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.
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.’
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.)
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.)
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.
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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?