Saturday 28 June 2014

OnTrack is Open!

(Quick update - click the title above to go to the website for the bar)

Three weeks ago we got keys for our new tap. The lease had not been finalised with Network Rail, but our immediate landlords let us have access despite advise from various legal people1.

Anyway, between then and now Ann and I have been in Canada for a week, and yet we have managed to open a bar. This is partly due to some very hard work done by our staff, plus ancillary support from LemonTop Creative and a couple of very good local businesses.  I'm pleased with the results.

Our town now has a craft beer bar, one that adheres to the standards and values of Hardknott. I'm pleased.

To start we are open;
Thursday 6pm - 11pm
Friday 12 noon - 12 midnight
Saturday 12 noon - 12 midnight
Sunday 2pm - 10pm

Times subject to change if we find that trade shows this is possible.




1Legal people seem to be able to make money from absolutely nothing. I despair at the costs they layer onto jobs for what seems to me to be no added value.

Friday 13 June 2014

Montreal part 2

The reason I am here in Montreal, Quebec, is to judge beer. It's all done now. I had to taste and evaluate a total of 48 beers. 10 of us were involved, each beer being tasted by three judges each. A total of just short of 130 beers.

View from our hotel room
My airfare and hotel have been paid for by Mondial de la Biere in exchange for bringing my experience in beer to the judging panel. I now get a few days to enjoy Montreal, the beer festival and relax for a few days before returning to what I expect will be a busy time back at the brewery. It is not for me to say why the folks here feel I'm a good candidate for inclusion in their panel of judges. None-the-less, I feel honoured to be included in a multinational team. Judges included Canadian, Italian, Swiss, American and Brazilian.

It is inevitable that when the judges have been flown from various parts of the world we are all taking the judging very seriously. Add to that the obvious care and attention given by the organisers, and a heavy implication of how serious this should be taken. Despite a serious approach the whole affair was conducted with a friendliness and good humour one would expect from any international beer event. Indeed, the humour in which Serge, the facilitator of proceedings, repeated at each round, in his charming Canadian-French accent, and with a comic lilt, "Oh, and I almost forgot to say, don't forget to put the number of the beer on the sheet!"<1>

One of the things that struck me about this judging was the focus and intent by all involved. Equally, the lack of discussion during judging was very definitely to my liking. I know that I sometimes detect different things in beer compared to other people's perceptions.  Sometimes I miss defects that others pick up in low concentrations. Equally, a very competently made beer can sometimes for me be just a little too flavourless or lacking depth. I like flavour bombs, and so a beer not only needs to be well made, but in addition needs some depth of flavour, originality and integration for it to score highly for me.

When I have judged at UK festivals there is inevitably a discussion occurs between judges. I would be sure, irrespective of how competent any table captain was at trying to ensure the less confident judge had his say, dominant personalities will bias the result. I know, I've been there and seen it happen.

Serge Noël (rear left)  and (most of) the judging team
This competition also has another interesting difference - the removal of unnecessary preconceptions. Firstly, we are not told the style of the beers we are judging. On the one hand this makes it difficult to know what the brewer intended. But the real positive for me is that nothing could be marked down because it was "not true to style" - This I very much liked. I've heard of, and witnessed, many great beers being marked down, or even thrown out of competitions just because the beer was deemed "not true to style" I'm a big style sceptic anyway. Perhaps this is one reason for choosing me.

The other thing I liked was the use of "black glasses" not completely opaque, but certainly giving a much reduce idea of colour and clarity. "It's all about the flavours Dave" Serge had explained to me, and even though he has some personal doubts about the smoked glass, he has the commitment to ensure the competition is run to the collective agreed rules of their organisation.

Le verre noir - along with our beers and AllBeer's French book
Judging without any peer assistance, any clues to style and without seeing the true colour or clarity is a bit daunting at first.  Equally, the pressure to do the best job I could felt quite intense. After all, these very good people have flown me 5 times zones and put me up in a very nice hotel. They deserve my best efforts.

I'm sure the reader might have various questions to ask regarding the methods used. My biggest question would be that if every beer is tasted by only three judges, is this a satisfactory cross section? However, we only had a fairly small time-slot within which to conduct the judging. Certainly after the first day, when we each tasted 36 beers and thought very carefully about each one, my palate and my concentration were jaded. Some of the last beers were 10% plus on that day. There is a possibility that my concentration could have been impaired due to the consumption of 36 different beers, even if the volumes were quite small.

 I have enjoyed the experience, even the challenge. Because my beers were not in the competition, and indeed I believe very few, if any of the beers presented I have tasted before, it made for a really refreshing experience as a brewer. I'd even go as far as to say that it has helped me to appreciate beer even more and still widen and deepen my skills.


<1>It is quite obvious that if a judges assessment cannot be paired with a beer then that beer will lose marks.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Montreal part 1

I do enjoy travelling. At least, I enjoy going to places I've never been before. If I think about it, I'm not sure I enjoy the actual act of moving large distances anymore. I enjoy the anticipation as an emotion whilst moving. The excitement of not really knowing what to expect. Of course, what ever you try to expect, the realisation is always quite different when you get there. But, now I think about it, travelling itself is a real pain in the butt.

I'm sat in a hotel room right now, resting after a couple of days of beer judging. I was asked to skip over to Montreal for the Mondial de la Biere, which is a rather large beer festival in Canada. We've also sent beer here, although I hasten to add, we didn't enter any into the competition I just judged.

When asked if I'd do it, with hotel and flights paid for, I didn't really have to think too hard about if I was going or not. Plucking up the courage to ask Ann if it was OK for me to do it took a little longer. But, flights and hotel paid for in return for tasting a few beers? No brainer, I think.

As it happens, we decided to pay for Ann to fly out too, I thought it only fair, and after all, I'm rubbish at packing suitcases.

Travelling in the name of beer never ceases to fill me with new ideas, changed perspectives and inspiration and sometimes just a little bit of frustration at the inertia I feel we sometimes exhibit in the UK. As more and more people experience world beer culture so we see this culture influence the UK beer scene. In turn we also see a widening gap between those who are open minded and have travelled, and those that cling to tradition like it's the only thing that is important.

There is a down side of our ever increasing global travel. There is the fact that London will soon be under many feet of sea water when the poles melt and that soon the oil will all run out and the planes will fall out of the sky. But that's not the down side I refer to. The real problem I'm finding is the increased difficulty in traveling.

I want to touch on this because I feel beer travel is a great way to widen horizons for any committed beer geek. Air travel has never been cheaper in real terms I'm sure. But it's become a right ball-ache.

I could be wrong, and I'll stand corrected if I am, but I'm sure once-upon-a-time transit through another country was a breeze. Provided you were travelling with the same carrier all the way through you check your luggage and go through security once. You didn't need to clear customs if you are in transit through another country and you just move on the secure side of the airport to your connection. Oh, and for sure, you did't need to claim your bags and re-check them in.

We travelled through Philadelphia to get here from Manchester. Apparently the tickets were cheaper than transferring at Heathrow. If you read this blog and take away one piece of useful information it would be that Philadelphia airport is a real nightmare. We stood in line for boarder control for a whole hour. We had to pick up our hold luggage and then re-check it having cleared customs. We then had to stand in line again for about 45 minutes to clear airport security again. I would have loved a coffee, or  beer and a relax and sit down before our next flight. However, a 2 1/2 hour stop over left us no time at all, only catching our plane with minutes to go.

It seems as more and more people engage in global travel it becomes more and more arduous in terms of security, especially when connecting in a country other than your origin or final destination.

But still, we are here, and Montreal is fantastic. It really doesn't feel like North America, and I hope I'm not insulting the fantastic people here by saying it has a brilliant European feel. It's only the cars, trucks and some of the architecture that reminds you that it's really the Northern American Continent.

I'll have more later on the festival and my experiences of the judging. Meanwhile I'll leave you with a link to a live TV interview I did this morning.

Righty, off to drink beer!

Monday 9 June 2014

All Change

It's been something of an interesting time these last couple of months. We had a couple of staff leave, which meant a significant skills gap was staring us very firmly in the face. So firmly indeed that I wondered if we were going to survive. Our bar project was already due to take a significant amount of my time, so losing a brewer was very much a problem.

But, undaunted, we pressed ahead and advertised. We advertised on this blog, in the local press and on the SIBA website. Several great people applied. Many thanks for those that did direct from reading my blog. Another time perhaps it'll be you.

We interviewed several people. One guy seemed to me to be perhaps just too good on paper to be as good in real life. He originated from New York State, has home-brew experience, and had also worked in retail. Equally he likes the outdoors and plays guitar. You might think this is irrelevant to joining a brewing team. Possibly, but when looking to build a small team it is useful to have some common interests. Like minded people always rub along a little better I feel.

When he came to interview sporting a fine craft beard it seemed that he was the best candidate for the job.

So, we hired Scott Larrabee, an American who has married a UK citizen and has been living in Cumbria for several years. After an amazingly short length of time he has gotten used to our crazy brew-kit and can just about brew by himself. I've left him in charge of the brewery whilst we swan off to Montreal and I'm almost not in the slightest bit worried.

I mentioned guitars. Well, of course some people claim to be able to play. Sometimes I have been known to show off a little, with little sucess. Scott, it turns out, plays proper ol' fasioned acobottle neck blues on RESONATORS. And he doesn't just have one resonator, but two. And, just to put the cherry on top, he can play them with a level of confidence that, if I don't keep my emotions in check, makes me want to break his fingers<1>.

So, as we have suddenly seemed to have almost reached mid-summer, things are getting slightly more OnTrack.


<1>I'm kidding of course.  I don't ever actually get the urge to break the fingers of people who are better at playing musical instruments than I am. However, it's the closest I can explain to the actual bizarre feeling of hearing, and seeing ones contemporaries performing and providing a complex combination of pleasure and jealousy that actually urges a determination to just bloody well get on and improve yourself.

I think a brewer tasting a really good beer, that he didn't brew himself, has a similar feeling.