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.

Monday 4 August 2014

The Faux Handpull

I got asked to do a survey today regarding cask beer. The first error in the survey was to ask me how much cask beer I drank a week. That would have been fine, only it clarified by saying cask beer was beer served by handpull. I'd agreed that largely this is true, but not always.

Hardknott OnTrack, for instance, does not have any handpulls, but does serve cask beer. Some pubs serve cask beer by gravity. I know of a few bars where cask beer is actually served through taps, much like keg beer. This does not stop it from being cask beer.

The handpull was a good way of getting beer out of the cellar and up to the bar, before the days of new fangled electric pumps and the like. It works well with a pub where the cellar is directly below the bar. Have a look at the picture I drew1. The handpull "sucks"2 beer up to the bar through good old fashioned beer hose. It's simple.

Many, and I do mean many pubs have no such arrangement. The beer hose can hold quite a lot of beer if it has any length. It is difficult to keep the beer in the pipe cool and there is significant wastage when line cleaning etc.

Most pubs have installed a thing called a python. It is especially useful where the cellar is not directly below the bar and where there might be some distance the beer has to travel. Suppose it is a more modern building that has a solid concrete floor and the cellar is a little way away on the same level. A python is a bundle of pipes, lagged and kept cool by a circulating cold water cooling system. The pipes are a lot narrower and so the wastage is less.

The problem with this is that the resistance to the flow of beer is much greater. Using a handpull with longer narrower pipes would at best be difficult and at worst pull the CO2 out of the beer.

This is solved by having a sort of servo pump in the cellar to pressurise the pipe. It's normally a FloJet diaphragm pump. The beer in the pipe is under a pressure all the way to the bar, a bit like kegged beers.

This is all well and good, only handpulls won't stop a pressurised beer from flowing, this is not what they are designed to do. Just before the handpull is installed a check valve. Basically this detects the reduced pressure caused by the "suction" from the handpull and so opens allowing the pressurised beer into the handpull.

This effectively makes the handpull act like a valve, rather than a pump. Its significantly faux and over complicated.

Those of us who are sensible omit the handpull and check valve and just put a tap in its place.


1I didn't draw the figures. These came from Brains during our recent collaboration3. I'm not sure who they are supposed to be.

2 Actually, it doesn't suck at all, it's atmospheric pressure that pushes it up. All my old physics teachers and lecturers would now, quite rightly, be shaking their heads at me for using such a stupidly non-scientific word like "suck" - however, I like to think that handpulls suck.

3More on this later, promise.

Friday 1 August 2014

Hop and Barley

The success of this blog peaked late 2009 when I came runner up at the British Guild of Beer Writers awards. For a very short time I had the idea I might actually get paid for writing about beer. Many people told me this was not an easy thing to manage. Four and a half years later I have come to believe them.

A topic of conversation that has on occasions bothered members of The British Guild of Beer Writers has been the lack of decent periodicals about beer. There are those published by CAMRA, Beer in particular is very good. Other than that there are not many beer-ralated publications that might commission paid beer writing work.

Fuelling the frustration is the disproportionate unbalance there is when it comes to column inches or TV airing when comparing beer with other beverages. I could mention a certain food program, maybe.

The debate rumbles on about how viable a proper beer magazine could be. Some point to the fact that it is expensive to distribute onto news stands. Others think that it would work if only someone would fund such a thing. I've always taken the view that if something is viable, and enough people want it to happen, eventually someone will have a go. If it truly has wings, then it'll fly.

At the weekend I was thrust a copy of a new concept of beer publication called Hop & Barley. A crowd funded project that promises to be a bi-monthly quality volume, with limited advertising so as to not detract from subject matter and delivered direct to your door.

It looks professional. Well designed, and binding and finish1 done to give a sense of style and quality. There is a good mix of subject matter, including brewery information, event reviews and a beer cooking article.

Hop & Barley looks like a good idea. If successful it should help provide a new and fresh approach to beer publishing. Being a subscription publication it should cut down on that killer distribution cost. It will no doubt provide an outlet for writers to contribute, although I'm not familiar with any in this preview first edition that I have. Perhaps this will be a new wave of writers, younger, fresher and more in tune with the ever changing beer scene.


1Perfectly bound, I believe is the term. What do I know? I'm not a publisher. Well, only on-line, and we all know internet writing doesn't count as much a print.