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”

Dissecting a 1984 Local Beer Guide

What can we learn from the small book Real Ale in Devon published by the local branch of the Campaign for Real Ale in 1984?

Book cover: Real Ale in Devon, 1984.1. It is evi­dence of the increas­ing avail­abil­i­ty of ‘real ale’ in this peri­od. With a hun­dred pages, this vol­ume is as big as the first edi­tion of the nation­al Good Beer Guide, pub­lished ten years ear­li­er. The intro­duc­tion notes a huge boom in the num­ber of ‘real ale out­lets’ since the pre­vi­ous edi­tion, and there 1050 list­ed in total.

2. Beer agen­cies were impor­tant play­ers in the devel­op­ment of a beer geek cul­ture. That is, dis­trib­u­tors (mid­dle men) who brought inter­est­ing out­side beer into the region (Samuel Smith, Wad­worth, Fuller’s, Theak­ston) at a price. Busi­ness­es of this type still exist, notably sup­ply­ing kegged beer to the emerg­ing ‘craft beer’ mar­ket cur­rent­ly neglect­ed, or mis­un­der­stood, by larg­er dis­trib­u­tors.

Vintage Sheppard & Mason beer agency advert.
Note cut-and-paste Letraset fail at bot­tom right… And here’s Mr Shep­pard on Twit­ter.

3. Bass is an hon­orary West Coun­try beer. Since vet­er­an observ­er the Pub Cur­mud­geon point­ed it out to us, we’ve seen lots of evi­dence to sup­port the idea that, beyond Bris­tol, Draught Bass was the tra­di­tion­al ‘pre­mi­um’ alter­na­tive to poor qual­i­ty local­ly brewed beers. This book describes it as ‘one of the com­mon­est real ales in Devon’.

4. It was eas­i­er to get strong dark beer than pale’n’hoppy. There are sev­er­al ‘strong win­ter’ ales list­ed, but noth­ing described as straw/golden coloured. Small brew­ers back then seem to have staked their rep­u­ta­tions on pro­duc­ing heav­ier, head­ier beer than the thin, weak prod­ucts turned out by big brew­ers. Marston’s Owd Roger old ale/barley wine had peo­ple rather excit­ed.

5. There were sev­er­al stand-out exhi­bi­tion pubs. Where most pubs in the guide hada sin­gle real ale on offer (e.g. Whit­bread Bit­ter), sev­er­al leap out of the text with long lists. The Roy­al Inn at Horse­bridge had nine ales, includ­ing some brewed on the premis­es; and the Peter Tavy at, er, Peter Tavy, has four­teen in its list­ing. There are quite a few oth­ers with sim­i­lar num­bers, and many more with six or sev­en.

6. The phrase ‘guest beers’, so impor­tant in the 1990s, was in use by this time. It is the anti­dote to the big brew­ery tied house mod­el and an expres­sion of a cer­tain type of beer geek­ery, per­haps stim­u­lat­ed more by nov­el­ty and vari­ety than a sim­ple ‘decent pint’.

7. We need to think a bit more about cider and its place in the ‘real ale rev­o­lu­tion’. Devon’s CAMRA activists were evi­dent­ly par­tic­u­lar­ly keen to defend and pro­mote ‘real cider’, but, by this stage, seem to have had more suc­cess bring­ing beer from York­shire and Lon­don than in pre­serv­ing the true native drink­ing tra­di­tion.

8. Black­aw­ton was the trendi­est brew­ery in the coun­ty. It was Devon’s first micro­brew­ery, and one of the first in the coun­try, found­ed in 1977. We won­der if the pres­ence of Black­aw­ton beer in a pub wasn’t a kind of Bat Sig­nal for beer geeks, rather as a Mag­ic Rock pump clip is today.

9. If you didn’t like Courage, Ply­mouth was not the city for you. See also: Bris­tol.

(And a per­son­al foot­note: Bailey’s par­ents’ pub in Exeter sold Whit­bread Bit­ter on hand-pump. Described as a ‘Town local’ in the text, it also, sad­ly, fea­tures in the adden­dum: “[The] fol­low­ing pubs should now be delet­ed…”)

We’re very grate­ful to Neil Bow­ness (@neil_bowness) for send­ing us a copy of this book which he tells us his mum bought for 20p at a church fair. Bar­gain!

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.


Memorable Beers #3: Cotleigh, near a shipwreck

MSC Napoli
MSC Napoli, from Flickr Cre­ative Com­mons.

The MSC Napoli was lying wrecked about a mile out to sea when we walked into a pub in Devon after a long walk along the coast.

As we entered, we were con­scious of con­ver­sa­tions dying, and of being weighed up by the locals. Loot­ers had descend­ed on Devon and Dorset that week, scour­ing the the car­go wash­ing up on the beach for tasty items (motor­bikes!); there were police offi­cers around try­ing to deal with the theft; and jour­nal­ists, too, hunt­ing for sto­ries.

We did our best to look like hik­ing-boot-and-anorak real ale types (quite an effort…) and approached the bar with guile­less smiles. We were delight­ed to find Cotleigh Tawny Owl bit­ter on offer after a week choos­ing between Palmer’s, Palmer’s and Palmer’s, in Lyme Reg­is. We retired to a cor­ner to work on our pints.

Even­tu­al­ly, cau­tious con­ver­sa­tion resumed around us.

I got three pairs of train­ers for our Dar­ren.”

Adi­das? Yeah, I got some of them, too. Size five.”

And some T shirts.”

Oh, good.”

Course, it’s got sil­ly now, with all these scousers. One of them nicked my wheely bin, you know.”

Lat­er that week, Bil­ly Bragg, car­ry­ing a toi­let cis­tern, accused us of being loot­ers on Chesil Beach, not far from where he lives. Weird hol­i­day.