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Classic Beer of the Month February 2011: St Austell Admiral's Ale

St Austell Admiral's Ale, 5%

Six years ago, I enjoyed a fascinating visit to the rejuventated St Austell Brewery in Cornwall. The company was thriving in the hands of MD James Staughton, its beer range had been brilliantly overhauled by new head brewer Roger Ryman, and an attractive visitors’ centre had just been opened.

st austell admiral's aleLater that day, I was taken out to the Blisland Inn, a recent CAMRA national Pub of the Year, to see St Austell beers in the wild, so to speak.

The first beer pressed into my hand was an attractive bronze in colour. A wonderful, biscuity moreishness, overlaid by juicy citrus fruit, characterized the aroma and taste.

Brewed first for St Austell’s Celtic Beer Festival, the previous December, it was now earmarked, under the name Admiral’s Ale, to be the company’s commemoration beer for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.

Talking to Roger Ryman, I learned that there was even more to this outstanding, new beer than satisfying body and glorious, fresh flavours. It’s all do with the type of malt that is used.

Normally, even when producing dark beers, brewers need to use a high percentage of pale malt in the mash tun to provide fermentable sugars that dark malts alone – because they have been roasted at the maltings – cannot provide. With Admiral’s Ale, however, Roger had created a beer with no pale malt in the grist.

The secret lies in the malting procedure, perfected at Tucker’s Maltings in Devon. Cornish barley is sent across the River Tamar and turned into a malt they call Cornish Gold, which is given the full heat treatment at the maltings but in an atmosphere of greater humidity than usual.

This means that the grains do not crystallise, keeping their starches and enzymes intact so they can work together and produce fermentable sugars back at the brewery.

Wholesome Malt Character

Cornish Gold had been developed for use in St Austell’s widely-found Tribute, where it comprises but a small part of the malt grist. In Admiral’s Ale, it works alone, not only developing nutty, toasted grain flavours but also generating the sugars the yeast can then turn into alcohol and carbon dioxide.

Roger matched this wholesome malt character with Cascade and Styrian Golding hops, for a freshening, citrus zing that, on the memorable evening in Cornwall, blew me away.

It seemed a travesty that such a remarkable ale should be confined to a one-off commemorative-beer status, but I was pleased to learn that a bottle-conditioned version would soon be available.

That bottled variant turned out to be just as good. The awards speak for themselves: supreme champion at the 2008 International Beer Challenge and CAMRA’s Champion Bottled Beer in 2010.

Admiral’s Ale subsequently also became a seasonal cask ale, available in the spring. Now, however, it’s just been announced that the beer is to become a year-round fixture in the St Austell portfolio. And that’s the best beer news I’ve heard this year.

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