Thursday, 23 July 2015

Acquisitions and Mergers

I learn today that Alltech have bought a Cumbrian Brewing company. Cumberland Breweries is situated in the north of our county in a place called Corby. They make Corby Ale, for instance, an inoffensive and popular beer. Some might say lacking character, but that is in the palate of the drinker I guess.

Dr Pearse Lyons, who ownes Alltech, is an interesting character. I've met him. Friendly, personable, and seemingly interested in knowing about people. He is also a Billionaire. One could argue that he deserves his success due to his obvious abilities. Never-the-less, I'm somewhat worried about his foray into the UK brewing industry.

Dr Lyons modus operandi so far in the Irish market is to attempt to be friends to all. I know there has been some skepticism to this during his Alltech events in Dublin. We've been to two such events, which have been quite different to each other. The third, it seems, was different again. Finding his feet in a market that is probably moving faster than the UK, and potentially has less established tradition allows him to fly high with the craft beer message.

Over here in the UK, with established organisations like CAMRA, SIBA and other such bodies, his approach is bound to have to be less conciliatory, and much more aggressive. I'm certainly concerned about his arrival in the UK, and can see that it might well spell the start of something new. How desirable that will be remains to be seen.

Personally, I'm not all that sure Cumberland Breweries make anything that I'd like to consider Craft Beer. Dr Lyons is purporting his craft brewery credentials. Off course, he might be planning on lifting the Cumberland Brewery image to that of craft. Equally, I'm unsure if this would be good or bad overall. Then again, perhaps he sees more of a future in the traditional side of the British beer industry.

I'll be watching developments of this move quite carefully. For sure I think it might well be the start of various alternative ownership models that will slowly percolate through the industry. What I am fairly sure about is that the industry cannot sustain the numbers of breweries that are now evident. I am convinced that breweries smaller than ours fail to have a chance of sustainable progression. This is simply due to the economics of supporting the owner and workforce and generating an autonomous entity that can be sold.

I do see a future of breweries either being merged, or bought out, and those that do not go through this change are likely to fade out of existence, unless they become big enough in their own right.

Friday, 10 July 2015

How can you tell if it's Craft Beer?

As a leading craft brewer of the NW of England, we might as well just come right out and say it.

We are a Craft Brewer.

I decided fairly recently, after some years of trying unsuccessfully to bridge the craft beer/real ale  divide, that we should just firmly pin our colours to the mast. Some breweries act a little bit like they want to be considered as craft brewers, but don't want to come right out and say it. Some brewers still stick quite firmly in the traditional quarter, and are proud of the fact. Some breweries, like us, are very happy to claim their craft status.



Now, in a recent turn of fate, securing several routes to market, and having already bottled twice as much beer this year compered to the whole of last year, we thought it a good time to play hardball with the glass bottle suppliers. One sales guy was phoning me up offering us bottles at a reduced price, while another wanted to come and see me.

Along came this nice chap called Chris, and we had a pleasant chat about stuff. Just as I was ready to barter hard, he pulled out a sample bottle that spoke craft beer to me. I became verbally excited. I might have uttered some sort of thing like "I WANT THEM!!"

I then quickly realised I had put myself into a poor negotiating position. It is a little difficult to say you'll go elsewhere to get it cheeper, if actually the thing you really want you can't get elsewhere.

I wanted to be able to say on our packaging that we are different. It's important to ensure everyone knows we are a craft brewery. These bottles say exactly that. Other breweries could also buy this bottle, so eventually we'll get our own branding done. We are still below the sensible level for having our own Hardknott branded design1 so we thought it sensible to go with these new bottles.

I'm working towards a few fun videos of various supplies to the brewery. There'll be one on malt soon. I've already done a little bit on water2, although really that one is half finished. Once the hop yards are in full bloom ready to harvest, I'll hopefully get some of that too.

These bottles were being made for the first time last week, so I invited myself over to the Beatson Clark factory in Rotherham to see the very first batch being made. The fact that it was probably the hottest day of the year, and temperatures were over 50 degrees centigrade on the factory floor didn't put me off. It was a great day and I'm really glad we did it.

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1Beatson Clark would happily make branded glass bottles for us. However, the costs of the moulds, which we would have to pay for, would take several years to pay-back. It's an aim to get to the point where we can put a Hardknott logo on the bottles, so, help us out and buy more Hardknott!!

2See the water video below. I haven't given it the honour of it's own blog post as it's still work in progress. However, in it's current state I've not given it a voice-over or any sort of commentary. You can't hear my voice anywhere in it at all. The finished version is bound to end up with me wanting to put my pennies-worth in, so watch it now, before I mess it up.



Where would you like to go? from Hardknott Brewery on Vimeo.

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Technical notes:

To make the video quicker and more watchable I've avoided making it into a mini documentary. I expect some of you would have preferred a techie type info-film. I'd just wanted it to be fun and entertaining. Hopefully I did at least achieve that in part. So, for those of you that are interested, here are a few facts and mitigation for artistic licence used.

1. The part where the "gob" falls into the mould is actually several, I think 5, videos overlaid to give a better, more interesting view. It makes the machine look like it runs a lot faster. In real life it is quite fascinating to watch, but when I got the footage back home I felt it was boring, hence the false edit.

2. In real life the machine can make around 90 of these bottles a minute. Our filler can fill about 12 per minute. In 48 hours continuous production Beatson Clark made enough to keep us going for a whole year. They would actually like other people to buy these bottles too, or perhaps just more of you to buy more Hardknott.

3. The "batch" running up the conveyor is actually for clear glass, which of course we don't use. That was just what the conveyor happened to be running at the time. Batch is the name given to the mix of recycled glass, sand, and various other materials to give the glass the colour and other characteristics needed. Amber glass, which is what we use, has a higher proportion of recycled glass in it, presumably because it is more forgiving, or easier to correct for colour.

4. Beatson Clark have 2 furnesses. You will no doubt guess one is for clear glass, which we are not interested in, and if you care about beer, neither should you. The other is for amber glass, which is what beer goes into, unless you are the type of brewery that is more interested in making a profit and maximising sales rather than making great beer that doesn't get skunked. Beatson Clark recently rebuilt and upgraded their amber furness at a cost of several million quid.

5. It takes around 30 hours for the batch that travels up the conveyor to end up at the other end of the process. It is a continuous process, so why the feck it is called batch I have no idea. The recycled glass is called cullet.

6. The bottles that come off the forming machine don't just cool of their own accord. They have to go through a lehr, which is a sort of temperature gradient oven. It helps to anneal that glass to stop it being too brittle. They also get coated, which I believe also helps make them more robust, protect the bottles, and from what I have read elsewhere, helps make them have the right lubricity to run smoothly through our machine. This lehr also takes them down to a nicely handleable temperature for the cold side.

7. The cold side follows the lehr, and as most of the glass containers are for food or pharmaceuticals, we had to follow hygiene procedures before we could enter this area. Obviously the hot process kills everything. It would be daft to contaminate. It means that the bottles arrive at our brewery food ready only needing a cursory rinse to ensure no foreign objects and to get rid of tiny particles that are left by the glass process.

8. There is a series of fascinating, at least to me, automatic inspection and rejection machines in the cold end. However, I didn't feel much of this equipment made interesting video. Seeing them did increase my confidence, which was already good, in the quality and reliability of the glass bottles. There is also a QA lab, where they test samples for weight, glass thickness, pressure rating, slip angle, fill volume and various other useful parameters just to check everything is tickety boo.

9. To get to the conveyor in a place that was easy to film I had to climb two ladders to get to the top of the process. It was very hot up there. The metal ladder rungs were probably at the limit of what my hands could stand without wearing gloves. I expect the temperature, which obviously reflects the air temperature, must have been above 50 degrees centigrade. The guys working on the line, in full boiler suits and PPE, must have been melting. Hope they all went to the pub for a pint when they knocked off.

10. There has to be a 10, just to make the list tidy. This one is more of a discussion point. Where should we go, I mean the industry, in terms of packaging? Cans are becoming the rage, and there are some advantages for sure. Micro-canning is still in it's infancy and I'm not sure of the ability to get oxygen uptake as low as we can with bottles. We have had some issues and have noticed shelf life problems occurring. We have solved a particular issue relating to the double pre-evac process and we check batches through a shelf life testing program Scott is running.

The double pre-evac basically sucks out the air down to about 0.1 atmospheres absolute. It then pressurises to 1 atmosphere gauge, i.e. 2 atmospheres absolute. It then repeats. The gas in the bottle now contains very little oxygen. Using oxygen scavenging caps, or ensuring a tiny amount of live yeasts in the bottle mops up that small amount.

I think getting can right to the same standard is going to be more difficult. Bottles have a narrower neck and the process is hermetically sealed on the same head right through double pre-evac to filling and it is held under fill gas pressure right through to filling. After filling we ensure that as much as possible the foam sits nicely at the rim of the neck until the cap is put on.

With cans the empty can is purged with CO2. It is not evacuated. The theory is that the air is pushed out as the CO2 is pushed in through a nozzle that goes to the bottom of the can. In practice here will be some mixing with the air surrounding the process. The can then travels to the filling port and is filled via a nozzle the again goes to the bottom of the can. The CO2 is pushed our by the beer, but again this is at atmospheric pressure the whole time. The beer is exposed to a much greater area of air before the can lid is placed and then sealed onto the can.

Now, because a can has less, or perhaps even no head space the theory is that the total package oxygen take is less. I expect this is true on a machine that is running very well. However, I consider myself to be fairly well informed when it comes to automated machinery. I have a degree, part of which was on various topics relating to such things. I've also got 30 odd years of engineering experience. Besides, our bottling machine has not been trouble free and it is a very good job I am an engineer.

I think that some breweries may well find canning machines significantly less forgiving due to the nature of the process. Due to the lack of the hermetically sealed pre-evac and filling system I think the theory might be harder to get right in practice. Indeed, it is failure of the seal that has caused us the majority of our problems in the past.

Having said all of that, I'll admit that if I was starting over right now I'd have to seriously consider whether to go for bottles or cans. We've made our choice, so for now this is where we are. If we get the bottling machine running full tilt, then we may well consider cans, if they are still as popular. The craft beer market moves fast.

But I think bottles are more classy. As Beaston Clark say "Premium beer deserves premium packaging"

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Saturday, 4 July 2015

4th July, a good day to die?

Today is Independence Day. At Hardknott we think that we should observe the anniversary of an important day in world history. For us not least because Scott is helping us brew some truly stunning beer at the moment. I'd really like to take all the credit myself, but that would be most unfair to the very great contribution our American brewer is providing us.


4th July from Hardknott Brewery on Vimeo.


Generally, of course, American Craft Beer is having an increasing impact on the British Beer Scene. We take our influences from things we find over in the USA. We try to make beers similar to beers we have tasted from there, and hopefully we'll bring a bit of America to the UK without having to ship beer over the Atlantic with all the added costs, fossil fuel burning and problems of freshness.

One of the biggest antagonists in the UK beer scene is BrewDog. I bought a share way back when Equity for Punks was in its first incarnation. Folk thought me daft. Well, they have certainly grown out of all proportion since then. We now have Equity for Punks IV. Should you invest? Well, of course I'd prefer you to spend your money on Hardknott beer, or wait until we do something similar. If you have some spare cash, why not? Probably better than putting your money into a Greek bank right now.

Anyway, the guys sent me a little goodie pack including Born to Die, which has a best before date of today. We thought we'd review it alongside a few of our beers.

As an aside, and just to be clear, it is a very good beer, and certainly not in danger of going rank after today1. I expect any spare stock will be sold off at a good price. Go fill your boots.

Which is better, Born to Die or the selection of Hardknott we tried? Well, beauty is in the palate of the beer holder, I expect, but we know which we prefer.

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1I expect most readers of this blog know perfectly well that best before dates are only advisory. It is NOT illegal to sell beer that is after its best before date. Indeed, some beer can be better after, Fuller's Vintage, for instance (have a look at my previous blog post about yeast in beer. John Keeling points out in the comments that putting yeast into beer isn't just about bottle conditioning, it does help ageing)

It is indeed the case that many food items have best before dates, it is neither illegal nor dangerous to sell these items after the best before. When something has a use by date, then it is illegal and unsafe to sell or consume such items. Things like meat, fish, some cheeses and dairy products have food poisoning risks where the use by date is important. Beer, crisps, many cheeses, much dried food all have best before dates. Sometimes, as in the case of stilton2, or Fuller's Vintage, better after the best before date.

2I have the tail end of a round of stilton I bought from the wholesaler a while ago which says it's best before 12th June. This is a lie, it is much better now than when it was bought.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Yeast in your beer

I used to be a fan of yeast in beer. It's not that I no longer am, but that my focus has changed a little. I came into the beer scene whilst running a pub that majored in real ale. Back then the idea of craft keg was barely a thing in the UK. Cask was king, and of course still remains so in many pubs and ares, even if stunning keg beers are really starting to take off in a good and positive way. Cask is unfiltered and generally contains at least some live yeast. Cask remains stubbornly a sign of quality beer for many, despite the major disadvantage of variability of actual dispense quality.

Bottled beers are, in reality, a different matter altogether. The Belgians seem to do bottle conditioning very well indeed. Some British breweries can do a good job. In reality though, it is an extremely difficult thing to do well, needing a knowledge of the residue fermentables in the beer to be packaged, the current carbonation level and a yeast cell count and viability. Equally there may need to be oxygen present if secondary fermentation is to occur, but not too much, else the beer might stale early.

We have bottle conditioned in the past. We intended to produce entirely bottle conditioned beer originally, as we felt this was the "right" thing to do. We still occasionally play with the technique. What we have found is that the consistency of the finished beer is nowhere near as reliable and consistent as when we simply bottle with carbonation that is picked up in tank.

As a bit of a background, our bottling filler is a counter pressure filler. What this means is that to operate correctly there must be balance between the pre-pressurisation of the bottle and the head pressure in the filler bowl. Failure to get this right messes up the operation of the filler valves and can cause fobing of the beer and so incorrect fill. It just doesn't work right if no pressurising gas is applied.

The problem with this is deciding whether to use CO2, nitrogen or air as the counter pressure gas. If using CO2 with bottle conditioning it can be the case that there is insufficient oxygen dissolved in the beer and therefore there is slow and unsatisfactory secondary fermentation. Using air at pressure might over-oxygenate the beer, causing premature staling. There isn't a correct answer, but one solution used is to ensure minimum residual fermentable sugars, by ensuring complete fermentation, carbonating to a satisfactory level, possibly even chill filtering, or centrifuging and then re-seeding with enough yeast just to give an illusion of bottle conditioning. There will be a tiny amount of secondary, but in reality the only thing this does is mops up stray oxygen, although there is a strong argument for saying this is a good thing.

We used to do this faux bottle conditioning, as do quite a few breweries that have beer in the Good Bottled Beer Guide. We probably could have continued to do this, and so maintained our listing, but we recently decided that this wasn't what was best for our stunning beer.

At the end of the day, a business has to do what the people who make up the customer base really wants the business to do. When we put yeast in our beer we got more complaints about the beer than I was happy about. Gushing bottles, flat beer, beer with bits in it and other failures that are clouded by the questions of whether it is in fact faulty beer, or just consumers not understanding how bottle conditioned beer might behave.

I think the people want great beer, consistently and without bits. We have changed now to a process that drops the beer bright in tank, carbonates in tank and then we put through a rough (nominal 5 micron) filter just for security. There may well be traces of yeast get through, but we do not guarantee a cell count. What we are looking for is minimal secondary fermentation in bottle, as the carbonation levels are exactly as we want them at bottling. The double pre-evac bottling system reduces oxygen in the bottle to an absolute minimum ensuring long shelf life.

The relatively rough filtering ensures that all those stunning hop characteristics we've worked hard to put into the beer don't get stripped out again by a stupidly tight 0.45 micron filtration system often employed for bottling.

And it seems what we are doing now is exactly what the people want. We're getting much love for our beer on twitter etc as it rolls out into Morrisons and Marks and Spencer's. This is helped by the fact that the beer is very fresh. Just today I had to stop typing this post to go load pallets onto the waggon bound for the Morrisons' depot. Some of the beer was still in a tank when I got up this morning. You can't do that with bottle conditioning, and there is now some question in my mind that suggests that really great hop-forward beer degenerates during the secondary fermentation stage. Not so with tank conditioned beer. It's great just as soon as it's bottled.

Friday, 12 June 2015

We're very busy

So, it seems I haven't posted for over 2 months. I think I need to up my game a little.

Scott digging the spent grains
I've a good excuse. We've bottled twice as much this year to date than we did the whole of last year. Things have been stunningly and rather pleasantly hectic.

Anyhow, to continue to build on this success I need to spend less time helping dig out the mash tun, or helping out with the bottling, and more time focussing on my real job, which is charting the future of the Hardknott phenomenon. We have plans, you see, which broadly consist of buying more stainless steel, but with some extra special ideas thrown in.

We could really do with an assistant for Scott, the 2nd most important biological organism1 that exists in the brewery.

Do you think you have what it takes to be the third most important biological organism that exists in our brewery, or even better, beat Scott to second place? Do you think you have what it takes to take Hardknott to the next stage? Can you help Scott so I don't have to and I can get back to blogging, tweeting and generally all the other stuff I like to think I'm good at?

If so, there is a slightly more formal advert on the SIBA classified page. Read it, if you like that too, give me a call, or send in a CV.

dave@hardknott.com
01229 779309

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1The first, of course, is our yeast. It is more important, and there are billions of times more of them than there are of Scott. Mind you, if I could find a way of propagating Scott as efficiently as we seem to be able to propagate yeast our troubles would be mostly over.

Our yeast
As an aside, and a serious and important note, we changed our main house yeast strain last November. We've been concentrating on getting this one trained to do just exactly what we want it to do. our beer is now significantly more spectacular as a result. Really, it is very, very good indeed. We get much more reliable attenuation, stronger hop characteristics and
overall, just stunning beer.

And, without Scott, it wouldn't have gotten this good. So now we'd like to get him some help because he deserves it.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Which Morrisons

It seems quite a few people are pleased we've got our beer coming to Morrisons shelves. I've been asked a few times which stores are stocking. I emailed a couple of people, both of whom replied with a list of stores.

I did have to do a bit of digging to double check the stores and their exact locations. Due to differences in data between stores stocking Hardknott and the fill list of Morrisons, along with inevitable new openings and a few closures, I might have made the odd mistake. Still, should be 99% accurate.





Click here to get full list of stores stocking

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The down side of duty reduction

There are many costs that affect a brewery. We've found this year, for instance, that some of the major hop varieties we rely on have been scarce. This inevitably means increasing costs, or alternatively a compromise on recipes. As the economy improves we see, quite rightly, wage rises. This ripples through to increased costs of labour. Fuel may well be low at this present time, but that won't last long, you can bet on that and it's already showing signs of increases again.

RPI falls to zero - but for how long?
(Image curtesy ONS)
Out of all the costs we have to manage, beer duty is the one that is published widely. When it goes down, and the government promise a penny off a pint1, it leaves us brewers wondering what we should do about all the other costs that are rising.

Traditionally a duty increase signalled the time when we could all look at our costings, across the board, and make appropriate price increases. Yes, a penny or two on a pint, by the time it got to your glass, often looked more like 10-15p. The reason for this is that the brewery, and the pubs and shops that stock the beer, rolled their annual price review together into one event, and that was all shrouded by the duty increase.

Now, considering with the recession and all, beer prices at the brewery gate haven't seen much of an increase over the past few years. However, costs, as I've said, are going up. Overall, this is having a detrimental effect on the ability to earn an honest living out of beer.

The reader could be excused for questioning my arguments, based on today's announcement by the ONS of zero inflation. This is making interesting news, but one thing is certain, economic growth is not possible without inflation. As we move from deep and difficult economic times we will see increased economic activity, increased wages and fuller employment and increased inflationary pressures. Many would argue this is essential for economic recovery, but either way, we will see prices increasing for everything, and that includes beer.

In the past I've had pubs we supply ask me how they are going to explain to their customers that they probably can't pass on the duty reduction through to their pint prices. Indeed, some have even said that they should really be looking to put up prices, despite duty reductions.2

Some customers this time around have been asking us if we are going to reduce our prices in response to the budget. I'm quite clear on this. No.

As we are still below the duty threshold, and enjoy a 50% discount, the reduction in duty is only a half of the published amount. This results in the reduction in duty on a bottle of Azimuth to be only a shade over 0.3p. Meanwhile, a cost of living increase for our staff, hop price increases, transport cost increases and heating and power cost increases will put that, plus more, back on the cost of manufacture.

The duty cut will help us keep a level keel, help us to continue to develop our business, to invest in the future and to build a solid and competent team. It will not help us to reduce our prices, overall efficiency elsewhere might, but not a relatively minor duty reduction.

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1Actually, the real shocker is that even at full duty rate it is not even a penny off a pint until you get to 5% beer. Yes, Stella might enjoy that duty cut, but not your pint of 4% session ale, that works out at only 0.85p per pint. Micro-brewed beer will enjoy only be 0.4p on a pint of 4%. A bottle of Azimuth will only see 0.34p off its beer duty. It isn't very much really, is it?

Now, before my friend Keith Bott, or any of any of the other great people who have worked tirelessly to stop the beer duty escalator, and at least reverse the trend a little shout at me, I do appreciate it. We are in a much better situation now than we might have been had the escalator still been in place - except, if I remember correctly, it was linked to inflation.......

{Edit} It has been pointed out in the comments that in fact the duty escalator was 2% above the rate of inflation. So, even with zero inflation, we'd have seen an increase.

2I've known pubs put out a jar with 1p pieces in it with a sign saying "Here's you beer duty reduction, if you can be bothered to take it" - really, a penny? Why are those little copper plated steel things still circulating? they are more bother than they are worth banking, which is why many pubs are happy to give them away.