Friday 29 May 2009

Nearly there?

When you take a scruffy, rundown and obviously failing pub and work very hard to turn it around into something that works, there are many hurdles along the way. The biggest hurdle can be the existing expectations of any established customer base. When something is changed in order to establish a new identity, old customers sometimes become unhappy with the changes.

The complaints that occur as a result of these changes can put doubt in the mind of the originator of the vision for change. In this case that would be me1. We've changed a huge amount over the last three years. We believe for the better. The complaints against us have been decreasing and the compliments increasing. It is still upsetting when we know that our service does not match the expectations of the few that still make their way here and find we're a whole lot different than we used to be. This has happened more than I'd like this year.

This week though, despite being very busy with a bank holiday and half term, we seem to be hitting an all time high on compliments. I received this email:

Just a quick note to thank you for the hospitality you provided to us earlier this week. The food was super, the drink good, room comfortable and your interest in us very much appreciated.

In terms of levels of customer service, it would be hard to find better. When the power went off on Weds. morning, we really appreciated your efforts to get our breakfasts on the table as if there were no problem.

We hope that you have a busy summer and continued success and will recommend The Woolpack to friends & family with pleasure.
This sort of thing just keeps happening, so perhaps my vision isn't wrong after all. Our visitors book is rammed with good stuff. It helps when the customers are fantastic people, like the ones who were kind enough to write the above.

The trouble is, I think that the average return time for most customers is around 3 years, we're a tourist pub after all. Some people say they were last here 30 years ago, some return several times a year, but I reckon the average is 3 years. This means that after any major change the customer base is likely to take at least 3 years to settle down. That puts us around half way there. I'd better not make any changes for a couple of years then.

1Actually, that is really unfair to Ann, who puts a huge amount into the vision and regularly tells me I'm off beam. Sometimes, on very rare occasions, I've been known to listen to what she's got to say.

Tuesday 26 May 2009

People Burn

I've probably mentioned before that bank holidays can get busy. The baseline footfall, outside holidays, is very low so we keep a small staff team. Peak times suddenly test our ability to keep our cool. Keeping a smile painted on from 7:30am till midnight certainly tests me. So Jeff, you see the need for the clown pants1.

But look at the quality of staff we're now attracting. Jeff Pickthall dropped in on Sunday afternoon, just for one. We managed to persuade him to stay over and help out on the bar during the evening. We also had Rob staying, so between us there was just perhaps, a little too much beer geeking in progress. But then, perhaps not.

It made it into one of the most pleasant bank holidays ever. It was nice to have discussions on food and beer matching with Rob. I enjoyed getting some interesting thoughts on matching various beers with my menu. Of course, I would tend to agree that with food, the Belgian beers almost always win.

Jeff has spent several years running his own bar in London. We discussed the psychological effects on publicans as a result of the lifestyle. A pub is a massive tie for the publican; It gets difficult to ensure customers have a great time and enjoy themselves when the people delivering that service have no life. All work and no play.......That is why Jeff will never be a publican again, and once the property market picks up, and we move on, neither will I, probably. 20 years ago the publican had an enforced break every afternoon due to licencing laws. It was quite reasonable to be closed for 3 hours. These days you're in deep trouble if you dare to to be closed in the afternoon. I suspect this is one reason why people generally stay in the trade for less time these days.

Some time ago a retired publican came here for a drink. He mentioned an effect which he called "people burn". It makes perfect sense to me. We all, for instance, like the sun but it is possible to get too much of it. Sunburn is painful, distressing and can ruin a perfectly good holiday. I like people. I like people quite a lot and if I didn't I'd be in the wrong trade. But, you can get too much of a good thing. Normally, by the end of a bank holiday, we're shattered both physically and emotionally, having had to keep chipper for 18 hours a day.

Just occasionally, when you know you should just politely nod and agree, when you've been pushed too far, too often, the desire to tell people what you really think, and where you believe they should go, can no longer be suppressed. That is people burn.

Sometime though, people can focus my mind to where it needs to be. Jeff, with his experience of the trade, managed to capture my thoughts as they fell out of my mouth and turned them into catchy hook lines for future marketing.

On the food: "If we can make it, we do" this is more or less true. Bread, marmalade, chutney, home roasted ham, pâté and of course the beer, are all made by us. Making stocks, gravy and sauces from scratch has always been a non-negotiable point for me. It took Jeff to bounce back a couple of comments to make me realise that the rest of the verbose waffle is superfluous. "More than just a pub" was the result of discussing the problems of trying to get across that it is not the classic pub trade that makes the money here. We do a whole lot more than an ordinary pub does and if we didn't it would not work.

If anybody is interested, it's my birthday. One thing I can guarantee is that I'll be having a few pints tonight. For my birthday present I get to sit in the office and work out the VAT return, lucky me, except I seem to have been diverted by my blog.


1In the early days here, if I was outside taking a break before service, people used to ask me "Are you just the Chef?" At that time I wore very ordinary chef's whites. "Just the Chef" is so wrong on so many levels. Even if the only job I did was to cook it would still be wrong. Any chef will tell you that it is hard work, unsociable hours and undervalued. Most do it because they are passionate about what they do. Nobody is "Just the Chef"

I bought some crazy chef's pants to try and get across the subliminal message that there is no way you should ask me such a dumb question. It works. The piss taking from Jeff and my other friends is so much easier to cope with.

Thursday 21 May 2009

Worts and all

I like brew day. It's my excuse for not being able to do anything else. There is the fact that it's hot, dirty and backbreaking at times, but there are other times when all you can do is wait. Like right now.

I took some pictures while waiting for the sparge to finish. I set the camera on 1600ASA and forced the flash, just so I could see the wort frozen in time as it falls into the copper. It amused me, so I thought I'd share these pictures with you.

I'm waiting for the water to reheat so I can get another brew done before the day is done. I have to wait a while, so blogging time again.

I'm going to brew my ginger ale next, Woolly Fusion. Both of these beers should be ready for the beer festival in just over two weeks time. Hope to see you here.

Mash(x)ed out

The maximum grain bill to have got into my mash tun previously was 91kg. This was achieved by some Crazy American Brewer back on 28th May 2007. The resultant beer was called Colonial Anniversary(5.6%) due to it being said brewers wedding anniversary, if I remember correctly. He was, in my brewery, 8 time zones away from his wife - that's dedication for you. It was also nearly exactly 12 months since this gentleman stumbled on our humble hostelry. A double anniversary.

Today I got 102.5Kg1 in my mash tun, I don't think I could go much more without the sparge arm fouling on the mash. This should result in a beer that is over 6% ABV. The 3kg of hops might just be right, I reckon.

I think, at some time in the past, I promised to post my water analysis figures. I've just found them:
Appearance: Clear colourless liquid(!) free from suspended and sedimented solids.
PH Value 5.22
Calcium as Ca 1.6ppm
Magnesium as Mg 2.4ppm
Carbonate as CO3 2.4ppm
Sulphate as SO4 1.02ppm
Chlorine as Cl 5.4ppm
Nitrate as NO3 2.5ppm
Alkilinity as CaCO3 4ppm
Total Hardness 14ppm

1The recipe calls for 245lbs 7oz of grain. I'm actually quite close. Oh, and thanks Roger for helping our again. I seem to remember it was an Oregon inspired beer that we needed you help with last time.

Zipping along

Thanks for your patience. I've not posted for a while due to these nice people called customers. We have had quite a few excellent ones recently. My customers clearly come before my blog, mainly because most customers are very happy to exchange the service we provide for their hard earned cash. All the more reasons to give them the time of day.

A down side of having customers is that they tend to drink beer. I have a pile of amassing casks outside that once had beer in them. With a Bank Holiday, again, and half term far too closely followed by a beer festival, I guess I'd better get some beer in them.

Today is brew day.

Some time ago I found a bottle of beer in my cellar, it was really scrummy. I later found out that I had previously met the brewer and he was only too pleased too let me have the recipe. Today I'm going to try and brew a West Coast USA IPA. I might have to tone it down just a touch so as not to cripple the UK pallet with alpha acids or put drinkers off completely with an ABV that "isn't a session beer" strength. But then again.......

Of course, I have the problem of converting some ancient and long ago disused units of measure: The pound and the ounce. Apparently, brewers still use them over there.

Friday 15 May 2009

Crunch Advantage

Being a small business it is of course really scary with all this economic doom and gloom. It's still too early in the year to be sure how it's going to effect our season. We are naturally being a little cautious. We've cut back on staff a little and minimised any non essential investment.

My last post mentioned staff shortages. We have been one man down for a couple of weeks. That's one down on an absolute minimum, which clearly results in Ann and I having to work far more than we should, with the grumpy consequences. Grumpiness is not good for customer relations.

There is some good news. I get the impression that there are many businesses that are also cutting back on staffing. Bad news if you are looking for a job, but good news if you need to recruit. It would seem there is a more plentiful supply of suitable applicants.

We placed an advert in one of our usual locations. Normally we do eventually get somebody who makes a good contribution to the team, but often it takes a while and the quality of many of the applicants can be dubious. This time we were surprised at the increased number of quality people applying.

Because we employ seasonal staff we have had quite a few people through the payroll since we started here. Many have contributed very well to the place and helped us to get where we are. We have our moments with most. People, after all, are people. You know; "Forming, norming, storming and performing". A small number never make it past the "storming" phase. You can never be sure though, sometimes the best storms produce the best performances.

It's often the case that seasonal staff have other things to do before we're ready for them to go. Continuations of study, ski chalets to run or just the next leg of their around the world worked expedition. The constant changing staff structure gets a bit tiresome as we repeat our training program yet again.

With increased quality of applicants I'm feeling a little optimistic. Business might not be quite the boom of British tourism that was forecast, but it's not looking dire either. In fact, I think it's about the same as ever, but as I say, too early to tell. Better applicants for posts should result in a better staff team and therefore a better quality service.

This makes me think; The hospitality industry is generally low paid. During times of full employment, like we've had for a few years, it's tough for all hospitality businesses to employ quality staff. After all, who would want to work unsociable hours for relatively low pay1? I know that nearly every hospitality business person I've talked to says that their biggest problem is recruiting and retaining good staff. Perhaps this recession will help, if nothing else, to increase the quality within pubs as recruitment gets a little easier.

1One of the PubCo's responses to tenants who are struggling to make ends meet has been to suggest reducing the wages bill. This might of course be a reason why quality in pubs is falling. The quality of a pub is closely tied to the quality of the staff which in turn is closely linked to the amount they get paid.

Thursday 14 May 2009

Mr and Mrs H

At a low, battered by people for whom we cannot do enough,  regardless of how hard we try, we suddenly get several lovely customers. Amongst these are a couple, with combined years of more than 150, who follow my blog and seem to have the fitness of people a fraction of their age. After staying with us for several days, working their way through the menu and everyday walking a respectable distance to dispose of the calories,  it finally came time for them to depart. The sadness of them leaving is offset by the knowledge that they too would have liked to have stayed longer. 

Around Bank Holiday time this business can get a little tiresome.  When we get two so close together, retaining sanity gets nearly impossible1. It's been a tough couple of weeks. A late Easter crams a significant part of the season into a small stretch of time. Recession concerns have resulted in a reduced staff team by design leaving no contingency, when someone leaves, it takes time to refill that roll2. So, with blog postings looking like they might portray too much negativity, I haven't posted for a few days.

The presence of lovely people like Mr and Mrs H really do make everything worthwhile. Thank you both for the considerable contribution to regaining motivation, both for this blog and for real life. Happy birthday Mrs H and don't forget to treat Mr H on his birthday.

1OK, retaining sanity would require there to be the presence of some in the first place, but everything is relative. Besides, if I had an ounce of sanity I wouldn't have given up my perfectly good job to run this place anyway.

2Thankfully, we have some teenagers, masquerading as human beings, who apparently are descended from either Ann or I. They can actually be useful, that is when they are not avoiding real work, with the excuse of homework, to play drums, guitar or PlayStation. When put in front of customers they suddenly appear to be adults and convince the public they are much older and more responsible than they really are.

Thursday 7 May 2009

30% of pubs need to close

I've talked before about the inevitability of pubs closing. The beer market is shrinking and it is becoming more and more difficult to make money out of pubs.

The other night I had a quantity surveyor in for a drink. Nice chap. He apparently specialises in valuing pubs based on their fair maintainable trade. He recons that around one third of pubs do well as a result of the owners working hard. Another third do OK because the owners work hard and around a third are not viable even though the owners work really hard.

He does admit that an OK pub can be turned around with really good management and maximise potential, although it can easily drop back again with average people.

The most striking comment to me was the fact that there are simply too many pubs and a third are no longer going to achieve the fair maintainable trade that would be sufficient to make the pub viable. It is unfortunate and really a result of changing attitudes of the general public to the pub trade.

A master brewer

The last post was about grain provenance. In some weird coincidence, which seems to happen to me a lot, one of the master brewers from one of the major breweries checked in to stay last night. He doesn't want to be named or have his brewery named, which is understandable. Irrespective of the fact that I could see his company as part of the homogenisation of the general public attitude to drinks products, he is, none the less, a brewer. As we were both enjoying a drink in the bar we naturally got talking about brewing and comparing the various brewing processes that are used.

We talked about mash filters and mash tuns and high gravity brewing before liquoring back to the finished products. We talked about the fact that with modern mash filters efficiencies of 110% can be achieved. Now how can that be the case? Well, theoretical maximum conversion is determined by laboratory mash process, where sparge is continued until a volume of liquid with a overall S.G. of 1.001 is achieved. This is still not as efficient as milling the grain very fine, using membranes instead of wedge wire strainers and then squeezing out the grain. Hence a practical extract that is better than the theoretical maximum. Magic eh?

We talked about that fact that most major brewers add sugar of some sort and also use hop extract liquids to fine adjust the hop profile. I could not argue that most technical developments in the brewing industry have come about as a result of cost driven research. For instance, trading off sparge time against the number of brews per day might cost £100,000 per year in sugar costs, but might result in 2 more brews per day, and hence more product throughput and more profit.

Lagering time has been reduced by careful experimentation with the yeast and how it behaves in various situations. Using a faster more efficient process to provide a product that the consumer cannot distinguish from a slower less efficient method begs the question; why less efficient methods should be used? If real hops are needed then they are used. Even using aroma hops in some cases because there is just no other way of getting the result. This is a similar argument to the Maris Otter conundrum I posed in the last post.

None of this was really a surprise to me, but was interesting none the less.

What got really interesting was when we started to discuss quality. Now you might think that macro brewed beer is generally nondescript. I would of course agree. But it's consistent. It's very, very consistent. This particular brewer was very keen to stress that his team took great pride in getting as close as possible to the target parameters. Tasting is done at the wort stage, during fermentation and during conditioning, at the point of packaging and then samples held back for further tasting and testing afterwards.

In fact he was quite insistent saying "It really annoys me when people say that the big brewers don't care about quality, we do care, very much". Certainly if this brewers attitude is anything to go by, the people on the brew lines really do care.

I still don't drink his products and would not stock them, but that's not really the point.

Wednesday 6 May 2009

Maris Otter

Having a brewery results in me getting some interesting mailshots. Very often it's just junk mail from people trying to sell me some multi-thousand pound piece of equipment that is too big for my brewery, sometimes it's some fancy cask tracking system that I can't afford, and anyway, don't need due to my casks almost never leaving the pub. Sometimes it's useful stuff like invitations to buy a new wort cooler, that I couldn't afford, but boy, I'm glad I used a little more of the overdraft on, 'cause it saves me 2 hours per brew.

Sometimes it's information that is of little use to my regular brewing but of great interest to the beer world in general. Today I received one such communication. It's from some barley merchants and the main people, if I understand their blurb, who maintain and improve the Maris Otter variety of barley. They are Robin Appel LTD and H Bantham LTD.

They have a deep concern over the instability of the price of Maris Otter. The contracts for Maris Otter growing are negotiated ahead of time and with a view to how the price compares to other varieties, ones that are mainly grown on the continent. Farmers plan this compared to other crops they might choose to grow on the basis that they are, as any sensible business does, gaining best return on their assets. The main asset for a farm, is of course, the land.

When the contracts for the 2009 harvest were placed the 2008 harvest had not yet occurred. During August 2008 there was a glut of cheaper brewing grain from the continent that flooded the market causing the Maris Otter farmers to find it difficult to compete on price. Breweries would then substitute other varieties in brews if the light coloured malt in the brew was less critical. The upshot of this is that farmers will choose to plant less Maris Otter for the 2010 harvest and so the variety may become more expensive again, turning it into a niche variety, which perhaps it already is. It has, after all, been described as the "Grand Cru" of malt varieties.

Conversely, if the price goes too high, as often happens due to the time lag associated with such things, there may well be over-planting in future years, causing a further glut. This sort of instability should be of great concern to barley growers, merchants and breeders, maltsters, brewers and beer connoisseur alike.

I relate this to the unfortunate situation we have with hops, which has a cycle that is much longer. From what I've been told, around 7 years from planting before sensible return is achieved. The result is that in the last 2 years, hop prices have increasing from a low, to me, of £5 per Kg up to prices as high as £40 or more per Kg. It got so bad that for a while some varieties became completely unavailable last year. This occurred because, as hop prices became too low, hop growers tore up the hopbines. Hopefully they are replanting them again.

The business man in me says that this is just the way it goes. If brewers can make perfectly acceptable beer by substituting a cheaper variety when it is economically sensible then maybe that's just the laws of the free market. The barley farmers are perhaps no worse off than the apple grower or potato grower or wheat grower or for that matter any food crop that has to compete in what is now, in my view unfortunate, global market.

And there, through my attempt to seem like a hard nosed businessman, I gave away my affection for the traditional. Maris Otter is THE British pale ale malt. Surely we can't let it suffer unduly?

The barley merchants are asking for brewers to give an indication of their commitment so that more sensible forward planning can be achieved. To know this perhaps we need to know how much the beer drinker cares about the variety of malt that goes into the brew. Does, in fact, Maris Otter make the beer better and therefore justify the use of a more expensive malt?

Even as a brewer, all be it small scale, and a beer connoisseur, I'm not sure I know the answer to that question. For now I'll have to accept the dissonance that is created in my mind as my free market principles compete with my sense of the tradition.

Tuesday 5 May 2009

Please bear with me.....

I've not posted for a while. It's not that I've fallen out with blogging, it's just that I seem to have several other things going on. In particular, we are much busier now with customers, which of course we expected with the longer days and better weather, although today it is raining.

Additionally, this blog has helped me to start a longer term writing project that has been in concept for over 3 years. More of my writing time will be taken over by this new project.

But don't worry, I'll still keep posting here when I become inspired to do so. I've got an idea about comparing my own Tenacity ale with draft Westmalle Dubbel, but I'm waiting for them to both go on the bar together. I like both these beers and in isolation they seem to provoke similar enjoyment for me. I suspect there will also be significant discernible differences when tasted in the same session.

Watch this space.....

Sunday 3 May 2009

Three Sheets to the Wind

What a wonderful title for a book about a massive global pub crawl. It would be tempting to be jealous of the "spawny bastard" Pete Brown for not only having the gaul gall to spend three months on one massive boozy jolly around the World's heaviest beer drinking countries, but then to rub it in for the rest of us who haven't had the chance; If we buy the book we've just paid him for the privilege, surely?

And I could be jealous were it not for the fact that it is a serious look at beer drinking cultures, how they vary, but at the same time have significant and important similarities. Pete looks at how our own drinking culture contrasts in some ways with the rest of the world but also how every country has it's own idiosyncrasies when it come to attitudes towards beer.

For me there were not really any surprises. Having visited Germany, Belgium and Oregon USA myself, three of the thirteen countries in his great trip, I can easily understand the rest of the cultural observations he makes. It is clear to me, and to Pete, that the British beer view is somewhat blinkered. To make further conclusions here would spoil the point of the book, but moreover, the issues raised would be far too complex for a humble blog like this.

Pete does not really have any answers; For me there are even more questions raised. That, in itself, is the charm of the book. With the media enjoying every attack they can make on our cultural alcohol based socialisation and the Government making every gain they can from this attack and the media jumping back in to sell even more on the back of this terrible alcohol related harm that is our binge drinking culture, apparently, books like this are sorely needed.

Do you get the impression I enjoyed the book? I hope so. Pete's next book, "Hops and Glory", is out early June. I still have to read his first book, "A Man Walks Into A Pub". I guess I'd better get reading.