The West Country area of England is best known for the quality of its cider, which has earned global fame, and while it is true that counties such as Somerset have always been associated with the golden nectar produced from English apples, the West Country as a whole also has a proud tradition of beer making, that has received a new boost with the rise of the artisanal beer sector.
In fact, some of the towns in this part of the world have beer making traditions that can rival the likes of Burton and Masham for their links with beer production.
St Austell, in Cornwall, often described as the heart of the Cornish Riviera, is one example of a thriving beer making town in this part of the world. An old market town that was first put on the map by the discovery of China clay in the surrounding countryside, it has also become famous for the nearby Eden Project, which attracts thousands of tourists every year. But St Austell is also home to the St Austell Brewery, which holds the distinction of being Cornwall’s oldest family brewery, where beer has been brewed on the same site for more than 100 years.
Another West Country county, Wiltshire is home to two towns with strong beer making heritages. Devizes is a thriving market town that offers a wealth of historical and architectural interest, and the Wadworth Brewery rates as one of its main attractions. Cricklade, in north Wiltshire, is another example of old beer marking tradition, featuring a pub, the Red Lion Inn, that dates back to the 1600s, and which now produces its own range of in-house beers.
Not only does the West Country boast a proud beer making tradition, but it has also been prominent in the rise of artisanal brewing over the last 20 years. Cornwall has been one of the most renowned beer producers, thanks to brewers such as Sharp’s, whose Doom Bar bitter has won national fame. St Austell, Skinners, Keltek, Harbour, Black Flag and Firebrand are just some of the new beer names that have been putting Cornwall on the map.
But while Cornwall has grabbed the headlines, the rest of the West Country has not been left behind. Devon offers a number of high quality brewers, including Dartmoor, Hunter’s and Otter, along with a host of microbreweries, while Dorset and Wiltshire are home to a mix of long established and up-and-coming breweries that are successful combining modernity and tradition.
Clearly, there is more to the West Country than cider, scones and beaches! To help you explore the world of West Country beer, here are ten of the best local beers to sample:
West Coast Session IPA – Firebrand
Session IPA is a style that is much in demand, and it is a popular one with brewers as it gives them the chance to utilize its preferred hops without creating beers that are too intimidating for the modern drinker. Based in Launceston, Firebrand are one of the finest proponents of this style and their West Coast Session IPA, produced with Mosaic and Equinox hops, is full of fruit, providing a flavour of lime and other tropical hints, along with a powerful burst of bitterness.
Tally Ho! – Palmers
This is a full-bodied, chestnut-brown beer that was first created in 1949 and offers a maturity of flavour that make it one of the most notable examples of the so-called ‘old ale’ style. This is a complex and rewarding beer, offering an array of flavours, including oak, dried fruits, caramel and festive spice, thanks to the abundance of rich, roasted malts that also help to provide a rich, boozy quality, and there is a pleasing piercing bitterness with a dash of pepper.
Avocet – Exeter Brewery
This is the perfect beer for anyone who is looking for a change from strong hop-heavy beers. It’s a very pale golden ale, which offers light touches of lemon and honey along with the refreshing qualities of a dry, subtle bitterness. A light and simple beer, produced entirely from organic ingredients, Avocet is a rare delight and one that can be appreciate by all beer drinkers.
Eureka – St Austell
St Austell has been one of the leading lights of the West Country beer scene for years, thanks to the success of beers such as Tribute and Proper Job, and this is another of their success stories. It began life as one their small batch series of experimental brews, but has developed into one of their main products. It features the new Eureka hop, which provides abundant citrus, currant and herb flavours to supplement the amber malt body.
Headband – Verdant
One of the newer stars in the Cornwall beer making firmament, Verdant has earned an impressive reputation and this striking product, supplied in a bright, almost psychedelic can, is a good representation of their style. This is a modern American Pale Ale, packed with pineapple and mango hop flavours, along with a grassy bitterness and a sweet touch to the malt base helps to accentuate the delicious fruitiness.
Otter Ale – Otter Brewery
This Devon brew may not seem as modern as some of the new style beers that have dominated the modern market, but this brown English bitter has a delightful easy going charm. It is slightly sweet, with a toasty edge and a deep, fruity malt flavour. Grain leads the way rather than hops and the result is an earthy, rustic bitterness that provides a well rounded and satisfying drink.
Nettle IPA – Gyle 59
Gyle 59 is one of Dorset’s best brewers. Their range of beers is exceptional, combining tradition with innovation, but are less well-known the further north you travel. This nettle IPA is one of its more unusual products. It is a light, crisp IPA with the hoppy bitterness leaning towards a pine and herbal flavour. Adding nettle tips to the brewing process provides an unusual twist, and while the nettle flavour isn’t obvious, the taste of this fascinating beer is distinctive.
American Adventure – Badger Beers
Produced by Hall and Woodhouse, a family business with a few hundred years of brewing under its belt the range of Badger beers are brewed along traditional lines. This beer has a familiarly sweet, bready grain and peachy fragrance that is common to many of their lighter beers and is a good example of the brewery embracing contemporary beer trends thanks to more dominant hopping from US varieties that produce juicy orange and spicy bitterness while maintaining familiar Badger flavours. Overall, this is a great mix of tradition and the new beer world.
Session IPA – Harbour
Harbour is another Cornish brewery with a growing nationwide reputation thanks to its exciting range of modern ales, many of which are bold flavoured limited editions. This Session IPA is one of their gentler beers, offering a fresh hop taste but with less intensity than many of its contemporaries. There is only moderate bitterness and zingy grapefruit flavour that presents a subtle rather than overpowering experience, and this well made beer has wide appeal.
Pennycomequick – Skinners
Launched in 1997, Skinners has become one of the most popular of modern West Country brewers, partly thanks to its innovative promotions and well designed packaging. Based in Truro, they have made a mark with the hugely popular bitters Cornish Knocker and Betty Stogs, but they have plenty of other beers to offer, including this dark stout. It’s not a thick and heavy stout in the traditional mould, but more of a dark roasted ale that provides a sweet toffee and coffee flavour. There is also a pleasing fruitiness and a low bitterness leading to a smoky dry finish.