Wednesday 22 February 2012

Do we live in a Western Free Country?

In my last post I criticised The Portman Group for seeming to side with the Government's propaganda regarding the use of so called binge drinking as an excuse to raise taxes. However, I notice the following words on their site.

"It is really important that we put this report in context. The vast majority of people drink responsibly.  Painting doomsday scenarios won’t help reduce alcohol misuse and calling for Soviet Union style population controls cannot do anything but alienate the vast majority of people who already drink within Government guidelines.  We agree with the Prime Minister that strong partnerships are essential to tackle the minority who use alcohol recklessly and drinks producers are committed to supporting this approach.”

Henry Ashworth
Chief Executive, Portman Group
Now, I'm not entirely sure what "this report" actually is, and I really dislike the fact that they "agree with the Prime Minister"

However, in my previous post I inserted an image from a website about Soviet Union Anti-Alcohol Propaganda. Have The Portman Group noticed that I did? Have I influenced them a little? Or is this just another one of my imaginative little guy/big guy interactions?

No, you are right, I'm imagining it.

But still, well done The Portman Group for also feeling that we may not be as free as we would like to think we are.

Alcohol is helpful as a social relaxant. When taken in moderation it can be a positive thing in a hardworking persons life. You have earned that right after a hard days work, after the stress of modern life, to a relaxing evening, don't let them stop you.

I do wish The Portman Group would just stop agreeing with The Government's silly party pooping nonsense.

Sunday 19 February 2012

The Great Beer Duty Propaganda Coup

What seems to be fairly well accepted is that UK PLC has a national debt. It is generally accepted that the debt is higher than is good for the UK economy. To me, the biggest argument for getting that debt down is to reduce the interest payments to service that debt. It is estimated that the debt is over £30,000 for every working person in the country and that the interest on this debt represents nearly £2,000 a year for ever household in the UK. Nearly £2000 out of the taxes you pay do nothing other than pay the people1 who have lent us the money for the privilege of us borrowing it. That's £2000 every year that can't be spent on hospitals, schools, police, roads and infrastructure investment.

Unfortunately my little brain is unable to work out the percentage of GDP that goes to pay this interest, but it seems it's not insignificant. It seems to me that paying down the debt with at least some urgency is important2.

There are two ways of reducing debt. It doesn't matter if we are talking about an individual, a business or a country; spend less or earn more. Most of us would tend to say that earning more is the more preferable of the two options. Individuals can, perhaps, work harder, if they can find someone who will give them more work to do. Businesses can sell more, charge more for what they sell, or more usually, try to do a combination of the two. Spending less is more painful, less popular, and sometimes a bad long term solution, although for the brave it can be a good short term fix.

A country has more difficulties in implementing a comfortable deficit reduction program. Spending cuts are deeply unpopular with the majority of the population. At the very least we notice a deterioration in quality and availability of public services. A proportion of the population will be hit harder with reduced income or even job losses. People are right to get upset about this.

A country gets income from taxes. No one likes paying taxes. Income tax is shown on your payslip and therefore a direct reminder of how much money you would have had if it wasn't being deducted. Hiding taxes in duties, VAT and worst of all, employers NI contributions means that more tax is now raised by hidden means than the direct, and in my view the most honest and fairest; income tax.

There has been quite a bit of noise from Her Majesty's Government in the last few weeks about binge drinking. Funnily enough, the budget is coming up. The chancellor dare not put up income tax, but something has to be done other than cutting spending.

It's simple really, whip up a bit of irrational hysteria about a drink problem that is much less serious than is painted, happy in the knowledge that the whole thing will sell newspapers and help TV ratings, so the media are on side.

Wham! up goes alcohol duty again. The Government gains popular support and increases revenue to the exchequer. Job done.

I hope I'm wrong on March 21st, but I suspect I won't be.

What really is getting my goat is that The Portman Group have come out in support of this propaganda coup. So no, I feel no remorse for putting the boot in at them when they piss me off.
"The Prime Minister is absolutely right to highlight the behaviour"
From the site
Rather than challenge the Prime Minister's panic creating comments, The Portman Group actually supports him. I fail to see how a body that is supposed to be helping the alcohol industry, can be doing so when it is getting into bed with neo-prohibitionary sentiment. They should not be rolling over and saying "you know what? you are absolutely right, alcohol is just bad, no good thing ever comes out of drinking alcohol"

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that there aren't people who could do with watching their alcohol consumption, or more importantly, look at how their consumption affects others.  I'm not saying that alcohol related illness and alcoholism isn't present, indeed, I'd be a liar if I said I'm not directly affected sometimes.  Falsely feeding the general public with the idea that it is right to increase duty, because there is a wholesale problem, is tantamount to propaganda, but that is the message we will be given come The Budget.


For information, if a pint of 4% beer is sold in a pub for £3, out of that, £0.71 goes to the exchequer in VAT and duty. If you have also paid 20% income tax, NI contributions etc3 you will have to have earned £3.75 "top line" to be able to afford that pint. Your £3 pint has earned the exchequer around £1.46. That's not including other taxes paid by the pub and the brewery in the form of their employees income taxes, duty on the fuel to transport the beer and many other hidden taxes. And that's now, just wait until The Budget.

1What is baffling is who are all these people who have lent the money in the first place.

2The reader my disagree. Perhaps if you have lost your job as a result of public spending cuts it is not unreasonable for you to think that a little more debt spread across the population to prevent hardship is reasonable. A valid point of view.

3The actually net amount anyone pays in income tax in complex. It depends on your circumstances but has to consider income tax, NI contributions both employee and the larger4 employers contributions offset against tax credits. I think 20% is a low estimate.

4no, not many people know that this tax on employing people is significant.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Is it lager, or is it ale?

I was asked the other day, by my children teenage delinquent offspring, which science I liked least when I was at school. Of course, I should have replied with something like "That is a bit like asking which of my darling children I liked least, my little cherubs" only their current non-human status of teenagers somewhat precluded that option.

After some thought, and after trying to remember what I did actually think all those years ago, I decided it was probably Biology. You see, Physics is certain. At least it is certain, assuming standard temperature and pressure. Chemistry is kind of fun; we got to distil alcohol when I was at school, under strict supervision I might add. We even made things explode, occasionally, although that might have been due to a lack of supervision.

I did remember getting interested in things that happened in petri dishes. I also developed a deep fascination of the nervous system, neurones, synapses and other things that made us "wired" As it happens, my "O"1 level results showed me to be slightly better at Biology than Chemistry, which was a shock to me. Or perhaps that was the Van de Graaff generator, not sure.

The longer I spend in the beer brewing industry the more there seems to be to learn. There is knowledge needed in micro-biology, chemistry, physics and a good handful of engineering to go along with it. There also seems to be a lot of mis-information, half truths, old wives tales, urban myths and damn annoying lies from some, just to make the beer drinker think something other than the facts.

Lager is different to "ale" we are told, because it's made with "bottom fermenting yeast" where as "ale" is made with "top fermenting yeast" Other people, who are more knowledgeable, talk about bottom or top cropping yeast. However, I think even this is a flawed explanation.

As I said in my previous post, I'm no yeast expert, but I'm fascinated by the subject. I have read about the fascinating organism, I've used them in various forms and have enough experience to be sure that most beer experts and some brewers still have a lot to learn, me included.

What I know is that when yeast is at the bottom of the tank, or floating at the top, it does a very poor job of fermenting. It only ferments when in suspension. So we could all do with cutting out this top and bottom fermenting false-jargon.

I also know that it is perfectly possible, and indeed probably preferable, to bottom crop nearly every yeast. Most big breweries and some of the more progressive micro-breweries crop their yeast at the bottom, even when making "ale". There may, or may not be a crust of yeast forms on the top of the beer after primary fermentation, but some of the more modern "ale" strains, especially if supplied dried, completely fall to the bottom of the primary fermentation tank.

The use of he words top and bottom are completely misleading, in my view.

Wort, the sugary liquid on which the yeast works to make beer, has a number of various complexities of carbohydrates dissolved within it. The precise types of carbohydrates depend on a number of factors including the grain used, other carbohydrates used like corn starch and whether or not any additional enzymes are added. Broadly, in brewing terms, we talk about fermentable sugars and un-fermentable sugars. However, the boundaries are perhaps not clear.

Various yeast strains are able to digest different carbohydrates, in different environments, with various degrees of success. It is mainly to do with the enzymes that the yeast cell generates. And, just to complicate things, there are enzymes available that will allow a brewer to ferment just about anything, irrespective of the yeast used.

It is true that a traditional lager yeast will drop to the bottom of the tank and will crop at the bottom.

It is true that in traditional ale making the types of yeast used would readily crop from the top and quite a lot of the yeast remained on the top of the beer after fermentation.

Generally ale yeast is known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae and lager yeast as Saccharomyces pastorianus or Saccharomyces carlsbergensis. However, there is some reading I have done that suggests that they really are all the same thing and just different strains of the same yeast. All strains have different behaviours.

However, the key real practical differences seem to be to do with temperature of fermentation and ability to attenuate the wort.

"Ale" yeast, or what I would prefer to call "warm" fermenting yeast is normally fermented at perhaps 20 degrees centigrade and fermentation might be done in 3-7 days.

"Lager" yeast will work at perhaps 5-12 degrees and might take a little longer to get around to turning all those sugars into alcohol, perhaps a couple of weeks with very long maturation times.

However, I can assure you, "ale" yeast does not stop working at 12 degrees and there are brewers who will deliberately ferment "ale" at lower temperatures to achieve required flavour profiles. Equally, modern lagers are often made much more quickly than the traditional lagers and this can only be done with at least some of the fermentation being done at a higher temperature. The line is not as clear as the beer geek would like it to be.

But, what we can say about lager over other beers, is that it tends to be much more attenuated. That is to say the yeast has got to more of the sugars and turned them into alcohol. The beer is drier and has less calories. Perhaps that's the major difference with lager yeast; the fact that it makes a drier beer.

Perhaps, but remember those enzymes you can buy? They'll help just about any yeast turn wort into a dry beer. For that matter, miss out a whole load of barley and add in easily fermentable sugar made from corn starch, and away you go. This is probably the process used by most bigger brands of beers and, interestingly, even small brewers are encouraged to add enzymes to help out with difficult fermentations. Certainly measured amounts of enzymes would tighten up ABV variations. No doubt if a brewers bonus2 depended on satisfying over a hundred different QA checks, he would be tempted to use it.

Of course, there are other ways of fermenting down lower in gravity, as in the case of Orval and lambics, other yeast strains or even bacteria might consume more sugars and dry the beer out.

I may have some of my facts wrong in this piece. I apologise and I am very happy for the more technically adept reader to chip in and correct me. What I am trying to do here is show the reader that to pigeon hole beers by some notion of exactly which yeast strain is used is perhaps less certain than it might be.

Lager is dryer than ale and can use more delicate hops as they are not overpowered by excess sweetness. Ale is sweeter than lager, generally and needs more hops to counter the sweetness. That, perhaps, is all you really need to know.

I hope I've broadened the readers mind a little.


1For you young people, "O" levels and CSE qualifications were later replaced by GCSEs. I know most of you won't remember that far back.

2Perhaps another indicator of craft?

Monday 13 February 2012


At least 10 trillion1 yeast cells are made, do their work and die.

This happens, every single week, in our brewery.

And we are only a very tiny brewery.

They do this, selflessly, so you have beer to drink.

Makes you think it does.

We used to use dried yeast from Fermentis. Good stuff it is too. We still use it when we want a yeast that has a different character. Fermentis yeast does the same thing every time with generally a very good consistent fermentation. There can be a little bit of snobbyness in the brewing community that suggests that a brewer is somewhat inferior for using dried yeast. I disagree, although that isn't really the point I'm trying to get to.

Cost is the main driver. A pack of dried yeast each brew gets expensive. A good clean brewery is as good a yeast production facility as you need for most purposes.

Hardknott now has its own house yeast. However, most of our yeast knowledge has been supplied by BrewLab and conversations with other brewers who are also BrewLab trained. The strong advice is that to ward off bacterial infection, that might ruin that house yeast, regular acid washing2 is required.

Mentioning this on twitter generated an interesting reponse. Many brewers I love and respect, including Eddie Gaedd, Dominic Dirscoll and the lordship himself, John Keeling, are very much against acid washing. As far as I can determine the argument goes along the lines that it does damage yeast and a good brewer shouldn't get bacteria in the yeast anyway.

Other brewers have stated, including my close neighbour and fine chap Ian at Coniston Brewing Co, that acid washing before every single pitching of the yeast is great.

The problem is that if I do get a yeast infection3 it might take a while to find out, as I have no in-house facilities to check for contamination, other than our palates. By the time I know I have a problem I would have to wait a couple of weeks for a new batch of pitchable yeast to be cultivated. I would in the interim have to choose to stop production, or continue and make infected beer. Either that or negate the advantage of the cost saving by regular micro-audits or premature routine recall. The argument goes, if done regularly the yeast get used to acid washing and it saves cost in the long run. The small reduction in viability can be compensated by upping the pitching rate.

I know of larger breweries who might only pitch-on their yeast for as  few as 6 generations before ordering a new cultivation as routine. With in house laboratories to check for problems and to re-cultivate this is not a cost issue.

I don't know what makes the most sense. Obviously many, many good brewers make very good beer with many different types of yeast management systems.

I guess the results are in the taste of the beer.

In any event, yeast is great. Go yeasty beasties!

I point out that I am by no means a yeast expert. We bow to any advice or opinions other brewers might have to chip in here.


1generally, a trillion is 1x1012 or 1,000,000,000,000

As Doulas Adams would say, mind bogglingly big. There are about the same number of stars in our galaxy and about the same number of galaxies in the universe.

I'm guessing the number of yeast cells in the world that die every day to make beer is probably the same order of magnitude as the number of stars that exist, give or take an order of magnitude or two.

2No, acid washing is not the introduction of LSD, as one wag suggested. It simply involves reducing the PH of the yeast slurry to 2.1 at a low temperature just prior to pitching the yeast into the wort. This kills 99% of bacteria and nearly no yeast.

It is done by adding controlled amounts of a food grade acid like phosphoric and measuring carefully with a calibrated PH meter as you do.

3In my brewers yeast, before the reader jumps to any lewd conclusions.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Proving an arrogance

I do like to get on with people. This blog perhaps portrays a brewery persona that exudes trouble making. However, my friends and family will attest that I only embark on a path of dissent when I believe it is really required. I don't like getting upset with people generally.

We have had various issues with SIBA over the years. We have approached the hierarchy on many occasions with various complaints. On almost no occasion has their been an attempt to reconciliate difficult positions. More often than not an arrogant "it's not our fault" and "we fail to see what you expect us to do about it" response.

When our beer was banned from the festival on Friday we did not contact SIBA direct because we knew there would be the usual arrogance. Their response is an incredulous denial of blame.

To me an organisation like SIBA is there to support its members. Therefore I fail to see how their position is defensible.

It turns out to be true that it was in fact the venue that refused to serve the stronger, but perfectly legitimate entries. SIBA must take responsibility for the fact that they were organising the competition and festival. If the venue was not going to be all inclusive then a different venue should have been chosen. We should remember that the venue is run by one of the cask and session ale centric brewing members. One has to suspect deliberate actions to quash the tide of new contemporary brewers.

Their response to the fact that we have legitimately put our complaint into the public domain proves a level of arrogance from the organisers that almost beggars belief. Where is my apology, for instance? Where is the apology to the festival goers who failed to be able to drink the beers that were advertised on the internet before the event?

Although there may not be an "automatic ‘right’ to then have the beers on display" in my view, and I am not alone in this belief, there has to be a very good reason to discriminate against a particular beer. A good reason would be that the beer is contaminated or otherwise unfit for consumption. A beer being outside the constraints of narrow minds is not a good reason, especially when the beer is an award winner.

The fact that SIBA is defending its position, rather than apologising to its members, shows an out of touch, stuffy and old fashioned approach to beer.

Hardknott is all about changing this outdated perspective of beer. We are hopeful that once this has all settled down that SIBA will embrace this small but important part of the UK brewing industry and hopefully I can help them to work out the way forward.

What we do not need is further fragmentation in the brewing world.

Saturday 4 February 2012

Queboid too strong for SIBA

There is a lot of fuss at the moment about how brewers should not criticise the UK brewing industry. Now, before I go any further, I have lots of very good friends in the UK brewing industry. These friends span the whole industry from the very biggest companies to the very smallest. There are many people who help us out with all sorts of problems, be it the loan of the odd bag of malt, advice on technical problems, sharing transport or even just being able to call people up for support.

On the customer side of things there are lots of great licensees, bar staff, bar managers and drinkers who are absolutely great and a pleasure to be acquainted with. Despite my misgivings of CAMRA policies the  majority of the members are fantastic people.

An area of the industry that I have always struggled with however is SIBA. I find the organisation generally to be bullish and to take the "well this is the way we run our organisation, so tough" kind of approach. Or even a bullish "we don't care what your opinion is, SIBA do things this way"

I had failed to see any advantage of joining, but as we grew, and as a result of what I think was proactive canvasing from various top officials, we realised that there may be some important advantages in joining. Access to their beer competitions, perhaps, or the advantage of the Direct Delivery Scheme (DDS) maybe.

DDS is something we've yet to find beneficial, and I could write a whole piece on that by itself. But what I want to discuss here is SIBA competitions; specifically, the SIBA Craft keg festival.

We entered Queboid, our 8% Belgian Style IPA. It gained bronze in the speciality beers section. Beaten by Thornbridge Versa, which won silver and gold going to Freedom for their Organic Dark Lager; Well done guys. Our friends from Stringers Beer were there and they had entered Mutiny, their 9.3% big stout, as well as a slightly more run-of-the-mill IPA called Hop Priest 6.5% - sadly for Jon and Becky they didn't win any prizes. That fact in itself puts that quality of the festival in question.

All fine and dandy, and despite my initial reaction to the organic lager winning, along the lines of "how can a lager be a speciality beer?" - I feel quite stupid now that I've found out it was a DARK lager. I am of course delighted that another of my beers has seen recognition at a competition. Even more important as this was the first batch of beer I have put into KeyKeg.

However, my outrage is not to go hungry it would seem. Despite Queboid, which was the second strongest beer there, being a medalist and Mutiny, the strongest there, although not being a medalist is still delicious, the organisers BANNED both beers from being served because they were TOO STRONG.

Apparently, so our contacts are being told, no beer over 7.5% was to be served.

I was tweeted at last night:!/westy9000/statuses/165541672824999936

It was later confirmed to me when the Stringers team got back. They also seem to be the only people to have confirmed the results on the interweb.

I cannot quite express how shocked I am by this. SIBA is supposed to support smaller breweries. It is smaller breweries, craft breweries like ourselves, who are both making the stronger beers and are being most affected by the introduction of HSBD. I am hopeful that this is a terrible misunderstand between SIBA and the venue. But even so I find it extremely insulting that the style of product we specialise in has been banned from being served to the public.

With the increase of craft beer bars and the number of small breweries now producing stronger, more flavourful beers that are capturing the imagination of beer connoisseurs, rather than just targeting the mass beer drinker with session blandness. It seems churlish in the extreme to ban the style of beers that are currently bucking the trends in the bigger beer market.

Craft keg lends itself to stronger beers. Many of the current craft keg beers found in the likes of The Rake, Craft Beer Co, Euston, Sheffield and York Taps and Port Street Beer house, to name just a few, are imported. Although more of us are making stronger UK beers there is an increase of home grown keg beers available. I know people who don't like session beer and prefer wine or stronger beers. I know there is a danger of stereo-typing as a result of my own narrow experience, but it is often women, with their apparent superior flavour and olfactory receptors, who are enjoying these stronger beers.

We are unsure as to whether the refusal to serve these strong beers is directly the fault of SIBA or a premises decision. However, what is clear is that SIBA chose this venue. It is the ONLY keg competition and festival that is nationally recognised. To fail to serve to the general public a beer that has been entered and listed is grossly offensive.

Jon and Becky were at the public session afterwards. Becky asked for a 1/3 pint of Mutiny and was confronted with the staff at the venue with them saying "What, a whole 1/3 of a pint?" - for the record, 1/3 pint a 9.3% beer has exactly the same number of units in it as a pint of 3.1% beer.

All the beers were donated free of charge to the venue. Obviously, part of the motivation for us giving away beer is to enter the competition. Equally, we also expecting our beer to be served to the general public as well. Hopefully we will have the remaining beer uplifted and it will be served in a pub in another location.

I am getting an increasing suspicion that a large part of the brewing industry, and that includes SIBA, is becoming unsettled by the progress of craft beer. Certainly the reports I have got back about the keg festival would indicate a lack of professionalism in its approach. Be that the fault of the venue or SIBA I have yet to find out.

Friday 3 February 2012

Source Deli Meet the Brewer

Last Saturday we held a very successful Meet the Brewer/ Hardknott Food and Beer pairing at Source Deli in Ormskirk.

Here is a video of it.