Mellow Brown vs. the Amarillo Kid?

The tension between new world and old school is being played out at Spingo Ales in sleepy Helston, Cornwall, but which side has the upper hand?

A brew­ery has oper­at­ed from the rear of the Blue Anchor, a ram­bling gran­ite-built pub on Hel­ston’s main drag, since at least the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry, and to say it has a cult rep­u­ta­tion among enthu­si­asts of tra­di­tion­al British beer would be an under­state­ment.

It was as we were wind­ing up an after­noon drink­ing ses­sion that we first met the head brew­er, Tim Sears, in the back yard of the pub and asked whether he would mind telling us which vari­ety of hops were used in Spin­go Jubilee IPA. (We were obsess­ing over East Kent Gold­ings at the time.)

Amar­il­lo,” he said, with a just-notice­able curl of his lip.

An Amer­i­can vari­ety not­ed for its pun­gent pop-art tan­ger­ine aro­ma, Amar­il­lo was first released to the mar­ket in 2000. There are pint glass­es at the Blue Anchor that have been in ser­vice longer.

That’s Gareth’s doing,” he con­tin­ued. “He’s the brew­ery man­ag­er. See those sacks of spent hops?” He point­ed to a cor­ner by the gents’ toi­lets. “That lit­tle one’s mine; his is over­flow­ing! I tell him he uses too many.”

Fas­ci­nat­ing,” we thought, Spock-like.

A few weeks lat­er, we got hold of Tim’s email address and explained that we were inter­est­ed in find­ing out more. “Ten­sion is a bit strong!” he replied, “but I know what you mean.” And so, on a paint-peel­ing­ly hot after­noon in July, Bai­ley took a trip to the brew­ery.

* * *

Poster for the Bruges Beer Festival at the Blue Anchor.
Poster for the Bruges Beer Fes­ti­val at the Blue Anchor.

As he lives in Penzance, Tim agreed to pick me up and save me a bus fare, “As long as you don’t mind me smoking and Dutch music… Gezondheid, tot dinsdag!”

Sure enough, as we hur­tled along the coast road, weav­ing around trac­tors and con­voys of Ger­man tourists, the car stereo played a stream of oom­pah-ing Ned­er­landse pop-rock.

What’s the Dutch con­nec­tion?” I asked.

Bel­gian beer,” he replied. “About ten… twelve… ten or twelve years ago, we went on a trip, a coach trip, to Bel­gium, and I loved it. I got on well with the bloke who ran the hotel where we were stay­ing and now he’s sort of a pen pal. I write to him every week, in Dutch.”

Tim isn’t a native Cor­nish­man but has been brew­ing Spin­go Ales at the Blue Anchor in Hel­ston since 1981. “I’d been home brew­ing for a while and win­ning awards,” he said, lift­ing a hand from the steer­ing wheel to cir­cle his cig­ar in air for empha­sis, “so when I saw that they were adver­tis­ing for a new brew­er I said, ‘Yes, please! I’ll have some of that.’” The land­lord gave him a six week tri­al: “I nev­er did find out if I’d got the job.”

Peo­ple some­times talk about the Blue Anchor as if it’s been exact­ly the same, and brew­ing the same beer, for 400 years. It’s more com­pli­cat­ed than that, but ‘Mid­dle’, its flag­ship beer, is cer­tain­ly near­ing its 100th birth­day, hav­ing first been brewed to cel­e­brate the return of Hel­ston boys from the First World War, in 1919. “As far as I know, it’s the same recipe,” Tim said, “but the orig­i­nal paper­work isn’t avail­able. It’s been 1050 OG, Gold­ings, as long as I’ve been brew­ing it.”

Ye Olde Special Brew.

Else­where, there have been tweaks: Spin­go Spe­cial went from 1060 to 1066 to cel­e­brate the mar­riage of Charles and Diana in 1981, and at some point, crys­tal malt got added to the recipe. “Devenish [a defunct region­al brew­ery] used to sup­ply the malt and they weren’t too care­ful clean­ing out the chutes for our order, so we got pale malt with a bit of crys­tal mixed in, which I used for spe­cials. Nowa­days, we mix it our­selves.”

To put some space between it and the amped-up Spe­cial, Christ­mas Spe­cial went up to 1076. (It’s now back down to 1074, to avoid the high­er duty brack­et.) Spin­go Best, too close in grav­i­ty to Mid­dle, got qui­et­ly dropped, as did a 1033 ‘Ordi­nary’: “We called that Mrs Bond, because she was the only one that drank it.”

Tim is clear about his own tastes: “I don’t like a hop­py beer. I pre­fer that malty sweet­ness – that sort of Cor­nish tra­di­tion­al taste.”

(We have long felt that West Coun­try ale is almost a style in its own right – less atten­u­at­ed, heav­ier in body, with bare­ly any dis­cernible hop char­ac­ter. If you’ve tried the bland, sweet Sharp’s Doom Bar, or St Austel­l’s HSD, then you’d recog­nise Spin­go Mid­dle from the fam­i­ly resem­blance, though it’s less smooth, and less con­sis­tent, than either of those big­ger brew­ery brands.)

Obvi­ous­ly, you’ve got to have hops,” he con­ced­ed, “but they’re there for bit­ter­ness. They shouldn’t make your beer smell of fruit. I can’t stand when peo­ple say they can smell lemon or cit­rus or pas­sion fruit, or what­ev­er.”

I can’t stand when peo­ple say they can smell lemon or cit­rus or pas­sion fruit…”

A cou­ple of years ago, his col­league Gareth, and Ben, a son of the Blue Anchor’s licensees, went on a three-week course at Brewlab in Sun­der­land. They came back with new ideas. The stout Ben designed for his course­work is now a reg­u­lar at the pub, and is called, obvi­ous­ly, Ben’s Stout. Corn­wall isn’t stout-drink­ing coun­try, but it ticks over. “Ben doesn’t drink it, though,” said Tim. “He drinks my Bragget – no hops, malt, hon­ey, apple juice, first brewed to com­mem­o­rate the town’s char­ter, grant­ed by King John in 1201.”

But it was Gareth upon whom the course had the most pro­found effect. “The IPA, that was my beer orig­i­nal­ly, brewed for the Queen’s Jubilee in 2002. But then Gareth got hold of it and now it’s all–” A faint shake of the head. “Amar­il­lo.”

At the pub, Tim, in sleeve­less T‑shirt and wellies, dis­ap­peared up the gran­ite stair­case into the steam of a brew­ery which is cramped and hot on the best of days, and hand­ed me over to Gareth, who was just con­clud­ing his morn­ing shift.

We had devel­oped a pic­ture of a mav­er­ick young hip­ster obsessed with ‘craft beer’, per­haps rid­ing around the brew­ery on a skate­board. In fact, though he is younger than Tim by some years, he is soft­ly-spo­ken, prac­ti­cal­ly-mind­ed, and, in his black work­ing t‑shirt, more mechan­ic than artist. A Hel­ston local, he worked his way up to the post of brew­ery man­ag­er from clean­ing bar­rels and the occa­sion­al stint behind the bar.

I do like hop­py beers,” he said, sip­ping instant cof­fee from a chipped mug at a plas­tic table in the pub’s gar­den, “but I most­ly drink more mel­low things, if I’m hon­est. Mid­dle, St Austell HSD – things like that.”

I most­ly drink more mel­low things, if I’m hon­est.”

This did not bode well for our hopes of find­ing a British ver­sion of the feud­ing Bjergso broth­ers: Tim and Gareth do not hate each oth­er. They are def­i­nite­ly not ‘at war’. So I decid­ed to poke the nest with a stick: what did Gareth think of Tim’s asser­tion that hops should real­ly only be used to add bit­ter­ness?

I dis­agree with him about that,” he said, with some­thing just approach­ing roused pas­sion. “Hops should be there to give flavour. Def­i­nite­ly.”

Anoth­er new Spin­go ale for which Gareth takes the cred­it (or per­haps the blame, from Tim’s per­spec­tive) is the 4% gold­en Flo­ra Daze. When we first tried it on the week­end it was launched, in March 2012, it seemed star­tling­ly dif­fer­ent to its sta­ble-mates, and we observed con­ser­v­a­tive reg­u­lars at the bar recoil­ing at its lemon-zesti­ness.

We have our beer dis­trib­uted through Jolly’s – LWC – and they want­ed some­thing lighter and hop­pi­er,” Gareth said. “I’d just learned recipe for­mu­la­tion at Brewlab and Flo­ra Daze is what I came up with.”

Gareth (left) and Tim, at the brewery door.
Gareth (left) and Tim, at the brew­ery door.

A short while lat­er, we all three recon­vened at the top of the steps by the brew-house, where Tim was stir­ring the mash with a wood­en brewer’s pad­dle. He fin­ished it by swing­ing a great wood­en lid onto the blue-paint­ed tun dat­ing from the 1920s, and cov­ered that with eight old malt sacks, for insu­la­tion.

Per­spir­ing and out of breath, he leaned on the sta­ble door and took a long draught from a cool pint of Spin­go Mid­dle. “Jolly’s want­ed some­thing under 4%,” he said, pick­ing up the Flo­ra Daze sto­ry, “but we just can’t go that low. Spin­go Ales are strong – that’s what makes them spe­cial.” He admit­ted, though, that he did roll his eyes on first see­ing the recipe. “Gareth usu­al­ly brews it, but I can do it, and have. I fol­low the recipe and stick to the spec.” He paused before deliv­er­ing the punch­line: “I just don’t drink the stuff.”

In the qui­et tug of war, Tim seems to be slow­ly get­ting his own way, and Gareth acknowl­edged that both the re-vamped IPA and Flo­ra Daze have, at Tim’s urg­ing, become less intense­ly hop­py. “I’m hap­pi­er with them as they are, though,” Gareth said. “They’re more in bal­ance now.”

Gareth’s real influ­ence is in the pur­suit of con­sis­ten­cy, as he explained show­ing me around the crowd­ed pub cel­lar which dou­bles as a home for six hot-tub-sized fer­ment­ing ves­sels. “Our beer is slight­ly dif­fer­ent every time,” he acknowl­edged, with a mix of pride and anx­i­ety. “It’s a small brew-house, we do every­thing by hand, and the malt and hops vary from batch to batch. The weath­er, too — that can have an awful effect. Oh, yeah – a big effect.”

But he is work­ing on this prob­lem and has insti­tut­ed lots of small changes. In the last year, for exam­ple, he has tak­en the rad­i­cal step of hav­ing lids fit­ted to the fer­ment­ing ves­sels, so that the beer is no longer exposed to the air. Noth­ing fan­cy, though – just sheets of Per­spex. There’s a sense that, with too much steel and pre­ci­sion, it would cease to be Spin­go.

Fermenting vessels at the Spingo brewery.
Fer­ment­ing ves­sels at the Spin­go brew­ery.

But per­haps this most tra­di­tion­al of British brew­eries will see more change yet. Tim, not per­haps as con­ser­v­a­tive as we thought, con­fessed that he had some­times won­dered about brew­ing some­thing to reflect his inter­est in Bel­gian beer. And Gareth, some­what wist­ful­ly, and almost embar­rassed, mut­tered: “I have… Well, I have thought about a sin­gle-hop beer, Amar­il­lo – some­thing a bit stronger.”

A US-inspired Spin­go IPA?

Yeah, I sup­pose that’s the kind of style I’d be going for…” He shook his head. “But, no, we’ve got enough dif­fer­ent beers for now.”

* * *

In the end, what we found at the Blue Anchor was­n’t high dra­ma or a bit­ter feud, but a kind of dia­logue, and our orig­i­nal choice of word, ten­sion, feels about right. We sus­pect that sim­i­lar debates are occur­ring in tra­di­tion­al brew­eries up and down the coun­try, and around the world, per­haps not always in such a civilised man­ner.

If you enjoyed this, check out the #beery­lon­greads hash­tag on Twit­ter for oth­er peo­ple’s con­tri­bu­tions, and also (need we say it?) get hold of a copy of our book, Brew Bri­tan­nia, to which this is some­thing of a com­pan­ion piece.

6 thoughts on “Mellow Brown vs. the Amarillo Kid?”

  1. Fas­ci­nat­ing stuff. I like Flo­ra Daze a lot, but it’s a very dif­fer­ent beast from Mid­dle, as much because it’s ses­sion­able as because of the hops. Long may they both flour­ish.

  2. This was a fas­ci­nat­ing and high­ly enjoy­able arti­cle. I’ve been to the pub once near­ly thir­ty years ago and spent a whole day in Hel­ston, most of it in the Blue Anchor. The main rea­son I went to Corn­wall was to vis­it this pub and it’s good to see it still in the GBG.

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