Sunday 28 July 2013

Are there too many breweries?

From a beer drinkers point of view there has almost never been a better time. I don't know the exact number of breweries in the country, but I am lead to believe it is well over 1000. There are literally tens of thousands of beers to choose from. Imported beers are also becoming much more available. This is great, and as a beer drinker I love it.

As a brewer though it worries me. I know it also worries other brewers. The total volume of beer being consumed in the country has been declining for some time. Despite this there has been a steady increase in the capacity of micro-brewing. Yes, this is partly driven by an ever increasing demand from drinkers, which in turn, it could be argued, has been inspired by the increasing choice that has occurred.

Locally to me there continues to be a disturbing increase in the number of breweries. I'm not even going to quote a number, as to be honest, I'm not sure it is possible to count.

Here you see I'm starting to be negative, having started this post on a fairly positive slant. I find it disturbing because I do not believe it is commercially sustainable. Really, I simply don't believe it is.

Locally to us here, not Cumbria in fact, but Lancashire, a brewery had been flooding the market with cask beer at below a sustainable price. They were part of a bigger wholesaling company, who in turn was competing at below a sustainable price point. They supplied into Cumbria and made it difficult to compete at a price we were comfortable with, a price that would maintain our margins and enable us to keep up our VAT, duty, staff wages and paying suppliers. The business went into administration owing VAT, duty and several brewers. Not us thankfully, I could see which way they were heading.

What really saddens me is that this business seems to have gone through pre-pack administration and are back up and trading again. Quite legal and above board, at least to the letter of the law. Personally, I think it's a bit out of order. All the depts wiped out.

Now, I'm all in favour of a free market. Every brewer has to make their own choice about where they want to sit in terms of price versus quality. So on the surface you could quite rightly accuse me of being scared of a little competition. And yes, perhaps I am. Because we're working harder than ever, growing the business and investing like mad to make it work, to make sure we are strong enough into the future to survive and be viable, rather than ending up bankrupt.

Many of the brewers who sell beer at below sustainable prices are able to do so because of the progressive beer duty scheme. The scheme is in place to allow small businesses to start up, invest, and become sustainable; to get over the problems of being small.

What in actual fact is happening is that there are a number of breweries, not all I hasten to add, but enough who are dropping prices so low as to drive down the value of beer to the point where by it is not sustainable. Ultimately, the lowest wholesale price of beer has barely risen in 10 years, this is despite significant increases in the costs of brewing.

Now, as I said above, I'm talking about a few breweries, coming in new to the industry and probably not properly costing out their business. Equally, it also bothers me that many don't really seem to know what they are going to do different that will make them stand out amongst all the other small cuddly breweries. I feel the time has long gone where a brewery can survive just because they are a small, local, traditional cask brewery.

There are plenty more who are doing a splendid job, making great beer and selling it at much closer to what I would consider a sustainable price point. Many who are doing something different, have a firm and robust business plan, know what they want to do that is unique and put effort into image and their story.

Even so, I personally feel that there is a danger that the micro-brewery bubble will burst. I even think there is evidence that this could happen soon. Of course, the same could be said about "craft beer" and we need to all watch out for that.

I am often asked for advice from people who want to start a micro-brewery. I always start by saying that they shouldn't, and point out all the long list of pitfalls. If their enthusiasm can get past my discouragement then perhaps they stand a chance.

It seems clear to me that the increase of micro-breweries cannot continue indefinitely. Something will have to give, sometime, and at some point. There simply has to be some casualties, and we can't just blame the beer tie for all of it.

Anyway, all of this came to a head when we were sorting out communicating to the press our recent bronze medals from our little trip to Dublin. As is my MO, I added a little bit to the story. I'm still unsure if I did the right thing, or if the tone of our press release was right. It did however get into the press and get us noticed, good enough perhaps.

I guess some people will be upset at what I'm saying. Some people might disagree with my thoughts that we're at, or near to brewery saturation. But I do firmly believe that the beer world needs better beer, not just more of the same. We are working hard to improve what we do, and will continue to do so.

What does the reader think? Go on, tell me. My views here are, to some extent, opinion, and you are welcome to disagree.

Sunday 21 July 2013

Alltech CBDC - Dublin, part2 - and a win

We've just arrived back in Cumbria, after a busy couple of days in Dublin, having great fun, learning stuff about beer, and Bourbon, and Whisky and other wonderful malt based beverages and of course, best of all, catching up with beery folk. It was good to have a few beers with The Beer Nut and Tale of Ale as well as many other good people. New friends were made and a few mutually beneficial ideas floated.

I want to say a whole load more about the First Alltech Craft Brewing and Distilling Conference. But, suffice to say that we really enjoyed it a lot. It was fun, hard-work, tiring, educational, commercially stimulating and friendly all rolled into one.

I think it's an event to watch out for. It's similar, in a way, to the SIBA BeerX which occurred for the first time this year. However, from a brewing point of view it was broader and more comprehensive in the technical content of the seminars. With there being an international element to the conference it is much more useful to businesses like ours who want to expand international horizons. If I had to choose between BeerX and this I'd have a difficult decision to make I feel.

Having said that, sometimes the Americanisation was a downside. I mean, one speaker actually joked about S.I. units as if they were something to be ridiculed. I know, we are all a little protective of the pint, but for goodness sake, those guys can't even get that right. No, seriously, if you are going to give a technical seminar in Europe please have the decency to convert inches into millimetres, fahrenheit into centigrade and remember that although the UK breweries do still understand barrels as a unit of volume, you still didn't get that right either. Personally I think it would be better if we all used hectolitres when describing brewery size, that way there can be no confusion.

Anyhow, we entered some beers into the Dub Cup, as it seems to have been christened. It turns out that Azimuth and Continuum were good enough to gain bronze, which is quite good considering the other world class beers that were there. The full results can be seen here, we certainly sit alongside a few other notary UK breweries as well as our Stateside and Irish counterparts.

Saturday 20 July 2013

Alltech CBDC - Dublin, part 1

I'm in Dublin.  I could think of worse places to be. I'm in the press room as I type, apparently I'm considered worthy of having a quiet place to write blog posts, so best do a couple while I'm here then.

The venue is the rather impressive Convention Centre Dublin on the banks of the River Liffey. Last night we were given a red VIP wrist band and told we could go to the VIP reception on the 5th floor. 5 escalators later we found ourselves looking out across the river and the Dublin skyline, drinking Kentucky Bourbon Ale and networking with various beery type folk.

Later we were shown into the auditorium to listen to the live recording of a couple of Woodsong's radio shows. The first show was all Bluegrass, which to be honest isn't my thing, but the second show featured a couple of Irish singers, who I did enjoy.
An interesting start to a convention about beer. A live concert, or if you listen to the presenter, a musical conversation. Apparently there was around 2000 people in the concert. To the reader I'd have thought it might seem strange, and yet there are many reasons why this is far less strange than might be thought. For a start, whether you and like Bluegrass, it is indigenous in Kentucky. The argument goes that traditional Irish music and Bluegrass are linked. Traditional music, and it might not be everyone's cup off tea, but it's about people, and people having fun at that. Which is where beer comes in, because the best beer is about people.

Since arriving here I have met so many beery friends, both old and new. Events like this are partly about meeting people, networking, discussing and making things happen. And a key thing that I'm sure is important about craft beer is that it consists of clear co-operation, collaboration and friendship, even between potentially competing buisinesses.

So, the first Alltech International Brewing and Distilling Conference not only has a fantastic beer networking potential, but also brings a series of fantastic technical seminars. Together it packs a great deal into two days, so much so that I'm having a struggle to fit everything in, and already it has taken me more than 24 hours to write this post.

A bold move by Alltech to bring this conference to Dublin. They have invested a huge amount into this  and clearly have underwritten this first event. I hope it gains enough momentum, although there were a total of 830 people attending the seminars on the first day, so clearly there is enough interest already.

Thursday 18 July 2013

The Apprentice - The Final

I often get asked by the local media to comment on stuff to do with beer. It seems now to have migrated to celebrity "entrepreneurs" - this time it was the final of The Apprentice.

I don't get on with reality TV. But the North West Evening Mail are good to me with regard to PR, so when they ask me to write, I feel the need to help out. So I watched the program with reluctance.

My response was a little scathing. Sorry if you are a fan. It was Alex's eyebrows that properly got to me.

Anyway, read my full assessment here.

Friday 5 July 2013

Katalyst for change

One of the things I like about being a brewer is the creativity of designing new beers. It's also an interesting thing to develop existing beers with a continual improvement program. We absolutely try to make beers the way we like them to be. I'd obviously be lying if I said I didn't take influences from various sources, call it copying if you like. But as we move forward we evolve, improve, innovate and progress.

Whatever, we sometimes make new beers and sometimes we just try and improve on the ones we already make. I believe both activities are essential to keep a brewery and it's beers vibrant and relevant.

Some breweries make a big fuss about a big change to one of their beers. And it might be that you could accuse me of doing a little bit of that here. Either way, I'm pleased with what we've done, so I don't think I'm wrong to shout a little bit about it.

Katalyst, I'll be honest, has been a little bit of a problem child for me. I do love the beer, when we get it right, but we haven't always got it quite right. In case you don't know, Katalyst was the runt to Queboid when we first made it. A twin from the same birth as a parti-gyle, but with completely different hops. Almost a kind of after thought, and not a very well thought out one at that.

It's struggled, it's not been popular, and on occasions I've wondered what we should do other than permanently put it on the naughty step. But you simply can't give in on your babies. Sometimes it's important to walk away, let everyone calm down before something happens everyone would regret, but it is essential to go back and make up.

A few weeks ago we took out all our previous brew sheets. Thought a lot. Looked at all our previous attempts to get it right, in our own little haphazard way, and pulled together a well thought out plan. The trouble had been, you see, that Katalyst had only been shouted out to play when it's big brother Queboid was called upon. And when left with all that little sibling wort we just used a recipe that was more made-it-up-as-we-went-along kind of thing.

The return to the drawing board yielded a result that was very much to our liking. It had been suggested to me that I should rename the beer and just drop Katalyst completely. But along with the childish misspellings, and the skool boy mischievousness, we've finally brought the siblings to play nice together, so it's allowed to stay. But, would it stand up to scrutiny by the drinker? Well, it's out there now and we are getting a few nice comments.

But most importantly, and don't tell him how much it means to me, lest he thinks I care, it seems Tandleman likes it too, at least I think that's what he tweeted at me.

Wednesday 3 July 2013

International Dimensions

We send some of our stuff out of the UK. Enough to make the pain of working with various different country's duty systems worthwhile. It's quite a big learning curve, learning all the various rules and regulations surrounding export, and our own HMRC are less than helpful to the point of almost being obstructive1, but with my tenacity and the Hardknott team's support, we are growing our success in this area.

One of the great things about having trade in overseas countries is that we get to know more and more beery people. We even occasionally get people from foreign climes dropping by our modest brewery in our ex-industrial, former iron ore town, Millom, on the lovely West Coast of Cumbria.

Last week one such chap came all the way from Kentucky, in the grand United States of America to see me. Will Hanrahan is his name. He brought some lovely Kentucky Bourbon Ale, which we drank, along with various Hardknott beers. A good time was had, enough to make the following day somewhat difficult.

He told me of an international event in Dublin that his boss is organising. The International Craft Brewing and Distilling Convention is organised by AllTech, an international company who do stuff with yeast, including, but not exclusively, brewing.

We've been looking at getting our beer into Ireland for some time now. It'll be grand. We're at the advanced stages of this happening. Indeed, misunderstandings between the Irish and UK duty officials seems to be the only barrier. So, a trip over to Dublin seems like the right thing to do. After all, 'tis a splendid place, so it is.

Oh, nearly forgot, apparently bloggers and the like can get in for free. You need to contact this Will Hanrahan and ask for a code. Try tweeting @WHanrahan.


1Honestly, I could tell you a whole load of stories here, but I need to let a few scenarios run their course first. Suffice to say, contrary to EU law, HMRC does obstruct free trade between EU member states. I hereby renounce my former Euro Sceptic past and ask for further EU harmonisation.