In my drinking youth, I spent a few years living in the south west. We’re talking Devon not New Mexico here, as such it was a landscape of verdant rolling hills, cream teas, bleak windswept moors and tors with outstanding free houses, often looked away in a leafy hamlet. The Drewe Arms. The Well House. The Bridge and Lighter at Topsham, the Warren House Inn, The Turf Locks – a tiny but representative sample. Back home in the North West, the pubs had been industrialised in comparison – owned by the big (or big regional) brewing groups, and for the most part lacking the individual quirks of the pubs down on the peninsular. It’s the same today, (relatively) economically backward, but much further ahead in terms of freehouses and regional ale choices on offer. Cornwall, in fact, has leapt forward, with more cask and craft breweries than it’s ever had, and Devon is moving that way too.
In the ’90s, the pubs were often better than the beer. As students, we raved about the Beer Engine at Newton St Cyres but it was a fair old drag to get there and the rewards were often ropey. Truth was, the big brewers had the most interesting cask choices: Bass was widespread and consistent, damn fine in Ye Olde Shippe off Exeter’s Cathedral Close and The Bridge; Director’s back then was strong and winey, with a really pronounced floral hop character: the drink of choice in The Jolly Porter (at least if you weren’t on Snakebites) and the Turf, and Flowers Original was good – hoppily so at The Drewe Arms (a Whitbread pub at the time). Occasionally 6X would crop up, or perhaps Adnams Broadside. The Double Locks, as popular with the horsey set back then as it is today, could still be relied for some interesting local choices, including Otter which had just started up, or Butcombe from over the county line.
Yet ironically, the beers from the local regionals were woeful. St Austell had a great pub estate but the beers… whsssh. They were all three letter acronyms like ‘PMT’ and ‘WTF’. These were the days when filling the brewery was more important that what came out. I seem to recall that brands like ‘Tinner’s Ale’ and ‘Dartmoor Best’ (read: ‘Worst’) were the fruit of their loins at the time and to be avoided. Nearby Usher’s brewery was uncreatively known as ‘Gushers’, putting the Burton ‘Snatch’ to shame with it’s sulphurous egginess, only that, unlike the Burton beers, it shouldn’t have been there. And there was Hall & Woodhouse, less common in those parts and awfully tangled up over Tanglefoot, which was pleasant enough when kept well, but otherwise (and generally) a fine gut turner.
Not so today. These boys have pulled their socks right up. You’re as likely in Staffordshire today to find St Austell ‘Tribute’ as you are Pedigree (I’m sure the stats won’t bear me out on this, but you get the point). It’s a fine pale ale, with a hop forward sweetness that is rewarding and potently drinkable. I seem to recall reading that it was first brewed in celebration of the Solar Eclipse (the one the clouds spoilt) but elsewhere I’d heard that it was actually one of the old three letter acronym (‘TLA’?) beers modified, given a spine, beef upped and generally brewed consistently. As for Hall & Woodhouse, what a transformation. I briefly worked with their brewer Toby Heasman when he was at Bass and whatever training he got there he’s put to good use. Of all the beer joints in all the world, a Travelodge would not rate as one you would want to walk into. But there, in Blackpool, did I enjoy a minor revelation. Faced with a draught beer selection of Stella Fatois, Budwiener and Drossingtons, eyes turned to the fridge. Perhaps a sneaky Budvar? Maybe a Leffe wouldn’t be too much to ask? But lo! Two bottles of Fuller’s London Pride and some Badger ‘Fursty Ferret’ wiped the worried brow. And, my, it was grand. Beautifully balanced – albeit on the malty side, with a pronounced citrus aroma and bite; even my granddad would have enjoyed it, proud northerner though he was: ‘It were a graidely pint and you conner say diff’rent’. Ironic that in Lancashire, fabled land of flat caps, whippets and ferret-legging, I should find a ferret of a different kind and a southern beer should have infiltrated these stoically northern climes.
© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014