Sharp's Brewery, Rock.
In the tiny town (or is it a large village?) of Rock in Cornwall, you'll find Sharp's brewery. Founded in 1994, it has recently seen a major expansion, both in terms of output, spare capacity and market penetration for it's main beer, Doom Bar. While the brewery expansion hasn't produced the most romantic of settings for brewing, there is no doubting the company's commitment to modern, consistent techniques.
Touring the brewery with fellow members of the British Guild of Beer Writers, the first interesting departure from a regular brewery tour is in the hop storage area. There are hops, sure, but there are also a few other odd ingredients besides; lemon balm, sweet orange peel and fennel seed, to name just three. These aren't involved in the production of Sharps' regular beers, but they play an important role in head brewer Stuart Howe's funky little sideline in experimental beer, which we'll return to later. For the bigger-production beers, there are a few little tricks that Sharp's use to create a distinctive, clean flavour; relatively low mash temperatures extract fermentable sugar, but produce a less malty tasting beer; open fermenters are used to allow the volatile aromas to escape; the beers spend 7 days in the fermenter and 5 days in the conditioning tank. All of this produces a beer that is, according to Howe, cleaner, fresher, more stable and more "landlord friendly" - Sharps' beers are famous for their ability to "drop bright" (sediment settling in cask) and be served much faster than most cask ales.
Of course, none of this is worth a squirt of wort if the beers are no good. After the tour, a tasting through the range of Sharps' regular beers, and some more experimental ones, was interesting and enjoyable, both for the beers themselves, but also for the insight that it provided into Howe's approach to brewing. The big production beers were clean, distinctive and enjoyable, and the experimental beers a bit more wild and woolly. There are tasting notes on them at the end of this article.
The trip was rounded off with a very enjoyable evening at the Rick Stein Seafood School, where guild members great and small were taught how to cook a variety of seafood dishes, from king prawn tempura to monkfish vindaloo. I like to consider myself a bit of a dab hand in the kitchen, but I learnt a lot from the superbly accommodating chefs. There was even a spirited attempt at beer and food matching - I must ask Sue Nowak what she thought of the suggestions. Mr Stein even turned up and said a few words about the beers he and Howe have designed in collaboration. Really, if you want a great weekend learning how to cook seafood, then I would recommend it wholeheartedly.
Last dish of the night was roast cod with buttered cabbage and pancetta, cooked to translucent flaky perfection, washed down with gusto and (in my case) lashings of Chalky's Bite. Really, it's a great beer, good with more robust seafood. Track it down and see for yourself.
Cornish Coaster (3.6%abv) Soft fruitiness on the nose, with a little spice. Pale malt and a light, clean, no-nonsense palate, with a nice vanilla note in the finish. It would be easy to sink a few of these without even noticing. A great session ale.
Doom Bar (4%abv) Sharps' "ordinary bitter", in rapid expansion as a brand (and, presumably, also as a beer), and fast becoming a staple across the South of England. Distinct whiff of the sea to the nose (beach at low tide?), soft rounded caramel note on the palate, and a clean, dry finish.
Nadelik (4.6%abv) Sharps' Christmas beer has an estery nose (banana and coconut?), a slightly perfumed, almost silky-textured palate. The perfumed note recedes and the bitterness builds in the finish. Unusual, but oddly moreish.
Special (5.2%abv) Big, red-fruit nose, nice and jammy, with a cough-candy note. Big and bursting with fruit mid-palate, before drying nicely to a clean, bitter finish. Very nice balance and roundness.
Then the more experimental bottled beers:
Chalky's Bark (4.5%abv)Hazy copper-coloured beer, with a distinct ginger biscuit and lemon peel aroma. Nice spritzy texture on the palate, underlying bubblegum notes and a big blast of warming ginger in the finish. "Much more gingery than the last batch - maybe too gingery" Howe admits ruefully. That's what experiments are for though.
Gentle Jane (6.7%abv) Deliberately infected with peddiococcus gambrinosus, this pale hazy beer has a slightly stinky nose (in a good way - complex rather than offputting), with a note of lemon barley water to the palate. Nice texture, with a slight honey or floral note to the softly acidic finish. Could maybe use a little more intensity, but very nice.
Chalky's Bite (6.8%abv)Aged for 3 months on fennel seed. Nice bubblegummy core, good weight and body. A burst of sweetness of the palate recedes leaving a medium-dry finish, and a note of aniseed from the fennel. Really lovely.
B (9.5%abv)Reminiscent of some of the wilder American IPAs I've tried, this has the sort of dirty, orange-pith hop note to the nose that makes me rub my thighs and say "PHWOAR!" in anticipation. Big fruitiness, and slightly sweet barley-twist finish.
Massive Ale (10%abv) My God, this is the one. Big, nay, massive dried fruit aroma, sherry, prunes, sultanas and figs. A little butterscotch pushing through in the wonderfully rich finish, along with a lot of autumnal spices (think pumpkin pie). Really very good indeed.
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