A little corner of paradise

Local boy Adrian Tierney-Jones shares his love for this special corner

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When I first began writing about beer in the Southwest over 20 years ago, most breweries had a best bitter, golden ale and maybe the odd dark beer. Honey beers seemed to be in vogue with some outliers, as were wheat beers. That was it. Meanwhile the area, especially Devon and Cornwall, was a prime draw for wannabe brewery owners, many of whom were attracted by what they saw was a free and easy lifestyle. Sadly, easy access to surfing and nice walks on Dartmoor were not enough to keep a brewery’s lights on — where are the likes of Blackawton, Blewitt’s and Ring o’Bells now? 

However, that was the past. Although compared with the north of England, the region was relatively slow to take part in what we used to call the craft beer revolution, things have changed. Even though it can often feel that the Southwest is drowned in a torrent of Doom Bar and Tribute, it currently has a vibrant and dynamic beer scene featuring juicy hazy pales, lagers based on central European traditions, sours, west coast IPAs, barrel-aged beers and even the odd mild or two. 

It would be difficult to produce a totally comprehensive overview of the Southwest without writing something like a list along the lines of ‘and now we turn to north Devon for so and so’s beers’. In my view what is more important is getting a feel for the beer and brewing culture of the region, even though some favourites might not be mentioned. 

This is not an area that has many family breweries with their roots in the age of Queen Victoria. St Austell is the sole survivor, and, as well as Sharp’s, which is owned by Molsen-Coors, is the dominant force in the area. This was a position that owes a lot to the expertise and brewing skills of the late Roger Ryman who developed Tribute in the early 2000s and then brought this venerable brewery into the 21st century. Even though he sadly died in 2020, his legacy remains and in May 2022 current Brewing Director Georgina Young oversaw the release of Anthem, a pale ale that uses UK hops Olicana, Jester and Harlequin, varieties which are currently attracting the attentions of many British breweries.

PHOTO: Robyn Gilmour

The Southwest certainly has pockets of traditional beer, with the likes of Otter, Butcombe and Bays drawing in the fans, but I would argue that the super-highway of powerful and exciting modern beer in the region travels along a line starting in Falmouth, passing through Crediton and ending up in Bristol with a satellite in Cheltenham. 

Sunny old Falmouth, or to be exact, its next door neighbour Penryn, is home to Verdant, a brewery whose beers I first encountered in a now closed craft beer bar in Exeter in 2015. Along with DEYA in Cheltenham, these two are the Southwest’s prime exponents of hazy, fruity, juice bombs, but that would do them an injustice, as more recently they have also been producing dark beers, lagers and even cask-conditioned bitters. Concerning the latter, DEYA founder Theo Freyne is emphatically enthusiastic about their best bitter, Best Foot Forward: “having become known for modern hazy beers, we wanted to brew some more traditional UK styles. This came about from a love and appreciation of those beers and we like drinking them!”

I shudder when I still recall some of the lagers being produced in the Southwest when I wrote my first book, West Country Ales, in 2002. There is no need for that anymore, especially, as just north of Exeter, Utopian’s approach to making beers from the family of lager is serious and considerate. As well as core beers such as the Czech-style 10˚ pale, British Pilsner and Helles-style Unfiltered, the range features a Doppelbock, a Festbier, and a Vienna. There are two unique things about them: first of all, head brewer Jeremy Swainson uses the decoction mashing system while secondly both malt and hops are British in provenance. 

“We wanted to create something a bit different that had a very clear identity and a certain uniqueness,” Managing Director Richard Archer told me. “When we started planning in 2016, we felt that the world of the IPA was pretty congested with, in my view, quite a lot of ‘me too’ (and all too often not very good) products. It seemed to us at least, that the lager drinker had largely been ignored by the ‘craft beer’ revolution.”

PHOTO: Robyn Gilmour

Many breweries in the area now produce lagers and my recommendations would also include Padstow Pilsner, Powderkeg’s Cut Loose and, naturally, all the beers produced by Bristol’s Lost and Grounded, who like Utopian have made a virtue of lager. 

Bristol is the urban powerhouse of the Southwest and it’s hard to believe that when I first used to drink there in the late 1990s, it was a bit of a desert with Wetherspoons the main place for decent beer. This changed with the foundation of Bristol Beer Factory in the middle of the next decade. The brewery started off with a three-card trick of best bitter, golden ale and premium golden ale, well-made and drinkable. It was a familiar route to market that the majority of British microbreweries then took. However, I believe that it was only with the release of the lusciously creamy Milk Stout in 2006 (for the Bristol Beer Festival, where it won top beer) that the brewery began to take a different path which included such standouts as Independence and Southville Hop. 

The brewery has also acted as a starter, or a nursery even, for a couple of other important Southwest luminaries. When I visited it in 2012, I interviewed the then Business Development Manager Andrew Cooper and brewer Brett Ellis, who went on to create Wild Beer Co in the South Somerset village of Westcombe. Johnny Mills also brewed there before going on to start the eponymous Mills Brewing just outside Berkeley in Gloucestershire, with his specialism being fabulous mixed fermentation beers. Incidentally, back in Somerset Yonder thrives on using foraged and local farmed ingredients, mixed culture fermentation and barrel-ageing and blending. 

PHOTO: Robyn Gilmour

Back in Bristol, during the summer I was at Wiper and True’s newly opened taproom, which was light and airy inside with the stainless steel gleam of the new brewing kit on the other side of a glass partition. On the sunny evening I visited, the outside space was buzzing with the voices of diverse drinkers, young and old, male and female. The beers are rather splendid as well. 

The same sense of everyone being welcome can be discovered at Left Handed Giant’s riverside taproom/brewpub (they also have one at their brewery), a resolutely modern establishment with a post-industrial interior. The beer list is equally modern with plenty of IPAs, lagers and pales. However, on one visit my attention was drawn to We Celebrate, described as a strong ruby mild, which the hosts brewed in collaboration with Edinburgh’s NewBarns Brewery. 

“As part of our 7th birthday celebrations, our brew team chose three of our favourite UK breweries to collaborate with, Track, St Mars of the Desert, and Newbarns,” I was told by brewery co-founder Jack Granger. “We wanted to focus on what we felt were the strengths of each of these breweries for the collaboration beers, and with NewBarns we have always loved their dark beers, and their focus on historical styles and ingredients. The team at NewBarns really enjoyed our Dark Mild and so we thought it made sense to take some inspiration from that beer, and produce a higher ABV Ruby Mild.”

A late starter the Southwest might have been, but now is the time to get on the super highway and start to explore. 

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