Sunday 21 December 2014

All's Fair

All of a sudden there was a stream of expletives from Scott.

"What's the matter?" I enquired, bothered that something terrible had happened to that day's brew.

"Have you seen this in Beer?"

Our local friendly Royal Mail man had delivered and Scott had found my copy of What's Brewing and Beer. Now, you think I sometimes have a pop at CAMRA. It's nothing compared to the things Scott has to say about cask beer and some of the views held by those who try to uphold its future. It's not that he doesn't think cask beer can't be good, it's just that he's come from USA where fantastic beer is found in abundance in keg and he doesn't understand why the same doesn't happen here.

I viewed the advert for Theakston's Best Bitter, on the inside front cover of Beer, and thought to be an amusing jibe at craft beer.

"Kumquat in beer? Now there's an idea" I said "For that matter, lark's tongue in aspic flavoured crisps sounds like a fun spoof little gag, had we the resources to pull of such a heist"

It seems to me that there are a couple of ways the established brewing industry can deal with what is by now undoubtedly becoming a major player in the market; craft beer. It can jibe in a most unpleasant and confrontational way or it can join in with the fun in an amusing rebuff whilst maximising on the particular breweries old peculiarities.

Scott seemed to think that the advert was a cheeky slant on craft beer. I thought differently. Firstly, for Theakston to be even able to use the advert the term craft beer has to ring bells. OK, so those bells might be bells of distain for the readership of Beer, but still, it shows a coming of age for craft beer.

But moreover, at a time when there seems to be many people claiming that we should all shout universally that all beer is good, it seems to me that at least one brewery is ready to fight gloves off. I for one welcome this. Theakston absolutely have the right to identify and contrast their own unique selling point; that they believe they were an early craft brewer right back in 1827.

And of course, we have every right to point out that we are a modern brewery, crafting our beers to hit a more progressive, adventurous and open minded drinker. If we choose to put kumquat in our beers to excite our audience, or dry hop the hell out of them, and point out that this is one of the many things that makes us different to the rest of the sometimes rather drab major players, then we have every right to do so.

Monday 24 November 2014

A list which is short

Working out how to push out beer to more people is something that preoccupies me quite a lot. Being tucked away in a corner of Cumbria, where there is not exactly a bustling centre of urban activity, creates challenges. The country side is stunning, but we don't have an easy ride from the perspective of finding sales opportunities.

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Luckily for us we keep getting mentioned in various publications, on-line and in the printed media. This doesn't happen by magic. It doesn't just happen because we make stunning beer. It happens because we work very hard to get our name noticed. The great thing is I enjoy engaging with the beer world, being a bit controversial, and helping to shake things up a bit. It gets me into trouble a little, but you know, you can't bake a cake without cracking eggs.

It isn't that there is a lower proportion of the population locally looking for stunning progressive craft beer, it is just that there are less people. A niche market in a small population is quite tiny. For this reason we do have to try a little harder than breweries that reside under a railway arch in a metropolis1. Our rent might be lower for our quite deliciously expansive industrial unit on our significantly under-occupied industrial estate, but conversely our transport costs are higher.

But I digress into another preoccupation eating my Azimuth soaked braincells, that of the assertion beer is "cheap to make" - I do feel a little like tackling this one, but that's for another post. Hopefully Stringers Beer2 might actually engage in a less rascally way this time, as he seems to be on my side from the nice rebuff he is seen to make on that point on an interesting comment exchange on Ed's blog.

In looking at costs associated with filling a glass with a particular beer, one thing that has to be done to make it happen is finding the correct audience. The route to market can be complex and is largely invisible to the beer drinker. For us, getting beer efficiently to say London we have to convince a distributor to buy the beer of us and then that distributor has to find pubs, bars or shops to buy it off them. The pubs and bars then have to sell the beer fast enough for them to want to re-order next time. This diverse route to market is like a chain; if any of links become damaged or broken our beer doesn't sell as well. Our market is geographically large but selectively niche. It is the way it is and we quite like it this way.

For any product, beer or otherwise, to succeed its awareness has to be heightened in all links of the supply chain. This, all by itself, can introduce significant costs into the overheads of the brand by way of traditional advertising and perhaps PR consultancy. Luckily for me I write this blog, which only costs me my time. We tweet and engage in Facebook etc. We deal with social media with what I believe is an honest and forthright approach. Sometimes this helps my business and sometimes it seems it doesn't.

We can't afford to pump lots of money into marketing and advertising, although we do a little. I hope to demonstrate the tight margins with beer when I do get around to my own rebuff of "beer is cheap to make" But just trust me, we are not rolling in cash, far from it. What we do instead is think up tangental things to do like silly Christmas Videos and taking beer halfway up a mountain.

Making good beer is of course important, but doing other stuff to actually get people to remember our name is also important.

This week we see our efforts pay off a little with Azimuth being listed on as one of 13 of the most exciting British Craft Beers. I doubt we'd have made the list by only making exciting beer, making noises about the fact also helps.

Stunning result, I think you'll agree.


1No, I'm not really thinking of anyone in particular, there are several that make very good beer, good on 'em.

2We are still friends, I think. Well, Ann and Becky are still talking even if us blokes are still strutting a bit of faux literary confrontation.

Saturday 15 November 2014

Storming - why we need conflict

I've already mentioned, I'm taking part in an amateur production of Peter Pan at the beginning of December. We're an enthusiastic lot. Everyone is working towards one goal, that of a finished show, 5 performances and the after show party. The producers have their own take on what everyone should do, that’s their job.

Wednesday's rehearsal was a little more fraught than usual. Two weeks tomorrow we'll have dress rehearsal. Tensions are building and conflict is not far away. There are a few things going slightly wrong and enthusiasm from some means they want to chip in with their own ideas as to how to fix things, but of course, not everyone sees things the same way.

Now, if the dozen or so adults who are key to the whole thing didn't care, if we were not full of enthusiasm for making the whole thing work, if there was no passion for what we are doing then the stress levels would not be rising. But equally, without that drive and the fire in the belly of all involved the show would turn out to be rubbish, lack-luster, and we'd bore the audience1.

Three paragraphs and I haven't mentioned beer once. OK, I did allude to an after show party, but really, what the blazes has this got to do with beer? It struck me after the rehearsals, when three or four of us were finishing off a keg of Azimuth2 and thus helping the overall stress levels to subside, that the conflict between like minded people who are all broadly on the same side is a necessary part of creativity.

And here we have the nub of my point; the beer world is full of passionate people. There are CAMRA activists, brewers within various styles and sizes of brewery and there are beer drinkers of a huge range of desires and aspirations. We have distributors, bar and pub owners and operators and other important people who form the systems that get beer from the fermenting tanks to the beer drinker’s mouths. We then have people writing about beer for a living, or perhaps as part of a more diverse journalistic career. And we also have bloggers, who often bridge into most of the above groups.

Many of these people are intensely passionate about what they do. They also have different opinions, perspectives, aims and goals. You can probably put any 10 people from the beer world all together in one room and give them long enough, and perhaps enough beer, they will find something to split opinion.

My last post created quite a discussion thread, culminating in me being accused of bullshit. I know what I want to do with Hardknott, where I think we should be going and how that fits, or doesn't fit with the rest of the beer world. Other breweries that are destined for success need to have the same level of focus. They will have their own vision, that determination to achieve the concept they set out to create. I think it is important to shout out about what is good in the beer world and to do that we sometimes have to compare against the things that we don''t like. We should not be swayed by fear of a few blog comments, or the voice of beer institutions, that appear to be trying to curtail those of us that have a point of view.

The passion to create something stunning is what keeps us guys going. Without it we'd just be making the same bland and boring beer like the next guy. Without that drive to gain the recognition we'd go nowhere and achieve nothing. Without the desire to shout out about the ways we differ from other breweries we'd probably end up being no different, and what good would that do us?

I hear so many cries that there is too much arguing within the beer world. Really? Too much? Conflict can be good, indeed I firmly believe it is essential to success of a truly stunning project. I think without the conflict between CAMRA, craft keg, discussion about the beer tie, even sparklers we'd be living in a much blander, more boring beer world.

This is why I feel it is time for me, and my brewery, to rise up and be more confrontational. We've been too quiet for a while, and I don't believe this has been good for me, my business or the greater beer world. The beer world needs people to stand up and shout about what they think is wrong, or at least what could be added to make it better because without it we will return to a more homogenous bland world with nothing but a few almost indistinguishable beers perhaps simply separated by the dispense method.


1Yes, it might well end up that way in any case, but at least we'll be sure we've all tried our hardest.

2The main revenue for the Palladium is the bar takings. OK, we'll be hoping for a reasonable box office from the show, and hiring the hall out helps too, but the building, which is in dire need of a new roof at around £100,000, needs the bar to bring in the dish. I'm fortunate that the people in charge of the bar have increasingly patronised Hardknott. This isn't the only reason I'm now becoming more involved, but it's a factor. Anyway, helping to finish the keg before it went all foisty, as even keg can after a while, is just another example of the selfless sacrifice I'm making for good causes.

Monday 10 November 2014

A Beer For That - a brewer's view

"It’s a great time to be a beer drinker"- this, if anything, is a statement I have a huge amount of agreement with. The "Let There Be Beer" campaign has recently re-launched itself because the veneer of justification on its original incarnation was so thin as to be transparent. The campaign is mostly funded by large multinational corporations who's logos appear by default on the new site. There are then a splattering of smaller organisations which include national pub companies, regional brewers and some industry bodies. Unfortunately for me, it almost doesn't matter if everything they say I agree with, the sponsors are after only one thing; a return on the investment they are putting in, the agenda will be the same, irrespective of the thickness of pretence hiding the motivation.

Let's look at the statement that I agree with, why is it such a good time to drink beer? Is it because of these organisations? No, absolutely it isn't. It is the microbrewer that have nurtured and championed diversity and a move away from bland, homogeneous offerings. Even the "family brewers" who may well have helped keep cask beer alive, would much prefer to make a narrow range of beers as the economies of scale this affords gives a better return for share holders.

It is clear to me that even the family brewers would, if given a choice, use much blander and cheaper run-of-the-mill hops. It is only the actions of us micro brewers, and the support that the beer enthusiast has given us, that has enabled this explosion of great beer in the UK. It is us that have imported the idea of using much more flavoursome and exciting hops from the west cost of USA or New Zealand hops to create beers with stunning flavours. It is us that have brought forward those flavours as a major part of the beer, rather than as a blend to just spice up very slightly Fuggles and Goldings.

Over the last 10 or so years, since I've been involved with the beer industry, things have moved a long way. There is much more choice, much more diversity and some real changes have happened. This would never have happened without us micro brewers, independent pub owners and of course a good discerning and genuinely curious beer drinker. A demand for more diversity and interest from drinkers has in turn helped micro brewers flourish in a spectacular way.

This enlargement of drinkers curiosity and desire for something new and different has hit the big beer producers a double whammy. The much more interesting and diverse arena of wines and sprits, as well as RTDs1 have seen the consumer turn its back on less aspirational big brand beers. In turn micro brewers have also been eating at this market share.

We should look more closely at why beer is seeing a decline in overall volume. Although we could question if measuring success in terms of volume is a good thing, that is possibly another topic altogether. Beer, generally, is seen a a dirty, cheap mass produced commodity. Whether we like it or not this is probably the view of the vast majority of people. Beer is also still perceived as a masculine product, by and large. Yes, I know moves have been made to some extent in this area, but largely it remains the domaine of the microbrewer to even look at that subject, and even then, not all micro brewers look at it that way.

Make no doubt about it the chase for volume by big brewers and some smaller ones alike has cheapened beer to the point that it has no aspiration for a population that is nowadays much more educated and ambitious than we were 30 years ago. When I was in my teens around 10% of the population were gaining University degrees. It is now approaching 40%2 - we are an upwardly mobile population and we no longer want the offering of the big brand beers. The micro brewers have taken part of that market share and wine and spirits other parts. We can't turn the clock back, the future of beer is small batch producers like us. We can grow the beer market by ourselves, we don't need the help of the big boys who have messed it all up anyway.

Beer is now viewed in a poor light by many a demographic, and this is backed up by many a alcohol related harm article in papers featuring a picture of beer. Of course we can suggest that its all the fault of the press for this, but I'd not agree, and I shall try to explain why.

For many years the bigger beer producers have been interested in one thing and one thing only; volume. Look in the supermarkets, there are products from those big producers often brought in on pallets to sit in great big stacks on aisle ends. Apart from potatoes, I'm not sure there is any other products that are pilled quite so high as cut-price big-brand beers.

The advertising campaigns are largely macho imagery that does nothing to encourage discerning drinking. The big boys are now seeing that the hard work done by the craft beer producers, the micro brewers, the small batch breweries, is actually catching the imagination of the public. Now they want to jump on our bandwagon. Well I for one am not letting them on my bandwagon.

But we know that the sales volume of these beers is decreasing, and let us make no bones about it, if it wasn't for us smaller brewers making an impact there would be no way they would set to on an otherwise apparently altruistic PR campaign. Sorry, but I don't buy the "we're all in this falling beer volume mess thing together" story.

We're absolutely not in it together. The big brand multinational brewers have repeatedly and consistently ruined any variation, interest, aspiration, kudos or self respect for the beer industry. They have found that their volume chase tactics are now finding a backlash with punters who prefer something a bit more sophisticated. Punters who are disliking the macho orientated advertising and turning to craft beer, wine or artizanal spirits. Luckily for us, and other more refined areas of the drinks industry, we are seeing the benefits.

I also don't buy the idea that if we support this initiative the benefits will ripple through to us. For the big boys a few percent change in sales is a massive multimillion pound benefit. To us, supporting this initiative will be benefits that are lost in the noise, at best, and more likely representing us turning our backs on our core values.

Key to all of this is not to increase volume of beer sales overall, no, to me it is much more important to develop aspiration, interest, excitement, and a true added value that is tangible. Chasing volume will inevitably see a return to much more bland and uninteresting beers. We don't need people to drink more beer, we need people to be more discerning about what they drink. I am not interested in a few percentage points of sales growth off the back of a cynical "we're really interested in you little guys" sort of nonsense. We are looking at genuinely growing our business into a sustainable future, and we're doing that off the back of genuine concern to create genuinely stunning craft beer.

I haven't got a problem with people liking the campaign. Indeed, if you are the sort of person that thinks all beer is good, and there is no such thing as a bad beer, then go ahead and like the campaign. Just don't ask Hardknott to endorse it. I believe it is a trojan horse delivered in a way that says you mustn't look a gift horse in the mouth. Except these days, a horse that is only fit for the knackers yard will probably cost you more to get rid of than its worth as dog meat.

It seems there are a few people being hooked into its false promises. We mustn't loose sight of the fact that there is one motive and one motive alone that is driving this campaign. It is the desire of the big brewers, brewers much bigger than us, to drive their volume upwards. They are trying to convince me that if I get on board my volume will go up too. I don't agree, what will happen is we will see more "craft" brands from these bigger brewers once you have all taken the bait, and the big fluffy rug will be pulled from under our feet.


1Ready to drink - you know, alchopops etc.
2It is hard to be sure of a citation for the figures I give here - for a start, Polytechnics converting to Universities have caused blips in the figures. Figures from the 80s are anecdotal from my memory back when I was considering degree education myself . However, there is a report that shows that in 1992 17% of the population were graduates compared to 38% in 2013 - that's more than doubling in 20 years.

Saturday 8 November 2014

Brewery Arts Centre beer dinner Kendal

A beer dinner, in a place that used to be a brewery? In the place I've been many times and enjoyed various musical delights, for possibly as many as 30 years? A chance to stand in front of about 50 people and talk about my beers matched with some really truly stunning food?

No brainer really.

And so it was, a couple of months ago, Ann and I sat with Ged, the Brewery Arts Centre chef, and choose the beers to go with his superb food. I'm really looking forward to this.

It will be happening this coming Thursday, 13th November.

You can book tickets on-line here. But hurry, I believe it is nearly sold out.

I'm just off to make the Eisalloy Ice Cream.

Here's the menu;

Course 1
Bury Black Pudding, Kirkham’s Lancashire Cheese Hash Brown & Caramelised Red Onion
Served with Azimuth 5.8%, Hardknott’s stunning IPA, flavours of peach and nectarines with spring gorse nose and a good lasting bitterness.
Course 2
Warm Pulled Gressingham Duck, Smoked Bacon, Rocket Leek Salad
Served with Colonial Mayhem, a cheeky 8.1% “Colonial Mild” toffee, and caramel flavours, fruity figs and gentle finish.
Course 3
A Cup of Celeriac Soup                                       
Served with Lux Borealis 3.8%, crisp and refreshing colsch stlye beer.
Course 4
Venison Steak
Raspberries, Apricots in a Rich Red Wine Sauce with Fondant Potato
Served with Gordian Knott 6.2%, resinous and citrus with a balance of malt
Course 5
Herdwick Roulade of Lamb                                          
Minced Lamb with Rosemary, Rolled in Pastry, White Wine Shallot Sauce on Buttered Cabbage
Served with Infra Red 6.2%, roast root vegitables in the full on body with a balance of orange note and strong lasting bitterness.
Course 6
Eisalloy Icebock Ice Cream with Chilli Shortbread Biscuit
Served with Rhet III 12.4% – Sichuan peppercorn and green tea infused pale
Course 7
Kendal Creamy & Westmorland Smoked Cheddar Cheese with Fruit Chutney
Served with Granite 2013 13.2% - Our vintage barley wine made every year. Bitter toffee, bananas, boozy and just a hint of spice in the finish

Thursday 6 November 2014

Figgy Pudding

I’m known to be a bit of a humbug. It’s not that I don’t like Christmas itself, or even the week or so before, it’s just that it seems to start so damn early.

You see, commercially this is much more of a necessity than might be thought. I went a few weeks ago into our local hardware store. You know the type, where you can buy hose, peas, handles for forks, and probably even billhooks, providing you ask carefully. We were looking for tinsel, for the reasons that will become clear, if you haven’t already found out. They had already started putting up their Christmas display around 12 weeks before the event. Makes me wonder if asking for fairly lights might result in the thoughts of some form of LED vagazzle. Normally I’d have been slightly irritated by the earliness of it, however, I had good need.

We know the owners and chatted about the whole commercial aspect for the festivities. It surprised me to find that to ensure good supply prices for their stock they have to forward order in February. It seems that the stuff is largely made in the far-east where commitment 9 months before delivery ensures supply and a good price. We have similar hop commitment arrangements.

Christmas beer is not that much different. Indeed it is partly my humbug tendencies that have prevented me from doing a Christmas beer. I normally really don’t like to think about Christmas until the beginning of December. However, in reality, as a brewer if you are not thinking about it in August it’s possibly too late.

This year I was contacted late summer by a new distributor who asked if we were considering a Christmas beer. “What a good idea!” I exclaimed “but if we are to deliver mid October we had best get on with it” And that was how the telephone conversation ended, having agreed it would be great to make a 7% beer loosely based on Colonial Mayhem, with fruit and spices in it, called Figgy Pudding.

Our previous experience with fruit in strong beers shows that a bit of planning, time to source the quantities of fruit needed at economics required, and time to make the beer did indeed show that we had to get along with the job. We did a parti-gyle with Scott’s Colonial Mischief, which neatly coincided with our seasonal Autumn beer, out in the beer world now. Figgy Pudding, needing a little bit longer in tank, is now ready to release.

Figgy Pudding (We Wish You a Merry Christmas) from Hardknott Brewery on Vimeo.

As this was all happening I was also thinking about the PR angle to this beer. On the one hand I object to cynical over commercialisation of Christmas, much of which is emotional blackmail based on leverage of the “Well, you’re a humbug if you don’t buy our stuff” – I’m more intelligent than that, and I believe Hardknott fans are too. Buying cheap, tacky nonsense, at over inflated prices, that finds itself as bin fodder in early January, seems contrary to the season of good will to all humanity. Are we really doing ourselves, our neighbours, the poor in the world or our environment any good by gross over indulgence and often incredible wastage? All this is possible by a strange “Well, you are just like Ebenezer if you don’t fall for our tacky Christmas” from many quarters.

On the other hand, that was a bit of a grumpy rant. Christmas can be a fabulous time of year for sharing, friendship, fun and good natured frolics. A bit of seasonal indulgence is no bad thing if kept in proportion. Besides, altruistic views on such matters are unlikely to make me any commercial success.

I felt I had to find an angle that was true to Hardknott values, and that of my own, but allow me to start work so early. What I knew I wanted to do was provide a bit of fun, humour, and something genuinely for free without some form of cynical “free if you buy our stuff” nonsense, which if you think about it isn’t free at all.

Music is a bit of a passion for me. I might not be brilliant at composing, performing, recording, mixing etc, but it’s a bit of a fun hobby which I don’t enjoy often enough.  Contrary to the impression I sometimes give, I love a bit of fun. Starting so early, I thought I’d have a bash at my own Christmas song. But what to do? I couldn’t afford to pay royalties to cover some existing song. Neither did I think I was good enough to pen my own, as it would be bound to be so tacky that even I’d be embarrassed.

I looked at the words and music for “We wish you a Merry Christmas” expecting them to have some form of recent copyright associated, only to find it seems to be a 16th Century traditional song. But, how to contemporise it? For a start it’s in ¾ time. Most contemporary popular stuff is 4/4 time. I looked on YouTube and found one or two “rock waltzes” and decided something up-tempo was perfectly possible.

It had to be a little daft. The idea was to start the track fairly twee. I hit on the idea of beer glasses as a kind of improvised glockenspiel. That seemed to work OK. From there I added acoustic guitar, mandolin and octave mandolin. Then came in the bass, electric rhythm and drums before overlaying with the melody on harmonised electric guitars and a rising keyboard power chord base. I wanted to finish properly rocky, rousing and raucous. Partly to show that Hardknott believes it is part of the contemporisation of a flagging, tired traditional UK beer culture. Part of the fun of craftisaion we are now seeing.

Filming on the day of bottling was something of a challenge. Not least of which making sure that the safety of staff and my precious musical instruments alike were protected. The staff were great, and no-one was hurt. I did drop my silent Yamaha guitar when climbing down off the tanks, much to my deep distress. You’ll be pleased to know, perhaps, that it lives to play another day.

Getting the team, and some friends, to provide a community rousing choral vocals seemed to set of the whole tone just right. However, the finale could be considered just a little bit too much free-beer powered. That final night of shooting did leave me feeling in a great mood for Christmas way earlier than I have since I was about 7 years of age, so that’s worth it for sure.

The final result is, I believe, a great bit of Christmas fun. I have decided to allow free distribution, public playing, even for commercial purposes, provided direct commercial gain is not sought for its distribution or playing (other than appropriate distribution costs associated. I believe this allows mass media to play without me expecting a royalty payment. It’s perhaps hoping too much, but it’s be great to get a play on the radio) , and that Hardknott is attributed. This means that it can be copied onto your iPod, given to friends, played in the pub (no PRS or PPL charges apply) or even used for promoting your own beer. Now, that’s our Christmas gift to the world, how good are we?

Me, as Captain Hook in the forthcoming Millom Panto.
Yes, I know, it isn’t exactly top quality, and expecting you to want to play it might be asking too much, but just remember, it’s just a bit of fun and worth every penny it cost you. All I’d like is for it to be distributed widely, promoting the Hardknott name, so we sell all our Figgy Pudding and other beers. If that happens I might get a new toy for Christmas to help me make better Hardknott videos. (Please Santa, I want a GoPro camera and a gimble for my Quadcopter. And if the budget will stretch, a portable digital sound recordery thing. Zoom do a good one. Ta)

But you know, just to prove I'm not just making up this apparent change of heart over the whole Christmas thing, I've also gone and got myself involved with the local Pantomime. They were looking for a menacing type person to act the part of Captain Hook. They couldn't find anyone suitable, so had to make do with me.

Merry Christmas!!

Saturday 1 November 2014

Supermarkets and beer

It's the first of November. Yay! Christmas is nearly here!!

Today starts the first day of a very exciting promotion we are running with Booths supermarket in the run up to Christmas. Continuum, Code Black and Azimuth are all £1.25 per bottle. That's a lower price than we sell it direct to consumers at our brewery door. It helps get our beer out to more people, in more places and at a lower price. We are able to do this with Booths as we have worked hard at the partnership to bring down the costs of getting beer onto the shelves.

Stunning Craft beer at stunningly low prices at some of the best food and drink retailing stores in the North West. This, I hope, is only the start of what might become a better retail distribution; we've been talking to other supermarkets recently, with some positive news next year I hope. This will of course be limited to one or two lines, leaving the best independent bottle shops to do what they do best; provide diversity. Getting our beers into supermarkets will help bring much more efficient national distribution of Hardknott beer, getting it to more people in a more economic way.

I can hear the cries now "You're just helping the supermarkets close pubs" and no doubt some of you will want to say "The supermarket is selling at below cost just to get the punters in" There is the point that some people can't go to the pub. They have young kids, perhaps, or it's a drive to get to the closest pub, or even there isn't a pub anywhere near that has Hardknott beer. Besides, selling our core brands to supermarkets helps pay for us to do some of the more fun stuff that probably makes us very little money.
Azimuth, on a stunning snowy West Cumbrian fell

However, I'd like to address some of the fairly false myths associated with beer in supermarkets. 

Owning a bottling machine brings new opportunities and challenges to a brewery like ours. On the one hand we can put any of our beers into bottle just about anytime time we want. We can do as short or as long a run as we want, provided we have the beer, and we have no transport costs associated with moving tanks of beer or finished bottles back to us. Sending beer to contract bottlers has all the issues associated with transport costs, minimum run lengths, scheduling time on the line to coincide with brewing schedules and many other issues. Moreover, it is less likely to go wrong as the beer is handled less, and if it does go wrong, at least we have full control over the problem1

However, we have a big fat loan associated with the purchase of our machine. It doesn't run quite as often as I'd like it to do, or pay enough to service the loan interest. I've been doing a lot of sums lately, comparing costs associated with making cask beer, keg beer and bottled beer. I've also been comparing various advantages of selling beer in these formats.

My top option, from a commercial point of view, based on the fact we have a bottling machine, is bottle. Of course, this works only if the price is right, and every deal has to stand on its merit. However, having looked at various routes to market, and the costs associated with them, supermarkets are far more commercially attractive than you might think.

Having looked carefully at the costs associated with getting beer, in cask, to pubs, we find that bottles, even at supermarket prices are more attractive due to the much lower cost of logistics. Margin per litre of beer is actually a little better when supplying to supermarkets compared to cask.

As for supermarkets selling beer at below cost, this is certainly not true from my perspective. The promotion we are running is entirely funded by us and the supermarket is still maintaining the same percentage margin. Furthermore, we are also looking at some much bigger contracts with supermarkets that have many more stores. Contracts that might see 200 fold or more increase on the Booths contract. Bulk logistics makes the eye watering discounts we might have to consider much more attractive than they seem at first sight. Having looked at the supply price we might be considering, and the eventual retail price, I can promise that they are not selling below cost, and neither are we.

It's not a one way street however, as the minimum order quantity (MOQ)  has been increased, for instance, to ensure our costs are reduced. For this reason, the MOQ thing, we cannot even sell it at the brewery to the public at this price. You see, we're not set up for efficient retail at the brewery, and stopping what we're doing to be nice to a member of the public can be a little distracting to brewing, or bottling, or packing thousands of pounds worth of beer onto a pallet to send to a supermarket.. We'll sell you beer, but we'd prefer you went to Booths, an independent bottle shop or to our bar.

As for the closing pubs thing, and even the whole cask versus keg issue. We've looked at the costs associated with cask, transport to local rural pubs, or eCasks and palleting out to wholesalers at necessary discount and decided a long time ago that we needed bottle to secure the commercial future of our brewery. This is why we bought the bottling machine in the first place. Less people are drinking in pubs than they used to. This is a shame, and we can discuss this all day until the cows come home, but it wont change the market statistics. Putting beer into bottles and making it suitable for supermarkets makes perfect commercial sense. When putting beer into bottle it is also easy to put the same beer into kegs at the very same time. You can't rack the same beer into cask at the same time and indeed it is better to brew specifically for cask.

Although I'll admit to feeling slightly guilty about not being in a position to sell more beer to pubs, and avoid the whole bottle thing, it's not us that is causing the damage. It might be the supermarkets, although in turn it could be argued that they are only responding to customer buying habits. It's not one of them, and no single business can succeed by taking an altruistic stance as someone else will surely take their place.

Equally, if we don't sell our craft beer to supermarkets, someone else will. We think drinkers should rejoice in the fact that many of these places are now actually waking up to the fact that they have to have some sort of craft beer. There appears to be three main categories of beer in supermarkets. Big brand, like lagers, Guinness and "Smooth" bitters, then premium bottled ales, which largely consists of traditional beer and now there is a growing section of craft beer. It's true, it's there and it is "signposted" with Sierra Nevada, Goose Island, Chimay and some Scottish brewery or other, I forget the name. I'd love Hardknott to be there too.


1And, I can feel better as I'll know exactly which Scott to shout at. Unless it is my fault, which obviously is very unlikely, but not impossible. In that case I'll probably just take myself to one side and give myself a good talking to.

Monday 27 October 2014

Boisterous Brown Beer

We're about to launch our Christmas beer. It's really stunning, but you'll just have to wait and see. First we need to get that business of Halloween and Bonfire Night out of the way. Once we've done that the Christmas beer will be released to the world.

Our foray into seasonality is a bit of a first for me. I've been wary of making festive beers on the grounds that their best before date tends to coincide with the festival in question. Not because the beer is bad afterwards, but just because it is tied to that date by nature of the label. In particular, if a Christmas beer isn't all sold out before Christmas it becomes very difficult to sell.

Way back in August, when the sun was still shining and there was still daylight to be had outside of office hours, I was contacted by a customer asking if we were going to do a Christmas beer. Now, the other problem with such a beer is that if you are starting to think about it now, that is in October, then it's probably too late. This is the other reason we've not done it before, simply because I don't normally think much about Christmas in August. Generally I prefer Christmas to start on 24th December. I'm a bar humbug normally, but as you will find out in due course, I'm now actually quite excited about the whole idea. I'm really itching to tell you more, but kids, we'll all just have to be patient.

Now, I've already told you too much, as I'm supposed to be waiting until after 6th November to tell you, but it is relevant, as you shall see. I decided to make said beer as a parti-gyle with a weaker beer. There was a copious amount of less strong wort to be played with. An ideal test for Scott, our not quite so new production brewer.

We recruited Scott, an American, earlier this year. We needed a solid and reliable brewing type person to take over day-to-day operations. He had a steep learning curve having little experience in anything other than home-brew. But, by the time we got around to brewing this seasonal part-gyle he had gained my trust so much that I felt it was time to give him a project all of his own.

"Scott, why don't you decide what to do with this small beer?" I said to him. "Go wild, anything you want"

"What hops do you think I should use" he came back at me.

Sometimes you have to explain things to people more than once "It's your baby, whatever you choose"

Further discussion ensued, mainly with my replies consisting of "It's your project, I'm sure it'll be fine" I don't think he quite believed that he is one of the few people who have managed to break my control freakishness.

I would state here that Scott is possibly the best asset we have right now, only he might read this and demand some sort of improved T&Cs, which we can't really afford. It is true that Scott turns out not only to be a competent, skilled and creative brewer with a good palate, he also gets exactly where Hardknott is heading and totally understand our ethos. He also works very hard with a solid commitment to our goals. A giddy sense of humour helps lighten the day when things aren't always going to plan, as is often the case. It was time to give him a project all of his own.

Now, the beers were going to have a bit of colour as the big boy is based loosely on Colonial Mayhem. So, Scott eventually decided that an "American Brown" would be in order. With discussion it seemed to me this was a bit like a boring brown bitter, only with all elements of boring carefully removed. Indeed, with a slight glint of rascality in his eye, a waggish smirk and perhaps just an faint hint of an evil tone in his voice, he declared a list of hops that included Simcoe, Chinook, Galaxy and Cascade.

My American friend Ted, who was the inspiration behind Colonial Mayhem, called in to see us on one of his trips to the UK whilst Scott was brewing. Two Americans in my brew-house? What could possibly go wrong?

Back in 1605, when Guy Fawkes failed in his bid to rid us of those scallywags in Westminster, the British Colonies over on the American Continent were barely getting going. Scott and Ted both provided British Colonial influence to this beer. They also provide various amounts of playful misconduct that might be considered appropriate for Halloween and Bonfire night. The naming of this beer was easy.

Colonial Mischief is, according to Scott, a West Coast American Brown. I think it's quite tasty with plenty of great West Coast hops packed in but with just enough malt in the background too. A little mischievous, perhaps slightly naughty. It'll try to lead you astray, but at 4% it'll not get you into too much trouble.

It is rolling out of the door as I type, some off to Newcastle I believe and Lancaster too. Perhaps some might make it down to Manchester, Stockport and of course around our favourite pubs in Cumbria. We'll definitely have some in our bar sometime soon. So, indulge your darkest mischievous devil lurking inside, go out and find some cask, or even better keg version of this beer. We are quite sure that the elevated carbonation of the keg version will be something quite impish and bring out the hop characteristics in a vibrant goulishness that might just have the cask brigade citing high treason. Hopefully there will be plenty of fireworks.

Friday 10 October 2014

Keg beer and exporting

I was in Stockholm last weekend. I had a chance to visit a few bars around the city. There was cask beer, but not very much of it. Mostly, the draught beer is keg. Even if there was a big market for British cask beer out there, it wouldn't be particularly practical to send cask beer long distances where the journey might take over a week and where temperature control isn't particularly good. On top of that, getting empties back would be problematic.

There is quite a bit of beer imported into the UK. I think this is OK, and I'm responsible to some extent as I like to try different beers from time-to-time. Distributing new styles and ideas makes the beer world more vibrant. Personally, I'd like to see the foreign stuff made by more UK breweries, as it seems daft to transport large amounts of beer around the world. However, it does happen, and as a UK beer producer, if beer is imported into the UK I'd like a slice of that global beer market. I don't think that's unreasonable.

To be able to export beer it is almost essential to be able to put it into keg. When doing so it is also important to develop keg products through local domestic markets. How else can solid and dependable quality be tested and assured?

The above is a key reason for majoring in keg at Hardknott OnTrack. We have one cask line, and most of our customers don't really care so long as the beer is good.

But is does get a little irritating when a few people, you know the type, have to make a big deal out of it. Hardknott is moving forward without the constraints of preconceived ideas about cask beer. I think this is very important for any progressive craft brewery.

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Friday 3 October 2014

Banging good beer

I'm in Stockholm, which no doubt you know if you follow me on twitter, or are my friend on Facebook. I"m here because I have sent beer to a beer festival. Well, to be more precise, the Stockholm Beer and Whisky Festival. Obviously I'm hopeful this might help us expand our export market into a new country. Whilst I'm here I'll have to sample a few beers and whiskies, it would be rude not to.

Meanwhile, back at base, it's the weekend of Beer'n'Bangers in conjunction with The Broughton Festival of Beer. Ann is left running the show, and I'm hopeful the team will be run off their feet.

It'll be a busy weekend, if previous years are to go by. There are numerous hostelries taking part and there is sure to be plenty of great beer.

Of course there is Hardknott OnTrack, which is just two stops up from Foxfield on the train. I believe there is a bus connecting the centre of Broughton to Foxfield. A veritable exploration of various beery establishments is to be had this weekend.

I spent a couple of days making food that can be quickly re-heated for the event. A curry, cheesy party things, savoury rice, "sticky" sausages, sausage casserole and some black pudding scotch eggs1.

I'm guessing you won't all be flocking to Stockholm this weekend to try Hardknott beer, but if you are the south of Cumbria you could do worse than head towards Broughton and Millom for good beer and local Cumberland sausage.


1The scotch eggs are work in progress. Half of them split during cooking, making them much less visually appealing than they tasted. Next time.

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Stunning Craft Beer from the Western Lakes

Oh, and the launch of;

Juxta Beer - 1.9% position; low ABV craft

We don't make as much of a deal out of the fact that we are located in a stunning part of the world as we should. Indeed, I think our side of the The Lake District is far more stunning than any other part of our national park. All that twee Beatrix Potter stuff is all very well, and Wordsworth did do some fine poetry, it's true, but nothing beats the majesty of my favourite valley, Wasdale. Our part of the world is what I class as the real Lake District.

Stunning Craft Beer - Juxta from Hardknott Brewery on Vimeo.

It was also an opportunity to serve our brand new experimental low ABV beer, Juxta Beer 1.9%. What could be better than climbing a mountain to find a nice pint of refreshing, thirst quenching beer at the top?

We set up the bar, using a pile of stones, called a cairn, to locate the tap. We did this at a place called Sprinkling Tarn, which is just below the 2000ft mark above sea level.

We had worried about the problem of being responsible for creating drunks on the mountain. I was quite sure my friends in the Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team would take a dim view of the safety aspect of strong beer on the mountains. It is a good job we did behave so responsibly, as the leader of the team happened to drop by when we were there. He seemed to enjoy his pint.

To the best of our knowledge, for one day, we created the highest Craft Beer Bar in the UK. Clearly we had no licence to sell beer, so we had to give it away. One group of gents were so pleased they emailed us with a picture.

What was amusing on the day was the fact that as the people we'd served passed other walkers who were approaching, they were obviously telling of our strategic bar. Unfortunately we didn't get reactions on camera, but some were definitely in the "Well we heard the rumours, but just thought they were playing a practical joke on us!"

We're starting to send Juxta Beer out in cask this week. The first load is going to Cask Pub and Kitchen. Bottles will follow on soon. Look out for it, I think it's a good low strength beer. Stunning, even.

The KeyKeg setup

The team
Left to right; Alfie Bailey, Dave Bailey, Scott Larrabee,
Laura Larrabee, Stuart Roche

The Sprinkling Tarn Bar Punters

Wednesday 17 September 2014

The Arguments in favour of keg

It is still amazing that there are people out there who believe keg is evil. It is now staggering me, considering the success of many new breweries with their keg offering, that there are people out there still decrying the introduction of Craft Keg, and citing it as a bad thing.

Of course mostly these people are middle aged, or older, stick-in-the-mud killjoys.

I've been looking back at some of my early blog posts. Back when I was really on a roll and trying to make my own mind up about CAMRA, cask beer, keg beer and the best way to package, distribute, dispense beer for the sake of the best drinker's experience.

Way back in 2009 I had a little play with keg beer. The results were encouraging. Since that time we have been honing our skills at putting beer into keg and strongly believe that there is a huge future for beers from small independent breweries to be distributed in this format.

What has never left my mind is the simple fact that around 85%1 of all draught beer sold is keg.

Moreover, having recently done some sales calls around various local hostelries, I notice that there is a significant brand of IPA making its way into the mainstream in a big way, in the more trendy bars and circuit pubs that are much more popular with the younger drinker.

Many people like their beers cold, fizzy and crisp. Is this wrong? Are we wrong to try and tell them otherwise? I think that if people like fizzy chilled beer than they should be provided with it. I'd prefer they drank my cold fizzy beer than rather than someone else's.

So, we must accept that the overall keg market is much bigger than cask, and despite noises to the contrary, this situation is likely to remain the case for a long time to come. Notwithstanding the fact that for many outlets there are significant technical advantages of keg beer, for the small brewer it can also be an important route to market for their products.

But more than that, although there has been some ideas stating cask beer can be trendy by virtue of it being retro, it fails to have any long term real impact to a significant number of younger people. By contrast, I notice that many younger people are looking for more trendy drinks, and this has long included keg beers.

So, with the advantage of solid consistency, without the need for cask expertise in the outlet, staying fresher for longer once a container is breached, and an appeal to youngsters, surely we should stop demonising breweries who decide to push keg.

Getting youngsters to enjoy a broader range of beer has to be a good thing, even if they need keg to convince them of it. Frankly I don't care if they never decide to drink cask. Perhaps they like cold fizzy beer. But I'd like more people to drink my beer and if I have to make it cold and fizzy to get them to do it, then I will.


1Source:The Cask Report 2011-2012 - yes, I know, this is out of date. However, the 2013-2014 doesn't publish the figures, as best I can see. One can only assume this is because up until 2010, the last figures I can find, there was in fact a growth of cask as a proportion of the market. In 2010 cask had a 15.0% share of the total on-trade beer market. This figure was only beaten previously in 1998 when it was 16.1% - there was then a drop down during the Noughties to as low as 12.4%. All very interesting I feel.

Monday 8 September 2014

Random Thoughts on Craft Beer

Of course, it was forecast by some to be incapable of gaining momentum. However, it is the case that the idea of craft beer is becoming more and more important in the beer marketing lexicon. Those who choose to ignore this are firmly putting their heads into the sand.

How can I be so sure that it is quite so significant? Well, it's the number of times the term gets mentioned in various arenas. Of course it's been discussed within brewing circles for a number of years now. Often even here with a split of opinion as to it's usefulness as a term. Often, too, with a mind on the troubled sub-issue of definition.

On the anti-side there is often the feeling that it is just a rouse to push out cask beer, and are under the impression that craft beer is only to be found in keg. On the pro-side most are happy to include at least some cask beer into the definition of craft.

It is a divisive issue within CAMRA too. I know some members would love to see a less confrontational approach regarding the subject. Other members, often the ones that would probably consider themselves experienced enough to say "You don't know what you are talking about laddie, you don't remember Watney's Red Barrel!" as if that is some sort of everlasting reason to stay firmly stuck in the past.

What I find curious, and quite a positively interesting phenomena, is the number of times recently I've heard slight scathing comments from CAMRA festival organisers regarding the subject. "Of course, if it wasn't for festivals like this we'd all have to drink craft beer" as if it would be some sort of terrible thing. However, looking along the line of beers, or scanning the program, it becomes clear to me that it would perhaps be a good thing. I know what I like, and it isn't the generally bland stuff at these sort of festivals.

I'm returning to the subject myself as an overall review of where I think Hardknott should be, and where we should go. The overall success of Hardknott OnTrack proves that it is far from essential to provide a one-size-fits-all approach to beer service establishments, even in a small town. The slightly left-field narrower appeal idea certainly hits a customer base that regular old-fashioned pubs fails to satisfy.

I've been out over the years and found what I like in the beer world, and considered what it is about the things I like that makes them so. There is a danger in listening to the "don't forget about Watney's" and the "That tradition is worth saving" brigade to the detriment of finding something that is truly interesting, splendid, different, even stunning.

I know what I like, and from that point of view this is an interesting take on craft beer; It is brewed by people who care about what they are doing, have found something that really fires up their imagination and want to share it with the world.

I have perviously scorned a high profile attempt to suggest a definition of craft beer. I firmly believe in craft beer, but also firmly believe it is complete folly to try and define it in any rules based system.

And so, whatever you think about it, wherever your own beery journey is taking you, it's hard for anyone to completely ignore the craft beer subject, even if the choice is never to mention it.

Thursday 28 August 2014

Squiddy in a bottle

I like to mess around with beer concepts. Thankfully many of the beer enthusiasts I know are completely open minded about beer and will happily have a go at most things, at least once. But having been in the industry now for over 10 years it is obvious that many people see beer from a fairly narrow perspective. The most common comment I hear is "I don't like dark beers"

Hence my motivation for putting squid ink into a beer. We called it Squiddy, it's 3.8%, tastes very refreshing but has an interesting dark tinge to it.

I gave up a long time ago trying to pursued people from behind the bar that it is a silly notion to dismiss dark beers out of hand. Generally it only tends to alienate people. They know what they like and it doesn't matter how much I believe it's just their own preconceptions that drive their preference, telling a customer that they are silly and should just have a go will most likely loose a customer, rather than create a new beer connoisseur.

Digressing slightly, but I'm sure the reader will realise the relevance right away, I am a huge fan of the try before you buy principle. If you are a publican and are in the "I'm not giving away free beer" camp than think again. Trust me, if you do nothing else, look long and hard at your motivations. Giving people a chance to try a small sample gains their trust. It shows you care about what they think, and what they might like. Consistently and repeatedly, by giving a customer a chance to try a beer they have never tried before often creates a trust that drives sales. After all, a few millilitres of free beer isn't going to break the bank, and in my experience persuades the customer to stay and have another.

Dark beers are an example of this. When confronted with the unknown customers will generally gravitate to a safe zone. If asked to fork out perhaps £3 on something they are unsure about they will play safe. Pale beers are that safe zone for many.

We recently had a keg of Squiddy on the bar at Hardknott OnTrack. It created quite a stir with a few people. I think without tasters many would not have risked a pint, but once they tried it many said it tasted better than Lux, the beer it is based upon, and had a second, or third pint.

One of the reasons for brewing this beer is to show how colour can totally change perceptions of what a beer can taste like. Now, scientifically it is proven that even with completely flavourless colourings the perceived flavour is different. For instance red gives a perception of sweeter over green.

What baffles me is that a black coloured soft drink is incredibly popular amongst the general public, and yet dark beer generally isn't. The reason for making Squiddy was our way of exploring this a little further.

You can buy Squiddy at our on-line shop.

And you can watch the story of our collaboration with the Birmingham Beer Bash folks on our Vimeo pages.

Squiddy Episode One from Hardknott Brewery on Vimeo.

Squiddy Episode Two from Hardknott Brewery on Vimeo.

Squiddy ep3 from Hardknott Brewery on Vimeo.

Tuesday 19 August 2014

On The Train

There are advantages of having a bar on a station. Immediately it is obvious that anyone who lives near a station on the same line can forget about the problems of drinking and driving and just travel along the railway line for a beer. Indeed, some people have been doing exactly that.

We are fortunate in our part of the world, as is the case elsewhere, we have several interesting beer places on the line. It is perfectly possible to hop on a train, travel to one pub, back on the next train and off at the next beery station and so on.

On our line there is the infamous Prince of Wales at Foxfield. Well known, and just recently awarded CAMRA pub of the year for Cumbria. A fair way down the line is another cask orientated place called The Snug and is located on Carnforth Station and is certainly worth a visit.

Less well known, but in my view worth a visit are The Ship at Kirkby-in-Furness, The Miners Arms at Silecroft and The Ratty Arms at Ravenglass. All of these are so close to the station you could almost have time to down your pint as the train is arriving and be able to hop on the train1.

I'm sure there are others on the track, and I'd love to hear any beery recommendations. Ulverston, for instance, has a great selection of pubs, only they are all a little walk from the station. However, even if you do this lot in one day it's 6 separate journeys. There are enough trains in the day, but how much will it cost?

Well, lets suppose you start at Carnforth and get a return ticket to Ravenglass. There is a train sets off at 10:09 and gets in at 12:06 - yeah, OK, that's two hours, but I'm assuming our beery traveller is then going to start a leisurely set of short trips back home. If this is too daunting, there is also the chance to break the journey on the way out. I'll get to that later. This will cost £15.40 according to The Train Line.

The trip around the coast, with views across the Morecambe bay whilst crossing Kent's Channel, can be quite stunning the first time you do it.2. Train travel isn't to everyone's taste, although apparently there is more train travel now than there has been since the 1920's, I can't seem to think that this is a bad thing.

"But does this allow you to get off at any station on the way back?" I can hear you say. Well, I wasn't sure either. There has been quite a bit of questioning at our local ticket office and further up the line of communication. Yes, very much the case, so long as you have an "anytime return" you can get off at any station on your way back and rejoin a later train. According to them, you can't get off on your outward journey, but according to Network rails T&Cs this is actually not true either, as you will see.

Now, I wanted to check this in writing. If you paid for all 5 journeys needed here, remember the sixth would be a joining together of all your return tickets, the trip would cost £25.50.  Likewise, shorter journeys with stops are less, but still more if you buy individual tickets. I know that sometimes guards can be quite tenacious about tackling anyone trying to dodge the fares as they are all paid a commission, so I understand. It's wise to get the right ticket.

So, these T&Cs I am telling you about, well, Good old Google came to the rescue here. National Rail Conditions of Carriage became most useful here.

16. Starting, breaking or ending a journey at intermediate stations
You may start, or break and resume, a journey (in either direction in the case of a return ticket) at any intermediate station, as long as the ticket you hold is valid for the trains you want to use. You may also end your journey (in either direction in the case of a return ticket) before the destination shown on the ticket. However, these rights may not apply to some types of tickets for which a break of journey is prohibited, in which case the Ticket Seller must make this clear when you buy your ticket.

More specifically, anytime ticket's terms and conditions.
Break of journey
You may start, break and resume, or end your journey at any intermediate station along the route of travel.
All the ticket prices I mention here are for anytime day return tickets. Advance tickets do not permit breaking the journey. So, make sure you get an anytime return ticket (day or open, as you please) and save money. Don't let the guard tell you it's not OK.

Incidentally, by my reckoning, if you do this journey from Carnforth to Ravenglass setting off at 11am you will get about an hour in every hostelry, including ours, and still be back at Carnforth for about 7pm, not including whatever time you spend in The Snug either before the start or at the end of the journey.

Either way, just under 4 hours on a train and nearly 5 hours in some interesting beery places. Just take some bottles for the train, or even some craft cans, what could be better? Of course a longer journey is possible, with a later return, but my advice is to look north of us for your earlier stops. The last train from the north arrives at Hardknott OnTrack at  19:25. However the last train south from us is 22:08.


1I'm not recommending doing this mind. If you fall over in your drunken state and fall under the wheels as you are running madly to catch the train, which has already set off, please don't blame me.

2I've done it quite a few times now. It's more likely I'll be playing on twitter. Although, normally there is no signal either.

Friday 8 August 2014

Gordian Knott

How do we define craft beer? When does a brewery become craft? Can a regional family brewer simply install a smaller brewhouse, use it as a pilot plant and sell the output as craft beer? Or is this just nonsense?
Brains Craft Brewery - it is quite little

One would have to say that these questions are in themselves intractable problems. We don't have a definition for craft beer so how can we say these breweries are not craft breweries? How can we say that the beers they produce are not craft beers?

It was just before Christmas last year, at the Guild of Beer Writers annual awards dinner, where Brains were once again sponsoring the on-line award1. They had some bottles of collaborations that had been done with various beer writers.  I sort of joked with the Brains people that they should do a collaboration with me.

Now, someone once said "Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut."2. Obviously, having already had dinner, and a few beers, I couldn't claim to be sober. However, my jocular comment was greeted with a great deal of enthusiasm. Looked like I'd have to go through with it.

Subsequently, various Brains people made various attempts to get me to agree a date to go down to Cardiff and play on their "craft brewery" - if nothing else, I think it's a fair enough "thank you" for the sponsorship of the awards. But, me being my usual busy self never found the right date in my diary.

Bill Dobson, left, and me examining his control panel
Eventually, the Head Brewer Bill Dobson emailed me. The idea had been that whatever beer we'd brew it would make its way to GBBF. I liked that idea as I'd never had a beer that I'd been involved with at GBBF3. The only thing was, GBBF was getting close and we hadn't even agreed on a beer style.

So, with a feeling of duty to help out Brains as payback for my shiny BGBW awards tankard, a chance to have beer I'd brewed at GBBF, a chance to see what a family brewer calls a craft brewery, and check to see if I agree that it is. But then being asked by the head brewer, that properly counts you see. It's OK for PR people to ask for their own, and my publicity sake, but this was a real brewer asking. It would have been churlish to refuse.

Where the fermentation takes place
So, we hot-footed down to Cardiff and brewed a West Coast IPA at 6% packed full of Amarillo, Chinook and Simco. More hops than Brains have ever used before, as best we know. A little bit at the top of the boil, quite a bit more at the end of the boil, and a hell of a lot more in tank. One of my aims was to make sure that the beer was fully flavoured enough to be classed as a craft beer, by even the most sceptical of beer geek.

So, we brewed the agreed recipe at Cardiff on a Monday, and the very next day, armed with a bucket of WLP001 yeast that Brains had propagated and cropped, we travelled back up to Cumbria via Charles Faram, as we were also short of some of the hops. We were still having coffee at hop HQ and chatting with Will whilst the team back at base were mashing in.

The Brains version
Back onto the M5, through the great RAC car park at the junction between the M5 and M6, and right on up to Cumbria. We just managed to get to he brewery as Scott was getting the coppers to the boil. Which was good, because he needed some of the hops.

We use whole cone hops in our copper. I've been pondering the use of pellets for some time, but we don't have a whirlpool. Brains Craft Brewery does. Cleaning is so much easier4. Many brewers will say that there are big differences between whole-cone and pellets in the way they interact with the wort in the copper. Anyway, Brains normally use pellets, although they can use whole hops if they want to. This beer had so much in the copper the hop slurry was above the take-off point at the end risking clogging the hose. I seem to make a bit of a habit of pushing breweries past their limits when we do collaborations.

Our version
So, this might be an interesting experiment to see what exactly the differences are. Only thing is, Bill tends to put his dry hops in the tank prior to fermentation. I don't really like this idea, partly because I think it's better for the yeast, if cropping and pitching on, not to have all that accumulation of hops. We wanted to crop this particular linage of yeast if all went well6.

So, two major differences between the Brains Craft Brewery version of this beer and our own. Everything else, proportions of ingredients etc were all the same, and importantly the same strain and generation of yeast. If you want to try both versions get hold of our bottled version and try it at the Brains bar at GBBF too.

So, back to the original questions. Can Brains little brewery be called a craft brewery? Well, I mentioned to Bill the idea that some in the beer world simply see their brewery as a pilot plant by another name. Bill fairly rebuffs this notion. There is no way he'd be allowed to have a pilot plant, at the total investment cost, without it having a clearly commercial product as an output. There is no doubt in his mind that it was built as a craft brewery, and that is what it is.

I hope my involvement in this collaboration has helped a little more with the idea that Brains Craft Brewery is indeed worth a look. Do I think it's a craft brewery? Yes, I do. It's only 25hl for a start, hardly massive. OK, so it uses some of the built-in utilities available from the big plant it sits right next to, like the spend grains conveyor7. But, it's all manual, no automation, and there are plenty of breweries people are happy to call craft that are much bigger, much more automated and much less hands-on than this.

We've just bottled our version of this beer, which is called Gordian Knott. I hope we've done something to cut right through the tangled knotty question of what is craft beer, not by defining it, but by showing how diverse and interesting the craft beer world is. And perhaps showing that defining craft is as difficult as it ever has been.

The solution to the intractable problem of defining craft beer is to admit we don't need to. Cut the definition requirement knot to pieces.

Oh, and you can buy the Hardknott version of Gordian Knott on our web shop. To celebrate our beers being at GBBF, for the week we've incorporated a 25% discount if you use the code "Tonic" - enter code at checkout. The code is automatically set to deactivate by the last day of GBBF, so get those orders in soon.


1I was runner up for this award in 2009, and Brians was sponsor back then too, so I have to have a little bit of affection for the brewery.

2The internet tells me it was Ernest Hemingway what said it. Must be true.

3 I even thought I could have made a bit of a fuss about the fact that I had to go to a bigger brewer in Wales, as despite brewing now for over 8 years we've never had a beer ordered by GBBF. Surely they had heard of Hardknott? I could only have to assume that CAMRA just didn't like me. However, this has really been scuppered a bit by us having Cool Fusion at GBBF this year. Damn, there goes a PR idea.

4Although to be fair, cleaning is also made easier by having an almost unlimited supply of hot liquor5

5Hot liquor is a bit like hot water. In fact it is indistinguishable. Water, you see, always gets called liquor in a brewery. I've never really worked out why.

6And it has all gone well. At the time or writing we are on the third generation of that bucket we brought back from Cardiff.

7If I were honest, this is what I'm most envious of. Open a tap door next to the mash tun and just rake the spent grains into the hole and forget about them. Steam is good, as is bucket loads of hot liquor for washing down. But I WANT a spent grains conveyor.