Friday 21 December 2012

Obsolete technology

I was sent a pocket diary the other day. You know, one made of that quaint stuff called paper. It was a well meaning present from a supplier. I doubt I'll use it as I have a smart phone. My smart phone can store dairy diary1 type information, tell the time, send texts, emails, tweet, browse the internet after a fashion and can be used to phone people. It is smaller than the pocket diary and does a whole load more. I change my smart phone about every 3 years, mainly because I use it a lot and it breaks due to heavy use. It confuses me why anyone who is possession of a busy life requires a paper diary that only lasts a year.

Facsimile machines are another thing that baffles me, along with typewriters and steam engines. Although I'll admit that the romantic part of me does see the point of museum railway companies that are for the purpose of amusement for occasional family outings and something for well meaning enthusiasts to be enthusiastic about. However, having a father who is something of an over enthusiastic railway bore I tire very quickly of the noisy, dirty, inefficient modes of transport. I like to travel in comfort and speed these days.

Cask beer is of course a Great British tradition, but I do wonder if it is now being pushed beyond the scope of its very outdated method of dispense. Don't get me wrong, I do not wish to see its demise and hope that it will continue to be strong where it is well executed. But there are places that seem to feel the need to serve cask beer, and beer drinkers who are overly choosy due to, what I believe to be a misguided view, that cask beer is always better.

The number of times I have tried my beer, in two different venues, knowing full well that the beer is from the same gyle, racked on the same day, and delivered on the same run but the taste in the two pubs has been very different. It would be very easy to blame cellaring techniques. It would be easy to blame dirty lines, and sometimes these are the reasons. Sometimes however, it is simply down to the very real disadvantage of cask beer and the fact that pubs are urged to have it, even though they would be better with an alternative method of dispense for their micro-brewed beer.

I feel that some of the issues do make consumers quite sure that they "don't like bitter" and "I only drink lagers" when that same group, when faced with micro-brewed keg, irrespective of the beer style, are more likely to have a go. Distrust of handpulls, especially with younger demographics, is a problem that faces the microbrewery industry.

As we expand at Hardknott we have to make choices as to what technology is best for us to continue to invest in. We will have to increase our container population, our container washing throughput capacity and our racking facilities. Is it wise to continue to invest in cask equipment when the technology is outdated, the market is driven more by cost than quality and often portrays a quint, marginal and sometimes even amateurish marketing image?

The reader no doubt will have their own view.


1To be fair, although it was a typo, I can store information about milk too. Thanks Phil.

Sunday 9 December 2012


Light can be considered to be both a wave and a particle1. It can be a difficult thing to understand unless you have a massive brain, which is why I struggle to understand it. But, I am assured by physicists that this is a truth. It's not that light is sometimes a wave and sometimes a particle. No, they are both things at the same time. Actually, this applies to all types of electromagnetic radiation. You see, the only difference between visible light, infra red, ultra-violet, gamma radiation, radio signals, x-rays, microwaves and the stuff that carries your tweets to your mobile phone, is the energy in the particles, or the wave length, or the frequency of the signal. The relationship of the frequency, wavelength and individual quantum energy is accurately and firmly linked by equations that I suspect some bloke called Albert made up.

So, what has this to do with beer?

Beer is beer. There are different types of beer, but they are all beer.

Some people like to group beer into two types; Real Ale and chemical fizzy lager.

Lots of people like chemical fizzy lager, market data confirms this.

Some brewers like to make stuff they call Real Lager, put it into casks and proclaim they are clever for doing so.

Other brewers make mild, yellow beers, put them into casks and give them a name that invariably has "Gold"2 or "Blond"in the name, which are designed to be popular by being something pale, balanced, competently brewed but unchallenging in the flavour department. They appeal to a broad audience and it is a shrewd business move to do so.

Many chemical fizzy lagers are brewed in big breweries where it is important to achieve a short production time. The result has mass appeal, but is barely honest to give the name lager. I have no idea how these beers are actually made, but I have heard tails of relatively warm fermentations and next to no lagering time whatsoever. The main thing is that they are manufactured for mass appeal. Who actually cares if they are genuine lagers? Does it matter?

Then there are stouts, barley wines, dark milds, red ales, IPA's of various colours, various speciality beers and not to leave out the good old faithful hoppy bitter. These are all, at the end of the day, beer, mostly made from a juice we call wort made from hops and barley fermented into a beverage.

We generally, up to now, made beers that have higher hopping, increased coloured malts and otherwise different to what everyone else has done. We like it that way but is hardly a way to gain widespread acceptance.

So, we decided to brew a beer that is slightly less challenging, but doesn't leave behind our core values. We hope that on cask it is enough like a blonde, gold or other "Real lager" type beer to be acceptable to the drinker who likes that sort of thing. We also hope that on keg it will be enough like a "lager" to appeal to those who like a cold fizzy thing.

It's pale, made with lager malt and noble hops. Oh, and it's dry hopped with some special stuff, just to add that little bit of Hardknotty magic.

What is it?

It's Duality.


1I personally, don't like doing things by halves, I always prefer a full tickle.

 2Apologies to all my brewing friends who do just that, I'm not having a dig, your beer is lovely and sells very well.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Today Booths tomorrow The World

One thing about having a bottling machine is that to make it pay it needs to put lots of beer into bottle. Selling large amounts of beer needs a major partner, one way or another. Either that, or a big tied estate. We started planning our recent expansion back in February. We attracted grant approval around the beginning of June and ordered the equipment soon afterwards.

By July I was starting to think about how I was going to get full use of our machine. How we might increase the volume of sales. It's a tricky one to start selling to supermarkets, with the inevitable accusation from the beer geek world of selling out, but realistically I knew it was an essential business step.

For various reasons we wanted to be selective. Partly, I guess, because I didn't want to be seen as selling to a low-cost, pile-em-high type operation. More-over, I don't like to over-sell and then have difficulty delivering. Booths, who have 29 stores in the North West of England and 7 in Cumbria focus much more on quality rather than attracting purely on price. I had long considered the friendly family run business, an ideal place for our products.

The founders ethos was simple "Sell the best goods available, in attractive stores, staffed with first class assistants.” - and over 160 years later this easy rule makes an attractive place to buy food and drinks. If there is a problem it's that there are far too many nice, tasty things to buy resulting in me buying too much quality, and then feeling the need to enjoy it all before it goes off. Cheese, that is our biggest downfall, and olives, and those nice Fudges crackers, and the nice continental cooked meats and.......

.....but this is not about my own weakness for scrummy things to consume, no, this is about our experience of pitching at a major retailer, the experience from beginning to end.

Having decided to properly seek a listing in this worthwhile outlet I started to research how I should do this. I hoped, and had been led to believe that their treatment of suppliers was slightly less daunting than bigger, nasty retailers.

After a short hunt on the interwebby thing I found a page that allowed me to propose my products to Booths. They have a nice and helpful website dedicated to inviting suppliers to pitch at their buyers. I filled out the form and back came an automated reply confirming receipt of my gallant attempt to attract their attention.

At this point I had no idea how long it might take to actually start talking to a real buyer. I knew that the original web-form is just the sort of filter that any buying department must need1. I imagined they got loads of applicants and might have a huge long backlog of people to sift through and form a shortlist. Never-the-less, I had hoped to get listed in time for Christmas.

To my surprise, less than a week later we received an invite to pitch at a meet-the-buyer event. Cool, perhaps we will get in before Christmas.

We were told that we had 15 minutes with the buyer, only 15 minutes. And we were told this would be very strict. We drafted a script. 5 minutes of pitch and 10 minutes of Q&A, we were informed.

Damn, they were not wrong. It was done by bells. A bell to say "all change" and a bell 5 minutes from the end of the session. The script went out of the window as it seemed our buyer just wanted to ask questions. We hurriedly tried to get in our points as much as we could; why we thought Booths and Hardknott were a perfect match.

Indeed, the whole experience seemed a lot like speed dating. Almost bizarre, but also exciting, challenging and quite rewarding, even if we felt unsure that we did the right thing. But John, our buyer, assured us he'd be in touch.

John did get in touch. Initially through his secretary inviting us for a more relaxed meeting. We have now met, mostly agreed the beers that will go into Booths and our supply price. We have yet to find out  what the retail prices will be, but I imagine it'll be about right.

Sadly we were too late for Christmas. Just as well in reality. As is the case with these things, the expansion is only just getting up to speed. If they had ordered for Christmas we might not have been able to deliver.

I am told by John that the first official order3 will be placed in mid January and the beers will appear for February. Initially only in the 7 Cumbrian stores, but you know what you have to do if you want our beer in the other Booths stores.

It looks likely that they will be Continuum, Code Black, Azimuth and Queboid. Great choices John, if you don't mind me saying.


1One of the things I'd most like to change about the way my business is run is stopping every single cold caller wasting my time. And the time of others in the business. For example, just today I had sterilised an important fitting and had it in my hand, carefully keeping from all forms of potential microbial contamination. Ann was loading the grist case for tomorrows brew and other staff were fruitfully engaged cleaning up the brewery at the end of a brewday. The phone rang. It might be someone important. A customer perhaps wanting to buy beer. Damn, I had to put that fitting down on the sink and go ad answer the phone. It was a time-wasting cold caller. I had to go back and re-santitise the fitting.

I want a web-form for potential suppliers. And a nice, leggy2 secretary who tells cold callers that, if they don't mind, would they like to go fill in the damn web-form if they want to sell us owt.

2Yes, I'm a leg man. Breast is OK, but for the very best stir-frys I bone out legs. I do love to get my teeth into a good bit of thigh.

3Apparently the official order will be sent by fax. Now, I don't want to seem rude about a new customer, but are faxes not a little 20th century? Surely, for heavens sake, everyone does things through the internet these days?

I have been in business for nearly 10 years now, and although that nasty f word has cropped up from time to time, I really did think that the fax machine had been consigned to the same bin as the typewriter. What does the reader think? For goodness sake, do we need to call BT and get a fax line put in?

I've asked the question. I guess if we have to we'll get a fax line, but really.................