer Cotleigh 25 (released to celebrate Cotleigh’s silver jubilee) has forged ahead and won many fans with its citrus-tinged biff on the nose courtesy of Cascade.

No pubs are owned at the moment, but the beers go out across the West Country and beyond courtesy of pub chain Wetherspoons.

Wiltshire

Stonehenge, Netheravon, Wiltshire

If you want a green beer then spring is the time when Stonehenge release its verdant-coloured Sign of Spring. It’s based on an old Danish brewing tradition according to Stig Anker Andersen, who has run the show since 1993 when he bought what was then Bunce’s off its original founder.

Even though Stonehenge is noted for fruity ales such as the award-winning Danish Dynamite (5%) and gold-coloured Spire Ale (3.8%), Stig’s background is in lager.

He was a master brewer back home but fed up of producing cut-price lagers for the supermarkets he fancied a change. When Bunce’s came up for sale he and wife Anna Maria crossed the North Sea and swapped Saccharomyces carlsbergensis for Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

The 20-barrel brewery is based in what looks like an old tower brewery but was actually built in 1914 to supply power to a nearby airfield.

Its chequered history includes time as a boxing match venue and plastics factory, while in World War II it was used to store scale models of the German cities the RAF were bombing. Naturally there is a ghost, according to Stig.

More recently Stonehenge has brewed a beer to celebrate the reintroduction of the Great Bustard onto Salisbury Plain. Great Bustard (4.8%) is a rich and malty beer, beefed up by rye in the mash tun which helps to give it its reddish hue and rich biscuity character.

No pubs are owned but Stonehenge supply more than 100 outlets in the area.

Hop Back Brewery, Downton Sailsbury, Wilts

Hop Back was set up in a Salisbury pub in 1987 by London brewer John Gilbert. Not long after, Gilbert was asked to supply a special beer to a local festival.

At the time, dark beers were in vogue but Gilbert went the other way when he produced a golden, hoppy ale called Summer Lightning.

A legend was born and even though Summer Lightning (5%) was not the first golden ale (that honour goes to Exmoor Gold), it is the lightcoloured beer that captured the imagination of the thinking drinker. Since then, Hop Back has become one of the best-known of the southwest’s cask beer producers.

It moved from the Wyndham Arms in the early 1990s to a purpose-built plant outside the city and has continued to grow.

As well as being known for Summer Lightning, Hop Back has a magnificent portfolio of award-winning beers, that include a lemongrass flavoured ale (4.2%), a rich and roasty Entire Stout (4.5%) and the recently launched amber ale Odyssey (4%).

Even though it was among the new wave of micro-breweries to emerge in the 1980s, there’s nothing micro about Hop Back these days — apart from its spirit, love of good ale and innovation (check out the cask-conditioned Hop Back in five-litre party cans).

It has its own estate of 10 distinct pubs, which are unique in that the majority are beer-led — the only food in them are pickled eggs and crisps.

More than 18,000 barrels of beer are produced annually, which is a lot more than some of the family brewers who have been around since Moses, while 200 outlets are directly supplied and the brewery also has a good working relationship with the likes of Wetherspoons and Enterprise. Golden ales indeed.

Wadworth, Devizes, Wiltshire

It’s delivery day in the market town of Devizes and the sound of horses’ hooves rumble through the streets as Wadworth’s drays drop wooden casks off at local pubs.

This sight is a sign that the brewery remains a custodian of tradition, something also celebrated with the fact that they are one of a handful of breweries still to have an onsite cooper.

That said, the brewery is not cowed by the dead hand of tradition as anyone who has seen their witty and risqué 6X Appeal advertising campaign will know.

Situated in a splendid Victorian red-brick building at the northern end of the market square, Wadworth has been making beer in this beautiful part of England since the 1880s when Henry Wadworth designed the Northgate Brewery. It owns more than 250 pubs and also supplies 300 outlets throughout the south, while wholesalers trunk its beers across the country.

Best known for the richly hoppy and fruity best bitter 6X (4.3%), Wadworth’s also has an equally excellent selection of ales such as Henry’s IPA, a chewy and refreshing 3.6% session bitter rarely seen outside the town, and the strong bitter JCB (4.7%), which delivers plenty of hops on the nose.

Trevor Holmes is the long-serving head brewer and he recently had a small micro-brewery installed on the brewery’s ground floor.

It used to belong to a brewpub Wadworth bought up and once it became surplus to requirements it was moved to Devizes.

It is here where Trevor brews small amounts of Wadworth’s 3.3% Pint-Sized Mild as well as tinkering with experimental brews, the latest of which is Wadworth’s superb recreation of the old West Country classic Bishops Tipple (5.5% cask, 6.5% bottle).

“The brief was to make a supercharged Timothy Taylor,” he says with a smile, “with plenty of juicy, citrus-tinged hoppiness and a measured bitterness.”

It worked.

Southwest breweries

BRISTOL

Bath Ales www.bathales.co.uk
Bristol Beer Factory www.bristolbeerfactory.co.uk
Zerodegrees www.zerodegrees-bristol.co.uk

CORNWALL

Ales of Scilly 01720 422 419
Atlantic Brewery www.atlanticbrewery.com
Bathtub Brewery 01209 860 003
Blackawton www.blackawtonbrewery.com
Blue Anchor 01326 562 821
Doghouse 01209 822 022
Driftwood www.driftwoodspars.com
Keltek 01208 871 199
Lizard 01326 281 135
Organic Brewhouse 01326 241 555
Ring O’Bells www.ringobellsbrewery.co.uk
Sharp’s www.sharpsbrewery.co.uk
Skinner’s www.skinnersbrewery.com
St Austell www.staustellbrewery.co.uk
Wheal Ale 01736 753 974
Wooden Hand 01726 884 596

DEVON

Barum www.barumbrewery.co.uk
Beer Engine 01392 851 282
Blackdown 01404 891 122
Branscombe Vale 01297 680 511
Burrington www.burringtonbrewery.co.uk
Clearwater 01805 625 242
Combe Martin www.combemartinbrewery.prizaar.com
Country Life 01237 420 808
Exe Valley 01392 860 406
Jollyboat 01237 424 343
O’Hanlon’s www.ohanlons.co.uk
Otter www.otterbrewery.com
Princetown 01822 890 789
Scattor Rock www.scattorrockbrewery.com
South Hams www.southhamsbrewery.co.uk
Summerskills www.summerskills.co.uk
Tarka Ales 07870 670 804
Teignworthy 01626 332 066
Topsham & Exminster www.topexe.co.uk
Union www.dartmoorunion.co.uk
Warrior 01392 221 451

DORSET

Badger www.badgerbrewery.com
Dorset Brewing Company 01305 777 515
Isle of Purbeck 01929 450 225
Palmer www.palmersbrewery.com

SOMERSET

Abbey Ales www.abbeyales.co.uk
Berrow 01278 751 345
Blindman’s www.blindmansbrewery.co.uk
Butcombe www.butcombe.com
Cotleigh www.cotleighbrewery.co.uk
Cottage 01963 240 551
Exmoor www.exmoorales.co.uk
Glastonbury 01458 272 244
Juwards 01823 667 909
Milk Street 01373 467 766
Newman’s www.newmansbrewery.com
RCH www.rchbrewery.com

WILTSHIRE

Archers www.archersbrewery.co.uk
Arkell’s www.arkells.com
Box Steam www.boxteambrewery.com
Downton 01722 322 890
Hidden www.thehiddenbrewery.co.uk
Hop Back www.hopback.co.uk
Moles www.molesbrewery.com
Ramsbury 01672 541 407
Stonehenge www.stonehengeales.co.uk
Wadworth www.wadworth.co.uk
Wessex 07931 565 001
Westbury www.westburyales.com

SPECIALIST BEER SHOPS

The Bristol Wine Company, Bristol www.thebristolwinecompany.co.uk

Green Valley Cider at Darts Farm,
Topsham,
nr Exeter
www.dartsfarm.co.uk

Tuckers Maltings,
Newton Abbot
www.tuckersmaltings.com

Magnum Wines, Swindon www.magnumwineshop.co.uk