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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.]
Well, are there any desert island beers – things you really admire?
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.
Well, that’s about it—
[Sigh of relief.]
Good. Do you want another drink? Crows-an-Wra’s just come on.
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!’