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Same storm different boats

Words by Lucy Cornes

At the Cornish Crown Brewery high on the west Cornwall hills overlooking St Michael’s Mount, the winds of change are blowing.

Josh Dunkley

Perched between the dramatic sweep of Mount’s Bay and the wild and rugged Penwith moors, the Cornish Crown Brewery is used to being buffeted by tumultuous conditions. Still, nothing could’ve prepared owner Josh Dunkley for what 2020 held in store for him and his fellow small brewers. As the year draws to a close, he thinks he’s finally found his feet in the ‘new normal’, and believes a phoenix may have risen from the ashes.

For Josh, it all began 16 years ago, when he and his wife Michelle bought a run-down pub by the sea in Penzance. “When we came across The Crown it was on the verge of closure,” he tells me, as he checks the vital stats of one of his latest small batch brews. “It took some serious graft and elbow grease, but we nurtured it back to life. In the last two decades many great pubs have closed their doors for good; we’re very proud that The Crown has not only survived but is now one of the best places to enjoy beer in the whole of the south west.”

Like the brewery itself, The Crown is all about the beer. It boasts a well-kept range of beers in cask, keg and bottle, constantly changing – reflecting the seasons and Josh’s latest creations. You’ll find warm Cornish hospitality and a down-to-earth sense of community at this neighbourhood pub, which is often described as one of Cornwall’s hidden gems.

Having nurtured their now beloved pub back to life, Josh thought, what if we make our own beer? “We liked the idea of not having to go to the trouble of sourcing beers from all over the country and exercising complete control over the whole process,” he recalls. After some serious study and a stint at a reputable national brewery, the Cornish Crown Brewery was born. There was a certain naivety in the decision to start a brewery, Josh admits, adding that it’s a tough, labour-intensive business which he often runs single-handedly. For example, on the day I visit him in the brewery he’s busy racking casks and loading up before heading off on local deliveries in his electric van. The fickle nature of the beer market has also led to countless sleepless nights over the years; many small brewers find themselves constantly on a knife-edge between success and failure.

Josh keeps his brewery spotlessly clean.

Yet Josh is still passionately, obsessively, into making beer. “The desire to make good beer has really got under my skin,” he confesses, somewhat unnecessarily, as he darts around the spotlessly clean brewery making minor adjustments to temperature controls and gazing lovingly at his new toy, a ‘hop gun’ which delivers optimum infusion for hop-forward IPAs. He tears his attention away: “Our friends and family will tell you that it’s all I really talk about – luckily we still get invited to social occasions, perhaps because we always bring the beers!”

Several years have passed and Josh says some hard lessons have been learnt along the way, but he and Michelle are quietly proud of what the brewery means to west Cornwall. “Our business would be nothing without the community around us,” says Michelle, who I meet later that morning at brewery tap, The Crown, just a short drive down the hill into Penzance. “By growing sustainably, we aim to have a long-term positive impact – socially, environmentally, economically – on the area.” This genuine love for what they do and where they do it, permeates both the brewery and pub, and a little gets thrown into the hopper with every batch of beer. Just as wine critics talk of ‘terroir’, you can taste the maverick spirit of Penwith in every pint of Cornish Crown beer.

Passion and community are watchwords in Josh and Michelle’s domain, as is curiosity. “We have huge respect for traditional brewing practices but also for the rebellious trailblazers of modern brewing,” Josh explains as, back at the brewery, we continue the tour past a row of Scotch barrels, where he is experimenting with ageing a Vanilla Porter. “We like to go into the unknown. To experiment, innovate and push the boundaries. Sometimes it backfires, but we’re ok with that! We don’t take ourselves too seriously – that’s one of our biggest strengths.” In fact, it seems a humble attitude and a sense of humour are essential qualities when running a small brewery in Cornwall, where the best laid plans can be affected by everything from the weather to the Wi-Fi connection…

Josh cares deeply about the raw ingredients he brews with.

However, no amount of planning could’ve predicted the total upheaval which arrived in spring 2020, like the mother of all storms scudding across Mount’s Bay under dark, laden clouds. For all of Cornwall’s breweries, from the smallest nano-brewery to the big national brands based in the Duchy, the pandemic is an almighty, ongoing challenge.

Words to live by!

The raw ingredients of brewing – hops and malt – were suddenly hard to come by, and essentials like bottles and kegs were in unprecedented demand. When the UK went into full lockdown in March, the market shifted overnight into one entirely based on home consumption, something which stymied entire product lines and marketing plans for most breweries. There were depressing stories of vast amounts of beer having to be poured down the drain because it could no longer be sold in pubs.

Smaller breweries were plunged into a battle for survival, but they also had some advantages. “One analogy which comes to mind is riding a push bike on a road which suddenly turns into a pitted, twisting track,” says Josh. “You’re liable to fall off and it’s tough going, but it’s better than driving an articulated lorry in the same circumstances.” Small breweries can be agile and responsive, and probably haven’t shelled out on the kind of marketing campaigns which, because of the change in lifestyles and habits, became irrelevant overnight.

“I think like lots of other industries, we’ve seen roughly five years of change and evolution condensed into about five months,” Josh tells me. “For example, pre-Covid we were still producing quite a lot of cask beer for pubs. It was a shrinking market then, but that has been accelerated at warp-speed by the pandemic.”

Like many small businesses, Josh immediately saw that his only option was to diversify, and to do it quickly. In the space of a few weeks he devised a plan to relaunch the brewery, practically picking it up and setting it down in mid-2025. The Cornish Crown would become a technologically advanced brewery producing a constantly evolving range of lagers and beers, canned on-site and increasingly sold direct to the public.

Josh has invested in cutting-edge equipment for seamless production of these small batch lagers and hop-forward IPAs. He explains: “We now have a filtration system to produce clear and crisp lagers; the hop gun to deliver optimum infusion for hoppy, punchy IPAs; and a canning machine which allows us to be seriously agile in creating an ever-evolving range of beers.”

Brewed in west Cornwall for the UK's beer lovers.

These canned and bottled lagers and IPAs, designed for the modern palate, are the new focus, with sales through the relaunched website and orders delivered promptly across the UK. Meanwhile Josh has bought an electric van for local deliveries, enabling him to make eco-friendly doorstep drops around west Cornwall. He explains: “Local customers can also order online for ease, and delivery over a certain amount is free within the immediate area. Our customers are embracing the opportunity to drink a great range of beer made locally in small batches, with carbon-neutral delivery to their doors.” Josh hopes this speedy adaptation will have saved his cherished brewery from the ravages of the pandemic, setting it on course to be a sustainable contributor to the life and soul of west Cornwall for years to come. “The phrase ‘same storm, different boats’ comes to mind a lot,” he says. “I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to adapt, and hopefully our vessel – though clinking with beer bottles and with a slightly dishevelled man at the helm – is now weather-proof for what lies ahead. It’s vital that we all rally round and support small, local businesses. I know from experience that it’s more than a livelihood – it’s a passion.”


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