Monday, 23 November 2015

Hardknott Birthday Beer Cocktail Night

1st December 2015, Slate Cocktail Bar, Kendal, 7:30pm onwards.

Vitesse Noir Espresso Martini
As mentioned previously, this Christmas Eve Hardknott will be 10 years old. As everyone will be focused on the festive event itself having any sort of celebration right then will be a bit pointless. So, we're going to start off our Anniversary celebrations early, before everyone gets too carried away with all that Santa nonsense.

We will be launching our new Rhetoric IV.I and throwing a bit of a cocktail party. Just to help people get there, rather than having the party in our somewhat remote location, we're taking over a bar in Kendal for a night. We'll have a keg of Azimuth and loads of tasters of special Hardknott beers too.

I was born in Kendal, and as I'm now in my 50th year1 it's nice to have a bit of an event in the town. Besides, Kendal has a train station that isn't too difficult to get to from the likes of Lancaster, Manchester and other such conurbations.

Rhetoric IV.I
If you are really lucky, we'll have
earlier versions for you to try 
Slate is a brand new cocktail bar in the centre of Kendal, right next to Booths supermarket. Beer doesn't feature quite as much as it could, but we know Adam who runs the bar and we think there is room for a bit of a twist on things. We've never played around with beer cocktails, but according to Adam many of our beers will work well. Vitesse Noir Espresso Martini or a Peat Smoked Old Fashioned using our new Rhetoric IV.I? There will be many more ideas on the night.

You don't have to have a beer cocktail, just come along and sup a few glasses of Azimuth, and have some fun.


1Yeah, I know, I find it difficult to believe too. Where on earth has all that time gone?

Craft Snakebite - Azimuth and Orchard Pig Naval Gazer

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Do we HAVE to produce cask beer?

Way back in 2005, when we first started brewing, 100% of our beer was cask. In the first 5 years of the life of Hardknott the percentage remained in the high 90% range. We had a tiny amount contract bottled and hand bottled a little bit ourselves. We experimented with the odd keg.

When we moved to our current location in 2010 we knew we wanted to explore other formats. Bottle was a high priority1 and keg was a very close second. However, the vast majority was cask beer, and that was the way it stayed until we finally bought our bottling line.

I'm doing some fairly intensive business development thinking right now. We've built a great team, made huge progress, but the financial success of Hardknott in any sort of meaningful way needs a good move forward.

I've been looking at some sales statistics. Sales of cask is standing just about steady. Stagnating, in fact. Cask is dominated by a plethora of breweries many of whom are competing on price alone. This means turning the stuff around with little time in tank, no dry hopping, minimal hops in any case. And to some extent if that is their thing, turn it out cheap, 'cause actually, cheap low-taste beer is what the majority of pubs can sell easily.

We don't want to make low-taste beer. We don't want to make stuff to the lowest budget we can. We want to make stuff that makes a statement, makers a difference, turns heads. We use more hops, dry hop most beers, and it stays in tank a little longer, because Scott refuses to claim it to be ready until he is happy2. It costs a little more to do and we unashamedly charge a little more than many breweries.

What we've found is that our bottle and keg production has been our solid growth area. We now produce less than 25% cask. It isn't that we put less beer in cask, we have just grown the other areas. Most of what we package is in bottle. This is a good situation from a business point of view. To justify the space the bottling line occupies, to pay down the loan we still have on the machine, we need to make it work hard.

Putting beer into keg at the same time we bottle is easy. We like doing that and is generally what we do for Azimuth for sure, which sells very well in both formats.

Cask is becoming more and more of a chore, and makes less and less business sense. There is frankly a huge surplus of rubbish cask producers, and equally a good number of great cask producers. Competing on price, maintaining quality, in an area that is becoming a marginal activity, isn't going to replace my shoe leather. Running so many different beers in several different packaging is becoming difficult to manage and something might have to give.

But, I'm happy to sell beer in whatever format makes commercial sense. If I can empty a full tank into cask and sell it in a week, then I will3. But more and more now we're trying to shoehorn cask production into what space we can find in the schedule, exacerbated by the fact that we are very close to absolute maximum production we can achieve with the equipment we've got.

I noticed a blogpost by Tandleman back in August regarding a brewery that announced the cessation of cask production. I can understand his frustration at the brewery's announcement. Stopping cask production does then result in a failure of the beers to appear in cask-only outlets. But it might be obvious to the reader that I can see the point of view - every business owner has a primary responsibility to make decisions for the good of the business.

I was however a bit taken aback by Tandleman's "that raises two fingers to those that have loyally supped Buxton beers on handpump these last years" comment. That one has sort of lingered in the back of my mind. Surely, if cask were supported with enough strength, breweries would not make such decisions?


1And if we started again today it would be cans, all the way, but we are where we are for the time being.

2Which in itself causes us problems. We try to guess when beer will be ready to rack. We send out availability lists to pubs and distributors at the beginning of the week, and to provide the range we want to show, sometimes beers might not be quite there. Ann then makes sales and issues racking orders. "[So and so] want it by Friday, and we need to send out Wednesday, which is tomorrow, is it ready to rack?"

The sale might not be made until Tuesday, but it is still in tank, it is brewday and the mashtun is still to dig out. A look at the beer shows it isn't quite ready, and then a tank for today's brew needs to be cleaned. The beer might get racked tomorrow, if we get enough casks cleaned, but then there will be the pallet to build, and we might miss the window to call in the haulier. It could go out Thursday, but then we'd have to pay for next day delivery, putting up the delivery cost, which we absorb. Besides, the beer will be ready when it is ready "Ask them if Monday is OK" and generally the reply is that no, they need it this week or not at all.

3A full tank is more than two full pallets of casks. Most of our distributors only take one pallet at a time, and that is generally a mixed pallet. It means to carry on making sense, and for us to carry on making cask, we need you, the cask fan, to drink Hardknott, demand Hardknott, that way we'll get more demand this end, and everyone will be happy.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Hardknott is nearly 10 years old

Back when I was an engineer1I dreamt of running my own business. It came to a bit of a head, fairly suddenly, when a combination of dissatisfaction with the job I was doing combined with a little bit of luck property wise. We sold our house and bought a pub.

This was late in 2003. I have always had a love of good food and drink, preferably locally sourced, made by people I know, full-flavoured and interesting. I liked something different.  Always on the lookout for a different night out, that different flavour, interesting take, and anything really that moved away from the same-old-same-old that dominates the wider leisure industry. This ethos, this desire to be different has percolated through everything we've done in our business.

In 2005 we decided to buy some brewery kit. A 2-and-a-bit2 barrel brew house complete with two fermenters. I set it up in the Autumn of 2005 and got it all working and mashed in for the first time Christmas Eve 2005. The beer fermented over the Christmas period and we had the first beer on the bar New Years Eve just in time to see in 2006.

Fast forward to the present day, five years after we sold the pub and moved to Millom, and we are rapidly approaching our Tenth Anniversary. We've grown quite a bit, bought a bottling line, and bigger and better tanks. We've still got a long way to go before I feel we have a secure and solid future for Hardknott - we are literally desperate to build a new brewhouse for a start.3

Ten years down the line I have a team that seem to get on with the job of making stunning beer without much hassle. I only occasionally get asked for technical input and in that regard have stepped back to the role of just tasting the beer, looking over recipe proposals and feeling like, if I interfere, it would simply be for the sake of stamping my authority. Don't fix what ain't broke they say, so I don't.

Of course I couldn't let our 10th Anniversary date slip by without doing something special. We haven't made a Rhetoric for a little while. The next one is Rhetoric IV, and so we thought it should be our anniversary beer. We've made an imperial stout with peat smoked malt. It adds a great extra dimension we think.

We've actually called this one Rhetoric IV.I - or if you prefer 4.1. "Why the point 1?" you ask. Well, because we've put some in some spirit casks to bottle later on in 2016, just so you have something to look forward to. Rhetoric IV.II, IV.III and IV.IV will be issued through 2016 when we deem them to be ready.

We'll be bottling Rhetoric IV.I very soon, so look out for it.


1I still consider myself to be an engineer. If stuff goes wrong at the brewery it is generally me who has to fix it. Indeed, my "To fix" list grows every day. I'm sort of hoping that some things will drop off the end and make it on to the "To weigh in" list as we get to afford to replace some things, but that is another story, which I hope to tell you soon. Meanwhile, I am now a part-time engineer, as I also have a business to run.

2I used to kid myself it was a two and a half barrel brewery. It wasn't really. I was lucky to get 9 firkins out of a fermenter, and generally 8 and a pin much more likely. Our tanks now are around 1600 litres or more per brew. Nominal 10 brewery barrels.

3Again, more news on this soon, I hope. My people are still working on a few things here. You know, accountants, business plans, solicitors and contracts. All really boring stuff I have to deal with just to move us upwards and onwards.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Beer and The Environment

Brewing is a fairly energy intensive process. There is significant heating and cooling in the process of brewing and getting beer ready to drink. On top of that, on the whole, it is a bulky product compared to higher ABV drinks. Transporting beer uses a fair bit of hydrocarbons, and if you think about it, mainly we are transporting water.

The original version of this figure was prepared
Robert A. Rohde from publicly available data,
and is incorporated into the
Global Warming Art project.
I follow this thing known as "Global Warming" - in particular because I'm a bit of a fan of messing around on frozen water. When I get a chance, and a bit of spare cash, I enjoy the occasional skiing trip. This summer just gone, and in what by now is becoming a dreamy distant memory as our British weather closes in around us on the run-up to Christmas, I enjoyed a thing often referred to as a "holiday" where Ann and I tramped on glaciers in the French Alps.

I first walked on a glacier in 1981, at the age of 16. I wouldn't expect the reader to understand how much enjoyment that brought me, or the many subsequent occasions since; It is one of those things that floats my boat very high and well above any spiritual plimsoll mark that I can emote in words. It is therefore a great worry that in my lifetime I have visibly seen the effects of climate change on the retreat of glaciers. It is happening, how much it is natural, and how much by man-made effect even the scientists find difficult to quantify.

Glacier d'Argentiere - Chamonix Valley, France
Heating brewing liquor to mash, then some more to sparge, and then raising the temperature to a boil,  keeping it boiling and losing volume by boiling, which is necessary for evaporation of volatiles, all use energy. All the time the process is losing heat as the liquor is kept upwards of 65 degrees for several hours. The then boiling wort needs to be cooled back down rapidly so that yeast can be pitched. A good system will recover the heat for reuse in the process, but there is still some waste.

The yeast, due to it's metabolism, generates heat as it ferments. This heat needs to be removed else the beer will overheat and nasty favours will result as the yeast gets stressed. It requires some energy, one way or another, to remove this heat. In general, despite me investigating ways to recover this heat for reuse, it is classed as "low grade" heat and not really re-usable.

We then chill the beer for packaging, and hold it at as low a temperature as possible for a while to improve the clarity and mature the beer. This takes energy and despite insulated tanks, without maintaining constant cooling, the beer would warm up again and risk being spoilt.

Our energy bill is too high. I expect most breweries worry about their energy bill. Due to our size I expect our energy bill is higher per litre brewed than many bigger breweries. Bigger tanks lose less heat per unit volume than smaller ones, for the same grade of insulation. Bigger breweries can more efficiently recover heat put into the process.

High energy bills also reflect back on CO2 emissions. There are other ways of doing it where the electricity supplier is paid to only supply green electricity. If you don't understand this, then ask Stringers, they know the deal, and buy into it whole heartedly1. I get it, and think it is a great idea, except for the slight problem that it puts up overheads because the energy costs more. I'm not convinced that the
vast majority of beer drinkers are grateful enough to pay more for the beer, although I'd like to think I'm wrong on that.

I'm interested in reducing the cost of our energy, and think it is the best way for us to improve our impact on the environment. By reducing costs we can plough back the savings into new and better equipment, upscale a little and so reduce our losses per litre. This will also improve our efficiency still further and so enable us to start to look at incorporating true renewable energy solutions that are cost neutral into our process. We have already been looking at Anaerobic Digestion, and I have a feasibility study on my desk, done for us by a student at Lancaster University, showing that with a bit of ingenuity, if partnering with an agricultural site it is possible to supplement heating with biogas.

I have a concept for a custom built brewery that is sited somewhere in Cumbria that makes use of any available renewable energy. Generally to make it work such a site would need to have the space necessary. Be it anaerobic digestion of our waste, coupled with farm waste, or be it biomass boilers, solar panels or wind turbines I don't really know. In any case, it might well be a dream too far as these things are well outside the financial resources we currently have.

But there it is, my dream, my real goal. This is one of the many things I'd like to do with Hardknott. I could keep it a secret, and hope that someone else doesn't realise this eventual dream before me, but they probably will beat me to it, and when they do, at least you know that I, along with other brewers I expect, had the dream.


1I am hopeful that the reader sees my mention of Stringers here as an endorsement of their ethos, rather than negative comment. They clearly are intent on doing what they believe is right. Their renewable credentials are important and I'm rather pleased to see their website now shows a somewhat more overt display of this important selling point.