Tuesday, 29 September 2009

British Made World Beer

When I was in London last I ended up tasting some delicious American beers. There were quite a few beer writers at the event and of course we all loved the beer. Most of us would like to see more of this type of beer in the UK. Of course many continental styles of beer are regularly imported from Germany, Holland, Belgium and Czech Republic. Some of the more popular brands are contract brewed in the UK. Oriental beers like Tzing Tao may well be contract brewed closer to home and certainly don't come from China or wherever.

Is that a bad thing? Contract brewing I mean. After all, beer is normally over 90% water1 so brewing it closer to the point of sale is nearly always a better option for reasons of both carbon footprint and shear cost benefits. It was mentioned to me by one of the beer writers present that we should be making more "world beers" in this country, for exactly that reason. I agreed, reluctantly, as the American brewers present are all jolly nice chaps.

Being a beer writer I'm interested in who the competition are, after all it's difficult getting paid for this beer writing job as it is. A good place to start is the Guild web site. I was happy that in Cumbria there was just me and Jeff Pickthall in the guild and whilst Jeff makes a worthy competitor, at least there is only one of him2. But wait! Who is this guy in Workington, just up the coast? He is called Graeme Mitchell according to the listing of Guild members, I hope he doesn't steal too much of the available journalistic work in the county3.

At the recent Good Beer Guide launch I met the guy, and it turns out he's a brewer, possibly in the loosest sense of the word, but a brewer he is. He is behind a company called Mitchell Krause Brewing and he has commissioned three "World Beers" to be contract brewed here in the UK. A Czech Pilsner, an American Pale Ale and a Bavarian Hefe Weiss. Of course this was of great interest to me and I told him so. He said he'd pay me a visit in a few days.

Yesterday we got a call from a Marstons' sales rep. Apparently we haven't ordered anything from them for a while. Oh, what a surprise. They offered to check to see if they could sell us Guinness or Carling or Coca Cola Schweppes products cheaper than their competitors. I think he was quite taken aback when he found out we didn't sell any of this type of tat. I twittered the fact with "Marstons rep has just been on the phone. Why do they think we might suddenly be interested?" which prompted the reply from @thebeernut "Think? What makes you think they think?" Good point Beer Nut.

Anyway, all of this made me think about Graeme Mitchell and his world beers. Was his ears burning? The next phone call I got was from him. He wanted to come and see me and bring me some of his beers. Fantastic, free samples, that's what I like.

So, the beers. Well firstly the lager. Anybody who follows this blog regularly would know that I'm not the worlds biggest lager fan. To impress me it's got to be a tasty lager. This one is properly lagered at -1oC for at least 4 weeks and the CO2 is not removed prior to bottling. Rather than letting the beer gas off and then be force carbonated during bottling, as much of the gas as possible is retained in the beer, presumably with just a head pressure applied as required. I think this might make all the difference. This lager actually tasted quite bitter, had loads of hoppy aromas from the Saaz and a long bitter finish that was really quite pleasant. It's still lager and still a little too fizzy for my liking and with an aroma that is reminiscent of buttered asparagus that I always get from more flavoursome lagers. But then the comment came from Ann. "It doesn't taste like lager, well not shit lager anyway" - goodness, I'm going to have to do something about her.

Next I tried the Hefe Weiss. Massive esters on the nose. I simple adore esters, it's what I love about my favourite Belgian beers. This one is based on Bavarian style and the characteristics are all in the yeast and the name literally means "yeasty white" so there you go. This for me was my favourite. It tastes gorgeous, with a velveted body palate, not so bitter but with plenty of hop stuff going on. A short aftertaste, which would be it's downfall, were I to venture one, but all in all a grand beer.

Finally the American Pale Ale. I knew it would not quite live up to my expectations of it's style. Graeme told me the IBU and it's just not enough. But, it's brewed for the British market and so the ABV is a little lower than say Sierra Nevada, perhaps it's right for the intended market; the people who might progress away from traditional British styles but might be put off by the hoppy greatness of American style beers.

Well, having got my major gripe out of the way, lets be nice about the beer. I decided to open a bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale to put up against it. Yes, the S.N. was more bitter, of course. But wait, Mitchell Krause has managed a lot more nose on this one. The aroma from the C hops just bounce out of the beer. Much more than the Sierra Nevada. Nothing like a real IPA from the USA, but still, a fine beer to hint to the unaccustomed Brit what might be available in the hoppy world and significantly more hoppy than the British cask interpretation of IPA that floats around my county.

If there was a real down side to these beers it might be that they are contract brewed. But that's not the future Graeme is looking towards. He hopes to get the brand established and once he has done so he'll start brewing in Cumbria. Still, is contract brewed somewhere in the UK not better than shipping a world beer over to the UK? I think so, although I'd personally look forward to the day he does a proper IPA, you know, IBU closing 100.

Overall a grand job Graeme, you've got my backing. Now, all I have to do is remember if we're still trading with the wholesaler he's gone with. Better get the order in, although the space in the fridge is getting tight.

As an aside, the glass for Mitchell Krause is a twother. Topical it would seem. I quite like the option of a 2/3rds of a pint as a measure. Yes, sure we could complain about the threat to the Great British Pint, and a worthy worry this is too, but for some beers it makes sense. Now, I need to conclude this post as Mark has thoughtlessly4 written a post that I probably have to comment on.

I think I complained about blogging getting to be a chore in the last post. Well that was fun, ignore the previous comment, I was talking rubbish.

1Except in the case of Tokyo* where nearer 80% is water.
2Some people might be very relieved at that fact.
3Just in case anybody thinks I'm being remotely serious here, there doesn't appear to be a great deal of work for beer writers here. It's marginally easier to make a living selling and making beer, not much, but every little counts.
4By thoughtlessly I don't mean the post has no thought put into it, despite Mark being a real competitor in this beer writing thing, I'm not going to start slagging off such a nice chap. By thoughtless I simply mean I need to direct my thoughts over to his blog. A cynic would suggest this is tactical play of course. We are in the run up to the Guild awards after all.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

New West Cumbrian Beers

Did I mention we'd been busy? Oh, I did. Well it's got a bit quieter now, although I'm still feeling a little bit weary. Blogging has turned into a bit of a chore at the moment, but there is still loads of stuff I need to put into type, so I'm making an effort to catch up. There should be at least one blog reader, if what she says is true, waiting for this one. Hopefully she'll be pleased.

It's been a couple of weeks since the launch of the Good Beer Guide. Our local branch decided to have a little launch party in the local Wetherspoons. Apparently some of them were worried it would be a waste of time. Well I'm not sure what they wanted to achieve, but it seems it got some local press interest and I enjoyed the afternoon as well, so I think it was worth it.

There were three notable interesting things there for me. First was the chance to try Blackbeck Brewery's first brew, called Trial Run, no ABV declared on the clip but I imagine a typical just under 4% type of thing. This brewery has been a long time in the pipeline. Indeed it appears on the now out of print Ale Trail1 leaflet that was printed about 3 years ago. So, is the beer worth waiting for? It's certainly inoffensive. Some might just say bland. It's certainly very quaffable, if a session ale is the thing you are looking for. Not exactly exciting, but then not unpleasant either.

The other ale I had a chance to try was Whitehaven's recent addition called Breeze 3.9%. I'll be honest in saying I haven't been overly inspired by the beers from this Ennerdale based brewery, but at least they have been brewing, and with some enthusiasm. They don't appear on the Ale Trail map but have been going for a couple of years now and are certainly getting their beers out there. Because Sheila is a jolly nice person and still talks to me even if I have been critical of her beer I was keen to find one I liked. Was this going to be the one? I can say definitely it is. Breeze is a nice balanced beer, a good session beer with malty body and some nice hopping. No evidence of anything unpleasant to my palate and I could have very happily had another.

However, there was the Ennerdale Blonde 3.8%, also from the same brewery, I had tried to be nice about it last time I drunk it, but was not completely happy with it. Everything deserves a second chance. Wow, what a difference. Actually, really, really a whole load better. These people really have been learning I'd say. Sheila was there and told me they had been working really hard to improve the beer. It shows, grand job.

But of course you can never be sure when you get a bad beer if it's the fault of the brewery or the fault of the pub. Despite my dislike of Wetherspoons, the Bransty Arch in Whitehaven looks after it's beers well. After all, it also got into the Good Beer Guide, along with us, so it must be good. I can honestly say I've never had a bad pint there and this occasion was no different.

Oh, nearly forgot, they decided to have a raffle, a bit of fun. I took along a bottle of Tokyo* just for a laugh to put in as a prize. I'm not sure they knew what to make of the strongest beer in the UK.


1The Ale Trail was a cool idea that came out of the Foot and Mouth disaster. This agricultural disease not only caused farming great problems but severely damaged, and possibly changed forever the tourist industry in The Lake District. Grant aid provided the funding to produce a leaflet that gave information for the visitors about the microbreweries in Cumbria. It got revised and reprinted about 3 years ago funded by the breweries themselves with a little bit of further grant aid and some support from CAMRA. It is currently out of print.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Alcohol crime

I'm normally in support of the bloggers who complain about the Government's incessant neo-prohibitionist stance. In the main it really is annoying and generally way off target. It's the blanket regulation that annoys me. The solution to the problem is, as always, make some new rules up rather than ensure the existing ones are applied. Curmudgeon is a good one for complaining about such things and I broadly agree with what he says. Pete Brown, by his own admission, is getting slightly obsessive about the media coverage of alcohol related health and disorder problems, I think he has a point, about media coverage that is, not his obsession.

Recent figures show that the number of drunk and disorderly convictions has dropped dramatically. Pete Brown said "you just can't win" and complained about the press reporting of this fact. Most press stories pointed out that it might be due to less effective policing rather than an actual drop in alcohol related crime. Personally, I think the press got this one right. I really do think that the police and authorities are much more reluctant these days to apply the law of the land. Instead of sorting out the problems, new laws are made that don't work either, because nobody is prepared to actually apply the law as it stands.

I commented to some very nice people in my bar a few weeks ago that all this alcohol related guff in the press was over exaggerated and really it's a load of fuss about nothing. They disagreed with me, interesting considering they had probably already drunk more than their recommended daily intake, and didn't look like stopping. They felt that town centres are just getting worse and worse. OK, it could be middle aged people are always going to have that view, but I can't help feeling they have a point.

The crux of the matter is that it's not the volume of alcohol people drink, it is their attitude to it. A few irresponsible people are causing a great deal of harm to the industry and the vast majority of sensible drinkers freedoms are suffering because of it. The policing of very old laws, or rather the lack of it, is the problem and this could do with being looked at rather than sweeping it under the carpet.

I believe there still exists a law that permits a licensee to refuse entry to his establishment or to insist that a person leaves his establishment. It is indeed a criminal offence to serve a drunk alcohol or to permit a third party to buy alcohol for a drunk. In my experience, when invoking these laws in my own place, the police have been very happy to help, if I required it. It seems today we are expected to be more customer focused, refusing to serve a drunk because it is a criminal offence is seen to be less important than keeping the customer happy. In turn the police only step in when the licensee asks these days, anything else is seen as interference with the business. I believe the police should be more proactive than they are in curtailing irresponsible alcohol consumption and retail.

So, I maintain that reduction in convictions for being drunk and disorderly is indeed primarily because the police and licensees are less keen to take action against offenders. I do not believe it is because we are getting more responsible. I run a responsible house and it gets me all sorts of bad press. If we wish to be able to enjoy drinking responsibly we need to apply the very satisfactory laws, without fear or favour. I believe the bad press surrounding alcohol is primarily created by a reluctance to enforce these laws on the very small minority who flaunt them.

This is all making me sound a bit like the prohibitionists, which I really don't think I am. I believe people should be permitted to enjoy whatever volumes of alcohol they like and wherever they like providing they don't cause any problems to anybody else. Basically, getting drunk should not be a problem. Getting drunk and making a dickhead of yourself, as a minority of people do, should result in action. I'd like to see an increase of people being thrown out of, or possibly being banned from pubs, locked up in the cells for the night, cautioned and if necessary prosecuted1.

As an aside, the topic #guinness250 on twitter last night had a few people complaining about irresponsible Guinness consumption - So Diagio, is bulk selling of alcohol really the most responsible thing to do? "Enjoy your Guinness responsibly" they say.


1Hopefully, if this were to happen, more of us would be able to knock back a few until we barely remember what we did and then stagger back to our tents causing only minor inconvenience while we ask to be shown how to turn on our torch. You know who you are, but you'll have to try harder if you want to be banned.

Thursday, 24 September 2009


I know, I'm copying what the great BrewDog are doing, but come on James, imitation is the greatest form of flattery. It's certainly true that since taking the plunge and actually digging into my deep pocket with my very short arms1 and ordering some BrewDog beers I've been impressed with what they do. I love Tokyo for special occasions2 and for the slightly more regular occasions3 I like the Paradox. Now an 18.2% beer is not something I'm going to try and replicate any time soon. But the idea of ageing a stout in a whisky cask is achievable, even for this less experienced brewer. But where to get the cask from?

We've been buying whisky off a small distiller in Dumfries and Galloway for some time now. They are Bladnoch Distillery situated near Wigtown. Apart from making their own whisky they also do some very interesting, single cask bottlings off whiskys from other distillers. If you are interested in these then I suggest you join the Bladnoch forum where some interesting and very reasonably priced whiskys can be bought mail order by forum members. One of the whiskys we have here is Caol Ila, which is not only very tasty but is selling rather well. I recently asked what the chances were of getting hold of an empty cask and was very pleased that they happily agreed to let me have one, providing I went up to Bladnoch to collect it. A visit to a distillery? Oh go on then it's not far from Carlisle I thought.

Having got a stout in the fermenter on Tuesday, yesterday seemed a good time to go up and collect the cask. However, Google maps4 reported a longer journey than I expected. Never mind, we so much needed a day out, this was the perfect excuse. Besides, they do distillery tours and stuff so it'd be nice to get a look around. We needed to pick up some cheese from Thornby Moor anyway, so we set off, picked up cheese, including some nice smelly oak smoked Cumberland, I love the smell of that cheese.

We got there and managed to find our contact Sue, who then found the Caol Ila cask safely stacked behind a great forest of "useless" casks. A few chess moves later and we had the cask balanced on the front of a fork lift truck for loading into our car. I think Ann was a little apprehensive about damage to the car. Once in it seemed we had room for a second cask. A Bladnoch cask to use as a high table in the bar perhaps? What a good idea.

Although they were busy with normal punters, Sue's husband gladly showed us around the distillery starting in the bonded warehouse. I realised that there was a certain amount of privilege here. Members of the public are not normally permitted into the bonded warehouse. Even more thrilling was being invited to taste the samples from casks being considered for bottling. There is a warm feeling you get from cask strength whisky. An even warmer feeling ensues when you know the stuff has not had any duty paid on it. Then look around. This is only one of many warehouses. I'm not even going to start to work out the amount of alcohol that might be here.

The entrance to the oldest of the warehouses says "Angels keep out.....shhhh..whisky sleeping" this is reference to the "Angels Share". Whisky, in oak casks5 slowly evaporates and defuses through the slightly porous wood. In the original warehouse, which is nearly 200 years old, the smell of whisky soaked oak is really extremely pleasant, "that is the angels share" my guide tells me. In here they have a metal cage so the public can come in and view without any risk of them making off with the odd cask or two. Also in here are the casks that have been forward bought, duty free, a nice idea. For less than £1000 you can buy one of these. They might get you 200 bottles of whisky. £5 a bottle, what a bargain. The trouble is you have to pay duty and VAT when the whisky is removed from the warehouse, even if it happened to be inside you at the time. Duty on a cask is probably around £3000 a go. Perhaps not quite such a useful idea.

On to the distillery itself. The malting house is now defunct but makes an interesting venue for the forthcoming Book Town Festival that was being prepared for when we were there. These days most small distillers buy in malted barley, no different from the majority of brewers these days. Raymond the owner said, when I bumped into him just before we went, he would have gladly let me have some peat smoked malt to play around with had he known I was visiting. Next time maybe.

The thing that I like most about whisky is that it is simply beer that's been boiled up a bit after fermentation. In fact the only difference between beer and whisky is that they boil it after fermentation rather than before and don't bother with hops. I'm sure a distiller would say different, but in simplistic terms, that's about it. A look at the mash tun pretty much confirms that. Mash temperatures and O.G. don't seem to be a great lot different. I was intrigued that they use batch sparging. Most brewers I know use continuous sparging. I wish I had their great big lauter rake though, rather than relying on my oversized wooden spoon and good old armstrong power. Mind you, a mash at this size of distillery uses 5 tonnes of grist and 3 washes of 11,000 litres.

Anyway, after that on to the "washbacks" goes the wort where the yeast is pitched. No cooling on these great big 45,000 litre fermentation vessels, apparently this gets to be a big problem in the summer. But, fermentation is complete in about 2 days at which point the "wash" can be used for distilling immediately if they want.

As is the case with all Scottish malt whisky, double distillation is used. The 6-7% beer, which is actually called wash and is held in a wash charger. It then goes on to be distilled first up to around 23%, at which point it's called low wines and then onto a further distillation.

During final distillation the spirit that is first given off, at this point called the fore-shots, is at around 80%ABV but full of toxins and impurities. They divert this back into a holding tank to reuse and then start collection of the main spirit after around 30 minutes of distillation. During the main distillation the spirit collected might be 65% or so in strength and this is stored ready to go into casks. Finally the spirit becomes too weak and this is also returned to the holding tank for the next distillation. I'd tell you what this rubbish liquor is called, if only I'd made a note of it in my book.

Into the cask, where of course much of the magic happens. Whisky is clear upon distillation. It might have the smoky peaty flavours and aromas but is as clear as water. Eau du Vie, water of life or in Gælic "Uisge Beatha" which became "iskie bae" by 1583 untill eventually being called whisky. The cask is the only thing that gives a true single malt any colour. Much of Bladnoch whisky is in fact quite pale, but no less delicious for it.

Unfortunately the still was not running, but if it had been I'd have not been able to climb inside the vessels. It's going to run next week apparently. But in any case, it's nice to see a little bit of tradition going.

As mentioned above, we got a very good chat with the delightfully enthusiastic owner of Bladnoch. He bought the distillery in the 1990's, disused and with a covenant that prevented it from distilling. Since the time Raymond bought the property, apparently just for the cottages that used to be the homes of the compulsory excise men up until the 80's when Thatcher's government deregulated things. By 2000 Raymond had convinced Diagio that Bladnoch represented no threat to their massive industrial manufacture of spirit6 and he was once again permitted to distil whisky. This week Bladnoch launch their first 8 year old whisky to be distilled by Raymond and his team. It just goes to show.

I think the intro to the talk Raymond is giving soon says it all:
"The owner of Bladnoch distillery, Raymond Armstrong, tells how he came to live every whisky obsessive’s dream, to buy an old distillery and bring it back into production. An inspiring story of what can be done with a little luck, a lot of determination and the gift of the gab."
I can feel some parallels here with beer. Many in fact. The enthusiasm of the small time brewer or distiller, the people who enjoy the product and seek it out, the cottage industry feel of the operation but most of all the thoroughly friendly people involved in it all. Of course producing a product that is more expensive is never going to have a mass appeal. Equally a product where your choices are too big. Is the fino matured whisky better than the brandy matured or the other way round?

I would recommend a visit to this distillery, if ever you are out that way. Nice people, nice whisky and if you can't get there, I have some here for you to try.

On the way home the combined smell of oak smoked cheese and peaty Caol Ila was immense. The angels share was clearly still going. I'm glad the cask is now in the cellar, after having to remove the door off it's hinges. It's now cool and so the evaporation of whisky should be inhibited while I wait for the beer to go in it.

I got back home to find my stout had done 80% of it's fermentation in 24 hours. It's a good job the FV is only 60% full otherwise it would have been a magic porridge pot situation. I think it got a little hot as the yeast had stopped and has now restarted. A sneaky taste revealed a stout of promising flavour, but I am worried that the yeast has been unduly stressed. I also found out that Ann had, rather paradoxically, ordered Smokehead from LFW. These are the whisky casks that BrewDog use for one of their whisky aged stouts. This might all end up very interesting as I also bought a bottle of Caol Ila that had come out of the cask I had just liberated from Bladnoch. Should make for some informative tasting sessions later in the year.

If the whisky aged stout works out, I'll blog it. If not then I'll keep quiet.

1Actually, my pockets are nearly always empty. Ann hordes the cash and I have to beg for access to it. It's a good job as I would just spend it on beer or big boys toys otherwise.

2Like I got to the end of a day without loosing it with somebody. It doesn't happen often.

3Like birthdays and Christmas, which happen with more regularity and predictability.

4If ever there was a reason to build a bridge.

5 Q: What is the definition of whisky? A: malt spirit that has spent at least 3 years in an oak cask, apparently. Nothing else can be whisky. Why Bells and Grouse can call themselves a whisky, when a large amount of the liquid in the bottle is not in fact whisky, I don't know.

6Diagio and many other spirit producers, to get the cost of our drink down, make most spirits on a universal still, which I believe might be called a Coffey still. Even the base for most blended whiskies is largely made in the same way as vodka, gin and rum. These bulk spirits being flavoured with various additives and colourings to get the products you buy in supermarkets and chain pubs.

Monday, 21 September 2009

European Benefits?

I'm a bit of a Euro-sceptic really. I'm not keen on the idea of extra bureaucracy laden on everything we do. Having a political law making system that has tiers1 all the way from parish councils through borough councils, parliament and then to the European parliament makes a confusing, costly and over cumbersome system, in my view. Thank goodness in England we don't have regional Governments as well. Besides, I like going to the continent for holidays because they do things differently out there, it seems that more and more these days everywhere we go is becoming more homogeneous with less regional variations to be found the world over.

I'm also a beer tie sceptic. If you read this blog regularly you will have already worked that out. My view for the best part of three decades has been that tied pubs are in many ways inferior and my view on that is unlikely to change. Of course, the beer tie has been an integral part of how the British pub industry has worked for over 100 years or more, so to change it might well accelerate the changes in the whole of the British pub scene. Personally, I'm not convinced that would be a bad thing. The days of the "community pub" may well be numbered, the back street boozer has had it's day, out of those that are left a greater proportion, based on industry statistics2, are tied to some brewery or PubCo.

Recently CAMRA's Mike Benner claimed that European Law would prevent the abolition of the tie. Now, I remembered something in the back of my mind about there being an exemption in place that prevented the Treaty of Rome affecting our beer tie system. I'm no expert on how this all works, but it seems to me that perhaps the first step is simply to permit this piece of European legislation to work.

Although I don't like the tie, I would have to admit that a complete abolition would be a crazy idea. After all, where would I stand as a brewpub? We could argue all day, I'm sure, about what precisely we should do about it. There is European legislation which is designed to prevent undesirable monopolization of various markets without unduly affecting free market enterprise. Surely we just need to allow that to work? Perhaps this solution might pacify my two key scepticisms.

Meanwhile, my mischievous friend Jeff Pickthall has created a survey. He is interested in the correlation between political persuasion and Real Ale. Whilst I think there is an element of paranoia on Jeff's part I also think there is a validity to the question. There does seem to me to be a high number of CAMRA officials who are also union activists. Besides, just because you are paranoid, doesn't mean they are not out to get you and I know Jeff is not alone in his views. I think it does have some relevance to the beer tie.

Anyway, do the survey, I think it's a laugh. I like the political compass that is used. Political opinion is far more complicated than simple left and right. I don't think the political compass is complex enough to really describe peoples political views, but it's better than a simple one dimensional measure. For the survey to be meaningful Jeff will need input from as many people as possible. Also, it needs as broad a selection of people as possible. If you don't want to do it because of some belief you have then you might just be the missing bit of data. It does allow the use of pseudonyms, so he'll never know who you are if you don't want him to.

1.....or is that tears?

2Source: The Community Pub Report, October 2008, page8 which shows an increase in the proportion of tenanted/leased pubs over freehold.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

When winter

As our visitors make their last ditch efforts to enjoy what might be left of the summer, we have to start thinking about the winter. I have a good idea about the minimum amount of money I would need to take over the bar in order to cover the extra costs of being open over being closed. When the sun shines, during the season, the bad days generally outweigh the good ones. So far this month we seem to have done well with sales per day outperforming August. But it has been hard work.

Without doing the detailed analysis I think we've done all right this year. Not bad after a grotty summer and considering the overall gloom and doom in the economy. Reigning in the overheads during the winter months should see us survive another year without bankruptcy looming.

In a few weeks time the weather will deteriorate and the footfall will reduce. I expect by the end of October I will be questioning the sense in being open mid week. For this reason we close mid week in November and will be closed fully during December and January. The trade will be non existent for most of that time. We will open up again at the start of February, again just at weekends and will be open fully by March. During the quieter months we'll grab a bit of a holiday and work like mad on decorating and finishing various projects on the place.

If you are clever you might well ask about the Christmas break. Do we not open then? Well, the last three years we haven't. We worked out that to enable us to do so we would have to retain seasonal staff, who actually don't really want to be here, just for a few hundred pounds extra takings. The effect on the bottom line is negligible. For the last three years we have been closed.

To stock up, estimate the number of casks to tap and vent, prep food and minimise waste is tricky for such a short period as the Christmas Holidays. Besides, do we not deserve one festivity off a year?

We've pondered opening for a part of the New Year break, perhaps for discerning guests. I wondered if a beer blogging and twittering type 3 day New Year "party" might be an idea. With luck, the type of people I'm thinking would enjoy the experience might well put up with a slightly reduced standard of service due to our inevitable core staff team. The deal might be a dinner bed and breakfast break and to minimise wastage for our kitchen a buffet style dinner each night, no choice but a selection of dishes for everybody to tuck into and try a bit of everything. Of course, it'll be to our usual standard.

I need to brew soon. I'm thinking of doing a big double imperial stout, or something similar at around 8%. It would be ready for the New Year. Any further ideas on brews to try would be appreciated, although strong would be the aim, I need something I can store for the spring. I would of course have something more sensible for the confirmed pint drinkers.

Anyway, that's the idea. Any takers out there?

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Interesting Times

There is purported to be a Chinese curse that says "May you live in interesting times". Although it seems that there is no authenticity to this curse, and despite this uncertainty of it's origins, it feels to me like I have been dealt a wish by somebody that I should never lead a boring life.

The last week or so has been a roller coaster of fun and anguish. Of course nobody is perfect, but after a seemingly good run of success we appeared to take our eye off the ball and gained dissatisfaction in unlikely corners. This did set me in something of a period of unhelpful downward worry and introvert self-doubt.

Shortly afterwards I had an email, and corresponding comment on a previous post from our very nice people who got married here. I had copied the photographs of the wedding onto a CD and mailed it to them. Here is what they had to say:

"Hi Dave and Anne,

Kim and Jake here (last week’s bride and groom). Firstly just wanted to start by saying we received the photos you took yesterday. We absolutely love them, and they’re very professional, so thanks (once again).
Whilst we’re online, we thought we’d just add a sentence or two for all those possibly considering holding a wedding at the Woolpack Inn:
In helping us to plan our wedding Dave and Ann were flexible and accommodating. They went out of their way to ensure that it was a perfect day by, for example, photographing the ceremony and reception, and printing the photos so that they could be seen in the evening.
We chose the Woolpack Inn due to the stunning scenery. Out of the choice of two venues in the local area, the Woolpack Inn won our vote due to a fine selection of beers and a great menu, all of which lived up to our expectations.
We’d like to say a big thank you for the effort you both made, not just on the day, but for the week, which ensured that we, and our guests, had a great time. We would recommend the Woolpack Inn, not only to those considering a short break, but a wedding too!
All the best, and I’m sure we’ll see you at one of our anniversaries at some point in the future
Kim and Jake"
At around the same time there was the launch of the Good Beer Guide. We're in it again. For several reasons I think we're close to the bottom of the local branch league, I was at the selection meeting and sometimes it's the things that aren't said that you notice. Anyway, the branch view, is that if members don't get to the selection meeting then they can't complain about the selections, too true. To avoid any problems of complaints between the selection meeting and the publication of the guide the entries are kept quiet until the guide is published. I was sworn to secrecy even though I knew we were in the guide. Being in agreement with the policy my lips were sealed on the subject. There may be a fuller post on this subject....later.

At the launch of the GBG in our local Wetherspoons, to which I turned up to without my 50p off vouchers and incidentally I couldn't have used anyway because they are all dated. We had a very nice time enjoying good beer, about which a separate post is deserving. Perhaps by now you are getting the idea that I have very little time to play in this blogging world right now.

We're busy, really quite busy. We've got into September and the north/south weather divide has turned itself very firmly on it's head. It's so sunny here and has been for a good week. It brings in the punters and perhaps also helps put them in a good mood. The compliments are flooding back in again. We did take note of the aforementioned complaints, fixing what could be fixed. But, we're starting to fray a little, as is the infrastructure of the building.

Yesterday I was on the bar for quite a while, after a visit to the local plumbers merchants for a bit for a broken toilet cistern. Toilet fixed, I then spent around 6 hours solid being very nice to everybody while serving beer, fielding the repeat questions that are inevitable when you see different people every day. I don't think anybody who doesn't do it day in day out knows just how much effort it takes to keep that going all day. You feel your painted on smile fall off as you walk into the kitchen and out of the customers view and your Basil Fawlty face appears.

I'd like to write more, but I've run out of fillet steak again and need to go out to the butchers. I need to brew, but I don't know when I'm going to do that. I have about a dozen post subjects backed up somewhere in my grey matter but no doubt time will overtake them as well. I have also sold out of bottled beer too.

I've just checked a nice couple out of the rooms. Best steak they'd ever had, apparently, I blame the butcher. But the parting comment was:

"You've gone to the top of our list of special places"

I'm just off now to get ready for another busy day. The sun is shining again. To be honest, I'm looking forward to being bored one day soon.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Climate Change

It's busy at the pub. Good. But it does mean I have less time to blog. Bad. My little brother sent me a New Scientist article by email, because he thought I might be interested. He was of course right.

It's about hops loosing alpha acids due to climate change. I worry about climate change. I also worry sometimes that we worry too much about climate change. Bad beer might just be a worthy reason to worry.

My brother did seem to think that the degradation of the quality of Saaz hops might in someway account for my reluctance to appreciate lager - I'm not so sure on that one, but it's an interesting thought.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Thin end of a wedge

I got my new CAMRA membership card today. I also got some Wetherspoons vouchers with it. Apparently I can't use them in Scotland because of the new laws there.

It'll never happen in England of course. Perhaps we said the same about poll tax and the smoking ban.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Group Think

I didn't start this blog to promote my pub. I have The Woolpack Blog for that. Not that I put much on there these days, it seems a little pointless. To cut a long story very short, The Woolpack Blog was started first and then I found myself trying to write about issues that are more generic. I felt the need to write about running a pub, pub culture and drinking culture. I wanted to write about some of the frustrations I felt when I found established culture prevented me from trying new ideas.

The last few posts have seen me writing about my philosophy here, which I admit is a bit left field, but it's the way I feel it works best in my place, and more importantly works well for me and my family. I know it's not going to work in many other pubs, they must find their own innovative solutions. All of this brings me back to thinking about pub culture and the way it seems to be.

Cooking Lager, in his own drinking culture challenging blog, talks about group think. His mention of the concept struck a chord with me; I learnt about it in a course I studies several years ago and when you look out for it you see it all over the place. Very simply, it is is where a group of people all say that one idea, method or answer, for example, is the best. Because they all agree that this is the way it should be, they fail to find a better answer to whatever problem it is they are trying to solve. The group may miss some difficult but significantly superior solution, or even dismiss it out of hand.

There are some fixed ideas about what a pub should be and what it should provide. But why is it wrong for a pub to decide to try and break the mould of pub culture1? I think the whole of the pub industry is stuck in a kind of rut, trying it's best to keep the general masses happy, but not producing anything new or innovative.

I have long held the concept that the pub industry is partly being killed by the view of the sceptical vocal few who say a pub should do a check list of none negotiable things. I believe that there is going to be some changes where a few radical pubs will do some very different things. Many will fail but some will grow stronger and develop a new style of pub. Either that or we will end up with trendy bars and snobby restaurants being the key force in the food and drink sector and the pub left as a hollow shell, leaving drive through takeaway emporiums and the supermarkets to mop up the rest.

The future is bright, lets rejoice and recognise innovation in pubs, rather than trying to tie them to some sort of fixed bargain basement formula.


1Sorry, that pun made itself up.

Beer Twittering

I joined twitter just about a month ago. I wasn't sure why. Within a few days I found out why. There are so many beery people on there twittering away. Sometimes it's even interesting. The down side of this is that twitter is taking a more of my on-line time at the expense of blogging. Fortunately, there is a new tweep1 to follow called @allbeernews. As I understand it, every time an important beer blogger posts it will "re-tweet" the fact, a nice link between beer blogging and beer tweeting. There might even be other intersting beer twitters.

My blog is included, apparently, so I suppose I should start following @allbeernews - you should too.

Right, the sun is shining, I'm going to get off my bum and enjoy it.

1a tweep is an identity in twitter, like a peep, it might be a real person, but sometimes its an automatic re-tweeter. At least that's my understanding. I'm still getting used to the new lingo.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Alcohol Advertising Ban?

The BBC is reporting that the BMA is calling for a ban on all alcohol advertising.

Now, although I have concerns over the power of big brands on consumer choice, it is just not on to take away my ability to advertise the beer I make. Nor for that matter should they stop me mentioning any interesting alcoholic beverage I might be selling to set me apart from the run of the mill pub. I would not be able to mention Westmalle, Mort Subite or for that matter Tokyo* in my advertising. I wouldn't even be able to mention Woolpacker either and possibly couldn't even mention the fact that I had a brewery on site.

If there is anything that could destroy diversity in British drinking culture, this would be it.

I'm not a revolutionary, but would consider chaining myself to the gates of Buckingham Palace over this one. However, I'm guessing there will be enough groundswell of opinion for me to not have to do that.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Lunch Time

OK, as promised, my lunch menu.

Today's Lunch Menu

To speed up service at lunch times and to provide a healthy quick snack we have our "Woolpacker Lunches", based on a Ploughman's. Available from 12.30 until 6pm or until our lovely home made bread runs out.

Quack n Oink
A rich tasty coarse Duck and Pork pate, served with homemade bread and red onion marmalade

Honey Roast Ham
Our own home honey roast ham, served with home made bread bun and Dave's chutney, fresh fruit and vegetables

Farmhouse Cheese
A piece of local organic farmhouse cheese from Low Sizergh Barn, served with home made bread bun and Dave's chutney, fruit and vegetables

Hot of the day
Hot dishes are served between 12:30 and 2:30

Crunchy Mixed Bean Casserole
A mix of pulses cooked al dente in a chilli tomato sauce with vegetables and potatoes
Sausage Casserole

"The best" Cumberland sausage cooked in our home made gravy with onions and potatoes

Beef in Hardknott Beer
Locally reared Cumbrian Beef, potatoes and vegetables in our own tasty beer gravy

Our lunch menu concentrates on doing a few things really well. We make all our own bread and chutney and the casseroles and stews are homemade from fresh ingredients.
This helps us to ensure you get your lunch quickly, even if we are busy, without compromising quality.

This also enables our chef/brewer to focus on brewing our own ale and providing our innovative evening cuisine.

We would strongly recommend a visit to us for our evening food if you are at all interested in something different. All dishes are unique to Dave’s kitchen. But beware, if it’s quiet he might decide to brew beer instead and close the kitchen, if it’s busy, you might not get in. So it’s always best to book.

The Woolpack Inn. Boot, Eskdale Valley. 019467 23230 www.woolpack.co.uk


OK, so some of the ploughman's contain meat. It confuses me too when I go off on one explaining about the cheese and forget to explain how delish the paté is, because I know that cheese is what is supposed to be on a Ploughman's. Despite being a confirmed carnivore, on this occasion cheese works best. But then I love cheese.

Now, go on then find fault, I know you will.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Tonights Menu

As a result of the last post, a commenter asked about the menu. I'll post it here. Why not?

Oh, the other question was how many covers we do. A really modest 20-25 on a good day. We like to make sure everybody is treated well and with care. Tonight, unfortunately, I only did 4.

This Evening's Menu Sun 06 Sep 2009


A rich tasty coarse Duck and Pork pate served with toast and red onion marmalade

Stumpy Goats Cheese
Thornby Moor goats cheese stumpy grilled on top of an olive oil crouton, served with apple and red onion sauce and fresh fruits

Sardines on Toast
Fresh sardines, grilled and served on top of our home made toasted bread, with a spicy tomato sauce

Game Velouté Soup
A rich creamy soup reduction of various game stock finished with Croutons


Ginger Fillet
Best Cumbrian Beef Fillet Steak - dry marinated with slices of ginger and garlic; pan fried, flambéed in Cointreau and finished with cream. Served with sauté potatoes, celeriac chips and butter asparagus

Rabbit Hole
A tenderised rabbit haunch rolled with rabbit haggis stuffing and rabbit fillet, served with dauphinoise potato and tomato blushed courgettes, dressed with rabbit jus

Chicken Cheese Parcel
Roasted (Lowther free range organic) chicken breast filled with Thornby Moor Winnow Blue cheese & garlic, wrapped in Cumbrian bacon served with Rosti potato, and aromatic braised broccoli, finished with a white wine sauce

Eskdale Pork Othello
Outdoor Eskdale Saddleback belly pork rolled with an oriental stuffing, slow roasted, and finished with a cider pan jus glaze, served on a bed of velouté mash with contrasting white cheese and dark fruit sauces, and topped with Caramelised Apple.

Ewe like Oriental??
Medallions of Eskdale fell bred lamb, marinated pan fried and glazed with a hit of the far east, served with spicy risotto and steamed Pak Choi

Lakeland Char
Gilcrux farmed Lakeland Char, a rare Atlantic salmon which evolved to breed in the deep lakes of the Lake District. Poached in tarragon butter, presented on soy braised leeks with a red onion potato stack.

'Hey Pesto' it's cheesey
Open ravioli of grilled Thornby Moor Goats cheese, dressed with tomato & red pepper sauce & pesto and served with fennel

Baked Alaska
Our home made fruit ice cream, covered with meringue on a cake base and baked in the oven - big enough for one or two.

Cumbrian Cheese & Fruit Board
A selection of locally produced cheeses served with fresh fruit and savoury biscuits

Blue bore bomb
White chocolate, cream cheese and Cumbrian Winnow blue cheese fondant dark chocolate crunch base bomb

Crème Rice Brulee
Mildly spiced rice pudding and a crème brulee topping with hints of ginger, star anise and lemon grass, finished with caramelised sugar

Sticky Toffee Pudding
Sticky Toffee Pudding served with home made vanilla ice cream

Locally sourced
We source our ingredients as locally as we can. Our suppliers include:
Beef Pork & Lamb from Country Cuts, Santon Bridge
Fish and Game - Gilcrux Trout Farm
Cheeses - Thornby Moor & Low Sizergh Barn
Milk, cream fresh fruit and vegetables - Andy Pratt
Carrs Cumbrian milled flour for our home made bread
The Woolpack Inn. Boot, Eskdale Valley. 019467 23230 www.woolpack.co.uk

There, that'll get some of you asking "Do you not do anything normal, like pie perhaps?" hopefully some of you will be drooling.

mmmm pie, I can do a really mean pie. Perhaps I'll have to think of a posh version.........

Saturday, 5 September 2009

I'm Dave, I'm a snob

I've always been a bit of a food snob. It's probably taken me quite a while to work this out, but there, I'm admitting it. From a very early age, influenced by many different friends and family, I had a desire to create food that had a level of honesty about it. It might just be fish pie, or roast dinner or even bangers and mash, but reaching for the Bisto or Oxo cubes or Chicken Tonight never featured in my culinary repertoire. Ever since I had free reign of my very own kitchen in my own house the use of such evil additions was strictly forbidden. Oven chips? Get out of here.

When it came time to look at transferring my culinary expertise, to enable me to craft food for paying customers, I desired the same approach for everything I did. Of course, for that sort of thing I really should have considered running a restaurant, not a pub. But to run a restaurant you need to be a real chef, whatever one of those is. Hence, one reason for buying a pub, as opposed to a restaurant; the food doesn't need to be as fancy.

I set about producing pub grub with the level of honesty that I believe in. It didn't matter if it was chips or custard or gravy it would be made from scratch, and really I do mean from scratch. But just how far do you take that?

I used to make a great lasagne. I even started to use fresh tomatoes so determined was I to get it right. One day a member of staff asked why, if I was so keen to make everything from scratch, I still bought in dried pasta. "Go on, answer that one" I thought. The answer had to be to make my own pasta, didn't it?

We made our chips from scratch. I've written about that before. When done right, and I don't care what anybody says about Burger King1 skinny chips, proper double fried chips are the best. But can you have chips without ketchup? Many people can't and so my answer had to be to make my own. Oh, and of course brown sauce had to be an option too, it is after all, just a variation of the same thing.

After a while delivering bog standard pub grub, in the sort of volumes required and with the liberal giving away of home made tomato sauce tag-lag2 was wearing me down. I decided I was going to raise my game and make restaurant style food anyway. It would seem the level of provenance I was looking for didn't match the desires of the pub grub customer. Around the same time we had a big disagreement with Coca-Cola3 over fridges and post mix machines4 and decided to radically review our position.

What we decided was that we were never again going to buy any product from any company that we didn't feel had a level of honesty behind it. That ruled out Coca-Cola, Heinz and nearly every other big name in the beverage and food business. That effectively rules out ketchup and HP sauce. WE DON'T BUY THESE THINGS.

"But you are a pub, you have to" I can hear you thinking "Why?" is my reply. Why do I have to conform to some sort of unwritten rules about the condiments I put on the tables or the type of soft drinks I have on stock, or for that matter any other products I buy for consumption in my place? You can be guaranteed that whatever you get to eat and drink in my place has a level of provenance behind it. Some of my customers don't like that and don't come back; others are coming back time and again. Word is spreading and there is a tangible increase of sympathetic custom.

My last post talked about cordial in beer. We don't have cordial. It's crap and only tastes moderately good when it is put in beer and then only because beer is good. Same applies to the chemical lemonade that comes out of post mix machines. We now stock the Fentimans5 range of fizzy drinks, including their Victorian Lemonade in lieu of any other lemonade, it's great.

That leaves us with the quandary of shandy. Fentimans' lemonade when mixed with beer does make for an interesting drink. It's not wrong if that is what you are expecting. On a hot summer's day, on the odd occasion it happens, there is an influx of people wanting shandy. It doesn't really happen any other time. Taking time to carefully explain that the shandy they would get by mixing a half pint of beer with the lemonade we have might not produce the desired effect, but the customer can try if they wish, doing this time and time again, does wear a little thin. We tend to steer them to the Fentimans bottled shandy and decline any other type of beer mixed with soft drink. Sometimes a customer assures us that they know what they are doing and that is fine.

The reader by now will have realised my snobbery has infiltrated my whole operation here. Why does that matter? I don't think it does matter if that is what I believe in. I'm not making any more money than when we started here, but what is important is that we are not making any less either. What we are doing is running our business in a way that makes us happy, and in a year where businesses are going under tag-lag, and where the summer has yet again dealt us a blow, to be doing alright must mean we're doing something right.

More importantly we are running a business in a way that makes me proud. We use products that we trust and believe in. We trade with people who are honest and who in turn buy products from companies that operate with a level of respect. At a time when business infrastructure is backed up by governments scared to stand up to the multinationals, when large companies can be bailed out because they are so "necessary" to the very fabric of our society, I'm proud to be delivering a service that has little truck with all of that.

That my friend, is what I'm about, take it or leave it. Compromise? Nah. I'd like to think that someday more pubs will be like this.

Now, how do I make that obvious before customers cross the threshold?


1Nearly left the "r" out of "burger" there...

2Tag-lag is a rarely used Cumbrian term to mean; in abundance, all the time or willy nilly perhaps. It's also a beer we sometimes have on the bar.

3Coca-Cola are one of those things that seems to have created a "must be there" culture within pubs. They are a great big multinational conglomerate that has no place in my pub, sorry. Don't even start me on Pepsi.

4A post mix machine is what delivers draft fizzy drinks.

5I thought Fentimans was made in Newcastle. Of course as Ann is from the N.E. I knew that there are some good things that come out of that part of the world. It turns out that at least some of the range is brewed at the Robinsons' brewery in Stockport. It's difficult to think what to write here without it sounding like a back handed compliment to Robinsons. It doesn't matter, the product is good and if it keeps a brewery going then good for them too.

Friday, 4 September 2009

The Customer is Always Right

Today I casked beer, dodging heavy showers; you see my racking and cask cleaning is done outside as my brewery is very small. The wedding party is still here, most of them anyway. They keep insisting on eating my food and drinking my beer, so they are taking up a bit of my time. I'd like to post more but I've a living to make.

However, this article caught my eye.
"Someone once asked me for a pint of bitter with lime cordial in it. I refused. I am proud of the bitter I serve. I've won awards. I deliver what I think is a perfect pint of beer. I wouldn't allow someone to compromise it by sticking lime cordial in it. For some people the customer might be "always right" but I'd like to think I'd still got some integrity. The customer left but I felt proud."
Chris Maclean

Good man.

Does he also refuse to put lemonade in it I wonder? My beer may not be perfect all the time, but I'm sure if I'm going to stand in the pissing rain to put it in the casks I've a right to have an opinion about what is mixed with it.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Pub Wedding

It's said that the answer to making a pub profitable is diversification. Now, I've written before about how that might not always be as easy as the arm chair observers like to prophesies. I have also reported on the progress of one attempt by us to diversify.

Today however I can report, at least for us, a success in diversification. We held a marriage ceremony here. We not only facilitated the happy couple's nuptials but we also fed and watered the guests. Everybody, including myself, are thrilled with the proceedings. Now I think I need to return to the bar where copious drinking is now progressing, responsibly of course.

Thanks is due to the couple who have yet to get married here, but whom are responsible for getting us off our arses and applying for the licence. We're looking forward now to their do in November.

Thanks must also be due to the cool people in the registrars office. I never thought I'd see myself praising officials, but these guys seem to have a very forward thinking, "how can we make this work" kind of an attitude. More officials could do with taking on that approach. The guys today knew how to make a serious and important ceremony run with a friendly and warm approach.

Finally, I should of course thank Kim and Jake, the bride and groom, for being such great people and making the service we supplied such a pleasure to deliver. We would like to wish them good luck in their future together.

When I get time I'll publish some proper pictures to the Inn's web site. For now it's easier to just use these accidentally anonymous photo's.

Update - OK, apparently the photo's here look voyeuristic and sinister - see the comments. Here's a real picture of the happy couple.