Newquay Steam: Cornwall’s Own Beer

Newquay Steam beer bottles.

In 1987, a pub-owning entrepreneur looked at British brewing and decided it wasn’t working.

Styl­ish­ly pack­aged ranges of bot­tled beers trum­pet­ing their puri­ty and qual­i­ty are easy to find these days. Back in 1987, though, bot­tled beer meant, in most cas­es, brown or light ale gath­er­ing dust on shelves behind the bar in pubs, with labels that appeared to have been designed before World War II. If you want­ed to know their ingre­di­ents, or their alco­holic strength, tough luck, because the brew­eries didn’t want to tell you.

A cult beer from Corn­wall would play a major role in chang­ing that scene.

* * *

Having weathered the brewery takeover mania of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, West Country family brewery Devenish was a strong presence in the region, with more than 300 pubs from Wiltshire to Penwith.

It was also a house­hold name, at least amongst any­one who had ever tak­en a sea­side hol­i­day in Dorset, Devon or Corn­wall. Nonethe­less, in 1986, the com­pa­ny was strug­gling. They had been forced to close their brew­ery in Wey­mouth, Dorset, late in 1985, there­after con­cen­trat­ing oper­a­tions in Redruth, Corn­wall. At the same time, they had also closed fif­teen pubs. Prof­its con­tin­ued to tum­ble.

Depend­ing on how you look at it, Devenish was either in need of res­cue, or vul­ner­a­ble to preda­tors.

* * *

Michael Cannon was born in Bedminster, Bristol, in 1939, and left school in the nineteen-fifties (according to most accounts) ‘barely able to read and write’. He worked as a poultry farmer in Avonmouth before entering the hospitality industry as a chef with the Berni Inn chain. Then, in 1975, he bought a stake in a pub in the centre of Bristol – the Navy Volunteer – and began his ascent to the rich lists.

By 1986, he was the boss of Inn Leisure, which owned around 40 pubs in Bris­tol and sur­round­ing areas.

Can­non saw in the strug­gling Devenish, and espe­cial­ly their more than three hun­dred West Coun­try pubs, a per­fect oppor­tu­ni­ty. In Feb­ru­ary 1986, Inn Leisure and Devenish ‘merged’. Cannon’s com­pa­ny put £35m into Devenish to secure a con­trol­ling share, with the sup­port of Whit­bread­’s invest­ment arm. After some ini­tial con­fu­sion, it became appar­ent to most peo­ple that this was a takeover by the small­er oper­a­tion which, in one swoop, took the total num­ber of pubs under Can­non’s con­trol to almost 400.

Peo­ple who worked with Can­non describe him as ‘a dynamo’,  ‘dynam­ic and intense’, and he has described him­self as hav­ing a ‘low bore­dom thresh­old’. Jour­nal­ists calls him ‘colour­ful’. Looked at as a whole, his career in pubs and brew­ing sug­gests a com­plete focus on achiev­ing prof­it, with­out the slight­est sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty.  News­pa­per head­lines, per­haps inevitably, tend to refer to CANNON FODDER or CANNON FIRE.

Bill Ludlow.
Bill Lud­low. Source: CAMRA, What’s Brew­ing, July 1986.

On tak­ing over Devenish, he set about reju­ve­nat­ing the com­pa­ny with vigour. First, feel­ing that they were pay­ing too lit­tle rent, he evict­ed many sit­ting pub ten­ants, replac­ing them with his own man­agers. Then, in July 1986, news came of the res­ig­na­tion of board mem­ber Bill Lud­low, a mem­ber of the for­mer con­trol­ling fam­i­ly, in the wake of a ‘clash over pol­i­cy’.

Hav­ing assert­ed his dom­i­nance, Can­non also set about revamp­ing the unin­spir­ing range of rather too-sim­i­lar, mid­dle-of-the-road beers pro­duced by Devenish. Cor­nish Best and Wes­sex Best, both the same strength, were made weak­er and stronger respec­tive­ly, while the lat­ter was giv­en a ‘saucy’ new name: Wes­sex Stud. It was joined by a much big­ger beer called Great British Heavy. West Coun­try branch­es of the Cam­paign for Real Ale very much approved, though they remained anx­ious about Cannon’s plans for local pubs.

Devenish beer range relaunched, 1986.
The revamped Devenish beer line-up. Source: CAMRA, What’s Brew­ing, July 1986.
But that wasn’t enough for Cannon: he wanted a slice of the burgeoning ‘designer beer’ market, and knew that the name Devenish, with its suggestion of dusty old country pubs and deckchairs, was never going to cut it. In the first instance, he renamed the brewing arm of the company (the Redruth operation) ‘The Cornish Brewery Company’, and there was more to come.

Accord­ing to Paul Hamp­son of design agency the Hamp­son Part­ner­ship, who worked close­ly with Can­non on the design of this new brand, it was a trip to Amer­i­ca, and expo­sure to the grow­ing US ‘craft beer’ scene, that pro­vid­ed the nec­es­sary inspi­ra­tion. Can­non was par­tic­u­lar­ly impressed, Hamp­son believes, by Anchor Steam, the flag­ship beer of Fritz Maytag’s revived Anchor Brew­ing.

Anchor Steam was one of the first US ‘craft beers’ to find favour in the UK from the late sev­en­ties onwards, pri­mar­i­ly among CAMRA mem­bers, and under the influ­ence of Michael Jack­son. Despite its attrac­tive pack­ag­ing and inter­est­ing brew­ing process, Anchor Steam is not over­ly aro­mat­ic and a famil­iar brown colour – in oth­er words, exot­ic and yet also acces­si­ble to British drinkers brought up on best bit­ter and Fuller’s ESB.

Hav­ing decid­ed that, some­how or oth­er, ‘steam’ need­ed to be part of the sto­ry of his new beer brand, Can­non next decid­ed to imply a more glam­orous place of ori­gin than the min­ing town of Redruth where it was actu­al­ly to be pro­duced. In the late nine­teen-eight­ies, Newquay, in North Corn­wall, was about as near as the UK got to the Cal­i­forn­ian beach cul­ture, famous for its world-class surf­ing and increas­ing­ly pop­u­lar with young hol­i­day­mak­ers. And so the name Newquay Steam Beer was born.

But what, apart from a snap­py name, would be its unique sell­ing point?

* * *

Unsure where to direct its energies after the Big Six brewers had relented and reintroduced cask ale to their ranges in the late seventies, CAMRA had been campaigning on various fronts.

One par­tic­u­lar hob­by horse was ‘pure beer’, brewed with­out addi­tives. Founder mem­ber Michael Hardman’s 1978 cof­fee table book Beer Nat­u­ral­ly set the agen­da. The ‘pure beer’ baton was picked up by fel­low found­ing mem­ber Gra­ham Lees who, hav­ing moved to Ger­many, became con­vinced that Britain need­ed a ver­sion of the Ger­man Rhein­heits­ge­bot beer puri­ty law; and also by beer writer Roger Protz, who had writ­ten some­thing of a pure beer man­i­festo, Pulling a Fast One, in 1978.

In 1986, ‘pure beer’ was final­ly made a CAMRA pri­or­i­ty, and, through­out that year, the Cam­paign renewed its efforts for clear­er labelling of beer ingre­di­ents and the ban­ning of ‘addi­tives’. Then, either in response to CAMRA’s lob­by­ing or sim­ply react­ing to the same exter­nal influ­ences, towards the end of 1986, Samuel Smith’s of Tad­cast­er launched ‘Nat­ur­al Lager’. Acknowl­edg­ing the influ­ence, a spokesman for Devenish said: ‘There’s a grow­ing mar­ket for healthy foods. Sam Smith’s have pro­duced a bot­tled nat­ur­al lager, but why not have a com­plete range?’

This ‘health food’ image might have been suf­fi­cient to make a suc­cess of Newquay Steam, but Can­non was also deter­mined to go all out on the pack­ag­ing and pre­sen­ta­tion. Paul Hamp­son:

[Can­non] had very firm ideas as to how the label for his new Steam Beer range would look and there were very few of the graph­ic devices asso­ci­at­ed with beer labelling that were left out. Had we been hand­ed an open brief, we might well have cre­at­ed a label less com­pli­cat­ed, but this wasn’t the time for that. We did how­ev­er, ensure that all the ele­ments of the design were beau­ti­ful­ly craft­ed, from label cut-outs and bot­tle shape, to the wood­cut illus­tra­tions, hand let­ter­ing and typog­ra­phy.

One design fea­ture that would come to define the image of Newquay Steam Beer was its ceram­ic ‘Grolsch-style’ swing-top:

I recall pre­sent­ing our first bot­tle top sketch­es to Michael, the result of which was a long silence. Didn’t  I know how much more expen­sive the ceram­ic top would make this new prod­uct and wasn’t I aware of the poten­tial cost sav­ing of a stan­dard met­al cap?  He then approved our ceram­ic top design and instruct­ed us to forge ahead with pro­duc­tion with­out delay.

Can­non’s nose for what would make mon­ey was infal­li­ble. Those stop­pers, and com­plete trans­paren­cy about ingre­di­ents and alco­hol con­tent, helped the brand stand out in a mar­ket place where beau­ti­ful-look­ing bot­tled beers were then few and far between.

* * *

Will Wallis worked at the Redruth Brewery from 1984 to 2004 and was involved in quality assurance on the Newquay Steam beers. He recalls that the workforce was enthusiastic about the product and just as determined as Cannon to make it succeed.
Will Wallis, 1987.
Will Wal­lis. Source: CAMRA, What’s Brew­ing, July 1987.

As a proud Cor­nish­man I felt proud to have our ‘own beer’. There was a lot of hard work put into the beer by a very excit­ed work­force. We believed that Steam Beer was unique on the mar­ket and stood a good chance of being a suc­cess. Per­son­al­ly, I can remem­ber work­ing twelve hour round the clock shifts with my col­leagues who real­ly believed in the prod­uct and put in a lot of effort to help launch the brand and make the whole thing a suc­cess.

Head brew­er Tony Wharm­by spoke to CAMRA’s What’s Brew­ing in July 1987:

[We have] had to com­plete­ly reor­gan­ise our oper­a­tion… The water isn’t Bur­tonised, no addi­tives to help clar­i­fi­ca­tion or speed the process, and the need to dou­ble fer­ment all have their chal­lenges. The major oper­a­tional fac­tors are the mat­u­ra­tion time, which is weeks rather than days, and the new labelling plant to accom­mo­date the bot­tle shape and com­plex­i­ty of the labels.

Tony Wharmby

As Will Wal­lis recalls it, it was a sign of Wharmby’s gen­uine belief in Newquay Steam that he allowed his image to be used to mar­ket the beers (though it is also pos­si­ble that Can­non insist­ed on it as part of his mar­ket­ing strat­e­gy). Since then, many head brew­ers have put their names, sig­na­ture and even faces on ‘pre­mi­um’ prod­ucts, but it was dis­tinct­ly unusu­al at the time.

At launch in 1987, the range includ­ed bit­ter, strong bit­ter, brown ale, strong brown ale, lager, strong lager, and a stout—an unusu­al­ly diverse selec­tion at a time when most brew­eries in the UK restrict­ed them­selves to brew­ing bit­ter and best bit­ter, with per­haps a ‘strong ale’ at Christ­mas.

Newquay Steam full range, 1987.

The pic­ture above fea­tured in a full-page adver­tise­ment under the head­ing ANNOUNCING BRITAIN’S FIRST RANGE OF ENTIRELY NATURAL STRONG BEERSNO PRESERVATIVES, NO ADDITIVE:

In response to an ever-increas­ing demand for addi­tive-free prod­ucts, The Cor­nish Brew­ery Com­pa­ny is delight­ed to announce the launch of their unique range of nat­ur­al beers. A unique choice of Lager, Bit­ter, Brown and Stout: a unique choice of strengths: a total­ly new con­cept in drink­ing which will appeal to all beer drinkers. Don’t miss your chance to join the New Age of Steam.

Though some have sug­gest­ed ret­ro­spec­tive­ly that the beers were ‘bland’ (includ­ing Bel­gian beer expert Joris Pat­tyn) at the time they offered a refresh­ing alter­na­tive to the mar­ket lead­ing stout (Guin­ness) and brown ale (New­cas­tle). As such, they found cau­tious approval from the new class of beer crit­ics, includ­ing Michael ‘Beer Hunter’ Jack­son, who, in his New World Guide to Beer described ‘a range of well-made all-malt brews’:

They are not Steam Beers in the Amer­i­can sense, and the term was clear­ly con­ceived as a mar­ket­ing device. How­ev­er, they are made in a way that it unusu­al in Britain. They have a two-stage pri­ma­ry fer­men­ta­tion, and they are cold-con­di­tioned. The whole range is malt-accent­ed and notably clean-tast­ing.

* * *

Anchor Steam Beer
Source: CJMartin, via Flickr Cre­ative Com­mons.
That same year, it seems Anchor Brewing in San Francisco got wind of Newquay Steam and took, or threatened to take, legal action. (We have not been able to find specific details.) In response, Cannon’s ‘Island Trading Company’, which owned the Newquay Steam trademark, took Anchor to court. The intention was to block Anchor’s plan to launch their own Steam Beer on draught in the UK.

With breath-tak­ing nerve,  Cannon’s lawyers argued that British cus­tomers were used to order­ing a ‘pint of Steam’, mean­ing Newquay Steam bit­ter, and that anoth­er draught beer of the same name would be con­fus­ing to them. It was at this time, it seems, that a sto­ry for the ori­gin of the name Newquay Steam was con­trived: in Corn­wall, the lawyers claimed, ‘steam’ is slang for strong beer. We can find no evi­dence to sup­port that sug­ges­tion, and have cer­tain­ly nev­er heard the phrase in use with that mean­ing.

Island Trad­ing won their case, hold­ing back the arrival of draught Amer­i­can ‘craft beer’ in the UK.

* * *

The success of Newquay Steam took many by surprise: from a standing start, the equivalent of 35,000 barrels were sold in 1988. (For comparison, London Pride sold 89,000 barrels in 2012–13.)

Can­non put that suc­cess down, in large part, to the pop­u­lar­i­ty of Newquay Steam with oth­er UK brew­ers who want­ed to pro­vide a choice of inter­est­ing bot­tled beers in their pubs with­out import­ing or buy­ing from their more heavy­weight com­peti­tors.

John Spicer, a lead­ing drinks mar­ket ana­lyst at the time, told us: ‘Every­one in the City of Lon­don had high hopes for Newquay Steam and there was a lot of inter­est in it.’ In their 1989 report on the The Sup­ply of Beer, even the Government’s Monop­o­lies and Merg­ers Com­mis­sion recog­nised that, though beer gen­er­al­ly was strug­gling in the mar­ket­place, Newquay Steam seemed to be buck­ing the trend.

It could­n’t last.

* * *

Hav­ing made such a splash, it is per­haps no sur­prise that preda­tors began to cir­cle.

In 1991, Boddington’s of Man­ches­ter made a hos­tile takeover bid. Whit­bread sold their 15 per cent stake to Bod­ding­ton’s with­out a momen­t’s hes­i­ta­tion, much to Can­non’s annoy­ance: ‘The cosy rela­tion­ships of the past have been shat­tered,’ he told the press.

Will Wal­lis: ‘The wide­spread belief was that as we were a direct com­peti­tor, they want­ed to pur­chase us and shut us down to remove excess brew­ing capac­i­ty in the trade at that time.’

Michael Can­non, how­ev­er, saw them off with his cus­tom­ary vigour, though it was a close shave, and left the com­pa­ny reel­ing and in need of cash.

In May 1991, the Newquay Steam brands were sold to Whit­bread, and Will Wal­lis recalls uncer­tain­ty at Redruth:

All art­work, recipes, brew­ing and pro­cess­ing pro­ce­dures were passed on to the new own­ers. At that time we believed that the Newquay Steam range would con­tin­ue, pro­duced else­where in the coun­try using the premis­es, and raw mate­ri­als of the new own­ers.

Then, in July the same year, head brew­er Tony Wharm­by and a Devenish direc­tor, Paul Smith, bought the Redruth brew­ery for £700,000 and went into busi­ness as con­tract brew­ers and bot­tlers.

Devenish con­tin­ued as a pub com­pa­ny and dis­trib­u­tor until, by 1993, Can­non had achieved his aims, and was ready to sell up on his own terms. He had bought his stake of Devenish for £35m in 1986, turned a fail­ing com­pa­ny into one of the hottest brands in the indus­try, and sold it to Greenalls (Whit­bread) for £214m. He ploughed his share of the prof­it (£26m) into a new pub com­pa­ny, cap­i­tal­is­ing on changes in the indus­try fol­low­ing the 1989 ‘Beer Orders.’

The Newquay Steam brand name lived on for short while, but the dis­tinc­tive swing-top bot­tles were ditched in favour of cans, with the beer being brewed at Whit­bread plants else­where in the coun­try. What was a great hope for the indus­try in 1989 was, by the end, a tar­nished brand and a lost oppor­tu­ni­ty. It seems to have dis­ap­peared com­plete­ly after 1996.

Redruth Brewery
Redruth Brew­ery, now derelict. Source: cph1963, via Flickr, Cre­ative Com­mons.

The brew­ery at Redruth closed for good in 2004, though there are cur­rent­ly plans to rede­vel­op the site, includ­ing pro­pos­als to install a micro­brew­ery.

Michael Can­non made yet more mon­ey run­ning and sell­ing pub chains, and went on to gain noto­ri­ety for his pur­chase and sale of anoth­er fail­ing brew­ery, Eldridge Pope of Dorch­ester, in 2004. He remains a per­ma­nent fix­ture on ‘rich lists’.

Newquay Steam Beer is fond­ly remem­bered my many who popped those ceram­ic stop­pers on beach hol­i­days in the West Coun­try in the late 80s and 1990s, and also by those who appre­ci­at­ed the oppor­tu­ni­ty to buy a ‘pre­mi­um’ British lager, stout and brown ale pro­duced by some­one oth­er than the ‘Big Six’.

With thanks to Ray Bate­man for email­ing us about Newquay Steam and encour­ag­ing us to look into its his­to­ry.




  • CAMRA Good Beer Guide 1988, ed. Neil Han­son, 1987, p30.
  • New World Guide to Beer, Michael Jack­son, 1988, repr. 1991, p170.
  • The Law of Pass­ing-off: Unfair Com­pe­ti­tion by Mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion, Christo­pher Wad­low, 2011, p882, cites ISLAND TRADING COMPANY AND OTHERS v. ANCHOR BREWING COMPANY AND ANOTHER R.P.C. (1989) 106 (10): 278–306.

News­pa­pers and mag­a­zines

  • Only beer here’, Roger Protz, Guardian, 4 Sep­tem­ber 1987, p21.
  • Con­trast­ing for­tunes of two brew­ers’, Andrew Wil­son, Glas­gow Her­ald, 16 Decem­ber 1987, p1.
  • Beers with the taste of bub­bly’, Michael Jack­son, The Times, 5 August 1988, p18.
  • Salut! Cheers! Prosit!’, Roger Protz, Observ­er, 4 Decem­ber 1988, sup­ple­ment, p17.
  • Tem­pus’ on J.A. Devenish, The Times, 21 June 1989, p26.
  • Cos­ta UK cheers Devenish’, Ben Lau­rance, Guardian, 21 June 1989, p11.
  • Devenish advances 22% to £14m’, Philip Raw­storne, Finan­cial Times, 13 Decem­ber 1989, p21.
  • Lack of steam as Devenish dips to £3.8m’, Finan­cial Times, 13 June 1990, p24.
  • Bit­ter row brews over beer bid’, Mar­tin Winn, Dai­ly Express, 19 April 1991, p41.
  • Bod­ding­ton press­es Devenish on plans for Redruth brew­ery’, Philip Raw­storne, Finan­cial Times, 3 May 1991, p22.
  • Redruth brew­ery faces clo­sure as Devenish pulls out of brew­ing’, Ben Lau­rance, Guardian, 23 May 1991, p15.
  • Devenish sells brew­ery’, The Times, 23 July 1991, p22.
  • Judge blocks US brew­er from sell­ing draught beer in Britain’, Asso­ci­at­ed Press, 11 Novem­ber 1988, AP News Archive,
  • Fud­druck­ers feast for Can­non’, Rachel Bridge, The Times, 4 August 1998, p23.
  • Bris­tol makes an impact on the Sun­day Times Rich List’, Bris­tol Post, 30 April 2012,
  • Hote­liers dom­i­nate The Sun­day Times Rich List 2013’, Janet Harmer, Cater­er and Hotel­keep­er, 22 April 2013,
  • Estate of Inde­pen­dents’, Cater­er and Hotel­keep­er, 19 Novem­ber 1998,


CAM­RA’s What’s Brew­ing

  • Can­non fires into Devenish’, March 1986, p1.
  • Devenish shake-up’, July 1986, p1.
  • Uproar over pol­lut­ed pint’, Novem­ber 1986, p1.
  • British brew­ers must come clean’, Roger Protz, Decem­ber 1986, p6‑7.
  • Pure and sim­ple: the Ger­man answer’, Bri­an Glover, Decem­ber 1986, p7.
  • Caught in the rapid Can­non fire’, Bri­an Glover; ‘All change at Wey­mouth’, Paul Hath­away; and asso­ci­at­ed small­er arti­cles, May 1987, p8‑9.
  • Cor­nish steams ahead with nat­ur­al beer’, July 1987, p5.

NOTE ON IMAGES: if you own the copy­right on any of the 1986–87 images used in this post and would like either a cred­it or for them to be removed, con­tact us at

8 thoughts on “Newquay Steam: Cornwall’s Own Beer”

  1. My rec­ol­lec­tion is that the Newquay Steam beers were always per­ceived as a bit gim­micky, all mouth and no trousers. “Steam­ing” is of course anoth­er term for “drunk” – they’d prob­a­bly be banned by the Port­man Group now.

    Devenish nev­er had much of a rep­u­ta­tion pri­or to the Can­non takeover – it’s one of those for­mer fam­i­ly brew­ers that now seems to have dis­ap­peared off the face of the earth.

  2. I remem­ber look­ing askance when What’s Brew­ing laud­ed these beers to high heav­en. I tried a cou­ple at the time and at best they could be called “bog stan­dard”. All fur coat and no knick­ers as we alleged­ly say up here in ‘t grim north.

    As for Michael Can­non and Devenish. I was speak­ing to a high lav­el Greeenalls exec­u­tive a cou­ple of years aftet they bought the pubs. There had bene plen­ty of showy invest­men tin them but it all seemed to have bene “front of house” – behined the scenes it was all a bit of a sham­bles. I would say that Can­non’s apoth­e­o­sis with this sort of approach was the Mag­ic Pub Com­pa­ny which large­ly com­prised tat filled theme pubs done very much on the cheap (or appear­ing so at any rate). Every­thing was very short term.

  3. Great arti­cle but anoth­er thumbs down for the beers. New Quay Brown was the one I saw most often (I won­der how they got away with that name?) and it was dull and sweet.

  4. Around the time Newquay Steam was big I think I was young & impres­sion­able – just get­ting into beer & a bit tak­en by the swing-tops & the mar­ket­ing. I remem­ber lik­ing the bit­ter, but could­n’t now quite say why! It may have been a bit tame, as some have sug­gest­ed, but being all-malt & addi­tive free set it aside from many UK beers at the time.

    I was very inter­est­ed to hear about the legal bat­tle with Anchor. In the past I’dd heard indus­try talk that Anchor were quick to threat­en legal action & per­haps unrea­son­ably over-pro­tec­tive of their brands (King&Barnes had a sin­gle-hopped “Lib­er­ty Ale” that I’ heard Anchor pounced on?). But with Redruth’s seem­ing­ly entire­ly spu­ri­ous yet suc­cess­ful counter-claim, I can see why Anchor might have fought hard­er to pro­tect their brands once they were export­ing more into the UK.

  5. … @Ed – despite my age, I was still amazed that “Newkie Brown” let them get away with using the name “Newquay Brown”!

  6. I recall these beers being on pro­mo­tion in the New­cas­tle Uni­ver­si­ty SU c.1989. My ear­ly beer geek curios­i­ty was aroused but i don’t recall being par­tic­u­lar­ly enam­oured.

    About the same time I was buy­ing a rather good Czech lager from a local offy. It came with a plane brown label rather like the Ker­nels. I wish i knew what this beer was.

  7. Supreme­ly inter­est­ing. Odd­ly, I find the term ‘Steam Beer’ incred­i­bly evoca­tive – although whether I would have *at the time* is anoth­er mat­ter.

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