Monday 1 June 2020

Roger Ryman — an appreciation

Roger Ryman with Brian Turner (left)
and Alastair Gilmour (right), when he was
the British Guild of Beer Writers
Brewer of the Year in 2006 (see the official
citation is at the bottom)
This is not an obituary of Roger Ryman, whose death was announced at the end of last week. It is an appreciation of someone I had known for nearly 20 years. I first met him at St Austell in 2001, whilst researching my debut book West Country Ales (though we’d spoken over the phone before this). We got on well and over the years I went back to the brewery many times, had beers with him in various places and always contacted him if I had a question on the brewing process (I found an email from 2006 where I’d asked him about lautering when I’d come back from visiting a couple of Alt breweries). I remember when the news came through that St Austell had bought Bath Ales, I rather cheekily emailed him to ask if he would sort out what I then perceived was a diacetyl issue with some of their beers. He took it in good heart. He took me around the newly commissioned brewery in late 2018, I was fascinated by it and you could also see the quiet pride he took in overseeing the project. He was one of the great brewers of the last couple of decades and is rightly hailed as the person who put St Austell on the national beer map (I also think he had a valuable ally in the shape of former Managing Director James Staunton). Here is the profile I wrote of St Austell with a particular emphasis on Roger’s influence for Britain’s Beer Revolution, which was published in 2014. This is my appreciation of him. I will miss him.

Here comes a double IPA, bruised gold in the glass, sharp and zestful on the nose alongside a blast of tropical fruit (ripe peach/apricot skin perhaps). A sip from the glass and a further run of tropical fruit on the tongue, a big boost of bitterness with a juicy malt sweetness holding it together while its long tail-end finish of bitterness seemingly goes on forever and ever. This is a beast of a beer, whose heart beats wildly on the American west coast. You can almost hear the waves bearing the surfers to shore. Or can you? There are waves and surfers close to the brewery from where this beer emerges — we’re not in southern California but southern Cornwall. 

Big Job is crewed ashore at St Austell, the august family brewery that is definitely part of the British brewing revolution. There’s a delicious irony at play here — back in the 1990s St Austell (or St Awful as they were known then) would have been seen as just another brewery treading water as beer sales fell and pubs closed. Yet the brewery is still about and rocking the beer world. What happened? Two words: Roger Ryman. 

Late in 2014 and I’m at St Austell with the 
two Rogers (thanks to Susanna Forbes for this)
Back in 1999, a tall, gig-rowing, rugby-playing Lancastrian took on the top job in brewing, that of a head brewer. He’d come from Maclay’s in Scotland, hardly a den of seething innovation but he was iron-like in his resolution to change things at St Austell. 

‘When I was interviewed for the vacant Head Brewer’s job,’ recalls Ryman, ‘I made it clear to the MD-in-waiting James Staughton of the opportunity that I saw for the company. The business had a solid estate of pubs and a strong regional identity, while the brewery itself, although not modern, was housed in a structurally sound granite building, and not threatened with imminent physical collapse. Why would this brewery not be successful? I was clear in my ambition that with the application of good brewing practice, innovation and focus on beer brand development I could see no reason why it could not double its sales in ten years, own a nationally revered cask ale brand and sit proudly at the top table amongst regional and family brewers.’

If history, as James Joyce had Stephen Dedalus say in Ulysses, ‘is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’, then Ryman was the alarm clock for St Austell. Granted they had a heritage going back to 1851, but what Ryman did was merge its traditional values with a modernistic approach that continues to drive the brewery forward to this day. 

The beer that made Ryman’s name and drew drinkers to the bar was Tribute, a luscious insurgent of a sparkling ale first brewed in 1999 under the name Daylight Robbery (a reference to that year’s eclipse). In his words, ‘it was a modern pale ale characterised by significant late hopping with US and continental varieties’. He used Fuggles from England, Styrian Goldings from Slovenia and the American hop Willamette with the result being a zesty, citrusy, juicy beer with a boisterous bittersweetness. 

However, important and successful as Tribute was (and remains), Ryman, supported by Staughton, has pushed to make St Austell one of the most successful and dynamic English breweries (it is said that some family brewers, when wishing to reinvent themselves, talking of ‘doing a St Austell’). A friendship with Karl Ockert from Bridgeport Brewery in Portland, USA, led to the birth of Proper Job, a sessionable strength (4.5%) American-style IPA. He did nano as well with a small microbrewery that can produce 10 firkins each brew. ‘It offers me,’ he says, ‘as head brewer the opportunity to get out of the office and back to sleeves-rolled-up-brewing. There is nothing better than a Sunday in the micro-brewery concocting a new recipe — no meetings, no e-mail and no phone calls!!’

There has been a fleet of beers produced over the years, some of them blazing a trail across the sky never to return others taking their place in the pantheon of St Austell greats. Dark beer? Then how about a smooth stout based on a 1913 recipe or that controversial style Black IPA with Proper Black. Lager? There have been both Czech and German lagers produced, as well as a Bock complete with billy goat image on the label, while beers from the wilder shores of brewing have included barrel-aging, souring and the addition of all manner of fruits and herbs. Early 2014 saw the emergence of Tamar Creek, which Ryman described as Flemish sour red ale that had been matured in oak barrels with Cornish cherries. The finished beer was polished and pleasing and pulsated with a tart, vinous character on the palate. 

These days St Austell’s beers take the drinker on an exhilarating voyage around the modern world of brewing, a journey that wouldn’t have been possible without Roger Ryman’s innovatory approach along with the stellar support he received from James Staughton and, of course, his team on the brewing floor. 

‘St Austell Brewery have been brewing beer for 160 years,’ he says, ‘and we plan to continue brewing beer for another 160.’ 

A blurry shot of Roger Ryman at Thornbridge in 2007 after
the wood-aged beer seminar I organised for the
British Guild of Beer Writers — that plastic bottle at the end of
the table contain’s Greene King’s 5X, which the then head
brewer John Bexon had sent up to taste.

British Guild of Beer Writers Brewer of the Year, 2006
St Austell’s Roger Ryman has brought a very traditional family brewer into the 21st century (making the old nickname of St Awful totally superfluous), made a success of Tribute in the guest ale market, introduced beers such as Proper Job, a Cornish Weisse and Admiral’s Ale, firmed up old favourites such as HSD and Tinners, as well as used his small micro-brewery to explore styles of beer not usually seen in companies like SA — Czech dark lagers, wood-aged barley wines, a luscious coffee beer, a Cornish Heavy and his refreshing take on a Kolsch amongst others. He is also the driving force behind the annual Celtic Beer Festival, which celebrated its eighth anniversary at the weekend — an event that celebrates beer and brewing’s connections with the local community. If you haven’t been to visit it then I suggest you do so now. All this, while still producing popular beers such as Tribute. You could say he works in a space where the pragmatism of regional brewing meets the innovation of craft brewing. He is our Brewer of the Year. 

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