Saturday 21 May 2011

My talk at the Beer Bloggers Conference

My name is Dave Bailey, I run Hardknott Brewery, write a beer blog and sell my beer mostly via Twitter.

I feel a little bit of a fraud stood here before you all today; this has all happened a little bit by accident. We used to run a pub, in a remote Lakeland valley called Eskdale. As part of our attempt to provide a unique selling proposition for our customers, and so hopefully increase footfall, we started to brew beer. This worked fairly well, but not quite enough to ensure a viable business. A local business advisor suggested, as part of our strategy, and as an easy way to update information about our pub, that we should start a blog. Very quickly I realised that my writing touched on subjects much further than our own pub, so I started my own Woolpack Dave’s blog and the rest, as they say, is history.

We’ve sold the pub now, as you probably know, and concentrate on brewing and selling beer. What is important for me to highlight is that without social networking via blogging and twitter our business would be very different. We have effectively built, off the back of social networking, and with the help of people like yourselves, one of the smallest National beer brands in the Country. At Hardknott we’re passionate about great beer and I know you all are too; none of use would be here if we weren’t. The Internet is shaping many things in the world from entertainment to politics and beer is no different in this respect.

From a brewers perspective, at least from the perspective of a brewer who is looking at more selective, discerning and intelligent market, call it the Craft Beer sector if you like, social networking is a powerful and important tool to creating a market for our product. The interaction between us and the communication medium provided by valuable people like you is key to making this work. I’d like to explore how this interaction works and how this important partnership can be nurtured for the overall promotion of great beer.

Firstly I shall describe what we do and why I think we are reasonably successful in promoting our business via social networking. Many businesses in many different sectors attempt to engage with potential markets through this medium with various degrees of success. The most important thing to consider is how the target audience is engaged. It does not achieve very much by simply sending friend requests on Facebook or following lots of people on twitter. Equally, simply writing a blog that states what you are brewing today is unlikely to attract much attention.

I believe it is important to include content that might be a little bit of a tangent to the core activities. In blogs, the ones that work best are the ones that provoke thought, perhaps are amusing or are informing of information about real earth shattering beer revelations. Engaging in comments encourages the reader that the blog author is interested in the views of the reader.

Twitter works best when there is interaction between users. Discussions can sometimes be lively and even controversial. Not withstanding a recent heated intellectual discussion Tandleman and I had on twitter, I think people become more engaged when there is plenty of interaction with other users.

When the on-line interaction turns into real life sociable drinking with a nice mix of bloggers and brewing industry people this can forge extremely useful links, which I hope is beneficial in both directions. Twissup being a wonderful invention, and I’d like to relate some stories to you, but my best anecdote, apparently, is not to be mentioned.

Our social media interaction is exactly what it says; social interaction. I can’t claim that what we do is a deliberate plan, hence my statement about feeling like a fraud, but what I have described seems to work for us.

It is important to note that the small community of online bloggers and tweeters is in no way big enough to support even a small part of the beer industry. Beer is a multimillion pound industry that is wide and diverse. Much of that volume might well be in the form that most of the people in this room would see as unworthy of consideration. However, without that important bulk foundation to our industry beer would be nothing, and moreover, this conference would not have achieved sufficient funding to ensure it happened.

At my end of the market, without the economies of scale enjoyed by bigger players, margins are tight and every penny counts. I’m not likely to get rich at this job, although beer enriches my life in ways that money just can’t, so this is in no way a complaint. What I’m doing here is trying to excuse myself if you think I don’t give away enough beer to bloggers; I’m not tight really, just skint.

I want explore the relationship between active social media beer enthusiasts and brewers. How you guys help promote my wares and where often you are doing so completely unpaid and often even after you have paid for the very product you are promoting. How can we make this a fair exchange and retain credibility for your impartial and important online critique?

I’ve noticed conversations on Twitter regarding the relationship between brewers and bloggers. Melissa also mentioned this yesterday. It seems that there are two main areas of concern;

The first is the fact that some bloggers are a little more forward than others about asking for free beer in return for an online review. My thoughts on this are fairly simple. It’s like any transaction, if the brewer feels that the blogger can provide, what I believe is known as a good return on investment, then what is wrong with blatant self promotion of your blog or twitter account?

A far more important question is how can the relationship between the brewer and blogger can be made to have value? This comes down to credibility and fairness, which to some extent contradict each other a little. If a blogger has been sent free beer is there a compulsion for the blogger to be kind to the beer, even if in truth the beer wasn’t to their taste?

Equally, is it fair for the blogger to go online and denigrate a beer when there might be the possibility that it was just a one off bad bottle or batch? It certainly sometimes happens to me and I worry about a single bottle or batch problem undermining my credibility. One chambermaid, as the head of the IMF will testify, can wreak your whole life’s work.

But you do have to think about how seriously you are considered. Quite clearly if you consistently praise beer just because you got it free you are likely to reduce your own credibility. Of course there is one notable blogger, who uses the pseudonym of Cooking Lager, who very successfully supports brands most of us might consider too boring to be bothered with. Of course, the satire is obvious and if you read carefully you’ll find he enjoys many forms of beer.

My point about Cookie is that we all have our own style; I don’t normally review beer at all, which means I don’t get much sent to me. Of course, I’m an industry blogger and so my focus is different. For some bloggers a supply of free beer is the reward.

Many bloggers go out, buy a beer they really want to try and write about it in a completely unbiased way. Most of the good reports of my own beer occur in this way and I’m very grateful for that. For this reason I can be sure that those bloggers have a high degree of credibility. Other bloggers might well depend on free beer being sent, and I have no way of knowing how many. You all have to consider your own style and what you want out of beer blogging and how you might like to deal with it.

Of course, if your aim of blogging is to gain some notoriety, and I’d be surprised if that isn’t the main reason most of you blog, then credibility is very important indeed. I sit on the committee of the British Guild of Beer writers and one of the reasons I put in time to that is because I believe in the Guild awards for beer writing and the corresponding impetus for the improvement in beer writing. Winning an award might not be the only way to gain notoriety, but I can confirm that it certainly helps.

What I am trying to indicate is that if we want online beer critique, be it via twitter, blogger, facebook or any other medium, I personally think that there has to be some standards. On the other-hand I also see evidence of those standards being self regulated and it is the discussions I’ve seen online, and had off-line with people that suggests this is already happening.

From a brewers perspective I’d prefer it if you only ever said my beer was great if it really is great.

However, how do we deal with beer you don’t like, or is in someway defective? If you pour it out, smell it, taste it and then pour it down the sink, do you go right on and blog that it’s rubbish or is it better to just stay schtum? Perhaps it’s better to report the fact privately to the brewer, in case it’s a faulty batch or bottle; a one off unfortunate production problem in an otherwise fantastic product.

As a brewer, I’d like to say that you should always tell me first about problems, but go ahead and slag everyone else’s beer, I need the sales.

However, when a brewer engages in on-line promotion there has to be an acceptance that there will be negative feedback. There is part of me wonders, with a fast growing Scottish brewer getting serious criticism right now, but still maintaining incredible demand, that being sociably connected as personalities will always be good, even when things are going a little off kilter.

I think, like BrewDog, being on-line and having a personality, and the fact that the personality is perhaps flawed, is what works for us.

There is no doubt that my beer is being demanded all over the country and our production, albeit a measly 10 brewers barrels a week, has hit capacity and so requiring investment we can’t currently afford. I’m very grateful to you all for your online support as I’m sure all the brewers who have provided time and money to this conference will agree.

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Is it REAL?

There is a continuing debate surrounding CAMRA and keg beer. Some say that CAMRA should embrace craft keg beer and others say that they most certainly should not. I'm not, in this instance, expressing a view on this debate, or perhaps I am by proxy, but either way it does seem that the vast majority of people calling for CAMRA to embrace craft keg are not members of CAMRA and those who have no truck with such a concept are members.

Whatever, the debate has highlighted an interesting question for me, one that I have oft mulled; do we really think that "real ale" is as definable as we believe?

One of the arguments against "craft keg" is the problem of defining "craft". This is indeed a problem. Mudgie, in the comments on this post, has stated not for the first time that;

" end up with the problem of defining exactly what "craft" beer is. "Real ale" has a clear, black-and-white definition, whereas "craft beer" can mean anything you want it to mean, and can all too easily boil down to "breweries we like".

I can't disagree with that observation with respect to "craft beer" - many of us are happy with our own idea of what is craft, but with a wide variety of different breweries on something of a continuum from very small and artisan to really quite large and everything in-between. Personally I like some very big breweries much more than some small mediocre ones and would assign the term craft accordingly. Exactly the point Mudgie makes.

That is all well and good, but lets turn to "real ale". It is defined by CAMRA thus;

"Real ale is a natural product brewed using traditional ingredients and left to mature in the cask (container) from which it is served in the pub through a process called secondary fermentation. It is this process which makes real ale unique amongst beers and develops the wonderful tastes and aromas which processed beers can never provide."1

Now, there is quite a lot of cask beer that is produced that conforms to this, but there is also quite a lot that certainly does not. Much cask beer is in fact conditioned in tanks under extraneous CO2, racked with nearly no yeast in it but with a reasonable amount of carbonation, sealed in the cask, rolled out of the brewery door and delivered to a pub. Within hours this beer can be served without any conditioning and very little settling time.

True cask conditioned beer is racked direct from fermenting vessel into cask and will have a very healthy yeast count. The down side of this is that it will not drop bright so quickly and takes considerably more care from the cellarman. Also, the beer should really be kept at the brewery for a week or so to allow the secondary fermentation to occur. Many breweries much prefer to fill the cask the day before delivery or even on the very same day. Many breweries have neither got the spare casks or space to store them at the correct conditioning temperature.

I would postulate that a large proportion of cask beer really is not "real ale" as defined by CAMRA and I certainly think that the whole issue is far more muddy than some would like to assert.

As for CAMRA and keg I'm not at all sure it makes much difference. Cask beer will be around for some time as will CAMRA. "Craft keg" or whatever you want to call it seems to have a growing acceptance amongst a younger group of beer drinkers. If perhaps the "no" camp, as represented by Pete Alexander's piece in Beer2, is happy to continue to "foster good relations" then why should CAMRA do anything more?

Having said that, I'm also a fan of keg as an option, this does mean I'm sensitive to the inevitable anti-keg factions that really do exist. I'm still considering the very good article in Beer and am likely to have more to say. Whatever side of this particular thought process you might be, it's a grand debate that is unlikely to go away either.


2The picture in this post is stolen from CAMRA's very good Beer magazine. I suspect I'm breaking a copyright law somewhere, sorry guys.

Sunday 8 May 2011

Beer Dinner at The Kirkstile Inn

There are a number of pubs around Cumbria which I have always held in high esteem. The Kirkstile Inn is one such establishment. They manage to retain a high turnover by delivering quality food and drink with a competent level of service. There are none of the usual distractions of gaming machines, juke boxes or pool tables as an attempt to draw in extra trade. It's true that the location is somewhat idyllic and in contrast to our own experiences of pub ownership, this one is easily accessible from major cosmopolitan1 conurbations.

At our last beer dinner we had a number of Cumbrian beer industry movers and shakers. One such individual was the modest and highly likeable Roger Humphries, who owns both The Kirkstile Inn and Cumbrian Legendary Ales. He was so impressed at our first dinner that he asked us to do something similar on the first night of his beer festival.

So, under the banner of Cumbrian Beer Appreciation Group we organised our second beer and food matching dinner. This time Roger's remit gave us a little more trouble with the matching as he presented us with a menu and we had to match the food. Last time we chose the beer and told the chef what food we wanted him to produce. The challenge turned out to be a powerful learning experience the result of which was a great beer and food matched menu and a great leap forward in the groups abilities to create such events.

The Menu


Jeff Pickthall and Roger Humphries

Salmon en croute – salmon fillet wrapped in filo pastry – roasted asparagus – Hollandaise sauce
Bavarian Heffe Weis No3 5% (Mitchell Krause)

This was perfect. The delicate yet highly aromatic effect of this style of beer worked well with the salmon but still had enough punch to hold its own with the hollandaise. The spicy notes harmonise with the asparagus beautifully.

Roasted sweet potato and leek soup – served with hop bread
Loweswater Gold 4.3% (Cumbrian Legendary Ales)

Again, this was a perfect match. The soup was served with a scoop of creme fraich in the centre which matches the slight buttery feel of the beer and of course the food heaven of butter on warm bread. The beer is carefully hopped leaving the grain to do all the talking, the sweet malt of which hits the spot with this delicious soup.

Sautéed button mushrooms stuffed with Crofton goats’ cheese ‘stumpy’ and Woodall’s air-dried ham – coated in herb breadcrumbs – homemade pesto
Jaipur 5.9% (Thornbridge)

If I were honest I'd say this match was the poorest of the lot; the food was delicious and of course we all know Jaipur to be a classic contemporary2 IPA well worthy of its status as a superb beer. However, this dish we knew would be tricky to get right. The pesto somehow wasn't quite the right spiciness to stand up to the strong citrus tropical fruits in the beer and somehow the bitterness jarred with the mushrooms. However, I'm probably being hypercritical and I seem to remember finishing my plateful, even though I was starting to worry that I was over half-full but not yet halfway.

Rabbit, pheasant and duck terrine – toasted rye bread – pineapple and orange chutney
Red Bull Terrier 4.8% (Barngates)

Red Bull Terrier is one of my favourite Cumbrian beers. It is perhaps not what most beer geeks would call progressive, but when on good form it's great combination of malt power along with a citrus hop bite gives undertones of chocolate and orange.

The terrine was exceptional and the chef must have put tremendous effort into this dish showing off just how skilled many pub chefs can be. The strong game meats matched well with the robust meaty beer and the orange and pineapple chutney.

Fanned cantaloupe melon – Champagne sorbet – strawberry purée
Organic strawberry fruit beer 5% (Samuel Smiths)

I'll be truthful, Jeff and I had a little bit of an argument about this one during planning. I didn't know the beer and wanted to use a Belgian fruit beer where I felt the acidity of a true lambic would work well. I was overruled, a little to my disgust, but this is a team effort and the majority rules.

I was wrong, this beer was absolutely perfect. Surprisingly tart but with enough sweetness to work with the sweet fruitiness of the food. All in all a brilliant palette cleanser to set us up for the home straight.

Cottage pie – Cumbrian beef slowly braised in Langdale beer and roasted vegetables – topped with creamy mashed potatoes
Special Oatmeal Stout 4.5% (Coniston Brewing Co)

Bearing in mind that this was the 6th course a huge portion of comfort food was perhaps not quite what was required. But it was somewhat delicious. Firstly it is nice that the cottage pie was made with chunks of meat rather than the ubiquitous mince. The superbly executed slow braised beef paired wonderfully with the silky velvet stout and this course would have made a hearty lunch stood alone.

Cumberland Rum Nicky – A traditional 17th Century hot Cumbrian sweet made with dates, orange, ginger and Jefferson Whitehaven rum with a lattice pastry topping – served with rum and raisin ice-cream
Queboid 8% (Hardknott Brewery)

How can I say this match was perfect without seeming to be biased? Queboid, being fermented with a Belgian yeast, has a fruity spicy nose. The desert is something similar to an open mince pie, spices and dark fruit dominating. The very spirity feel, sweet malts and the tart spicy hops produce a golden syrup taste typical of a double IPA and paired very well indeed.

Personally I think this beer goes with many classic British puddings; suet, egg custard and dried fruits all work well.

Local cheeses, Maris Otter malt biscuits and Melbreak chutney
Croglin Vampire 8% (Cumbrian Legendary Ales)

Croglin Vampire is a delicious dopple bock with flavours of nutty apple and a gentle texture that helps hide its strength well. Full bodied but also gentle at the same time.

The fruity nature of what is technically a lager works tremendously well with full flavour cheeses.


One of the objectives of the Cumbrian Beer Appreciation Group is to help dismiss preconceptions about beer. We chose beers to match circumstances based on appropriateness. Although we love cask beer, and three of the beers above were served this way. Two of the beers are bottle conditioned and in my view very much better for that. The remaining three, to the best of my knowledge, were served from beers that have been chill filtered and re-carbonated.

I'd have liked Queboid to have been from keg, where I think my version works particularly well, but it just wasn't practical on this occasion.

At least one of our beers would have been much better from cask rather than the bottled version. However, to provide a variety of beers at economic costs some compromises had to be made. But, just because a beer isn't cask, or isn't bottle conditioned, or perhaps is served with extraneous gas does not render the beer unworthy of consideration. Indeed, with packaged beer there is little to suggest that the container has much effect on the beer. Why does good quality packaged beer only come from bottle? Isn't a cask just a great big can? And what about those mini casks many brewers provide? They are just 70's party 9's re-launched after all.

Actually, Punk IPA and cheese works too.
Or, beer and cheese, any beer, just select the right cheese.

We decided to let the guests leave with a little bit of a surprise. Bottles might well provide a nice way to present beer but the overhead of glass adds weight and cost. If you are camping or having a picnic perhaps cans are more appropriate. One notable brewery is now controversially putting Punk IPA into cans. We thought it was a nice little touch to present each diner with a can of said beer.

I got so carried away talking about and eating that I forgot to take pictures of the best courses, sorry.


1The term cosmopolitan in the Cumbrian context is somewhat watered down. Compared to the remote Cumbrian valleys, Whitehaven, Workington and Cockermouth have managed to drag themselves out of the 19th century and stand some change of passing the mid point of the 20th century sometime soon.

2Is "contemporary" and "classic" used together an oxymoron? I don't think so in this context.

Tuesday 3 May 2011

Beer Duty and AV

I try not to let it, but my intense interest in politics encroaches into this blog from time to time. I'm not one of these silly political animals who think that Conservative policies are all twaddle just because Maggie shut our pits or that all Labour policies are crazy just because of a few social security layabouts. Neither do I think that Liberal Democrats are amateur politicians who wouldn't know what to do if they did end up running the country1. For that matter I have some empathy with the Green movement and I'm not convinced about Brussels taking over quite so much, so there is a little bit of me agrees with some of UKIP's ideas, even the BNP...... no, wait, they really are tossers, you're right.

Beer duty is an interesting issue. There is an argument for saying that it is a regressive tax, much more regressive than VAT. People on low incomes are paying a greater proportion of their alcohol costs in tax. People like me, and I'd consider myself reasonably fortunate, spend a little more on alcohol rather than being forced to depend upon cheap slabs of cooking lager for a fix of the most acceptable type of recreational drug. After all, if you work hard for a meagre crust then you deserve a cost effective form of relaxation. Just because you like a few tins of beer in the evening does not mean you are evil and should be punished with punitive taxation.

But, I've argued before that beer duty punishes The Pub less than the off trade. Surely that is a good thing? Also, if someone is a heavy drinker they are paying higher taxes than someone who doesn't drink a lot and so are paying for what we are told is the inevitable increase in costs to the NHS as a result of alcohol related heath costs. Costs of policing alcohol related crime and paying for damage to public property in town centres is perhaps another strong argument for alcohol duty in general.

Consider a drinker who is more discerning, one who is looking for a drink that has a higher value due to better quality ingredients - A drinker who is perhaps prepared to pay more for an artisanal product where more of the money paid goes to hard working people like us microbrewers and licensees, rather than into the back pockets of multinational brewers and supermarket shareholders. A smaller proportion of the money paid by such a discerning drinker goes to the government than for a drinker who is simply out to get pissed for as little as possible. Perhaps this is fair.

Whatever your thoughts are on beer duty, and of course I would expect the readers of this blog to be generally against the principle of beer duty, it is clear that neither the last nor the current government had or has any intention of reducing it. The previous government created the alcohol duty escalator and the current government have no intention what so ever of abolishing it any time soon. Indeed, the whole issue just gets lost in the current party politics based election system that we have.

Although, as stated above, I have a very keen interest in politics, I am very disillusioned with party politics. I like to take each issue on its merits. I get very frustrated at political rhetoric that consists of nothing more than trying to discredit the other party's ideas, irrespective of whether the idea has merit or not. Moreover, minority opinions have a right to be involved in the direction governments take, even when they are apparently wrong. I see no reason for them not to have a say in a democratic country.

We have a referendum this week. It is the first time I can remember that we have actually been permitted to have a significant say in what our government is going to do; Normally all we can do is put one simple cross on a piece of paper every once in a while. I don't feel very empowered by our present first-past-the-post system.

Moreover, if the "No" camp win I fear that not only will it stop the debate on political reform but it will also prevent further referendums. "We gave you a referendum on AV, you said "No", so clearly that was a waste of time" - I like the idea of referendums, I like the idea of us all being empowered and being able to choose on more issues more often. I like the idea of a voting system that gets more people to vote.

Running the country is complex, I do not think that permitting a single minority first-past-the-post winner to have complete control, and for them to stay in control, is the way to conduct politics into the 21st century. Hung parliaments, coalitions and power sharing is simply a grown-up way of doing things, I do not see it as political instability but as a means of being more intelligent and running the country on an issue based footing rather than the current ideology focused system.

For these reasons, and many, many more besides, I'm voting "Yes to AV" on Thursday. It might not be the perfect system, but I do not want the discussion on political change to end.


1...... yes, there is a case for saying they should have more say now they form part of our current government. But still, they are part of our current government, I see that as better than it being all Conservative, even if they are less effectual than we'd all like.

Mild? In May? or any time for that matter?

It has always been something that has intrigued me; the fact that the beer world likes to defend traditional quirks that seem to be in decline. The Pub, for instance, that long established British tradition of the local is under threat as we well know. I view these things as an unfortunate inevitability. Large establishments like Wetherspoons who provide cost effective drinking places and ever more competition for the spare pounds in our pocket, shout as we will, pubs will continue to close.

It's May, apparently. We should all be drinking mild, apparently. I ought to be brewing mild if I listened to the supporters of that particular beer style. But I haven't brewed a mild for ages, and I'm certainly unlikely to brew it again any time soon. It's not out of defiance of the concept of mild or to attempt to antagonise the mild supporters, they are entitled to champion their preferred beer if that is their wish, I just don't really want to be part of it.

I have brewed mild, and some have even commented that it was one of the very best milds they have ever tasted. Unfortunately, whenever anyone who was an expert1 on mild tasted mine they re-classified it as a porter. You see, I like to brew progressive beer with flavour rather than to conform to some traditional stylistic ideal that is better consigned to the dustbin.

It is possible to brew a truly fantastic mild. Further more, some very exceptional, award-winning pale beers classify as light milds and don't need a special month to promote them.

However, most people think of mild as a low gravity dark beer that tastes of nothing very much, doesn't keep well and just isn't worth the bother. Moreover, the style is much better suited to winter months rather than the typically nice weather that we tend to get in May.

Now, you'll have to excuse me, I have some beer to transfer to conditioning tank where it will mingle with a large amount of American varieties of dry hops.


1Expert = Ex Spurt - a former drip under pressure. Just don't start thinking in terms of bodily fluids......