Wednesday 10 August 2011

Cool Snake

If you follow me on twitter you might occasionally see me arguing with Tandleman over various issues. In many ways this is a bit bizarre because I have on more than one occasion had a very enjoyable sociable experience drinking with someone with the name Peter Alexander. Recent discussions have been over naming and shaming individual establishments over their beer serve temperature. Although I remain unconvinced about the value of public naming and shaming on twitter, I agree that there are some shocking examples of poor beer dispense.

Beer should be served at the correct temperature. For cask beer this is generally considered as being around 12 degrees centigrade1. Too cold and flavours can be masked as well as inevitable problems with chill haze. Much worse is the crime of serving beer too warm; the drinking experience is not enjoyable and an otherwise well brewed beer can be ruined as a result.

There is unfortunately a pattern; tied pub estates often have significant care given to the quality of installed equipment. OK, the beer range may not be particularly varied or imaginative, but you can be more certain that the beer is better looked after. There is very good reason for this.

With a tied house the beer sold is entirely supplied through one route to market. It might be a single regional brewer or it may be a PubCo but there is at least a central purchasing route and maximising sales is crucial to the profitability of the owning business. Cellar support is inevitably very good with great care given to maximising the quality of the beer.

By contrast many free houses have poorer investment in cellar equipment and dispense technology. A very noticeable but in my view completely unacceptable omission is, as I think Tandleman put it, "python2 cooling to the point of dispense". This should include jacketed handpulls and carefully regulated circulating cooling water from a dedicated cooler, i.e. NOT from the keg cooling circuit.

OK, the investment might well be significant for a free-house without benefit of a large brewery to supply the technical support and equipment investment, but it will reduce wastage in "pulled through" beer and also inevitably increase the quality of the beer therefore improving the customer experience. I suspect the payback time will be very much shorter than most establishments expect.

Moreover, some of my very favourite beer outlets do suffer from beer serve temperature problems. This results in public naming and shaming of the very places I love. So, perhaps these places could help to prevent Tandleman and I from falling out by thinking about investing a little in dispense equipment?

On Beer, Birra, Bier there is an interesting reflective post on my most recent twitter discussion with Tandleman.

Expensive but very good handpulls can be bought here. Pythons and other such wonderful things can be bought here. Personally I find the technicalities of putting these things together very straightforward, but if your practical skills aren't up to it a good cellar technician shouldn't cost too much.

If any cellar technician tries to tell you that it's OK, it's "trad beer" and doesn't need python cooling, look for someone else.


1personally I think there is an argument for some very light and hoppy beers being served a little cooler and things like strong stouts and barley wines a little warmer. 12 degrees is a good compromise however and I totally reject the excuse some dinosaur cellar-men use to say cask beer should be warm. Cask Marque is one organisation that has set some parameters and this cannot be a bad thing.

2A python is a thermally lagged bundle of pipes that includes a flow and return cooling circuit. It's really good at keeping beer at the right temperature from the cellar right to your glass. Generally, if beer is too warm, it is highly likely that this technology is not in use, or it's broken.

Sunday 7 August 2011

The making of the Hardknott film

I have a beard. Some people think I'm quite weird1. I drink beer, quite a lot of it, but despite all of that I also like to remain fit and healthy. My beard is kept short, I avoid wearing sandals unless it's very hot and I'm on holiday, and hope to remain in good shape by occasionally partaking in a little light exercise other than the simple act of raising around 700g with my right hand.

In one of our local pubs there are many regulars who remain fit and healthy, despite my suspicion that they drink more than the government recommendation. I believe they remain healthy due to an interest in the great outdoors; climbing, walking, caving, that sort of weird nonsense. Their irritating youthfulness may also help. Some of them may have weird beards and occasionally wear sandals, but we'll gloss over that point. CAMRA membership status is unknown, I'd actually hope some of them are members, however, they rarely use the term Real Ale and prefer to talk about cask beer instead.

It turns out that they all like Hardknott beer, which is handy because despite the pub being a managed house and having an owner who doesn't give the manager quite enough free-reign as we'd like, we have negotiated hard and offered volume discount and now have our beer on-sale reasonably regularly. The pub does not sell craft keg and I suspect it is likely to be a long time until they do, if ever.

I like the pub a lot. It ranks as one of my top 10 in the area and we spend far more time in it drinking than we should.

Planning the film

With the above as background, when we were offered a rare opportunity for a very low cost but high quality promotional film we had to think of an idea for a "script". Mark, from PiciFilms, who was to be camera man, director and editor, came to see me at the brewery to try and work up ideas for the film. We started talking about target demographics and the local beer market, tourism, extreme sports, younger drinkers and the image of Ale.

There are two main styles of attraction in The Lake Dirstict. One is the very traditional picture postcard scenery, fudge, gingerbread, sticky toffee pudding, local traditional ale, Wordsworth, Beatrix Potter, lake steamer rides and gentle walks on the fells. This one is very strong and successful and I have far more affection for it than much of my writing would betray.

There is another attraction style that is much less popular and with international travel becoming an ever smaller reason for visiting The Lakes. Perhaps they are niche activities and not at all popular with the mainstream, but still, I have an affinity with people who enjoy extreme sports, partly perhaps because the very best times in my life have been when I have been high in mountains, deep in a cave, or perhaps momentarily stuck in a crevasse in an Alpine glacier, sliding down a slippery icy slope on a couple of planks or, as in the film, just larking about on a sunny day on a lump of Borrowdale volcanic rock scaring myself silly.

My beery activities have taken me further away from such a lifestyle than I am happy about. However, I know a great many people who engage in such outdoor activities and many are very physically fit beer drinkers. Many also search for much more exciting activities than the generally perceived safety of Cumbria. Alpine peaks, Himalayan foothills, trekking in the Andes, white water rafting down the Amazon or an assault on Kilimanjaro are much more likely to excite this contemporary looking demographic. Their tastes in beverages are much more likely to be Rioja than Dusky Old Ferrets Jock Strap. For that matter, because it seems to be cleaner and fresher, there is a proportion of this demographic who choose lager over ale. Their tastes are much more likely to be contemporary and international than traditionally British.

I am aiming at people who are more likely to holiday in Zermatt, Chamonix, Kathmandu or even explore Latin America, Africa or Asia. These people are far too broad minded to simply buy the traditional drink, one made with British hops and barley to the same old recipe that has been handed down from brewer to brewer. The demographic I'm thinking about know that making great beer needs a firm sight on new varieties of hops from further afield than Kent, and technology that involves more than just traditional open square fermenters. But what we were not pushing was keg beer. Indeed the bar transformation scene shows our concept for contemporary handpulls, in the main, and only has one keg font shown.

We wanted a film that would be funny, poke a little bit of fun at the traditional unhealthy British beer drinker image and suggest that drinking beer is not necessarily an exclusive pass-time of the unfit. I would hope that some of the demographic I describe, the progressive, outgoing, fit and healthy extreme sport activist, or even casual observer of such activities, might find the film more entertaining than if I just rambled on about hops and malt.

Moreover, I hoped that it would be amusing to a broader cross-section of people. It's supposed to be funny, light hearted and even to some extent self-deprecating. As I said when opening this piece, I AM a beardy weirdie, and proud to be so. The fact that in the original post, the one in which I launched the film, there are comments that seem to not get this is a little worrying. As I say, I'm objecting to the image that seems to be attached to micro-brewed beer and the insistence that this image has to stay is divisive.

At Hardknott we are very keen to promote food and beer matching. I'll be returning to my Saturday Kitchen objection and related activities. We wanted to not only include extreme sports but also food and beer matching in our film. Extreme cheese boarding might be included in the Olympics one day, you never know. Actually, it came as a bit of interesting revelation that despite the concentration required during filming, the Granite I drank really does go with cheese especially well.

The Music

During planning it became evident that music would be required. Mark had suggested that stock music could be used at a cost. We talked about genre and how it might tie into the demographic we imagined. Rightly or wrongly we chose 90s rock as a model.

I messed a little with a lesser well known song "Don't look back in anger" and found it to fit reasonably well. At this point I was not expecting my rusty musical skills to be adequate. However, what I did find was that involving real musicians was likely to be expensive and troublesome. After talking to several significantly better artists than myself it became apparent that pro-activeness was to be hindered by differences of artistic opinion.

I dug out my little recording studio and started messing around. That turned out to be a pleasure all on its own. Writing, be it words or music, are one of the few pleasures I can have by myself. All of the music on the film was produced by me with a little bit of help from my step-son to make some rhythmic bashing sounds.

Is it good music? I don't know, but I enjoyed making it.

The full track is here in case the reader is daft enough to want to listen to it.

The Filming

Filming on the day was both fun and tiring. Mark, Ann, Andrew and I met at the brewery just after 9am. We headed off to do the main "stunt" which involved me abseiling off a crag. I chose what I thought was a reasonable location combining good scenery with a sense of exposure. Unfortunately, in rash puritanical action by The British Mountaineering Council, this particular crag has been un-bolted. I have always viewed this crag as a training crag and good solid bolt anchors totally appropriate when teaching young people to climb. The BMC oppose any artificial anchors on Lake District crags even those, like this one, that have historically had them for decades. But, I suppose it's one of them thin end of the wedge things that allows for no grey areas.

I spent some time setting up traditional anchors. If I had some Rawl bolts I'd have used them in the still clearly visible holes. Still, having two lengths of rope and there being some hefty rock blocks, I made fairly safe anchors ensuring, to the disappointment of some, my continued existence.

Unfortunately the sun was casting shadow across the crag face. We had to wait until well after 12 noon (11 GMT) before the sun was high enough in the sky to work on the near vertical, north-facing cliff. Practising the abseil was useful, but walking back up the 25 metre more than a dozen times left me more fatigued than I'd have liked. Also, our late afternoon studio session was going to get knocked back.

Finally we got the main shot "in the can" and proceeded to the riverside location. Unfortunately I had forgotten about the inevitable tourists. It would have been fine but for the fact that the few people around the river turned out to think they owned it. A rather wet dog threatened to eat my cheese and knock my bottles of beer in the river. My gentle nudge with my lower leg was incorrectly interpreted and Andrew overheard the objectionable woman say "don't kick MY dog" - bless that dog, not its fault, it was having a nice time in the river but the owner was a little unaware that it should be kept under control. Aforementioned woman also dumped a used nappy by the river. The little girl who had been responsible for the contents of the nappy was quite charming. Mark heroically removed the nappy, which I feel was not his responsibility.

Back at the brewery we had mocked up a "marquee" borrowed from the pub mentioned earlier. I began to realise my hairless crown was feeling the effects of a glorious day out in the sun. Luckily it doesn't seem to show on the video.

Tiredness reduced my ability to hang on a rope and perform the final cheese board filming was less than ideal. Keen viewers will notice involvement of people both in shot and out of shot passing the cheese board etc.

However, Jeff Pickthall2 got right into character and seemed to revel in his various roles. Looking particularly cool as bass player we are all wondering if he might branch out into a new career.

The final edit and release

Mark went away and cut together the film. I bit of editing of the soundtrack requested of me to give the "before" sound and halting. After a few comments from me the final version went online at Vimeo

Hardknott Beer from PiciFilms on Vimeo. or alternatively view on YouTube

The local paper picked up the story and did a nice little piece which made page 3. They are good to us, although the original version put online had a rather badly hacked download which Mark had to request they change.

All in all we are happy with the results. OK, there has ensued the usual CAMRA verses anti-CAMRA debate on my previous posts and some people in real life have accused it of being embarrassing, but generally I think it's been received with the level of amusement I'd hoped for, including some local beer drinkers.

We really did try and avoid accusations of anti-CAMRA and are simply highlighting what we believe is bad about the image that some people portray. I'd like to continue to make progressive beer much of which is either bottle conditioned or cask. Those that don't like our style because it jars with some of the traditionalists views doth protest too much, methinks.


1It is unclear as to the overall proportion of people who know me who also think I'm weird. It seems to be that as a person increases in age they also become significantly less concerned about their own eccentricities. Having always been a person who preferred to follow off-the-wall trends anyway, things don't look good for my future.

2Yes, I know including Jeff only increases the suspicion of anti-CAMRA activity. But he's a good friend and lets face it, the film wouldn't have been half as good without him.