PUBLISHED: 12:12 23 February 2016 | UPDATED: 12:12 23 February 2016
The Exeter Brewery's organic real ale is so popular it's exported to France via sail boat and rebranded for the Army, discovers Rachael D'Cruze-Sharpe
“Some ales get their character from the grains, others from the hops,” explains Alan Collyer while I take in the different tastes and smells of the ales brewed at The Exeter Brewery.
I learn that the different colours of ale are a result of the use of different grains and I’m keen to know more about brewing, but first I learn a little about Alan and his business. The Exeter brewery was set up as it stands now, in Cowley Bridge Road, by Exeter St Davids railway station in 2003 and Alan took over in 2004. They now brew six ales on a full-time basis and also introduce seasonal specialties on top. The whole process is done on site by Alan and his expert team of seven. Their ales are a popular drink in the pubs around city and the bottles are a popular choice at Exeter Picturehouse and the theatres. The brewery’s own vans deliver the ales throughout Devon and into Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset and distributors take them right around the country and further afield.
Back to the pressing issue of ale, which I discover is essentially a mix of water, sugar – which comes from malted barley and turns into alcohol and smaller quantities of different grain and hops. Alan walks me around his brewery, which has a deep, heady, earthy smell, as he talks me though the brewing process. Hot liquor, the brewers term for water, and grains is added into the mix in the mash tun, which is a huge brewing vessel. This mixture is called the mash and it’s here that the sugar is released from the grain. The sugary mix is now called wort. From here the hops are added and then the wort is cooled and fermented. Cooling to below 20 degrees means that the yeast eats the sugar, turning it into alcohol and CO2 and it spends a week doing so in a fermenting vessel – also huge and imposing.
“Brewing is all about precise timing and temperatures,” says Alan, who goes on to explain that over this fermenting week he and his team will be monitoring and controlling the temperature to stop the yeast going crazy and spoiling the flavor. It’s important that the wort becomes alcohol slowly. The next step in the brewing process is called ‘final gravity’, which is specific to each ale. Here the brewers rapidly stop fermentation, cooling the ale to 6 degrees and pouring it into casks, which go into the cellar.
Real Ale is live, working ale – this means that there’s still enough residual sugar and fine yeast cells that, once it’s in the cellar where it’s warmed back up to 13 degrees, the yeast wakes up and secondary fermentation starts. This keeps the ale live and gives a lovely foamy head. The length of time an ale stays in the cellar at The Exeter Brewery depends on its type. For example, the stout, Darkness, is made from seven different grains and can take three weeks, but the brewery’s blonde ale, Avocet, needs to be in there for just five days.
The majority of ales that The Exeter Brewery produces have won awards. Alan is most proud of the award they recently won from Craft Brew Alliance for their newest ale, Lighterman, because at 3.5 % it’s a fairly weak ale but it still packs a punch and the award recognizes that. Avocet is the brewery’s original organic real ale, created by Alan and his team in 2008 – and it’s been a favorite from the offset. This pale ale is made with three varieties of organic hop. It has a distinct modern flavor, which is refreshing and has a slight citrus taste.
As well as being popular in Devon and throughout the country, Avocet, being blonde, also suits the continental market. So, for the last six years Alan has been exporting Avocet to France, the whole time championing sustainable transport by sending it via traditional sail boat. The first shipment left Brixham harbour in October 2009 aboard the 150 foot square rigger, the Tres Hombres. Since then there have been other shipments from Brixham, Plymouth and Falmouth and sales continue to grow. Avocet ale is now available in cafés and shops from Brittany to Paris. “I never imagined I’d be selling English ale to the French,” says Alan jollily.
The Exeter Brewery supports the city’s Armed Forced Parade and the first time they supplied Avocet, they were asked if they could rebottle it for the army. So they rebranded Avocet as Rifleman for them and it’s drunk by the army in the UK and in Northern Ireland and Germany, where we also have bases. The Exeter Brewery is an inspirational local company that flies the flag for Devon and our artisan food and drink far and wide. Brewing a storm indeed!
In the Tap Bar sits a grand portrait of Benjamin Salter, the original founder of The Exeter Brewery. This piece was the first that Alan acquired to form the collection of memorabilia that makes the quirky bar space even more inviting – it was brought from Benjamin Salter’s great-great grandson when he disbursed his mother’s estate. w
The Exeter Brewery’s Tap-Room bar is open to the public every Friday from 5pm, where you can try the brewery’s award-winning ales and also indulge in a pie and mash dinner. Once a month, on a Friday, the Tap-Room opens for a curry night too. Group tours of the brewery and private hire are also available.