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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Raw, rough and rude

Kingsbridge Inn, Totnes, Devon.

Many of the new breweries from the 1970s ‘real ale revolution’ didn’t survive the 1980s but Butcombe did, and their Bitter is, as far as we can work out, one of the few beers from that time (1978) still readily available in British pubs.

At its best (as at the Kingsbridge Inn in Totnes, Devon) Butcombe Bitter illustrates perfectly why people were so excited by real ale in the 1970s: a leaning, Falstaffian mound of froth; a rather stern, chalky bitterness; and a raw, rough-edged rudeness. Compared to some of the beers we enjoyed in Bristol (of which more later) it might seem a little fuddy-duddy or sepia-toned, but that would not have been the case when the alternative was borderline sickly-sweet, weak, smoothed-out keg bitter. (Inflation of expectations.)

“It tastes like the first time I tasted beer, when I was five, and I dipped my finger in my Dad’s pint,” said Boak.

“It smells like the cold air that used to waft out of the door of Newmarket on a summer afternoon,” said Bailey.

“It’s really… beery.”

Regardless of how it tasted, after a couple of pints, we were ready to dash our mugs to the floor, board longboats and set sail for new lands. Rargh!

Does anyone know of other beers from breweries that opened between 1972 and 1980 which are still on the market?