Friday 30 August 2013

Beer Mats and stuff

We've been working really hard with LemonTop Creative this year to improve our bottle labels and various other stuff.

We think LemonTop are great to work with, they have really made our beers stand out. It's not always been an easy road, as I'm a feisty customer; I know what I want and don't take any prisoners along the way. But you know, when great partners like LemonTop are there, and can understand the need for perfection, a little bit of storming creativity is good.

I asked the guys at LemonTop to do me some beer mats. I wanted a continuously repeating pattern across four mats. It took some toing and froing to get it right, but I think the results are worth it.

So, next time you are enjoying a pint of Hardknott, and wish to while your time away on a bit of frivolous nonsense, why not see how many mats you can get to join up on your table?

But watch the side with the words as it's easy to think you got it right, we deliberately put some subtlety  in to confuse you, it's not as easy as it looks.

Monday 26 August 2013

Why is the debate about Craft Beer important?

Many of you are fed up of the recurring question; what is Craft Beer?

I understand why, much more than you might think.

I understand that you think it is nothing more than a marketing term. I know you think I want to keep the debate alive because it matters to my business. You are right, of course.

Even if that is all it is then there are good reasons to be concerned about how we approach the term. Good reasons not only for me, but you, as a beer drinker. In return, your view also matters to me. Therefore I welcome, and enjoy your comments on my blog telling me what you think. Even if sometimes I'm not in agreement, or can't quite see your point, I still enjoy the engagement.

But I think it's much more than just a marketing term. I think it really does mean something to an increasing proportion of beer drinkers. Most importantly the group of people that it matters to are part of the future of beer and cannot be simply dismissed as "hipsters"

I like to think Hardknott makes beer that is different. We try not to conform to the norm, we want to stand out from the crowd. If everyone simply said "we make great beer" then there would be nothing to differentiate one brewer from another.

The term Craft Beer does mean something. Even if exactly what that is remains debated, it does still mean something, and the number of people to whom it means something is increasing.

There are an increasing number of Craft Beer Bars. There are an increasing number of people who are going to those Craft Beer Bars. There are an increasing number of brewers who are calling themselves Craft Brewers in the hope of selling beer to these Craft Beer Bars, aimed at the increasing number of drinkers who are happy to call themselves Craft Beer Drinkers.

There are Craft Beer Festivals. They are very different to the same-old-same-old Real Ale festivals. There are even festivals that might not be overtly Craft Beer Festivals, as such, but do seek out new and interesting beers without pre-conceved and obviously biased selection against those of us who do wear the Craft Beer badge with pride.

There is beer that is excellent beer, made by micro brewers and is very acceptable to a broad audience. It has appeal, but isn't really that much different to beer that was brewed 10 years ago, or 20 years ago, or even 30 years ago. Some people think this is Craft Beer. I disagree. It it is the same-old-same-old which means it is not Craft Beer. It is not what the Craft Beer Drinker wants to drink.

I think the Craft Beer Movement is real. I think its much more than a marketing term, even if it is vague and disputed. It is real and important even if it is abused by some brewers and retailers who seem to think a major Italian brand of beer is Craft Beer.

Keep it Craft.

Friday 23 August 2013

Is Blue Moon craft?

"What lager do you have?" said the stranger in town, who was obviously having difficulty with the array of handpulls on the bar. I know I shouldn't really butt into the job when there are perfectly good bar staff there to help, but I'd prefer he chose a "craft" lager, rather than some macro-brewed tasteless beer made by some huge multi-national corporation who use sexist TV adverts in prime time screening.

"There is Hawkshead Lager" I ventured. Well, Hardknott don't really do a lager, and even our closest options of Lux Borealis or Duality had given way to Azimuth on the bar on this occasion, which I had already been tucking into, and was probably helping the fluidity of my verbal communications at the expense of  tact.

"It's not a cloudy wheat beer is it?" I can't help myself in these situations "do you drink with your eyes?" I asked without thinking, and with far more sarcasm than the poor gentleman deserved.

I did proceed to explain that it was a very good lager and that it was indeed quite bright and on good form.

I am quite sure that any hazy beer to this gent would have been classed as one of those trendy types of Craft Beer. Assuming of course that he had heard of the concept of craft beer. I'm sure to him craft are the slightly wonky hand thrown vases seen at car boot sales punted by people who have a notion that they might one day make a living at their own passion. Or perhaps to him the artisanal rag woven bed-spreads that no-one really likes to buy, but have been painstakingly made, by hand, for some very worthy local charity.

He very probably prefers the security of consistency gained from mass produced branded products and hazy beer is just a sign of poorly made beer, he is sure of that. He is absolutely certain that anything at all that comes from a handpull is in the same hand-crafted zone.

This story, which is loosely based on a true event that happened recently, was brought to my mind after the various discussions surrounding a recent definition of Craft Beer. A significant point of contention is the refusal to exclude Blue Moon from the category despite being made and marketed by a major multinational. I'll admit, I'm split on the issue myself.

On the one hand it could very easily be seen as a cynical attempt to try and reverse the falling sales of the nasty chemical beer producers. Having seen micro-brewed beer and Craft Beer erode volume they see the need to make something that might appeal. In itself it is reported to be a highly processed beer transported at high gravity and diluted and treated for consistency with tetra hop and goodness knows what else.

But, equally, it is different. Both flavour and presentation is very different to the standard, pale, highly filtered, clean flavoured, and quite frankly boring lagers that are sold by the same large producer. The banana and clove flavours, the hazy presentation, the theatre of serve created by the addition of a slice of citrus fruit all add to a beer experience that is designed to appeal to a more adventurous drinker. Our man in the story is put off by all this.

Of course I don't want Blue Moon included in the Craft Beer category. None-the-less, many people do not trust small brands, very often this manifests itself at a very simple level of distrust of anything that is from a handpull and much more trust put in things from keg fonts. "I don't like bitters" a simple and common reaction to being offered cask beer. In some respects this can be partly due to the inevitable variability of artisanal producers. This is to some extent where the unfortunate but arguably unavoidable additions large brewers use to gain that consistency could be beneficial. Yes, it goes against the concept of craft, but gaining trust of the wider consumer base is where Craft Beer can fail.

From that point of view a beer like Blue Moon, if we can bring ourselves to welcome it, and I admit the difficulty in doing so, may help consumers who thus far only trust lager to venture a little into the Craft Beer world. Is this a bad thing?

If we can accept the above then we simply have to assess the beer for it's attributes. We must consider a beer drinker who does not have some sort of pre-conceived political motive that sways their judgement simply based on the nature of the business that is responsible for the product.

Going back to the basics of our reference definition, we ask.

Does the beer differ significantly from the styles available to mainstream consumers in the last 10 years? - YES

Is the brewer generally attempting to challenge/create something interesting/resurrect a style? - ABSOLUTELY

If a brand is British/American is the branding modern, is it inclusive? - Oh, VERY MUCH SO. No macho branding, but equally not patronising to any sex or gender.

Has the brand been historically widely available in GB? - NO, and here I assume that a no is a positive answer,

If we simplify this we end up asking if the beer in question is bringing something new and positive to the beer scene. Something that might change perceptions and broaden appreciation of beer.

I believe Blue Moon does do this whilst it is still new and fresh to the broader consumer. Of course, like many things that are new, it will one day be old. It might gain big market saturation. But then, many brands that we now might consider craft will in turn suffer this once they gain widespread acceptance.

This last point is important. The criteria create a sector which by definition must remain dynamic. Reinvention and a need to innovate and react is essential. A point that is not made explicit, but is inextricably implicit.

Even so, I still think you can still say "Blue f*****g Moon is NOT Craft Beer" if it makes you feel happy. Indeed, you'll make me feel happy if you do.

Next up, why I think the term Craft Beer is important.

Wednesday 21 August 2013

A Commercial Craft Beer Definition.

The definition of Craft Beer in the UK is a hotly debated topic. Many think, including me, that it is difficult to define and it might well be better if we don't try. However, from a commercial point of view there is a need to have a go at broadly identifying it as a market sector.

Robert Plant, I always thought, was a member of the band Led Zeplin. I recently met a Robert Plant, who gave a splendid talk about the state of beer sales in the on-trade. It turned out it was not the man who wrote "Stairway to Heaven" addressing the seminar, but a "senior account manager" at CGA Strategy, who are rather good at collating market data about the drinks industry. I like them, quite a lot.

Despite his lack of rock fame, Rob did give an entertaining talk on beer and how it was doing in the on-trade. There was a simple distillation1 given of the various sectors of beer including regional cask beer, macro-brewed keg and micro-brewed cask. There was also some interesting facts on performance of various types of licensed outlets. Needless to say the wet only pub wasn't looking like a great business in general.

It seems outlets that "premiumise" are likely to do well. Outlets that provide some form of food offering, Cafe bars and branded food pubs it seems. None of this is particularly good news for the traditional pub lover, but they seem to be getting less in numbers anyhow.

But, the big question I had on my mind was "how does this fit with the Craft Beer sector?" - so I asked it. Of course I expected a reply along the lines of "well, we would first have to define craft beer" - which was indeed the reply given. However, this didn't stop a discussion ensuing on the subject and a suggestion that perhaps knowing a bit more might be nice.

I'd like to think it was my awkward question that galvanised Rob into finding an answer for me. However, I suspect I'm not that important to CGA and they probably have quite a few big customers asking them the same question. You see, we're not even a customer of CGA.

It seems they have some answers. They have been through 1000s of beer brands and chosen some to class as Craft Beer. I have no idea if Hardknott has been lumped into it or not.  I am pleased to be able to update this post and confirm that Hardknott does fit their criteria.

The basic facts appeared on twitter a few days ago. I missed some of it, but that's OK because the boys copied it on their blog. Nice chaps. Read about it on the post entitled Craft Beer Quantified

Now, the comments did raise a few eyebrows. "How did you define Craft Beer then?" It's obvious that to collate statistics about a market you have to define it first.

Anyhow, they have sort of defined it, and tell us how on another blog post called Craft Beer Quantified - How did we create the category? Apparently it's annoyed a few folk. Personally I think it's a great attempt. What does the reader think?

In any case it's appropriate that a guy named Robert Plant is looking at how the Craft Beer scene rocks.


1 I'm not sure a simple distillation of any sort of malted beverage is a good idea, really.

Sunday 18 August 2013

Monday 5 August 2013

Brewery automation

The reader may know that I used to work in the Nuclear Industry. I spent 20 odd1 years doing various roles. The experience and knowledge I gained has proven to be invaluable when building our brewery.

Beer enthusiasts sometimes seem a little baffled as to why brewers like myself want to grow their business. There are very many good reasons. One reason for me is that after a while it becomes tiresome to have to do repetitive and tedious jobs. Many of these jobs I know with the knowledge and experience I have, could be automated. Investment in the technology is expensive and can only be economically viable as the business becomes bigger.

Kegwash 1 from Hardknott Brewery on Vimeo.

A task that many micro-brewers have found themselves faced with is the challenge of keg washing. Some brewers remove the spear, turn the keg upside down and put it on their cask washer. A satisfactory solution, but not ideal, if for no other reason than if the keg isn't fully de-presurised first the projectile spear can lead to fatal consequences. I figure it's not called a spear for nothing.

I liked the idea of a fully automated keg wash system. One that blew out the ullage, pre-rinsed, washed with detergent, rinsed again and finished with a terminal rinse of peracetic blown out with a purge of CO2. However, off the peg systems start in the region of £10k.

MKI Hardknott keg wash used manual valves, and a single pump. It took a lot of concentration to operate else the wrong liquid would be sent the wrong direction at the wrong time.

Well, I am after all a control engineer2, so it seems to me to be daft not to combine my knowledge of instrumentation and control engineering with what I know my brewery needs.

So, I've just got MKII KegWash working.

I know it ain't pretty. Jules says if we paint it mat black it'd resemble something out of Mad Max. I prefer to think along the lines of Scrapheap Challenge. Much of it was built out of junk we had lying around. Yes, the electrical control circuits need to be packaged in an IP rated box. But it does work. You put the keg on, push the start switch and it does the rest. I'm pleased with it as a proof of principle prototype. MKIII will properly look the part, honest.


1By "odd" I mean; not exactly, but a little over, rather than strange. Although it has to be said, it was strange, from time to time.

2A control engineer is completely different to a control freak, although my staff team probably disagree.