For those who know Cornwall, it must seem like something of an oxymoron. Land-locked Bodmin – about as far from the sea as you can get in that part of the county* – being home to the Harbour Brewing Company. The reason for their location is water-related, it turns out, as the overwhelming need for an ideal water source took precedence. So, it was to be inland for Eddie Lofthouse and Rhys Powell, although their idea for Harbour Brewing Co originated in a Padstow pub – right on the seafront, overlooking the fishing boats.
*i.e. about five miles
We caught up with Eddie and Rhys at Edinburgh’s Hanging Bat, on the occasion of their first birthday as a brewery. To celebrate, they left the cake and balloons at home and decided on a thousand-mile round trip to Scotland (which sets a dangerous precedent for future anniversaries). Looking vaguely familiar as we spoke, it turns out I went to school with Eddie, twenty years ago in Lancashire (and roughly halfway between Cornwall and Scotland). Even in the small world of brewing, there are still moments like that, to surprise you.
Eddie told me that Cornwall is dominated by bitter. St Austell, Sharp’s and co have the middle-ground sewn up. So, Harbour are trying something different – going for the ‘craft’ market, although it’s a word he uses only through lack of an alternative. As such, most of their beer leaves the home county and heads to the rest of the UK – and beyond, as within their first year of operation they are already exporting to destinations as far away as Mexico (until Doom Bar arrives there as well). Eddie seemed accepting of this, acknowledging that to small Cornish pubs, ‘craft’ comes down the list when concentrating on ‘costs’.
Rhys and Eddie took the group through six of their beers – although plenty more were on at the Bat as well – beginning with their Citra-packed Pale Ale no1 (on occasion augmented with the hard to find hop bought from homebrew shops), through the excellent American Rye and Blackcurrant Porter, to this beer – AJA Limon IPA. Thinking lemon, this proved to be very wrong, as the beer is an Amarillo-hopped IPA aged in a Jack Daniels barrel, with Aji chillies. Acquired on the tip-off of a Michelin-starred chef, the chilli is sweet, fruity and hot – and this mirrors in the beer. Rather than just blasting out the NagaDeath so many other chilli beers do, it proves there’s more than one dimension available.
Although a fair proportion of the beers Rhys makes are pale – he also turns his (Heriot-Watt trained) hands to darker numbers. The 8.6% Vanilla Imperial Stout looked like a menace, but was really soft, smooth and creamy. Brewed with cocoa nibs and then again aged in Jack Daniels casks (except this time with 90 vanilla pods), drinking it was liked eating the entire top layer of a box of chocolates, and then moving on to the bottom. Sweet, rich, milk choc – a dessert beer, no question. The whisky-barrel ageing (brief at only three months) added merely a slight hum in the background – they have other versions that are still in there, gaining a different mix of flavours.
It was great to chat to Eddie and Rhys – still clearly in the stages of experimentation that infect all brewery start-ups, before the orders pile up and business takes over. That reflected in their final beer – the Iced Pale Ale. A blend of 7% Pale Ale and Pumpkin beer, it was then frozen to -28°C. The resulting beer comes out at around 20% (it hasn’t been fully tested, so can’t be sold – merely ‘handed out’ as ‘tasters’). Eight barrels of beer were frozen down in this way, resulting in 15 litres of Iced Pale Ale. They can’t sell it, so what’s the point? Well, it interested them. Brewing should be all about this ethos – doing things to see what happens.
Technically, they could get the process down to -75°C, but are just content to run these small-batch, special releases for events. As the other half of Eddie’s business is an ice-cream factory, it makes sense to use what they have to see where brewing can go. It turns out that the beer is not what I was expecting – the pumpkin flavours come over more than the alcohol, and yet, it’s not sweet – more heathery, bergamot-esque, and herbal. Fascinating stuff. Like all of Habour’s beers, it shows huge promise – as does the fact that Eddie and Rhys are willing to drive over a thousand miles to show them off…