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”

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?



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.