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.

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Do People Realise Breweries Have Gone?

In Exeter the other week we got talking to a bloke leaning on the bar in the pub.

He told us that he goes to the pub most days because, being single and in his fifties, the alternative is an empty flat: ‘The pub is like Facebook for me.’ He told us an excellent story about being in a Glasgow pub while Shane McGowan of the Pogues held court.

Eventually, though, we got on to the subject of beer and we trotted out our usual line: that Devon’s a bit of a weird case because it doesn’t have a big trad-family-regional brewer like Adnams or Wadworth.

‘Well, there’s Heavitree,’ he replied.

Heavitree does have pubs across the city and the region, often branded ‘Heavitree Brewery’ — we saw one in Teignmouth, for example — but the firm hasn’t actually produced any beer of its own since 1970. The brewhouse was demolished ten years after that.

How could he not know this?

Which made us wonder how many people don’t realise their own ‘local’ brewery no longer exists, or is now a subsidiary of another firm (Ringwood), or a ‘zombie brand’ (Mann’s, Gale’s), or is a completely new brewery using an old one’s trademarks (Truman).

Hardcore beer geeks like us obsess over details of ownership and history but, barring the odd scandal, most people (generalisation klaxon) don’t, just as we don’t keep tabs on who owns which car firms these days, or which chocolate bar brands.

A Vivid Memory

When I was at nursery and just starting school, my parents ran a pub in Exeter and many of my earliest memories are from this time.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the day I ‘helped’ my taciturn Lancastrian Grandpa with the stock-take.

I don’t remember it all that clearly — I was four — but there are few almost still images and short fragments of playback, cut together in a montage.

The weather was grey but must have been warm because I’m sure I was wearing shorts. I’m also sure I was sat on an upturned crate, in the yard by the cellar door.

The cellar itself was whitewashed, cold and damp, with spores on its breath.

Gramps was wearing his black Harrington jacket with the red tartan lining, grumbling as he shifted bottles around with yellow-stained, tough old hands. He was probably smoking — he was always smoking — but I can’t remember for sure.

There was a blue plastic crate full of bottled beer with blue labels — light ale, I suppose — right next to me for a long time. The caps were bright blue and smooth, pretty and button-like, and I remember coveting them.

Then a crate full of root beer in glass bottles landed in front of me. I asked what it was — is it like cola? He told me. I pestered him to let me try it. Eventually, he grumpily popped open a bottle and then went into the bar, still muttering, to pay for it.

But I hated it so much it made me cry. (Which is probably why I remember this moment at all.)

Smoke

On walking through the door of the Rusty Bike in Exeter we noted with pleasure the comforting aroma of wood smoke.

It’s an earthy, wholesome kind of smell that triggers certain assumptions in the primitive human brain:

I am home, I am warm, food is one the way.

Open fires have long been associated with proper pubs. The Campaign for Real Ale’s Good Beer Guide used to be sponsored by the Solid Fuel Advisory Service during which time a symbol appeared to show whether a pub had a real fire or not. The 1984 edition was a ‘real coal fire’ special with a two-page advertorial on their appeal.

As it happens, though, there is no open fire in the Rusty Bike.

‘Oh, yeah — we’ve been smoking pigeons all afternoon,’ said the red-eyed young man behind the bar, possibly suppressing a sooty cough.

But it turns out that doesn’t really matter: the smell was enough to make it feel as if we’d walked into a snug village pub, possibly via a 100-year time warp, rather than a modern gastropub a five minute walk from Exeter Prison.

(PS. We’re no food critics but the great big hunks of corned beef at the Rusty Bike struck us as astonishingly good, as did the pig cheek fritters. It’s part of the Fat Pig brewery estate and, though the beers are quite homely, a strangely coconutty cask ESB was just the job. We didn’t try the smoked pigeon.)

The Samuel Jones, Exeter

The Samuel Jones opened just before Christmas and is an outpost of Cornish brewing giant St Austell, occupying a converted warehouse on Exeter’s riverside.

If you weren’t in the know, you might not realise this ‘smoke and ale house’ is a St Austell project. Branding has been kept to a minimum, and the décor is more stylish than most of their Cornish estate — polished copper, reclaimed wood and exposed pipework, which make it feel pleasingly cluttered, warm and, for want of a better word, ‘cool’.

That ‘coolness’ is somewhat undercut by the evidence of corporate management: staff in matching waistcoats, scripted greetings, floor supervisors with earpieces, and a slick EPOS system. On our visit, it did, at times, feel a bit like a posh Harvester, though never downright soulless, perhaps because it was so buzzing, with almost every seat, from armchair to bar stool, occupied from the moment we arrived mid-afternoon up until we left.

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