YOU hear them coming long before they arrive. Last Tuesday afternoon I was enjoying a beer – Cumbrian Five Hop, if I remember rightly – at the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) in London’s Olympia when the familiar sound started to drift through the air.
Tuesday is the festival’s trade session, with brewers, publicans, suppliers and itinerant beer writers from all over the UK packing out the hall, and, as has now become customary, the boys and girls from Skinner’s Brewery had arrived.
Each year, company founder Steve Skinner and ‘figurehead’ dame Betty Stogs lead the Skinner’s Sinner Singers – a collective of the brewery’s staff and friends – along with the Falmouth Marine Band, in a couple of high-decibel tours of the hall before settling on the Cornish bar for a few pints.
Each time the marine band dress in a ‘uniform’, and this year, for no particular reason I am told, they were Star Wars stormtroopers.
It’s all quiet symbolic, really. The national press would have us believe that London is becoming the new centre of craft brewing in the UK, with artisan breweries springing up almost weekly, but those in the know recognise that Cornwall, too, is now a force (to maintain the Star Wars analogy) to be reckoned with.
When I came here in the late 1980s as a Hampshire-born refugee, one could count the local breweries on one hand. Redruth and St Austell were not known for inspiring beers. The closest to small-scale craft brewing was the Blue Anchor Brewery in Helston (Spingo Ales these days), producing brown, sweet West Country-style bitter to a recipe that went back decades if not centuries.
Now we have around 30 breweries in the county, from one-man businesses to an operation that’s part of a multi-national brand. The quality is much improved from those dark 1980s days – and there’s much more competition as well.
At Olympia last week I ran into Louise Treseder, owner of the Driftwood Spars Hotel and Brewery, and head brewer Peter Martin, who were in London not only to sample other brewers’ beer at the GBBF (“to keep an eye on the competition”), but also to attend a function put on by UK Trade and Industry (UKTI) aimed at introducing British brewers to overseas buyers.
“Microbreweries are vibrant throughout the UK,” she said. “There are lots popping up everywhere, but Cornwall is at an advantage because the Cornish product is sought after. Sharps and St Austell Brewery have been great at selling the Cornish lifestyle and it is cool and trendy to drink Cornish beers now.
“The craft beer revolution … is keeping everybody on their toes. People are experimenting more, people are becoming more adventurous. For me competition is good. It makes everyone work harder. It’s good for the customer because there is better quality beer coming out. If we are exporting outside the county, there is a benefit for a lot of us, but it is going to be a survival of the fittest. In another five years there might not be quite so many around.”
Like most brewers, Driftwood face a tricky route to market. They are fortunate in one sense that they have their own pub, or brewery ‘tap’, but selling to other pubs in Cornwall is not a straightforward business. Many pubs are owned by large companies, such as Punch or Enterprise, where there is stiff competition to get guest beer listings. There are also a lot of St Austell pubs, which generally do not take other brewers’ beers.
The answer, then, is to try to sell casks of beer to other parts of the UK, which many brewers do, either through specialist wholesalers or by working with fellow brewers who may be taking some of their own beers ‘up country’. But the big growth market is in packaged beers – mainly bottled – because, sad fact of life though it is, fewer of us are going to the pub, preferring to drink at home. Bottled beers, too, are ideal for export, which UKTI is keen to push.
Alan Hinde, owner of Coastal Brewery, on Redruth’s Cardrew Industrial Estate, was at GBBF, enjoying a pint of his own seasonal special Summer Blonde before heading off to indulge a penchant for highly-hopped American IPAs on the international bar. Many drinkers comment that they have difficulty finding Alan’s beers in Cornwall (try Beerwolf, in Falmouth, or the current Cornwall CAMRA pub of the year, the Star Inn, in Vogue), but around the Midlands and North West of England, Coastal is well known and very popular.
Alan told the West Briton he was now looking to bottle more beers as there more money in it, with more people drinking at home.
He said: “The microbrewery situation is getting to bursting point at the moment. but if they are brewing good beer, that’s a good thing.
“We do quite a lot of requests for beer festivals across the country. They always want Cornish beers. But there isn’t an infinite pot.
“We are now looking at bottling more, though we always set our stall out for cask ales. And we’re opening a bottle shop next.”
Keltek Brewery, just along the road from Coastal, has installed its own bottling line (as well as bottling beers for other brewers), and has also bought a small estate of pubs (including the Fox and Hounds, Scorrier, and the Coppice Inn, Lanner) where it can sell its own beer. It’s currently in the process of improving its brewery thanks to some European match funding.
Redruth Brewery is no longer with us, and although my experience of drinking its beer was limited, I don’t deem this a great loss to the Cornish brewing industry. St Austell Brewery beer was not much better, but the appointment of Roger Ryman as head brewer in 1999 changed the brewing side of the company beyond recognition.
St Austell had its own trade stand at the GBBF, and immensely popular it was, too. The company may be a traditional family-run concern, but it’s right at the forefront of brewing trends. Korev, its Cornish lager, has become not only one of the company’s most successful brands, but a huge export success, too, going to more than 20 countries. It’s also available in 330ml cans, which is as hip as you can get in brewing right now. Modern cans have a special lining that keeps the beer very fresh and tasting exactly as it did when it left the brewery.
There’s a flipside to this success in that many Cornish drinkers complain that when they travel to other parts of the UK that they encounter St Austell flagship brand Tribute, or its Cornish competitor, Doom Bar, where they might have expected, and wanted, a local brew. Conversely, though, the success of these beers around the country does seem to have the knock-on effect of promoting all Cornish beers.
A happy Doom Bar or Tribute drinker in London, say, is more likely to give another Cornish brew a go when they see it.
St Austell’s Big Job IPA, a popular draw to their GBBF stand, typifies the change in drinking habits in recent years. That traditional, sweet, brown West Country I was on about is not as easy to find as it once was. Instead, we are in the age of the golden bitter, the pale ale and the heavily hopped IPA.
Modern drinkers expect crisp, bitter hop flavours in their beers, and this is what great Cornish exponents such as Padstow Brewing Company and Bodmin’s Harbour Brewing Company – both represented on the Cornish bar at the GBBF – are doing so well.
Firebrand Brewing Co, in the same ownership as the Red Elephant Beer Cellar, in Truro’s Quay Street, has been a huge success in its first year of trading, targeting the crowd who enjoy the new craft beers on offer. No one has yet come up with a satisfactory explanation of what ‘craft’ beer actually is, but suffice to say Firebrand concentrates on hip packaging, hop-forward American style beers and 330ml bottles – a world away from the traditional pint of British bitter.
Down in Penryn, success, and consequently expectation, has been ramped up for Rebel Brewing Co largely on the back of a hit beer. When Mexican Guillermo Alvarez joined the company in 2012 as head brewer he came up with a chocolate stout that was, for obvious reasons, given the name Mexi-Cocoa. It became an instant success, going on to be named champion Cornish beer at the 2013 CAMRA Falmouth Beer Festival, and I suspect that however many more beers Rebel come up with, it will always be known as the Mexi-Cocoa brewer.
In Cornwall, as in the rest of the UK, the rise in interest in beer – okay, craft beer – shows no sign of slowing down. In recent times we have seen the arrival of new players in this area, including Granite Rock, in Penryn, and Black Rock, in Falmouth, while some of the older guard, such as Lizard Ales, near Coverack, are showing the newcomers that consistency will lead to long-term success.
There really never has been a better time to be a beer drinker in Cornwall. From traditional milds to wood-aged Belgian style IPAs, all styles are being produced here for a seemingly insatiable audience. As the GBBF crowd appreciated, anything London can do Cornwall can at least match.
If you haven’t tried one of these beers yet (if not, what have you been doing?) give them a try, either in bottle or in the pub. Beer’s not about blokes swigging pints, it’s about appreciation in small measures, matched with lovely local produce, and enjoyed with friends.
■ Darren Norbury edits beer news website beertoday.co.uk, sometimes wirelessly from a pub, and is a member of the Guild of British Beer Writers. He also carries out some marketing work for Coastal Brewery, Redruth.