Wednesday 27 April 2011

Keg Watch

We bought our pub in February 2004. It had been closed over the winter, we realised that being located, at the top of a remote Lake District valley, winter opening was unlikely to be profitable. As we eagerly relished the challenge of dusting off the cobwebs and filling the cellar we realised there were a number of empty casks and kegs which had not been collected by breweries. They were a little in the way but we knew they belonged to someone. Sure, some were owned by big multinational brewers, and there is a temptation to disregard the value of these containers. None the less, they all have value and the owners deserve care to be taken with their property.

During this time I became aware of Keg Watch. It had been suggested that I could call them in and all the containers would be taken away, as if by magic, and repatriated with their owners. I’m not naive and I enquired about the funding for the Keg Watch scheme. Apparently, once Keg Watch have the containers, they are at liberty to charge the brewery for the service, apparently without any checks on the necessity for Keg Watch to be involved. If the brewer does not agree to the charge he doesn't get his casks back - that sounds a little bit like theft to me.

I decided that I owed it to the brewers to continue to look after the casks for around 6 months. In that time many breweries did drop by and collect their casks. Some other breweries we contacted and gave them the opportunity to collect. I believe some indicated that they were happy for Keg Watch to clear up the matter. The remainder of unclaimed casks amounted to around a third of the original number. We eventually called in Keg Watch who removed what was left.

We recently made a delivery of beer to a rural pub in Kent. Being the other side of London to our brewery this was quite a trek, as London is already a very long way from Cumbria. However, we had arranged a full van to go to the capital and it was a nice little trip out for us Northern country folk to get into the city and try some great beers; you see, places like Euston Tap, The Rake Bar and many other places in the smoke are still something special to us. A beery trip to London with the excuse of delivering just about makes it viable.

It was all getting quite interesting. The pub in question had asked us to do a meet the brewer night for which we would send a whole pallet down ahead of time, a much more financially viable option. We would then fill the van with more beer for London, dropping off on the way to the meet the brewer night. We were even on the point of arranging a further pallet to be delivered north of London. We could bring many more empties back in the van at a later date and the whole arrangement was looking very viable.

Sadly, the tenant of the pub we were due to attend for the meet the brewer left very suddenly. The pub closed with very little notice just as we were about to send the pallet of beer. We were very fortunate that the beer twitter world alerted us to this fact very quickly indeed. Of course we did not send the beer and quickly rearranged the trip to London so that we could maximise on deliveries already arranged with other very good customers.

We delivered to The White Horse at Parsons Green and the Utobeer warehouse for The Rake as well as The Southampton Arms in Kentish Town and The Land of Liberty Peace and Plenty in Rickmansworth. A diverse and spread-out collection of some of our favourite outlets. They are all very good to us and take very special care of our casks.

We knew that we had casks in Kent at the aforementioned sans licensee; the remote country pub that was undergoing a change of management. We had been given reliable information from other brewers that our casks were still in the beer garden so we undertook the approximately 2 hour diversion to collect. We expected to rock up and spend a while sifting through a significant number of containers looking for our own.

On arrival the pub was a hive of activity but the beer garden was strangely empty of any casks whatsoever. Keg Watch, it seems, had been and scavenged everything completely indiscriminately.

Our journey was wasted. Not only was our journey wasted but Keg Watch had taken our casks and we would, it seemed, have to travel some distance to recover them.

It seems that the pub owner wanted the backyard clear of casks before the new lessee took up residence but was not prepared to put in any effort finding out if the rightful owners were going to collect themselves. We had spent time trying to find out if our casks were there, who was going to be taking over and what the overall situation was.

We believe that Keg Watch were far too hasty in recovering the containers and those concerned at the pub too lazy to find out who owned what. It isn’t difficult, the casks have the brewery phone number on them.

It has left us with a very bad feeling about both Keg Watch and the pub in question.

I would ask that all pub operators consider the grief that is caused by calling in Keg Watch too soon. I also believe Keg Watch is far too hasty at collecting without allowing breweries to make their own arrangements. My sceptical reaction is to believe that Keg Watch reward their agents too easily for recovering casks that don’t really need to be recovered.

It is difficult for the small brewer as Keg Watch squarely avoid blame. They point the finger at the pub expecting the brewery to be too scared to round on the pub operator in fear of upsetting a potential customer.

I believe Keg Watch do a good job at preventing container stealing when bigger breweries are involved, but I also believe there are insufficient controls in place for avoiding the small brewer like me from facing unnecessary costs and wasted journeys. It has to be remembered that we deliver all our casks and we know exactly where all of our casks are. We know all our customers and their premisses.

The closest Keg Watch originally offered to move our own property was their depot in Warrington, which is a 5 hour round trip from here and a likely cost of £70 of fuel. We had already been to try and pick up our property where we believed they should have been and failed to see why we should have to make this extra journey.

Once we pointed out the reality - the fact that the casks were in no significant danger of theft; the property was only under a short closure for refurbishment and was well attended with personnel, it was agreed that the casks should be returned to us at no further charge.

Having talked to many brewers it seems that it is not an unusual practice for pubs to call in Keg Watch as soon as there is a change of ownership, often without any attempt being made to contact the breweries. This practice then entitles Keg Watch to charge for a service which was never required in the first place.

Although Keg Watch have agreed to return my casks without charge I am deeply concerned that the eagerness of Keg Watch is costing small brewers like me a significant amount of money. There are no requirements for Keg Watch to prove that there was a necessity for the containers to be picked up.

I hesitated to publish this post as Keg Watch have cleared up this particular incidence. However, there seems to be no intention of ensuring it does not happen again to me, and it is certainly happening to a number of other breweries I know.

If you are a brewer and are unhappy about the actions of Keg Watch I would be very interested in knowing, I believe action needs to be taken against this money making racket.

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Not Chemical Fizz

I've been playing around with keg. I'm a CAMRA member and a micro-brewer, what on earth would I want to do that for?

British style "traditional"1 beer is often best represented in cask. It is as simple as that. I don't think I know a single beer enthusiast who would have an argument with that. Not even my very good friend Jeff Pickthall, who is a confirmed and uninhibited CAMRA basher. I share some of his concerns, but to use the phrase often used, it would be a shame to throw out the baby with the bath-water. CAMRA is not all bad and cask beer is good.

Much contemporary beer is great from cask. There are plenty of modern beers that are fantastic served through hand-pull and I hope that some of mine classify in this group. There are also in my view, a number of beers that are generally better in keg. They are generally the stronger "craft" beers that have, up until recently, been responsible for some beer enthusiasts to drink more at home than in pubs or bars. The progressive craft keg market might well be small, it might well never overtake cask in volume, but it is growing and I'm interested in that as a brewer and a drinker.

The irony is that beer served from cask often contains more processed material than beer that is mass produced. Chemicals, you see, cost money. The main addition that is used in cask beer is Isinglass, which is made from processed fish guts and also contains chemicals like sulphur dioxide and citric acid.

Most brand keg beer by contrast is chill filtered and although I cannot guarantee these substances are not used at all, I know for a fact they are used in significantly lower quantities. Filtering, or separation of solids by centrifuge uses less chemicals and therefore costs less money to make. They are, therefore, not chemical beers at all.

I have been interested in kegging for some time. I've tried some trial kegs and found mixed success. I like the idea of completely unfiltered beer and beer that does not use isinglass. This seems just about impossible to do unless you can afford to leave it in a conditioning tank chilled to -1°C for six weeks.

I've recently racked some Infra Red into 20l kegs and there is a second trial keg of Queboid which is loaded right now into the van for delivery to the Rake Bar. The Infra Red has light filtering and the Queboid just chill conditioning. Both are likely to have haze to some degree, but I hope to acceptable levels.

I am a supporter of the idea of kegging beer over 6%. There is no reason for keg beer to be overly fizzy and indeed, I expect some keg enthusiasts will proclaim my interpretation to be under-carbonated, as the carbonation is likely to be very similar to cask. Of course I have no control over the take up of carbon dioxide in the pub and as most keg set-ups will quickly introduce extra carbonation I expect this might be a problem. In any case, for beers at this strength the sale time makes cask impractical except for high turnover pubs and beer festivals.

With luck we will be rolling out our kegs over the next few weeks. We would love you to try them and let us know what you think, good or bad.


1OK Jeff, just shoot me now.

Tuesday 19 April 2011

Started with a kiss

It was a dark and windy winters evening. It was Friday and one would expect it to be busy in the pub, but at the end of a long West Cumbrian valley even weekend nights are quiet. We were not expecting to do more than four or six covers and if the GP on the beer sales paid for the barman to be there I'd have been very shocked indeed. We staffed appropriately.

At the time I smoked, and was still allowed to do so in my own home that happened to be a pub. The kitchen was sort of ready, myself and the small staff team had already resigned ourselves to settle in the bar, I had rolled a tab and was just entering that Hamlet moment content in the knowledge that it would be an easy service and I would shortly settle into a gentle evening of drinking. A fine and polite gentleman entered the bar, asked if we were doing food and proclaimed that there was a huge group in the Youth Hostel for the weekend who would be shortly attending for dinner.

There was a short Basil moment when my realisation that I'd be run off my feet, and an early beer was not going to be for me, as I curtly enquired why they had not given me any nice. "We cook from fresh here you know, no zip and ping here, we might not have enough fresh meat in stock" sharp retort from Ann sent me scuttling into the kitchen ready to cook for these kindly people.

It was all running nice and smoothly in the kitchen. At the time the menu was reasonably simple and we had copious amounts of Cumberland sausage in the freezer, handily individually prepared straight and proud, not these silly curled up versions that seem to have an inbuilt coyness. They cook much easier from frozen than the curled up type.

I had a kitchen porter/waiter who was a great Aussie Bloke. A Proper Bloke, the type who would fit in well in A Fosters advert. He was starting to return to the kitchen, having delivered a number of fine 18 inch long local schlongs to some appreciative chaps. "They are all a bit weird" he reported "One of them is dressed as a Sheila"

Hmmmm, that'll shock the local bigots I thought, after all, this isn't a pub in Soho. Still, they are probably just on a stag do or something. Little did it cross my mind that the guy in question regularly liked to dress up as a woman. "A lot of them seem a little camp" reports my Antipodean pot sanitation operative. But I thought nothing of it, he seemed to have a view that English rugby players were all of dubious gender, so I just got on with cooking.

As the checks came to an end, I decided, as I often did, to carry the last order out and leave the kitchen cleaning to the other staff. There was something of a touch of irony in the fact that the rough guy from the outback was being left in the kitchen wearing apron and marigolds.

A huge length of meat in each hand, carefully arranged provokativly on the oval plates complete with juicy gravy, two veg and a good dollop of white mash. "Two Cumberland Sausages" I called out as I walked into the bar; there was no order and our normal table number system had gone by the wayside on this evening long ago. "Oooh, yeesss, that must be mine" one bloke called in the most pleasant of camp voices "Just put it down there dear" to which an amorous observer felt the need to comment, with equal, if not greater femininity. "Oh, what lovely sausage you have there Nigel" OK, so perhaps the KP had a point, many of these men were gay, and extremely happy with the fact.

They were a gay outdoor club, visiting The Lakes for some fell walking, and more importantly a bloody good laugh.

We had one of the best nights of our time at the pub. I even got chatted up, but of course, being totally comfortable with my own sexuality, Ann's insistence on reminding me of the fact has never bothered me. Not once has it bothered me. Really. Indeed, it was Linda, it turned out, who had decided to hit on me; the guy, all 6 foot plus of him, who was dressed in a very fetching dress, high heels, and wanted a man to treat him as a woman, whatever that means.

None of them kissed. Or perhaps they did, and I didn't notice. Perhaps I was too busy trying to explain to Linda that she wasn't my type. I think I let her down gently enough. I suspect I wouldn't have been offended if any of them were kissing, unless Linda had tried to kiss me. Perhaps it would only have been Crocodile Dundee who might have been upset, although I'm fairly sure he was seeing the funny side of everything anyway.

But, it's not Soho up here. There are people who would find it obscene to see two guys snogging. I would have had the right to eject anyone from my pub, without reason, providing it was not on any grounds of prejudice.

We have had same sex couples staying in our rooms. To be perfectly frank, they have simply been the most polite and agreeable people. I suspect we've had many more staying who have been more coy and not been open.

The worst thing about taking a booking for a double room, from a hoteliers point of view, and finding that the customers are same sex, is checking that this is what they want and that in fact we haven't made a huge mistake. To do that without drawing attention to the fact is somewhat interesting. Ann is significantly better than me at checking that without causing embarrassment.

It does seem completely daft that in the heart of what is generally considered the most liberal district of our country two gay men can be kicked out of a pub just for showing a little bit of affection. Moreover, it shows that in the majority the general population find it abhorrent that anyone can be ejected from a pub because of their sexuality. I'm sure that 20 years ago the attitudes of the general public would have been quite different.

Having said all of this, there are still people who are genuinely offended by same sex affection. Thankfully they are few in number and I suspect, and hope, these people will vanish completely at some point in the future.

There is an underpinning principle of operating a licensed premises that permits the operator of the establishment to eject any person without reason. Indeed, it is often advised that reasons are not given to avoid accusations of prejudice. The need for this is very simple and permits the licensee to prevent unpleasant situations occurring.

I'd be surprised if anyone in Soho would be offended by a little bit of kissing, but what if the pub had been in a reserved area and someone was offended? Should a licensee be permitted to ask someone to leave if another customer was offended?

Despite the fact that I support the continual removal of bigotry, I worry that there has been little mention in the mainstream press of the importance of the licensees right, and indeed necessity, to sometimes ask people to leave a licensed property and the fact that anyone who fails to leave when asked is breaking the law. It would seem that Jonathan Williams was somewhat confrontational during the incident when he was asked to leave.

Having said all of that, the publican in this particular case clearly did not handle the situation well and I suspect is having a huge amount of regret right now.

Tuesday 5 April 2011


Beer is generally over 90% water. Indeed, many pale hoppy session beers might well be more than 95% water. Water, and therefore beer, is quite heavy. The containers we use to move beer around in, be it stainless steel casks or glass bottles, add to that weight. The issues associated with moving all this mass about is significant for any commercial brewer.

We were using our domestic car for deliveries, it is a big fuel guzzling 4x4 and very capable of hauling around heavy loads, but in reality not ideal. I had been thinking about the fact that I could get around twice the amount of beer in a van. I'd been thinking this for some time. I think our car will take around 12 firkins plus a few cases of beer. Both on payload and volume it was full at this point. I knew that a van would most likely be more economical per firkin-mile.

Sadly, Ann managed to find some black ice on Christmas day. Our nice big car was significantly damaged as was a length of fencing and a big road sign. However, perhaps due to modern electronic stability control, Ann's skill or maybe just plain good luck, the car missed the icy tidal stretch of the river Esk just the other side of said fence. The salt water would surely have ruined the engine turning an expensive repair into a write-off. Ann might not have come off with just mere fright for that matter, as a dip in the river may well have had significant consequences.

The car was reasonably quickly taken away for repair, all sorted by the insurance. Better than that we were also promised a courtesy car while ours was being repaired.

A Ka. A flippin' Ford Ka.

So, we went out to find a van. Some nice people at Poulton near Blackpool had a nice big T350 Transit. Volume wise, being a long wheelbase high roof, it is bigger than we need, but as previously stated, beer is heavy and at least, with a payload of up to 1.5 tonnes it is possible to carry around 30 firkins without overloading. Great for dragging loads of beer long distances.

Our market seems to be developing in major city specialist beer bars. Our local market is somewhat saturated. There are many breweries in Cumbria. Too many it could be argued. The only really sensible option is to export most of our beer out of the county. Big cities are good where we can deliver to a few specialist bars and pubs who are within a short distance of each other.

This raises cost problems. Even with a full van, travelling several hundred miles has a significant transport cost per unit for each firkin. This is something we have to monitor very carefully indeed.

When we ran our remote pub, in the middle of nowhere, we became acutely aware of the impact of transport costs. So much so that the onset, in my view, of the current economic crisis, has been in part created by fuel costs. Sub-prime mortgages and irresponsible lending aside, which have indeed been a problem, the fuel costs rises saw our suppliers pulling out from our area citing transport costs as the issue; This inevitable contraction of business catalysed the onset of the banking crisis. I believe that fuel costs will continue to form a significant barrier to many businesses as the economy improves. Businesses that fail to cover transport costs will inevitably fail.

Our answer to this is to be careful about ensuring our van is full on long trips, perhaps combining pallet delivery and collection of empties by van1. To help all of this we will forward publish our delivery dates and ask that beer drinkers who like to see our beer can help us by encouraging pub and bar managers to order generously.

Equally, it is essential that we maintain our return on investing on such journeys and as such, with the current duty rises, cost of fuel, and many other financial pressures, we will have to look at maintaining the price we ask and resisting the many calls for deep discounting that is sure to eventually result in brewery casualties.

To help out, look at our newsletter, which lists our current committed delivery dates, along with a few other snippets of Hardknott News. We've already received helpful support and on-the-ground information from beer drinkers. Thank you to you all, it's all very much appreciated.

If you are interested, we now have our car back, after something of a pageant. It now does significantly less miles which I'm sure is good both for our pocket and the environment.


1We can get more than 70 empties in the van, they only weigh about 10kg each. We are happy to pallet out in advance to any venue taking reasonable numbers. We also have other breweries in the area that we share pallet space with. There is a Cumbrian brewery festival planned at The Rake Bar for instance.