The Quiet One

Peter Elvin by Darren Norbury (Beer Today).

This is our con­tri­bu­tion to #Beery­Lon­greads (Twit­ter/Face­book). The main image above is adapt­ed from a pho­to­graph by Dar­ren Nor­bury (@beertoday on Twit­ter).

The Penzance Brewing Company’s Peter Elvin isn’t a rock star brewer. He doesn’t stand up on counter-tops and give talks so that people can ‘engage with his brand’ and he isn’t likely to have his own cable TV series any time soon.

You might not even spot him in his own pub, the Star Inn at Crowlas – he does not hold court. You won’t find him behind the bar much these days but he can some­times be seen shuf­fling in through the door behind the counter, in well-worn polo shirt and Crocs, from where he slips qui­et­ly onto a stool at the end of bar, or makes con­ver­sa­tion with a few reg­u­lars in a cor­ner, a half-smile under his droop­ing white mous­tache. Unless he’s talk­ing direct­ly to you, you won’t hear what he’s say­ing: he is, as the cliché goes, a man of few words, and those words are spo­ken soft­ly when they come.

We’ve been admir­ers of the beer at the Star for years but have only spo­ken to Mr Elvin on a cou­ple of occa­sions. Once, in around 2013 we had a brief chat about the hop short­age. Then, a year or so lat­er, we caught him in ani­mat­ed mood dur­ing Penzance’s year­ly vin­tage bus week­end when hordes of real-ale-drink­ing pub­lic-trans­port-spot­ters from the Mid­lands make the pub their home. He spoke then with qui­et enthu­si­asm about the sus­pen­sion sys­tems of heavy vehi­cles, which was rather lost on us.

The lack of desire to stand in the spot­light is, we think, exact­ly what makes him inter­est­ing: he is to some extent rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the vast major­i­ty of the almost 1,500 brew­ers in Britain today who rarely get inter­viewed or pro­filed. Though they might like to sell a bit more beer, they can’t quite be both­ered, or lack the ego, to elbow their way into the con­ver­sa­tion. They are inter­est­ed in pipework, the cell counts of yeast, and fer­men­ta­tion tem­per­a­tures – not the stuff of which sound­bites are made.

A cou­ple of times we’ve pitched a some­what ‘high con­cept’ arti­cle about these low-pro­file brew­ers to mag­a­zines under the title ‘The Qui­et Ones’ but edi­tors ask, quite nat­u­ral­ly, ‘What’s the sto­ry?’ But the sto­ry is that there isn’t one: Peter Elvin didn’t get there first, he isn’t doing any­thing ‘inno­v­a­tive’, and he hasn’t got (or con­coct­ed) a dra­mat­ic ori­gin sto­ry. He’s a rel­a­tive­ly con­tent­ed bloke with a tal­ent for brew­ing decent beer and just gets on with it.

Actu­al­ly, that’s not fair.

Mr Elvin’s beers, as reg­u­lar read­ers of this blog will be tired of hear­ing, are, at their best, not only faint-praise­wor­thy – ‘decent for a region­al micro­brew­ery’ – but just as bold­ly, bright­ly, expres­sive­ly hop­py as any­thing from hip­per brew­eries such as Thorn­bridge or Mag­ic Rock. And he has worked hard – per­haps hard­er than many of his peers – to get where he is today, which is high­ly-regard­ed by local beer geeks, by oth­er brew­ers and, per­haps most impres­sive­ly, by reg­u­lar pub-goers in the vil­lage where his brew­ery is based.

The inter­view that fol­lows was edit­ed togeth­er from tran­scripts of two ses­sions on con­sec­u­tive days at the Star Inn. The first time, Mr Elvin leaned on the back of a chair for 30 min­utes, not quite com­mit­ting to the con­ver­sa­tion, some­what self-con­scious. The next day, we had a more in-depth, longer dis­cus­sion. He arrived for that meet­ing straight from the near­by semi-derelict house he is ren­o­vat­ing – him­self, that is, with ham­mer and nails – not super­vis­ing hired builders. He bought us drinks, and made him­self a big mug of tea, and we sat in the pub’s rel­a­tive­ly qui­et lounge.

He is a prac­ti­tion­er of what you might call Cor­nish Polite, a habit sim­i­lar to Min­neso­ta Nice, with a dose of the ‘So Very British’ ten­den­cy. At no point did he raise his voice above a warm, soft­ly-accent­ed mur­mur (beers aren’t hop­py, they’re ‘oppy) but we could tell from the rais­ing of his eye­brows and a sup­pressed grum­ble here and there that a cou­ple of our ques­tions struck him as odd, daft, or per­haps even a touch annoy­ing.

Peter Elvin in full flow.

First, can you give us the basics: when and where were you born, and what’s your back­ground?

Oh, uh, now… When was I born?

[Scratch­es head]

Er… 1958, on Scil­ly. St Mary. I grew up there, joined the Mer­chant Navy in 1979, most­ly round north­ern Europe, then went back for a year-and-a-half on the plea­sure boats. But it was sort of… claus­tro­pho­bic. I’d had too much free­dom, I sup­pose. So I left again went up to Budeleigh in Worces­ter­shire.

Why?

Well… Chas­ing after a woman.

You’d be sur­prised how often that’s what peo­ple say when we inter­view them.

I did all sorts up there – build­ing work, lor­ry dri­ving.

So when did you make the move into brew­ing?

I’d always home brewed for, well, as long as I can remem­ber, real­ly. From kits, ‘cos on Scil­ly, you’re lim­it­ed with what you can get. I moved to Wivelis­combe in Som­er­set in 1983 – I bought a knack­ered old house that need­ed doing up, total­ly rebuild­ing. I was still lor­ry dri­ving and I need­ed more mon­ey and more time. My next door neigh­bour at the time was work­ing for Exmoor Brew­ery and I thought, yeah, that sounds good, so I got a job at Cotleigh Brew­ery. I did deliv­er­ies, bar­rel wash­ing, and had more time to work on my house. But I was watch­ing… I could see straight­away that things weren’t right.

How so?

Just… [Squirms] Gen­er­al incon­sis­ten­cy. One batch wasn’t the same as the next. It was hit and miss. I’m not tech­ni­cal or aca­d­e­m­ic, what­ev­er you want to call it, but what­ev­er I’m doing, I am a prac­ti­cal sort of per­son. Whether it’s mix­ing cement or putting up a roof or brew­ing, I want it to be con­sis­tent, and done prop­er. I’m a do-er. So I got some books out of the library, read up on a few things, and with­in three months, I’d tak­en over the brew­ing

And I just absolute­ly loved it.

It was a lucky acci­dent, I sup­pose you’d call it. I upgrad­ed the brew­ery twice, moved it down the hill – when I first came in, it was up at the old Hancock’s brew­ery, with Exmoor in the old Hancock’s load­ing bay. Then we moved to an old Dutch barn. I basi­cal­ly built that, too.

And how did you start to real­ly get into hops? Was that at Cotleigh?

That was where I first realised that I’d always drunk real ale. I was nev­er a CAMRA type of per­son but I’d always drunk real ale, nev­er lager, nev­er any­thing fizzy. In the Mer­chant Navy, I hard­ly ever went ashore, but if I did and all they had was lager, I didn’t both­er. On the ships it was some­thing like Tennent’s Export in cans and I’ve nev­er been one for drink­ing whatever’s there for the sake of it. I’d rather have a mug of tea. So I hard­ly drank at all at sea. At Cotleigh, we always used Eng­lish hops – East Kent Gold­ings, Fug­gles, bit of North­down occa­sion­al­ly. In the eight­ies, it was all the Hop Mar­ket­ing Board – you used what they pro­mot­ed and what you could get. And I don’t mind Eng­lish hops – there’s Fug­gles in Num­ber 9. [Potion 9, his sig­na­ture pale’n’hoppy ses­sion ale.] But then, in the ear­ly 1990s, mid-90s, we start­ed to do some sin­gle-hop beers with Amer­i­can hops – one-offs so it didn’t mat­ter if you couldn’t get a reg­u­lar sup­ply. Guest beers. But to be hon­est with you, I always find sin­gle-hop beers a bit bor­ing.

Going back to Cotleigh – why did you leave?

I’d split up with my wife but didn’t want to move away while the kids were at school so I stayed there from 1983 to 1999, until they went to uni or what­ev­er. By the end, though, I’d tak­en it as far as it could go, and it was get­ting to the point where the brew­ery need­ed anoth­er upgrade. The fun had gone out of it, I sup­pose.

So then you came back to Corn­wall?

I had no ties in Som­er­set and I want­ed to be near­er home, near the Old Man. I bought this place with brew­ing in mind – I nev­er want­ed to run a pub. I always had my eye on the out­build­ings, not this. [Ges­tures around the bar.] I’m a do-er, not a sell­er – I’ve nev­er been a pushy per­son. I want­ed a place in Fal­mouth but this came up first, and we came in 1999. It was an old Courage pub that Usher’s had tak­en on and it had had six­teen ten­ants in nine years. Peo­ple had come in, tak­en the free six month’s rent, then gone, and they hadn’t done any work on the place at all because they weren’t stay­ing. No-one had done any­thing so it was in total dis­re­pair.

Anoth­er old wreck for you to fix up?

Yeah! Time and mon­ey again. We had to get it trad­ing straight away because we need­ed the mon­ey. I spent all my time and mon­ey get­ting it straight, and buy­ing bits of brew­ing kit when I could afford it. I didn’t want to start brew­ing on rent­ed kit.

Me and Tracey [his part­ner] spent three years run­ning a kitchen until I got the accounts ear­ly one year and looked at it and thought, ‘I can’t see my mak­ing any­thing out of this.’ We were work­ing our ass­es off but get­ting noth­ing out of it. I enjoyed being a land­lord. Yeah, I quite enjoyed it, even though it wasn’t what I want­ed to be doing.

Some peo­ple are nat­u­rals at deal­ing with peo­ple every night, being socia­ble…

I did find it very tir­ing. I want­ed to brew which I even­tu­al­ly did start in 2008.

That’s a total­ly dif­fer­ent ball game. I’m nor­mal­ly out there at five in the morn­ing, a few nice hours on my own. Peo­ple come out some­times dur­ing the day, stick their head round the door, give you feed­back, tell you how great the beer is, and that’s nice.

Some small brew­eries are in an old barn next to a pile of manure… Yours, from what we’ve seen, is always spot­less, which per­haps makes the dif­fer­ence in the qual­i­ty of your beer?

[Bemused.]

It’s not that clean. It needs dust­ing. I need to find some­one who’s real­ly pas­sion­ate about clean­ing. But it ain’t rock­et sci­ence, is it? You clean it the minute you’ve fin­ished brew­ing, hose it down, lock the door. I bought two fer­menters from anoth­er brew­ery and they’d obvi­ous­ly nev­er been inside ‘em the whole time they had them because the pen marks from the bloke who made them were still on the inside. Dirty bas­tards. And it’s the same with casks – peo­ple sani­tise inside but then the out­side is cov­ered in mud and shit and spi­ders. I won’t rack into some­thing like that, drop­ping mud and shit all over the oth­er casks, all over the cel­lar. It takes five min­utes to clean the out­side. That’s why I don’t dry hop: why take all that care and then bung in a hand of dirty hops cov­ered in bird shit and god knows what?

Going back to hops, then – how did you devel­op the pale hop­py beers like Potion and Trink that you’re known for?

I didn’t real­ly know any­thing about hops when I came here but I knew what I want­ed – that grape­fruit taste. So I read a few things and tried brew­ing with some of the vari­eties of hops that are meant to give you grape­fruit and… noth­ing. Right, fine. So then I start­ed try­ing oth­ers in dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tions, and dis­cov­ered that Amar­il­lo and Chi­nook gave me what I want­ed.

The first time we spoke to you a few years ago you were a bit stressed because you couldn’t get hold of Amar­il­lo.

Back then, I didn’t know enough about hops to cope with the short­age. I’d got this recipe and I liked it and every­one was hap­py and then, sud­den­ly, I didn’t have what I need­ed to make it. I man­aged to exper­i­ment and find a cou­ple of oth­er hops that I could sub­sti­tute, sort of bodge it, that got close and that’s what I’m still using today. Now, I used a blend of dif­fer­ent hops in all my beers so that, if one of them dis­ap­pears, it’s less impor­tant. I try to keep a stock in so that I can phase a hop out over ten or four­teen brews, too, so it’s not so jar­ring.

But Trink is pre­dom­i­nant­ly Cit­ra, and there ain’t no Cit­ra, so that’s on the way out.

We’re big fans of your beer, as you know, but espe­cial­ly when we drink it here. We’ve had it Fal­mouth, or even just across the way in Gold­sith­ney, and it hasn’t tast­ed quite as good.

[Shakes head.]

Can’t see why. Shouldn’t be a prob­lem.

Well, we’ve won­dered if it’s that, here, you fuss over the cel­lar, and you’re on hand to see and taste the beer.

I wouldn’t say I was a con­trol freak but here, yeah, I am in full con­trol.

I have pulled my beer from a few pubs when I’ve heard they’re not look­ing after it, or not get­ting through it quick­ly enough. Scil­ly Stout will just keep get­ting bet­ter the longer you hang on to it but Num­ber 9 or the oth­er fresh, hop­py beers have got to be drunk. They can’t be sit­ting around. I don’t care what peo­ple think, real­ly, but if I’m putting out a beer with a spe­cif­ic name, I want it to be the same beer every time peo­ple drink it.

But then I know pubs up north where they sell my beer, and fes­ti­vals, and there’s nev­er any prob­lem with it at all.

Is it true that when you go back to Scil­ly on hol­i­day you send your own beer over before­hand so it will be ready to drink when you arrive?

[Sighs.]

I did that once. The pubs over there are alright but I get fed up of Doom Bar and Trib­ute and the brew­ery over there’s OK too but… I only did it once!

Final­ly, this is a ques­tion we always ask: are there any par­tic­u­lar beers you’ve found espe­cial­ly inspir­ing?

[Shrugs, bemused at the ques­tion.]

Not real­ly.

Well, are there any desert island beers – things you real­ly admire?

[Still bemused.]

St Austell Prop­er Job is a good reli­able thing if I’m out in town. And Roger [Ryman, St Austell head brew­er] is a good lad – he’s giv­en me lots of tech­ni­cal advice over the years.

Bot­tled beers… It would have to be Sier­ra Neva­da Pale Ale, I sup­pose. That’s a love­ly beer.

[Long pause.]

Well, that’s about it—

[Sigh of relief.]

Good. Do you want anoth­er drink? Crows-an-Wra’s just come on.

Peter Elvin at the bar.
Peter Elvin lit­er­al­ly in the spot­light at the bar of the Star Inn, Crowlas.

As our sec­ond con­ver­sa­tion wrapped up Bai­ley pulled out a cam­era and asked Mr Elvin if we could take some pho­tos. He said yes but (Cor­nish polite again) real­ly meant no, and so we got noth­ing use­able before he slipped out and head­ed back up the hill to con­tin­ue his build­ing work. A qui­et man he may be, hap­pi­er in the peace and qui­et of one type of work­shop or anoth­er, but the two glass­es of glo­ri­ous­ly hop­py, gold­en ale with which he left us made us say, once again, ‘Wow!’

2 thoughts on “The Quiet One”

  1. Doing it by hand, car­ing about con­sis­ten­cy, tak­ing your time, get­ting it right – if ‘craft’ meant any­thing i twould mean this.

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