Jeff Evans: Remembering Roger Ryman

At the end of May, news that Roger Ryman had died was met with an outpouring of shock and deep sadness.

Roger was head brewer at St Austell Brewery and was admired and liked by everyone who knew him. His passing, at the all-too-young age of 52, is a tragedy for his family and colleagues but is also a huge loss to the wider brewing industry.

In his 21 years at St Austell, Roger helped transform the British brewing scene. It is no hyperbole to suggest that what he achieved in
Cornwall electrified the whole community of regional family brewers. He set a template that others have acknowledged they have needed to follow in order to survive and compete in rapidly changing times.

When Roger arrived at St Austell in 1999, the company was in bad shape. Like many other regional breweries, it had suffered from a lack of investment and for far too long had been taking its tied pub estate for granted as an easy outlet for the poor-quality beer it was turning out. Not for nothing was the company known to certain locals as “St Awful”.

But credit to the board of the business who took a punt on a 32-year-old brewer with big ideas. Their bravery paid off when Roger set about changing the whole ethos of beer production in the business.

Overhauling outdated brewing practices, buying better ingredients and paying proper attention to fermentation, he immediately improved the quality of the St Austell range but, at the same time, he went a step further by creating a slightly paler beer with a more extravagant hop character as a special brew for the total solar eclipse that year.

It was called Daylight Robbery and, once the excitement of the occasion was over, it was retained as part of the St Austell range under the name Tribute. Today, it is one of the UK’s bestselling ales.

The popularity of Tribute encouraged Roger to come up with other new beers – many first showcased at the annual Celtic Beer Festival he inaugurated at the brewery – undoubtedly the most successful of which was Proper Job IPA.

When this beer was first released there were few British beers so distinctively laced with New World hops, so it immediately grabbed the attention of drinkers.

Today, St Austell claims it is the bestselling bottle-conditioned beer in the country and it has also just been launched in cans. This emphasis on small packaging again shows how Roger was ahead of the game.

By persuading the St Austell board to invest in a bottling line back in 2009, he ensured that the brewery remained nimble and able to quickly respond to a changing market. Breweries that did not follow suit are not in such a good place today, as the Coronavirus lockdown has shown.

What Roger achieved at St Austell was remarkable. He took the brewery output from a mere 15,000 barrels a year when he started to more than 150,000 barrels today.

The pubs have been transformed too. From the start, Roger understood the cellars needed a complete overhaul if the better beer he was producing at the brewery was to arrive in the same condition in the customer’s glass.

And the beer range is unrecognisable from the 1990s – a vibrant, high-quality selection that allows the company to compete even with today’smicrobreweries.

Looking at that heritage, other regionals have sought to “do a Roger Ryman”, as I’ve heard it described.

Through his achievements, they have realised what they have to do to remain relevant in today’s beer world.

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