Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Metalman in a metal can

When the whole talk of craft beer in a can started, a few years ago, I honestly thought it wouldn't take off. It's just crude to serve beer from a can. Uncouth. Totally unrefined and certainly not the thing that a respectable craft brewer would promote.

Well, it turns out I was wrong. My first realisation came about when I was having a bit of a twitter rant about the subject when well respected brewer type from NZ, Kelly Ryan, listed a few plus points of the format. It seems that oxygen take-up is much lower, headspace less, weight of the packaged product certainly lower per ml and metal cans significantly more recyclable than glass. I remember the put-down quite clearly. "there you go Dave, made a dumb-ass out of yourself again" I thought.

Last year we went over to Ireland and brewed with Metalman. Great fun was had making Yerba and Ireland is such a lovely place. The folks in Waterford are grand, too.

I remember GrĂ¡inne and Tim were looking at canning, and had already made up their minds back then to by-pass completely the idea of packaging into bottle. I have been watching their progress, quietly from a distance, it has to be said with a little bit of envy. I learn today that they have finally got their machine installed and are pushing out cans of their fine Pale Ale.

I still have a few concerns. The whole business of ensuring a gas tight seal, and the fact that the beer surface is so much larger before sealing than with bottle worries me. It doesn't quite stack up in my mind that the risk of oxygen take-up is actually less. I am left to assume that the real danger is from gas diffusion through the seal. In bottles there is a hard and inflexible surface of the glass against which a plastic seal is forced. The seal isn't perfect and despite the CO2 being at pressure there is still a movement of oxygen molecules which are smaller than carbon dioxide molecules. (32 grams per mole, compared to 44). The crimped metal to metal surfaces once must assume are a much tighter seal.

There are other problems, which I wonder how canning brewers manage. For a start, we get between a few hundred and 20,000 labels printed at a time. We get 18,050 bottles delivered per order. We do have to buy branded caps in lots of 110,000 (Next up it's green for us) - but we don't have to have huge stocks of very much.

Cans, now, as best I can tell they are printed in lots of at least 100,000 at a time. That is a shit-load. I know what 18,050 glass bottles look like. 5-6 times that is going to need a big warehouse, and that would be for each and every product. At least we don't have to buy our bottles with the label already on them. We're bottling tomorrow, I will probably decide which beer when I get in to the brewery, safe in the knowledge that the bottles don't care. It only takes a few minutes of swearing to get the labelling machine to work properly.

And then there is the little nightmare of paying for the damn things. Cash-flow, it's a real bastard, really it is. Just in time is the way forward, not having a great big warehouse.

However, as a firm convert to the idea of microbreweries pushing out keg, with various advantages, why should any format be the preserve of big breweries? If cans provide a route to market for smaller breweries then why shouldn't we have a slice of that particular cake?

Cans are indeed light. Around 30% of the weight of our bottles is glass. This becomes significant when considering transport. Whether posting our from our webshop, of for that matter any of the on-line places you can get our beer, there are weight restrictions that impact on the costs of getting it to the customer. We can only put a maximum of 1,200kg on a pallet. If a third is glass there is less room for beer.

The recycling thing is much more important though. Metal is relatively easy to recycle. Cans can easily be sorted into aluminium and ferrous with simple magnetism. They can be crushed and transported in an economic form.

Glass is harder to sort. Apparently there is technology that can deal with it, but one can assume this has to be done before any crushing occurs. For certain it's much more complex than just waving a magnet next to the stuff. The nearest place to Cumbria that can automatically sort glass I believe is in Liverpool.

We have to pay about the same to send any waste glass into re-cycling as we do sending it into the land-fill route. At the other end I am told by our glass supplier that they cannot get enough waste re-cyclable glass. My local re-cycling entrepreneur tells me it is the transport that kills the economics. All down to weight again, you see.

So, is Hardknott going to start canning? I know Thornbridge have decided to stear clear for now. I'm keeping an open mind, although more and more these days, on a whole range of subjects, it seems this is the best strategy, at least up until the point of saying "yes".

Monday, 26 January 2015


It's still January. Don't worry, there isn't much of it left. You can all come out of your self-inflicted, miserable, demoralising de-tox programs soon, and life can get back to it's cheerful norm.

We've been busy. Very, very busy indeed. We should have some really exciting news before long. We are told that three of our beers, Azimuth, Code Black and Infra Red into a major national supermarket really soon. Looks like around a doubling of our machine throughput. Best get the cogs of that bottling machine greased and some more hops and malt ordered.

Last week we got to Manchester Beer and Cider festival. It was good to catch up with people there. In particular the guys behind the Tryanuary initiative. It is good to see some real enthusiasm in January, when so much of the world is looking down and miserable.

Keep up the good work guys, sorry I didn't get a link on here sooner.

Meanwhile we can look forward to an enjoyable year as we start to approach spring. It makes me wonder what good it does to have self-inflicted abstinence in January, when we are already suffering the withdrawal of the fun of Christmas. Surly we should just get ourselves down to the pub and have a couple of pints to relax.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Elixir of Invincibility

Some time ago Vitesse Noir was banned by The Portman Group. The award winning duo Boak and Bailey, in their book, 1suggested that we had contrived it as a publicity prank.

"(Hardknott) even had its own rather contrived dispute with The Portman Group"

Elixir of Invincibility
Now, it is important to me to take this opportunity to state that we did not, on that occasion, intend to poke The Portman Group with a pointy stick. They genuinely got a complaint from a member of the public, we simply milked the PR opportunity. It was all a bit of fun for us. Sport, even.

Yes, this however, is a contrived attempt to bait The Portman Group. If it works, we'll get some free PR.  There is no doubt that last time the positives significantly outweighed the negatives. If they don't bite then we can be satisfied that they have learnt their lesson and will leave us alone.

When we recently decided to make a 7.3% double IPA we wanted to catch the attention of people. The beer itself was to be made all with Southern Hemisphere hops, Scott had researched the optimum dry hopping rate, and we got along with brewing it. This beer is now ready to send out in bottles and kegs.

Meanwhile a talented young artist, who is doing A level art, drew me a picture reminiscent of various fantasy type stories. The various Middle Earth movies were shot in part in New Zealand, which has stunning scenery. I'm a fan of The Disk World stories myself. A load of tenuous links perhaps, but we came up with the name "Elixir of Invincibility" and got our very good friends at Lemon Top to finish off the design of the label.

And then we decided to go up into our local mountains and film a sort of adventure, a tenuous story, and some great views. I was going to try to incorporate wizards, dwarfs, trolls and magic into the video, but as it happened, The Chinese New Year has resulted in the resident Cumbrian dragon being unavailable for filming.

Elixir of Invincibility from Hardknott Brewery on Vimeo.

1It is important to note that I am not in anyway upset at the comments in their excellent book. Indeed, if anything, I am quite flattered.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Welcome to January

Well, the seasonal stuff did a fair bit of good for Hardknott. We took some risks, like a Christmas beer, and promotional activity at Booths. They both went quite well, but not without a fair bit of hard work. In particular, Figgy Pudding was a huge risk due to the problems of what to do with anything left over after the event. Clearly Christmas beers, in this post seasonal period of fashionable starvation and dubious detoxification, would not sell afterwards and we would almost certainly be left with unsalable stock. As it happens, demand outstripped supply for bottles and the little bit of keg that is left will go into bottle now for ageing experiments.

Some of us will carry on with our own carefully balanced lifestyles, broadly unchanged by passage of man-made social influence. However, much of the population will have New Year's resolutions and will be desperate to counter the largely self-inflicted gluttony by diet, abstinence and some sort of quack detox scheme. Dryanuary, for me, is one of the most ludicrous ideas ever to have been dreamt up. Really, if you are that worried about your relationship with alcohol perhaps you need to seriously look at your drinking habits.

We are constantly told by the press, and Government, that we eat too much of the wrong stuff, drink too much and fail to take enough exercise. We all have busy lives, me too, and finding time to fit in that visit to the gym, or go for a jog, or whatever, is so damn difficult. For me, the number of times I've left work far later than I should of, got home, and made something quick and easy, and far too damn much like comfort eating. Moreover, if travelling, it's very difficult to eat healthily, tastily and economically. Frankly, a burger meal just seems so much better value than a super food salad.

Considering the above, it isn't surprising that January brings out all the daftness of New Year attempts to make ourselves more healthy. We don't want to let go of the throttle over Christmas, we went to the supermarket, bought all sort of temptations we didn't really need, you can't let them go off. With a fridge still dangerously full, off we go to the supermarket again for New Year's event, because we can, well, it's that time of year, this is what has to be done. So, full of guilt we knuckle down for the January cleansing. It just seems to get dafter every year.

Of course, I support every individual's right to determine how they should live their life. However, I wanted to write this re-buff to Pete Brown's detox defence last year, but never got around to doing it. It's not that I don't get some of the points Pete makes. I just think that there is an alternative view to his points that we should all consider. The problems of pitching-on yeast and keeping a yeast strain going, which is really the way to go if consistent and efficient brewing is to be achieved, a solid production and sale of a base-line is required.

The other big issue for such boom-and-bust business is cash-flow. It is an absolute nightmare. What we would all like in business is solid, dependable and constant cash-flow. Buying in of raw materials, production, delivery and timely payment of invoices. Seasonality mucks this up something terrible. We need to try and find enough cash resources to fund the production of extra in November and December if we are to fully benefit from this peak in trade. On top of the risk of not selling what beer has been made, there is the difficulty and cost of finding that cash.

This wouldn't be so bad if there was any real evidence that longterm detox really worked. OK, well done, you lost a stone in January. But then your metabolism has gone into famine mode. Come the beginning of February the beast is let loose again. OK, so you might ease back into it and still be a little health conscious, but come Easter your body still remembers the famine of January and energy is stored ready for the next famine period.

So yes, if Pete is pissed off with the industry for telling him he's a traitor then I'm just as pissed off with him for being one. We don't need leading beer writers to join in anyway with the neoprohibitionists. Although I would defend the right of Pete to write about what he wants to write about, and indeed there is an argument that it is bringing the issues out into the open, but here is my equal right to rebuff what I see as a silly stance on the subject. But despite my desire to support his right to his own way of dealing with his health, and to write about it if he wants, in reality I do wish he'd just shut up on that particular subject. The problem of course is that Pete is a good person, likeable, writes well and is hugely respected, this is why we are all the more upset by his betrayal.

His somewhat outraged  indignation at the complaints by solid pub fans that at Christmas there are too many occasional  drinkers, and the pubs are empty afterwards does grate with me. As my fairly meagre living comes from the trade, and seeing all the difficulties of staffing pubs, organising the stocking, the risks of overstocking, or under-stocking, of course we get irritated by the huge fluctuation and massive business risk associated with it.

Over Christmas pubs have to staff-up with temporary staff, many perhaps on what I'm sure Pete would see as an evil zero-hours contract. In January what do they do with all those extra staff, and indeed, perhaps there isn't even work enough for any permanent staff the pub might have.

I like the people who have a problem with the over-full pub at Christmas and the empty pub in January. They are our solid customer base the rest of the year and without them we'd not have a business at all.

There is, however, one thing I do agree with Pete about; the lack of healthy options in pubs. However, having tried it myself, it's actually not anywhere as easy as one might expect. It's all to do with what is expected from a pub. You see, although it would be nice to have healthy options, it turns out people don't generally go to pubs to be healthy. Pubs do what they do because it's actually what works. OK, perhaps a little extra effort in January might not go amiss, but generally, in a pub, when given the healthy choice most people just plump for chips anyway. We like chips, you see.

There is an alternative, called Tryanuary. I like the idea, and it deserves a blog post all of its own, but I'm mentioning it here incase I fail to write that piece.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

All's Fair

All of a sudden there was a stream of expletives from Scott.

"What's the matter?" I enquired, bothered that something terrible had happened to that day's brew.

"Have you seen this in Beer?"

Our local friendly Royal Mail man had delivered and Scott had found my copy of What's Brewing and Beer. Now, you think I sometimes have a pop at CAMRA. It's nothing compared to the things Scott has to say about cask beer and some of the views held by those who try to uphold its future. It's not that he doesn't think cask beer can't be good, it's just that he's come from USA where fantastic beer is found in abundance in keg and he doesn't understand why the same doesn't happen here.

I viewed the advert for Theakston's Best Bitter, on the inside front cover of Beer, and thought to be an amusing jibe at craft beer.

"Kumquat in beer? Now there's an idea" I said "For that matter, lark's tongue in aspic flavoured crisps sounds like a fun spoof little gag, had we the resources to pull of such a heist"

It seems to me that there are a couple of ways the established brewing industry can deal with what is by now undoubtedly becoming a major player in the market; craft beer. It can jibe in a most unpleasant and confrontational way or it can join in with the fun in an amusing rebuff whilst maximising on the particular breweries old peculiarities.

Scott seemed to think that the advert was a cheeky slant on craft beer. I thought differently. Firstly, for Theakston to be even able to use the advert the term craft beer has to ring bells. OK, so those bells might be bells of distain for the readership of Beer, but still, it shows a coming of age for craft beer.

But moreover, at a time when there seems to be many people claiming that we should all shout universally that all beer is good, it seems to me that at least one brewery is ready to fight gloves off. I for one welcome this. Theakston absolutely have the right to identify and contrast their own unique selling point; that they believe they were an early craft brewer right back in 1827.

And of course, we have every right to point out that we are a modern brewery, crafting our beers to hit a more progressive, adventurous and open minded drinker. If we choose to put kumquat in our beers to excite our audience, or dry hop the hell out of them, and point out that this is one of the many things that makes us different to the rest of the sometimes rather drab major players, then we have every right to do so.

Monday, 24 November 2014

A list which is short

Working out how to push out beer to more people is something that preoccupies me quite a lot. Being tucked away in a corner of Cumbria, where there is not exactly a bustling centre of urban activity, creates challenges. The country side is stunning, but we don't have an easy ride from the perspective of finding sales opportunities.

View Larger Map

Luckily for us we keep getting mentioned in various publications, on-line and in the printed media. This doesn't happen by magic. It doesn't just happen because we make stunning beer. It happens because we work very hard to get our name noticed. The great thing is I enjoy engaging with the beer world, being a bit controversial, and helping to shake things up a bit. It gets me into trouble a little, but you know, you can't bake a cake without cracking eggs.

It isn't that there is a lower proportion of the population locally looking for stunning progressive craft beer, it is just that there are less people. A niche market in a small population is quite tiny. For this reason we do have to try a little harder than breweries that reside under a railway arch in a metropolis1. Our rent might be lower for our quite deliciously expansive industrial unit on our significantly under-occupied industrial estate, but conversely our transport costs are higher.

But I digress into another preoccupation eating my Azimuth soaked braincells, that of the assertion beer is "cheap to make" - I do feel a little like tackling this one, but that's for another post. Hopefully Stringers Beer2 might actually engage in a less rascally way this time, as he seems to be on my side from the nice rebuff he is seen to make on that point on an interesting comment exchange on Ed's blog.

In looking at costs associated with filling a glass with a particular beer, one thing that has to be done to make it happen is finding the correct audience. The route to market can be complex and is largely invisible to the beer drinker. For us, getting beer efficiently to say London we have to convince a distributor to buy the beer of us and then that distributor has to find pubs, bars or shops to buy it off them. The pubs and bars then have to sell the beer fast enough for them to want to re-order next time. This diverse route to market is like a chain; if any of links become damaged or broken our beer doesn't sell as well. Our market is geographically large but selectively niche. It is the way it is and we quite like it this way.

For any product, beer or otherwise, to succeed its awareness has to be heightened in all links of the supply chain. This, all by itself, can introduce significant costs into the overheads of the brand by way of traditional advertising and perhaps PR consultancy. Luckily for me I write this blog, which only costs me my time. We tweet and engage in Facebook etc. We deal with social media with what I believe is an honest and forthright approach. Sometimes this helps my business and sometimes it seems it doesn't.

We can't afford to pump lots of money into marketing and advertising, although we do a little. I hope to demonstrate the tight margins with beer when I do get around to my own rebuff of "beer is cheap to make" But just trust me, we are not rolling in cash, far from it. What we do instead is think up tangental things to do like silly Christmas Videos and taking beer halfway up a mountain.

Making good beer is of course important, but doing other stuff to actually get people to remember our name is also important.

This week we see our efforts pay off a little with Azimuth being listed on ShortList.com as one of 13 of the most exciting British Craft Beers. I doubt we'd have made the list by only making exciting beer, making noises about the fact also helps.

Stunning result, I think you'll agree.


1No, I'm not really thinking of anyone in particular, there are several that make very good beer, good on 'em.

2We are still friends, I think. Well, Ann and Becky are still talking even if us blokes are still strutting a bit of faux literary confrontation.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Storming - why we need conflict

I've already mentioned, I'm taking part in an amateur production of Peter Pan at the beginning of December. We're an enthusiastic lot. Everyone is working towards one goal, that of a finished show, 5 performances and the after show party. The producers have their own take on what everyone should do, that’s their job.

Wednesday's rehearsal was a little more fraught than usual. Two weeks tomorrow we'll have dress rehearsal. Tensions are building and conflict is not far away. There are a few things going slightly wrong and enthusiasm from some means they want to chip in with their own ideas as to how to fix things, but of course, not everyone sees things the same way.

Now, if the dozen or so adults who are key to the whole thing didn't care, if we were not full of enthusiasm for making the whole thing work, if there was no passion for what we are doing then the stress levels would not be rising. But equally, without that drive and the fire in the belly of all involved the show would turn out to be rubbish, lack-luster, and we'd bore the audience1.

Three paragraphs and I haven't mentioned beer once. OK, I did allude to an after show party, but really, what the blazes has this got to do with beer? It struck me after the rehearsals, when three or four of us were finishing off a keg of Azimuth2 and thus helping the overall stress levels to subside, that the conflict between like minded people who are all broadly on the same side is a necessary part of creativity.

And here we have the nub of my point; the beer world is full of passionate people. There are CAMRA activists, brewers within various styles and sizes of brewery and there are beer drinkers of a huge range of desires and aspirations. We have distributors, bar and pub owners and operators and other important people who form the systems that get beer from the fermenting tanks to the beer drinker’s mouths. We then have people writing about beer for a living, or perhaps as part of a more diverse journalistic career. And we also have bloggers, who often bridge into most of the above groups.

Many of these people are intensely passionate about what they do. They also have different opinions, perspectives, aims and goals. You can probably put any 10 people from the beer world all together in one room and give them long enough, and perhaps enough beer, they will find something to split opinion.

My last post created quite a discussion thread, culminating in me being accused of bullshit. I know what I want to do with Hardknott, where I think we should be going and how that fits, or doesn't fit with the rest of the beer world. Other breweries that are destined for success need to have the same level of focus. They will have their own vision, that determination to achieve the concept they set out to create. I think it is important to shout out about what is good in the beer world and to do that we sometimes have to compare against the things that we don''t like. We should not be swayed by fear of a few blog comments, or the voice of beer institutions, that appear to be trying to curtail those of us that have a point of view.

The passion to create something stunning is what keeps us guys going. Without it we'd just be making the same bland and boring beer like the next guy. Without that drive to gain the recognition we'd go nowhere and achieve nothing. Without the desire to shout out about the ways we differ from other breweries we'd probably end up being no different, and what good would that do us?

I hear so many cries that there is too much arguing within the beer world. Really? Too much? Conflict can be good, indeed I firmly believe it is essential to success of a truly stunning project. I think without the conflict between CAMRA, craft keg, discussion about the beer tie, even sparklers we'd be living in a much blander, more boring beer world.

This is why I feel it is time for me, and my brewery, to rise up and be more confrontational. We've been too quiet for a while, and I don't believe this has been good for me, my business or the greater beer world. The beer world needs people to stand up and shout about what they think is wrong, or at least what could be added to make it better because without it we will return to a more homogenous bland world with nothing but a few almost indistinguishable beers perhaps simply separated by the dispense method.


1Yes, it might well end up that way in any case, but at least we'll be sure we've all tried our hardest.

2The main revenue for the Palladium is the bar takings. OK, we'll be hoping for a reasonable box office from the show, and hiring the hall out helps too, but the building, which is in dire need of a new roof at around £100,000, needs the bar to bring in the dish. I'm fortunate that the people in charge of the bar have increasingly patronised Hardknott. This isn't the only reason I'm now becoming more involved, but it's a factor. Anyway, helping to finish the keg before it went all foisty, as even keg can after a while, is just another example of the selfless sacrifice I'm making for good causes.