Ashburton Pop: What We Know

Illustration: a cork flies out of a stone bottle.

This lost Devon beer style came to our attention flipping through A Scrapbook of Inns a few weeks ago and we’ve since done a bit more digging. Here’s what we’ve got so far.

The best single description of Ashburton Pop comes from John Cooke, born in Ashburton in 1765, whose autobiographical pamphlet England Forever was published in 1819. We can’t find a copy of the original but fortunately is quoted at length in William Hone’s Table Book from 1827. Cooke wrote:

I recollect its sharp feeding good taste, far richer than the best small beer, more of the champagne taste, and what was termed a good sharp bottle. When you untied and hand-drew the cork it gave a report louder than a pop-gun, to which I attribute its name; its contents would fly up to the ceiling if you did not mind to keep the mouth of the stone bottle into the white quart cup; it filled it with froth, but not over a pint of clear liquor. Three old cronies would sit an afternoon six hours, smoke and drink a dozen bottles, their reckoning bit eight-pence each, and a penny for tobacco. The pop was but twopence a bottle.

A footnote to the 1817 edition of Sir John Sinclair’s The Code of Health confirms that high carbonation was a defining feature:

There is a particular kind of beer brewed at Ashburton in Devonshire, very full of fixed air, and therefore known by the name of Ashburton pop, which is supposed to be as efficacious in consumptions as even the air of Devonshire itself.

For what it’s worth J. Henry Harris speculated in 1907 that “it was probably some concoction intended to rival white-ale”, another famous Devon oddity.

Our attempt at Cornish swanky beer, which we reckon is in the same family.

Ashburton Pop was said to have died out between 1785 (Cooke, via Hone) and 1804, the latter date being given by an 1816 source. Cooke also says that the recipe was lost with the death of the brewer. Later sources mention surviving Ashburton Pop bottles bearing the name of what was probably the brewer, Richard Halse, and dates of 1771 or 1773. It was apparently revived in some form by William Michelmore, landlord of The Royal Oak at Ashburton, no later than 1835. He died in September 1846 aged 68. (Western Times, 12/09/1846.)

In the later 19th century references to Ashburton Pop only turn up in political commentary, like this from the Western Times for 03/06/1881…

Sir Stafford Northcote delivered his long-bottled speech at Manchester on Wednesday…. [He] was primed accordingly; but a more flat and vapid effusion was never poured forth in public than the oration of the Conservative Leader, on Wednesday. “Ashburton Pop” is a brisk potation, taken at the right moment, but a brief exposure to the air takes all the life out of it. Sir Stafford’s “pop” won’t stand the open air of public utterance.

… or this coded satire from the Exeter & Plymouth Gazette from 17/07/1852, signed ‘John Barleycorn’ and addressed to the town’s voters ahead of an upcoming election:

By the bye they say, good ale is drunk at Barnstaple, but his Lordship’s brewery turns out tipple too bitter even for his family circle there, and certainly would not suit the taste of you my friends, accustomed to excellent Ashburton Pop, of which with your permission, I will now drink to our next merry meeting, never ceasing to reiterate the common-sense patriotic principle that “England and every English Interest ought to be protected against the rivalry of the rest of the world.”

Assuming that, even referenced jokingly, these are accurate descriptions of the beer itself, we might gather that it (a) foamed quickly but didn’t retain a head; (b) was sweet rather than bitter; and (c) was to some degree still a topical reference, i.e. still in production as late as 1881, or at least generally remembered.

After this references to Ashburton Pop only appear in the context of historical notes and queries columns, often repeating the Cooke quotation above, and sometimes suggesting that it was a precursor to modern bottled beers.

So, for now, we don’t have much solid advice for those wanting to recreate Ashburton Pop, but as none of the sources mention unusual ingredients, e.g. ginger or raisins, you could probably do worse than this:

  1. Brew something along the lines of a fairly basic golden ale.
  2. Then follow the method for Cornish swanky beer given here: ferment with baker’s yeast; allow a short fermentation in a larger vessel before bottling with corks; when the corks start wanting to escape, after a day or two more, drink it, while it’s fresh.

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.

Continue reading “Reflecting on Devon Beer”

Tucker’s Maltings Beer Festival, At Last

It’s been running for 24 years but we only made it to our first Tucker’s Malting Beer Festival, in Newton Abbot, Devon, last week.

In the last few years when we might have gone, we’ve either been working or on holiday. But maybe we’d have made more effort if we liked beer festivals more, which we don’t, because:

  1. Eight different beers is about the most we can handle between us in one session so 250 is over-facing.
  2. Our two favourite places to drink are (a) the pub and (b) our sofa; hangars, barns, industrial spaces, town halls, churches, and so on, come way down the list.
  3. There’s too much flat beer, not helped by being served in unwashed glasses that get stickier with each passing hour.

Propaganda-style mural at Tucker's Maltings.

Having said that… Tucker’s Maltings was fun. It’s one of those events that isn’t just about beer, and that isn’t just popular with CAMRA members and tickers.

It generates a merry buzz around the town of Newton Abbot, a place which isn’t otherwise on the tourist trail — ‘It’s a funny old place’, as one attendee said to us — much as Walthamstow Village Festival used to in the days before full-on gentrification, or as Bridgwater Carnival does in Bailey’s home town.

There were faces we’d seen at other festivals (for example, a contingent from Cornwall CAMRA), gangs of young lads with sculpted quiffs and muscles on display despite the chill, ageing hippies, ageing rockers, ageing punks, rugby fans, a stag do or two, students from Exeter University, local dignitaries (Newton Abbot’s mayor is a venerable old gent with something of the German burgomaster about him), and teams of brewers from up and down the West Country in branded polo shirts having it corporately large.

People were drunk, in the 18th-century Dutch painting way, and occasional bouts of dancing, particularly that half-walk-half-boogie merry people sometimes do while carrying brimful glasses.

Whatever the spark of life is, the quality that puts the festiv- in festival, Tucker’s Maltings has it. We’ll definitely go again.

Disclosure: we paid for entry to Friday afternoon’s session and for beer tokens; Guy Sheppard of SIBA/Exe Valley, who is on the organising committee, bought us a half each while we interviewed him; and we were given free entry to the first hour of the session that followed.

The Lesser-Spotted True Red Lion

Last weekend, we stumbled upon The Red Lion overlooking the Dart Estuary in High Dittisham, Devon, which is not only a true inn, offering both booze and accommodation, but also the village shop and Post Office.

Approaching from the road, our first impression was of rustic dishevelment: the sign has faded in sun and rain, the whitewash and weatherboarding have streaks of rust, and a bench outside is fashioned from upturned milk crates and a warped plank.

Did it look much different in 1944 when the estuary below teemed with landing craft preparing for D-Day? Probably not.

Inside, the trappings of its multiple functions, and preparations for the upcoming holiday season, gave a somewhat chaotic feel. There was a pile of parasols here, racks of children’s toys there, cakes and pastries balanced on the end of the bar, while furniture in the process of being moved from one place to another made the back room feel like a house clearance auction. But it functioned perfectly well, and the clutter was at least authentic — far preferable to a job lot of horse brasses, ‘vintage’ nautical or agricultural tat, and old Reader’s Digest abridged novels being arranged about the place.

Though there were hand-pumps on the bar, pints of Palmer’s Copper Ale (Dorset, 3.7%) were fetched from the cellar. They were perhaps too cool for some people’s tastes, but not ours, and were otherwise in perfect condition. An amber-brown, vaguely toffeeish beer with the accent on bitterness rather than aroma, it was hardly exciting, but fit the mood admirably.

We drank on a deck at the rear of the building which provided a Cinemascope view of the busy river buzzing with tourist boats and yachts, and of the lush green, intermittently wooded hills on the opposite bank. (Greenway, once the country home of crime writer Agatha Christie, is a minute’s ride away across the water.)

Though it was in need of a tidy and a lick of paint, this back yard came closer to the feel of a Bavarian beer garden than anywhere else we’ve been in Britain and yet, at the same time, could not be anywhere but in England: above the purple-grey slate rubble tower of St George’s church to our left fluttered the red cross of the national flag, while downhill was the high thatched roof of a cottage around which newly-arrived swallows were swooping.

We’d hesitate to call the Red Lion something special — it is too hard at work serving the community to pretty itself up — but it is somehow perfect in its imperfection, and refreshingly honest.

A Kingsand-Cawsand Pub Crawl

A short way across the water from Plymouth, in what is sometimes called the forgotten corner of Cornwall, lie the conjoined coastal villages of Kingsand and Cawsand, blessed with four pubs between them.

We arrived on foot along the South West Coast Path just as the day was growing dimpsy and the evening fires had been lit. Dipping down from the cliffside into town we passed pretty pastel-coloured cottages, mostly holiday homes shuttered and hibernating.

We were momentarily anxious: what if the pubs are seasonal? Then we passed the Rising Sun, with its old Courage cockerel and peeling paint, the windows of which glowed with orange light. Someone with their back to us in the window seat laughed so heartily their whole body heaved. This seemed to bode well for our pub crawl.

Continue reading “A Kingsand-Cawsand Pub Crawl”