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Experiment with ale tells a local produce tale

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 14, 2013

  • Main picture: Hamish Lothian with Leah Tolman, left, and Nancy Robinson. Above: Nancy pours a drop of something stronger. Left: One of the fermenters in the brewery downstairs

  • From top: Chef Ashley Fitzgerald and two of his platters – smoked pastrami and smoked prawns with chips and mayonnaise. Both served with ale, naturally pictures: Matt Austin

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An historic pub in Exeter has taken a step back in time to become the first city inn to re-introduce its own brewhouse. It's actually nine steps to be precise, because that's the distance between the bar at the Fat Pig and its new micro-brewery in what used to be the cellar store-room.

Landlord Hamish Lothian, who owns the John Street inn, came up with the idea to supply the Fat Pig and his other Exeter pub, The Rusty Bike, and that initial brainwave has since fermented into a range of unique ales – which are going down a storm with punters.

"We thought we'd sell around ten firkins [a measure of nine gallons] a week but we're actually selling double that," said Hamish. "To be honest, I knew it would take off but we've been pleasantly surprised at how quickly it's happened – in the space of a few months. It means we're very, very busy!"

Right on cue, there's a knock on the pub's front door and in comes a delivery man with a shiny new fermenting tank to add to the ones already hard at work downstairs.

The Fat Pig Brewery ales boasts the wonderful names of Pigmalion, Ham 69, Pigasus, JSA (John Street Ale) and Phat Nancy – named after Hamish's ex-wife Nancy Robinson, who works both upstairs in the bar and restaurant and downstairs in the brewery.

Learning the art of ale-making involved research and a bit of trial and error, before they settled on a range to suit all palates.

"Ales are more diverse than wines," Hamish explained. "You can make adjustments by using different types of hops, barley and yeast and you can adjust the water, too. I'm a chef and I think of this as cooking with a different set of ingredients."

It would have been rude not to put this theory to the test, so Hamish kindly poured me a drop from three of his pumps: Phat Nancy, JSA and Pigmalion. Phat Nancy, an India Pale Ale, could almost pass for a white wine and is a perfect match with food; JSA is a dark bitter; and Pigmalion – the biggest seller – is a modern golden ale with toasty undertones. As Hamish said, all very different.

"I could tailor-make a beer for someone's taste – if I so desired," he said. "That's how diverse ale is."

For customers who can't decide which of the ales to sup, there is a 'taster' offer of three halves for £4.50 so they can try out a trio of beers. A pint cost £3.20, whichever the beer.

The beers range between 4% and 5% – a much lower percentage than would have been the case in previous times, as Hamish explained: "Victorian beer was strong – about 6.5% – and some ales were over 7%. But the strength was reduced by two world wars because the raw materials were needed for food."

Hamish arrived in Exeter in 2006, via his father's vineyard in Gloucestershire and his own cider-house in Worcester – as he says: "Ale-making seemed like a natural progression after that."

Hamish still uses his cider-making skills to create Rusty Pig Cider, a traditional dry drink made from apples from Whimple and Broadclyst.

When he took the plunge and bought what was then a run-down pub (a "dive", to use his term) on the corner of Exeter's John Street, he immediately saw the potential to restore it to make the most of its historic past.

"There has been a pub on this site for 700 years and part of the building is Tudor," he explained. "Many years ago, all the pubs in Exeter would have had their own brewery on-site. Now, this is the only one.

"We just felt that this was what the city needed and although it's small, it's perfectly formed! We have no intention of supplying our beer to other places; we're happy to produce enough just for our own two pubs. It's all about provenance and footprint and we want that footprint to be the shortest possible – and you can't get much shorter than a few steps."

Hamish applies the same ethos to the pub's food – the ham and veal come from Bicton (which has also provided some of the hops), the beef comes from a herd of Ruby Red Devon cattle at Moretonhampstead, and the lamb is sourced from a farm at Langford, just outside Exeter: "Everything comes from within ten miles of the city," said Hamish, who also shoots game and helps in the bar, while his team operates the pub's own smoke-house. "My day starts at 7.30 every morning and the brewing side of things fills the whole day. We've had to take on an extra member of staff to help out in the bar and restaurant, which is nice."

In December, a very special ale will be available "while stocks last", when the winning 'recipe' from the pub's inaugural home brew competition will be sold: "We had so many people talking about their home brews that we thought we'd hold a competition.

"The winning ale, from a guy from Newton Abbot, is called Steamhammer and is an India Pale Ale, with lots of hops. It's named after a friend of his who died in a sky-diving accident, so it's a tribute, really."

Hamish describes the company tie system at most British pubs as "the horror story of the century" and believes his success shows that people want unique, local ales: "We've pushed the boundaries a little bit and it has definitely stimulated trade. People are keen to try new beers, especially if they know that the beer they are drinking was made in a room beneath their feet. This is the way it always used to be, after all." Could it be the way forward, too? There'll be plenty of punters raising a glass to that thought!

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