Friday 24 December 2010

A Christmas Message

It's about Christ isn't it? Christmas that is. This is an uncomfortable aspect of the feast for the atheists. On the other hand, we are only just past the shortest day; We can look forward to summer being on its way. A festival at this time of year has been part of human society for much longer than even the age of Stonehenge.

I started watching Jesus Christ Superstar last night. It was being aired on ITV and is one of those performing arts pieces that define my youth. Being brought up as Catholic, it is actually interesting to me that my mother encouraged its presence in our house when one considers the controversy surrounding this rock opera. This is not so surprising when I think back to her support over such subjects as my own sexual development, and her open and outright opposition to the Catholic churches doctrines over contraception and sexual health. I suspect that without her deliberate and considered scepticism I'd have ended up a much more troubled person than I have actually turned out to be.

The film was being screened late in the evening, I'd been to the pub and on returning home opened a bottle of one of my all time favourite beers; Theakston's Old Peculier. The bottle doesn't say if it is bottle conditioned or not. There didn't seem to be any sediment and to be honest it's not as good as the cask version. I suspect it is chill filtered and re-carbonated and I'm disappointed that this traditional classic is not better in the bottle. However, I will still buy more of it in the future if for no other reason than it was the very first beer I really enjoyed nearly 30 years ago. I'd drunk many others, all poor keg version of what were probably once great beers. Theakston managed to hit the spot and that cask beer is what started me on my road of evangelistic beer geekdom.

It could have been the beer, or the late hour, but I failed to finish watching the film; it didn't matter, I've been involved in staged versions of the musical and know it quite well.

The story portrayed in the Rice-Webber composition are the simple facts as best we can distil from the propaganda of the late Christian Roman Empire. There are no claims of Christ's miracle powers or any confirmation that he might have been God-made-man. It could simply be seen as a story about a freedom fighter standing up against an occupying Roman administration. The fact that he uses, so the story goes, religious rhetoric to get his point across is no unusual occurrence in the ancient world.

Of course the Roman Empire almost certainly helped to spread good technology, fiscal systems, law and order and cultural refinement alike. Their apparent barbaric feudal-like society might well be abhorrent to us and the early Christians alike, but it almost certainly helped develop our modern society and culture. The alphabet contained in my writing is largely the same as the Romans used in their written Latin language. Perhaps Christ was a necessary development, a challenge to what was wrong with the then current human order. Whether the Christian religion can still play a useful part in helping our society is a debatable point, although Psalm 23 helped me at my mothers funeral; something life-long atheists may struggle to understand.

I like the fact that JC Superstar is a simple, almost believable story of what might actually have happened to Jesus. No religious interpretation, just a narrative of the struggle of a local man against the burgeoning administration of the Romans. The cinematography and soundtrack editing could have been smoother and that irritates me, but it's nearly 40 years old and bound to look like a 1970's film.

The challenge to the beer world back in the early 1970's was certainly needed. The founders of CAMRA certainly started something powerful. The organisation was originally called the Campaign for Revitalisation of Ale and has now grown to an organisation boasting over 115,000 members. There is no doubt it has helped to shape the beer world we now see in the UK.

Certainly there is a desire to buck against mass homogenisation of the beer world. That desire is still here nearly 40 years since CAMRA was founded.

Two thousand years after the birth of Jesus our modern world still hangs onto the story of Christ. We also hang onto the story of Mr Claus. We're afraid that the magic of the season will somehow vanish if we turn our backs on the stories. Many young people are told that if they don't believe in Santa he won't come. We know they are not true. We know really that it was the end of the Roman Empire that shaped what we now have as the Christian religion. Modern scientific research has constantly found major faults with The New Testament, but still, we base our holidays on the festivals chronicled in these stories that are almost certainly distortions of what actually happened.

The reader could be excused for thinking from the above that I am an atheist. The truth is that I am not. I dislike anyone telling me that I am not allowed to think about, or for that matter write about what I really think. What I believe is that humanity has an omnipresent power that can manifest itself in either good or evil, and many shades in between. I believe we can make ourselves live in the minds of others for many years after our death. Hitler has and Jesus have. How we are remembered will be shaped by what we do when we are alive. Unfortunately, to be able to call myself a Christian I must believe that Christ was God made man - I am no longer prepared to believe that. What I do believe is that we can learn from ancient fables such as those written by the Greek philosophers and those written by Jesus' Disciples later edited by the Romans. Perhaps the Qu'ran could also help us, were it not for that fact that it seems to have been elevated to the same status as the Christian Gospels. Good stories don't have to be true to help us. Making them doctrines in the modern free-thinking world is what spoils their value.

I love beer. I love cask beer. I love bottle conditioned beer. Cask Old Peculier is my Psalm 23 of the beer world. The bottle version doesn't seem to be "Real Ale" but remains one of my drinks of choice, perhaps in this form it might not be worthy, but I can wander down to the local shop and get a 4 pack for a reasonable price.

I consider myself a Christian, despite the fact that I don't believe that Jesus was God-made-man. I still have an affection for the fables contained in the Bible, despite the fact that the models of Heaven and Hell are, in my mind, just that; models. I do not see why I can't be a Christian without being a believer and retain my right to free thought. Besides, I don't feel comfortable believing in Christmas without it. If nothing else, Christmas is an excuse to drink more beer than one usually does, I'm not sure how I'm going to manage that, but it's worth a try. Is it useful to make young children believe in Father Christmas any more than it is to make them believe in Baby Jesus? Are these things essential to make Christmas work?

It could be said that Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, has grown too powerful, when scientific and technological developments make the dogmas of such ancient organisations outdated and out of touch. In a world where population and disease control need contraception and in my view any organisation that claims to be compassionate is irresponsible to condemn such things.

Chill-filtering of beer helps to make it more approachable, less variable and more economic to produce. The science of bottling shows me that bottle conditioning is fraught with difficulties. Despite that I still believe there is much to learn from the ideal that cask beer or bottle conditioned beer is simply the best. I really do believe that this is the case and the founding principles of CAMRA are based on that.

The science of beer making has been bolstered by the bigger brewers who we often feel the need to fight against. Without big industry research would not be funded, this is true of any industry and is no less true in our beer-world. Just like The Romans brought aqueducts, underfloor heating, our alphabet and crucifixion. Christianity has shaped much of our society, but is perhaps now looking very outdated. Santa is just as believable and we now worship him with as much vigour, even if he is a Coca-cola red.

CAMRA remains the guiding light for many who are passionate about good beer. I am, and expect to remain a member of CAMRA for a good while yet. Recent persuasion by many within SIBA have convinced me that I really ought to join and enjoy some of the benefits of being a member of such an organisation. I suspect that my membership of any organisation will inspire me to consider many aspects of that organisation, I suspect that I am unlikely to change in that respect. I don't doubt many hang onto their unswaying belief in their beer organisation of choice.


"All right," said Susan. "I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need... fantasies to make life bearable."


"Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—"


"So we can believe the big ones?"


"They're not the same at all!"


"Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point—"


— Terry Pratchett (Hogfather)

Personally my all-time favourite Pratchett quote is:
"..... writing is the most fun anyone can have by themselves"
I intend to have much more fun by myself next year. Meanwhile, here's wishing all the readers of this blog a Very Hoppy Christmas and Prosperous New Beers

Saturday 18 December 2010

Dear Santa - I want a brewery like Steve Wellington

Dear Santa,

I have been a really good boy this year, honest. I only got very drunk once, and I blame the Ola Dubh, surely you can forgive me that? I've worked really very hard indeed to build my brewery up and get good beer out to more people. My pressie list isn't really that long at all.

My friend Steve Wellington has been given a really nice shiny new £1 million brewery to take over from his splendidly and romantically old fashioned but ageing White Shield brewery. He's really very excited about it and I'm happy for him, after all he is a shining example of how major brewing corporations can be persuaded to invest in tasty and interesting beer.

I'd like to pretend not to be jealous of Steve, but I can't. Actually, I'm completely green. Is that wrong? Probably, but I still want one too.

I haven't got a big multinational brewery to fund my little project. I'd love to have a 22.5 barrel brew length, but I can't afford it yet. I'd like to have an external calandria a on my copper, a separate hop-back and a mash tun that digs itself.

It is also very pretty. I'll admit that all that gleaming stainless stirs physical reactions that should be reserved for the sight of bare flesh, but I'm a brewer and every brewer understands that reaction.

Please can I have a shiny new brewery too? I promise not to get drunk again next year, well, not too often, really, honest, and if I do, it's the beers fault.

If I can't have one then I suppose I'll just have to go and brew with Steve again in the New Year, he said he'd let me play with his new toy. See, that's what mates are for.

Lots of Christmas Love
HardKnott Dave


I nearly forgot, thanks to Reluctant Scooper for the idea for this post. He talks about the opening do for the brewery here.

Thursday 16 December 2010

My Christmas Dinner

I'm making a New Years resolution. I don't normally go for this sort of stuff, you know, superhuman promising, mainly because when it involves ridiculous nonsense like giving up chocolate, or even worse, beer or coffee or some other stimulation substance, I know I'll crumble around 6pm on the first of January. Even when I decided to give up smoking, which was a sort of resolution that was made around about the turn of some year or other, it didn't actually happen until about March, well not properly anyway.

Next year I am properly going to write about beer and food. I might turn out to be fairly rubbish at it, but if I am, then at least I've tried. I'm not going to start practising behind closed doors, that sort of thing should be reserved for other activities, so I'll just dive in at the deep end; I'll eat some food, pick some beer that I think might work with it and write about what I thought.

To start the whole thing off I've already tried to make my own match. What better meal to start with than Christmas dinner? Interestingly I seem to disagree with my friend Jeff Pickthall, in his appearance in The Hairy Bikers 12 Days of Christmas he suggests a beer with low hop bitterness as turkey is not the most assertive of meats. He is right about the turkey, but there are reasons why I think the meat is not the most important thing when it comes to matching a beer with this meal. Still, its great to see Jeff's words in the book and fantastic that such well known foodie stars are giving a nod to beer. Moreover, just because I disagree with Jeff doesn't mean he's wrong, I'm realising that there are great disagreements often occur over the subject of beer food food matching.

I would go slightly further than Jeff in his comments about turkey. Frankly, it is virtually tasteless. It is notoriously difficult to cook through thoroughly without it becoming completely dried out. Although turkey and stuffing sandwiches for three weeks might well be the best thing about Christmas for some, but for me it is probably the thing that put me off turkey during December many years ago. Seriously, they are just to big for most families. If I convince the reader of anything else then ditching the turkey has to be my main goal.

I cook a mean roast meal. I like to deal with it completely traditionally, no silly Auntie Bessie and no unnecessary "Aah Bisto". There are plenty of fabulous flavours in the food if it is done right. A bit of seasoning and a few herbs are all that are really needed.

I like goose for Christmas dinner and duck would be a second choice. With a larger family two or three birds could be used. I think one Christmas I cooked a goose, a duck and a guinea fowl, or something similar. The variation of meat is great for a festive feast.

The other day I was in a cosy little village shop and I spied a pheasant. It was perfect for three of us for dinner the next day. A bit of Cumberland Sausage meat stuffing and there we have a tasty, but by no means overpowering white meat. A small onion chopped up and mixed with the sausage meat helps add a natural flavour enhancer and the delicate nutmeg and mace in the sausage mix is perfect for poultry and game birds. No seasoning is needed for the bird as this is already in the stuffing.

As pheasant is a small bird I carefully peeled a cavity under the breast skin to enable more force meat into this area. I also stuffed the rear cavity with the same stuffing. I find breadcrumb based stuffing just goes to a horrible mushy mess inside the bird, so if I provide this with the meal I would cook this separately.

I always roast meat with some root vegetables in the same tray. Carrots washed and split lengthways, an onion or two skinned and quartered and a few peeled garlic cloves. Parsnips, swede or turnip might also be used. It is best not to overload the tray as this will prevent essential caramelisation, which is the key to a good roast meal.

I never cook a roast meal covered with foil. That is mainly because I would never roast such a large joint that requires more than about 2 hours of oven time. A short blast of heat to seal and colour the meat, perhaps 10 minutes at 220oC for a bird this size1, then down to 1800C for a further 40-50 minutes. A meat thermometer is very useful to check the core temperature. But careful not to over-cook; this is the biggest cause of dry and tacky breast meat. It is essential, to ensure that the roast bird remains moist, that it is removed from the oven just as the core temperature is getting to the correct level and left to rest for 10 - 20 minutes. I cover it with a cloth to help keep the heat in. It will finish cooking to perfection in this final stage, but also frees up the roasting tin for the most important part of the cooking process; the gravy.

The only way to finish a roast dinner is by making gravy from the juices and roasted vegetables in the roasting tin. Largely the remaining fluid will be fat but will also carry caramelised and carbonised sediment that adds colour and flavour to the finished gravy. With our pheasant there was just about the right amount of fat, but sometimes it is necessary to decant some of the fat to prevent greasy gravy.

I used a little plain flour to soak up the fat and make a roux base over a gentle heat on the hob. To this paste, water, beer, wine or stock2 is added a little at a time and incorporated into the roux. This is continued until a simmering sauce of the required consistency results. Crucially the roasted vegetables3 are left in the roasting tray while the gravy is made. These add flavours to the gravy that are really important to a good home-made version. They can be sieved out, or blitzed in as desired. In this instance I removed them to leave a smooth rich and delicious accompaniment to the meal. Season to taste and keep warm until required.

I served this with simple roast carrots, parsnip and potatoes. I used a separate tin with reclaimed sausage fat from breakfast, delicious. A few sprouts of course are essential, cooked just el dente - boiled vegetables shouldn't be cooked until the rest of the meal is ready and just about to be served.

That's the food. You saw it in the picture above didn't you? Infra Red. Even with Turkey I'm going to argue that this beer works perfectly. Turkey is so bland and uninteresting that the main flavours in my Christmas dinner are the roast vegetables and the roast garlic in the gravy.

In the wine world it is often thought that white wine goes with fish and white meat and red wine with beef and venison. Although this is a good rule of thumb and can be transferred to beer and food matching; a darker beer with darker meats, lighter beer with white meats, you also have to look at the accompaniments and sauces too.

Sometime ago I recognised the bitter sweet flavours in Infra Red to be similar to those that came from roast vegetables and combine that with the rich strong flavours of my gravy I thought this worked very well indeed. I'd probably incorporate some chestnuts in my Christmas day force meat, this would match well with the sweet nutty features in the beer and the tangy bite in the beer helps cut through the richness in a way that a delicate beer could not.

After the main course we tried a palate cleanser of a glass of Cantillon Gueuze. I have Jeff to thank for this too, not only because he supplied the bottle, but also because he first opened my mind to this fantastic use of this beer. We felt it worked perfectly at helping us to start afresh with desert.

Turkey is one of many things that irritate me about christmas, it, and most of the other things, like the fact that it seems to start immediately after bonfire night, are overshadowed by excessive use of dried fruit. I don't mind the odd mince pie, and Christmas cake is OK in small doses, but by the time I get to the day itself I'm quite fed up of the damn stuff. I like suet pudding however, so for my little experiment I decided to do a pear pudding with mocha creme anglaise.

I hoped that the chocolate and coffee might work with Æther Blæc or Paradox. I'd used a bit of vanilla in the sauce and I have detected this flavour in my cask aged beer. Sadly the creaminess of the sauce and the dumpling like comfort of the pudding fought against the smoky burnt harsh edge of the whisky. I'd suggest it would be perfect with a traditional plum pudding and whisky sauce.

I had racked off a little Queboid which is waiting to be bottled. To our great surprise this worked very well. The strong fruity hop flavours and the Belgian character worked well with the sweet custard and the pears with the malt sweetness matching with the suet steamed sponge.

All in all a success as far as matching beer with food is concerned. One of a number of such experiences I've had, mostly I'll admit organised by other people so far. I am convinced that there is much more could be done to show that beer can work very well in the traditionally wine dominated areas of quality food. I intend to explore this much more.


1About 700g plus 500g of force meat.

2Making stock is a whole separate subject. If you want to know how this is done then you'll have to ask me nicely by adding a friendly comment. In this case I just used the water from the potatoes and a splash of Dark Energy. It was quite good enough, although stock helps to make an even better gravy.

3I do hope you have worked out by now that I had already removed our bird.

Sunday 12 December 2010

The ever-fragmenting beer-world

Just over a year ago, the other side of his 50 week reign as beer writer of the year 2009, Pete Brown complained about fighting within the beer industry. I could see why he felt it was a problem, although some weeks later he then accused us bloggers of becoming complacent and boring. I notice that in that post I was number 7 in the Wikio rankings. I'm now 13th which is simply due to a much lower number of postings this year. I could blame Pete for confusing me and creating my reduced frequency of blogging, after all, one minute he wants us to stop arguing about the issues and the next he wants us to start again. I'm kidding of course, I've just been busy and now I am trying to ramp up my blogging frequency.

I've always been more interested in writing about the issues surrounding beer rather than writing about a specific beer and how awesome it might be. I do sometimes think about writing a bit about beer and food matching; I think I could be quite good if I only put my mind to it. But, the things that are bound to get me most fired up are the various issues surrounding beer, beer drinking, brewing, pubs and the way various people perceive all of this.

This post was inspired by the piece in The Publican by Caroline Nodder which seems to be somewhat scathing about the current phase of modern brewing. BrewDog are of course named, and as much as I don't wish to be labelled as another BrewDog fan club blogger, they are going to feature in this post a little as well. Tandleman posts in response to Caroline too.

When Pete complained about the beer industry fighting with itself I understood what he was saying. At the same time I felt a little worried that some of the issues he claimed we shouldn't be fighting about were the very issues I myself was concerned about. We all have our own perspectives on these things and being able to discuss them is no bad thing. So its good that he later said, we should tackle issues again.

This is the thing; we have to be able to be open, we have to be brave enough to discuss what we feel about our own view of the beer world. Caroline of course does that with her attack on the beer geek world, I don't agree with her particularly, but perhaps I'll come back to that later, as certainly there are some points to pick up. To me, and this is the key thing, it highlights a broadening of the beer industry in a most exciting and provocative way, that can only be a good thing, providing we can all learn to get along rather than feel the need to get the digs in.

BrewDog has had a go at SIBA1 earlier this year. I'm with them all the way. It is perhaps something that comes out on this blog from time to time; the fact that I have a suspicion that the organisation has matured into something that is less than entirely useful to the micro-brewer. SIBA, as one commentator has put it to me, the Society of Increasingly Bad Acronyms. It would seem the club likes things the way they are and new comers are not particularly welcome, especially if they seem to be having some success. Even worse if they question what is happening.

So it seems to be the case across the industry. BrewDog find themselves in a fight with SIBA, the beer geeks run hot and cold about them and many ask why they want to be as big as they are getting anyway. This comes from the same people who support similar larger breweries who would fail were it not for the tie system. Or the same people who fight for the survival of long since milked-to-death brands that would be better off left to pass into history with dignity. The same people who fight to keep pubs open despite the fact that it is obvious that the market is shifting and some will inevitably shut as a new wave of Indie Beer Bars open up in Sheffield, London, Aberdeen and Edinburgh.

I love cask beer and I love the old fashioned country pub. I don't particularly care for the type of pub that manifests itself in town and city centres. Some are still good I'll grant you, but it takes an exceptional one to impress me. The reader might like them, that's fine, good for you, but beware of hanging onto a bygone age that has a limited future. There is a danger, and it worries me, when observations are made about the beer world having too much reverence for the very substance that we care about. Is it really just a low down drink that shouldn't be described with passion? Is it really just a middle of the road drink suitable for the common man only? Does it only deserve to be found in seedy places, so low is its self esteem? Are we, the writers who care about it, not allowed to use whatever language we want to describe it to the very people who we believe should be able to understand it well: educated intellects with refined palates who may well like home-made scotch eggs, but would never dream of putting ketchup on them? Or perhaps we are too scared that we might actually end up being bettered?

Of course the vast majority of beer made will be made by the large brewers. I don't care about that. Some of them actually prove to me that they care as much as I do, and I hope I give them a nod when I think they deserve it. Even if it is not by making great beer, but caring about me the beer drinker - although normally caring about the beer drinker does result in better than just acceptable beer.

This brings me to promotion of the product. Many beer communicators complain about the way that beer is promoted. Perhaps it is done in a sexist way, perhaps it is silly childish puerile fashion that undermines the seriousness that beer deserves. Or perhaps, as BrewDog does, it is brash and sensationalist and sometimes even offensive. The fact is, it is not good enough just to brew great beer. I know many brewers who brew beer better than me but are stuck because they can't, or perhaps don't want to promote more than they do. If they are happy that way then great, leave them be. However, building a brand is about making a good product and telling people about it, somehow and in the most cost effective way. BrewDog might well be sensationalist with their marketing, but they also make beer that is good, and because they don't actually spend much on advertising their brand, they have more money to spare to make the product good. Why do we hate that so much?

What of the brewers that want to make bigger waves? Like BrewDog, perhaps like me? Are we somehow wrong to want to get our names out there? I don't think so. Publicity stunts are the best and probably only way to do it. I bet many in the music industry hated Richard Branson when he started Virgin Records, but look, whatever you think of the brand now, it probably wouldn't be where it is without the occasional record breaking balloon flight.

What is wrong exactly with making the strongest beer in the world? Or for that matter any other gimicky product enhancement. Every industry does it, like for instance, putting bubbles in confectionary? Why do we think we shouldn't have a bit of exciting diversification in the beer world, we don't have to believe it will ever become mainstream, but if it adds interest then why should we be scared of it?

I like the increasing diversification and the challenging of perceptions that we are seeing. I like the fact that some regional brewers are scared that at least some of the "breweries in sheds" kick out some good stuff and are taking part of the market share. It is also good that some long established brewers understand this and don't join in with the try-and-kick-the-new-idea, but instead go for the I'll-have-a-bit-of-that-too approach.

So, by all means lets have the discussions, it's good. The sparklers argument and the cask verses keg argument will continue for ever I suspect. The best way to describe a particular beer is perhaps a more important one but we will never agree and choosing between good quality and imaginative beer descriptions, accessible beer tasting notes or simple and condescending pictures of noses, eyes and mouths I'm sure will divide us for some time to come. What we expect from a pub or bar, how to market beer and many more important discussions should take place. But why do we have to have a delineation across the beer world and keep falling out over it? We're on the same side are we not? Are we not all beer enthusiasts in some way or another? There is another type of beer drinker, I call them pissheads.


1There is background to this on the BrewDog blog.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

BrewDog AGM part three

We had not really eaten since breakfast. We shared a platter of cheese and meats in the BrewDog bar at lunch time but as that was between three of us. On this winter day we'd have even started to consider deep fried pizza by the time we got back to Aberdeen after our trip to the brewery. James suggested we visited his restaurant called Musa, only a short walk away. Back to the street next to the hotel we'd just come from.

Musa is in a building that used to be some sort of church or chapel, it's a great use for this sort of building. We have many underused religious buildings in Cumbria that really should be turned into some other form of use. I'm sure however that there are people resisting the change of use, certainly there are several such examples near us where planning permission has been refused and the buildings are becoming increasingly derelict. I have a feeling it is on a point of principle; rather a church fall down than it be used for something that might bring enjoyment. A bit like the pointless resistance of pubs closing - if the congregation isn't attending then why resist?

In this case the inside of the building is nice and friendly. Much of the original feel of the building is maintained, although I suspect the desire to stay is enhanced by the lack of homily and the need to kneel or stand. Best of all 5am Saint, even kegged, beats communion wine any day.

The food is nicely eclectic with a nod to Scottish tradition. Hardcore IPA duck stovies, Stir fried crayfish, chorizo and olives or Chilli poached smoked haddock all appealed to me. Each dish was matched with a beer, normally a BrewDog beer although the wild mushroom risotto with rocket was wisely matched with Orval.

Desert would have gone well with either Paradox or Tokyo*. Blue cheese ice cream, Dark chocolate and chilli pannacotta or christmas pudding tart. There were three of us, it would have been silly not to try all three. Sadly, the earlier business meeting, which we missed, cleaned them out of the obvious desert beers.

I don't think I've ever had as good a selection of beers with such good food except at decent beer dinners. Normally good restaurants have a reasonable selection of wine and the usual omni-present beers. I think that places like this could really work and I would love to see more of them.

Onwards back to the bar. By now it was after 9pm and the bar really was very busy indeed. James ensures me that the majority of the AGM crowd had long since left. Certainly it was a much younger looking crowd compared to the earlier shareholder people. James says the place "rocks" every Friday and Saturday. "If we put in handpulls it would be full of stuffy real ale drinkers" James explains to me. Certainly there were a lot of younger people, mid 20's - mid 30's I'd say. The place buzzed, perhaps in some ways a little too much for my liking, but once I'd got a seat, which didn't take long, I really enjoyed the atmosphere.

James and Martin joined us and we shared bottles of AleSmith Speedway and Lost Abbey Angel's Share. James asked me to choose which I preferred. Comparing an espresso imperial stout with a barrel aged barley wine? When they are both very good examples it is hard to choose.

If I sit at a beer festival and I drink with brewers and all they drink is their own beer I worry. Part of the definition of a craft brewer for me is an inherent desire to brew beers as good as their peers. As good, not better, few good brewers think that their beers can be as good as their role models, very few indeed. But many aspire to do so. Martin, James and Stuart are examples of this. Bringing out beers they wished they had brewed and sharing them with me, enthusing about them and sharing that enthusiasm is proof to me that they are interested in making the very best beer they can.

The bar started to thin out. The licence was only until midnight so the bar manager kicked us all out, James, Martin and all. It was the end of a very enjoyable day getting to know better what I had bought into.

I promised some information, here's some bare facts:
  • Sales doubled in 12 months (£1.7m - £3.4m)
  • Keg in more than 25 outlets using own brand fonts
  • 5.25% ownership of Anchor Brewers and Distillers
  • Anchor to handle US sales and distribution
  • US production by late 2011
  • Expected to open three more bars in 2011
  • Expect to increase turnover in 2011 to £6m
  • Broke into profit in 2010 all of which will be reinvested
There are loads more exciting things going to be happening. New beers, more collaborations, increased on-sales distribution. Expect more BrewDog beers near you soon. Of course, in Cumbria, Hardknott can help if there is a pub you know that you'd like to see some in.

Meanwhile I'm still comfortable with the money I invested in the brewery. If you want to tell me it's not an investment then go ahead, but I still think it is. Call it a craft revolution, artisanal beer or, as a someone suggested to me today, an Indie brewing movement, that's what I've bought into, and my buy-in extends much, much further than BrewDog, but more on that later. Much more later still.

BrewDog AGM part two

BrewDog; they have said that cask beer is not a very useful way of introducing people to craft beer and that the future of craft beer is keg. Quite bold, and the comments have upset a few in the beer world. Myself? I'm getting to the point of being ambivalent about backing particular types of dispense. It's beer for goodness sake, is it good or bad? Filtering, bottle conditioning, cask and keg, all have various advantages and disadvantages. I do understand BrewDog, a lot as it happens, and my trip to Aberdeen at the weekend only filled me with renewed purpose both in terms of my own brewery and the greater good of the beer world. More on this later, specifically I want to look at BrewDog as a brewery and a rapidly expanding business, how they see themselves and why I don't think they are wrong, at least in terms of how they grow and what they want to do.

Perhaps part of the problem for BrewDog is that Fraserburgh is a difficult place to get to. Sure, the locations of some other Scottish breweries are equally, or perhaps more difficult to get to. To become as successful as these guys have, from such a location, requires some creative marketing. Some seem to be jealous of this, which is such a shame. The reason I realise why they need to be so controversial is that very few beer writers can pop in and have a look at what they do. Beer writing tends to be London centric, with some outposts in places like Sheffield. We set off from Cumbria on Friday about 5pm, and apart from a couple of beers, a sleep and breakfast we did very little other than travel to get to Fraserburgh by 4pm the following day. Sure, the roads were a little wintry, but I wasn't hanging around, considering.

BrewDog brewery is not flash; Unless you define flash as having cylindrical conical vessels. There are quite a few of these nice shiny fermentation-conditioning tanks, but other than that the whole operation is quite like a brewery in a shed. However, many breweries remind me of collections of various bits of stainless steel in a shed. It's just the size of the shed and the capacity of stainless that changes.

I digress. When we got to the brewery the team were mashing in Rip Tide. 1¼ tonnes of grist go into this brew. Seeing as it was late in the afternoon it was obvious that brewday was not going to end at any sensible hour. It turns out that the last time the brewery doors were locked was 1st January and the next time will be 24th December. 12 hour shifts are worked by the team to keep production going and virtually all corners of the building as well as outside are used to house tanks. It's not difficult to imagine that this is a £4M per annum turnover operation.

Stuart, who was showing us around, pointed out that the brew-house itself contains little in the way of automation; this makes the whole process quite labour intensive. The advantage is that they have the flexibility to make beers from 0.5% up to 18.2%1 which would be virtually impossible to do if the plant was a modern automated plant. Even when they build the new brewery, which will be closer to Aberdeen, they intend to keep the old plant to enable them to continue to brew more experimental and specialist beers.

Stuart talked quite passionately about the whole brewing process, about how they experiment with different yeast strains, a significant amount of dry hopping and avoid the use of additions that they feel are inappropriate. He talked about filtration. BrewDog do filter all their beers. They used to filter down to a 0.45 micron sterile. This ensures a long shelf life due to the removal of all possible contaminants. It also ensures that the beer is absolutely crystal bright. The problem with such aggressive filtration is that flavours and colours are stripped countering some of the advantages of the massive levels of dry hopping2.

These days they filter at up to 8 microns, "As rough as we can" Stuart says. I always wonder why it is not possible to just leave beer in the conditioning tank until all the particulates drop out. It seems that this is not fast enough without using some form of finings3, which BrewDog see as an unnecessary chemical addition. Filtration, in their view, is a purer method of dropping beer bright.

Cask beer is generally not suitable for vegetarians4. BrewDog want to make beer more accessible to people. In their view, excluding a significant proportion of the population is unacceptable. With chill filtered keg or bottle beers they can be enjoyed by many more people.

Long discussions ensued about yeast and dry hops in the bottom of the tanks, and how they are removed, how long the beers were left in tank, how long Paradox was left in whisky casks and many more details that really wouldn't interest the reader. Or perhaps they would, but as my memory is crap and I never write stuff down, I'd be making up the detail if I tried to write it up. It came across very clearly that the team have a passion that runs right through. They care about what is produced and express disappointment when an experiment turns out not to have enough of BrewDog about it. Perhaps they have got DAIPA in Tesco, but they still care a lot about their beer. And still the brewers are happy about DAIPA; it's all very well working for a small artisanal brewery, but even better when you work for one that the regular Tesco punter might have heard of.

Around 2/3 of the inside space is taken up with bottling, packaging and dispatching. There was very little in the way of casks ready to go, although I know that there is still a significant amount of cask beer produced by the brewery. Most of the product that was ready to go was in the form of keg or bottle. Whatever the reader thinks of BrewDog's attitude towards beer that is not "real ale" it seems to be doing them all right.

I'd really like to return to the brewery sometime and muck in with these guys. I'm not sure I could contribute to their beer in the way the breweries they collaborate with do, but I know I'd get something out of it. Here's hoping. But we had to leave, we had a party to return to in Aberdeen and it was an hour away. When we got back we had to check into our hotel. The next post will hopefully be about the BrewDog Bar and their sister restaurant Musa. And most importantly, how I see their craft keg fitting, or not, with the rest of the beer market.


1Actually, the highest ABV they have fermented was about 23% but it was not really a saleable product. This, if I understand correctly, was later freeze distilled to make The End of History. Having tasted that beer it does just show that the technique of making Eisbocks might have a few applications. The End of History is a beer that was truly tasty in a liqueur sort of way.

2As far as I can work out, from the memory of what I was told, dry hopping is often at a rate of around 1kg per hl. That, I think, is what I would term "kick ass" hopping. This of course is after similar amounts have gone into the boil. Twice.

3For my bottled beers I use auxiliary finings in the conditioning tank and chill the bugger as much as I can. The yeast flocculates naturally leaving the beer bright enough that reseeding with yeast is required for bottle conditioning to occur. Auxiliary finings are good at removing chill haze providing the beer is cleared at a low temperature, i.e. 2 degrees lower than expected serve temperature. Is this an unnecessary chemical? I believe it to be mineral based and therefore inoffensive to vegetarians and vegans.

4Nearly all cask beer requires Isinglass for it to clear to a brightness acceptable to most drinkers in a reasonable time period. Isinglass is made from fish guts making cask beer unsuitable for true vegetarians. It surprises me how many people don't know this. I know that some cask beer drinkers are happy to overlook this for the joy of beer. If I were a vegetarian I would also overlook this for beer, as well as bacon, sausage, steak, roast chicken, gammon, kebabs............

Me On The Radio Again

I'm going to get into trouble for this one day, but as this will disappear officially from the interweb within a week I don't feel guilty.

A clip from the radio - it features me trying to explain why strong beer shouldn't be taxed any more than it already is.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

BrewDog AGM part one.

My relationship with Brewdog has no real rational explanation - but then that's beer for you. Beer makes you do things that you really shouldn't. It would be easy to blame the alcohol content; after all, anything over 7.5% ABV is so stupid as to melt your brain and send you off into a crazy train of irrational actions that really should be controlled by some sort of draconian taxation that will prevent us ill-informed mortals from harming ourselves with such dangerous substances.

The weekend, and even the year just gone, is proof of how I desperately need the guidance of the authorities and their sensible caution. A little over a year ago I bought a share in BrewDog. It wasn't a great deal of money and there have always been sceptics that question the sense in such a move. But still, I recognise kindred craziness when I see it and in a flourish of my 16 digit credit card number it was done, I owned a bit of BrewDog. I blame the beer. Wine wouldn't have done it, whisky? well perhaps, vodka? no way, gin, brandy, rum or port, as tasty as these things can be, none of these would have puddled my brain sufficiently to part me with such amounts of money for a pointless investment.

We had always figured that the BrewDog AGM would at the very least be good fun, and the promise of good beer is very tempting bait. But the snow has come somewhat early this year. Actually, the amount of snow that has arrived is already of staggering proportions for any winter. We wondered if travelling to Aberdeen was a sensible proposition, but then we remembered, sensible wasn't something we did, so we set off anyway. Aberdeen is well connected with roads, and at the very least most of the journey would be motorway or dual carriageway. What could go wrong?

Friday was brewday; it was not until we had an FV full, temperature control set up and the brew house clean and tidy did we want to set off for the Caladonian land to the north of our island. We packed our passports, phrase book and a collection of winter equipment, and, as advised by Jeff Pickthall, Mars Bars for bartering1.

Our first stop was to be Glasgow. A tentative arrangement to meet Barm in some establishment seemed a good idea. The M6 over Shap and the M74 through the borders could well have provided some challenges. Indeed the journey through Cumbria got to be something of an interesting adventure. The snow was falling thick and fast as we travelled north so that the first 70 miles were slow and difficult. Amazingly, as we crossed the border, it abruptly stopped and our journey through Dumfries and Galloway, onwards towards the Central Belt, was smooth and easy.

A quick visit to West Bar was in order upon arrival in Glasgow. Setting the SatNav to what we thought was the correct location took us spookily straight to the front door, although the snow made it impossible to know if we were parking on double yellow lines. Inside the building is a nice airy mix of Victorian splendour and contemporary renovation; apparently it was the winding house for a rather splendid carpet factory - there must have been lots of money in carpets in the 19th century. Most importantly all the beers at West are keg. Another example of this very rare craft keg then? To be honest, some of it was a little over-carbonated, but generally good stuff.

I could write lots more on this place, so perhaps I'll have to return sometime. But I have to move on to the real subject - The BrewDog AGM in Aberdeen and the hope we might get to Fraserburgh to see the brewery. Off to bed we went to prepare ourselves for what we were told was the worst part of the journey.

We set off from Glasgow in the morning expecting the road to be icy and difficult. In actual fact, although the overtaking lane was often very narrow where the snow had drifted, or even worse, unexpectedly covered with snow just in the middle of overtaking manoeuvres, the journey went really well. We made good time to the outskirts of Aberdeen and then proceeded to be grid locked for about two hours due to the sheer volume of traffic. Eventually we made it to a car park just around the corner from the BrewDog bar, but it was one car in and one car out making for patience thinning experience; after all, there was beer to be drunk.

Eventually making it into the bar we found Martin Dickie doing a "beer and music" matching session that was interrupted by James Watt doing a "money shot" tasting of Punk IPA. All quite amusing, although I think it was one of those situations you had to be there to understand.

We'd missed the first trip to the brewery and also the first business talk. I know I can get all the relevant numbers stuff elsewhere and I really wanted to get to see the brewery so we headed off up to Fraserburgh on the Brewdog bus to see where the beer is made.

I think that is enough for one post. Later I'll give a more in-depth run-down on what I found out and what I now think of my relationship with the brewery that thinks cask beer is past history.

Although my trip to the brewery meant I missed the business talk I've still managed to get the inside low down on some numbers and startling facts that I'm sure many of you don't know. James emailed it out to me earlier so I'll start writing about it just as soon as I've posted this.


1No, you are right, for battering.