From the wilds of Bodmin Moor to the jagged cliffs of Lizard Point, Cornwall’s geography is as varied as it is spectacular. But what of its pub and brewery landscape?
Recently returned from a week in the Southwest – a week of scenic walks, the obligatory pasty, and great local beer in some great pubs, one of which inspired a classic of modern gothic literature – I wondered what our trip had taught me about the current state of Cornish brewing.
The breweriesThere are, arguably, two big names in the Cornwall pub industry – the 150-year-old grande dame, St Austell Brewery, and the (relatively) young upstart, Sharp’s – but Cornwall also boasts the greatest number of breweries per head in the UK (as at 2017 at least), and there are many smaller concerns making significant waves.
The big hitters
Sharp’s was founded by Bill Sharp in 1994. Beginning as a microbrewery, its first brew was Sharp’s Own – soon to be known as Sharp's Original – a malty, traditional English ale. But it was its award-winning Doom Bar that fast became its biggest seller. Atlantic, Wolf Rock and Sea Fury followed: a pale, a red IPA and a special bitter respectively.
Then, in 2011, came the acquisition of Sharp’s by Molson Coors. Doom Bar became ubiquitous overnight (or so it seems now), rising to become the highest-selling cask ale in Britain, to be found at sporting events and festivals throughout the country. So far, so good for ale lovers, then? Possibly not.
There was a feeling in certain quarters that the buying-up of Sharp’s amounted to... well, a selling out. A viewpoint given weight but the brewery's decision, in 2018, to trial a chilled version of Doom Bar – anathema to the ale drinking purists and lovers of a tepid beer of which I count myself a part – and demonstrative of a firm seeking to capture a younger (dare I say trendier?) market. Follow this with the arrival of Atlantic on keg (a poor translation from the cask even for Atlantic stalwarts) and the old guard were up in arms.
Lurking quietly in the background meanwhile, and watching all this unfold, was St Austell Brewery.
Founded in 1851, the brewery has been quietly going about its business ever since, priding itself on being ‘100% independent and family-owned’. Brewery founder, Walter Hicks, bought the lease to the company’s first pub, the Seven Stars in St Austell, back in 1863 and the company continues to buy up pubs in the Southwest of England to this day. It now owns some 170 across Devon and Cornwall, and more recently into Dorset (not to mention the purchase of Bath Ales, acquired in 2016). In 1999 its signature ale, the award-winning pale, Tribute, was born. Beginning life as a one-off brew named Daylight Robbery, it proved so popular it was quickly rebranded and the rest, as they say, is lightly-hopped history.
Finding myself in this neck of the woods, I felt it incumbent on me to visit some of St Austell’s pubs and I found much to admire in all of them. At the Pier House Hotel in Charlestown, for example, I encountered the seasonal Liquid Sunshine, a refreshing, golden session ale coming in at a forgiving 3.9%. Hoppy, zesty and refreshing, it was the perfect accompaniment to our afternoon on the sun terrace admiring Charlestown’s resident tall ships.
In the small fishing village of Mevagissey, on the other hand, I visited the Ship and the Fountain, reacquainting myself with Tribute, HSD, and surely their current stand-out drop, Proper Job, an American-hopped, 4.5% Cornish IPA and multi-award winner. (It was also in Mevagissey that we were given the names of the owners of Padstow Brewery and urged to seek them out, but more on that later.)
And then, in Padstow, I got my first taste of the brewery’s #smallbatchbrews. At the London Inn, I tasted the 4.8% Trident, a full-bodied IPA with herbal and orange-citrus tones, and a back note of chilli. It proved dangerously moreish and I only wish I could’ve sniffed out more of these limited-edition efforts.
In at three...
Finally, if there’s a third Cornish big hitter, then it just might be Skinner’s Brewery. Entrenched in local myth and folklore their Cornish Knocker was the beer that started the ball rolling when the brewery was founded in 1997. It was followed by the ‘brazen Cornish bitter’ and former CAMRA Britain’s Best Bitter winner, Betty Stogs, and the brewery hasn’t looked back.
I managed to source myself a pint of Cornish Knocker early in the trip and it’s a beautiful golden ale. Inventive and irreverent – clearly not taking themselves too seriously despite the quality of their output – perhaps the tasting notes from the brewery's own website sum the beer up best:
“…delicate floral hops trails citrus with a slight pine bitterness and leaves you with a mild biscuit taste (posh ones, not your average digestive). A perfect pairing for shellfish, Thai dishes or a double cheeseburger with fries.”
Eloquently put indeed.
It rained while we were in Mevagissey. A lot.
Between dodging downpours along the harbour front and through its tightly-packed streets, we sensibly took refuge in the village's public houses and, as often happens, got talking to a string of interesting people.
We learned of the late Keith Floyd’s closing time contingencies, the precariousness of life as a captive lobster, and in conversation with Airbnb host Kev, of Padstow Brewery. Or specifically, Padstow Brewery's Tasting Room and shop, situated in the heart of its namesake town.
The newest brewery to get a mention in this rundown, Padstow Brewery has only been with us since 2013. Armed with owner’s Des and Caron’s names and having been urged to introduce ourselves on arrival, they were clearly so friendly and welcoming to everyone – and clearly so passionate about their business – that it didn't seem necessary and instead, we let their beer do the talking.First up was Padstow Pale. Coming in at only 3.6% it is, to my mind, slightly lacking in clout but the Windjammer copper ale (4.5%) is very drinkable indeed. So too the 4.8% Padstow IPA. Best of all though is the aptly-named Pocket Rocket, a serious hit of American hops crammed into a 4% session pale. Zingy and fresh, it's the one I came home raving about and certainly one I'd seek out in future.
A quick internet search confirms there are currently 39 breweries operating in Cornwall. On the evidence of my beer- and fun-filled trip, the ale-loving locals, not to mention its visiting tourists, are in safe hands indeed. As we headed for home, there was time for one final pub.
Last night I dreamt I went to Jamaica Inn again...
On a ‘cold grey day in November’ a ‘creaking, swaying coach’ reaches the town of Bodmin, where – unburdened of all but one of its passengers – a young traveller is left ‘alone… with the wind and the rain, and twelve long miles of barren moor between her and her destination.’
Such is young Mary Yellan’s journey at the beginning of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, a tale of smuggling and murder set amidst the wild ruggedness of 19th century Bodmin Moor, with the eponymous inn at its heart. Today, halfway between Bodmin and Launceston, a brown tourist information sign beside the A30's dual-carriageway signals the establishment, home to a pub/restaurant, as well as a gift shop and du Maurier museum. But what of the pub itself?
Built in 1750, the former coaching inn has its fair share of history even prior to du Maurier’s 1930 novel (the book itself is set in 1820). And, if you can ignore the carpark crammed with tourist coaches, the front elevation – with its wide cobbled courtyard – is still impressive; the clopping of hooves and the creaking of that long-ago cart almost audible above the blustering wind.
If the pub wears its near 270-years of history proudly on its exterior sleeve, then it positively exudes it inside. It’s everything a pub interior should be: low-ceilinged, bare-stoned and timber-beamed with large open fireplaces and a labyrinth of smaller rooms leading from the main bar off into the shadows.
Bypassing said bar for now (sadly, I’m driving) and heading instead into the gloom, a lighted area catches my eye, closer inspection revealing a diorama and accompanying ‘Photo Opportunity’ chalkboard. It seems jarringly inauthentic in any number of ways, but what’s a pub and literature enthusiast to do?
Photo opportunity duly taken, the problems only continue as I move on. The pub is packed (so far so good) and they’re doing a roaring trade in classic pub fare. But clearly the 18th-century confines of the building have proved insufficient to house the flocks of modern-day visitors and the canteen sprawl of the pub’s restaurant area feels out of keeping.
I understand the business need of course. The pub's location alone means it’s never going to be a wet-led pub (even I'm unable to report on the establishments own Jamaica Inn ale) and the customer numbers certainly speak volumes: the pub is doing exactly what it needs to do to survive. I just can't help but find it... unsympathetic.
That's not to suggest either, that I think the pub should’ve remained unchanged from the already century-out-of-date version in Jamaica Inn... just that the mental torture of the book's young protagonist and the general atmosphere of perilous horror sits uncomfortably beside the ‘I ♥ Cornwall’ tea towels and sticks of rock on display in the gift shop.
Back outside, attached to the pub but entered through the courtyard area, is the Daphne du Maurier museum, half history of the author herself (complete with the writing desk at which she completed some of her most famous works), half history of Cornish smuggling. And I’m a sucker for a museum.
The smuggling artefacts and associated stories are fascinating; the lengths to which smugglers went in order to conceal their contraband evident in the opium-filled shoe heels, hollowed-out bibles and in one case, the wall-mounted tortoise that sailed the seven seas for decades, transporting untold amounts of illegal narcotics within its ornate shell. The museum is small, but so is the fee, and as a background to the world of Jamaica Inn it’s worth the money.
Of the Daphne du Maurier half of the museum, the photographs, letters and artefacts gathered behind the glass wall of the mock writing room are all fascinating, but none more so than an article taken from the Western Morning News of September 28, 1989, written to coincide with the release of du Maurier’s final book, Rule Britannia, released five months after her death. The novel sees Cornwall occupied by American armed forces and the article quotes from an American character in the book:
“Why, the whole west coast from North Wales to Cornwall here can be developed as one vast leisureland. With the good Welsh folks dressed in their costumes, tall hats and cloaks, serving potato-cakes to the tourists from the states… the same in Cornwall.’
Interpreted as a warning from the author about the future of her beloved county it seems strange to find it on display here, at Jamaica Inn, a pub made famous by her novel and now a manifestation of those same fears: a kitsch ‘attraction’ of mannequins dressed like the Cornish equivalent of the ‘good Welsh folks’ of her fictional American. Having said which, in the current climate of escalating pub closures, it’s heart-warming to see a pub of this size so busy, the number of people eating, and milling about in the gift shop and museum, a testament to its success.
But I also can’t help feeling that it’s lost something of what had people clamouring here in the first place. The shadowy history and atmosphere of this fascinating old building – still evident in isolated snapshots – now, in the rush to pack diners into its own du Maurier-themed ‘leisureland’, has become diluted, the overall impression no longer quite so special.
It’s said that you’re never more than 16 miles from the sea in Cornwall and you’d be hard-pressed too, to travel anywhere near that distance without bumping into a pub. With its brewery landscape in fine health (from its elder statesmen to its young pups), and a characterful mix of free houses and tied pubs, the anecdotal evidence points to a warm Cornish welcome and some truly great beer in every one.