Tuesday 27 January 2015

Metalman in a metal can

When the whole talk of craft beer in a can started, a few years ago, I honestly thought it wouldn't take off. It's just crude to serve beer from a can. Uncouth. Totally unrefined and certainly not the thing that a respectable craft brewer would promote.

Well, it turns out I was wrong. My first realisation came about when I was having a bit of a twitter rant about the subject when well respected brewer type from NZ, Kelly Ryan, listed a few plus points of the format. It seems that oxygen take-up is much lower, headspace less, weight of the packaged product certainly lower per ml and metal cans significantly more recyclable than glass. I remember the put-down quite clearly. "there you go Dave, made a dumb-ass out of yourself again" I thought.

Last year we went over to Ireland and brewed with Metalman. Great fun was had making Yerba and Ireland is such a lovely place. The folks in Waterford are grand, too.

I remember GrĂ¡inne and Tim were looking at canning, and had already made up their minds back then to by-pass completely the idea of packaging into bottle. I have been watching their progress, quietly from a distance, it has to be said with a little bit of envy. I learn today that they have finally got their machine installed and are pushing out cans of their fine Pale Ale.

I still have a few concerns. The whole business of ensuring a gas tight seal, and the fact that the beer surface is so much larger before sealing than with bottle worries me. It doesn't quite stack up in my mind that the risk of oxygen take-up is actually less. I am left to assume that the real danger is from gas diffusion through the seal. In bottles there is a hard and inflexible surface of the glass against which a plastic seal is forced. The seal isn't perfect and despite the CO2 being at pressure there is still a movement of oxygen molecules which are smaller than carbon dioxide molecules. (32 grams per mole, compared to 44). The crimped metal to metal surfaces once must assume are a much tighter seal.

There are other problems, which I wonder how canning brewers manage. For a start, we get between a few hundred and 20,000 labels printed at a time. We get 18,050 bottles delivered per order. We do have to buy branded caps in lots of 110,000 (Next up it's green for us) - but we don't have to have huge stocks of very much.

Cans, now, as best I can tell they are printed in lots of at least 100,000 at a time. That is a shit-load. I know what 18,050 glass bottles look like. 5-6 times that is going to need a big warehouse, and that would be for each and every product. At least we don't have to buy our bottles with the label already on them. We're bottling tomorrow, I will probably decide which beer when I get in to the brewery, safe in the knowledge that the bottles don't care. It only takes a few minutes of swearing to get the labelling machine to work properly.

And then there is the little nightmare of paying for the damn things. Cash-flow, it's a real bastard, really it is. Just in time is the way forward, not having a great big warehouse.

However, as a firm convert to the idea of microbreweries pushing out keg, with various advantages, why should any format be the preserve of big breweries? If cans provide a route to market for smaller breweries then why shouldn't we have a slice of that particular cake?

Cans are indeed light. Around 30% of the weight of our bottles is glass. This becomes significant when considering transport. Whether posting our from our webshop, of for that matter any of the on-line places you can get our beer, there are weight restrictions that impact on the costs of getting it to the customer. We can only put a maximum of 1,200kg on a pallet. If a third is glass there is less room for beer.

The recycling thing is much more important though. Metal is relatively easy to recycle. Cans can easily be sorted into aluminium and ferrous with simple magnetism. They can be crushed and transported in an economic form.

Glass is harder to sort. Apparently there is technology that can deal with it, but one can assume this has to be done before any crushing occurs. For certain it's much more complex than just waving a magnet next to the stuff. The nearest place to Cumbria that can automatically sort glass I believe is in Liverpool.

We have to pay about the same to send any waste glass into re-cycling as we do sending it into the land-fill route. At the other end I am told by our glass supplier that they cannot get enough waste re-cyclable glass. My local re-cycling entrepreneur tells me it is the transport that kills the economics. All down to weight again, you see.

So, is Hardknott going to start canning? I know Thornbridge have decided to stear clear for now. I'm keeping an open mind, although more and more these days, on a whole range of subjects, it seems this is the best strategy, at least up until the point of saying "yes".

Monday 26 January 2015


It's still January. Don't worry, there isn't much of it left. You can all come out of your self-inflicted, miserable, demoralising de-tox programs soon, and life can get back to it's cheerful norm.

We've been busy. Very, very busy indeed. We should have some really exciting news before long. We are told that three of our beers, Azimuth, Code Black and Infra Red into a major national supermarket really soon. Looks like around a doubling of our machine throughput. Best get the cogs of that bottling machine greased and some more hops and malt ordered.

Last week we got to Manchester Beer and Cider festival. It was good to catch up with people there. In particular the guys behind the Tryanuary initiative. It is good to see some real enthusiasm in January, when so much of the world is looking down and miserable.

Keep up the good work guys, sorry I didn't get a link on here sooner.

Meanwhile we can look forward to an enjoyable year as we start to approach spring. It makes me wonder what good it does to have self-inflicted abstinence in January, when we are already suffering the withdrawal of the fun of Christmas. Surly we should just get ourselves down to the pub and have a couple of pints to relax.

Tuesday 20 January 2015

Elixir of Invincibility

Some time ago Vitesse Noir was banned by The Portman Group. The award winning duo Boak and Bailey, in their book, 1suggested that we had contrived it as a publicity prank.

"(Hardknott) even had its own rather contrived dispute with The Portman Group"

Elixir of Invincibility
Now, it is important to me to take this opportunity to state that we did not, on that occasion, intend to poke The Portman Group with a pointy stick. They genuinely got a complaint from a member of the public, we simply milked the PR opportunity. It was all a bit of fun for us. Sport, even.

Yes, this however, is a contrived attempt to bait The Portman Group. If it works, we'll get some free PR.  There is no doubt that last time the positives significantly outweighed the negatives. If they don't bite then we can be satisfied that they have learnt their lesson and will leave us alone.

When we recently decided to make a 7.3% double IPA we wanted to catch the attention of people. The beer itself was to be made all with Southern Hemisphere hops, Scott had researched the optimum dry hopping rate, and we got along with brewing it. This beer is now ready to send out in bottles and kegs.

Meanwhile a talented young artist, who is doing A level art, drew me a picture reminiscent of various fantasy type stories. The various Middle Earth movies were shot in part in New Zealand, which has stunning scenery. I'm a fan of The Disk World stories myself. A load of tenuous links perhaps, but we came up with the name "Elixir of Invincibility" and got our very good friends at Lemon Top to finish off the design of the label.

And then we decided to go up into our local mountains and film a sort of adventure, a tenuous story, and some great views. I was going to try to incorporate wizards, dwarfs, trolls and magic into the video, but as it happened, The Chinese New Year has resulted in the resident Cumbrian dragon being unavailable for filming.

Elixir of Invincibility from Hardknott Brewery on Vimeo.

1It is important to note that I am not in anyway upset at the comments in their excellent book. Indeed, if anything, I am quite flattered.

Tuesday 6 January 2015

Welcome to January

Well, the seasonal stuff did a fair bit of good for Hardknott. We took some risks, like a Christmas beer, and promotional activity at Booths. They both went quite well, but not without a fair bit of hard work. In particular, Figgy Pudding was a huge risk due to the problems of what to do with anything left over after the event. Clearly Christmas beers, in this post seasonal period of fashionable starvation and dubious detoxification, would not sell afterwards and we would almost certainly be left with unsalable stock. As it happens, demand outstripped supply for bottles and the little bit of keg that is left will go into bottle now for ageing experiments.

Some of us will carry on with our own carefully balanced lifestyles, broadly unchanged by passage of man-made social influence. However, much of the population will have New Year's resolutions and will be desperate to counter the largely self-inflicted gluttony by diet, abstinence and some sort of quack detox scheme. Dryanuary, for me, is one of the most ludicrous ideas ever to have been dreamt up. Really, if you are that worried about your relationship with alcohol perhaps you need to seriously look at your drinking habits.

We are constantly told by the press, and Government, that we eat too much of the wrong stuff, drink too much and fail to take enough exercise. We all have busy lives, me too, and finding time to fit in that visit to the gym, or go for a jog, or whatever, is so damn difficult. For me, the number of times I've left work far later than I should of, got home, and made something quick and easy, and far too damn much like comfort eating. Moreover, if travelling, it's very difficult to eat healthily, tastily and economically. Frankly, a burger meal just seems so much better value than a super food salad.

Considering the above, it isn't surprising that January brings out all the daftness of New Year attempts to make ourselves more healthy. We don't want to let go of the throttle over Christmas, we went to the supermarket, bought all sort of temptations we didn't really need, you can't let them go off. With a fridge still dangerously full, off we go to the supermarket again for New Year's event, because we can, well, it's that time of year, this is what has to be done. So, full of guilt we knuckle down for the January cleansing. It just seems to get dafter every year.

Of course, I support every individual's right to determine how they should live their life. However, I wanted to write this re-buff to Pete Brown's detox defence last year, but never got around to doing it. It's not that I don't get some of the points Pete makes. I just think that there is an alternative view to his points that we should all consider. The problems of pitching-on yeast and keeping a yeast strain going, which is really the way to go if consistent and efficient brewing is to be achieved, a solid production and sale of a base-line is required.

The other big issue for such boom-and-bust business is cash-flow. It is an absolute nightmare. What we would all like in business is solid, dependable and constant cash-flow. Buying in of raw materials, production, delivery and timely payment of invoices. Seasonality mucks this up something terrible. We need to try and find enough cash resources to fund the production of extra in November and December if we are to fully benefit from this peak in trade. On top of the risk of not selling what beer has been made, there is the difficulty and cost of finding that cash.

This wouldn't be so bad if there was any real evidence that longterm detox really worked. OK, well done, you lost a stone in January. But then your metabolism has gone into famine mode. Come the beginning of February the beast is let loose again. OK, so you might ease back into it and still be a little health conscious, but come Easter your body still remembers the famine of January and energy is stored ready for the next famine period.

So yes, if Pete is pissed off with the industry for telling him he's a traitor then I'm just as pissed off with him for being one. We don't need leading beer writers to join in anyway with the neoprohibitionists. Although I would defend the right of Pete to write about what he wants to write about, and indeed there is an argument that it is bringing the issues out into the open, but here is my equal right to rebuff what I see as a silly stance on the subject. But despite my desire to support his right to his own way of dealing with his health, and to write about it if he wants, in reality I do wish he'd just shut up on that particular subject. The problem of course is that Pete is a good person, likeable, writes well and is hugely respected, this is why we are all the more upset by his betrayal.

His somewhat outraged  indignation at the complaints by solid pub fans that at Christmas there are too many occasional  drinkers, and the pubs are empty afterwards does grate with me. As my fairly meagre living comes from the trade, and seeing all the difficulties of staffing pubs, organising the stocking, the risks of overstocking, or under-stocking, of course we get irritated by the huge fluctuation and massive business risk associated with it.

Over Christmas pubs have to staff-up with temporary staff, many perhaps on what I'm sure Pete would see as an evil zero-hours contract. In January what do they do with all those extra staff, and indeed, perhaps there isn't even work enough for any permanent staff the pub might have.

I like the people who have a problem with the over-full pub at Christmas and the empty pub in January. They are our solid customer base the rest of the year and without them we'd not have a business at all.

There is, however, one thing I do agree with Pete about; the lack of healthy options in pubs. However, having tried it myself, it's actually not anywhere as easy as one might expect. It's all to do with what is expected from a pub. You see, although it would be nice to have healthy options, it turns out people don't generally go to pubs to be healthy. Pubs do what they do because it's actually what works. OK, perhaps a little extra effort in January might not go amiss, but generally, in a pub, when given the healthy choice most people just plump for chips anyway. We like chips, you see.

There is an alternative, called Tryanuary. I like the idea, and it deserves a blog post all of its own, but I'm mentioning it here incase I fail to write that piece.