It can be difficult to get people to talk frankly about the challenges of running a small brewery and especially about the decision to shut up shop but, back in 2013, Jennifer Nicholls gave us a glimpse behind that usually closed door.
When we were working on Brew Britannia we did lots of research that didn’t end up being quoted or overtly referenced in the finished product but which did help to shape our thinking and give us a rounded picture of what was going on. As part of that, we approached Jenni whose brewery, Northcote, had recently ceased trading.
She was kind enough to give substantial answers to our question which, in the wake of several notable brewery closures in the last year, we decided to unearth. With a few edits for readability, and with Jenni’s renewed permission, here’s what she told us back then.
B&B: Can you give a brief history of your brewery?
We set up the brewery in 2010, incorporating on 24 January as Northcote Brewery Ltd, after the road we live on. I’m just looking over out old Facebook page now actually. We got the premises 18 June and the first brew was in October that year.
The beers were first commercially available at the Norwich Beer Festival on 27 October. Cow Tower, our bitter, was the first available – the name comes from a Norman tower in the city. Then came Golden Spire (a golden ale), referencing the the cathedral. Jiggle Juice IPA was named after our friends’ boat that we used to drink our sample brews on, and kind of stuck. Brewed This Way was a raspberry wheat beer brewed in conjunction with Norwich Pride, the name being a little nod to the Lady GaGa track. Sunshine Jiggle was a lower ABV summer drinking version of Jiggle Juice that we called a ‘citrus blonde’. Bishy Barnaby was a red spicy ale, that being a Norfolkism for a ladybird. Snap Dragon Stout was named after the dragon that leads the Lord Mayor’s parade and lives in Norwich Castle. Finally, there was El Salvador IPA, our coffee IPA, made in collaboration with The Window coffee shop
The very last beer we brewed was One for the Road, made in conjunction with the Euston Tap.
Our impression from various interactions over the years – we’ve never met him – is that he’s a relatively straightforward person not prone to spin and we thought we might rely on him to give us a fairly direct answer.
Here’s what we got from a short phone call.
So, what happened?
Like I said when we agreed to speak, there’s not a lot to say. I’m conscious of… I don’t want to criticise any individuals.
The main issue was not being able to come to a definition. I thought we were making progress but it sort of slipped away. It kept falling down on technicalities, like, what happens if you’ve outside influences and investors. What percentage? Etcetera. It was all very nebulous, hard to pin down.
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.
Several times in the last couple of years, we’ve said that we thought St Austell Proper Job began life as an homage to particular American IPA, but couldn’t for the life of us work out exactly where we’d got that idea.
So, last Sunday, we travelled up to St Austell and spent the day with its creator, Head Brewer Roger Ryman, and got the story straight from the horse’s mouth.
My friendship with Karl Ockert [head brewer at BridgePort Brewing, Portland, Oregon, from 1983 to 2010] is well-known and has been written about many times.
In around 1999, I was invited to take part in judging for the Brewing Industry Awards. That’s the one that’s been running since the 19th century and, if you’re going to win anything, that’s the one you want – the players’ player of the year, judged solely by working brewers. You’re all cooped up in a hotel together for three days and you get to know each other. When we were leaving, we all exchanged business cards – “You must get in touch if you’re ever in town, let’s stay in contact,” – but you never expect to do anything about it. A couple of years later, I was in Denver with Paul Corbett from Charles Faram, the hop merchants, and I did actually give Karl a call. He arranged all these brewery visits for us – Anheuser-Busch, Odell, Coors…
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.
* * *
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.”
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.”
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.
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.