Focus South West: give that man a Tribute

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The past 12 months have been pretty significant for Roger Ryman, head brewer at South West family brewer St Austell. Not only has he seen capacity at...

The past 12 months have been pretty significant for Roger Ryman, head brewer at South West family brewer St Austell. Not only has he seen capacity at the brewery grow to more than 35,000 barrels a year - a target he set himself some time ago - but he has been lauded by the industry for his achievements. In December he was named the British Guild of Beer Writers Brewer of the Year.

After Ryman received the award St Austell's managing director James Staughton said: "This award confirms what we at the company and fans of St Austell ales have known for some time - that Roger Ryman brings a touch of genius to the brewing industry."

His biggest success has been the invention of Tribute, now St Austell's flagship brand. It started out life in 1999 as Daylight Robbery, a guest beer brewed in honour of the forthcoming solar eclipse. Having rebranded it as Tribute, the company now brews 20,000 barrels a year.

Here he shares his views on the state of brewing in the South West and beyond.

What progress are you making with St Austell cask beer sales?

We are now pretty much at capacity. Our cask beer sales are up 22 per cent and sales of Tribute are up 39 per cent year on year. It seems the momentum has really picked up over the past year.

How successful has Tribute become?

We are now brewing 36,000 barrels a year and more than 20,000 of those are Tribute. When I joined in 1999 we were doing 16,500 barrels a year, so our other brands have remained static.

When you first brewed Daylight Robbery did you ever conceive it would have been so successful for you and the business?

To be honest you could not have written a better script for it. It was always my prime ambition when I joined St Austell to create a great beer brand - we were a great company but without great brands that would put us in the premier league of regional brewers. But I never imagined it would be this successful.

Daylight Robbery was always just supposed to be a seasonal. But it was the right beer in the right place at the right time. It is an accessible beer, sessionable, a bit lighter than traditional ales with that late hop character that is so popular now.

How has the South West brewing scene evolved since you joined St Austell?

It has become much more competitive - to the extent that now I think the South West quite rightly has a reputation as one of the best cask beer regions in the country.It is partly successful because of the tourist trade but I also think the demographic here is very favourable to cask ale.

The average age is a bit older and while much of Cornwall is quite poor there are also a lot of more affluent people, what I would call typical cask ale drinkers.

Which other South West brewers do you admire?

There are some excellent cask ale brewers in our area and competition breeds excellence. Before these other brewers started to challenge us I think we had become a bit set in our ways and the challenge of rival brewers made us sit up and take notice.

I think you have to say that Sharp's has done an excellent job in introducing Doom Bar to market - although it has certainly created a bit of a stink regionally with its pricing policy.

Butcombe Brewery has been very focused and competitive - in contrast to Sharp's, it has stood firm on its pricing and has accepted loss of volume on occasion as a result. And, of course, you have Skinner's, a massively passionate brewer.

How has brewing culture changed in the last five or six years?

With St Austell there has been a massive cultural change throughout the company. We have changed from being a sleepy family brewer to a cutting-edge business. There have been changes to working habits and flexibility throughout the business.

In the industry as a whole we are seeing the ongoing consolidation of independent brewers - such as Marston's recent takeover of Ringwood.

Do you think this is the way all successful independent brewers will go in the end?

I'm not saying Marston's will do a bad job but I would hope it doesn't have to be like that for local brewers. It would be naïve to think that the big regionals haven't had a look at St Austell. But we are all passionate about St Austell remaining an independent business. And I think the business is James Staughton's lifeblood. So I cannot see us being anything other than an independent brewer.

What are the challenges ahead in the future?

For the immediate future the real issue is costs and efficiencies. We will never compromise the brand, but where savings can reasonably be made we have to look at that. We also have to look more closely at the environmental impact of brewing. It's amazing how much my job has changed since 1999.

I am no longer responsible for producing the quirky seasonal beers - I am now focused much more on streamlining the brewing operation to help it run smoothly for the next 10 years.

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