Tuesday 31 August 2010

What is important about beer brands?

I was recently talking to a guy who used to be a sales and marketing chap in a fairly well known regional brewery. We got on to discussing one of the brands he used to sell, you would know it if I mentioned it; it's almost national by now. The beer has had several head brewers who have shaped it to it's current form. I already knew that the beer's recipe has been changed over the years, different brewers have used different hopping regimes, including the introduction of dry hopping in the cask. The peak of it's beery excellence, according to my source, was when a brewer was recruited from a very major and well revered northern brewery which has since seen something of a fall from grace.

We have to remember that my informant has worked in the brewing industry for many years. He not only knows what good beer is he also knows some inside information from major breweries as to how the actual recipe has changed over the years. Indeed, most brewers would agree that to make consistent beer you don't simply use x amount of this malt and y amount of that hop; the yealds vary from season to season and also the time elapsed since the ingredient was cropped has to be taken into account. Furthermore, sometimes a particular hop just can't be sourced in certain years due to poor crops or simply due to the inablilty of the hop farmers to accurately judge future variety demand.

The job of the brewer is to choose his ingredients and make a beer that is as close to the brand ideal as he can and within cost constraints determined by his paymasters. How well the final beer matches the desired flavour profile might be tightly controlled by tasting panels, or simply by the head brewers palate.

As brands develop, are sold, reach maturity and then are milked for all they have, the owning businesses often change the dependence on flavour profile as a trade off against cost of production. The two brands that remain anonymous in my opening paragraph are examples, I am assured by my industry insider confidant, of such treatment of beer brands.

There is of course nothing we can do about this. Indeed, why should we worry? Buying the brand name only permits the company to sell something that is called by that name. It might also give it the rights to previous production records and possibly the plant and equipment that made it. However, the recipes and plant are not what make the brand; after all, quite a lot of the Fosters made in this country is brewed by those nice people at Molson Coors in Burton-upon-Trent. I'd hazard a guess that the flavour profile and cost implications of brewing Fosters is far more important to the brand owner than the detail of the exact ingredients. Coors, as the contract brewer, will probably be permitted certain scope for variation of the recipe to ensure the final product meets the specification.

When I hear complaints about beer brands being ruined by the owners I become a little bemused. I understand why lovers of the brands are upset, and indeed a true beer aficionado should be able to tell that a particular beer is not as good, or perhaps has improved, over what he remembers. But if a brand fails to satisfy then why not just move on? there are plenty more beers out there.

This post was partly inspired by Cooking Lager's suggestion that some old lager brands should be resurrected, just so he could taste what lout used to be like. It makes me wonder how we can truly resurrect any old brand that has fallen by the wayside. Malting techniques have changed, hop varieties will have undoubtedly undergone genetic drift and I seriously doubt yeast strains can be kept stable for decades at a time.

My palate has changed in the 30ish years I've been drinking beer. I think I remember what I thought of various brands all that time ago, but I can't be sure. If I think it's not as good, is it me, or is it the beer? I suspect in many cases it is something of both.

I know there are many breweries that cherish the quality of their beers. Some breweries even work at improving their products rather than sticking to some recipe that works. What it results in, and not necessarily in a bad way, is the flavours of beer changing over the years. So, it remains for me to ask, what is important about a beer brand?

Saturday 28 August 2010

Sexism and Beer

Last week I visited the doctor about an inguinal hernia I have been developing. This week I went to see a consultant and was immediately offered surgery. I was really surprised, as I had one side done already when we were still running the pub and there was a risk that the NHS waiting lists would cause me to have a 6 week rehabilitation period right in the middle of our busy season. Last time, completely against my principles, I elected to have it done privately so as to jump the queue. I had a parallel request in the normal NHS route but only received the letter inviting me to make an appointment to see the consultant a couple of days before my privately arranged surgery. Things have moved on and only 1 week after first visiting my doctor I am promised to be given a date for surgery which is likely to be within the next 4-6 weeks. There certainly have been some improvements to waiting lists.

However, this post is not about congratulating the NHS on improving, nor perhaps considering that the previous government did in fact do some things that were good; indeed, I'm now feeling guilty that I'm robbing some more worthwhile case from life saving surgery. As it happens, my particular condition is getting worse at an almost undetectable rate and is way off causing me any grief. I only went to the doctors early because I expected a 3-6 months wait.

This post is about the differences between men and women; I've done a small amount of research into this, as much as I've been permitted to get away with, and discovered some pleasurable physiological differences between men and women. There are also some unfortunate differences and my hernia is one; men are around 25 times more likely to develop the condition, mainly due to the significant anatomical differences downstairs.

There are psychological, emotional and perceptive differences too; women like dresses and shoes and make-up and spending far too long looking for wall paper or choosing paint or a new sofa. Men like fast cars and sport and looking at naked women and beer; life is way too short to waste time on shopping. Women are far more perceptive when it comes to fragrance or colour matching and men are better at taking cars apart and reading maps, sometimes they can even get the car back together again and occasionally they don't get lost.

I'm painting a picture using only prime stereotypical colours, I know. Looking at individuals we can find plenty that crossover the stereotyping boundaries and thankfully our reasonably liberal society of the western world continues to break this down. This begs the question of how much the very real differences between men and women are due to social conditioning and how much are due to real XX verses XY chromosomes, I believe a little of both; for me the debate is not that these differences exist and arguing about whether it is nature or nurture, it's about understanding that there are differences and using or suppressing them as appropriate.

But really, what has this got to do with beer? Well, I often watch adverts on TV with a critical eye. I often declare that such and such an advert will never make me buy that product; the advert insults my intelligence. Sometimes I think that the product is shit, but well done on an entertaining advert, it was better than the tripe that was supposed to be the main feature. When it comes to beer adverts I take a little more notice. Most beer adverts are for the mainstream brands I wouldn't be seen dead drinking1 and sadly BrewDog and Thornbridge are yet to place prime time TV ads, but perhaps there is a future?

Most of the beer adverts amuse me, sadly due to the fact that I'm a male chauvinist. Sometimes I do a good job of hiding that chauvinism, sometimes not, it surfaces with great gusto when many of the major beer brands feature in the increasingly frequent and extended commercial breaks that populate2 the television. The Heineken ad made many of us poor testosterone ridden, deoxyribonucleic acid deficient mutants rock with laughter. Personally, I think it's a bit of a fight back against female chauvinism that results in much of our hard earned cash3 being frittered on rarely-to-be-worn fashion accessories.

Comments about this resulted in Kristy writing about such male targeted marketing. It certainly can't help us to make beer more accessible to women, and I'd like that to happen just as much as Kristy does. But is it ever going to work so long as society is the way it is? Gender orientated advertising is not just limited to beer; it features in many adverts. We are, as a society getting better, but there is an underlying proverbial principle that it's a pint for the bloke and a fruit based drink for the lady.

For me, the Heineken advert simply points up the existing mainstream established gender divide that exists in society. Worrying about the fact that major brand beer is keeping this sometimes frightening gulf between the sexes alive is like worrying that Heinz are perpetuating the belief that good food is made better with ketchup. Major brands work because they have synergy with mainstream society, brands that try to buck that trend tend to become marginalised.

And anyway, blokes would never openly discuss medical issues relating to downstairs, only women have that sort of problem.

If the reader is thinking this sounds all a bit defeatist then take heart; it is my experience that in the beer world there are a significant and growing number of women who are involved in beer. Looking at CAMRA, beer bloggers or beer twitter there is a healthy and increasing number of women who are active and there is good reason for this, but I think that is the subject of another post.


1My twitter followers will know that there are moves afoot to make me do just that and compare some major brands in a blind tasting. Why not? It'll be a hoot.

2I also notice the products change depending on the style of program being shown. When there are a large number of adds for sanitary products, soap powder or things you have to buy for your kids because otherwise you are a parent from hell, I start to suspect I've inadvertently started watching a chick flick.

3To be fair, Ann cannot be labelled a slave to fashion, so I'm lucky there.

Monday 23 August 2010

Appropriateness of beer technology

At the Great British Beer Festival I was invited to the Tasting of Fullers Brewer's Reserve No2, and a damn fine beer it is too. I had already been drinking a few beers of the Bières Sans Frontières and am still not convinced I have fully appreciated this beer, nor do I remember the exact detail of the talk John Keeling gave. I have a couple of bottles here so I will try to rectify my lack of full appreciation on another occasion, just so long as I don't do what I did last night and weigh into a bottle after the pub, when my palate is half shot.

Whilst I can try the beer again, what I always fail to do when listening to great brewers talk is remember all the detail of the brewers knowledge. John talked about the technicalities of bottling barrel aged beers, not a subject I'm completely incompetent at, as the success of Æther Blæc has proved, but I'd be a fool if I even pretended to know as much about the microbiology of beer as John does.

I seem to remember John talking about the brewers reserve No2 being a little more susceptible to Brettanomyces generated flavours as brandy has a lower ABV than whisky at cask strength. Actually, I can find no evidence that cask strength brandy is any weaker than cask strength whisky, so I may have misinterpreted1 this point.

Whether specifically about the No2 or generally about barrel aged beers the point about the microorganisms in the wooden cask is important. John indicated that to enable the beer to be stable after bottling, chill filtering is required, and the beer reseeded with yeast. Although I don't chill filter I am very careful to get very good, recently emptied, long matured whisky casks for my whisky aged stout; this ensures as sterile an environment as possible before the beer comes into contact with the spirit soaked wood. Storing in as cool an environment as possible during maturation is also important.

I know of beer commentators who are horrified at the idea of bottle conditioned beers being re-seeded with yeast. Some purists think that the only correct way to make bottle conditioned beer is to chance the yeast from primary fermentation being strong enough to ensure secondary, anything else is cheating. This could not be a more erroneous point of view.

It is also worth referring back to a post by Zak Avery about beers that go wrong, the dicussions in there about Brettanomyces and a suggestion about pasteurising is interesting; every brewer has to consider what is best for their beer and moreover may not get it right every single time.

I would never make a bottle conditioned beer that wasn't first cleared in conditioning tanks, or perhaps a whisky cask, and then re-seeded and almost certainly primed at the bottling stage. I choose to use finnings where appropriate to clear the beer. Chill filtering may well have advantages to ensure unwanted spoilage microganisms are removed. I understand that Thornbridge have a shiny new centrifuge2 which should remove these pesky little guys but leave the flavours much more intact.

I suspect that any good bottle conditioned beer will undergo some form of treatment indicated above. I certainly re-seed every bottle conditioned beer I make, it's madness not to.

This makes me wonder about the "fizzy chemical beer" mantra that occurs in some circles. The use of modern techniques and equipment to ensure quality beer doesn't mean the beer is not a high quality worthy product. It does not mean that re-seeded bottles are inferior to the purity of a bottle that depends on the primary fermentation yeast, quite the reverse. It does not mean that a keg of unfiltered beer is somehow inferior to a poorly kept cask of some poorly executed clone of yesteryears mild, quite the reverse. It does not mean that a week old cask kept under a gentle blanket of carbon dioxide is inferior to a 3 day old cask of the same beer even under ideal cellar conditions, quite the reverse.

As we improve our brewery and our abilities we will be turning to technology to help us out at any point we feel it is appropriate, we hope it will make our beer better and better and better. If it loses us points with the purists then so be it.


1I sometimes wonder if my honesty is what keeps me from getting any paid writing roles; after all, a real journalist wouldn't be caught admitting that the story might not be true.

2Look in the comments in this post.

Sunday 22 August 2010

Session Beer

I've been busy, very busy. We are starting our long awaited brewery upgrade, the VAT return needs to be done and beer needs to be brewed. All well and good, but I miss writing my blog.

I wrote this last week but never got around to proof reading and publishing. I'm going to get back into writing, I have lots to say, most of it will of course be challenging the standard drinking and pub ethos that I sometimes think constrains us from achieving broader acceptance of new ideas. My views on this makes people think I object to what we have got, which is not true; I'm interested in augmenting what we have in our national pub and beer culture, not wholesale change. The words I wrote the other day were an attempt to prove this.


17th August 2010

I brewed today, Infra Red as it happens; We seem to have very little beer of any description in stock, but one or two beer festivals have asked for that one so that's what I made. Brewing is fairly physical, at least on a little brewery like mine. By the end of the day I generally feel satisfied emotionally with the fact I made something real, but quite physically tired and, well, hot and sweaty. The only appropriate course of action is to visit the pub that happens to be conveniently between our brewery and our home. It's handy because it normally has one of my beers on and one of someone else's. I can try someone else's and then one of my own and see if I prefer my own beer. Mostly I win, but not always; it's a handy little QA test, that's my excuse.

Because the pub in question is a fairly normal sort of small-town pub the beer choice is generally the normal suspects. Cream flow bitter, a couple of main stream lagers, a very well known stout, keg mild and a cider. The two handpulls don't do too much volume, just enough to keep two cask beers going. If either handpull has got anything on that is too dark, too strong, or worst off all, dark and strong, it doesn't sell and the competing beer sells out in no time.

If I'm writing this in the way I intend you will now be expecting me to launch off into some tirade about how terrible this situation is; about how awful it is that this pub can't sell something a bit more interesting. Readers of this blog will know my fondness of strong beer and might be forgiven for thinking I detest session beer. This really is not true.

It struck me when I read a fellow Cumbrian brewers blog about the difficulties of selling stronger, more "interesting" beer; perhaps the fact that I am vocal about my love of stronger, darker beer suggests I don't like anything else. That simply isn't true, quite the opposite in fact.

Returning to the thoughts of my journey break on the way home, it is better for this particular pub to have two handpulls selling two good session beers than to have one handpull selling a session beer and one handpull serving a slow moving beer that few of the locals would drink. The vast majority of their clientele drink keg, and there is no way of changing that. To be honest, it's a miracle they keep two cask beers on.

From the brewery's point of view it is nearly impossible to make a viable business without the bread and butter of session beer. That's what pays the bills, and would buy the cat food, if I had a cat.

Moreover, there are other good reasons to make session beer, even if there is no financial driver. The biggest one is yeast propagation, a subject I'm still building up knowledge about. I intend to start pitching-on yeast once I feel both my knowledge and brewery infrastructure can guarantee a good outcome. During my investigations into this I have discovered that yeast multiplies cells better and more quickly in low gravity solutions and with a low alcohol level. As soon as yeast is in a high sugar concentration or high alcohol environment it is less likely to replicate and more likely to make more alcohol, or perhaps die.

This results in some of the very best brewers only cropping from their standard session beers. This is not an urban myth, more than one brewer has told me this.

So, as a brewer who gets hot and sweaty when brewing I can now celebrate session beer for two good reasons; It slakes my thirst without getting me too drunk and I can use session beer to propagate excellent healthy young yeast for my stronger beer.

Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to continue to explore how it might be possible for brewers who would like to make more challenging beers to get the fruits of their hard work into an appreciative audience. But then that will be for future blog posts.

Tuesday 10 August 2010

Meeting demand

This isn't a complex or long winded post, it is quite simple really; we've created a demand for a product we are unable to make fast enough. Infra Red doesn't sell well in cask locally, although we can make it and get it to customers quite quickly. Making bottle conditioned beer takes a little longer when it is a dry hopped beast. Transport logistics add to the problem of satisfying the demand.

Today we note that myBreweryTap have already sold out of Infra Red, except for what they have in mixed cases. There have been reports of intermittent supplies at The Rake and UtoBeer. BeerMerchants do have some stock, although I'm not sure there is much left. The trouble is I have not a single drop left in the brewery. Furthermore, I am unlikely to get around to brewing more anytime soon as a local cask market also expect to be satisfied.

Of course, Zak Avery has unwittingly added to this whole dilemma by disguising a guitar as a mandolin. I'm considering my perspective as a result of that.

The whole problem is somewhat compounded by the very late availability of increased brew house capacity. We expected a 3 fold increase in production capacity by the end of June at the latest, but this is still to be delivered. However, that is just me making feeble excuses, why should you care that I can't satisfy your insatiable demand for my beer?

All I can do is apologise and promise to brew harder. Oh, and nag Ann like hell to buy me more stainless steel. And a bottle labeler. And more bottle filling heads. And a fork lift truck. And a sink (no really, I didn't get one yet) And a steam boiler. And. And. And..........

Friday 6 August 2010

Musing the Market

It has been a very busy and varied couple of weeks. Improvements to the brewery progress, we've been getting our beers out to people that we have promised them to and of course the Great British Beer Festival saw a massive and worthwhile distraction.

Yesterday I woke up thinking about the procreation of yeast, which is odd, as primeval physiological instinct of my own procreation used to be my normal morning distraction. I awoke unusually early which was handy as I had a lot to do. The yeast subject was catalysed by the discovery of my American friend's beer presence on Bières Sans Frontières at the festival. The two main thrusts, if you'll pardon further reproductive connection, of my considerations of this were; 1. Why does his beer taste the way it does? 2. How come Ted, who is 8 time zones away and has been brewing less time than me, has his beer at GBBF already? The second question I'll come to further down, but the first was what woke me up and will be the subject of another post, promise.

However, before I could get around to writing this post we had beer to deliver beer and an install to do at a pub. Along with our cask ale beer we are starting to supply various interesting beers to pubs that would like to do something interesting. The Queens at Biggar on Walney Island has been closed for over a year. Two delightfully enthusiastic ladies have bought the place and have set about renovating it with supremely directed madness. Their attempts might or might not be foolhardy but recognising kindred determination we have committed to helping them to achieve their vision. They wanted Timmermans Kriek on draught. We can do that for them. They also wanted Mitchell Krause on draught, so we've been involved with that too. Of course there will be our cask beers available from time to time.

The owners have gone, quite sensibly in my opinion, for multiple suppliers. We will have to sit alongside Bank Top, Veltins, Stoweford Press and Grolsh as well as Hawkshead. To be honest it is the last in that list that I worry about most from a competitive point of view; Hawkshead make damn good beer. Having had my run-ins with Alex Brodie, the owner, I hope we have put this behind us after several pints together resulting in frank discussion and a realisation that perhaps we have quite a lot in common, even if neither of us want to admit it.

It is not the first time Hardknott and Hawkshead beers have sat on the same bar and I hope not the last. Progressive and interesting beers are likely to succeed by learning to get along, and even perhaps helping each other out; I connected the cooling jackets on the Hawkshead pumps on this occasion, there you go Alex, I do hope you approve.

At GBBF most of us beer geeks, bloggers and twitteratti assembled near BSF. Frankly, it's where most of the beer is that we want to seek out. We may well not represent the majority of the beer market and it is important for us to remember that. However, I don't travel 300 miles to try some clone of a "traditional" recipe, frankly, I can get that at home. I go to find like minded people and search for great, progressive beer.

Sid Boggle considers this on his blog. I seem to have been mistakenly included in some of the best brewing talent around, but apart from this point, the piece is interesting and provoking. I'm still trying to understand the beer market and exploring what is said I must consider further. A key issue for me is exactly why people buy beer and what type of beers interest the various types of beer enthusiasts.

Cumbria did achieve one award at GBBF; Beckstones got bronze in the Strong Bitters category. David Taylor is a very diligent brewer and the consistency and cleanliness of his product shows through. In 2008 he also got overall silver in Champion Beer of Britain with Black Gun Dog Freddie. David's brewery is the closest geographically to mine, begging the question of the sense in me thinking I can survive in a declining market with such competition around.

However, despite there being a significant number of breweries in Cumbria, many of whom I think brew technically competent beer, is it only Beckstones1 that seems to win.

My conclusion, currently, is that the beer market in Cumbria is not particularly progressive. The beers chosen at local level to represent Cumbria don't show off all the best beers, in my humble opinion. The personal preferences of local CAMRA branches have to be an influence.

There must also be an influence as a result of the style of market in The Lakes. Most breweries are pushing the fact that they produce local traditional ale, made with traditional ingredients, you know, British Marris Otter and English hops and made with Lake District water. Beer miles and quaffability being the main selling points; after all, if you are on a walking holiday in The Lakes you want a piece of the locale that will slake your thirst. Interesting flavours cost more and have minimum impact on sales.

The rest of the County, the industrial belt around the outside, is also steeped in tradition. Insular and lacking progressive thinking; the majority of the drinking population secure in it's contentment. Quite unlike the forward thinking alternative beer community I have come to love in Sheffield, London, Leeds and other big cities.

The fact that Cumbria rarely wins much at GBBF, despite having a high number of breweries and beers to choose from, might be partly due to the fact that we need to do better at brewing, but the choices put forward at local level do appear to be mired in local branch politics and the Cumbrian palate having a fondness for all that is bland. I'm not convinced that the best beers are put forward.

After all, despite my aforementioned rivalry with Hawkshead, I feel their absence tells a story; they are probably one of the best breweries in Cumbria right now, but not one of their beers was represented.

Furthermore, the fact that BSF provides such a fantastic array of esoteric beers, very few progressive UK breweries can showcase beer at this, the key beer event of the year in the UK. I can imagine that in years to come there is likely to be an increase of fringe beer events in the capital that will cater more for the beer geek community. I suspect I will see you there and you never know, I might even be prepared to bury hatchets for anyone else who will join this journey.

1I am pleased Beckstones did well, and the fact the this brewery has already gained two awards in GBBF is good reason to carry on putting David's beers forward. Yes, I also know Coniston has been successful a few years ago and Great Gable did very well with Yewbarrow in the bottle section - I like this beer too.