Reflecting on Devon Beer

Vintage map of Devon showing Beer Head.

About two years ago, when we still lived in Penzance, we were approached by the editor of Devon Life magazine. He wanted to introduce a monthly beer column and reckoned we were the right people to do it.

We pushed back: we didn’t know Devon well, although Ray spent some time there as a kid and we’ve often vis­it­ed; and the fee they were offer­ing would bare­ly cov­er the cost of research­ing the col­umn. Still, he was insis­tent, and there was some­thing inter­est­ing in the idea of focus­ing on one coun­ty and fer­ret­ing out what there was to be fer­ret­ed. So we said yes.

Over the course of 20 months we wrote about notable pubs, brew­eries, bot­tle shops, nuggets of his­to­ry, and spe­cif­ic beers. We made spe­cial trips to Cock­ing­ton, Exeter, Exmouth, New­ton Abbot, Ply­mouth, Tavi­s­tock, Teign­mouth, Tiver­ton, Top­sham and Totnes, and con­vinced peo­ple from var­i­ous oth­er places to come to us at The Impe­r­i­al, AKA our Exeter office. We don’t claim this makes us experts – you have to live in a place, ide­al­ly for years, before you can real­ly say that – but it did give us a deep­er sense of what is going on than we’d oth­er­wise have acquired.

When the col­umn came to an end at Christ­mas, we took a bit of time to reflect on what we learned, and to draw some con­clu­sions.

Full-bore, full-on craft beer peters out beyond Bris­tol. In Devon, you’ll find indi­vid­ual out­posts in Ply­mouth (Ves­sel), Exeter (Hops + Craft) and New­ton Abbot (Teign Cel­lars, The Malt­ings) but you need to be mobile to man­age any­thing like a crawl. If you think brown bit­ter is endan­gered, spend more time in Devon. Time after time we spoke to peo­ple who expressed mild frus­tra­tion at the con­ser­vatism of the coun­ty – at the aver­sion to things pale, bit­ter or aro­mat­ic – and of the need to dial things back and down if they want to sell any of it in local pubs. There are too many poten­tial­ly inter­est­ing beers that feel com­pro­mised, and too many brew­ers who know it.

Powderkeg Speak Easy

Cask still rules. One of the more inter­est­ing case stud­ies for us was a brew­ery based just out­side Exeter, which we wrote up in Novem­ber 2016:

Pow­derkeg fol­lowed in the direct foot­steps of Scot­tish brew­ery Brew­Dog which went keg-only in 2012 and whose punk-inspired rhetoric was echoed in John Magill’s state­ment at launch that Pow­derkeg want­ed to ‘sow a few seeds of rebel­lion among our friends and cus­tomers’.

And yet, a year and a half on, Pow­derkeg pro­duces cask-con­di­tioned beer as well as keg. What led to this com­pro­mise?

It’s Devon being not quite ready for the keg rev­o­lu­tion,’ says John Mag­ill with a ver­bal shrug. ‘I looked at Lon­don and Bris­tol and thought there was prob­a­bly room in the mar­ket for a keg-only brew­ery but, like any busi­ness, you go in with a plan and then adapt as you go along.’

A bearded man in a pub.
Fred Cau­re.

As a con­se­quence, some of the most inter­est­ing beer in Devon is bot­tled. We’ve offered mea­sured praise to Moon­child, a brew­ery run by a Bel­gian, Fred Cau­re. Not every beer is per­fect but many we’ve tried have been very good indeed, and they are cer­tain­ly always inter­est­ing, nei­ther West Coun­try real ale nor Brew­Dog-style craft beer, but strange and char­ac­ter­ful in a dif­fer­ent way. But good luck find­ing them in a pub – it’s del­i­catessens, bot­tle shops and restau­rants, or nowt. (The fact that Devon has two Bel­gian-style brew­eries is a par­tic­u­lar odd­i­ty; the oth­er is Buck­land Brew­ers run by Frits Takken who moved to the UK from the Nether­lands in the late 1970s.)

View from a shed window.

But lager is a ‘thing’, too. One of the very best beers being brewed in Devon today (with advice from Adri­an Tier­ney-Jones, we gath­er) is Otter’s Tar­ka, a draught lager inspired by Jev­er. We’re not big fans of Otter’s cask ale but real­ly love this one. Powderkeg’s Cut Loose is great, too – flow­ery and sul­phurous. Bul­let­proof in Ply­mouth is a small out­fit – very small, lit­er­al­ly a gar­den shed when we last checked – focused on pro­duc­ing lager, with ambi­tions to be the next Cam­den. You might think this is some­how inap­pro­pri­ate but remem­ber Exeter had a lager brew­ery as far back as the 1880s, the remains of which you can still see today.

It’s hard­er to drink local than it ought to be. The best beer in Ply­mouth might be Bass. Exeter’s pubs are con­trolled by Greene King, Marston’s and Young’s, though St Austell are mak­ing moves. There are no estab­lished Devon family/regional/trad brew­eries to com­pete with these out­siders and there seems to be very lit­tle free trade for any­one to play into. When we did stum­ble upon Devon beer in ran­dom pubs it was too often life­less, bland, rough-edged, or some com­bi­na­tion of the three.

It’s a region where Spoons comes into its own. We had a drea­ry time trudg­ing round Teign­mouth out of sea­son until we found the brand new Wether­spoon pub, bright and cheer­ful, with a line-up of guest ales from Devon and beyond. This expe­ri­ence was echoed in Tiver­ton and again in Oke­hamp­ton. And we’ve long said that Exeter’s best pub is The Impe­r­i­al – a strange and (yes, let’s com­mit) regret­table state of affairs.

Tuck­ers Malt­ings beer fes­ti­val at New­ton Abbot is as good as they say. It feels like a car­ni­val, a major event in the town cal­en­dar, attend­ed by dig­ni­taries and locals as much as trav­el­ling CAMRA firms. Peo­ple nagged us to go for years and we nev­er got round to it, but writ­ing the col­umn gave us the nec­es­sary push, and we had a great time. (Dis­clo­sure: we paid our own way except that Guy Shep­pard, co-organ­is­er, arranged free entry for the sec­ond ses­sion.)

Sign: "BRIDGE INN, A WHITBREAD TANKARD FREE HOUSE"

And the Bridge Inn at Top­sham also deserves its rep­u­ta­tion. It’s one of a hand­ful of mag­i­cal pubs that don’t feel like they real­ly belong in this cen­tu­ry:

On our vis­it dur­ing the dregs of win­ter we found it aglow with warm light, dim in the cor­ners, with an arcane cul­ture all of its own. There are the signs, for one thing, a pas­sive-aggres­sive lay­ing down of the law: ‘Noth­ing ever changes at The Bridge – we are still No Smok­ing! (Includ­ing e-cigs.)’; ‘Please remem­ber this lit­tle par­lour is not a pub­lic area and is regard­ed as our fam­i­ly sit­ting room.’

There is a bar, just about, but most peo­ple were being served in the cor­ri­dor, hov­er­ing by the door of the afore­men­tioned par­lour which leads direct­ly to the cel­lar where pints are not pulled but poured direct from the cask.

Beer geeks want­i­ng advice on where to stay in Devon should know that, though there is no equiv­a­lent to Fal­mouth, Totnes does have a cou­ple of brew­eries, sev­er­al inter­est­ing pubs and bars, and even a brew­ery tap room.

A pre­dic­tion: when microp­ubs come to Devon in earnest, they’re going to turn things upside down. There are a few already  (albeit strange vari­ants) but it feels as if there’s room for many more, and they real­ly will fit per­fect­ly – not too trendy, and ide­al for small towns and large vil­lages which might strug­gle to sup­port big­ger pubs, or whose big­ger pubs are the kind of sea­son­al sun­shine beasts too often desert­ed or even closed in win­ter.

In sum­ma­ry, we love Devon, but more for its land­scape, his­to­ry, cul­ture and fresh air than for its beer. If you can find plea­sure in a pass­able pint in a pass­able pub (we often can) you’ll be OK; if you absolute­ly must have a dou­ble IPA, don’t expect to stum­ble upon it – do your research before you go, and be pre­pared to trek a bit beyond the tourist cen­tres.

* * *

It has half crossed our minds to write some sort of beer guide to the West Coun­try cov­er­ing Bris­tol to Scil­ly but know­ing that we haven’t been to every sin­gle vil­lage and tast­ed every sin­gle beer holds us back. What do you reck­on? Would you find it use­ful for your next hol­i­day out that way?

7 thoughts on “Reflecting on Devon Beer”

  1. Regard­ing your beer guide to the West Coun­try idea, I’m biased because I live in Bath but I think that would be a great project, espe­cial­ly (or per­haps, as long as?) you include cider in the equa­tion. Per­haps make your life eas­i­er by pick­ing out a trail or route rather than seek­ing to com­pre­hen­sive­ly cov­er the entire region?

    1. *espe­cial­ly IF (or per­haps, as long as?) you include cider in the equa­tion

  2. Per­haps avoid the goal of a com­pre­hen­sive guide (which may lead to fifty micro-xeno­pho­bia-laced emails a week about how you rat­ed a mediocre beer or pub as mediocre) and con­sid­er a top pub walks and jaunts guide.

  3. That’s a real­ly insight­ful piece, thanks for writ­ing it. The com­ment “If you think brown bit­ter is endan­gered, spend more time in Devon” and the obser­va­tion on Bass might go hand-in-hand, but there’s plen­ty of oth­er great (to me) BBB as well.

    Devon is my big prob­lem coun­ty on the path to GBG com­ple­tion. Hard and expen­sive to get around by pub­lic trans­port, and lack­ing bud­get hotels. And the Beer Guide pubs are dot­ted all over the place, main­ly in tiny vil­lages, rather than con­cen­trat­ed in towns. I can’t yet com­ment on beer qual­i­ty, but it is sur­pris­ing that Devon gets 124 GBG entries; that’s more than either Lan­cashire or the West Mid­lands and dou­ble Cornwall’s allo­ca­tion.

  4. A beer guide to the West Coun­try would be a huge project, it seems to me, if only for logis­ti­cal rea­sons. Corn­wall alone feels like it’s the size of Britain when you’re there – from the Lizard to Tin­tagel is a trek and a half; Tor­point and Pen­zance might as well be in dif­fer­ent time zones.

    Mmm, Corn­wall…

  5. Some of the guides (of all types, think­ing about it!) that I’ve loved most make no pre­tence to be com­pre­hen­sive, but sim­ply to present a per­son­al choice. H.V. Morton’s Pubs of the West Coun­try would be an indis­pens­able read, for exam­ple.

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