Lost Blogs #2: Life at the Sharp End

Beer Tinted Spectacles was originally posted to Posterous, which closed suddenly and made life irritating for a while. Some of the blogs were lost, recently found and are republished here.

1998, and an American road trip to remember. From San Francisco across to Napa; through the winelands to Calistoga; then up and over, via the Petrified Forest Road to Petaluma and down, down by way of Big Sur to SoCal and San Diego. It was like ‘Sideways’ only with more of the bine not the vine, and markedly less shagging of dusky skinned Harley-riding waitresses.  Oh, and all in a Chrysler Neon. It was my first experience of liberal California – and what struck me was the scale, the brown-ness (we Brits forget how lush and green our island is) and how, to me surprisingly, how unselfishly self-centred and self-sufficient it felt – kind of cut-off from the rest of the US, even though this clearly isn’t the case. It was the Californian flag that flew; it was pride in Californian ingredients and products that was displayed foremost. The brewpubs we went to were impressive and inspiring, even back then, but it was the independent shops, from food stores, to bespoke T shirt stands, from boutique coffee to thriving independent book shops – and often these things combined – that really landed what a vibrant, innovative economy California was. Viewing through my beer tinted gaze it was obvious back then that something big and beery was going on. Simple pizza restaurants had brewing out back; San Diego had some amazing breweries, bars and brews; San Fran too, even Napa at the entrance to the winelands.

And strangely, the memories came back to me in ripples of déjà vu during a stay in west Cornwall, of all places, recently. And just as in late ‘90s California, in early 2013, it’s clear that our national craft beer revolution is in full swing down at the sharp end. Perhaps – and I have no numbers to back me up here, just a gut feel – perhaps, more so than anywhere else.

When I lived out west, twenty years ago, the beer wasn’t anything to write home about. The big brewers had a presence, Bass in particular was typically served well, so too Courage Director’s and some regional-ish brews from Gibbs Mew, or Eldridge Pope, with Royal Oak being a particular favourite. The south west’s regionals by comparison didn’t put up a good fight – St Austell beers were flaccid and average… and there wasn’t much else outside of The Beer Engine at Newton St Cyres. Yet something was stirring in the world of food and drink – I remember a little cheese shop in Chagford, where I first encountered Cornish Yarg – the same cheese that just 20 years later featured on the national TV break bumpers for Morrisons during Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway! And there were artisan ice cream makers, fruit & cider presses, local bread and crisp makers beginning to crop up all the way down the peninsula.

Within the region, Cornwall always seemed to lag behind – it was almost as is the economy had become so beholden to the tourist Pound that local shopkeepers and producers felt that they should provide the big, well-known brands that the Emmits would recognise and trust. How wrong they were. In fact, the opposite is true – Cornish brands are effecting a reverse brain grab, following the memories of languid Summer days rock pooling, yachting or drinking in a Quayside pub back with them, and building their business success from there. Sharps’ Doom Bar and St Austell’s Tribute being the obvious examples – sprouting up on bars from Tonbridge Wells to Todmorden.   What I hadn’t grasped though was the fecundity of the microbrewers loins in Cornwall – there are breweries popping up all over the Duchy.

I’ve heard Skinners brands described as ‘crass’ – but to a marketeer ‘distinctive’ and ‘consistent’ describe them better and are powerful, desirable epithets. In design terms, Skinners beers do stand out – from Betty Stogs herself, the landlady of the range, to Heligan Honey or the slightly stronger (4.5%) Cornish Knocker. In truth, they do all have a Viz quality about them. Were Skinners to launch a Fat Slags beer, it wouldn’t seem out of character.  But the beers stand muster. Stops is widely available down here and is a good session beer, well balanced with a malt orientation; Heligan Honey is a lovely beer (it’s probably Stogs with some honey added) – too often honey beers are either overly sweet and cloying or underplayed. Here the honey is at the delicate end but noticeable and appealing. Knocker is Stogs on steroids; beefier, maltier, a little more hop aroma too; in the Midlands this would be the session beer and go down well it would too.

In a similar vein, I picked up a bottle of St Ives’ Brewery ‘Boilers’. Again, this is the mainstay in their range at an unsurprising 4%, yet it is a modestly striking beer, almost pulling off a difficult trick – to deliver balance and drinkability but also some character. There’s a rich malty loaf sweetness, a handful of dusty hop biting through and a herbal hoppiness on the nose. I’d push a bit more personally, but its drinkable and beautiful too – a lovely bottle label, inspired by the art scene thereabouts.

And the Pale Ale Counter Reformation continues. Rebel Brewing Company from Penryn do a cracking one – ‘Penryn Pale Ale’, which, despite its modest ABV of 4.3% has a grapefruitiness reminiscent of sauvignon blanc, with a few twangy, tangy citrus notes thrown in – lovely.  ‘Proper Job’ from the St Austell stable is another and consequently widely available in their pubs – which is where I drank one with a platter of fish and chips. I had a bottle as it had sold out on draught: the bottle is stronger (5.5%) and is a cracker: a head, thick with glistening creaminess like a dew covered spiderweb under a microscope; a McVitie’s digestive and elderflower aroma and a vividly golden colour, all bright and backlit. US hops are used – Willamette, Chinook and Cascade – and skilfully so – it’s a delight of a beer. If you want something punchier try ‘Nugget’ from Harbour Brewing, who given close on 300 miles of coastline to choose from, you think would have had the sense to brew by a harbour. But no, they’re in landlocked Bodmin (apparently the owners decided to start their brewery whilst sitting in a harbourside bar). Forgive them this though: Nugget is beautiful presented, with textured matt labels, almost hand-typed in feel demanding molestation. And the beer I drank had a real punch (Refound note: since this blog was written in 2013, Harbour are now more widely available nationally (in Sainsburys for one). They brew a couple of cracking IPAs)

Another landlocked brewery is Wooden Hand, located just off the A30 in Grampound Road an area known for smuggling hideaways. It’s difficult to judge whether Poldark would be happy with their ‘Cornish Gribben’ or not though. On the one hand, both the label and the beer really do sparkle like pirates’ gold; the flavour, all caramel toffee apple notes and a hint of melon, speaks of exotic tastes washed ashore in barrels from distance lands.   But on the other, the Gribben lighthouse featured on the label wards off ships, so no wreckers’ treasure for decorating Demelza’s boudoir this time round and my bottle had a slightly stale aroma.

A postscript: in Falmouth, there’s a run of new shops down near the hugely impressive National Maritime Museum. At the far end there’s a bottle shop that deserves a call out – not just for stocking a beer range as diverse and exciting, as intriguing and as rewarding to browse as a bookshop, but also for having a crack being a specialist licensed retailer when they are distinctly off trend. The guy at The Bottle Bank wrapped the bottles I bought in paper as if they were fine wines of five times the price. But it also brought home the scale of the revolution going on in Cornwall – there were beers from Falmouth on the south coast to Rock on the north; from mine-scarred St Austell to idyllic Scilly, from ghostly Lostwithiel to haunting Lizard. It’s a revolution all the more remarkable given that it’s happening right across food and drink and in chastening economic times. If a roadtrip round the sharp end isn’t enough to keep you away from the Costa Brava this summer, I’m not sure what can.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013