Foodies South West live at Dartmouth Food Festival 2010

Of all the journalistic assignments I have undertaken, this was never likely to rank among the most onerous.

One blustery autumn evening I found myself in the visitor centre at the St Austell Brewery, being invited to drink not one but seven different beers, entirely for free. There was one catch – staying compos mentis enough to write down what we thought of each beer.

Under the watchful and expert eye of St Austell’s head brewer, Roger Ryman, we were to sup, sip, slurp and sink an array of beers and put them in order of preference, while writing individual tasting notes, as a master of wine might do for a fine vintage.

The purpose? To help the brewer pick a session beer to go into pubs and bars in 2011 – permanently. The brewery has previously done internal tastings but they wanted a more impartial audience.

There were no badges on the pumps, just numbers. We were not even told how many of the seven were St Austell’s own brews – all we were told was that they were all from the South West and they were all session ales of between 3.5 and 4 per cent alcohol, to make it as fair a test as possible. We were to judge the beers on colour, aroma, taste and body. And we were warned about going down the row from one to seven, because of the way drinkers like beer (first one ok, second better, three, four and five brilliant, but slightly sick of beer by six and seven).

Dutifully we went forth and drank. After warming up with a half of Tribute we started the game proper. All the drinks came in the form of halves of ale – we were, after all, not there to fall over. Mr Ryman, striding around purposefully and trying not to look at what people had written, kept a close eye on proceedings. Among my fellow drinkers were an assortment of publicans, pub regulars and others with a love of beer – including Camra officials.

What became immediately apparent was despite their geographical and strength similarity there was a huge variety of tastes and smells on display, ranging from the sulphuric to the fruity to the hoppy.

At the same time as we were tasting, we were all trying to work out what each of the beers was. “That one tastes like Doom Bar”, or “that’s Tinners, isn’t it?” were among the conversation questions going around the tables in the bar at the visitors’ centre. The question was, would trying to guess the ale be likely to lead you to fall back on previously held feelings towards the beer?

After a couple of hours and a much-needed nutritional pasty, matters came to a head. Each of us had filled in our score cards and our last act, before Mr Ryman revealed all, was to go and get a pint of what we thought was the best beer. The results were pretty clear. Number two was the overall winner, with numbers three and six closely following.

Finally, to a hushed silence, Mr Ryman revealed all. Luckily for St Austell, it went well for the brewery. Beer number two was their experimental brew, the real reason we were there – to see how the drinking public took to it. Something in the manner of a Tribute it was a fruity explosion of a beer, with an amazing aroma of grapefruit, of all things.

Number three was also a St Austell beer – the Tun50 beer they produced earlier this year for the Western Morning News’ 150th anniversary campaign. It was a sell-out then and proved popular again on the night.

Number six, well that wasn’t a St Austell Beer. That was Otter Ale from East Devon, proving popular West of the Tamar and drawing appreciative murmurs from the assembled Cornishmen.

And how did people do in identifying the beers? Well I did OK, I managed to recognise Tun50 and Sharp’s Doom Bar (number five). But I didn’t recognise Otter or Skinner’s Betty Stoggs (number seven), which I was annoyed at. And I had to apologise, sort of, to Mr Ryman, because I put St Austell’s popular Tinners ale plumb last of the seven to my taste. Others did better, recognising a fair number of the beers. It was easy to spot the real barflies!

Overall, it was fascinating to go behind the scenes and take part in the test – and it was of use to the brewery as well. All we can do now is wait for the final product to hit the pumps…

*This story is Copyright Western Morning News.

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