Inside the small Devon brewery which makes one of the best beers in the world

Within its first year of opening, small independent brewery Powderkeg had not just achieved its ambition of shaking up and modernising the Devon beer market, but had also gained international fame by being celebrated as producing one of the best beers in the world.

This month, aptly on November 5, Powderkeg marked its seventh anniversary since opening up at small premises in Woodbury Salterton.

Despite the pandemic, the business is going stronger than ever before with new hugely experimental and unique products about to be unleashed.

As fascinating as the session-craft beers it concocts is the husband and wife team who run it, and despite their vast number of successes and awards – most recently being named in the top 10 independent breweries in the UK – their ambitions still remain the same today.

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That’s because John and Jess Magill are more than happy keeping the drinkers of Devon – and the 100 or so pubs they supply – happy with quality beers, while also bringing up their two children locally.

John, the head brewer, has been a self-confessed beer lover from his late teens but only discovered his talent for brewing after having worked in various jobs, including as a market researcher.

After living in Australia for four years, he joined a brewery in Somerset and his career path has not deviated away from the industry since. After working for The Exeter Brewery he decided to use all the skills he had learned to set up his own brewery in East Devon.



Powderkeg founders John and Jess Magill
Powderkeg founders John and Jess Magill

John, who has a degree in microbiology, said: “I’ve always had a scientific bend to whatever I have done. I had been thinking for a long time that I was either going to be a cheesemaker or brewer. I decided cheese making would make me fatter!

“I’m of the generation – and being from a small town – where there was not much to do so I admit I did drink a lot of beer in my late teens. The quality was obviously not what it was like here at the brewery, but I’ve always enjoyed a pint.

“I also knew I wanted to start my own business, but something unique. When I joined the brewing industry it was as a business development manager and I learnt to brew by starting from the bottom of the ladder. My first years were spent keg washing, cleaning and all those things.”

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Once John had learned all the skills he required, he launched Powderkeg in 2015 to fill a gap in the market after realising how limited the variety of beer was in Devon.

That immediately changed when it introduced its now infamous Cut Loose Pilsner into pubs in Devon. By the following year, it had been voted one of the 16 best beers in the world at the International Wine and Spirits Awards.



Inside Powderkeg brewery
Inside Powderkeg brewery

John modestly says: “It was a matter of timing, as so many things are. I had been brewing traditional real ales for about eight years for other people so when I started up my own brewery I focused on craft ale, bringing in international styles and a wide range of ingredients. It was not being done in Devon at the time so it was my chance to be the ringleader and shake things up a bit here.

“Beer essentially has four ingredients – water, malted grains, hops and yeast. However, there are hundreds of yeast strains, around 70 varieties of good hops, and between 20 to 30 different malt types to use. With all those varieties it means you can spend an entire lifetime never making the same beer twice.

“I brew to my own taste – and I think I’ve got great taste. Some people might disagree!”



The team at Powderkeg
The team at Powderkeg

Powderkeg is a small enterprise with six members of full-time staff, including John. It can make around 25,000 litres of beer in its tanker at any one time. Around 90 per cent of what it makes is sold and drunk in Devon.

With the future still looking strong, John has plenty of achievable ideas up his sleeve, including organising a small beer festival in Exeter city centre, opening a little venue in Exeter to sell their beer from, and experimenting with many more new recipe ideas.

He said: “We are not a major operation by any means. We have never had ambitions to take over the world; I’m not that ambitious. The mission has always been to make a change in Devon where we enjoy living and make beers I would want to drink in a pub myself.”



Powderkeg's Speak Easy
Powderkeg’s Speak Easy

Powderkeg’s best-seller is Speak Easy, and is the first beer it brewed. However, what most customers won’t know is that what is served up now has changed from those early days, and continues to evolve.

John explained: “It is a totally different beer to when it was first produced. In craft beer, quite a lot of breweries never brew the same beer twice. We always wanted to have a core range of three to four beers which are pet projects. Those are the ones we are always tweaking and perfecting to make it that little bit better – but I’m the only one who notices.”

Another ‘pet project’ is Cut Loose Pilsner which is extremely labour intensive and not cost-effective to produce, but John continues to make it just for the pure love of what it tastes like.

John said: “It was the beer I first really wanted to make. It’s totally impractical really as a beer because it takes at least seven weeks to make just one batch. I could make around three batches of Speak Easy in that time as that only takes three weeks.

“I’m not a very good businessman because I never really operate on the principle of what will make the most money, but the best beer we can make and how can we make it better, and hope that everyone buys into it and sees the value.

“Cut Loose is my favourite one to drink of them all because the love shows in it, and that’s the one that wins best lager awards. It was named the best lager in the UK last year.”



John Magill is Powderkeg's head brewer
John Magill is Powderkeg’s head brewer

Despite all the awards successes, John definitely doesn’t let it go to his head and believes the most important critics is his faithful loyal Devon following.

It was them who kept the business afloat during lockdown when John became known as the ‘beer milkman’ when the brewery launched a delivery service.

John recalled: “The hardest thing about the pandemic was we had spent four years getting somewhere and then suddenly I was back to being a one-man band for around three months while everyone was furloughed. That’s when we developed the home delivery service and selling from the workshop kept us ticking over.

“It was depressing, but equally we adapted well. It was hard work, but luckily our overheads are quite modest. I always remained positive, although the first week was horrific as no one knew what was going on and it was before they had announced furlough or any support.

“With a business this size there’s always obstacles in the way. Since the restrictions have been eased we have come back stronger overall and are now doing better than ever. We are just thankful that is the case as some people are struggling.

“We are thankful for the support we have had which has made all the difference.”

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Lockdown was also the perfect time to begin experimenting with some new unique ideas which are now ready for customers to sample.

New in pubs this week is Inkling, a coffee milk stout brewed with copious amounts of espresso coffee from local coffee roastery Gaia Coffee in Paignton.

But if you want to sample it you had better be quick because John has vowed it is a once-in-a-lifetime only batch due to how labour intensive it was to produce.

He revealed: “The coffee shop is a really lovely operation that offers work to people with learning disabilities or disadvantages, and a space for local community groups to meet. We approached them as I wanted to combine coffee and beer, and brew together.

“We have already said we will never brew it again. From our part, we just had to brew a delicious beer. However, those guys had to expertly make 140 litres of espresso coffee to add into the beer after it was made. With each shot only 50ml at a time it took them 70 hours – hence why it will never happen again, so get it while you can!

“However, it has made a really exceptional beer. Not to blow my own trumpet, but if you want a coffee stout this has a full shot of espresso in every pint. You can even taste the specific beans we have used because that’s how distinct the flavour is.”



The core range of beers produced by Powderkeg
The core range of beers produced by Powderkeg

Also about to hit the shelves in a couple of weeks time is Chocolate Doppelbock with just 100 bottles in existence, and is a hefty 8.5%.

John said: “It’s a very strong European style that is really very deeply chocolaty and is a warming winter beer. But it’s deceptive as it does not taste like 8.5% – but you will fall over!

“That will come out the week after next. I have hundreds of new ideas, it’s just finding the time to squeeze them all in.”

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