Tuesday, 29 July 2014

MusicStream

I like music. I have a broad appreciation of various genres and can even play a little guitar and piano. Music is useful in many retail situations like shops, restaurants, bars and pubs. It's also nice in some work situations to have a bit of something to cheer the day along.

Most customers don't think about the implications of playing music in a public space. Indeed, you might work in a place where the radio is on giving nice background vibes, and not realise that your employer is faced with a little problem.

PRS and PPL are organisations that supposedly collect money for music authors, recording artists and music publishers. They feed the line that without them artists would not get paid for their work. In reality, in this bloggers view, they are money grabbing monopolies. I simply do not agree with their policies, tactics and most importantly their apparent assertion that there is no other choice available for the business owner who wishes to stay the right side of the law.

Admittedly, if you wish to play popular contemporary music, in almost any public or work situation, this might in fact be true. Almost every artist, their promoter, recording company and distribution rights are, in fact, controlled by PRS and PPL. To play most well known music you need to have a licence with each of these rather dubious organisations. I think it is wrong that you cannot avoid it if you wish to play well-known music.

What really gets me is that royalties are collected from broadcasters for airplay. If I allowed a radio in the brewery I'd have to subscribe to PRS and PPL. We currently we don't allow a radio because I do not see why I should pay for something that has already been paid for. However, the law as it stands not only allows for this double charging, but demands it. I think it is wrong to insist that if my staff wish to bring in their own radio that I have to pay for that facility.

To digress slightly, if you wish to buy my beer, you could go to Booths stores, for instance. Or you could buy it on-line from our web-shop. Or you could go to our preferred on-line retailer, Beer Ritz. Equally you might like to pop into any number of specialist off-licences. Or, you could go to a good pub or even a craft beer bar.

You see, we give you a choice as to where you buy our products. We do not believe that any sort of  monopoly is a good thing. But there is a choice with music too, provided you are happy to go with talented unsigned artists. There are various systems for alternative PRS and PPL free music. I think it's a great idea as it helps not only to provide an alternative to the dubiousness of the apparent single option, but also gives an alternative to creative music artists as a route to market.

We've got in MusicStream in Hardknott OnTrack. We like it. It sort of conforms to our non-conformist take on everything. The music is good too, with way more genres than we'll ever need. There is even jazz, if you are into that sort of thing, which I'm not, and so have banned Neil from playing, much to his disgust, and probably some of my readers too.

For our size of little bar PRS and PPL might not be any more expensive, but that's not the point. PRS and PPL phone us up and give the impression that there is no other choice. This is simply not true.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Squiddy

"What was that dark beer I had the other week?" the nice woman asked me "I don't normally like dark beer"

We'd popped into Hardknott OnTrack last night for a couple of beers. The nice couple were working their way through various beers and the discussion had turned to that of colour. As is so often the case, these people have been swayed by preconceptions, but thankfully we'd done something to help overturn this.

The beer in this case was Yerba, our collaboration with Metalman in Waterford, Ireland. It's a good beer with a whole load of interesting, if fairly subtle flavours.

I like collaborations because it always adds a new dimension to brewing hat might otherwise get missed if working in a environed closet. It's something that is important to me, to ensure that we keep exploring new ideas.

And so, when the Birmingham Beer Bash guys decided they wanted to do a collaboration with us we were very pleased to oblige. After various discussion, which I mostly forget, we came up with the idea of a beer that was as dark as we could get without having significant impact on flavour. A crisp, light tasting beer but with a bit of colour.

This weekend saw the launch of Squiddy, which is arguably a daft idea - a beer with squid ink in it. As it turned out the idea was somewhat dafter than I hard anticipated. Squid ink, it seems, clings to nearly anything it can rather than stay in suspension. I guess this must be true otherwise overtime the oceans would start to take on something of a hue.

The result was some very interesting coloured spent hops after the transfer, and a wort that was just about the same colour as if we hadn't bothered.

Watch the video to see how we solved the problem.  The resultant beer has a very interesting colour, a nose reminiscent of rock pools and a subtle salty seaweed flavour. If you listen carefully to your glass, in a quiet corner somewhere, which obviously was nowhere to be found at the buzzing B-Cubed event,  you can hear the sea. If you concentrate hard enough you can imagine the sound of children building sandcastles.

Whatever you might think of this beer, it at least does further prove the point; Don't judge a beer by it's appearance, that's the road to preconceptions that will colour your overall judgement of beer. If we can change these preconceptions, like we have with the people in our bar last night, one person at a time, than I can consider my work worthwhile.



Squiddy Episode One from Hardknott Brewery on Vimeo.


Squiddy Episode Two from Hardknott Brewery on Vimeo.

As a footnote; the idea of squid ink in beer was first suggested to me by Alex Routledge when he was brewing for me. I completely poo-pooed the idea at that time thinking it probably wouldn't work. However, over time the idea had burrowed a dark and erie cavern in my thought processes leaving me wandering like Smeegle in my own troubled mind. In the end I had to find out just how silly an idea it was.

Thanks Alex.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Containing a Problem

There are many interesting issues associated with running a brewery. It is not unreasonable for those who don't work in a brewery to be blissfully unaware of many of these problems. It's not their fault.

One very interesting problem is that of containers. Casks, kegs, KeyKegs and other draught beer transport mechanisms.

They cost money. Sometimes quite a lot of money. There are ways of reducing those costs, i.e. through the use of plastic casks for instance. However, there is generally a cost of ownership somewhere along the line.

We like eCasks and eKegs. We like them a lot because we simply call up our friends over in the depot, they send a pallet or two, or three and we get along with filling them. We generally buy them in clean, which costs a little more, but we reckon it's worth it as cask washing is somewhat labour intensive. We could reduce the man-hours for cask washing by buying a big expensive machine, but then we'd have costs associated with the big bank loan we'd need to take out.

Plastic casks are less expense than stainless steel, but our experience is that they also have a significantly shorter life span and eventually you'll loose more than the savings in lost beer due to split casks. Stainless casks cost around £75 each to buy. Some might be less, and better ones a little more. There is second hand, but often the differences are not that great.

We are lucky at the moment that none of our finance is associated with our container population. This probably won't last long as we need to up our population. We do have some kegs on lease, which is not too bad, but there is a monthly charge.

All in all there is no wary around the fact that there is a "cost of ownership" associated with container populations. There is an inevitable shrinkage of this asset pool and every day a container is out of the brewery it's costing money.

Pubs probably don't think too much about it. It's not uncommon for pubs to have the clever idea of cutting casks open to use as planters, or make hand stools from, or even to use as parking bollards.

This last example did sort of annoy me as they were our casks. We uplifted them. I considered many courses of action including sending the offender a bill or asking the police to look at the criminal damage aspect. I also considered contacting the paper and putting our case, but thought that might just be bad PR. I ended up doing very little on the grounds that it might just spiral out of control resulting in an unpleasant tit-for-tat fight with the pub out of which no one would win. After all, the pub landlord probably didn't really understand.

You can perhaps understand my bewilderment when I saw the Publican Morning Advertiser piece where the pub has clearly decided to use their criminal behaviour1 to gain more publicity.

You can imagine I was somewhat further annoyed by the audacity of the pub's landlady for clearly going out of her way to publicise her clear vandalism. However, after further consideration we still decided to do very little2.

But I duo want to record some errors and misinformation in the report.

1. We have more than once tried to recover the casks, but had been told they were not there. We have also phoned the pub for orders, but they hadn't ordered since those casks were delivered. They had every opportunity to inform us that the casks were there to be picked up. One can only assume they knew the state of the casks.

2. The casks have been out of the brewery for less then 2 years and not the stated 6 years in the article. We know this from our cask tracking software.

3. We did not "confiscate" them. They our ours, we were simply reclaiming our own property.

But meanwhile, there is a nice thread on Facebook regarding the matter. Certainly those in the know in the industry seem to think the pub is out of order.

In other news, we have a nice table in our new bar.


------

1We have since gained advice from various sources and we could indeed ask the police to consider a case of criminal damage. We would of course be totally within our rights to send a bill for either refurbishment or replacement and follow up with debt collection should it remain unpaid.

1Write this blog post, actually, was the agreed course of action. I suspect few of my readers will side with the landlady. Also, I think there might be an attitude that casks are free for operators of pubs to do with as they wish. I mean, leave them out in the hot sunshine, without a bung, so as the files lay eggs and cutovers post in fag ends. Makes the job of cask cleaning such a delight.

The point is that there is a lot of work to do to inform the on-trade of the costs they push onto breweries and so the cost of beer due mainly to a lack of appreciation rather than maliciousness. I can imagine that out there in pub land many publicans actually don't see a problem. It's not their fault, bless them.


Saturday, 28 June 2014

OnTrack is Open!

(Quick update - click the title above to go to the website for the bar)

Three weeks ago we got keys for our new tap. The lease had not been finalised with Network Rail, but our immediate landlords let us have access despite advise from various legal people1.

Anyway, between then and now Ann and I have been in Canada for a week, and yet we have managed to open a bar. This is partly due to some very hard work done by our staff, plus ancillary support from LemonTop Creative and a couple of very good local businesses.  I'm pleased with the results.

Our town now has a craft beer bar, one that adheres to the standards and values of Hardknott. I'm pleased.

To start we are open;
Thursday 6pm - 11pm
Friday 12 noon - 12 midnight
Saturday 12 noon - 12 midnight
Sunday 2pm - 10pm

Times subject to change if we find that trade shows this is possible.

Before





Now 








--------------

1Legal people seem to be able to make money from absolutely nothing. I despair at the costs they layer onto jobs for what seems to me to be no added value.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Montreal part 2

The reason I am here in Montreal, Quebec, is to judge beer. It's all done now. I had to taste and evaluate a total of 48 beers. 10 of us were involved, each beer being tasted by three judges each. A total of just short of 130 beers.

View from our hotel room
My airfare and hotel have been paid for by Mondial de la Biere in exchange for bringing my experience in beer to the judging panel. I now get a few days to enjoy Montreal, the beer festival and relax for a few days before returning to what I expect will be a busy time back at the brewery. It is not for me to say why the folks here feel I'm a good candidate for inclusion in their panel of judges. None-the-less, I feel honoured to be included in a multinational team. Judges included Canadian, Italian, Swiss, American and Brazilian.

It is inevitable that when the judges have been flown from various parts of the world we are all taking the judging very seriously. Add to that the obvious care and attention given by the organisers, and a heavy implication of how serious this should be taken. Despite a serious approach the whole affair was conducted with a friendliness and good humour one would expect from any international beer event. Indeed, the humour in which Serge, the facilitator of proceedings, repeated at each round, in his charming Canadian-French accent, and with a comic lilt, "Oh, and I almost forgot to say, don't forget to put the number of the beer on the sheet!"<1>

One of the things that struck me about this judging was the focus and intent by all involved. Equally, the lack of discussion during judging was very definitely to my liking. I know that I sometimes detect different things in beer compared to other people's perceptions.  Sometimes I miss defects that others pick up in low concentrations. Equally, a very competently made beer can sometimes for me be just a little too flavourless or lacking depth. I like flavour bombs, and so a beer not only needs to be well made, but in addition needs some depth of flavour, originality and integration for it to score highly for me.

When I have judged at UK festivals there is inevitably a discussion occurs between judges. I would be sure, irrespective of how competent any table captain was at trying to ensure the less confident judge had his say, dominant personalities will bias the result. I know, I've been there and seen it happen.

Serge Noël (rear left)  and (most of) the judging team
This competition also has another interesting difference - the removal of unnecessary preconceptions. Firstly, we are not told the style of the beers we are judging. On the one hand this makes it difficult to know what the brewer intended. But the real positive for me is that nothing could be marked down because it was "not true to style" - This I very much liked. I've heard of, and witnessed, many great beers being marked down, or even thrown out of competitions just because the beer was deemed "not true to style" I'm a big style sceptic anyway. Perhaps this is one reason for choosing me.

The other thing I liked was the use of "black glasses" not completely opaque, but certainly giving a much reduce idea of colour and clarity. "It's all about the flavours Dave" Serge had explained to me, and even though he has some personal doubts about the smoked glass, he has the commitment to ensure the competition is run to the collective agreed rules of their organisation.

Le verre noir - along with our beers and AllBeer's French book
Judging without any peer assistance, any clues to style and without seeing the true colour or clarity is a bit daunting at first.  Equally, the pressure to do the best job I could felt quite intense. After all, these very good people have flown me 5 times zones and put me up in a very nice hotel. They deserve my best efforts.

I'm sure the reader might have various questions to ask regarding the methods used. My biggest question would be that if every beer is tasted by only three judges, is this a satisfactory cross section? However, we only had a fairly small time-slot within which to conduct the judging. Certainly after the first day, when we each tasted 36 beers and thought very carefully about each one, my palate and my concentration were jaded. Some of the last beers were 10% plus on that day. There is a possibility that my concentration could have been impaired due to the consumption of 36 different beers, even if the volumes were quite small.

 I have enjoyed the experience, even the challenge. Because my beers were not in the competition, and indeed I believe very few, if any of the beers presented I have tasted before, it made for a really refreshing experience as a brewer. I'd even go as far as to say that it has helped me to appreciate beer even more and still widen and deepen my skills.


--------

<1>It is quite obvious that if a judges assessment cannot be paired with a beer then that beer will lose marks.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Montreal part 1

I do enjoy travelling. At least, I enjoy going to places I've never been before. If I think about it, I'm not sure I enjoy the actual act of moving large distances anymore. I enjoy the anticipation as an emotion whilst moving. The excitement of not really knowing what to expect. Of course, what ever you try to expect, the realisation is always quite different when you get there. But, now I think about it, travelling itself is a real pain in the butt.

I'm sat in a hotel room right now, resting after a couple of days of beer judging. I was asked to skip over to Montreal for the Mondial de la Biere, which is a rather large beer festival in Canada. We've also sent beer here, although I hasten to add, we didn't enter any into the competition I just judged.

When asked if I'd do it, with hotel and flights paid for, I didn't really have to think too hard about if I was going or not. Plucking up the courage to ask Ann if it was OK for me to do it took a little longer. But, flights and hotel paid for in return for tasting a few beers? No brainer, I think.

As it happens, we decided to pay for Ann to fly out too, I thought it only fair, and after all, I'm rubbish at packing suitcases.

Travelling in the name of beer never ceases to fill me with new ideas, changed perspectives and inspiration and sometimes just a little bit of frustration at the inertia I feel we sometimes exhibit in the UK. As more and more people experience world beer culture so we see this culture influence the UK beer scene. In turn we also see a widening gap between those who are open minded and have travelled, and those that cling to tradition like it's the only thing that is important.

There is a down side of our ever increasing global travel. There is the fact that London will soon be under many feet of sea water when the poles melt and that soon the oil will all run out and the planes will fall out of the sky. But that's not the down side I refer to. The real problem I'm finding is the increased difficulty in traveling.

I want to touch on this because I feel beer travel is a great way to widen horizons for any committed beer geek. Air travel has never been cheaper in real terms I'm sure. But it's become a right ball-ache.

I could be wrong, and I'll stand corrected if I am, but I'm sure once-upon-a-time transit through another country was a breeze. Provided you were travelling with the same carrier all the way through you check your luggage and go through security once. You didn't need to clear customs if you are in transit through another country and you just move on the secure side of the airport to your connection. Oh, and for sure, you did't need to claim your bags and re-check them in.

We travelled through Philadelphia to get here from Manchester. Apparently the tickets were cheaper than transferring at Heathrow. If you read this blog and take away one piece of useful information it would be that Philadelphia airport is a real nightmare. We stood in line for boarder control for a whole hour. We had to pick up our hold luggage and then re-check it having cleared customs. We then had to stand in line again for about 45 minutes to clear airport security again. I would have loved a coffee, or  beer and a relax and sit down before our next flight. However, a 2 1/2 hour stop over left us no time at all, only catching our plane with minutes to go.

It seems as more and more people engage in global travel it becomes more and more arduous in terms of security, especially when connecting in a country other than your origin or final destination.

But still, we are here, and Montreal is fantastic. It really doesn't feel like North America, and I hope I'm not insulting the fantastic people here by saying it has a brilliant European feel. It's only the cars, trucks and some of the architecture that reminds you that it's really the Northern American Continent.

I'll have more later on the festival and my experiences of the judging. Meanwhile I'll leave you with a link to a live TV interview I did this morning.



Righty, off to drink beer!

Monday, 9 June 2014

All Change

It's been something of an interesting time these last couple of months. We had a couple of staff leave, which meant a significant skills gap was staring us very firmly in the face. So firmly indeed that I wondered if we were going to survive. Our bar project was already due to take a significant amount of my time, so losing a brewer was very much a problem.

But, undaunted, we pressed ahead and advertised. We advertised on this blog, in the local press and on the SIBA website. Several great people applied. Many thanks for those that did direct from reading my blog. Another time perhaps it'll be you.

We interviewed several people. One guy seemed to me to be perhaps just too good on paper to be as good in real life. He originated from New York State, has home-brew experience, and had also worked in retail. Equally he likes the outdoors and plays guitar. You might think this is irrelevant to joining a brewing team. Possibly, but when looking to build a small team it is useful to have some common interests. Like minded people always rub along a little better I feel.

When he came to interview sporting a fine craft beard it seemed that he was the best candidate for the job.

So, we hired Scott Larrabee, an American who has married a UK citizen and has been living in Cumbria for several years. After an amazingly short length of time he has gotten used to our crazy brew-kit and can just about brew by himself. I've left him in charge of the brewery whilst we swan off to Montreal and I'm almost not in the slightest bit worried.

I mentioned guitars. Well, of course some people claim to be able to play. Sometimes I have been known to show off a little, with little sucess. Scott, it turns out, plays proper ol' fasioned acobottle neck blues on RESONATORS. And he doesn't just have one resonator, but two. And, just to put the cherry on top, he can play them with a level of confidence that, if I don't keep my emotions in check, makes me want to break his fingers<1>.

So, as we have suddenly seemed to have almost reached mid-summer, things are getting slightly more OnTrack.

--------------

<1>I'm kidding of course.  I don't ever actually get the urge to break the fingers of people who are better at playing musical instruments than I am. However, it's the closest I can explain to the actual bizarre feeling of hearing, and seeing ones contemporaries performing and providing a complex combination of pleasure and jealousy that actually urges a determination to just bloody well get on and improve yourself.

I think a brewer tasting a really good beer, that he didn't brew himself, has a similar feeling.