Dish of the Day: A visit to St Austell brewery
Like many beer drinkers, I’ve been a solid fan of St Austell since first enjoying a pint of their flagship session ale, Tribute, some years ago. A deliciously biscuity pale amber bitter, which has won a host of awards since its conception in 1999, it is no wonder that the beer makes up around 80 per cent of the brewery’s sales. But perfect as it may be, Tribute is by no means the most interesting thing going on at St Austell. Their creative approach to brewing has always been appreciated by their followers in the beer world but I am certain that over the course of the year their less usual beers will be coming to the fore and reaching the growing number of ‘craft beer’ drinkers. As their Master Brewer Roger Ryman explains, there has never been a better time to break from tradition, and bring unorthodox brewing to a wider audience.
“I was brought into St Austell because of my background in special and seasonal beers,” he says, as he shows me around the labyrinthine brewery site, still fitted with much of the original machinery. “I feel like we’ve been doing this for 15 years already. We’ve been discussing the craft category and we have the beers, but we need a discussion on how to get those beers to market.”
Indeed, Ryman brewed the super hoppy (by British standards at least) Proper Job IPA, years before most of us got a taste for American style brewing. This summer Big Job – a knock out double IPA version – will become available in limited edition Champagne bottles. I can tell you now – it’s punchy, exotic and for nine per cent abv goes down dangerously fast. Just as there’s nothing stopping Ryman from playing with these strong flavours, he feels no obligation to stick just to cask. Although predominantly a cask ale brewer, this didn’t stop him launching Korev – a crisp Cornish lager – two years ago and you can expect to see kegged versions of beers such as Proper Job becoming available soon too. In fact, it’s very popular in Scandanavia and is currently on sale in Norway, albeit at £10 a pint.
Making our way through the brewery, we peek into a cavernous nineteenth century ‘copper’ used to boil hops, barley and water together since the brewery started. Just like the British built engineering the brewery still uses to grind its barley, it only went out of use two years ago, but it remains on display. Ryman is keen to preserve them. As he explains; “We have 100 years of heritage at the brewery and I don’t want to be the brewer to end that.” Likewise, he still keeps notes for each brew in a leather bound journal.
Ryman’s willingness to respect traditional brewing, but keep an open mind to Britain’s rapidly evolving beer scene is an asset to St Austell. The on site microbrewery with its miniature tanks will always be his playground. “In my mind, beer is beer,” he says. “A long as it gets into your glass and you enjoy it, it doesn’t matter.”
Perched atop a hill, the view of the town from the brewery tower is distinctly regal. As we watch gulls dipping and gliding above the barley silos, I think about the economic importance of the brewery for St Austell. It seems to me that they are a brewery that has so far successfully managed to walk the fine line between community and big business that is so coveted by Britain’s traditional industries.
Since Sharps was bought up by Molson Coors in 2011, they are the largest independent brewer in the South West. They employ around 150 people at the brewery itself and hundreds more in the pubs they own across the region. Since Ryman joined the brewery their output has increased fivefold and in the past decade they have invested £7.5m upgrading much of the machinery at the brewery. Still, a sense of family is retained.
On the day of my visit, a wedding is being held at the brewery for the daughter of a former worker. Later, next to the great vats of foamy fermenting yeast that is being scraped off by an upbeat Brewers assistant in shorts and wellies, a community noticeboard displays announcements of similar occasions and events.
Loyalty to beer from the drinker is founded in a sense of connection that comes from an appreciation of its provenance. Good brewers know this and Ryman is no different. His background in agriculture, which he studied at Newcastle, is why he continues to have a distinct interest in the growth of the barley and hops he uses. He helped local farmers establish Maris Otter barley crops in Cornwall, despite “raised eyebrows” and this is where two thirds of their barley now comes from.
When it comes to hops, however, he balances his commitment to local growers with his desire to experiment as a brewer. “People ask why don’t we just use English hops?” he tells me. “That’s like saying we’d like you to paint a picture but you can only use brown and blue.”
In fact, by the end of the tour, the fragrant aromas of the hops that permeate the air throughout every room in the building have left me desperate for a crisp, fresh pint. As you have probably realised, I was in the right place to find one.
Four St Austell’s beers you probably haven’t tried yet but should:
1913 Original Cornish Stout 5.2%
Reviving an 100-year-old recipe that Head Brewer Roger Ryman found after digging around in the brewery’s old archives, this is a complex stout with enticing smoky flavours offset by sweet toffee. It was launched this March in conjunction with St Patrick’s Day and is a bold and intense brew.
Big Job 9%
Hopping mad, this punchy double IPA is an American style beer through and through, right down the the hefty 75ml bottles it can be found in. Citra hops give an orangey edge to the fruity aroma with a dryness that keeps you drinking. A bit of extra carbonation would be excellent; if this comes out on keg it will be very popular indeed.
Cardinal Syn 8%
A dark, rich beer inspired by the monks who live in Abbaye Notre Dame de St Remy near the village of Rocheforte in southern Belgium. Brewed with continental hops it is loaded with brown sugar and liquorice notes.
Bad Habit 8.5%
Inspired by the classic Belgian Tripel, this is paler and lighter than Cardinal Syn, but still a beer to sip and savour. Spicy, bitter and dry, it would work well as digestif, or with cheese.
For more fantastic beer art visit www.ohbeautifulbeer.com
Follow Will at @will_coldwellTagged in: st austell
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter