Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Taking it higher

When I sold our pub and set up Hardknott as a stand alone brewery I thought about what sort of brewery I would like it to be. I knew that the local market for standard cask beer was saturated and gaining the necessary market share for me to make a viable business was almost totally impossible. I had also gained a passion for stronger esoteric beers that could be packaged and distributed further afield in bottles. We've had reasonable success in this area, so much so that when I recently mentioned my session cask output to another brewer he was surprised I produced any at all.

We're doing OK and there is the possibility that sometime next year we will pull a profit, or at least break even. However, it is still somewhat knife-edge and costs are a continual concern. The reader might then understand why, based on the above, upon learning of the Governments latest Review of alcohol taxation, I was somewhat angry. Overnight the costs of operating, for a core part of my business, are threatened with large increases; there is to be an additional tax on all beer above 7.5% ABV. As a small brewer I would be lumbered with exactly the same amount of tax as big producers, effectively reducing the benefits that I had partly based my whole business plan upon.

Currently there is a reasonably fair beer duty system. Above 1.2% ABV beer is taxed based purely on the amount of alcohol it contains. This is 17.32p per unit of alcohol, or 10ml of pure alcohol. A 4.2% pint of beer will have had 41p of duty paid on it. A 330ml bottle of 7.2% beer will have 41p of duty to pay too. A 500ml can of Carlsburg Special Brew at 9% will attract a duty of a whopping 78p!1 It's difficult to see how it can be argued that Special Brew isn't already taxed to the hilt.

By contrast a pint of 2.7% beer attracts duty payment of only 27p. This is already a small value compared to the total price of a typical pint of beer. Although I don't want to deny any reduction in beer duty it seems that this one has been engineered to benefit the mass producers as none of the new tax systems will have the current small producers discount applied2. You'll be OK if you continue to produce 4% session beer, but if you are part of the growing section of progressive brewers, or the distributors and retailers of such products, watch your back.

I'd like to look at the drivers for this new beer taxation system. It is based on the premise that despite a reduced overall alcohol consumption the amount of alcohol related crime, health harm and social harm continues to rise.

Very specifically "super strength" lagers are singled out as one of the main offenders. It's drunk by tramps and vagrants and the thought process is that if it is taxed more these people will simply stop drinking it. I think that all it will do is move alcoholics onto some other form of cheap alcohol such as industrial vodka. It's not treating the cause of alcoholism, therefore will not stop it. Increasing the price of strong alcohol as a way of reducing alcohol harm caused by homelessness is just as barmy as suggesting that increasing the price of street heroin will reduce heroin addiction. It won't, the victims who find themselves in such desperate situations will simply move onto other drugs or commit more crimes, or possibly both.

Meanwhile my business, which includes a very small but growing wholesale business in stronger imported beers3, is threatened with a significant increase in tax burden. I feel this is simply unfair and I'm very, very angry about it. On top of alcohol escalator and VAT rises this is going to hit our niche very hard indeed.

Just to make me even more suspicious that our small sector of esoteric beers have been threatened by the larger beer industry, that includes regional as well as national producers, there is this in the report:
4.15 Beers over 7.5% abv represent less than 2 per cent of total production of small breweries. Small breweries have an incentive to produce stronger beers because the absolute value of the relief increases with the strength of the beer produced.
This is nonsense. The absolute value of everything goes up when a brewery makes strong beer. Generally the cost per unit of pure alcohol stays fairly constant so a beer twice the strength costs twice as much to make. The saving that small brewery discount gives me is currently a proportion of the overall cost. This cost is due to go up.

But much, much more importantly my production of beers above 7.5% is much more than 2%4 of my overall production. Indeed, as a proportion of the amount of beer duty I pay it is probably around 30% of my total beer duty. I have not been properly represented in the consultations surrounding this review.

Just as a new wave of progressive beer is starting to emerge and a new wave of bars showcasing these new beers it seems that the industry and lobbying groups have let this innovation down and frankly for dubious reasons.

An additional kick for me, just when I was feeling down:
4.12 The Government intends to introduce a new reduced rate of duty for beers at or below 2.8% abv to encourage the production and consumption of lower strength products. This reduced rate will be introduced alongside the new tax on high-strength beers in a broadly revenue neutral way.
So this means that the low ABV reduction in tax must be overall neutral, so us craft beer producers are paying for a reduction in tax on low ABV beers, and we all know who asked for that.

This is a direct attack on the growing, if very small, esoteric craft beer market. I believe that BBPA, CAMRA, SIBA and BII will have very little interest in this, but if you enjoy stronger beers, and I know it's not for everyone, or sell stronger beers, or make stronger beers, your prices are going to go up.

The report looks at cider and sprits and talks about leaving them alone as small producers and responsible drinkers would be affected. Indeed, I keep finding sections, like in the wine section, where producers have bucked against fiddling with duty based on strength due to the difficulties of making a product that had a demand for it. For this reason wine duty is left alone - this is despite that fact that wine is just as likely to be used as a product for what is considered harmful drinking.

I'd like to do something about this, but I really don't know what. As far as I can tell the rates and method of these new systems are yet to be finalised. With everyone and their Granny trying to take on Government right now I don't know if our voices will be heard, but if you care about craft beer, please, can we do something?

Grateful thanks to Jeff Pickthall for pointing out silly typos. Now corrected.


1I don't like using exclamation marks, they are an overused form of punctuation that often trys to tell the reader they should be surprised. This one deserved it I feel.

2The details of how these schemes will be implemented are still unclear. We don't know if it will be an added, or discounted, amount per volume of pure alcohol, or an amount per total volume. It seems to hint that the lower rate will be a new scale paid instead of the current duty and will not attract small producers discount. The higher rate will be on top of existing duty.

3All imported beers attract HMRC duty and tax rates at full value.

4I make Æther Blæc 8.0%, Granite 10.4% and my new baby, which you lucky people can look forward to, Queboid 8.0% which is a Belgian style double IPA. Due to be released in bottle very soon.

Monday, 29 November 2010

The Burgeoning March of Craft Keg

I'm really not keeping up with stuff that is happening these days. It's very frustrating because there is a lot happening it would seem. BrewDog have gone and done it again and got everyone all worked up about stuff. James is reported to have said that there is no future in cask beer and keg is the future. His comments, which are a little derogatory regarding CAMRA and suggesting that cask beer is stuffy and a poor way to introduce people to beer, have got some all properly insulted.

During my trip to the deep south last week I picked up a copy of The London Drinker. It's the rather well put together magazine of the London CAMRA branches. Towards the back there is a somewhat vitriolic rebuke to Mr Watt's comments1.

I'm somewhat bemused. First of all, what is the most common form of dispense for beer in the UK, or for that matter, in the world? Yup, it is keg. So of course keg is the future, silly.

Secondly, is it the future for craft beer? Well, what is craft beer anyway? Why is crap cask made by major national brewers, like Marston's for instance, considered craft? It's pants. Give me the choice between a pint of Pedigree on cask or a pint of Trashy on keg which do you think I'd choose? Which would you choose? Which is craft? And who cares if it is craft if it tastes good anyway? Or perhaps tastes crap?

Of course there is a future for cask. Of course there is a future for keg, that one ain't going away. BrewDog, Lovibond, Meantime and Thornbridge all produce keg. Summer Wine brewery is playing with it and we will be too before long.

Although we sell some BrewDog we haven't sold any of their keg, yet. We're not stupid, this is conservative2 Cumbria and the market for craft keg is yet to be developed. Here they tend to like a Guinness and blue WKD3 cocktail. So we make do selling cask and bottle. I need to develop my own craft keg market before I start letting James in on that.

But whatever, I am becoming increasingly amused at this "war" between cask and keg. I'm absolutely sure that James has deliberately set out to wind up some cask hard-liners. It's worked; in this case he's gone and got his logo in a CAMRA mag - for FREE.

Really, you have to tip your hat.


1I can't link directly to the on-line version. A shame that, but at least it is on-line.

To access the article select publication year "2010" then select Edition "Volume32 No6" and then scroll down until you see the logo for "....this latest threat to cask ale......" that is BrewDog.

2Take care to note capitalisation, it is so important. Alfie, are you listening?

3No, really, there is one bloke in our "local" who drinks nothing else. He even puts up with a short pint of Guinness so he can still fit in his WKD - there is really no accounting for taste.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

The Swedish Love Their Nanny State

The reader might not be aware that Hardknott has started acting as a wholesale agent for BrewDog. It makes quite a lot of sense really, I like BrewDog and I own a tiny1 bit of their company. Besides, I'm not clever enough to dream up my own world domination plans, so I might as well be part of someone else's. Our first experience of the arrangement was quite positive; We've managed to get rid of a whole palate load of Brewdog beer and are looking to put in another order.

The first delivery was mostly right, just one case of Nanny State instead of Hardcore IPA. Easy mistake to make, there isn't that much difference between the two.... is there? We managed to get the Hardcore delivered later and progressed to sell the Nanny State in addition to the forward orders we had already taken. Mostly the bottled stuff went out in mixed taster cases, a good way to introduce new pubs to the concept and see what sells.

Early results showed that Punk IPA and 5am Saint goes quite well in bottles. Probably not surprisingly the higher ABV beers sell slower. The shock was that Nanny State started to fly out from a couple of places, so much so that we got orders for whole cases. "My customers can't believe a 0.5%2 beer can taste this good." said one publican.

The UK beer geek scene completely slated Nanny State when BrewDog released it. We didn't like it and I was just as vocal as everyone else about how it just tasted of "hop tea" and completely unbalanced. I seem to remember even Mark Dredge, who normally can't say anything against BrewDog gave it a big thumbs down.

Recently Jeff Pickthall popped in to one of the pubs we had supplied and drank a bottle3. He'd guessed we had supplied it and commented to me about how pleased he was to have found the beer. Unfortunately I have been unable to try this latest incarnation as it's always sold out when we socially visit the pubs we've supplied.

So, better put an order in for some more, quick like. 6 cases of that on top of all the other beer. A mix of cask and bottles will do nicely, please.

The reply came back from Fraserburgh, in that lovely Scottish accent;

BrewDog "No, you can't have any more the now"

Hardknott "What?"

BrewDog "I mean, erm, most of the order is OK but we messed up properly last time and you shouldn't have got the case of Nanny State you did get, you can't have any more, sorry"

Hardknott "Why's that then?"

BrewDog "We don't sell it in this country because Mark Dredge4 said it was crap and so no one buys it."

Hardknott "So how come we got the last case?"

BrewDog "It was a mistake, that's what you get when you employ penguins as casual labour -Although they were distracted by the fear of being chased around by Bracken, so you can't completely blame the penguins.......... "

Hardknott "Ok, ok, enough about penguins.... so, if you can't sell it how come you had some, and why can't we have some more?"

BrewDog "It was part of a consignment that was being shipped to Sweden, it's the only place we can shift the stuff after Dredgy had a pop at it. In fact we sell loads of it out there....... It's all gone there we're afraid....... "

So, there you have it. The beer geeks don't like Nanny State because we don't drink beer with almost no alcohol in it. It turns out that normal people5 really like it. We have customers who want to buy more of Nanny State than they want to buy Punk IPA or 5am Saint. It's probably because, which ever way you look at it, Nanny State is much better than Cobra Zero6.

Perhaps us beer geeks are a little detached from reality. So please James, we'd like some more, go on, give Nanny State another chance in the UK.

Update: Apparently James is in Tokyo and can't comment on the issue. However, Tom Cadden, who is BrewDog's London sales rep tells me that Nanny State has had it's IBU rating7 dropped from a whopping 225 down to 45.


1OK, so "tiny" is perhaps exaggerating; "infinitesimally minuscule" might be better.

2I thought Nanny State was 1.2%, but I suspect this is a alcohol duty thing that differs from state to sovereign state.

3He was showing Pete Brown the delights of Cumbria. I have this image of them trying to scale Scafell Pike or water skiing on Ullswater....

4Yeah, OK, I'm making this conversation up, .... but.

5which by inference places Jeff Pickthall in the normal bracket - I really didn't intend this to turn into a work of fiction loosely based on fact.

6Why do I have to put in my DoB when I am looking at a web page for a non-alcoholic beer?

7IBU = International Bitterness Units. It is generally accepted that over 100 is going to strip the lining from your stomach. A standard UK bitter might be 30-50 IBU. However, as the ABV of a beer drops so the IBU should to balance it out. It's not so much the actual ABV as the residual unfermentable sugars which are in proportion to the original fermentable sugars. Have I lost you yet?

Anyway, 225 IBU in a beer with nearly no alcohol is just crazy. A beer with 225 IBU and 10% would be very flavoursome. 45 sounds much better for a low ABV beer.

Now, please can we try some?

Monday, 15 November 2010

Muddy waters

I was at a very nice beer dinner on Friday night. It was organised by CAMRA, the Westmorland branch as it so happens. The whole thing was very enjoyable, yes sure, I'd have preferred stronger more tasty beers and was a little taken aback by comments that a 5% beer was not for the faint hearted, but for the vast majority of the attendees I'm guessing the choices were to their preference.

There has been a lot of fuss over the last week regarding CAMRA's stance on keg beer. It was all started by Pete Brown, the outgoing1 beer writer of the year. Martyn Cornell also jumps in with a bit of a dig at the only consumer beer movement in the UK. Anyone who knows me will also know that I am a CAMRA member who also has sympathies with the views of Pete and Martyn; I'd prefer there to be an all inclusive beer movement that concentrated on quality rather than where the CO2 in the beer comes from. However, perhaps we're not going to get there in the near future.

It was unfortunate that on arriving at the venue of Fridays dinner we went straight into the function room. Unknown to me the cask beers were all in a bar just across the way. The function room bar had the usual selection of keg beer and being in need of a pint several of us plumped for a pint of Guinness each. This later caused an interesting situation when the CAMRA volunteer beer runner for our table was handed an empty Guinness glass. He clearly thought about objecting, although I'm unsure whether this was due to it being dirty nasty keg or just because really his job was to run for the beers that were matched for the meal rather than clearing away dirty pots.

Pete Brown was speaking at the event. He spoke enthusiastically about beer and how it brings people together in ways that almost nothing else does. He spoke about how, when he was in advertising, found that it was the one product that would inspire passion more than any other product he was responsible for. I was sat on a table occupied largely by CAMRA sceptics. I think I'm right in saying that none of use would hide the fact. We all attended the event and enjoyed it. We all attend CAMRA organised beer festivals and largely enjoy them too.

Speaking later to another brewer who had been sat on another table, we observed that although the beers were all good examples of session beers there was little that stirred our inspiration; in our view a multi-course gastronomic delight requires different beers to the highly drinkable session beers that work well in pubs, but I suspect this view would probably be limited to our table and perhaps an equal number of other people in the room - perhaps 10% of those present.

Despite this misgiving the social cohesion between the people in the room was highly observable. Several brewers, active branch members and CAMRA sceptics alike, shared in a common enjoyment, in the form of a malt and hop based beverage that both tastes good and also enables a state of neurological contentment, where even us sceptics could mingle and love everyone there.

The Pub Curmudgeon makes some interesting observations on his blog regarding the CAMRA sceptic view. Mudgie himself often shows a healthy scepticism but interestingly warns of the problems of changing the definition of Real Ale. He also points out that often, and despite this point being denied by many, CAMRA manifests itself as the campaign against keg, rather than the campaign for cask. Sure, the official line is that it does nothing of the sort, but the blindness to this fact betrays the lack of understanding that some of us see activists as being the old dinosaurs that they deny they are.

Which brings me on to Tandleman2 and his rebuke. A lot of important points are made, many I don't agree with, but it does make me think, what is the point in worrying? CAMRA exists because a lot of people support a point of view. They are a minority when you look at the total beer drinkers in the UK even to the point that it's tempting to wonder why they bother either. Cookie even suggests that cask should be abolished, which I know he doesn't really believe, but his approach does put this "shit storm" into perspective.

I'd like to see an all inclusive beer movement, one that even includes people who appreciate lout. But realistically it isn't going to happen anytime soon. As Tyson pointed out on twitter, you can't even get CAMRA to agree on sparklers, what chance have we got of changing the view on extraneous CO2? The view is just far too far entrenched for us to expect a change until it hits them between the eyes.

Stringers makes some interesting points about keg. I'm still actually trying to understand what their stance is, but it's thought provoking, which makes it all the more interesting. In the comments it is made clearer that perhaps it is silly to continually complain3 about CAMRA.

What seems clear to me, and is the main point in Tandleman's post that I disagree with, is that there is a growth of craft British produced keg beer. It's small at the moment but I do not agree that it is just done " .......for the gratification of beer geeks" and that " .....it doesn't actually exist". Meantime, for instance, has many outlets around London selling its keg beers. And anyway, do beer geeks not count? A smaller minority than cask drinkers perhaps, but they do exist and their, our, numbers are growing.

I agree that CAMRA can only be changed by democratic process from within. This by itself shows that it's not likely to happen very fast, the active members are the voices that count, like it or not.

Perhaps, as Stringers and others have suggested, we shouldn't complain and just get on with the job of forming something that will satisfy these rare beer geeks. Perhaps it is already happening organically in this apparently on-line world that doesn't really exist. Yes, you know, the one that had scores of people meeting up in Manchester for one hell of a twissup. But of course, that can't of happened because we are all just on-line nutters who don't really exist.

One thing is for sure, CAMRA isn't going to change and the CAMRA sceptics are not going away; there is more chance that that Labour will start agreeing with Conservatives. Good job really, otherwise blogging would get a bit boring I suggest.


1Pete is most indignant that because the annual awards dinner is two weeks earlier this year, he is only beer writer of the 50 weeks rather than the year, bless.

2OK, sorry Tandleman, but I couldn't resist it.

3But I doubt I'll stop writing about what I see as our4 bad points any faster than Tandleman will stop defending the organisation.

4Just remember, I AM a member too and occasionally go to branch meetings. And I even like most of the members.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Kelly Ryan - his part in my craft beer revolution

Here I am, late to the party. I'd forgotten that today was the day I was supposed to post about Kelly leaving Thornbridge and the UK. But then, I'd also forgotten that we had 40 sacks of malt being delivered. There was no one at the brewery to accept the malt and we had to hurriedly arrange for another Cumbrian brewery, 25 miles away, to take receipt of the tonne load which I have just popped around to pick up. These two calendar items bombed my inbox at around noon today whilst we were in Sheffield, of all places, delivering and picking up beer.

Around a year ago I was at the British Guild of Beer Writers Barley Wine Seminar, which was at Thornbridge hall. This was my first introduction to Sheffield; we met at Sheffield station and returned to the city later for a pub crawl cultural exploration of the various delightful hostelries. The seminar was directly responsible for inspiring me to brew Granite and indirectly encouraged me further to explore the world of craft beer.

Of course we know that Thornbridge are a progressive brewery and their success is something to look up to. It would be nice to be able to attribute all of that success to the personality that most beer geeks know as the interactive contact at the brewery, but that would be unfair to the head brewer Stefano Cossi and the rest of the team at the brewery. However, Kelly is one of those superbly approachable, and perhaps slightly over gregarious brewers that are contributing to a growing all-inclusive community of beer enthusiasts. To say that Kelly is unique in this respect is clearly untrue; many very enthusiastic craft brewers are engaging online and in real-life social interaction, but Kelly has clearly been a key involvement in this.

I remember posting about my visit to Fullers Brewery. Pleased with the hard work I pressed the "PUBLISH POST" button and if I remember rightly went shopping; well, Christmas was coming. Whilst parking up in the ASDA car park my Blackberry buzzed with a Twitter direct message - it was Kelly very nicely pointing out a couple of errors in my post that could have been a little embarrassing should they have remained. On my return home I quickly corrected the errors and sighed relief.

Beer is a sociable drink, in all it's forms; be it a pint or be it a snifter of something stupid, it brings people together from all over the world. Kelly has been a part of enlarging the progressive community of new-age craft beer. He is often there at twissups, GBBF and guild seminars and he's going to be missed once he returns to Kiwi-land. As a key twitter user and blogger we have to apportion great credit to his part in helping the slow process of dissolving the parochial outlook that dogs the craft beer world.

Kelly has contributed to my increased interest in keg craft beer, canning beer and various other technical advances that could benefit beer. It's not all his fault, but part of the blame has to rest with his infectious enthusiasm.

And of course, I'm going to blame Kelly completely for the fact that my malt ended up in the wrong town today; without the friendliness of his DM correction nearly 12 months ago my life would be that little bit different such is my own theory of chaos in my life.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Time, need more.....

When we left the pub I had a plan; do a little bit of brewing, develop some beer brands and have some time off. We’d worked hard for 6 years with very little time to ourselves. We’d missed lots of important family stuff due to the unsociable hours we had to work. The plan was to perhaps work no more than 40 hours a week, go home at 5pm and have weekends off. We did have a little bit of cash in the bank and no mortgage to pay; it shouldn’t be that difficult.

Right now we seem to be working very hard indeed. This is very rewarding and enjoyable, if a little tiring. Indeed, the only cause for complaint is the fact that the other activity I intended to engage in more was writing. I’m not blogging anywhere near as often as I’d like, despite there being many good subjects to get involved in. the The section below was written over two weeks ago while on a train to London for The Guild seminar on beer styles.


They say a change is as good as a rest. I’ll confirm that to be very true indeed. We’re very happy doing what we are and seem to be developing the brewery very nicely, if with rather more hiccups than expected. I’ve just done 7 days work, each day significantly longer than 8 hours, and enjoyed it all thoroughly.

Things started to get out of hand quite early. We got offered larger brew kit for a start, which ate into our reserved living allowance. Secondly, we didn’t seem to have to try too hard to sell our beer. We started to market ourselves ahead of the bigger kit arriving with some reasonable success and decided to push a little harder so that we could justify the purchase of the new kit. Before long demand had outstripped supply for our existing plant and it also became apparent that our installation lacked some basics, like a drain in the floor for instance.

We made arrangements with our property landlord; we lease our sizable but under-resourced unit. We agreed that we would slowly re-build the brewery, completed with additional vessels, in an alternative unit. We occupied two units for a while at no extra rent in lieu of insisting some essential repairs were done.

To our frustration the brewkit, which we had agreed in April to buy, didn’t become available until September. The 5 weeks we were promised ended up being more like 5 months. Still, these things happen and it’s knock on effect you expect when brewery development depends upon other brewery development which in turn is dependant an builders, and architects, and building inspectors, and grants, and whatever else.

But we’re there, just about. Our brewery now has a multitude of vessels. Maximum brewlength is now around 6-7 barrels. We have enough stainless to brew perhaps 7 times a week, although some of those brews would have to be 2 barrel. We have a floor that drains reasonably well and a new cold room. The office is getting there, slowly. The clean yeast laboratory will be next, I hope.

It’s just over 2 months until Christmas. Bummer, Æther Blæc and Granite take longer than that to get to market. I brewed Æther Blæc on Friday and it needs to spend several months in whisky casks before it can even be bottled. It is then best left a month before it can be sold. I haven’t even brewed Granite yet and that needs at least a month in conditioning tank and then another month to bottle condition.

We have just bottled Dark Energy, but that needs a little longer to condition. I’ve got Infra Red in the fermenter and has just about got to target gravity. I can probably leave it in conditioning tank for a week or two and then bottle, a further 2 weeks in bottle before release puts it on the market mid November, a little late for the Christmas market perhaps.

Luckily we are at a time of year where cask volumes will let up a little, although we’re also still developing that market, so who knows.


And I didn’t get to write anything at all on the subject of beer styles. I didn’t even get time to read what others wrote on the subject. Still, I have got some Infra Red bottled, so that’s a plus, even if Booths (Boooo-ths) failed to list the product due to our late form return.

Æther Blæc is in whisky casks safely tucked up in the new cold room. A surprising little revelation is the fact that it is possible to get an oak cask to seal completely gas tight; I had to drill a vent hole in one to relieve the pressure. I thought that rather interesting.

I really hope to return to blogging more regularly, and fluently, sometime soon. Meanwhile, please bare with me, I’ve got a brewery to organize.

So here I am on train again, off to London, again. I’m putting in my little bit of help for the organization of the British Guild of Beer Writers annual awards dinner. I’m not convinced I’m much help, but I’ll try.

And if I’m no help at all, at least I can help out with consumption of beer, all in the interests of research.