Well, here we are, 2016, don't the years fly? The last of our "children" have now grown up, surpassing the age of 18 just before Christmas. All have passed driving tests and all have some sort of career at least vaguely mapped out. Into the New Year and everyone seems to exude a mood of reflection, and those of us with an optimistic mind, a look to the future.
The evenings are noticeably moving lighter. Indeed, a fascination of mine is that the sunrise time actually got to its earliest around 12th December, rather than the midwinter date of 22nd December (at 04:44 if you are interested) The great thing about this is that by the time we get to early January sunset is moving later by several minutes per week and by the end of January by nearly quarter of an hours a week, or very close to an hour a month. By contrast the sunrise time hasn't even really started to get earlier yet, meaning mornings are still a bit depressing.
The above considerations are what helps me to get through what could otherwise be a difficult month. We've had all the fun of Christmas and New Years celebrations. To some extent, it does make me wonder how we'd cope with the dark nights if we didn't do something, despite the fact that I often cringe at the demands society seems to layer on us to conform, and part with money in a frankly unnecessary way.
For us brewers it is a time to take stock1 and look towards the future. What do we have left ready to sell, what do we need to brew to keep going and what should we brew that is new? And of course I have to say something about Dry January.
Supporters of beer, ho partake of the dubiousness of Dry January, often point to that fact that we have just had Christmas and so we brewers will now be rolling in money. Now, you might think that this is churlish to reject that notion, but every year I look at our overall position and think "So, for all that effort, we did that little?" - personally, the dearth of trade in January is by no means compensated for by Christmas, at least not from out point of view. The most poignant indicator is the bottle sales into our major retail customers, which we measure quite carefully, and I can report that overall sales have if anything been slightly down in the run-up to Christmas compared to Summer.
I'd like to explain a few things that I think are effects causing this. Firstly, most people are living it up at office parties, house parties and family get togethers. Most drinkers go with the flow. Very few of the general public care about being too snobby about what they drink when in larger social settings. Whether it be cask beer, or premium bottle ale, or craft beer if you like, then mostly this is not what is consumed during the festive season2. People are buying bulk, piling their trolleys high with all sorts of goodies, but it seems to me that the majority of the extra sales are in slabs of lager, John Smiths or whatever. Craft beer seems to not go through the peak we might expect.
So, Christmas isn't as wonderful to us as you might think. Couple that with the fact that Cumbria's hospitality trade is significantly seasonal, with by my estimates of an additional 150,0003 people in the county during the peak months compared to about 500,000 permanent residents. Of these extra 150,000 people many increase their consumption of alcohol when on holiday, and often they enjoy sampling the local beers. Add to that the very wet December we have had, which we certainly believe has damaged trade in our part of the world, even though Hardknott itself has not been directly hit by floods. Cumbria in general, and local brewing in particular needs you the beer drinker more than ever.
I can't leave a discussion about January without the brewer's two biggest headaches associated with the seasonality of brewing. There is the first, that of cash-flow. Beer is a low margin beverage. It might well be that you, the beer drinker, thinks that the raw materials the go into beer are low-cost. And to some extent this is true4, but overall it is fairly expensive to make, loans to buy stainless steel, energy costs, labour (we employ people you know, good people at that) insurance, transport and of course duty. Keeping the show on the road during the difficult months is no mean feat. Any benefit of December, and the tight margins we see, do not make up for the deficit in January. We still need to pay rent, rates, staff wages snd various other overheads.
The second problem we have is yeast. We have been very successfully propagating our own yeast now for about 18 months. Prior to this we were using a combination of dried yeast and less than successful short-term purchased wet yeast which we were propagating until it failed. We now have a yeast strain trained to do what we want it to do. After our brewing staff, Scott and Sarah, our yeast is arguably our most valuable living asset. Indeed, even that comparison might be doubtful, and I suspect even Scott and Sarah might agree there. Keeping yeast going needs a brewing schedule5, and this schedule is not easy to keep going through dearth and surfeit cycles. We manage and train our yeast with careful selection and storage of croppings and often have more than two lines going at any one time.
As we move forward into 2016 we are looking at our next steps, how develop the Hardknott concept. We've come a long way in the 10 years we've been brewing but we think we still have more to offer the beer world. It is easy to get bogged down in the post Christmas blues, and despite Dryanuray nonsense, which I'm sure would only serve to increase a sense of loss and actually promotes binge activities6, I want to look forward positively and enthusiastically.
I knew this piece would turn into an attack on the concept of Dry January before I started writing it. I know that many people have their own reasons for deciding to enter into the practice, and I know some of you drink Hardknott beer. There is then a danger that I'll upset a few people that genuinely support Hardknott 11 months of the year. This is the reason I started with the fact that daylight is returning in the evenings. This is a positive and can be used to look with optimism to the future, which is in direct contrast in my mind to the removal of all fun that post festivities can represent.
Dry January? I do hope their is less rain, for sure, December was very wet. We could do very much with you all turning a concept on its head and helping to drink January dry.
So, here's to 2016, I'll be having a beer tonight, and a few on Saturday if nothing else. Whatever you do in January I hope you enjoy it, I'm looking forward to seeing the sky lighten every night, and indeed a steady improvement in a surprisingly linear way, as a result of the Equation of Time, right through to June, and moreover, keeps the evenings better right through from late December right through to September.
Happy New Year to everyone.
1Indeed, an opening stock take is important to start the New Year.
2Yes, I know mostly those of you that read this blog might well be a bit choosy. You may well take along beers of your own choice to that family get-together. But it is interesting, and with apologies to the very well meaning person should they read this, I remember a hurried trip to an off licence with a new partner of a family member to get the beers in. Dropping off said person whilst waiting in a less than ideal parking place. Returning to the car with the claim "I just got Stella, everyone likes that"
3This is based on some fairly crude assumptions. I'd love to get more reliable data, but this would cost me money to obtain.
However, there are approximately 19.5 million visitor nights per year. That equates to an extra 53,000 people staying per night if averages across the year. However, "serviced" accommodation occupancy roughly doubles in peak months (~40% in January compared to ~80% in August) and self catering, camping and caravan accommodation roughly quadrupling (15-20% in January compared to 65-80% in August) besides, it feels much busier in August - these figures are taken from https://www.cumbriatourism.org/what-we-do/research/
4Raw materials can in fact make up a very tiny proportion of the costs associated with brewing beer. Even at Hardknott, where we think we spend quiet a lot on hops, our raw materials are about halve the value of the beer duty. I shudder to think what the ratio of raw materials to beer duty is in a macro-brewed beer, where duty is twice what we pay and they skimp to death the raw material bill.
5Yeast works best if it can be cropped from one beer and pitched right on into the next beer. Wet yeast can be stored, perhaps for as much as 2 weeks if you are careful, but it's viability drops scarily low.
6You see, for most people I meet who claim to be doing Dry January, it seems to mainly to make themselves feel better due to excessiveness of the festive season. Personally, I would prefer everyone just balanced their lifestyle all year round. Drink great, flavoursome beer, all year, and in appropriate amounts with perhaps some dry days mid week. Alcohol Concern seem to be generating an effect that supports binging to excess in December on mostly crap drinks because it is OK, you can all "detox" in January.