Monday, 27 October 2014

Boisterous Brown Beer

We're about to launch our Christmas beer. It's really stunning, but you'll just have to wait and see. First we need to get that business of Halloween and Bonfire Night out of the way. Once we've done that the Christmas beer will be released to the world.

Our foray into seasonality is a bit of a first for me. I've been wary of making festive beers on the grounds that their best before date tends to coincide with the festival in question. Not because the beer is bad afterwards, but just because it is tied to that date by nature of the label. In particular, if a Christmas beer isn't all sold out before Christmas it becomes very difficult to sell.

Way back in August, when the sun was still shining and there was still daylight to be had outside of office hours, I was contacted by a customer asking if we were going to do a Christmas beer. Now, the other problem with such a beer is that if you are starting to think about it now, that is in October, then it's probably too late. This is the other reason we've not done it before, simply because I don't normally think much about Christmas in August. Generally I prefer Christmas to start on 24th December. I'm a bar humbug normally, but as you will find out in due course, I'm now actually quite excited about the whole idea. I'm really itching to tell you more, but kids, we'll all just have to be patient.

Now, I've already told you too much, as I'm supposed to be waiting until after 6th November to tell you, but it is relevant, as you shall see. I decided to make said beer as a parti-gyle with a weaker beer. There was a copious amount of less strong wort to be played with. An ideal test for Scott, our not quite so new production brewer.

We recruited Scott, an American, earlier this year. We needed a solid and reliable brewing type person to take over day-to-day operations. He had a steep learning curve having little experience in anything other than home-brew. But, by the time we got around to brewing this seasonal part-gyle he had gained my trust so much that I felt it was time to give him a project all of his own.

"Scott, why don't you decide what to do with this small beer?" I said to him. "Go wild, anything you want"

"What hops do you think I should use" he came back at me.

Sometimes you have to explain things to people more than once "It's your baby, whatever you choose"

Further discussion ensued, mainly with my replies consisting of "It's your project, I'm sure it'll be fine" I don't think he quite believed that he is one of the few people who have managed to break my control freakishness.

I would state here that Scott is possibly the best asset we have right now, only he might read this and demand some sort of improved T&Cs, which we can't really afford. It is true that Scott turns out not only to be a competent, skilled and creative brewer with a good palate, he also gets exactly where Hardknott is heading and totally understand our ethos. He also works very hard with a solid commitment to our goals. A giddy sense of humour helps lighten the day when things aren't always going to plan, as is often the case. It was time to give him a project all of his own.

Now, the beers were going to have a bit of colour as the big boy is based loosely on Colonial Mayhem. So, Scott eventually decided that an "American Brown" would be in order. With discussion it seemed to me this was a bit like a boring brown bitter, only with all elements of boring carefully removed. Indeed, with a slight glint of rascality in his eye, a waggish smirk and perhaps just an faint hint of an evil tone in his voice, he declared a list of hops that included Simcoe, Chinook, Galaxy and Cascade.

My American friend Ted, who was the inspiration behind Colonial Mayhem, called in to see us on one of his trips to the UK whilst Scott was brewing. Two Americans in my brew-house? What could possibly go wrong?

Back in 1605, when Guy Fawkes failed in his bid to rid us of those scallywags in Westminster, the British Colonies over on the American Continent were barely getting going. Scott and Ted both provided British Colonial influence to this beer. They also provide various amounts of playful misconduct that might be considered appropriate for Halloween and Bonfire night. The naming of this beer was easy.

Colonial Mischief is, according to Scott, a West Coast American Brown. I think it's quite tasty with plenty of great West Coast hops packed in but with just enough malt in the background too. A little mischievous, perhaps slightly naughty. It'll try to lead you astray, but at 4% it'll not get you into too much trouble.

It is rolling out of the door as I type, some off to Newcastle I believe and Lancaster too. Perhaps some might make it down to Manchester, Stockport and of course around our favourite pubs in Cumbria. We'll definitely have some in our bar sometime soon. So, indulge your darkest mischievous devil lurking inside, go out and find some cask, or even better keg version of this beer. We are quite sure that the elevated carbonation of the keg version will be something quite impish and bring out the hop characteristics in a vibrant goulishness that might just have the cask brigade citing high treason. Hopefully there will be plenty of fireworks.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Keg beer and exporting

I was in Stockholm last weekend. I had a chance to visit a few bars around the city. There was cask beer, but not very much of it. Mostly, the draught beer is keg. Even if there was a big market for British cask beer out there, it wouldn't be particularly practical to send cask beer long distances where the journey might take over a week and where temperature control isn't particularly good. On top of that, getting empties back would be problematic.

There is quite a bit of beer imported into the UK. I think this is OK, and I'm responsible to some extent as I like to try different beers from time-to-time. Distributing new styles and ideas makes the beer world more vibrant. Personally, I'd like to see the foreign stuff made by more UK breweries, as it seems daft to transport large amounts of beer around the world. However, it does happen, and as a UK beer producer, if beer is imported into the UK I'd like a slice of that global beer market. I don't think that's unreasonable.

To be able to export beer it is almost essential to be able to put it into keg. When doing so it is also important to develop keg products through local domestic markets. How else can solid and dependable quality be tested and assured?

The above is a key reason for majoring in keg at Hardknott OnTrack. We have one cask line, and most of our customers don't really care so long as the beer is good.

But is does get a little irritating when a few people, you know the type, have to make a big deal out of it. Hardknott is moving forward without the constraints of preconceived ideas about cask beer. I think this is very important for any progressive craft brewery.

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Friday, 3 October 2014

Banging good beer

I'm in Stockholm, which no doubt you know if you follow me on twitter, or are my friend on Facebook. I"m here because I have sent beer to a beer festival. Well, to be more precise, the Stockholm Beer and Whisky Festival. Obviously I'm hopeful this might help us expand our export market into a new country. Whilst I'm here I'll have to sample a few beers and whiskies, it would be rude not to.

Meanwhile, back at base, it's the weekend of Beer'n'Bangers in conjunction with The Broughton Festival of Beer. Ann is left running the show, and I'm hopeful the team will be run off their feet.

It'll be a busy weekend, if previous years are to go by. There are numerous hostelries taking part and there is sure to be plenty of great beer.

Of course there is Hardknott OnTrack, which is just two stops up from Foxfield on the train. I believe there is a bus connecting the centre of Broughton to Foxfield. A veritable exploration of various beery establishments is to be had this weekend.

I spent a couple of days making food that can be quickly re-heated for the event. A curry, cheesy party things, savoury rice, "sticky" sausages, sausage casserole and some black pudding scotch eggs1.

I'm guessing you won't all be flocking to Stockholm this weekend to try Hardknott beer, but if you are the south of Cumbria you could do worse than head towards Broughton and Millom for good beer and local Cumberland sausage.


1The scotch eggs are work in progress. Half of them split during cooking, making them much less visually appealing than they tasted. Next time.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Stunning Craft Beer from the Western Lakes

Oh, and the launch of;

Juxta Beer - 1.9% position; low ABV craft

We don't make as much of a deal out of the fact that we are located in a stunning part of the world as we should. Indeed, I think our side of the The Lake District is far more stunning than any other part of our national park. All that twee Beatrix Potter stuff is all very well, and Wordsworth did do some fine poetry, it's true, but nothing beats the majesty of my favourite valley, Wasdale. Our part of the world is what I class as the real Lake District.

Stunning Craft Beer - Juxta from Hardknott Brewery on Vimeo.

It was also an opportunity to serve our brand new experimental low ABV beer, Juxta Beer 1.9%. What could be better than climbing a mountain to find a nice pint of refreshing, thirst quenching beer at the top?

We set up the bar, using a pile of stones, called a cairn, to locate the tap. We did this at a place called Sprinkling Tarn, which is just below the 2000ft mark above sea level.

We had worried about the problem of being responsible for creating drunks on the mountain. I was quite sure my friends in the Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team would take a dim view of the safety aspect of strong beer on the mountains. It is a good job we did behave so responsibly, as the leader of the team happened to drop by when we were there. He seemed to enjoy his pint.

To the best of our knowledge, for one day, we created the highest Craft Beer Bar in the UK. Clearly we had no licence to sell beer, so we had to give it away. One group of gents were so pleased they emailed us with a picture.

What was amusing on the day was the fact that as the people we'd served passed other walkers who were approaching, they were obviously telling of our strategic bar. Unfortunately we didn't get reactions on camera, but some were definitely in the "Well we heard the rumours, but just thought they were playing a practical joke on us!"

We're starting to send Juxta Beer out in cask this week. The first load is going to Cask Pub and Kitchen. Bottles will follow on soon. Look out for it, I think it's a good low strength beer. Stunning, even.

The KeyKeg setup

The team
Left to right; Alfie Bailey, Dave Bailey, Scott Larrabee,
Laura Larrabee, Stuart Roche

The Sprinkling Tarn Bar Punters

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Arguments in favour of keg

It is still amazing that there are people out there who believe keg is evil. It is now staggering me, considering the success of many new breweries with their keg offering, that there are people out there still decrying the introduction of Craft Keg, and citing it as a bad thing.

Of course mostly these people are middle aged, or older, stick-in-the-mud killjoys.

I've been looking back at some of my early blog posts. Back when I was really on a roll and trying to make my own mind up about CAMRA, cask beer, keg beer and the best way to package, distribute, dispense beer for the sake of the best drinker's experience.

Way back in 2009 I had a little play with keg beer. The results were encouraging. Since that time we have been honing our skills at putting beer into keg and strongly believe that there is a huge future for beers from small independent breweries to be distributed in this format.

What has never left my mind is the simple fact that around 85%1 of all draught beer sold is keg.

Moreover, having recently done some sales calls around various local hostelries, I notice that there is a significant brand of IPA making its way into the mainstream in a big way, in the more trendy bars and circuit pubs that are much more popular with the younger drinker.

Many people like their beers cold, fizzy and crisp. Is this wrong? Are we wrong to try and tell them otherwise? I think that if people like fizzy chilled beer than they should be provided with it. I'd prefer they drank my cold fizzy beer than rather than someone else's.

So, we must accept that the overall keg market is much bigger than cask, and despite noises to the contrary, this situation is likely to remain the case for a long time to come. Notwithstanding the fact that for many outlets there are significant technical advantages of keg beer, for the small brewer it can also be an important route to market for their products.

But more than that, although there has been some ideas stating cask beer can be trendy by virtue of it being retro, it fails to have any long term real impact to a significant number of younger people. By contrast, I notice that many younger people are looking for more trendy drinks, and this has long included keg beers.

So, with the advantage of solid consistency, without the need for cask expertise in the outlet, staying fresher for longer once a container is breached, and an appeal to youngsters, surely we should stop demonising breweries who decide to push keg.

Getting youngsters to enjoy a broader range of beer has to be a good thing, even if they need keg to convince them of it. Frankly I don't care if they never decide to drink cask. Perhaps they like cold fizzy beer. But I'd like more people to drink my beer and if I have to make it cold and fizzy to get them to do it, then I will.


1Source:The Cask Report 2011-2012 - yes, I know, this is out of date. However, the 2013-2014 doesn't publish the figures, as best I can see. One can only assume this is because up until 2010, the last figures I can find, there was in fact a growth of cask as a proportion of the market. In 2010 cask had a 15.0% share of the total on-trade beer market. This figure was only beaten previously in 1998 when it was 16.1% - there was then a drop down during the Noughties to as low as 12.4%. All very interesting I feel.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Random Thoughts on Craft Beer

Of course, it was forecast by some to be incapable of gaining momentum. However, it is the case that the idea of craft beer is becoming more and more important in the beer marketing lexicon. Those who choose to ignore this are firmly putting their heads into the sand.

How can I be so sure that it is quite so significant? Well, it's the number of times the term gets mentioned in various arenas. Of course it's been discussed within brewing circles for a number of years now. Often even here with a split of opinion as to it's usefulness as a term. Often, too, with a mind on the troubled sub-issue of definition.

On the anti-side there is often the feeling that it is just a rouse to push out cask beer, and are under the impression that craft beer is only to be found in keg. On the pro-side most are happy to include at least some cask beer into the definition of craft.

It is a divisive issue within CAMRA too. I know some members would love to see a less confrontational approach regarding the subject. Other members, often the ones that would probably consider themselves experienced enough to say "You don't know what you are talking about laddie, you don't remember Watney's Red Barrel!" as if that is some sort of everlasting reason to stay firmly stuck in the past.

What I find curious, and quite a positively interesting phenomena, is the number of times recently I've heard slight scathing comments from CAMRA festival organisers regarding the subject. "Of course, if it wasn't for festivals like this we'd all have to drink craft beer" as if it would be some sort of terrible thing. However, looking along the line of beers, or scanning the program, it becomes clear to me that it would perhaps be a good thing. I know what I like, and it isn't the generally bland stuff at these sort of festivals.

I'm returning to the subject myself as an overall review of where I think Hardknott should be, and where we should go. The overall success of Hardknott OnTrack proves that it is far from essential to provide a one-size-fits-all approach to beer service establishments, even in a small town. The slightly left-field narrower appeal idea certainly hits a customer base that regular old-fashioned pubs fails to satisfy.

I've been out over the years and found what I like in the beer world, and considered what it is about the things I like that makes them so. There is a danger in listening to the "don't forget about Watney's" and the "That tradition is worth saving" brigade to the detriment of finding something that is truly interesting, splendid, different, even stunning.

I know what I like, and from that point of view this is an interesting take on craft beer; It is brewed by people who care about what they are doing, have found something that really fires up their imagination and want to share it with the world.

I have perviously scorned a high profile attempt to suggest a definition of craft beer. I firmly believe in craft beer, but also firmly believe it is complete folly to try and define it in any rules based system.

And so, whatever you think about it, wherever your own beery journey is taking you, it's hard for anyone to completely ignore the craft beer subject, even if the choice is never to mention it.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Squiddy in a bottle

I like to mess around with beer concepts. Thankfully many of the beer enthusiasts I know are completely open minded about beer and will happily have a go at most things, at least once. But having been in the industry now for over 10 years it is obvious that many people see beer from a fairly narrow perspective. The most common comment I hear is "I don't like dark beers"

Hence my motivation for putting squid ink into a beer. We called it Squiddy, it's 3.8%, tastes very refreshing but has an interesting dark tinge to it.

I gave up a long time ago trying to pursued people from behind the bar that it is a silly notion to dismiss dark beers out of hand. Generally it only tends to alienate people. They know what they like and it doesn't matter how much I believe it's just their own preconceptions that drive their preference, telling a customer that they are silly and should just have a go will most likely loose a customer, rather than create a new beer connoisseur.

Digressing slightly, but I'm sure the reader will realise the relevance right away, I am a huge fan of the try before you buy principle. If you are a publican and are in the "I'm not giving away free beer" camp than think again. Trust me, if you do nothing else, look long and hard at your motivations. Giving people a chance to try a small sample gains their trust. It shows you care about what they think, and what they might like. Consistently and repeatedly, by giving a customer a chance to try a beer they have never tried before often creates a trust that drives sales. After all, a few millilitres of free beer isn't going to break the bank, and in my experience persuades the customer to stay and have another.

Dark beers are an example of this. When confronted with the unknown customers will generally gravitate to a safe zone. If asked to fork out perhaps £3 on something they are unsure about they will play safe. Pale beers are that safe zone for many.

We recently had a keg of Squiddy on the bar at Hardknott OnTrack. It created quite a stir with a few people. I think without tasters many would not have risked a pint, but once they tried it many said it tasted better than Lux, the beer it is based upon, and had a second, or third pint.

One of the reasons for brewing this beer is to show how colour can totally change perceptions of what a beer can taste like. Now, scientifically it is proven that even with completely flavourless colourings the perceived flavour is different. For instance red gives a perception of sweeter over green.

What baffles me is that a black coloured soft drink is incredibly popular amongst the general public, and yet dark beer generally isn't. The reason for making Squiddy was our way of exploring this a little further.

You can buy Squiddy at our on-line shop.

And you can watch the story of our collaboration with the Birmingham Beer Bash folks on our Vimeo pages.

Squiddy Episode One from Hardknott Brewery on Vimeo.

Squiddy Episode Two from Hardknott Brewery on Vimeo.

Squiddy ep3 from Hardknott Brewery on Vimeo.