Tuesday 30 June 2009

Hard? Knott!

One way to get to us is to follow the road from Ambleside, up Little Landale and over Wrynose and Hardknott passes. It's a great drive and was rated in a poll by the RAC as 5th out of 7 British motoring attractions in the UK. We're about 2 miles west of the bottom of Hardknott.

Hardknott is one of the steepest and twistiest roads in the UK. 30% hairpin bends make it an interesting drive. Many passengers find it a little more than simply interesting. If you can trust the driver however, it gets you right up into the mountains where great views can be seen.

We frequently get people stopping by who have deliberately driven over the pass, in all sorts of vehicles. Many are making the journey because of the notoriety of the road. Many want to test their vehicle and their own skills.

Yesterday one such gentleman and friends popped in for a drink bringing in two others who had been following in a rather less glamorous, but none the less open top car. The two cars had been travelling in convoy, completely by chance, and the occupants had somehow struck up a friendship during the journey.

In keeping with travelers who know about the pass, they seemed in good spirits and enjoyed a convivial drink at the bar. Many who travel over the pass, often by accident, seem to be less enamoured with the whole experience. In these cases beer simply isn't strong enough and generous dispense from the optics is often requested. Then comes the question "Do we have to go back over that?" tempting as it it to say that there is no other way out, we like to assist in the wretched traveller in finding a more amenable route.

I don't think I've ever seen this make of car close up before. It struck me as to how massive the vehicle is. Apparently it weighs in at around 2.5tonnes. More than my 4x4. It must be a beast to control on those hairpins. Good effort AJ.

Monday 29 June 2009

Recession effect?

It's too hot to sit in the office, looking at a computer screen and blogging. That's another excuse to add to the list of others that prevent me from posting more often. It's not that I've run out of things to write about. I know, you were hoping, but the summer, I'm sure, will be over long before we're ready for it to be and the dark winter days will bring me back to the land of the Qwerty. Of course, the main thing keeping me from my blog are customers. The good weather makes people thirsty, which is generally good for business. We're starting to run out of beer and I'm waiting for a delivery of malt1 before I can brew again.

Earlier in the year the news was full of doom and gloom relating to the economy. It got me worried and I'm sure many others were too. With all our reserves tied up in the investments made to the building and the banks looking increasingly unhappy about turning equity into cash, we needed a careful approach to unnecessary spending. Couple that with the possibility that customers might stop spending, a worrying time was in store.

As a good business man would, I keep a running check on financial performance. I know I'm not a good business man, but occasionally I pretend and have a wee peek at the figures. They're not superb, but they are no worse than any other year, within the normal variations caused by such things as the changing date of Easter. The warm weather in June seems to have balanced out the slow March start to the season. Either way the "recession" seems to have had no real effect on business. The hot weather, however, is making people thirsty.

There are some more subtle changes I'm noticing to trade. Every single brewer I've spoken to reports healthy sales. Some even reporting having difficulties keeping up with demand. I've noticed that some breweries that used to ring up every week touting for custom are now waiting for us to call them. When we do call the choices left are often much reduced. Beer sales generally might well be declining but not from the quality microbreweries from which we source our beers.

The biggest change we are noticing is in accommodation bookings. We used to be fully booked in advance for most weekends. This year we seem to be taking much more in the way of late bookings. An effect, we think, of the "staycation" holiday. Recently, we've have had space up until the last minute and even been filling up with people "off the street". Indeed, it seems many more people are setting off from home with no idea where they will end up. Many more people are coming in off the street looking for rooms than in previous years.

It would seem we're reasonably recession proof. The word on the business street is that unless the wolf is already scratching at the door, you've probably got over the worst. It might not be much consolation to anybody who has lost their job, or whose business has gone down the tubes, but I do think things are looking up both for pubs and for the economy in general. Don't start complaining that it's too hot, like I nearly did, just get out there and drink some beer.

1Ha, the palate was delivered before I got a chance to finish this post. In fact, I spent most of the day washing out the brewery and bringing in the malt. Tomorrow is brew day, yippee, and I've got some new types of malt, yippee again. That'll stop any beer geek connoisseur accusing my beers of blurring into one, rendering them unmemorable. It won't stop him finding other faults, but he's right, I'll thank him eventually, if I'm not already, when he can't hear that is.

Speaking of which, I've just put some beer in bottles at my first try at bottle conditioning. I'm not shouting too loud yet, it might be a dismal failure. It'll take a couple of weeks before we know if the conditioning is good. After that I have to look for a "brewhouse flavour that is not flattering", something to do with sparge temperature is my guess, and then start work on the next iteration.

Wednesday 24 June 2009

Cold Calling

People burn, I have mentioned; It's something that is unpleasant and bad for business if you can't keep it under wraps. Living "over the shop" and having several live in staff on site makes personal space hard to come by. After spending 9 hours or more in the kitchen, by 6:30pm I often try to get a short break before service starts at 7pm. It's not worth going up to the flat, and besides I'd have to deal with the kids2 if I went there, so I mooch around the bar; often this is a very bad idea.

The first booking for dinner is 7pm, there are a group of residents that have been out on a mammoth fell walk, got back later than expected and really want to get a bath before settling down for dinner. Perfectly reasonable. However, I have a kitchen full of staff waiting to do something and all the appliances up to temperature burning money. I have a full restaurant diary and I know what's going to happen later when everybody wants to be fed together.

"Yeh, fine, if you could be down as soon as you can and we'll try to fit you in." as I try to explain, as nicely as I can, the predicament I'm in; trying to fit everybody in later on. Of course the later booking will get upset if they are delayed because an earlier booking is late. I'm starting to feel stressed. The KP comes and asks what he should do now. "I haven't got an effing clue, the ba### customers are keeping us bloody waiting, go and effing clean something!" is the normal reply. Bless him, imagine Manuel and you'll not be far wrong.

But, you see, customers may drink all my beer, so I have to make more. They might well eat up our stocks of food and I have to prep up more. They sleep in the beds, tear up beer mats, drop mud off their walking boots on the carpets and generally make work for us and the staff, but most are really nice people and they do spend money. At certain times of the day I should really be kept away from customers.

The staff, between them, are capable of generating several, what I call "Manuel Moments" every day. It's perhaps not that each individual issue is a big deal. Everybody makes mistakes. But they are the same mistakes soandso made last year, and whatshisname did the year before. Constant retraining wears you down. But without staff, with all their own little foibles, we wouldn't be able to deliver the service we do. They are a good bunch really.

This post didn't start out as a whinge. It seems it might have turned that way. The preamble is really to set a standard of normal stress and irritation of our job. The above is all part of the territory and most of the time we are able to treat it as just a job. A difficult one, but a job none the less. It's down to us to mitigate the problems and try to get it right.

But, when it comes to cold callers, now that moves into a new dimension altogether. Imagine I'm serving some nice customers. "Can we try a pint of Hardknott beer?" They say "It would be rude not to" I might try to explain that really the economies of scale, or rather my lack of them, makes it cheaper to buy in beer and I would not be offended if they tried another brewery's beer. I might also point out that Hardknott beer is crap and the brewer is a complete nutter, but invariably that fails to put them off. "No, we'd really like to try a pint of your crap beer".

I'm halfway through pulling their pints when the phone rings. It might be a booking for a room, or for the restaurant, so I finish up serving, giving the good people rather less graces than they deserve, and rush to the phone.

It normally starts with "Can I speak to the person who deals with xxxxxx" or simply "Can I speak to the manager or owner" you know straight away you have a cold caller. Having guiltily given the aforementioned customers short shrift the temptation to say "No, piss off" is immense. The problem is cold callers don't take a polite "no, were not interested" as sufficient answer. Some even have the cheek to phone back if you simply hang up on them. They are often persistent and irritating and I find that blunt rudeness is the only answer.

It would seem that the hospitality business is a good target for cold callers. Up until recently we had been getting several a day. It really doesn't matter if I've got my arm down a drain, crawling around the void, boning birds in the kitchen2 or blogging, unwanted phone calls are a distraction that are most unwelcome3 in my already busy day .

We found the Telephone Preference Service. It's great, not only because it reduces significantly the number of cold callers but moreover, when I get one and point out they shouldn't be calling because we're subscribed to the service, we get an apology and they hang up.

So, that's one less irritation to deal with. Now, where is Manuel?

1Actually, they are not kids anymore. They are now young adults. There is some evidence of them being useful, one day perhaps. But before service I'm in a bad mood and stressed, their hair, music and nail varnish would just tip the balance. Oh, and the smell of burnt microwave popcorn.

2Boning out chickens, ducks or pigeon, you know, like removing the breast meat and taking off the legs. What did you think I meant?

3Calls from our many great suppliers are not unwelcome. In fact, without them calling we'd forget to order many things that we really need. Sometimes we forget to order things we really need anyway, which is really stupid, but happens.

Tuesday 23 June 2009


After a week of pondering the significance of a large Savannah animal whose importance is insufficient for them to assign capitalisation to their own proper noun of the first person singular, I'm now going to try and post something useful. What do you mean you don't understand what I'm going on about? You’re not supposed to; it just makes me feel better.

When you run a business you do have to continually re-asses everything you do. When you are chef, brewer, electrician, IT manager and head bottle washer it can often feel like you are too close to the coal face to see the bigger picture. It can also be dangerous to cast the net too wide and view opinion that exists outside the target audience.

The Internet is something of a jungle. It's a very powerful marketing tool for getting the message out there to a customer base. We seem to be reasonably good at it. Not perfect, I'll admit, but most of our new custom comes that way; that and word of mouth. The Internet is also the main mode for unhappy customers to vent their spleen when they find that what they expected is not borne out in reality.

I work hard to try and tell prospective customers what we do. I'm sure I don't get it right all the time, but I try. In return we get various compliments coming back to us directly. Some criticisms come back this way as well and I try and respond to them all personally whenever I can. It seems to me that many more criticisms work their way into WEB2.0. Sites such as beerintheevening and tripadvisor can sometimes be quite cruel. Not just to us but to other establishments where I know hard work is being put in by staff and owners. Perhaps it's our style, where we try and give a personal touch to our service. Satisfied customers seem to want to contact us directly to tell us how much they enjoyed their time here.

I have stopped looking at review sites. If I didn't I'd become terribly depressed. We know very well that we don't appeal to a broad audience. We are simply not trying to. We find that due to our location we have many more quiet times than busy times and feel our service is much better when trade is slower; we can provide a more friendly style that works better and makes us happier. Yes it's niche and yes it's a little select and maybe even got an element of snobbery about it, but it works for us.

When you are in a niche, be one.

Thursday 18 June 2009

Liquid Gold

I have to do this post; Mainly because a man has offered to lend me his bottling equipment. That is more than enough reason to give him air time on my blog. Additionally, he gave me a bottle of his beer. That is also, in most cases, enough incentive for me to blog about the beer. Unless of course the beer is so bad that I'd embarrass the brewer by giving an honest account.

The beer in question is Loweswater Gold 4.3%. It's light, as you'd expect from something with "gold" in the name, and got a distinctly grassy nose. Bittering is well balanced against a sweet body to give a "Tropical fruit flavour" and a long lasting finish. For a light beer it has quite a good full body, often lacking in the light hoppy genre of today's modern beers. I'd prefer something a bit more malty to balance out the hops, like their Grasmoor, which is just delicious.

Originally this beer was brewed at The Kirkstile Inn at Loweswater. Roger decided to buy the Cumbria Legendary Ales brewery to help him achieve efficient throughput and keep up with demand at the pub. As a result the majority of the Loweswater beers will now be brewed at Esthwaite Old Hall rather than The Kirkstile Inn. Purists might lament this change but I know very well that the economics of small breweries such as my own and Loweswater, both capable of little more than 2 barrels per brew, are very tight.

I visited the brewery at Esthwaite recently, which was when I was given the bottle of beer I've just drunk. Situated next to Esthwaite water it's a most tranquil place to situate a brewery. When I got there everybody was outside finishing lunch sat in the June sunshine. Why do people like to work in cities again? What I can't work out is why I never took a picture of the view out of the brewery window. Hayley is such a lucky brewer to have a view like that out of her "office".

Another change Roger has instigated, and possibly to my advantage, is the change from hand bottled to contract bottled with Cumbria Contract Bottling. I've used this method myself to get beer into bottle. Nick and friends at Lillyhall do an excellent job of bottling and making the beer taste very similar to the cask version. I am reluctant to use any other method for bottling general session ales. OK, it's not bottled conditioned, but the costs associated with bottle conditioning at our volume cannot really be justified for session ales at the low price they can command. The Loweswater Gold mentioned here has been from Esthwaite to Lillyhall, back to Esthwaite and now found its way to my tummy while I'm sat here typing at The Woolpack Inn. Despite my slight reservations about it being too light for my tastes, the transfer to bottle matches the cask version very well indeed.

However - hand bottling stronger special beers, now that might be a different matter. Watch this space, as they say.

Sunday 14 June 2009

A Zippy Little Number

One of the nice things about having my own brewery is that I can brew what I damn well like. Yes, I do have the problem that people might not like what I brew and I'll end up with 350 litres of product I can't sell. Despite what Ann thinks, I can't drink that much all by myself. I mention a beer here and here and here. It went on the bar for the beer festival and it's called Zippy Red IPA, an oxymoronic beer. It's hoppy but not particularly pale by today's standards. I don't care about the colour because it tastes great.

The second cask is sitting on the stillage waiting to go on once something else runs out. Tonight I braved the midges and sat in my beer garden, looking at the interesting cloud formations, and drank a 6.6% hoppy beer that I'd stolen direct from the cellar. What more could a man ask for?

The beer has a strong citrus nose reminiscent of orange zest. There is not as much orange flavour in the body of the beer as I'd like, but it's still bloody good beer. I'm very proud.

Many thanks to Dave for the recipe and Ted for the introduction to West Coast USA style beers. Ted talks about West Coast IPA in casks here.

Ravenglass Folk Meet

A couple of weeks ago some strange interesting people in various colourful costumes ended a weekend of frivolous fun by dancing peculiar ancient dances outside our pub. It was fun and they spent lots of money. I don't know if it scared away any other customers, but I'm not sure I'd want any miserable killjoys here anyway. Everybody else had a wonderful time.

They do say that Morris dancing is something you should never try. Having these fun loving people here transformed an otherwise dull afternoon into an entertaining little interlude, so I cannot understand what people objection to it is. See some interesting discussion in the comments to this post on Jeffrey's blog. It would seem to me that despite a few people trying to tell us that nobody likes this sort of fun, most actually like to witness a little light hearted tradition once in a while.

It was part of the Ravenglass Folk Meet. The first one. They have threatened promised to do it all again next year because it was such a great success. Perhaps I'd better get some bunting.

Free Trade Brewing

The people in this picture are all brewers. They are all very enthusiastic about making beer. All they really want is for people to buy their beer at a pub somewhere. We all went to the Prince of Wales, which is a brew pub, for a brewers weekend. We have a pub to run too so we only got their late last night and found that most had already been doing a good job of beer appreciation. Things were starting to get silly.

But why do we think real ale will die out and we'll be drowned in a see of macro beer when their are crazy people like this who will make the stuff for the love of it? None of these people are rich and some have risked their all to make beer. Those that are not lucky enough to own a pub have various difficulties getting their product to market and a lack of free houses is part of this problem.

I don't know the names of all the people in the picture. I'll try and get them soon and update.

In the picture is Phil from Keswick, Denzel, Stuart from Foxfield, Barry from Tiger Tops and Tim from Foxfield, oh, and me. Most of the rest I've met before but still can't remember their names, mainly because I only see them when we're all quite merry.

This is only about 1/3 of the total number of brewers who attended during the weekend.

Saturday 13 June 2009

Restraint? Not for me...

It's busy here and that's nice. Business seems to be quite good and I'm not sure the current economic situation has affected us one jot. Majoring on quality micro-brewed beer and interesting quality food seems to be a business plan that has merits. Unfortunately, it does result in me having much less time to blog than I'd like. I must go into the kitchen soon and start to prep for the day. I'm grabbing a few minutes to try and get across some points that are bothering me.

Recently, the publication Business and Enterprise Committee Pub Companies Report generated quite a lot of discussion in the trade press about the situation. The BBPA with it's Axe the Beer Tax campaign finding itself at odds with the Fair Pint Campaign. For me, I found the words from the BBPA to be completely transparent. The Fair Pint Campaign is pointing out that actually the beer tax is not the biggest thing that is effecting the pub industry. I agree with them, and the BBPA arguing against that rather highlights their own guerrilla tactics, exactly the thing they are accusing the Fair Pint Campaign of doing.

To go further on the beer tax issue, on a pint of 4% beer less than £0.40p is beer duty. It might interest you to know that typically, a tied house pays around that amount extra to it's landlord per pint compared to a free house and often more. If you add the compounding cost issues such as VAT and employer national insurance contributions1 the cost issues for beer for the tied house do indeed make beer duty less significant to the trade than Axe the Beer Tax would suggest.

I'm all for complaining about beer tax, but it is not the root cause of the pub industries problems. The major Pubco's must take a major part of the blame. I'm sorry to offend the supporters of the regional brewers, but these tie reliant industries must also be watched as I feel they are no better. The rhetoric from all of these larger companies, suggesting that real ale will die out without them, is beginning to irritate me. I supply only micro-brewed beer and am completely independent. I see no death of real ale any time soon. Regionals brew real ale because it is a way of getting CAMRA on their side, but in reality most of their revenue is from the tie on wines, spirits, RTDs and major lager brands, not their own brewed beer. Brewing real ale helps to ensure CAMRA supports the tie for this group of PubCo estates that happen to also brew a little bit of beer.

Yes, I know we need to think through any change to the tie system carefully, but ultimately I'm becoming convinced that we need to think about moving to a limit of much smaller than 500 tied houses per estate. If a brewery or product needs a monopolistic system to get the product to market then the product can't be that good. Ultimately, the tie prevents many microbreweries from getting their products to market even though many tied house licensees would love to stock their products. Supporting the tie in any form is restricting the development of microbreweries.

1Employer national insurance contributions are greater than employee national insurance contributions. Hidden taxes are significant to the small business. Beer tax is relatively small in comparison.

This post is crap and vitriolic. I'd like to be more subtle and eloquent, but I haven't got time, sorry. I hope to return to the subject soon. I'm hoping to attack the concept that without the tie many licensees can't afford to get into the trade. I'm hoping to argue that without being able to afford a free house many would be better off not starting in the trade at all.

Tuesday 9 June 2009


It's great when a plan starts to come together. I've mentioned already that May was busy. Not only was it busy but the general level of compliments we received from our residents has been very pleasantly high and consistent. I won't pretend we get it right all the time, or that our style does not still baffle some, but generally the level of appreciation is huge from our customers. That, of course, makes me feel good.

For the beer festival we dumb down a little. We reduce the fanciness of our food, still maintain a huge level of provenance and quality, but just not quite so eclectic or, perhaps, poncy. I worry that it does not show off our normal service and some may come back and expect this dumbed down style.

We are now returning to normal, but there are still a few beer festival stragglers. I mentioned about Sunday afternoon being a nice session with regular attendees of the festival coming in for a few drinks. One couple also booked to return last night for dinner in the restaurant. As returning customers often only return once a year I sometimes worry if we have changed too much between their visits. Not so it would seem. When I asked the waiting staff if everybody was happy I got the reply "Yes, table 30 said it's excellent, and would expect nothing less of you chef" Well I can't pretend not to be pleased at that.

It was busy for a Monday night. Busy for us anyway. The next few weeks look like they are also going to be pleasantly busy. Although the recession is effecting our options on credit and finance, it doesn't seem to be having a massive effect on trade. In fact, I think it might be slightly up, but I get optimistic every year only for something to go wrong. The last two years it was the weather.

When the style of business you dream up starts to take a life of it's own, when it shows some signs of maturing and becoming autonomous from the instigator, then it's much easier to take criticism on the chin. Yesterday I got an email from a potential customer who has been here some years ago. It consisted of a complaint about the food policy being "elitist". I guess they'd checked out our web site. We're probably guilty as charged, and damn proud of it. Anyway, what's the point of me doing steak pie when there are two pubs down the road that also do very good versions?

The picture is of me flambeing a steak during last years beer festival. We set up a kitchen in the marquee and I attempt to burn the temporary structure to the ground. So far, every year, I have failed to require the fire brigade. The table is in fact a slate from an old pool table that long since got past economic repair. Slate is great because it is non combustible. I bought new burners this year which clearly transmit heat down to the slate a little more. Halfway through the first lunch service there was a loud crack as the slate de-laminated. For the sake of safety we quickly replaced it with a stainless steel bench from the main kitchen.

Monday 8 June 2009

The morning after

I feel like the party has lasted 2 months. In a way, that's not untrue. I've tried to remember the last time I had more than about 2 or 3 hours away from this building and I think it might be about 2 months ago. I think it was when I went to the Newcastle Beer Festival. Easter was late. The beginning of May has a bank holiday and right at the end of the very same month is not only another bank holiday but also a school half term. Thanks to the beautiful weather May was fairly busy. Then, just for good measure, there is, what seems by now to be the unstoppable Boot Beer Festival. It thankfully, is now all over for another year.

Last year we overstaffed early and had a team that more or less coped with the festival. But once the festival had finished, it started to rain. It stopped several months later. The summer trade was poor and our staffing bill too high. We lost money overall. The beer festival was significantly responsible for adding to these losses.

This year we have staffed up later, and although possibly have our staffing right, it has only just been in time and this made coping with the festival much harder. Last year was bad enough, but this year Ann and I need a complete break.

However, there is the possibility of a good summer. Room bookings seem to be up and this is essential to enable us to claw back some of our investment. But it would be nice just to look at the diary, find a day that is empty for room bookings, I think there is one next week, and close for a day. But nobody likes to visit a closed pub.

The beer festival is fun, but bloody hard work for us. It comes at just the wrong time of year for the business logistics and due to the costs of the infrastructure we put in and the drafting in of temporary staff, for the brief occasions when it gets too busy, we make no money from the event. I find it increasingly stressful, especially when I hear complaints about queuing at the bar. After cooking on Saturday night I vowed to never take part in the event again.

Later, when everything had settled down a little and I finally got a chance to talk to some regular repeat customers, I started to appreciate how much the loyal group of staunch supporters love the event. People like James et al, Jim et al, Martin and Dave and many other people who fed back appreciation. On Sunday afternoon the die-hards came back to help finish off the contents of the second bar and as a result finally dissipated my resolve to drop out of the event. Oh, and just to put the icing on the cake, Sheriff turned up, pointing out an important unique selling point - the ability to take the piss out of me.

The staff were troupers. They have worked so hard, without complaints for several weeks now. We need to work out how to give them days off. The temporary drafted in staff were essential for coping with such an extraordinary increase in trade and although the learning curve was steep for some, they coped admirably.

Some economics: The Marquee costs £400, the band this year cost £300, a total of £700. My total extra staffing expenses for the event probably add up to this order of magnitude. A general rule of thumb for events like this is to ensure that increased costs must be no more than 1/3 of the extra revenue. So, to make the weekend worth doing, financially, I have to take at least £3000 more than if I didn't do the event. This is not the case. This year we spent even more, because some could not resist the temptation to complain about queues on the Saturday night so we set up a second bar to cope, but we sold no extra beer.

Traditionally, the event is held 1 week after the end of half term. I'd like to see two weeks gap to give us a better chance to organise, regroup and perhaps have a day off. The trouble is the event will move back a week next year anyway, due to the school holidays being as late as is possible next year. It should have been moved this year. Moving it two weeks for next year might just foul up established calender patterns.

OK, so I'm not much good at remembering Kiplings advice, but perhaps I should.
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:
But, most of our guests as they checked out have re-booked for next year. It is at least a success from a customer appreciation point of view. We just need to work out how to make money from it and to reduce our stress levels.

I probably have not thanked everybody enough. Apart from the staff, temporary and permanent, there is also Jeff Picthall who provided very useful trade experience. Vortigern, despite me not being able to pay them, decided they didn't want to miss out playing at the festival, so we had a band on on Friday, I'll probably get in to trouble off somebody for that. We are supposed to restrict "our" night to Saturday.

Saturday 6 June 2009


...a beer festival is more than just beer......

Thursday 4 June 2009

Organising a beer fest

I think we've just about got organised for the festival.....

Check out the beer list.

....but still no time to blog, damn.....

Can I burn down the marquee this year?