Sunday, 17 January 2010

Size and provenance

Cooking Lager is a great guy. He makes lots of interesting and corrective comments on this blog, and many others, helping to keep a balance of reality going. It was an important lesson learnt the day he flawed me with "everything is made of chemicals" and indeed he is right, every single thing consists of chemical compounds. The beer that you drink consists of water, alcohol, sugars and some flavour and aroma compounds all of which have chemical compositions. Indeed, with sufficient technology it is theoretically possible to produce these compounds completely without the use of hops, malt and yeast. It is probably possible to do it without most of us being able to tell that it wasn't made in a shed rather than a large chemical plant.

Recently, when I was trying to explain why I only sold my beer over my bar, there was the suggestion from Cookie that I should contract out my brewing to enable me to benefit from economies of scale. That way I'd get rich. The discussion was getting a bit off topic but was non the less interesting. At the moment I am not interested in significant expansion of brewing capacity to the extent that the economies of scale of contract brewing become viable, but I do understand the principles and I want to explore the drawbacks of such methods of production.


I am in the beer geek market and the tourist market. My best customers are tourists who are also beer fans of some description. People who travel to the Lake District and are interested in where the beer is produced. If I started to make my beer elsewhere and sell it to people as if it were made here I would be dishonest and so I will not do that. It is possible, like with Coniston Blue Bird for instance, to make sufficient a name out of the product to be able to sell off the reputation and the brand is what sells rather than the geographic location. Increasingly the specialist beer market is getting concerned about where the beer is made and will snub Brewed Under Licence beers (beware of BUL).

If my products gain sufficient reverence in the market so that I think I could gain enough market share, without the necessary attached provenance, then I would consider contract brewing for my beers, but it's not in my business plan at the moment.


It's just a chemical. It's H2O, that's all. There are trace elements in it, but they can be replicated anywhere. Even at Burton-upon-Trent, where there is allegedly the best water for making beer, Coors de-ionise the water to remove the trace elements and then add back in the exact amounts required for the particular brew. Doing this improves consistency and optimises for particular recipe. So really it doesn't matter where beer is brewed from the point of view of the water. After all, beer is really over 90% water so why hump large amounts of water about, just brew near your market, contract brewing if required.

However, I'm going to be slightly contrary here. The analysis of water that is done by the big brewers focuses on a few elements that are important to brewing beer and a few that are very detrimental. Obviously the correct amount of good elements are aimed at and a minimum of the detrimental ones. Now, there are also many other compounds that have a lesser effect on the beer process, but which seem to be neglected by the big brewers, but might still be important to taste. Specifically peat which, through various organic compounds, impart a flavour in the beer. It might be subtle and it might even be detrimental, but it is still going to be there. My beer is brewed from peaty water. Interestingly, my second favourite brewery in Cumbria, after mine that is, Barngates, also uses peaty water. So make of that what you will.


Size doesn't matter eh? Well, in my humble opinion it does. Many other brewing professionals also think so. Also geometry matters to; short and fat or long and thin, I'm talking about vessels before your mind starts wandering. Square or cylindrical, vertical or horizontal all have an effect on the way beer reacts.

Square fermenters are rarely used these days. A very well respected brewer installed cylindrical vessels some years ago with the idea of brewing lager. They already had square vessels for the ale products. The lager didn't work out, presumably because Coors can make it cheaper, so they started making ale in the cylindrical fermenters. CAMRA started giving them more awards for the stuff made in the new tanks so they replaced all the old square fermenters with cylindrical ones.

There, that at least should please Cookie. I can already hear him with his reply. "If it's better to use cylindrical then just get all your beer contract brewed with a brewer who uses them." Well, actually, mine are cylindrical, actually. But my point is that the shape of the plant effects the end result. Better or worse may well be subjective anyway, the point is it is different.

If you take an elephant up in a Hercules to 10,000 feet and drop it out, you would find that the elephant would make a significant mess on the ground. A large crater perhaps but certainly massive amounts of elephant meat would be spread about for some distance. If you did the same thing with a mouse it would very likely survive and run off to find some cheese. It might however get distracted by the prospect of a feast of elephant meat and die some time later of chronic obesity. It did however survive the fall due to it's significantly larger surface area compared to it's mass.

Brewing vessels are the same and by that I don't mean small ones don't die if you drop them out of an aeroplane, how could they? they are not alive. What I am indicating is that the fluid in a vessel behaves differently depending on the size of the vessel as a result of different surface areas to volume ratios. The very same brewer mentioned above also commented to me regarding aroma hops that in his big copper they respond differently. If I remember rightly he actually seemed to suggest that microbreweries manage to keep the volatiles better due to the way the boil turbulence works. In any case, hops contain many different compounds and they all behave in very different ways. Transferring a recipe from one brewery to another does not produce the same end product, necessarily.


Lets suppose all of the above is complete rubbish. Suppose we can duplicate a craft beer on a big industrial plant and it will be exactly the same and so benefit from economies of scale. Great, it can happen and I do hope to some extent this is true. I seem to now be confirmed as a BrewDog share holder so Punk IPA is likely to be made on a bigger plant. So, we'll see. My foolhardy actions of allowing James and Martin to rob me of my money will only see some return for me if they can indeed scale up their beer and manage greater throughput so managing economies of scale, making lots of dosh and making me flush with cash.

That is all well and good but the market for that product will have to increase. More capacity to manufacture has to be mirrored with demand for the product. With BrewDog and for that matter any other expanding brewery, will they compromise flavour to make something more appealing to the masses? How long till somebody says? "Punk IPA, it's OK, but too harsh, couldn't drink a gallon" a few tasting panels later and then we're on the slippery slope to blandness so as to appeal to the masses. The beer will then have dropped out of the beer geek market and be no better then something that Morissy Fox might have once upon a time had a hand in. Of course, it'll never happen to BrewDog, not while I'm a share holder.

Contract brewers will brew with whole cone hops if you insist, I expect. Many prefer to use pellets. Hop pellets are where the hop flower is ground and extruded into hard resinous lumps. In the boil they release flavours and aromas similar to whole cone hops. They are however not the same. During the pelletisation process the lupin glands, which is where the best flavours are stored, are damaged. The amount of damage is dependant on the type of pellet. The more damage that occurs the more the flavours are changed. As you would expect the more processed the pellet the more economic benefit there is. The bigger the brewery, the more likely there is to be economies driving the production and therefore more processing done.

Very often limitation in the hopping used by big breweries are corrected with "hop products" which can very nearly replicate the real thing. Only real nerdy beer geeks would be able to tell the difference. Nerdy beer geeks are a very small part of the beer market so who cares?


Once economies of scale are being considered some form of customer satisfaction verses cost analysis will be engaged. Does method A produce as good a result for the majority of the customer base as method B? If so then the least costly method is used. Is the least costly method fit for purpose? If so then use the least cost method. If not then work up until the cheapest fit for purpose method is found.


We now have millions of gallons of some amber liquid being produced. Let's, for the sake of argument, call this liquid C4R1IN6; 6 million barrels a year can't be wrong.

No, they can't, but it isn't Hardknott beer. But then I very much doubt my beer would ever have a market as big as 6 million barrels a year. I'll try not to lose any sleep over it.

I'm not suggesting that mass produced beer is somehow inferior to mine. Indeed, my beer does have its consistency issues from time to time, but then so does Nuits St Georges 1er Crus, every batch has its special attributes and I love it for that. I hate French wine because I can't demand £42 for not much more than a pint, so I'm currently drinking my own idiosyncratic beverage as I try to finish this post.


Whorst said...

Yeast?? I may be a bit of a snob, but dry Nottingham??? And I know you don't think yeast amounts to anything, but it does.

StringersBeer said...

Good one.

Woolpack Dave said...

Sausage, I absolutely agree. Some time in the future, my friend, I hope to be using a cultured yeast strain myself.

MicMac said...

This is a really interesting post, but as you suggest with the story about Fuller's changing to cylindroconical FVs, it's complex & open to much debate.

e.g. Some small breweries manage to become much bigger & IMO retain their quality & distinctiveness - e.g. 'micro' Dogfish Head, (Milton & Rehoboth, Delaware US) still makes wonderfully mad-as-a-fish beers, using all sorts of ingredients, processes, etc. But they're not small anymore - brewing the equivalent of almost 70,000 UK Bbls last year (=c.280,000 firkins / c.20 million pints!) & there's bigger "micros" than them, many still brewing great beers.

While there may be a trend for bigger breweries to make blander brews, it aint necessarily so - I doubt anyone could accuse Dogfish Head of this - e.g. they recently invested in building giant wooden aging tuns - one out of oak & another out of a perfumed South American wood!

I think there's quite a simplistic "two legs good" mentality among some beer-lovers that says micro is best, and bigger is always worst, but I'd say some of the worst beers I've drunk have been microbrewed, then again, the most distinctive, unusual, complex and enjoyable have probably been micro-brewed too!

Pellets v. whole hops - I'm undecided - in the past (& occasionally now) whole hops were sometimes poorly packed (simply stored in large c.80kg woven bales/pockets, sometimes they'd not been picked at the right time, been dried or pressed badly, etc.

Nowadays both pellets & whole hops come in foil vacuum-packs, but sometimes the vacuum isn't too strong, meaning perhaps some oxidation?

Pellets are tightly pressed hop pieces, the argument is that there's less likelihood of oxidation = fresher flavours & last longer (several years, whereas IME most people don't use whole hops over a year or so, even vacuum-packed).

Which is better? Only Harry Hill could answer this :~) in practical terms, I'd say pellets keep better longer, but as long as they're well-kept whole hops are great, and my romantic self would go for them every time - again, it just feels right & the fact that they act as a natural filter to remove trub, is a nice little bonus.

Yeast - As Würst suggests, this is something that larger micros & regionals really focus on - a good house yeast just seems a part of a brewery - the yeast being cared for, repitched from batch to batch ad infinitum, it feels authentic, but more than that, at it's best it gives another dimension of flavour that dry ale yeasts just don't seem to give.

Re provenance - most of us brewers don't have access to much in the way of local raw materials, but to me, a house yeast adds a bit of authenticity.

Water is another part of the mix that some micros seem to cheerfully ignore - I really like the fact that you have your own distinctive supply, Dave - how do you think it shows itself in the beer? (people talk about peaty Islay whiskys having a powerful phenolic, Iodine/seaweed taste).

I've had several micro-brewed beers with a TCP flavour, that amongst other things can come from liquoring-back wort with untreated chlorinated mains water, not really a flavour I'm after in a beer.

Re fermenter shape - many are square, many are 'rounds', others are cylindro-conical, but in my experience most UK ale brewers, large or small don't tend to use these.

To those who gripe about inconsistency in microbrewed beers though, I think you hit the nail on the head, Dave - for me, it's important that our beer is broadly consistent, but more important is that it's *consistently good* not an exact replica - as brewers, we get to make a new vintage every week - how good is that?

Cooking Lager said...

An absolute fascinating piece, Dave. I’m honoured I’ve inspired you to knock it out. I would not disagree with much of what you say. I did read it all, even down to the end, but the bit that interested me was provenance. The idea that your customers want to drink a locally produced beer and value that quality within it.

I can understand why provenance is considered important in wine. Traditionally wine has always been produced near its agricultural source due to grape deterioration, Grape quality and variety varies with area. Although sulphites have been used since roman times and is not a new feature of wine production.

Grains being more transportable, more generic, beer has traditionally been produced near consumption and was in the UK until the brewing industry conglomeration of the 60’s. Firstly in the home, then in pubs, then in breweries supplying pubs, and then finally nationally and internationally. A process we copied from America and is slowly occurring in Germany.

In beer provenance we are not, like wine, saying anything about the area the grains were grown in, nor variety of barley or wheat or saying the barley of one area is different from another. It is still the use of commodity ingredients.

So whilst I understand how provenance is important to your customers, I have to wonder whether your customers understand how the history of the product has been a journey of greater consistency through industrial process or whether they are simply transporting the values of wine drinking to beer with a bit of Hugh Fernley Witingstall nonsense thrown in.

Cooking Lager said...

Oh and when I say “a process copied from America” I mean conglomeration of the industry.
I would also add that big brewer = bland is not a feature of big brewing. It is possible to replicate your beers on a bigger scale. The problem is one of whether enough people like it. Flogging a large amount of product is more often one of producing a product with mass appeal.

Richard said...

Christ Dave, when you got into that bit about dropping elephants and vats out of planes I thought you'd maybe started brewing LSD ale! ;-)

Leigh said...

nice post dave - always interesting to hear your thoughts 'from the other side of the bar'.