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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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.