Back in the game

I’ve been off the beer recently. Not ‘off’ as in having stopped drinking it, just ‘off’ as in not quite enjoying it as much as normal. In the post-Christmas lull an awful lot of people stop drinking, take to the gym to sweat the kilos of turkey, mince pies and festive booze out of their pores. Not me, my body is a temple – dusty and crumbling into disrepair. Sure, I have cut back a bit and I have been toying with the idea of a turbo trainer for the bike in the shed in an attempt to get fit for the 140 mile bike ride I have signed up for in April but I’ve not done anything drastic yet.

The main reason I’ve not been drinking as much is that I’ve been feeling jaded with beer. My normal wide-eyed zeal for it seems dulled. I don’t know why that is. Perhaps I overindulged at Christmas and my lack of interest is my brain telling me subconsciously to cut back. Perhaps it is that there isn’t any beer I want to drink. I don’t know. Everything I drink at the moment seems sloppy or lacking something. Confronted with a once enticing beer list, nothing appeals. Perhaps I’m just being a ponce.

Anyhow, as of last Friday I can announce I am firmly back in the game. I sat down with a friend and drank one of the best beers I have drunk in a long, long time. I don’t do beer reviews, because, well, if you want to know how something tastes, drink it yourself. Needless to say the bottle of Brooklyn Wild Streak we opened was really special. To accompany it, we watched a documentary ‘Soul of America’ about a guy called Charles Bradley. Kinda apt really, seeing as he lives in New York and gigs around clubs in Brooklyn.

For those of you who haven’t come across Charles Bradley before, he is a sixty six year old funk and soul singer from New York. His story is one of triumph against all odds. Abandoned by his mother aged eight months old, left to grow up with his grandmother, running away from home age fourteen, sleeping rough for two years, almost illiterate, training as a cook and working odd jobs and impersonating James Brown for forty years. He looks after his elderly, frail mother after his brother was shot and killed. Eventually Gabriel Roth, the co-founder of Daptone records, a retro funk and soul label based in New York saw one of Bradley’s ‘Black Velvet’ James Brown tribute nights and offered him the chance to record with the Daptone house band: The Menahan Street Band. They put together a record and released it.

What the documentary really highlights is Bradley’s never ending optimism, enthusiasm and childlike awe that everything, for once, is going his way. There is a particularly poignant moment where he is flyering for the album launch party at a small venue only to see a sign on the door that the show has sold out. He gets upset and suggests it should have been at a bigger venue. Not because that way he’d have made more money, but because perhaps some of the people that have helped him along the way might not be able to come and see his show.  Despite all that the world has thrown at him, he still has an innocent soul.

Something about the combination of that documentary and that beer made everything in my brain click back into place. Stop being so cynical, just get on with it, is isn’t all that bad.

Needless to say, I’m big fan of Charles Bradley, and I urge you to have a listen to his record ‘No Time For Dreaming’

You can also watch ‘Soul of America’ here:

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What We Did On Our Holidays

Not a blog post as such, just a few photos from North Wales from new year I thought I’d share.

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The river Dee in Llangollen

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Starting the walk up to Castell Dinas Brân

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Dinas Brân from the top!

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On New Year’s Eve we decided to do the circular route from the waterfall at Pistyll Rhaedr up to the tarn and back down the other side. The snow got a bit deep in places and it was bitterly cold but, we had a lot of fun

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Zen and the art of cask washing

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Last weekend, for the first time in over two years I pulled on a pair of steel toe wellies and got my hands dirty doing a bit of commercial brewing. I was helping out long-time friend Sean and his business partner Robin at their brewery ‘Pig and Porter’ over in Tunbridge Wells.

The schedule for the day was to brew ten barrels of Ashburnham Pale ale, wash a load of casks, rack some beer and clean a conditioning tank. Easy enough with three sets of hands. After Dirty Breakfast had been inhaled, and a fortifying coffee had been slurped, the HLT was up to temperature, and we mashed in. After we mashed in, we got down to the serious business of cask washing. Much as many brewers complain bitterly about cask washing being the most soul sapping part of brewing, I really don’t mind it all that much. The system at Pig and Porter is much the same as any other brewery I have been to or worked in. De-shive, scrub the outside with hot soapy water, pre-rinse, Caustic wash, cold rinse, peracetic rinse.

What I really like about it is that you can get a rhythm going. Time everything just right and you can put a cask on the pre-rinse and one on the caustic, turn the pumps on, run outside, de-shive and scrub the outside of a cask, rinse the soap off and carry it inside (but remember to splash some soapy water over the old sticker on the next cask so it has a minute to soak so it comes off easier!)  just as the rinse and caustic cycles finish. Put the next cask on and away you go.

Perpetual motion for a couple of hours. A flow of work, time flies. You don’t have to focus on what you are doing any more, you zone out on autopilot. You retreat inside your head to ponder things. Thinking out the next steps on the brew that is in the mash tun, or trying to extrapolate forward how much longer it is going to take to finish cask washing and whether you will finish them before the sparge ends. Sometimes if the conditions are just right, you can be tramping away at it, look up at the clock and have no idea what you have been thinking about for the last hour. Cask washing nirvana.

I have to admit though, I was thoroughly knackered when I got home and I’m certain it isn’t what I’d want to do all day every day anymore. As one now retired brewer once said to me ‘I only miss brewing when I’m not doing it.’

Beer quality, the elephant in the room

I’ve just poured two bottles of beer down the drain. This frustrates me. I’ve had a long day and the thought of those perfectly chilly brown torpedoes in the door of the fridge had been a sustaining thought all afternoon.

The first bottle I opened had no condition at all. Not even the most vigorous of pours could rouse a single, cheerless bubble of co2. Down the drain. The bottle had a middling amount of date left on it so it isn’t that the brewery had sent it out too early. The second bottle was mega phenol nastiness. I’ll tolerate a bit of sulphur, a touch of diacetyl even here and there but phenols have no place in pale ale. Down the drain too. I’ve retreated to the sofa about a fiver worse off with nothing to drink. Now I understand it is bad luck to have two duff bottles from two different breweries that end up being opened back to back but it isn’t the first time it has happened to me.

As the craft beer sector grows beer quality is something that is going to have to be more carefully looked at by brewers. It is one of the very few things we can look to the big brewers and learn about. They spend vast sums of money a year on QA, and as a result they get an incredibly consistent product. When was the last time you had a macro brewed lager that wasn’t bang on spec? There will always be issues with beers  once they have left the brewery that are out of the brewer’s hands like oxidation etc, but the idea of opening a bottle of Heineken and finding it under carbonated or phenolic are unthinkable.  I bet the vast majority of UK craft breweries don’t even have a budget for QA. That too is understandable, equipment and training for QA isn’t cheap and employing someone to do it is even more expensive. Most small breweries would rather spend £7000 on a new fermenter or some extra casks rather than a gehaltemeter.

I suppose to some extent using loads of technology to get a really uniform, consistent product might be viewed by some as the antithesis of what ‘craft’ is about. Small volume, hand produced products made with great ingredients, care and love. Some people take issue with automation in craft breweries for the same reason. Somehow in their minds a button on a touchscreen, a relay and a jolt of compressed air to open a valve rather than running across the brewery and doing it manually is ‘cheating’. ‘You aren’t a proper brewer, you just push buttons’ one particularly odious Australian bar operator jeered at me when I once went into his bar with a Camden Town Brewery hoodie on. Fuck him and fuck his shit beer bar. If a carpenter came to your house to fit a new kitchen would you expect him to drill all the holes with a brace and bit? Would you expect him to cut the new worktops with a hand saw? Of course you wouldn’t. Would you callout your accountant for using Excel or a calculator rather than a ledger and an abacus? No.

Every industry uses the tools that make the job in hand easiest to do, for the best result possible. A steam jacketed mash tun with an auto temperature control can monitor and adjust the mash way better than any human can, resulting in better beer, so why wouldn’t you use it? For me at least, ‘craft’ is about making the best beer you can. If technology helps with that and you can afford it then embrace it.

The more breweries we get using keykegs quality becomes an issue too. Brewers who have always made cask beer all of a sudden see kegs coming into fashion and decide they want a slice of the keg pie too. So, what they do is make their usual cask beer and rack it into keykegs, let it condition a little bit and send it out. What the bar ends up with is murky, under carbonated beer as the brewer doesn’t really understand how to keg beer properly. Proper conditioning tanks, known quantities of co2 in the beer and an understanding of how cellar dispense equipment works are all a must.

What we need is better, more affordable training and better, cheaper remote/travelling QA services. Here is a business idea for someone, we already have a mobile canning and bottling service so why not a trained QA person with all the kit in the back of a van.  Set it up inside as a mobile lab (a la Breaking Bad) that comes to you once a month, swabs the brewery, checks your yeast, checks the spec on your last few runs of beer and gives you some training on how to use a microscope, best practice on yeast storage and troubleshoots any brewing issues you might have.  I’m not sure how nobody has thought of this yet. It is more convenient than sending beer away to be tested at a lab, easier than employing a brewing consultant, cheaper and less time consuming than going on a residential course at Brewlabs or trying to do a correspondence course with the IBD.  Beer quality in the craft beer industry isn’t good enough at the moment, we need to start talking about it.

Actually, has anyone got a spare old motorhome I can borrow? I think I might need to head out to the desert and work on this idea….

Why is the brewing industry so friendly?

Imagine the scene, a shiny suited, fat tie knotted, cutback collared estate agent rings another competing agent in the same town. They both have a similar house for sale on the same street. Does agent B happily share information about who he is showing the house to and give agent A some tips on perhaps the best way to photograph it? Like hell he does. He’d laugh down the phone and call the other bloke names. Why is it then that when one brewer is having an issue, be it a stuck fermentation, they realise they have run out of yeast but they have already mashed in, they desperately need half a bag of carapils or T90 pellets at a day’s notice, there will almost always be someone willing to help?

Firstly I suppose it is worth pointing out that the big breweries are all very cloak and dagger about this stuff, some smaller breweries too, but not many. There are also some small breweries who due to arguments, trademark issues, money owed, etc who have fallen out in the past as well. On the whole though, everyone muddles along pretty well, there is very little animosity. For example, about three years ago I got put in charge of the dispense installation, troubleshooting, budgeting, maintenance and training people to lineclean at the brewery I was working at. I knew a little, but not all that much about it. I sent a quick email off to Derek Prentice at Fullers explaining my situation and the next week I spent four days shadowing one of their install engineers and one of their cellar inspection guys. They didn’t have to do that for me, Fullers had nothing to directly gain from it, but they did it and it helped immeasurably. In the past I’ve had breweries send me pitchable quantities of yeast they’ve grown up, and once had very expensive post fermentation bittering compound sent to me to correct the bitterness that had gone awry on a batch of beer due to a new brewkit throwing our hop efficiency way out.

I think there are a few reasons why directly competing breweries might be interested in helping each other out. Firstly, there is an element of solidarity, brewers being a band of brothers. Running a small independent brewery isn’t easy. It is hard, physical work with long hours and no huge financial reward. Other brewers are in the same boat, they understand how hard you are working to make it and would like the favour reciprocated if ever they needed it. Secondly, the whole industry is a social one. Rather than you showing off your wares behind a halogen lit plate glass window on the high street like our estate agent does, your sales desk is the pumpclip or font badge on the bar somewhere. It is a tangible thing that people drink, enjoy, chat to their mates with one in their hand. By extension the brewers do the same. Being in a room full of brewers drinking is one of the messiest, impassioned, inspiring things. I think the final piece of the puzzle comes from the fact that brewers are so passionate about what they do they want the whole craft beer category to do well. By helping others, rather than being cutthroat ensures everyone sells more beer, the exposure to the public is greater and demand increases.

Any other thoughts on why our industry is so uniquely friendly?

10 Barrel Brewing, Big Breweries, Small Breweries and A Possible New Trend

Yesterday, 10 Barrel Brewing, a brewpub in Bend, Oregon announced that Budweiser owners AB Inbev had bought the company. This, judging by the reaction online I have seen, people are really very surprised. I’m not really, I have to admit. Whilst I had never heard of 10 Barrel Brewing, and I don’t know a huge amount about the purchase, I’m sure it makes sense from Budweiser’s point of view. This, and a conversation I’d had on Twitter with Tim Anderson about the ‘There’s A Beer For That’ campaign the previous day made a thought come to mind.

On both sides of the Atlantic the big, multinational brewers like AB Inbev, Molson Coors and SAB Miller are losing sales to smaller, newer, independent breweries making interesting, quality beer. Naturally, these bigger breweries are not going to sit there and let this happen. They have tried a number of things including reducing prices to try and undercut small producers. This has failed because it all it serves to do is further devalue your already faltering brands. As my current boss once said to me, ‘once you have pulled your pants down on price, it is impossible to pull them back up’. The other thing these brewers have tried to do is to create sub-brands to market craftier beers. This makes sense for them, they already have all the brewing equipment, staff and distribution deals in place to get their new products to the market. The cost to the brewery is fairly low, a bit of design work and a bit of marketing, but nothing like the cost of setting up a new brewery. This has largely failed too. Partly due to the fact that despite the new name and fancy packaging, people realise that ‘Revisionist’ is just Marstons, ‘The Faversham Steam Brewery’ is Shepherd Neame and that St Edmund Brewhouse is just Greene King with a mask on. The second reason that this has failed is that the beer really isn’t very good. I remember tasting the Revisionist beers at a trade show shortly after they launched and actually laughing.

Forget hops are the new big thing, forget sour is the new hops, the next new big thing in the craft beer industry will be big breweries trying to buy smaller breweries. Unlike the insidious way that smaller breweries were bought in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s by bigger ones only to be closed, removing completion, these acquisitions are very much to be bought as going concerns. The big brewers have realised that they can’t win custom with their old portfolios, they can’t brew credible beer even when they try, but they have cash.

The worst part of running a small brewery, even if it is successful is cashflow and finance. Cashflow is tough because to make beer you have to buy ingredients, brew with them, ferment them, pay overheads like rent, cleaning chemicals, water, waste and staffing then you have to deliver the beer. This process might take a month. On top of that, the customer will want a minimum of thirty days credit normally, so for your initial outlay you might have to wait for two months for a return. Aside from the cashflow issue, banks for the last ten years or so have been pretty reluctant to lend money to start-up businesses, this means that a lot of new breweries are financed by a mixture of personal savings and private investor’s money. This is a mixed blessing, investors will often be involved in the running of the company and have business savvy, however, all their investment is based on their appetite for risk and, essentially what reward as a percentage they can earn out of the business. If the business is successful and someone comes along with a fat cheque book, most investors will rub their hands and laugh all the way to the bank, leaving the founder of the brewery in a position they weren’t necessarily expecting.

This has happened a few times already, we have seen Molson Coors acquire Sharps so as to have a credible cask brand they can expand nationally. In the US we’ve seen Goose Island and Redhook sold. In Australia, Little Creatures has always been at least part owned and founded by money from Lion Nathan which, in turn is now owned by Kirin. All of these breweries still make good beer. If anything, with the finance for expansion and better brewing facilities afforded to them the beer has the potential to be better, more consistent and more widely available. In those examples I have mentioned both the brewery being bought and the brewery being purchased have been open and honest about the purchase. This has to managed carefully as if you try to get sneaky an conceal things like Blue Moon tried to, and the stealthy initial purchase by Coke of Innocent smoothies, things will go sour pretty quickly, especially if things are changed without people’s knowledge. Coke came under particularly heavy fire for reneging on Innocent’s contribution to charitable causes.

I don’t think we need to worry about every small brewery being a target for purchase I’d expect to see ten or so sold in the next couple of years. And, managed properly, if the big beer accountants stay out of the business and let them go on making good beer but allow them access to the resources I can’t really see a downside. AB Inbev have already got Blue Point Brewery, Goose island and a major distribution ownership deal at Redhook in their portfolio and have added 10 Barrel. They seem to be serious about having a craft beer operation, and it would seem logical they buy more breweries soon.