We love Otter beer. But we perhaps love the eco-brewery it comes from – and the enviable nearby farmhouse kitchen of owners David and Mary Ann McCaig – even more…
Words by JESSICA CARTER Photos by MATT AUSTIN
Exeter Chiefs fans will be familiar with Derek the Otter, furry half-time mascot sponsored by a certain local brewery, and beer enthusiasts will be similarly excited by the sight of Otter beers at their local pubs and bars: the well-balanced Otter Ale, easy-drinking Otter Bitter, pale Otter Bright, rich Otter Head and the rest. They’re all made at the family-run, farm-based Otter Brewery, established by David and Mary Ann McCaig in the hills of Luppitt, and today boasting a state-of-the-art brewhouse and enviable green credentials.
“We’ve been here for 25 years,” Mary Ann tells us. We’re standing in her kitchen, sipping coffee and staring out at the sprawling countryside through small, wooden-framed windows. “Me and David originally came here with the idea of setting up something small, just to tide us over until retirement.”
A quarter of a century later, and that “something small” has grown into a mighty proposition, something few had really anticipated. But it all came from very humble beginnings.
“This was a derelict old farm; had been for years,” remembers Mary Ann. “And I walked into it with a husband and four sons, who were all hungry!”
Having made do for some time, eventually Mary Ann set about creating the kitchen of her dreams. For this well-practised home cook, the oven was far and away the most important element; indeed, the rest of the room was designed around it. And, although kids have long since grown up and moved out, that oven still gets more than its fair share of use. After all, Mary Ann often cooks lunch for the brewery’s very hungry, 36-strong workforce, as her son – and fifth- generation brewer – Patrick explains.
“We’re all very much a family,” he says of the team. “Family values really do underpin every aspect of the business.”
Indeed, Mary Ann is planning to start getting lots of hearty winter soups on the go for the team, just the job now the colder weather is rolling in. For these, she’ll put her vegetable garden to good use, raiding it for the likes of carrot and leek. We’re starting to see where the fuel for Otter’s success has come from all these years; after all, an army can’t march – or brew, for that matter – on an empty stomach.
Standing in the doorway of the farmhouse, Patrick points out a small outhouse, the so-called Middle Barn.
“That was originally the brewery,” he tells me. “It was your classic little microbrewery. But we soon grew out of it.”
Despite the size of the business, though, everything at Otter is still rooted in those rural values, with staying sympathetic to the land a major priority. Take the cellar; instead of installing energy-hungry equipment to control its temperature, it was, instead, simply built underground – or mostly, anyway. The whole thing is insulated with a grassy roof, from which, incidentally, rainwater is collected for washing the delivery lorries and barrels. Talking of water, all the waste liquid from the brewing process is filtered through a series of purpose-built willow beds, and eventually runs, as good as new, back out to the water systems. You’d be hard pushed to find anything going to waste around here.
“It’s just mum’s mentality,” says Patrick. “She can feed an army on what she just happens to have in the cupboards. There’s no popping to the shop.”
Oh, and remember that Middle Barn? That’s not gone to waste, either. It’s now where everyone who works at Otter gathers each day for a communal lunch.
Back in the kitchen, and we notice some beautiful ceramic plates and bowls. Many, it turns out, were made by a local potter, Tilley Young. But there are also examples from France and Italy – “and this is from Wales,” we’re told, as we’re pointed towards a particularly striking example.
“I’ve always kept jugs,” Mary Ann admits. “I’ve hundreds stored away too!”
The eclectic array of kitchenware to be found here also includes a teacup that belonged to Mary Ann’s granny (the daughter of a landlord herself ), and a tiny wooden spoon, carved for her by her dad when she was a child. Much of what’s in this room, in fact, has its own story to tell.
“There are certain knives that I simply have to hang on to,” says Mary Ann, as we check out the assortment that cling to a magnetic strip above the oven. “Take this one, for instance; my mum used to use it to cut the thinnest slices of toast you can imagine. It’s blunt as hell now, but I just can’t get rid of it.”
So yes, the brewery is pretty big now. But it’s clear that, though outnumbered, Mary Ann – and her kitchen – are at the heart of this outfit, and feed more than just the workers.
“Otter is about what wouldn’t otherwise happen,” reckons Patrick. “And it all comes from her.”