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  • Rick O'Shay

Moor the Merrier - Four latter day Pilgrims visit Dartmoor Brewery

Our two Real Ale bloggers, Rick and Julian thought their Christmas had come early when the MD of Dartmoor Brewery, Richard Smith kindly invited them to a private exclusive tour of the Brewery with Head Brewer, Ian Cobham. Read about the adventure here.

It is worth noting that when the Mayflower Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, the first permanent building they built was a brewery. Indeed, it could be said that history flows forward in rivers of beer.

Fermentation and civilization are inseparable. And certainly a prized addition to civilisation is the beer produced at The Dartmoor Brewery in Princetown.

It was established by Simon Loveless and Philip Davies in the back of the Prince of Wales pub just down the road from where the present brewery now stands. The first pints of Jail Ale were tasted in 1994 and a little more than 10 years later, the land formerly used as an old railway yard was secured from The Duchy of Cornwall and plans submitted to build the new brewery.

And it was around this brewery that four latter day pilgrims; two bloggers and their designated drivers, were shown by Head Brewer, Ian Cobham. Ian was wonderfully animated and his passion and knowledge of the process shone through every stage.

Real ale is a natural, living product and needs to be cared for in the brewery as well as the cellar by keeping it at the proper temperature to enable it to mature and bring out its full flavours for the customers to enjoy it at its best.

The same ingredients are used today as have been used since monks began the process in the grounds of monasteries and churches, which are hops, yeast, malted barley and water.

Of course there were some items we noticed on our tour that we were puzzled by; a bobble hat and 5 litre containers of black treacle, but we put that down to the eccentricity and quirky charm of the place.

The ingredients at the Dartmoor Brewery are locally sourced where possible and all of it, including the waste products are recycled in the process and end up as animal feed at a local farm.

Firstly we saw where the malted barley is crushed in a mill to access the sugars that, if they were not harvested and malted, they would otherwise have been used to grow the barley plant.

It is the sugar that the brewers need. The grain is crushed lengthwise to open the kernel but not to crush it. This leaves three important parts - the husk, the starch and the flour. It looks like roughened muesli.

In Ian’s words, ‘the whole process is a fight against protein.’

It all sounded quite brutal, so we were relieved to hear that the first stage of the fight against protein was to be fought on a much gentler sounding filter bed - which of course, filtered it out.

In the mash tun, the crushed grain, or grist, is mixed with hot water to create a kind of porridge. Ian called it the ‘enzymatic conversion of starch.’ I think!

A whole shedload of things happen in a mash tun but the most important thing is that it gives the brewer access to the sugars.

Extreme geek alert!! Ian baffled us with science at this point, ‘One amylase enzyme works well at 68 degrees c and the other works well at 63 degrees c - they break down the protein matrix in which the starch is ensconced. Hence we mash in at 64.5 degrees c in order to satisfy both parameters and it takes about 45 minutes and the wort is recirculated through the bed to give clear beer.’

This is ‘the mash,’ after which a process known as “sparging” takes place, where hot water is passed through the grain bed to extract the most from the grain and transfer the mash to a ‘kettle’ which does as the name suggests and boils the wort.

In the boil, the second major ingredient of beer becomes important and hops are added early to give bitterness.

At Dartmoor Brewery, hop pellets are used which are easier to remove at a later stage with a whirlpool action rather like the spin cycle on a washing machine.

Ian said, “The hops have an alpha acid that isomerises in the boil into an iso alpha acid which gives the bitter backbone to the beer. Hops are also added at the end of the boil, not for bitterness, but for aroma and flavour.

The fight against protein continues throughout the boil and we add carrageenan in the copper to help precipitate out the protein.” Sheesh! All this means in plain English is that a stable, sterile and clear wort is sent to the fermenting vessels.

Everything in the brewery in environmentally friendly.

A really clever energy efficient bit is that the wort is cooled down using cold water from a plumbing contra flow system which drops the temperature of the wort to 16 degrees c. This process creates a heat transfer which sends hot water back into the hot liquor tank which is the source of all the hot water used. Liquor is how a brewer refers to water.

Dartmoor Brewery also cares for the environment with ‘cone to cone yeast pitching’ which means they re-use yeast from earlier, finished brews and transfer it from one vessel to the other.

Like every brewery, Dartmoor Brewery yeast is the top secret part of the process, and the original recipe is kept locked in a safe, in a secret location, much like Colonel Sanders secret recipe at KFC!

This whole process generally takes about three days and then a further three days of conditioning on the yeast before the yeast is taken off the beer before it is racked into casks.

Dartmoor Brewery uses local Dartmoor barley from Tim Cox which is malted at Tucker’s Maltings in Newton Abbot. The combination of Dartmoor water, Dartmoor malt, their own strain of yeast and English hops is what makes the beers so special. The control in the process, however, is what makes the beer so consistently good.

Ian went on to show us the new warehouse and barrel cleaning plant, where casks are cleaned with caustic soda and tested for cleanliness by a man with a swab from CSI, or at least that is what he resembles, before they too are re-used.

We then went on to sample four beers, still cloudy, straight from the Fermenting Vessels. This may not sound very appetising but we knew we had to do it so that you, dear reader, could benefit from our selflessness.

We tasted IPA, Jail Ale, Dartmoor Best and Legend and a revelation in their unfinished state, and on this tasting, my least favourite Dartmoor Beer, I.P.A, became my favourite – and my favourite Dartmoor Beer, Jail Ale, became my least favourite.

So a big ‘Thank You’ to the wonderful and entertaining Ian Cobham for showing us around.

You sir, were like the Gordon Ramsey of Brewing, the Professor Brian Cox of Chemistry and Biology. You were passionate, enthusiastic and knowledgeable – and hugely entertaining.

To me, Dartmoor Brewery is the drinking equivalent of an independent record label that is long-established but still producing a quality product. The ingredients and methods may appear to fly in the face of everything that the modern world represents. As the music world and our pubs slide further into designed homogeneity, lovingly tended pockets of uniqueness like this need to be supported and treasured.

Or better still, toasted, with a gorgeous pint of Dragon’s Breath at a nearby hostelry, and discovering the reason for the black treacle.

To paraphrase Hilaire Belloc, "When you have lost your inns and breweries, then drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England."

About Rick

Rick began life in the licensed trade as a manager and took his first tenancy at the Queens Hotel in Baildon, West Yorkshire in 1985. He fell in love with the Autovac dispense system of Yorkshire beer serving a tight creamy head and vowed to recreate it in Plymouth one day. He served as a staff trainer for Tetley Brewery in the days when they still had one!

After the birth of his daughter it became his mission to raise her in Plymouth and on a trip to watch his beloved Plymouth Argyle play in the FA Cup against Everton, he saw a pub that had been closed due to fire called The Grapes. By 1989 he had signed a 10 year tenancy deal and completely refurbished the pub creating a Yorkshire theme and changed its name to the Three Ferrets, which was the name of the pub in the John Smiths TV advertising campaign. John Smiths cask ale was imported from Tadcaster especially for him and trade boomed. The pub became a destination and was packed solid at weekends. Inspired by ‘The Good Old Days’ TV show, a Sunday Night Show called ‘The Old Fat Hippy’s Golden Oldies Funshow’ became notorious and earned the pub a mention on the national news due to a ‘Clocking On’ machine for regulars.

Julian Tarrant-Boyce was his most able and trusted bar manager and the two shared many trips to beer festivals and hostelries on their quest for the perfect pint. Rick still enjoys trips to breweries up and down the country and is dismayed by the difficulties now facing the licensed trade. Several awards later he became a representative for a wine company and a fan of single malt whisky.

There is nothing that Rick enjoys more than a trip to a well-run pub that serves good local ale. Because of his knowledge of the brewing process and vast range of beers, both local and national, it makes Rick a perfect beer blogger for our ale trail. And by the way, he still performs music and comedy in pubs throughout the South West

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