Several times in the last couple of years, we’ve said that we thought St Austell Proper Job began life as an homage to particular American IPA, but couldn’t for the life of us work out exactly where we’d got that idea.
So, last Sunday, we travelled up to St Austell and spent the day with its creator, Head Brewer Roger Ryman, and got the story straight from the horse’s mouth.
My friendship with Karl Ockert [head brewer at BridgePort Brewing, Portland, Oregon, from 1983 to 2010] is well-known and has been written about many times.
In around 1999, I was invited to take part in judging for the Brewing Industry Awards. That’s the one that’s been running since the 19th century and, if you’re going to win anything, that’s the one you want – the players’ player of the year, judged solely by working brewers. You’re all cooped up in a hotel together for three days and you get to know each other. When we were leaving, we all exchanged business cards – “You must get in touch if you’re ever in town, let’s stay in contact,” – but you never expect to do anything about it. A couple of years later, I was in Denver with Paul Corbett from Charles Faram, the hop merchants, and I did actually give Karl a call. He arranged all these brewery visits for us – Anheuser-Busch, Odell, Coors…
After that, we arranged an exchange: Carl spent a week here at St Austell – all the pictures of ‘traditional English brewing’ in his book were taken here – and then I spent a week in the US, at BridgePort.
BridgePort IPA was one of the first of those really hoppy West Coast US IPAs, though it’s probably considered a bit tame by modern standards.
(It’s listed in Michael Jackson’s Great Beer Guide, 1998/2000, where it is described as having a ‘rush of intense minty, woody, cedary bitterness’.)
I remember clearly standing in the sample room here [at St Austell] and Karl said, “You should brew something like this – a big hoppy IPA – and stick it out there.” I took this as a kind of challenge. This was in about 2003 and there wasn’t anything out there in the [UK] market like that.
(Though PJ wasn’t the first American-style IPA in the UK, it was certainly one of the earliest. For context, Alastair Hook brewed one at Mash & Air in Manchester in the 90s; and Thornbridge launched Jaipur in 2005. There’s more on IPA-fever in the UK in Chapter 13 of Brew Britannia.)
The first version of what became Proper Job, brewed on that little brewhouse down there, was inspired by BridgePort IPA. I had the original recipe from my exchange visit and it had the same spec – 5.6 ABV, 50 IBUs.
Straightaway, though, I started to tune it and, really, simplify it.
The original had something like five malts but I just used one; the hop grist had everything and his dog, including Goldings, Amarillo, Chinook… I thought, what are all these hops actually bringing to it? What I really wanted to achieve was what I thought were the key flavours of Bridgeport IPA – spruce pine-iness, a little hint of pineapple – and I knew those were coming from Chinook, so I made that the key hop. The grapefruity/elderflower quality was from Cascade, so I used those, too. Then I also wanted a moderate, balanced hop in the background and so I chose Willamette, which I was already using in Tribute, and which rounded it out – gave it drinkability.
Post-Thornbridge and BrewDog, in a world where Stone and Russian River are far more influential than the rather staid BridgePort, bottled Proper Job, now at 5.5%, is no longer an especially astonishing beer. Drink it alongside attempted IPAs from other regional/family brewers, however, or after a pint or two of Bass, and it still seems like a breath of fresh air. In a variant form at 4.5%, made yet more ‘drinkable’, it is our go-to beer in the pub, and was our favourite cask ale of 2014.
Disclosure: though we brought our own sandwiches, Mr Ryman did provide us with a couple of cups of tea and we tasted samples of a few beers during the day.