Thursday 30 July 2009

Dogged Determination

Well, comments I believe are the life-blood of blogging. I don't personally mind if comments go off subject on my blog. I like it if people remain nice to each other, and I do find unnecessary swearing in print, or pixels, offensive. I don't know why, considering my kitchen language, but there you are. But at the end of the day, a lengthy comment thread is good. So, after my last post, follow that....... Well done everybody, you made my day.

Towards the end of the comments Barm responded to Cooking Lager's original question "when did you last see an ale advertise to a younger drinker?" with the reply "I can think of a canine-themed brewery which gets mentioned very often ...". It seems a shame that this got lost amongst all the noise, so I'm going to try and provoke further response.

I'm guessing he is referring to BrewDog. Now, like Pete Brown, being a beer blogger I feel like I should also have a go at looking at the latest furore over the 18.5% beer, Tokyo*. But of course most of what needs to be said has already been said. Mainly by Pete Brown, Curmudgeon and Stonch.

What interests me are peoples habits and preconceived ideas about beer. Actually, about much more than beer, but for now we'll stay on topic. I like BrewDog because they are breaking these habits and preconceptions and to me, like Punk music that surfaced when I was at school, they are doing it by firing up the youngsters. Perhaps using a great big demolition crane to crack a walnut, but doing it they are.

The thing is, I've only every tried Punk IPA, which I liked. I've not yet got my hands on anything else, but despite having very limited experience of the beer itself, which James you can fix that if you like, I am still fired up by the concepts.

Monday 27 July 2009

What HAVE CAMRA ever done for US?

I was thinking of doing a complete parody of the Monty Python sketch. Replacing The Romans with CAMRA and having a fictitious Peoples Beer Front questioning what CAMRA has actually done for British beer. I don't think I could carry it off, so I'll just leave the reader with the concept.

It's been an interesting few days. Alongside finding myself in a Hairy Bikers kitchen on Saturday, there seemed to be some need for shuttle diplomacy in the beer blogging world, which is not quite over yet. Hopefully this might round things off. I like to remain friends with everybody and what would be even better would be for everybody else to be friends with each other too. Perhaps a big global blogging group hug might be asking too much, but I can hope.

After all, the Romans, according to Monty Python, who we all know have history correctly documented, did bring peace to Judea. Besides, I'm going to the GBBF next week and I might bump into people in real life. For sure, I'm looking forward to the beers on the BSF bar, it sounds too exciting. I'd hope to be able to have a chat with the staff without the spectre of an "entertainingly demented" Sausage, who despite being technically correct and not sounding at all demented on the telephone, has given some grief to a well known blogger recently. OK guys, I know some of you found it hilarious, but some didn't get the joke - OK?

There are issues I have with CAMRA, it's too late for me to try and hide that one. I am for instance concerned that there might be too much pallyness between CAMRA and the regional breweries. This background came out subliminally in my previous post about regionals, in a dumb side dig at CAMRA that was not really relevant to the post. Tandleman commented as much and that was a good call.

The point of this post though, is to highlight the things that I think CAMRA really do that are good. After all, there has to be some good in everything. Hopefully, there might be some bridges built as a result.

They saved cask ale. I can already hear my CAMRA sceptic friends screaming at their computer screens. It is true that cask ale might just have found a renaissance via other routes without CAMRA. After all, quality baked bread has not died out despite the onslaught of Sunblest. But still, the cask ale scene would be quite different without CAMRA. Is that good or bad? You choose.

The Good Beer Guide. Now come on sceptic people, despite the occasional quirky choices, it's a generally good guide to where the best beer driven pubs are if you travel to a strange part of the country. It's better than the pay-for-entry guides out there when it comes to impartiality. We always use it.

Pub and Brewery Awards. Restaurants can get rosettes or Michelin Stars or be listed by Egon Ronay. Pubs would have no real recognition without the CAMRA schemes. For me, I cannot overstate how much of a boost it is, when you are down, to be told you've just got in the GBG or got pub of the season or some other CAMRA award. Tandleman reminded us of this only today.

Beer Festivals. It's true that they might not always be in the greatest of venues. But then what venue can you get hundreds of different beers into and it not be like a big drafty hall? They are a chance to try beers that are rarely found in pubs and a chance for breweries to get their name out there.

Resurgence of Micro Brewing. Although I think that the resurgence of demand for artisan products by the general public would have generated expansion of this sector, there is no doubt that the small brewery discount of beer duty has helped, and this is largely due to CAMRA.

Brought peace to the beer world. OK, maybe not, but it's a concept.

Now, I just hope I haven't dug myself an even bigger hole.

Sunday 26 July 2009

We innovate, the big boys don't

In the Morning Advertiser 23rd July there is a piece by Nigel McNally, the MD of Wells and Young, about how the micro breweries are damaging the regional breweries. It doesn't actually say that, but it's clear from the article that this is where their problem lies. "We invest, the small boys don't" is the title. I don't seem to be able to find it on the Internet. I'm beginning to suspect that Andrew Pring knows just the type of article I'd like to link to and misses it off the web site deliberately.

Cask sales have grown 1.1% in the last quarter with underlying total beer sales dropping 6.3%. Of the cask market the micros are now taking 22% of this. I think that's huge and probably shows that we, the micro breweries, are benefiting from the growth. However, Mr Neilson seems to think that it's due to regionals investing in marketing and crazy things like the new fangled pumps that I reported on previously.

The regionals are also annoyed that SIBA did not back Cask Ale Week. Probably because SIBA knows that cask ale week was really not going to make a huge difference to the drinking habits of the people who choose it's members beers.

The regionals and CAMRA seem to think they are the story. Perhaps they might be part of it but the micros are becoming an ever bigger part to.

Well I'm sorry, but all the evidence I have is that cask brands that become more ubiquitous loose their appeal. Marketing investment tends to turn off the cask market, not the other way round. Worthingtons 1744 by Coors being a case in point. Nigel, tell you what, save your marketing budget and put some money into making interesting beer instead. That's what I do.

The pump clip in the picture is of a new beer of mine. I'm quite pleased with it. It's uses American hops, is dry hopped and uses Belgian yeast. I'm waiting for my beer geek friend to sober up from last night so he can taste it and tell me it's as good as I think it is.

Coming up for Air

I have very little in the way of formal qualifications in brewing. Up until 6 years ago I had very little work experience in the industry. Before that time my job was to count neutrons. Yes, really. That's right, those incredibly small sub-atomic particles that are impossible to see, and actually fairly difficult to detect owing to their lack of any electrostatic charge. You might wonder how I managed to count them. Well I could tell you, but I suspect I'd have to kill you afterwards.

Now neutrons are significantly smaller than yeast cells. Yeast cells can be seen under a microscope and are significantly easier to count. Also, once you counted the yeast cell it is still normally there. Neutrons, on the other hand, refuse to stay where you left them, and in fact, there is some question about their existence anyway. It is something to do with trees falling over in forests when nobody is there. Something to do with blind faith, although to be fair, there is a little more evidence to support the existence of neutrons over that of God.1

I'm not going to brag about qualifications. I don't believe I need to. What I know is that I have learnt and forgotten more than I have managed to retain as a result of working previously in a highly technical environment. Much of this knowledge is highly transferable and my previous scientific and engineering background has primed me to be able to analyse all manor of diverse technical subjects. I believe brewing can be included as a technical subject and compared to some of the esoteric subjects I have dealt with in the past, something of a doddle.

What I know about brewing is that oxygen is good for getting primary fermentation going. Normally this oxygen is incorporated into the beer as a result of the wort falling through the air into the fermenter after flowing through a heat exchanger, where the previously boiled wort is cooled to pitching temperature. The yeast uses this oxygen as part of it's metabolism during the vigorous primary fermentation and hopefully all this oxygen is consumed, leaving an oxygen free beer. The spoilage bacteria don't stand a chance because the yeast has competed for oxygen and nutrients and by now won with style. It's really a numbers game; billions of yeast cells and only a few hundred other organisms.

The beer is often chilled towards the end of primary fermentation. This enables the CO2 that is being produced by our friendly yeast cells to be dissolved and retained in the beer; the lower the temperature the more volumes CO2 that will be retained. At a temperature of 11-12oC the beer will have a carbonation of around 1.1-1.2 volumes at atmospheric pressure. The beer has to have live yeast in it for this to happen, but providing it is given some time, oxygen is not required for this process to occur. The yeast will settle to the bottom of the vessel, along with any remaining precipitated proteins and other particulates, which might include the vast majority of the unwanted micro-organisms. A small amount, around 5% of the original pitching rate of yeast, is allowed to remain in the beer. Some of this process might or might not be performed in a conditioning tank depending on the brewery.

From this point on, the best brewers will work very, very hard to prevent oxygen coming into contact with the beer. For that matter, eliminating air and therefore spoilage bacteria and wild yeasts is also key. Additionally, if the beer is in contact with oxygen for a significant length of time oxidization of the beer can occur, which most beer connoisseurs consider a bad thing to have happen to your beer. Together, spoilage bacteria and oxygen will react with the beer and create off flavours quickly, adding nothing to the quality of the beer; in any way, shape or form.

Once in cask the remaining yeast will add to the carbonation of the beer. Remaining fermentables allow remaining yeast to progress slow secondary fermentation and a very good cask beer will improve in a sealed cask for weeks, months and sometimes even years. If the beer remains in contact with live yeast it will consume some compounds that result in off flavours.

When it is time to serve the beer it is time to vent the beer. The reason for venting is to release excess CO2 and so prevents the beer from being too lively on serving. Failure to do this can result in overfobbing and too much head, if head is not your thing. There is no requirement at this point to allow air to come into contact with the beer in the cask other than something has to replace the beer that is removed. There is no purpose served in letting damaging oxygen and microorganisms coming into contact with the beer. The conditioning has already been done. If this venting can be done through a one way valve, such as a race spile, then things are wonderful.

If at this point in time a non-pressurized CO2 blanket is allowed to rest over the beer, without any air entering, then the beer could actually last for many days or even weeks as this would be no different to it being in a sealed cask. There is no scientific argument that could be applied against this, in my view. Would it still be classed as cask beer? That's for the reader to decide. My view is that cask beer should be matured on live yeast in the vessel from which it is dispensed and have a relatively low carbonation level. That, for me, would be the end of the discussion, but it won't be, and probably shouldn't be.

I like the beer blogging world. I really like all the people who take time to post and comment in this international, largely constructive medium. I do make an effort to understand the things that are being discussed and it can be surprising to find where the best knowledge resides, although the techniques of getting that across might not always be helpful. I care about all who take part and you all mean a lot to me. Sometimes things get out of hand. Discussions develop that become destructive due to entrenched positions where the sides are obviously taking an "I'm not listening" stance. My mother might have said "If you lot don't stop fighting I'll have to bang your heads together"

What is this all about? Check out this post and this post and ensuing comments.


1Sorry, yes I'm taking the piss out of hardcore physicists a little here, who are similar to hard core beer fanatics and sometimes the same thing. Very few of them, physicists that is, can understand my assertion that nobody has actually proved the existence of the neutron. Beer fanatics probably don't care about neutrons despite the fact that neither them nor the beer would exist without such amazing little things. Rather than proof we just have a model for how sub-atomic particles work and so far nobody has been able to run an experiment that disproves the model. Sometimes the model needs to be adjusted a little as more sophisticated experiments are run. But guys, nobody has ever seen a neutron, we can only observe it's effects.

It's true that the robust model we have of the strange subatomic world is fairly indisputable and better than the "God must exist because you can't prove he doesn't" argument. But most physicists simply have blind faith in what previous physicists have learnt. Sometimes the same can occur in the beer world.

Some days though, I do wonder; is that a yeast cell I can see when looking down the microscope, or am I just plugged into a big matrix so I have no way of knowing what is real and what isn't anyway?

You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. Remember -- all I am offering is the truth, nothing more.

Thursday 23 July 2009

Blown away

When the economy gets blustery there are things that just refuse to lay down and die. Small breweries are one of those things. The tree in this picture, up on the common land on the way to the Hesket Newmarket brewery, seems to be another.

I have been buying beer from Hesket Newmarket ever since we came to the pub. They are interesting in that it is a village cooperative brewery. Around 70 people own equal shares in the brewery and this is a part of its success. I decided to drag Ann and Sarah along to see it today. Well, I enjoyed the day out.

Within the last few years the brewery has been bottling beers. Their bottling "plant" is so small it staggers me that it makes commercial sense. But they only supply the small outlets and avoid the pricing demands made of the supermarkets, which apparently show an interest, but at 40-50p a bottle that they are prepared to pay, they do right to reject. Loss leading eh? Screwing the suppliers more like. It makes me wonder how little the supermarkets are paying for the really cheap stuff.

Despite having no large retail distribution the demand for Hesket bottled beer has doubled in the last year. Cask sales are also very healthy, it would seem. So, yet again I can report a strong cask and niche bottle market that is doing very well indeed.

Thanks to Arthur for the samples, although it would be nice to be greeted with more than just "I know that face". He said the same when he saw me at the NWAF.

Doris 4.3% was of course in good form, as was Blencathra 3.2%,we are all still trying to decide on Dead Bunny Mild (No Hops, get it?) but then mild isn't what I normally choose to drink anyway. "All milds taste kinda soapy" says Arthur. Sarah enjoyed the saccharine laden lemonade, fine vintage apparently and matured nicely in Arthur's beer store. Not as nice, it was claimed, as the 10 year old farm made lemonade Arthur found in a hedge, but then he is a self professed bottom feeder. One expects top entertainment from the in-house character.

Sorry, no footnotes today, just a finishing asside about footnotes. I know, some of you don't like them. Tough, it's my blog.

Wednesday 22 July 2009

A changing market

The recent news report highlights just how much the pub industry is changing. The point of the piece is not to detail that the industry is changing but to lament the rapid closures of pubs. But can we really do anything about this? I'd argue that the answer is "NO". OK, some would say that restricting the tie system in some way might help. Some would say that overturning the smoking ban would help. Personally, I think that it's inevitability. I know this goes against some things I've written in the past, but perhaps I can change my mind.

Our socialising culture is changing. It's been changing for years. Pubs that hang on to the spit and sawdust, old fashioned model of a pub are finding that it no longer works. Depending on volume sales of ubiquitous brands, except where there is a volume market to be had by default, will almost certainly result in poor trading.

We wonder why so many pubs are turning their style over to restaurant format, or apparently becoming "Gastro pubs", perhaps we miss the point that this is where the money is, and it's been going that way for some time. The bistro, trendy, modern bar that serves a combination of progressive cask ales and more individual continental beers are becoming all the more successful. This might well be at the distress of some traditionalists, but this is the way it goes.

Additionally to this, although the consumption of alcohol might be reducing, and more over might be reducing more in "community pubs" this does not account for the apparent overall reduction in pubs. What I believe is having a greater effect is the move to larger, more efficient pubs, the likes of Wetherspoons, that can clearly manage to achieve economies of scale that smaller community pubs cannot. One large Wetherspoons for instance, will probably manage to turnover the same money as up to 10 ordinary, small, community pubs put together. If Wetherspoons is the thing that people want, perhaps this is what we should accept.

The remainder of the market is going to be the more trendy, restaurant style pub or the specialist beer bar. The style of business where spends per head can be maximised. The remote, small rural pubs are going to find it more and more difficult to survive and the industry would, in my view, would be better off accepting this.

There are a couple of good posts that look directly at the BBPA assertion that 52 pubs per week are closing. One on Jeffo's blog and one on Southport Drinkers blog. The comment threads are worth looking at.

Update: As I was writing this it seems a post from Tandleman and a post from Curmudgeon have also been written at a similar time. Just for completeness, and to prove I do take notice.

Tuesday 21 July 2009

Beer Temperature

It's probably one of the easiest faults to identify in beer; the wrong serve temperature. We all hate beer that is too warm. Some of us also object if the beer is served too cold, although arguably this is less of a problem because one can always wait for it to warm up.

Maintenance of cooling equipment can be a small headache for the publican. Apart from the fact that cooling eats power, and I mean really eats it, there is the problem of making sure it is working and set up right.

An advantage of big breweries is that they will usually help the publican to maintain his equipment. A tied house would expect, as part of the tie agreement, full maintenance and servicing of the cellar equipment1. If the beer starts coming out of the fonts2 warm then a simple call to the brewery or pubco will have it sorted in a jiffy. A free house may be disadvantaged in this respect. If the main supply of beer is through a single or maybe a couple of suppliers then cellar service might be easy to arrange. However, there will be some equipment, as detailed below in the footnote1 that will require independent contractors. This can end up being costly3.

If there is no major supplier, as in our case, all the maintenance becomes the publicans responsibility. The good news is that it's not that difficult if you're at all handy. Drinks technicians like to let you think it's a black art. It's not. OK, there are some basic mistakes which could end up costly, like continually topping up a glycol system with pure water, but there are some basics that can help.

What can a publican do to make sure his beer is at the right temperature? Perhaps drink it occasionally. Yes, I know it's a tough job, one I dread doing, but it does help you keep your finger on the pulse. If you have a kitchen thermometer4 use this to check the dispense temperature of the beer, using a cool glass of course, not one straight out of the glass washer. Checking the levels of coolant in the reservoirs in all remote and under-bar flash coolers, perhaps once a week, is good. Keep ventilation grills clean and free from dust and clear of obstructions. Tell that bar tender to move his fleece away from the cooler grill. Finally, find a cooling technician who you trust and who can respond quickly and learn from him.

1What do you mean the cellar air cooler is your responsibility? Nope, they want you to buy all the wet product off them they can jolly well make sure the cellar air temperature is right. You wouldn't need an air cooler in the cellar if it wasn't for the wet trade. It should be written into the contract.

2A font is the thing beer comes out of on the bar. Here, we normally don't include handpulls in this rather vulgar nomenclature.

3My cellar air cooler has probably cost me £2,000 to maintain since I came here 5½ years ago. But it's worth it, especially on a hot5 day when the cellar is the place to be.

4You have got a kitchen thermometer, haven't you? No? How can you possibly comply with HACCP?

5Yes Mr Bell, it can get hot, even up here in Cumbria.

Monday 20 July 2009

Tie Economics

Yes, sorry, I'm going to comment on the tie again. For the free marketeers who support the tie, I am going to take your side for the purpose of this discussion. The agreement between a lessee and his building owner are a business agreement that is freely entered into. This is true; The details of the lease are there to see when a prospective lessee is considering entering into the agreement.

From early in my drinking career1 many of the people I drank with had the same view of brewery owned pubs as myself. Perhaps they were OK to drink in but whenever talking to landlords on the subject the overriding view was that they paid too much for the beer and then if the pub started to do OK, due to the efforts of the publican, the brewery put the rent up negating any reward for the effort. This opinion is the basis of my objection to the tie.

If every publican who starts out understands the terms then they have little to complain about when taking on a tied house. I have no argument in this respect. My problem is that I'm not sure that every publican really understands the effect this might have on the profitability of their business before they start out. One of the motivations behind this blog is to tell it how it is from behind the bar. If that stops one person from making a poor life choice, then all my efforts here have been worthwhile.

Recently I have visited two very nice tied houses. One was buying outside the tie, without the pub companies knowledge. In conversation the licensee told me he was able to get away with it because the landlord had not put a meter on the line. The difference between the tied beer wholesale price and the untied price was £25 per firkin.

A day or so later I visited the other pub on a trip out. A regular in my pub had recommended this house to me and I was delighted to see a wide range of beers on sale when I got there. This could not be a tied house on the grounds that the choice was too great and too diverse for that. It turned out I was wrong. It was in fact owned by one of the biggest two offenders. So how did the victualler manage to achieve the vast range of wares?

"We pay for it" came the response. I can only assume this means corkage2 charges. I didn't feel comfortable getting into a full scale discussion about the situation but there came a second comment along the lines that if they didn't keep the range of beers they might as well "shut up shop". It is certainly a good pub and the management are doing a good job despite their tie.

Now, whether it be corkage or the premium charged by the brewery or pub company, it seems to me, without gaining more empirical evidence, that the going rate on a firkin is around the £25 previously mentioned. That's £100 per brewery barrel3. Consider a mediocre pub of a barrellage4 of around 200 barrels5 a year. This equates to £20,000 per year extra that the publican is paying. That's a similar amount I pay for my mortgage, but I don't pay rent.

So, are we really sure that if a prospective publican can't afford to buy a free house he can afford to lease a tied house? I'd argue he can do neither6.

I am very interested in the economics of the free trade verses the tied trade. I believe that in general the tied trade is being ripped off, but then I've always believed that. If any reader has empirical data I can use I would be happy to receive this. In return, discretion would naturally be assured.

1Definition of career: To hurtle uncontrollably. To move rapidly straight ahead, especially in an uncontrolled way.

2Corkage is a charge levied by a premises for consumption of a customers own drink. Not uncommon in a restaurant and for a bottle of wine for instance can easily be £5 and often more. The same can be applied to a lessee who wishes to sell beer legally outside the tie.

3A brewery barrel is a unit of measure, NOT the container that beer is delivered in. A barrel is 36 gallons or 288 pints. About 164 litres.

4Barrelage is a good measure of a pubs wet trade. It normally includes wines spirits and often soft drinks. Most tied houses are tied for the majority of this volume of sales.

5I would consider a 200 barrel a year wet led pub not to be viable. Match this with at least the same again of other revenue and things might look a bit better. Either that or double the barrelage, which for a tied house would double the cost of the tie to £40,000 per year. Are your eyes watering yet?

6I admit that in a town centre the volumes of trade can make for significantly different slant. Many large town centre properties enjoy a comfortable relationship between the business operator and the property owner.

Tuesday 14 July 2009

The Taster

My last post was a little negative and really an outpouring of my feelings about how difficult it is to match the expectations of many, and indeed my own expectations of a pub. I found an interesting post on Fuggled about bars in the USA that serve a dazzling selection of obscure beers. Now whilst the main post was interesting enough, there was a comment by Cooking Lager that I thought was very good indeed. So much so that I'll copy directly here. Perhaps I'm a bit naughty for stealing his words, but it'll make me feel better about him stealing branded glasses.

Variety more than just numbers is preferable. In a pub with dozens of taps, many will be fairly similar. A choice of fairly identical fair is a false choice. You only need one good example of a beer style.

A more important feature is customer service. Something done better in your country than mine.

Punters are not intimidated if in a friendly environment where there is no such thing as a daft question. Offer tasters to the unsure.

Here in Blighty you can go in a pub with dozens of pumps, all of which have daft names rather than detail of what style of beer it is, and bar staff that have no customer skills and expect the punter to be aware of every small micro, its products and treat the unfamiliar punter like dirt.

Be aware the product is a niche and welcome the unfamiliar customer, and beer ticker alike.
A lot of good advise for any niche pub. The taster in particular is something I could evangelise about, something that I really do believe in. I'm not sure that we, here in my pub, do it enough. It's my fault for not pressing home to the staff just how important it is to provide a taster for any customer that is unsure of the product. It really works. Once a customer has tasted a couple and chosen what is preferred, not only did the customer get what was wanted, but has also gained invaluable confidence in the establishment.

Here I go, making demands on the pub industry, which is possibly just the thing I was objecting to previously. But, I wholeheartedly commend tasters and if you go to a pub and are unsure of the selection, ask for a taster, any pub should be happy to provide a taster if it takes beer seriously. If you do run a pub and wonder why you should be giving away free beer, trust me, the confidence it give the customer about you is priceless. Get a number of shot glasses, that way you're not really giving very much away at all.

Now watch it Cooking Lager, there is a big danger of me taking you seriously.

I'm trying to not reduce the size of the font for asides at the end of a post, but sometimes I just can't resist the temptation.

Sunday 12 July 2009

Beer Passion

Beer is like no other product. It raises emotions and opinions in just the same way as politics and religion. People who drink beer regularly almost always have a view on the subject. Sometimes it's the price of a pint, sometimes it's the brand of beer, sometimes it's the temperature or the fullness of the glass or the use or otherwise of extraneous CO2.

Pubs are like no other business. Perhaps it's as a direct result of them still being, for the now at least, where the majority of beer is consumed. Regular and irregular pub customers almost always have a view on this diverse industry. No one style of pub is going to suit everybody. For some, the basic traditional pub doesn't provide the level of comfort or sophistication that they desire, perhaps these people are snobs. Others find too much ponciness results in an "up their own arse" impression that doesn't belong in a pub, and perhaps this set of customers lack the appreciation required.

For me, like many other publicans, my pub is my livelihood, my home and pretty much my life. I know that I get oversensitive when comments are made about the industry. I know that many publicans are putting in hours well in excess of the working hours directive, many are working for less than the minimum wage. Some, like me, do it for reasons that are hard to define but for sure have very little to do with money. It is, basically, our passion.

More than this, the niche sectors of the beer market, real ale and extreme beers, are promoted well by unpaid people. Be it CAMRA or beer bloggers or tickers or beer geeks they all, we all, contribute towards promoting and encouraging the more unusual small time brewers and the pubs that are bringing these beers to market.

I am part of that niche industry and therefore I care about what these groups of people say. If there is something that we don't do and feel we are unable to do, but there is comment that it should generally be done, I feel bad. I think that I care too much because it drives me to distraction, far too often, from the general good running of the business.

So why do people do this unpaid promotion? There always has to be an exchange. For paid work there is the exchange of money in return for hours attended. Without the money, most of us wouldn't do it. Conversely, when we do something for the fun of it, when the pay is negligible or none existent, like running a pub, blogging or being a CAMRA activist, there has to be an alternative payback, a discretionary exchange. Much of these activities are well meaning and truly intend to help the industry that is providing the goods and services that the impassioned desire.

The payback for many, of course, is the feeling that they are a little bit more in control of what they care about; pubs and beer. A feeling of being able to shape the things they are passionate about. For me, part of running my place is to do something I care about. To be able to create a pub that does things the way I see that they should be done. As I say, perhaps I care too much. When the things that the promoters say are at odds with what I feel I can or should do, or are impossible to attain because of our location or where the layout of the building prevents it, these comments cut deeper than anybody might ever believe.

In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders of every glove
that laid him down or cut him
till he cried out in his anger and his shame
I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains
Simon and Garfunkel

Friday 10 July 2009

Cooking Lager

Yesterday I "tucked" something up in the fermenter that I think might beat anything I've ever made before. Either that or it will be a complete waste of 90kg of malt and 3kg of hops due to the complex flavours not working - which, of course, is possible. It's a beer that does venture a little into the "extreme" world at an O.G. of 1054. I am, for now, avoiding using anything too unorthodox when maturing the beer, possibly just a little dry hopping. I'll leave the Feta matured beer to somebody else for now.

All this thought about niche beers is interesting. It's what I like; But for it to be niche there has to be a much larger body of "normal" beer drinking. The masses are not going to like extreme beers, or artisan drinks or for that matter anything that is out of the ordinary. If they did it would become mainstream.

I got a comment the other day on a previous post of mine, the one about lager. I followed the commenter's link through to his own blog, Cooking Lager. The authors views are largely in opposition to my own thoughts, but it's an interesting 180o view on the beer world. I suspect that there might be a large proportion of the population would share Cooking Lager's views

Although the majority of his blog I found amusing, I was mildly irritated in one post about his assertion that it's good to steal branded glassware from pubs. I'm afraid in my view pubs are small businesses run by individuals and although the glasses might well be provided by large multinational conglomerates, the pubs depend on this glassware as part of their image. Stealing glasses from pubs is no different to shop lifting. It is criminal activity.

Wednesday 8 July 2009

Bottled in Cumbria

It really pleases me the amount of good beer news that there is in Cumbria. Despite the economic doom and gloom there seems to be no end to the up-beat mood of all involved with the Cumbrian Craft Brewery industry that is alive and very well.

I needed bottles to continue with my experimental bottling runs. I can't justify buying a whole palate of the things just yet so I thought I'd go and see the nice guys at Cumbria Contract Bottling today. They were very obliging and sold me 196 bottles at a very reasonable price.

My first bottling run was put through their plant about 2 years ago and was only the 4th run they had done at the time. I remember the day well and I mention in this post, how emotional I was about getting my beer bottled. It was only 600 bottles, but they meant a lot to me. The thing was, the plant was, at that time, quiet, clearly they needed more work. Mine was the only run that day and I suspect they were only doing maybe a couple of runs a week.

Today could not have been more different. It was a hive of activity and as I arrived the team was busy cleaning down after one run so they could quickly get set to do the next. It was barely coffee time and they had bottled more beer already than they did the first day I was there two years ago.

The demand for their service is so great that they have had to stop taking new customers. The existing ones are more than filling the capacity of the plant. From the two founders working part time two years ago they had 5 people working today.

So you see, contrary to what some people think, it's not all doom and gloom, and certainly not in Cumbria.

Monday 6 July 2009

Dog Shed Scandals

I've come to a conclusion that balance in beer is a most important thing for me. Many brewers get carried away with defining their beer as being either hop driven or malt driven. It's as if the two things are somehow mutually exclusive. As if somehow hops will spoil the malt or the other way round. It's not that I don't like a light hoppy beer as such, they are just improved by the addition of a little coloured malt, it doesn't have to be much. Equally, I don't mind a nice malty mild or porter, providing it actually has plenty of chocolate or caramel flavours, but this would be better with some hoppy stuff as well. OK, I know it might then fail to be in either category, but it would be a more balanced beer, in my view.

Of course this goes against the very popular light hoppy beers that are fashionable today. Many breweries do extremely well selling almost nothing but pale, flowery, hoppy ales. They do indeed show off the nuances of the various hop varieties well. There might be the odd porter thrown in, just for good measure, but if that has got much hop bittering that would be it; very little in the way of aroma hops. This does make me wonder if this is partly why so many people "don't like darker ales" because you need a little of both; a good hop profile and malty backbone. It might then come down to personal preference as to the proportions of each.

There is no such scandalous imbalance in Barngates Red Bull Terrier 4.8%. If I leave out my own beers, which if I didn't I'd be quite rightly accused of bias, this beer has to be my favourate Cumbrian beer. I am sure this is because it has just the right amount of hop bitterness, aromas and malty body for it all to work together.

I've been missing this beer; we've not had it for a while. Alan reminded me that we were short of dark beers. I phoned John at Barngates and he said I can't have any this week, but wait until next week and I can. I can wait for such a nice brew.

It was also good to hear from John that trade is brisk. They expanded the brewery last year, so it's good to know the investment seems to be paying off. Nearly every brewer I've talked to in Cumbria reports good business this year. Some having the problem of being unable to keep up with demand.

He also said he has read my blog. There, aren't you glad you're brewing my Red Bull Terrier now John? Yes, your right, say nice things about my blog and I'll be nice back. I really am that easily pleased.

Sunday 5 July 2009

Bottle it up

I had a little bit of excitement last night. No, not the bedroom type, well, maybe that as well, but that would be telling and anyway, that bit of my life will stay in the bedroom. No, I became excited as the result of voyeurism over the procreation of some tiny micro organisms that go by the name saccharomyces cerevisiae. These little wonders are better known, of course, as ale yeast. I'm a little cautious of posting here about this excitement, not least because I suspect many of my readers, if they have home brewed, will wonder why a professional brewer is getting at all excited about such a thing.

I still wonder at the magic of "Godisgood" whenever these marvelous fungi turn large amounts of a sugary liquid into beer. The yeast's waste products being alcohol and carbon dioxide, both of which are essential for good beer. The first time I made beer for commercial consumption was something of a life milestone. Made possible by many factors and quite a bit of help from various sources. Later, I sent some to be bottled at a local bottling plant. I went to witness this historic moment; my own beer being commercially bottled. I'll be honest, I did feel slightly emotional driving away from the bottling plant with the first case of beer sat beside me. Again, another life milestone.

I mention here about the relative economies of bottling beer by hand over sending it for contract bottling. I've come to the conclusion that we are better off hand bottling in very small limited edition versions. One cask out of a single brew. That way we can sell the stuff here and have the draft version on sale for customers to try before committing to the bottle.

A week ago I bottled some of my beer here. The plan was to condition in the bottle the good old fashioned way. No chill filtering1, no carbonation with CO2 that lacks provenance, just good old fashioned secondary fermentation. But I was worried that the priming would be wrong, or that there was not enough yeast. Would I get some condition into the beer?

Well, after waiting a week I cracked open a bottle last night. "Bubbles!" I exclaimed "It's got condition!" I suspect everybody in the bar thought I was barmy2. But my first bottle conditioned beer worked. I've sold some today3. Another life milestone. It's nice to feel things firming up, the plan, that is.

Now, before you all get carried away and start asking me to send you some, it's not for sale outside my little pub. Mainly because I suspect you lack the sophistication......oh, no, that wasn't it. No, it's because the beer isn't good enough, that's not the reason either. Oh, yes, I remember, it's because I need a day off and if I have to brew more to satisfy a wider market I'll not get one, sorry. You'll just have to come and see me here. Perhaps, if I make something exceptional, I'll consider selling some during the winter at a ridiculously inflated price that is worthy of the handcrafted nature of the product.

1I am considering reseeding with a different yeast. There are some advantages in doing that. That might result in me filtering the base beer after primary fermentation. I would still consider that to be real.

2OK, everybody who was in the bar at the time knows I'm barmy. It was just a little more evidence for them.

3No, that's a lie, Tom did. He's our newest barman. He's doing OK and is showing all the signs of a good salesman.

Friday 3 July 2009

Taking things to extremes

I've got a problem. "What, only one?" you ask. Well, good point, I've got plenty and most of them I'm not going to share with the reader. However, there is one that is really bothering me. It is my drink problem. It's not that I can't go a day without a drink, really, I can if I want to, I just don't want to most days. Besides, I run a pub, I don't need to go without, so that's not a problem. It's just that I'm getting to find there are more and more really nice beers to try. The more I try the more exciting ones that I find. You're not really understanding how this is a problem, are you?

It's all my own fault of course. I went to Belgium. After that, very shortly afterwards, I went to Oregon. Despite the belief that many American high streets are full of nothing more than homogeneous outlets, I was lead, kicking and screaming of course, to many quality beer retailing businesses. In these places I consumed a healthy amount of various beers, some more tasty than perhaps I wished, but others quite delicious and, to contribute to the word's overuse, complex. Most, of course, were 6% or 7% or 8% or possibly even more.

My problem, then, is that I find regular session ales a little watery, which is fine if I'm thirsty. When it's hot, as it has been, a nice cool 3.8% golden ale with a nice level of hopping is a joy to consume. I am however finding these beers bland and uninteresting after 2 or 3 pints and a chaser of something more complex floats my boat much higher in the water.

This train of thought is provoked by a post written by our favourite Mr Tandleman. He claims to not like extreme beers. Although I do agree that a feta cask matured beer might just be taking things too far. However, the thought that beer cannot be drunk in half pints, because it is stronger, does confuse me.

In the comments, James from BrewDog unfortunately scores home goals through a gallant attempt to make some very valid points. Driving the ball very firmly into the back of his own net by saying that a pint glass is a "terrible and unflattering way to serve any beer" I do wish he had made the word "any" into "stronger". I'd have agreed with him if he'd done that. Good quality session ale at 3.6% is flattered to hell in a pint pot, especially if it has a pint line on it, with room for a head above that line, of course. A stronger beer at say 7% is much better enjoyed in a smaller stemmed glass, much like a wine glass. In this case the complexities, sorry, using that word again, of the aromas, can fully develop.

The reactions though, in general, confuse me. Why can we not drink a beer in a glass that is not a pint? The comments seemed a little along the lines of too much objection from drinkers stuck in a rut. These seem to me to be discerning beer connoisseurs who have yet to be open minded enough to drink less than a pint in a pub.

There is one view that perhaps answers all of this. Tandleman does not drink at home. He likes to drink in the pub and from the sounds of it does it with respectable regularity. Drinking beer is a social thing. How much, really, do we want to be spending our time considering the complexity of the beer we have in the glass sat on our beer mat? How much time would we prefer to be spending sorting out the worlds many other troubles, with the aid of suitable brain annealing fluid? Of course, this would be with the considerable benefit of our peers thoughtful consideration, just to straighten out the irregularities in our world view, or possibly theirs.

Those of us that want to enjoy a beer for it's complexity can sit in a dark corner, wax lyrical to ourselves, or any other sad beer geeks close by, and leave the proper pint drinking to the big boys. Better still, hide away at home, like the sad people we are, where we are hurting nobody.

I'm lucky, I live in a pub, I can do all of these things. Often I enjoy session beer in it's unflattering pint glass, to the line and served with a sparkler, of course. Sometimes I like something stronger, but then, I am in my own home, really.

Well that should have just about upset everybody. Now, I've got some 6.6% complex beer on the handpulls I think.....oh and some stemmed half pint glasses.

Thursday 2 July 2009

Don't Like Lager

Having been shooting from the hip on such subjects as extreme beers and the tie when commenting on other blogs, I feel I should just calm down a bit and stop upsetting people. Perhaps somethings just won't change. Certainly glib and ill thought out commenting is likely only to entrench opinion. Both of these subjects are of great interest to me but need careful thought before writing further.

Last night we managed to get out for a couple of hours. Prior to leaving I had caught sight of Jeff's post about lager. Readers might have noticed that it's been really warm of late. Ideal weather for lager drinking one would think. Go on then I thought, Jeff is always going on about how much lager is demonized in some quarters, I can't proclaim to be a broad minded beer drinker if I don't give it a go. I think Ann just about fell off her bar stool when I ordered it.

What I do think is important when serving a drink is appropriate glassware. Some might ask what difference it makes. Well I think it's an insult to Budvar to put it in a Carling glass. OK, the nucleating glass did give attractive swelling bubbles rising in the glass and maintained the head for the whole time I drank the beer, but putting the wrong beer in the wrong glass gives the impression of couldn't care less from the bar staff.

But, glassware aside, did I enjoy the beer? Well, yes, maybe a little. As with all beer drinking, it was at least enjoyable because of the good company around the bar. Budvar has got better flavour than the beer that the glass belonged to. But it still doesn't quite do it for me. After that I had a pint of a Brakspear cask beer. Now that was really nice.

So, what's wrong with me? Many of the beer connoisseurs I know are arguing that there are some very fine lagers. To be truly broad minded about beer, and I want to be, I should accept good lager as a quality drink.

I have come to the conclusion that it's conditioning. No, I don't mean carbonation levels but the deep instilled opinions that become rooted in ones subconscious. From a very early time in my drinking career lager drinking was synonymous with getting into trouble. I drank bitter or stout or wine or single malts. Perhaps I might try sherry or port or rum. I did so because I believed that's what nice people did. Part of my upbringing I guess.

It makes me think, perhaps our views on the tie, or the strength of or the correct dispense volume of beer and many other manner of opinion are rooted deep in our subconscious.