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How I Created … St Austell Tribute

St Austell Tribute
by Roger Ryman

Back in the late 1990s, I was employed as assistant brewer at Maclay & Co in the Scottish brewing town of Alloa. It was an interesting time.

Roger RymanScottish beer had, for a period during the keg revolution of the 1970s, become dire. In the late 1980s, however, green shoots began to show when Russell Sharp purchased the old Lorimer & Clarke’s brewery in Edinburgh and started trading as Caledonian Brewery.

Caledonian spearheaded the Scottish cask beer revival and, alongside the classically Scottish 70/- and 80/-, introduced a new light, golden and hoppy IPA under the name of another closed Edinburgh Brewery, Deuchars.

This new brew was a game changer. When I joined Maclay’s as a young brewer, Deuchars reigned supreme in Scotland. It was the ‘must stock’ beer on every bar.

Around this time, we were also seeing the emergence of a new breed of artisan brewer in Scotland. Bruce and Scott Williams approached Maclay’s to brew their range of historically-researched beers with indigenous Scottish ingredients such as heather, bog myrtle, spruce tips and grozets (gooseberries).

Meanwhile, in old farm buildings in the village of Dollar, a former Dagenham car salesman was starting to produce some fresh golden ale with distinctive hop characteristics.

Ken Brooker, at Harviestoun, was one of the first to use imported hop varieties from the US, and he inspired me to introduce the likes of Liberty, Mount Hood and Cascade into the range of seasonal beers that we brewed at Maclay's.

As an ambitious young brewer, I always knew that if I was to develop my career, one day I would have to relocate. As a northern man, I always treated the British Isles south of the M62 with suitable suspicion so, when a head brewer vacancy was advertised at St Austell in distant Cornwall, I was excited to have the opportunity to fulfil my ambition, but cautious of the location in Britain’s deep south.

Brewing Revival

Like Scotland, Cornwall had been undergoing a brewing revival. The old status quo of Devenish and St Austell had been broken, and entrepreneurs such as Bill Sharp and Steve Skinner had set up microbreweries that were chipping away at St Austell's free trade.

In particular, everyone seemed very excited about a new beer from Sharp's. Bill had blended his 3.6% Cornish Coaster with 4.4% Sharp's Own to produce a beer he named after the famous Doom Bar sandbank at the mouth of the Camel estuary.

The directors at St Austell had identified this new threat and realised that, for the brewery to prosper, St Austell too would have to evolve to develop new, contemporary beers that were relevant to the modern consumer.

I took the 600-mile journey south and started work at St Austell on 6 April 1999. On my first day, I was shown in the direction of the brewhouse and asked simply to ‘produce something new’. This was a refreshing approach, as many head brewers join family companies under the firm instruction that they must do nothing that affects a cherished beer brand.

My first project was to brew a seasonal ale for the upcoming solar eclipse that would track over Cornwall. My predecessor at St Austell, Andrew McClure, with his typically dry sense of humour, had come up with the name for the beer – Daylight Robbery – but it was my task to come up with the recipe.

I considered my first duty to be to establish exactly what type of beers our Cornish competitors were producing. I had never previously drunk St Austell beer, and had never had the pleasure of drinking Doom Bar.

Judging by all the excitement, I anticipated that this would be a golden, hoppy ale similar to the new generation of golden ales which had swept across the bars of Scotland in the wake of Deuchars.

I was actually quite surprised to find that this beer was in fact quite a traditional, mid-brown, malty-caramel bitter, albeit with an enticing fruity aroma. However, it was probably a better beer than the offerings at that time from St Austell – three beers, all parti-gyled off one brew.

Of the three – Boson’s Bitter (3%), Tinner’s Ale (3.7%) and Hick’s Special Draught (5%) – only Hick’s, known locally as HSD, had any depth of flavour or character. The rest were thin, sharp, over attenuated, under hopped and generally uninteresting.

Clear Opportunity

The opportunity therefore was clear. St Austell lacked a beer between 3.7 and 5%, and Cornwall lacked a contemporary golden ale that was clean, bright, balanced and characterised by generous late hopping with fruity aromatic varieties.

I was keen to make my mark and brew something that was the polar opposite of the other beers coming out of the brewery. It was to be paler in colour, fuller of palate, more balanced, softer and cleaner, with moderate bitterness and aromatic late hopping delivered by a blend of the US variety Willamette and my personal favourite hop, Styrian Golding from Slovenia.

The choice of barley variety is the bedrock of my brewing principles and Maris Otter, in my opinion, delivers the depth and structure that produce some of the world’s greatest beers.

Its future cultivation has been threatened and, to assure that the variety continues to be available, we have set up a partnership with a small group of dedicated Cornish farmers. These farmers grow Maris Otter specifically for St Austell under contracts that are fair and sustainable.

We used Maris Otter in Daylight Robbery. The day we first mashed it at St Austell, the smell of the whole brewhouse changed to bring back memories of brewing with Maris Otter at Maclay's.

If a barley variety can have such a distinctive effect on the smell of the mash and the taste of the wort during brewing, then I am sure that it is significant in the flavour of the finished beer.

We also used our own special malt called Cornish Gold, which was developed as a joint venture between myself and Richard Wheeler at Tucker’s Maltings. We set out to develop a malt that was more intense in terms of colour and flavour than pale ale malt.

By increasing the moisture during steeping, germinating for an extra day on the floor and including a period of ‘stewing’ on the kiln, for which the fans are turned off and the malt is left to rest for several hours at high temperatures before curing, we developed a malt that gave the beer a burnished gold colour and a rich, full, malty balance against the fruity aroma hops.

Overnight Success

The story of how Daylight Robbery became an overnight success, eventually to be taken in as a core brand and renamed Tribute on the occasion of St Austell Brewery’s 150th anniversary in 2001, is well told.

St Austell TributeI have no need to elaborate other than to say that when I brewed the first trial, just three weeks after I joined the company, I could not in my wildest dreams have forecast that the beer would grow to lead such a startling revival in the fortunes of St Austell.

At the end of 2013, Tribute accounted for over 60,000 barrels from a total brewery production just above 86,000 barrels. In contrast, the brewery produced just 15,000 barrels in total in 1999.

Tribute remains for me one of my favourite cask-conditioned beers. In the fifteen years since the first brew, the beer market has evolved to encompass a new generation of platinum-gold hop bombs and IPAs.

Willamette is considered to be pedestrian amongst American hops as brewers clamour for the latest sexy varieties such as Citra, Simcoe or Mosaic. But Tribute, in my opinion, exhibits that perfect British quality of balance, a beautifully constructed pale ale, flavoursome yet drinkable without being extreme.

The beer has been on a journey from microbrew to a nationally-distributed cask ale brand but continues to be brewed with the same passion and core values that make this a beer of which I am truly proud.

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