The Real Ale Revolution in Cornwall

With Skinner’s Brewery set to export to Canada this year, a new brewery now open near Bodmin and the Driftwood’s brewery in St Agnes already winning Supreme Champion Winter beer of Britain, 2012 is definitely the year of the brown hoppy stuff: Cornish real ale and microbreweries are booming in the face of recession.

It’s a man’s world: the smells, the beards, the brewing kit and the devout following. Growing up with three brothers in the West Country meant I was practically breast-fed on ale. I have learnt to love the wooden floors, the darkened corners and the Tolkien-esque names of brews such as Wild Hare, Speckled Hen, Roughtor, Beast, Otter and of course Cornish Knocker, Betty Stog’s, Doom Bar and Tribute.

The Harbour Brewing Company near Bodmin, which officially opened on 20 January, is part of a countrywide trend that has meant more breweries in the UK right now than at any other time since the end of the second world war. Despite pubs closing and lager sales dropping, real ale is where it’s at: “Mass market bland beer aimed at gaining a market share is not what we are all about. We are all about taste and creativity,” explains Harbour’s Eddie Lofthouse. Seems that drinkers are spurning the chemical brews of Carling and Fosters for the traditional, authentic, local, and let’s face it, natural.

After tea and water, the world’s number three drink was first recorded as a brewed barley ale in 3400BC in Iraq and imported into the UK in 1400 from the Netherlands. Ale drinking is now more of an art and a craft than it ever was. New technology and experimental flavours have elevated it beyond the realm of just beards, your grandad and folk music. Watch out for The Harbour ’s Special range aimed at pushing your taste boundaries, featuring rhubarb, chilli, cassia bark and bog myrtle.

The Skinner family are synonymous with Cornwall, brewing and surfing: from the humble beginnings of one brew a week to today’s magnificent 18, which equates to 7,000 pints, 4,000 litres or one hundred firkins (a firkin being nine gallons) every seven days, the success of the brewery speaks for itself. Terry, brewery production manager and a man infused with an infectious passion for the dark art of beer making, guides me through the alchemy that turns hops, water, yeast and barley into a pint of Betty’s.

The fresh hops are a highlight: Terry rips open a couple of bags and we rub the green, sticky buds in our hands, setting off explosions of citrusy, grassy smells leaving us with oily hands. The close links to nettles and marijuana are clear but not recommended smoking material! The hops arrive from Hereford, Kent, even Slovenia and America.

The use of whole leaf hops works on the same principle that differentiates loose leaf tea from tea bags: superior flavour. At this point Terry explains, “it’s endless if you’re creative”: type of hop, amount, brewing time and onwards into beer geekdom. After three days, fermentation is complete and a Skinner’s ale is born, ready to be transported to the cellar before being shipped out to Cornish and national public houses.

With over 1.3 million female ale drinkers helping to knock back the Betty’s, a figure that has doubled in the past year thanks to CAMRA’s efforts to make ale more appearing to women, seems like it’s not such a man’s world after all.

Cheers then to a very Cornish and, ah, creative pastime; one for the winding lane, one for the revolution. And one for the ladies.

For more on beer trends listen to Radio 4’s The Food Programme: The New Beer Frontier.

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