Having had my socks knocked off by St Austell’s bottle-conditioned “Admiral’s Ale” (see previous post), I was determined to find out more about it. So I booked myself (and friend) onto their brewery tour on Friday afternoon.
Simon, our tour guide was very good and knowledgeable, and it was a very interesting and enjoyable tour (particularly given our recent forays into homebrewing). I particularly liked seeing the mix of old and new equipment in the brewery. During the tour I learnt that they consider one of their key ingredients to be their own source of water (I believe it comes from a well in the old family home) – a pure and steady source, filtered through limestone (just like in Burton).
My second-favourite part of the tour was seeing the microbrewery where the head brewer experiments with new brews – I reckon all that equipment would just about fit in the spare room…
My favourite part of the tour came with the session in the bar afterwards – as well as the obvious activity of trying the beers, a number of the brewing team were in the bar as well, including the Head Brewer, Roger Ryman. Being the roving reporter that I am, I obviously took full opportunity to have a chat about some of the interesting brews that St Austell have been producing.
Firstly, I asked about Clouded Yellow, a bottle-conditioned wheatbeer that manages to pull off many of the main flavours of a Bavarian hefeweizen, while remaining unquestionably an ale. Roger explained that they use their standard yeast (so as not to risk contamination from the rather wilder Bavarian strain) but recreate the flavour using spices and vanilla.
It’s a very interesting flavour – possibly not to everyone’s taste, but I’m a fan, particularly when it’s slightly chilled, with the yeast shaken in. I also think it’s great that St Austell is willing to experiment with a beer like this.
Then I asked about the Admiral’s Ale, which I had been truly amazed by. The “secret” to this (not too much of a secret, it’s on the label!) is the malt that’s used.
The standard way that colour is added to beer is to brew with a pale malt base with a little crystal malt, or other dark malts, or roast barley. (The longer you roast the malt, the less fermentable sugars you get and it becomes expensive or indeed impossible to get fermentable wort).
For Admiral’s Ale, the brewery uses 100% “Cornish Gold” malt, which is kilned for a little bit longer than standard pale malt – not long enough so that it loses its yield, but enough to add colour and flavour.
Back to the bar, I sampled the other products I hadn’t seen. Cornish Cream is their take on the Guinness market, described as a “dark smooth ale”, and is slightly sweet. Possibly a good first step to weaning people off Guinness?
St Austell have also just launched “Freebeer 3.2”, which will be on sale at the various Tate Galleries across Britain. This project is worthy of a blog post in its own right – the recipe and branding of FREE BEER is published under a Creative Commons license (Attribution-ShareAlike2.5). This gives permission for anyone to use the recipe or create a derivative to brew their own FREE BEER and to use the design and branding. For more on Freebeer, see this link.
St Austell has considerable regional dominance (over 150 pubs, the vast majority in Cornwall), and also, interestingly enough, only makes around 20% of their turnover from beer (the rest comes from wines and spirits wholesale and retail). Given this, they may have been tempted to skimp on the quality of the beer. Instead, there’s innovation and experimentation – great to see.
1. The St Austell brewery is in the centre of St Austell, Cornwall. There is a small museum in the Visitors’ Centre, where the tour starts. They seem to be running a lot of tours at the moment, but appreciate a phone call before you turn up.
2. If you’re staying in St Austell, I recommend the B&B I stayed at – Topos. It’s about 10-15 minutes walk from the station (and brewery!)
3. Since my visit, I’ve subsequently found out that Roger Ryman was awarded “Brewer of the Year” by British Guild of Beer Writers in Dec 2006. So I’m by no means the first to praise St Austell’s innovation!