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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Three Decent Pubs in Plymouth

In the past, we’ve struggled to find great places to drink in the old naval city of Plymouth, just over the border from Cornwall in Devon.

The trick, it turns out, as in many other cities, is to look outside the central ring-road: two of our new discoveries are in the suburb of Mutley, which is literally on the wrong side of the tracks. The Fortescue, Plymouth. Leaving the station and heading along the bustling Mutley Plain, we stumbled upon the Fortescue by chance. The building dates from 1905 and has a couple of nice Art Nouveau touches, but inside is a bare-bones and rather old-fashioned CAMRA pub.

On the way to the Plymouth Argyle football ground on a match day, it was crammed with mostly middle-aged men minding their own business. The beer line-up wasn’t what we’d call exciting — several from Hunter’s of Devon, Jennings’ Cumberland Ale, and St Austell HSD — but we couldn’t fault the condition in which it was served.

The pricing was pretty keen, too: a pint of c.4% bitter is £2.98, but the barmaid asked if we had CAMRA membership cards on us (we did) bringing it down to £2.68. If we’d had also had some CAMRA Wetherspoon’s vouchers on us, that would have knocked off another 50p.

If you’re, ahem, ‘cost conscious’, like brown bitter, and the company of blokes, then this is the place for you.

Double Diamond at the Hyde Park. Sitting proudly at the top of Mutley Plain like a down-home Palace of Versailles is the Hyde Park Hotel. Recently the subject of a preservation battle, it re-opened last week as a 1970s retro theme pub. (With thanks to Sam Congdon for the tip-off.)

The building is festooned with breweriana from enamel signs advertising Vaux to an illuminated Brewdog shield. Inside, a cosy, womb-like double-bar set up has walls covered in what must be half a million quid’s worth of vintage signs, keg fonts and advertising materials. On discreet TV screens, 1970s TV ads plays on loop. We spent ten minutes goggling at the museum exhibition before turning our attention to the bar.

The Plymouth Herald article suggested that Watney’s and Double Diamond would be on tap. As we suspected, though there is a  glowing plastic Red Barrel on the bar, it is being used to serve Caffrey’s. To our amazement, however, DD was indeed on offer.

Along with Watney’s Red, it was one of the beers at which CAMRA targeted its ire in the 1970s, nicknaming it ‘K9P’. (Geddit?) Now down at 2.8% ABV and brewed in small amounts for the northern club market, the landlady, Pat, had managed to find a supplier in the West Country. It looked pretty — golden and glowing, with a fluffy white head — but tasted of… nothing. Water, dental fillings, and perhaps vegetable peelings. Here’s the amazing thing, though: after Double Diamond, a pint of Dartmoor Legend, not the world’s most exciting beer, suddenly tasted like nectar, with a sweet maltiness and leafy green hop character amplified in contrast with the blandness of the keg bitter.

Along with more retro keg beers (Worthington Best Bitter), several cask ales and a fridge full of ‘craft’ and ‘world’ beers (from Brewdog, Westmalle, and so on), and an onsite brewery is due to start operations soon.

If you’re a beer geek on holiday in Devon, this is a must visit, and would be a great place to read your copy of Brew Britannia.

Bread & Roses, Plymouth. Finally, we made our way back through the city centre and out the other side in search of another Sam Congdon tip, the Bread & Roses.

Housed in another nicely preserved Victorian pub building (The Trafalgar, 1897) on on Ebrington Street, which feels a bit like Hackney in East London did 20 years ago, the B&R opened as a community-run social enterprise last summer. The quirky décor (oompah band LPs, Action Man dolls in knitted jumpers, furniture from house clearances) didn’t strike us as contrived or forced.

There were a couple of local cask ales on offer (a mild from Teignworthy and Avocet from Exeter) along with various ‘world beers’ on keg and in bottles. O’Hara’s stout went down nicely; a bottle of Tripel Karmeliet seemed paler and cleaner than the last time we tried it; and Bristol Beer Factory West Coast Red was a spicy, toasty delight. Laverstoke Park Farm Organic Lager was a dud — mostly bland except where it was a bit rough — and Einstök Icelandic Pale Ale was too much sticky toffee pudding for our tastes.

Neither this pub nor its beer selection would turn heads in Bristol or London these days, but it’s quite exciting for this part of the world, and a lovely place to spend an afternoon.

PS. Can anyone give Justin any more information about a cask version of Double Diamond he drank in the mid-90s?

Lessons for Beer Street from Gin Lane

Plymouth Gin Distillery, Devon, UK.

By Boak

Last weekend, seeking to avoid what could easily have felt like five wet Sundays in a row in Penzance, we spent a couple of days in Plymouth, and made like tourists. Activity one: the Plymouth Gin distillery tour, where we learned a lot about beer.

We don’t drink a lot of gin, but my Mum’s partial, and I’ve been buying her bottles of ‘small batch’, ‘artisanal’ gin as presents for a couple of years. Plymouth Gin rates itself as the most artisanal of the big brands, if that makes sense. But… the base alcohol is produced in Scotland; the gin is bottled in Essex; and most of the process is automated. “Here’s where our distiller loads the botanicals himself, through this hatch,” said the tour guide. “That’s what makes our gin handcrafted.” At this point, her voice was drowned out by the sounding of the bullshit alarm.

Lesson one, then: unless you’re talking objects, ‘handcraftedness’ really is a poor measure of quality.

The tasting stage of the tour was the real eye-opener, though. First, we were talked through the various herbs and spices (‘botanicals’) in the recipe and couldn’t help but think of Belgian Witbier when talk turned to coriander, cardamom, lemon and orange peel. It was when things got tactile that a bulb really went on: crushing the small-seeded Russian coriander used in Plymouth Gin, we realised it is nothing at all like the earthy, woody Indian stuff we use at home. It smells more like lemons or lemon verbena, and extremely pungent.

Lesson two: coriander is a more complex variable than we’d appreciated, and we need to experiment more.

We’d never even heard of Orris Root which the guide tells us is used mostly for its ability to help keep essential oils in suspension in the gin.

Lesson three: there are more herbs and spices to play with in brewing than we’d previously been aware, some of which might be very useful.

After all that, we enjoyed our complimentary gin and tonic at the end of the tour, but, being beery people at heart, found ourselves itching to brew a gin-inspired Wit sooner rather than later.

The tour costs £7 per person and takes about 30 minutes. The cocktail bar upstairs also happens to have a small selection of bottled beers including Brewdog Punk IPA and Anchor Steam.

No Marketing Budget in Post-war Devon

Pale "A" Ale -- the Best Bitter in the West of England -- Brewed only by the Plymouth Breweries Ltd.
We found the above on the flyleaf of a The Homeland Guide to Dartmoor (undated but c.1947). It’s hard to imagine a plainer advertisement or, indeed, a plainer name for a flagship product. Post-war austerity and all that, we suppose.

On a related note, we also know from our recent nosing in their brewing records that, for the duration of World War II, St Austell produced nothing but “PA” (pale ale).

It must have been hard to get anything but bitter in the West Country in the 1940s.

 

Hot Pub Time Machine

Sign outside a Plymouth pub advertising Courage Dark Mild

Wandering through Plymouth’s Altstadt, aka the Barbican, we stopped dead at the site of the sign outside the Queen’s Arms:

Special….. Courage “Dark Mild” sold here.

Courage Dark Mild? Really? We had to see for ourselves and, at any rate, needed a post fish-and-chips pint, so in we went.

We found ourselves in a clean, tidy pub which looked very like the one Bailey’s parents ran in Exeter in the early 1980s: velvet seat covers, dark wood, pickled eggs and high Victorian ceilings. The landlady greeted us cheerfully; the grizzled regulars at the end of the bar (possibly pirates) eyed us with suspicion.

We ordered Courage Dark Mild which was, indeed, on offer, albeit in keg form, alongside cask Bass and keg Courage Best Bitter. The antique pumpclips suggesting that someone put in a recurring order for those beers in about 1988 which has been magically fulfiled ever since.

You might be surprised to hear that it tasted pretty bloody good. As others have pointed out, mild benefits from cask conditioning perhaps even more than many other types of ale but, even so, this keg variant was fruity, dark and (being served pretty cold) very refreshing. It’s by no means complex but the darkness was from something other than a slug of caramel: there was a burned, roasted edge which made us want another.

How much Courage Dark Mild is actually being brewed? And are any other pubs in the country selling it?

 

Notes

1. This isn’t the first time capsule pub we’ve come across.

2. the pub wasn’t hot – a bit chilly if anything – but the truth cannot get in the way of a punning post title.