The Sharp End: Only here for the beer

Dave Waller savours the rich smells and timeless skills of a traditional brewery.

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

It's too early for this, I think, as I arrive for a day at St Austell Brewery. Creeping through the drizzle at 6am, past forklifts and kegs, tankers and silos, all I can smell is booze. Here's a whole industry running on the stuff.

I run to the warehouse door asking for Phil. A shaven-headed bloke looks up from beside a tanker, where he's fiddling with a big hose. 'That's me,' he says, holding up the glass he's just filled with ale.

I'd imagined brewing had moved on from the days of rosy-cheeked labourers manhandling hops and sacks of malt. Surely everything is computerised and made of stainless, soulless steel? Not here - not yet. Phil takes me through a maze of corridors and upstairs to two lovely old wooden mash tuns. In a month it all gets a shiny overhaul, for now it's defiantly traditional. I meet Will, a 37-year veteran whose ample gut suggests he's definitely sampled his share of the proceeds.

Dodging splashes of hot malty liquid from the steaming mash tun, Will bubbles with information. This is the first of two brews today. Each will give around 120 barrels - that's four tons of booze. Unlike 'dead' pasteurised beers, real ale is alive and vulnerable to less-than-expert attention. You stick the ingredients in, set the conditions as best you can, adjust if need be, and see what you end up with. It all feels admirably artisanal, but, with the brewery now knocking out 57,000 barrels a year, you're aiming for consistency.

'Taste that,' says James, the head brewer, scooping a pint glass into a run-off tank of hot, sweet beer as he shows me around. The place is like a warren - all narrow staircases, twisting corridors and old stone rooms housing sacks of grain.

You can feel the age. The brewery got its first phone number back in 1876. It was '4'. When Will started here he was surrounded by old boys who'd joined from school, a link to a time when it took two days just to get the beer 70-odd miles to Exeter in an old steam lorry. He recalls his job interview: 'The first question was: "You're not too bright, are you?" No. "Good. We want someone who's not educated out their arse."'

The air hangs thick with smells, from the bags of Slovenian hops we're chucking around in the fridge to the sickly sweet stench of bubbling beer. We pass another tank under the mash tun. This place is like a joint-venture between Oliver Reed and Willy Wonka.

After helping load bags of grain for another brew, I wonder what'll be next, as it doesn't seem very hands-on. I'm in for a surprise. 'You're going to get a sweat on now,' says James, and rips his shirt off to reveal a tattooed torso. Woah. I'm not drunk enough for a ruck yet. Turns out there's been a problem with the mash tun's plough, and we have to climb in and shovel the grain out. I'm down to wellies and shorts, stuck inside a massive barrel, neck-deep in pungent muesli that burns to the touch and steams like a sauna.

We shovel away together, sweating like men in some weird alcoholic health club. I'm told the tale of Les Pode, a 70-year-old Hercules who did all this in dungarees, woollen shirt and a hat - without generating so much as a bead. 'Got to have a technique, boy,' he'd say.

Time for a well-earned bacon roll. I ask James about his ideal beer. 'I am a bit of a chef, so I like to experiment. Stick your beak in that.' This one's a beer he made for Christmas, pimped with cinnamon, coriander and raisins.

Onto the lab - analysis of the colour, pH and bitterness of the beer is a big part of the job. And, of course, more tasting. 'None of that other stuff matters at all if it tastes like shit,' says James. Clearly our beloved elixir is a highly technical drop. For example, they stick three-quarters of a pint of catfish stomach into each cask. It's called finings and it's there to keep the beer clear.

When the old kit gets lifted out through the roof, with it will go the spirit of characters like Les Pode - and the brewery's beloved old MD, Colonel Luck. 'We don't want to see anyone drunk,' he'd say at Christmas. Then he'd spot someone rolling around the place hammered. 'He seems to have a headache,' he'd say. 'Send him home.'

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