Growing up with three brothers in the West Country meant I was practically breast fed on the hoppy stuff. I have learnt to love the wooden floors, the darkened corners and the Tolkien-esque names of brews such as Wild Hare, Speckled Hen, Roughtor, Beast, Otter and of course Cornish Knocker and Betty Stog’s (you may not know that Betty is a real person, a lady, let’s say, of slightly – 18 stone – masculine proportions).
The Skinner family are now synonymous with Cornwall, not only for beer but surfing – son Ben is a world class pro with a line in surf equipment and sister Sophie runs her own surf school. Skindog Cornish lager is a nod towards the family’s talent with a board as are the newly released and much coveted beers Porthleven and Sennen. The family hail originally from Jersey, leaving a brewery business to expand into Cornwall in 2003.
From the humble beginnings of one brew a week to today’s magnificent 18, which equates to 7,000 pints, 4, 000 litres or one hundred firkins (a firkin being nine gallons) every seven days, the success of Skinner’s speaks for itself. Terry, brewery production manager and a man infused with an infectious passion for the dark art of beer making, guides me through the alchemy that turns hops, water, yeast and barley into a pint of Betty’s.
We disappear behind the scenes into rooms of pungent hoppy aromas, at times caramel, at other times burnt cereal. This is the laboratory that drives the ale, the vessels, pipes and men that create the magic for which there is a complex science. First is the mashing process that sees water and barley turned into a porridge-like slop, where enzymes begin the job of converting starch into sugar. Out of that comes wort, a dark sugary liquid that is fed into the ‘copper’ where it boils. At this point it is flavoured with the hops, a more delicate process similar to brewing a cup of tea, too much time on the boil and it will be bitter, so the idea is to infuse rather than flog out the flavour.
The fresh hops are a highlight: Terry rips open a couple of bags and we rub the green, sticky buds in our hands, setting off explosions of citrusy, grassy smells leaving us with oily hands. The close links to nettles and marijuana are clear but not recommended smoking material (!). The hops arrive from Hereford, Kent, even Slovenia and America.
The use of whole leaf hops works on the same principle that differentiates loose leaf tea from tea bags: superior flavour . At this point Terry explains, “it’s endless if you’re creative”: type of hop, amount, brewing time and onwards into beer geekdom. The resulting infusion is then fed through to a fermentation vessel where it sits for three days and into which the yeast is pitched, feeding off the sugar.
The leftovers from the mashing process are fed to nearby cows and the used hops are composted. Waste is minimal. The yeast then busies itself with producing CO2 and alcohol. Opening the doors in the morning can be a near fatal experience if you’re exposed for more than three minutes; Terry compares breathing in the CO2 to the altitude training he did for Everest in 2004.
After three days, fermentation is complete and a Skinner’s ale has been born, ready to be transported to the cellar in cold conditioning tanks before being shipped out to Cornish and national public houses.
Sitting in the brewery bar and supping on a row of ales, savouring the flavours, the bitter, the rounded, the darker, the smoother, I won’t be able to look at a pint of Skinner’s again without seeing the alchemy, the hard work and the team behind it. Terry has been an absolute font of knowledge full of enthusiasm and passion for Skinner’s, the science and the ingredients. You’d be hard pushed to find a better day out than a trip to the brewery, particularly if, as is the British want, the weather turns a little inclement. Turn up for a daytime tour at 2:30 or book ahead for evening and weekend tours from 4 and again at 7.