Monday 31 October 2011

Flavour, taste, preconception and fashion

It was the SIBA North competition on Thursday followed by it's festival. The reader should already know this, unless a casual browser of random blogs; it's a major event that all beer enthusiasts ought to at least know about, even if they are unable to attend. We helped out by being runners during the judging, which was fun, if a little tiring.

The day had two very notable aspects which were particularly pleasing. The first was that we won silver in the Premium Strong Bitters category for Infra Red, which of course we were very pleased about. The second and possibly far more pleasing was the fact that we had a chance to meet up with many great people, some old friends, some new friends and some people I've only ever previously communicated with via twitter or blogging. It was great to see you all.

Competitions like this always throw up questions in the minds of individual beer enthusiasts. One very notable winner, just prior to the announcements being made and therefore in complete ignorance of the results, commented to me that these things are always a lottery. I'm not sure I completely agree, although clearly there are going to be a number of variables associated that will very surely throw up a different result on a different day.

As a brewer, and a business man, I have to consider what the outcome of such a competition really means. The 130 assembled judges obviously came from a variety of different backgrounds. Some beer bloggers, some brewers from other SIBA regions and presumably some publicans and perhaps some of the general public. The result of such a competition should at least represent the opinions of a spectrum of people.

While waiting for the final judging to finish I had a half of Magic Rocks Rapture 4.6% (Premium bitters) which I thought to be so good that I thought to myself "The bastards, I think I like this better than Infra Red" full of over-the-top dry hopped flavours that over-shadow my own attempts at progressive beer. Afterwards I got to taste Continuum, which risked failing to register on the hop-o-meter due to palate overload, despite normally fully satisfying my humulus desires.

We settled down to wait for the results of the competition. In the preamble to the announcements it was pointed out that everyone's perception of what is good is different. That fact is not only true but left sufficient impact on the assembled audience for a number of people to point this out later, and perhaps supports the view mentioned above that the outcome is to some extent subject to variables beyond the beer.

The Best Bitters category came and went and Continuum failed to get a medal. Equally, the premium bitters category came and went without Rapture gaining any recognition. I had been suffering from the fact that I had had a couple of beers and had not yet found the little boys room despite having been there 5 hours. Infra Red clearly wasn't going to get anything if Rapture and Continuum didn't. Too many hops, too narrow an appeal, too flavoursome I assumed. I took a comfort break fairly happy I wasn't going to miss anything important.

I happened to get back from dispensing with the aqueous proportion of previously consumed beer in time for the premium strong beers category to be announced. Hawkshead NZ Pale Ale got Bronze.

"Oh well" thought I "Hope yet for properly hopped beers"

Then came Silver. "Hardknott Infra Red"

I think that my thought process at that point included a proportion of profanities of delight that rarely get used in my writing, but oft enter my head. I had been convinced that Continuum would be more likely to win than Infra Red. Needless to say the evening that followed would have been difficult to spoil as I floated on a cushion of very comfortable euphoria.

The next day we set off early from Manchester to deliver beer and pick up empties from London. We were due in Essex in the evening to attend a beer verses wine dinner hosted by The Thatchers Arms with the beer writer Adrian Tierney-Jones and wine writer and Saturday Kitchen presenter Tim Atkin.

If you've been following our blog you will be aware of our attempts to change a little bit the perception that beer is unworthy to drink with quality food. The dinner was a great success and in the end was more about like minded people getting together with great food and great drink than about any real contest. The results concluded that both beer and wine are equally worthy at the table when good company is in plentiful supply.

It is intriguing to me that various people at the dinner did have some preconceived ideas about which beverage should work better. I tried very hard to put aside my own. In the end the best match of the evening was, in my view, a wine, although I still think that beer came out slightly on top overall from my perspective.

Irrespective of what I thought, there were clearly some differences of opinion. How much that is influenced by peers, media, ancestors and more is debatable. It is very common for people to go to the pub and order a pint before a meal, but then swap to more robust wine for a meal. In my view this is mainly due to preconceived ideas, but also because the beer industry fails to do enough to change that.

Both the dinner and the competition from the day before have interesting enlightenment for me. Hawkshead Windermere Pale won the SIBA competition. It is very popular and I know the team at the brewery work very hard to make it a good, solid and consistent product. It has wide appeal and certainly enjoys commercial success. This is clearly because this beer is suitable for the regular beer drinker in the regular pub where quite rightly the majority of beer is consumed.

Infra Red and perhaps even Continuum might just have too narrow appeal for the wide range of judges that are quite rightly assembled for such competitions. Indeed, my suspicion is that Infra Red won partly because the number of beers in the strong premium beers category is somewhat less than in the best bitter category.

If Hardknott made a beer that tried to have as wide an appeal as Windermere Pale, or perhaps another very popular Cumbrian beer, Loweswater Gold, I could sell a lot more beer. But then, I'd only be copying what these very good breweries have done. Instead, our aim is to carry on making beers that are different, have narrower appeal, and some I hope that can further lever into the quality dining arena.

Having tasted Magic Rock's Rapture, I now feel Infra Red is somehow inferior. No doubt if I tried to ram more hops into it, quite apart from no longer being the beer that gained silver, might also be even less popular with a wider audience. Equally, Light Cascade, which I consider to be the runt of my litter, perhaps should have been entered into the competition, and does continue to enjoy good sales on cask.

In conclusion, I am left thinking that the only thing I can continue to do is ensure Hardknott makes the beers that define us. If we win a few prizes along the way, then so much the better. If we can convince a few more people to focus on trying beer as an alternative to wine with food, then better still.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Money for old rope

It's a busy time at Hardknott, I've been busy with all sorts of important jobs, like getting rid of stuff I don't want in exchange for stuff I do. Today I sold and delivered 3 tonnes of Lake District roofing slate that was taken off the pub before we left. It's OK, it was replaced with new, which actually made the roof better. Better than that the old fine-grained, foliated, homogeneous metamorphic rock still had value, it's just that the lazy builder I used seemed reluctant to engage in the old art of roofing with random slate. He proclaimed that I'd get enough money for selling the old slate to pay for the job of putting the new, inferior quality, regular sized slate on the roof. Needless to say I was offered diddily-squat for the slate from the builders "man", too late for me to change my mind.

I could tell you far more about this story, but I can sense that the reader may already have lost interest and moved on to another blog. So, to cut a long story short, I sold the slate today for less than I wanted, but for a reasonable amount more than I was originally offered. This has helped us to finish paying for our new tanks which will be delivered, so I'm told, around the middle of next week.

The other thing I have been busy with is sorting out an on-line shop. It's been in beta test mode hiding behind a password log-on. 12 kind souls have been buying beer through this medium, just to test everything is OK. The little bit of money from this, because payment via PayPal is virtually immediate, has also helped cash-flow a little. Selling to pubs and shops invariably means we get paid days, weeks or even months after you, the customer, has drunk the beer.

I imagine the reader who is still engaged is wondering why I don't take the password protection off the web-shop and sort out our cash-flow a little bit more. Mainly, the answer would be that I believe it is necessary to have a licence to sell alcohol to the general public. Don't worry though, the licence just came through and the shop will be online next week.

However, gaining this licence is not without it's difficulties and, more importantly, costs. Not only is the licence fee itself linked to the rateable value of the building, which you might think is fair enough. I don't think it is. If we had a little stand alone shop, say 16 square metres floor space, the rateable value would mean our licence would be in the lowest band. However, our shop is 16 square metres within a building that is over 200 square metres. The rateable value of all of that building puts us in a higher band. Money for nothing. On top of these costs are the costs of placing the statutory adverts, photocopying the forms and getting plans drawn up. Applying for a premises licence is not an insignificant activity.

It all makes me think about licences in general. The list of licences and permits for operating any pub or other on licence establishment are fairly extensive. PRS, TV licence, Satellite subscription, environmental health registration, premises licence, data protection registration.... the list goes on and on. The costs of gaining and maintaining these runs into thousands of pounds a year. It's not just the direct costs, which are often paid to the local authority in return for nothing other than permission to trade. There is also the administration costs of supplying and maintaining relevant documents or ensuring compliance with ever increasingly stringent and irrelevant rules made up by unnecessarily employed graduates who wouldn't otherwise have a meaningful part in the economy of the country.

Many people cite beer duty as the killer to the licensed trade. Indeed, it is a cost that is significant. But I firmly believe that blaming beer duty for the downfall of the pub is focussing too closely on only one part of the costs that can be attributed to our political leaders. Local authorities raking in fees for licences, and in return simply dreaming up more ways to make our lives complicated, are not only forcing us to pay good money for old rope, but are also asking us to hang ourselves by that very same cord and no doubt flog ourselves with it before we do.

I hope that my slate sale has enabled a charming gentleman to finish his barn conversion. It might have been old slate, but it was good and serviceable and of use to him. We did a deal, shook hands and everyone is happy. Hardknott gets a couple of nice tanks and our customers will get more of our beer.

Licences and permits are needed to ensure unscrupulous dealers can't sell cut price beer to kids. Looking at some places I'm not convinced it really does achieve that aim, but regardless, for the small, honest and responsible trader the costs caused and complexity imposed are completely unreasonable. And, we get absolutely nothing in return that is of value.

Monday 17 October 2011

Go on, do it if you haven't already

We're just about to release a very big beer. It's a triple imperial stout with lots of stuff in it. It's full of beans, just to give you a clue, three different types in fact. It's 11% and black. You wouldn't neck it very fast, it will be seriously expensive for one thing. Also, you wouldn't drink much of it because of the intense flavours. It is unlikely to cause major drunken behaviour mainly because it is aimed at beer geeks rather than tramps.

There will be several events, including twissup, where it will show up.

However, it will be a little more expensive than it needs to be because the Government have put a High Strength Beer Duty on it. Sadly we didn't get it into bottles, keg and cask quite quick enough so couldn't pay up the duty for last month, which was the last chance to move beer out of "duty suspense" before the new tax comes in.

There is an e-pertition that is asking the Government to consider reversing this tax. Yes, it might be true, as Jeff Pickthall points out, that we are unlikely to get the tax revoked, but if we don't make our voices heard then beer duty is going to keep on increasing.

If you haven't read and signed this e-petition then you need to read more beer blogs, I must be the last of the beer bloggers to have posted about this.


If you'd like to get hold of this beer as soon as it is released you could do worse than apply to be a beta tester for our shop.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Three years on

It was cold, wet and dark when I woke this morning; it turns out that this might be something to do with the fact that summer has well and truly gone. Already the advantages of longer days in northern climes at June's solstice have been negated and those southerners already have about 6 minutes more daylight1 than us. As yet another year moves into the final quarter it has suddenly made me realise how much has changed for me in the last 3 years.

It was on this day 3 years ago that I started Dave's Beer Blog. I was reminded by the author of this blog's twin, Pencil and Spoon, of the anniversary, and without Mark prodding me I'd have certainly forgotten this important date. Although there are many influences that have got me to this point in my life I, this blog is the most significant catalyst to have made it happen. It is perhaps perverse that the main reason for starting to write this blog was a frustration in having insufficient control over my own destiny. At that time I was running a pub in a remote corner of the country and had simply run out of ideas for making the business sustainable. Moreover, there was a real risk of a nervous breakdown, a relationship failure or even my physical health being severely compromised. I am now happily in the position that, although these risks are still present, far more control is achievable and I have a business that is developing without the constraints imposed by a 16th century building in an inaccessible part of Cumbria. However, I now write much less, and when I do it feels less creative which is a fact that upsets me quite a lot.

More than all of that, this blog has put me in touch with many great people. This blog has won me a nice tankard that sits on my mantle piece. I now sit on the committee of The British Guild of Beer Writers giving me an excuse to visit London far more often than I'd otherwise have reason to. Probably most importantly it has given me a significantly broader knowledge of beer, through those many people I have met, than I would otherwise have gained.

I now run a growing brewing business that is exploring new and diverse areas of the beer market. These developing and exciting prospects are unnerving many, but for us we know it is the right tack to follow. To us, to make beer that is no different to the many hundreds of others that are out there makes little sense.

8 years ago I loved good food, good pubs, drank Guinness, had a reasonably well paid job with holidays and everything. I sought to remove myself from the humdrum and pension certainty by looking for a business. I chose to buy a pub, which as it happened served a lot of cask beer. I changed from Guinness drinker to cask beer drinker to brewer and finally, mainly as a result of this blog, to fully confirmed beer geek.

The combined effect of being a little more contented about my fate, and being really quite absorbed with the task of building this brewery, reduces my time and inclination to write. Despite this I do like writing, so here's to another year of this blog and me finding the temporal flexibility and cerebral stimulus to punch the keyboard a little more often.

Meanwhile, I do hope we have a white winter again. I know you guys in the south hate the snow but up here we love it. A bright snow laden fellside is a perfect offset for the slightly shorter days compared to the grey-brown slush that clogs up the capital. Besides, the sledges just don't get out often enough.



1In the summer we get about 45 minutes more daytime than Londoners. In the middle of winter it goes the other way. Whether or not that is a good thing is a matter of perspective.

Saturday 1 October 2011

Low ABV, low duty, low IQ

Duty on beer has been slashed. Unless you are a micro-brewer that is, in which case beer duty goes up.

I blogged about it more than once when it was first announced. Unfortunately, the arguments I put seemed a little to complex for most of you to get on your high horse about it then.

I'll put it simply:

  • The low ABV duty discount can only be claimed by brewers who do not get small brewers discount.
  • CAMRA campaigned for the low ABV discount.
  • Below 2.8% cask beer is not practical as it has low demand and goes off faster.
  • The duty rise on 7.5% beer is to pay for the low ABV discount.
  • Low ABV discount can only be claimed by supermarket own brands, large brewery "mid strength" lagers and perhaps some large cask beer producers.
  • At present, we are unsure how the high ABV is to be calculated1, but there is a suggestion that micro-brewers making beer over 7.5% might be charged 150% more due to us loosing our small brewers discount on these beers.
  • Until now beer duty was completely fair - duty was charged per unit volume of alcohol. Not any more.
Overall, CAMRA are claiming it as good news. IT IS NOT.

Chasing a discount on beers under 3.5%, which CAMRA are doing, will only cause the Government to put up beer duty somewhere else - you have been warned.


Magic Rock also have some stuff to say on the subject.

1Since I first published this post I looked into the facts. HMRC have never sent any information, but I did research when the budget announcement was made. As I suspected it is confirmed that we are still permitted the discount on the regular part of beer duty but not the High Strength Beer Duty. Our duty will go up by 50% on all beers above 7.5%

"Small Brewer's Relief is still available on the general beer duty element of beer above 7.5% abv. However, it does not apply to HSBD and no further relief will be applied to the reduced rate for lower strength beers."
There is information on the HMRC site for those concerned.