Those of you that have noticed the unrelenting march eastwards of the Cornish ale Doom Bar might not be surprised to hear that its brewer (Sharp’s) has been sold to Molson Coors. You might, however, gasp a little at the £20 million it sold for. The price tag demonstrates that the business of real ale isn’t to be sniffed at, but when that sort of money is changing hands I can’t help but worry about the future quality of the beer – in a world that places profit before almost everything else. But maybe I’m just a cynic.
Industry reaction has been to cautiously welcome the news, but fears have been raised for Cornish jobs – not to mention the future of Sharp’s other ales – especially if the new owners decided to move the brewery from its home at Rock on the north Cornwall coast. I suppose only time will tell, but I’m sure you can expect to find Doom in even more pubs than you do now.
On a somewhat lighter note, the news about Sharp’s coincides with a piece I wrote for Cornwall Today magazine about the county’s ales. Grab a copy of the March issue to read how Sharp’s came this far and about Cornwall’s other marvellous ales – somewhat overshadowed by their more commercially successful cousin.
My word limit for the piece meant that I wasn’t able to include the opinions of real ale drinkers about what they love – and hate – about Cornish beer, so I’ll take the opportunity to do so here.
Much as people will tell you that Guinness in Dublin tastes better than it does in the UK (a subject that I’ll not get into today!) there seems to be a view that Cornish ale tastes better in the Westcountry than up country. Spud Murphy, who lives in South Devon, says he’s a fan of St Austell Brewery’s flagship beer, but felt it was affected by the aforementioned Guinness Syndrome: “Tribute is an excellent session pint, although I don’t think it travels very well. I feel the same about Doom Bar, an excellent pint, but far better in the South West.”
But Rob Wain, a publican from Cambridgeshire, says: “There is no such thing as a beer that doesn’t travel well – think back to the original IPAs – brewed to be SHIPPED to INDIA! You actually have to work quite hard to spoil a beer.”
Pat Wright, from Newcastle Under Lyme is also a fan of Tribute when he’s in Cornwall. “The Tribute at The Blue Peter at Polperro was one of the best pints I’ve had in ages. It tasted lovely but went down a bit too easily and led to a wobbly walk back to the campsite at closing time. ‘Didn’t stop me going back for more the following night though.”
Dave Jones from Plymouth is mostly a Guinness drinker, but also enjoys Cornish ales, especially when he’s away from the area. “I tend to look out for Cornish ales when I’m out of the South West and Guinness is unavailable because I know I’m going to get a very decent pint,” he told me.
Cornish natives are justly proud of the beers Cornwall has to offer, but can find themselves spoiled for choice. Rachael Pine is originally from Falmouth. She says: “I always experience that buzz of anticipation and excitement when entering a decent pub, what beer will they have for me to choose from? Will I go for truly local – I live in Devon, or will I go for local to my heart – meaning Cornish.
“This decision’s easy when I walk to the bar and they have Skinner’s, of pretty much any variety, but having lived in Devon for the last ten years I’ve become very fond of local beers, like O’Hanlon’s Yellowhammer and Otter Bright.”
But Rachael adds that her ‘first choice’ is Skinner’s. “I get a buzz every time I drive near the place in Truro! It’s good beer that tastes excellent and it holds very special memories for me. It’s always a great moment when I can get hold of a pint or two in a pub in Devon.”
I’m rather partial to a pint of Heligan Honey myself and, like Spud and Pat, also enjoy a pint of Tribute. I like Doom Bar too, but have also found that some pubs serve it better than others (which is probably true of any beer). My favourite Cornish beer though, indeed one of my favourite beers in general, is the bottle conditioned gem brewed by St Austell, Clouded Yellow.
St Austell Head Brewer, Roger Ryman explained the beer’s history: “It was actually a competition winner some years ago and was initially exclusive to Tesco.”
He also told me that not everyone loves it as much as I do. “It’s a bit of a Marmite of a beer, because inevitably the more a beer moves from the mainstream, the more it will polarise opinion. Clouded Yellow’s got quite a unique flavour, it’s quite different, but that forces opinion, so you’ll find customers who love it and equally you’ll find those it doesn’t appeal to.”
For those that don’t know it, Clouded Yellow is a vanilla flavoured wheat beer. It is very sweet and I think it goes well with curry or Thai food, but maybe it’s more of a woman’s beer (my Lord!)?
“I think to a degree it is,” says Roger, “Which is actually a huge opportunity because the whole female market is ultimately is 50% of the population.”
Whether you opt for a bottle of Clouded Yellow, some Doom Bar, Tribute, a pint of Skinner’s, or something from one of the county’s many microbreweries be in no doubt that Cornwall is well and truly on the real ale map. Overlook Cornish beer and you’ll be missing out big time.