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.


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.
01229 779309


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.


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.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

I'm not dead

The first shipment ready to go
I am certainly not dead at all. One could be forgiven for thinking some great tragedy had befallen me, after all it is 6 weeks since I posted on this blog. It is true that Dry January did push us close to the edge, and then, just as we thought it might be getting better, it turned out the great craft hop shortage might threaten to limit our ability to brew stunning beer. I might have been tempted on several occasions to drink myself to oblivion, after all, I probably have enough alcohol in the warehouse to wipe out a small army, should I be able to persuade them to consume it all.

But then, around the middle of January, an email popped up in my inbox that I felt sure would change things forever. It happens every-so-often. Sometimes it might be greetings with an unusual enquiry, which turns out to propagate long and fruitful acquaintanceship. Sometimes it is the offer of a trip to some interesting place all in the name of beer. Sometimes it is just an invite to take part in something fun.

On this occasion the email started with "Promised I'd be back, and here I am" and proceeded to state that "In theory, we can look to do something with you from April" It was the beer buyer from Morrisons. Ann and I had been to see him at the nice head office way back last Autumn. We thought the meeting went quite well, but knew that these things can take time to happen.

The theory turned fairly quickly into a certainty. We had ramped down all operations due to the evil that is Dry January and stupidity of detox, And fairly quickly I realised we had a lot of work to do. Indeed, so much work that we really were not sure how we would do it.

Today we packed up three pallets and loaded them onto a wagon. This is just a pre-order to check that systems are all working, that we get the paperwork via Morrisons systems1, we send it to the right warehouse, and all the barcodes work the way they should. If all is good, next week we ship double figure amounts of pallets. Apparently it should be on the shelves around the beginning of April.

Good job the warehouse is full then.

And so, if the information I'm given is true, we'll have Code Black, Azimuth and Infra Red on the shelves, 4 bottles for £62, alongside some other stunning craft beers. How good are we to you?


1It didn't work first time. We should have got the order last week, apparently, but there was a field missing in the database, or some such thing.

2The deal started yesterday. It seems many of the supermarkets are turning to great craft beer to try to bolster their trading performance. After all, when it's time to go do that weekly shop for potatoes, pasta, frozen pizza for when you get home from work late, and can't be arsed to cook something proper, at least the drudgery will be eased with the knowledge there is craft beer to be bought. At great prices too.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Budweiser's Back-Handed Compliment

I like this, a big nod to the Craft Beer Explosion from a big nasty Macro Brewer.

This is much better than the Theakston's advert, which I also quite liked.

On the other hand, as pointed out in the comments below, there is a humorous retort from the American Craft Beer scene. My friends at Brewers Union 180 are part of that.