For most people the name Sharp’s Brewery is associated with Doom Bar beer – one of the UK’s best-selling pints of ale, the likely reason behind the brewery’s success and its sale to Molson Coors (in 2011) for £20m – but there is more to the story, and many more beers, than their most profitable brew.
What started life as a Cornish microbrewery – with a five-barrel kit in a rural part of the north of the county – now occupies a site four times the size of the small warehouse it began in and brews some 220,000 barrels per year (that’s more than 63 million pints).
Visiting the huge, industrial site requires a formal health and safety briefing, which visitors must sign to acknowledge they have received, and the wearing of personal protective equipment (aka PPE) in the shape of high vis’ waistcoat and steel toe-capped safety shoes.
I’m a little disappointed that my visit coincides with construction work to expand the brewhouse (something that will enable brewing to increase from 35 to 49 brews per week – equating to some and extra 130,000 barrels per year) and I only get to peek through the door, but in all honesty unless a brewery has some special historic and/or architectural pedigree the wow factor mostly comes from the sheer size of the fermentation vessels, conditioning tanks and suchlike but also from discovering any systems and special equipment either unique to that brewery or unusual (often as a result of the cost of such equipment). In the case of Sharp’s I am intrigued to hear there is a special hospital grade air filter aimed at keeping air within the brewery as sterile as possible.
At the helm of things – for almost 15 of the 20 years that Sharp’s has been around for – is Stuart Howe. If you are from within the brewing industry, or are in the beery know, his name will be familiar to you as a celebrated career-brewer and an alumni of Herriot Watt’s brewing degree course. He and his beers have been the recipients of countless awards and whenever I hear him spoken of it’s only in the highest of terms (except in my own house where he is mostly known by my stepchildren as ‘that man who made beer with woodlice’.) After the Molson Coors buyout of Sharp’s he was promoted to Head of Craft Brewing and Innovation which could so easily be a meaningless job title but in fact means he not only runs the show in Cornwall but also oversees things at Molson Coor’s two other ‘craft’ breweries, Cork-based Franciscan Wells and Burton’s William Worthington’s Brewery (the latter home of the famed White Shield IPA).
A shame then that despite Stuart’s reputation, obvious skill, passion and integrity it seems as though he is kept Rapunzel-like by Molson Coors and many of his greatest – and most delicious – beers only see the light of day at quantities of a mere 74,000 x 330ml bottles. There are, at least, plans for a new five-barrel pilot brewery – which hopefully will allow more flexing of his creative brewing muscles – but in short if you get the chance to sample one of those limited edition beers, such as the Connoisseurs Choice Range, seize it with both lips.
Six Sharp’s beers that aren’t Doom Bar
As part of my visit to Sharp’s Brewery Stuart Howe treated me to an extensive beer tasting which included Doom Bar. He talked honestly about the way its recipe has been tweaked over the years – in part owing to availability of ingredients and also the fact that
Bill Sharp’s original recipe involved blending two other beers – but says it contains more hops than some of their other ales but they’re simply ‘not as expressive’. For my palate it remains far too malty with the hops utterly speechless rather than not expressing themselves. Luckily I got to try a number of other offerings that I’d be more than happy to drink!
Coaster (3.6%) This orangey, amber-coloured pale ale has a moreish dry, fruity character and features Aurora, Chinook and Citra hops – making it a modern, craft beer if ever there was one.
Atlantic (4.2%) Brassy amber with a loose white head, there’s a slightly cannabis-like aroma to this beer (remember hops and cannabis plants are related!). Soft apricot flavour with a chewy, malty aftertaste.
Special (5%) A rich, strong bitter with chocolatey notes, a dry, fruitcake character and a hoppy finish (including help from Citra and Simcoe) balanced with a biscuitty aftertaste.
Doom Bar Reserve 20 (6%) Brewed for this year’s 20th Anniversary of Sharp’s Brewery this is a rich, fruity tangily dry ale in the mould of strong fruity numbers like Adnams Broadside. Dry-hopped with Target, it pairs brilliantly with aged Cheddar cheese.
Connoisseur’s Choice Single Brew Reserve 2013 (4.5%) Brewed with a hop called Premiant considered to be akin to ‘Saaz on steroids’ the resulting beer is superbly drinkable. An enticing apricot aroma follows through to the taste in a brew that is tinglingly fuzzy rather than zesty.
Connoisseur’s Choice 6 Vintage Blend (7.4%) A glowing copper-coloured brew perfect for the winter months this is rather too drinkable for its ABV! Banana, sherry and fruitcake come through in the aroma. The sweetness of the beer is restrained but dried fruit and brown sugar are the dominant flavours followed by a tangy finish.
Find more details and other Sharp’s beers at: http://www.sharpsbrewery.co.uk