When I lived in Sydney, the reason I commuted to work in the CBD everyday from Manly was that I got to live at the beach whilst also being able to work in a thriving modern metropolis – something in the UK I only managed to do by living in Cornwall with a weekly commute to London. Sydney offered the best of all worlds – a livelihood, sun, sea, friends, culture, arts, modernity and opportunity. Nonetheless, I still missed Cornwall, not least because that’s where my kids live. And so I travelled back a couple of weeks ago to my old life, re-live some memories, and see what was happening on the Cornish cult beer scene.
First stop was Sharps brewery – shamefully, in the 15 years I resided about 10 milles away from Sharp’s, this was my first ever visit there. I have long been an appreciator of their Doom Bar – I remember it coming out in the late 1990’s and it was always a toss up in my local pub which beer I would chose: Skinner’s Betty Stogs or Sharp’s Doom Bar. And it’s a brew that has come a long way since its early accidental days when two beers were blended to stumble across what is today Britain’s number one selling cask ale. And after all that, it wasn’t today the Doom Bar that I sampled. Instead I opted to be taken on a culinary expedition that left my senses exhausted but replete. Meet Duncan, my sherpa, who guided me through the giddy terrain of what is undoubtedly the UK’s biggest beer adventure yet, situated in Rock, a stone throw in global terms from the ‘St Austell Himalayas’.
The climb started easily enough – a brief history about Sharp’s (founded in 1994), which was passed to the owners of Dolmio a decade ago but has now been owned by Coors for the past 3 years, who provide the distribution capability that probably helped Doom Bar get to #1.. what’s so amazing is that this is a small brewery that still makes all its produce on site – remarkable they can churn out enough to quench the entire UK thirst. And their head brewer, Stuart, doesn’t just have to volumise his Doom Bar production though – he has also launched into an extraordinarily challenging venture that consumes his every waking hour, diversifying into new frontiers of beer making, exploring unlikely flavours to align to consumers changing demands and expectations. In short, in ,2011 alone, he played with 52 different concoctions (1 per week),even including road kill as well as offal. Finally, though, Stuart and Sharp’s have emerged from their meanderings with their ‘connoisseur’ strategy – all about creating new top-end beers to compete with fine wines, all to be enjoyed at the dining table or in the leather armchair soaking up a roaring fire or lounging around on a warm summers day. No longer just a beer, the end result is proving itself to appeal to both ladies as well as lords, and a new map of British beer is emerging.
Whether they sold the idea to Rick Stein, or whether the persona of Padstow sought out an alternative quaffable condiment for his gastro empire, it’s immaterial – the result of their collaboration is a wonder to behold. The brief for “Calky’s Bite” (named after Rick’s terrier of TV fame) was that Stuart should design an accompaniment for Rick’s signature fish dish – and so the first of the Connoisseur range was born: a supreme light ale that leaves a subtle fennel aftertaste. Served chilled, I did try this one at home as well with some fish & chips, and a glass of fine New Zealand sauvignon blanc was just no match for the bite of Chalky. In fairness, one beer wasn’t quite enough with my dinner that evening, so I followed up with their 2nd collaboration, “Chalky’s Bark”, as company for my cheese and biscuits, which gave an unexpected but most pleasant ginger twist.
I wonder what Bill Sharp, the founder says these days to some of the unusual flavours now appearing? Surely his vision is not so short sited as local estate agent, John Bray, who will surely go down in the annals of history with his ill-fated remark on heating that Bill was going to start a brewery on this undeveloped commercial land: “idiot – it’ll never work.”. Stuart does control himself though – these days he only produces 3 Connoisseur beers per year, which means he can get the detail of each design just right, and so keep a eye on the growth of the cult.
They are all numbered, and I tasted the lot. But I’ll only give you my notes for a few – not that the ones I miss are not worthy of mention, but purely so you can indulge in the discovery yourself. Last month, “6 Vintage Blend” won International Gold at the Taste Awards, a real heavyweight at 7.4% that has one base beer blended with five other beers, full of molasses, it’s an exceptional creamy desert ale that one might enjoy with some Christmas pudding.
No5 Spiced Red definitely goes well with a Jalfrezi or similar curry – i would be careful not to indulge too hastily given its 9% strength, but a civilised sip to wash down your biriyani makes a refreshing change to 5 pints of lager, and it leaves you with coriander seeds on the palate.
Their first Connoisseur offering back in 2011 was No1 Quadrupel Ale – it’s a massive 10%. It’s one of two in the range that you reserve for the after dinner petit fours. It’s porty with chocolate, cherry overtones, and needs to be followed with a nightcap: No 6 Dubbel Coffee Stout, made with two south american coffee beans added at two degrees then submerged… only 7%, it should bring you safely off the mountain for a peaceful night’s sleep. Good night!