Friday, 30 October 2009

Just playing around

I'm going to be away next week. Actually, I'm going on a course to hone my brewing skills. I'll be in deepest, darkest Mackem1 land, so have some pity.

It would be nice to know how to post to blogger on the move but I am failing to get our ancient laptop to accept my BlackBerry as a modem. This is a test post from email. No safety net. Post without edit. Hope it is OK.

The pic here is just our bar. As you can see, nothing much happens here when it gets close to winter.


1Mackem is the slang for anything to do with Sunderland and surrounding areas. My better half is from there and also the local football team has stood up fairly well against both the Mancs and Scousers lately so I'm gaining a little affinity to the area.

Local Beer

Cumbria has a number of breweries. Many of them bottle their beers. I have been challenged to send some local beers to another blogger as part of a blogging project called Beer Swap. I set off on Wednesday to find local beers. The rules stated 4 beers from at least two breweries , so I couldn't just send mine.

I first visited the off licence that also happens to be the depot I had planned to be sending the parcel from. All involved in the project had agreed to use this new economy service. It turned out the shop had a poor selection of beer. Oh well, no money out of me on this occasion, but at least I'll be returning later with my carefully packaged beer.

Next I tried Morrisons and then Tesco and several off licences in Whitehaven. All providing completely nothing by way of local beer. I was starting to feel severely underwhelmed. Is West Cumbria so damn devoid of beer brewed on it's doorstep? It does seem to be the case. The only shop in the locality is in Keswick. One that I know about but never had reason to visit - I don't buy bottled Cumbrian beer normally. I can get any amount on draft in the pubs around and about.

Finally I returned to our quiet, remote valley where there is a small and delightful little shop. Once a post office but alas scumming to the inevitability of the service failing to be economic. The shop is now a great purveyor of quality produce and outdoor clothing. Best of all they sell local beer. Mission accomplished.

My beer packaged up I returned to aforementioned crappy beer emporium. It also seems it's something of a master of messing up on the parcel-receiving-and-sending-on line of business. Initially the shop assistant tried to send it back to some catalogue company by putting an orange sticker on it. Eventually she found the menu option for scanning a customer sent parcel. But she refused to take my parcel because the bar code machine threw an error. I left and took it to another shop, a little further away where the parcel was accepted. Later I got an email to tell me the parcel was accepted by the first place. According to the tracking system my parcel is still in the shop I didn't leave it in. Some telephone calls may ensue tomorrow.

But it leaves me asking why, in the towns in my locale, there is no beer to be bought that is brewed in the county. Is it because there is no demand due to people like me preferring to drink local beer in local pubs? Is it because the people who live here don't care about the beers brewed on their doorstep? Perhaps the entrenched support of Jennings is deeper than I thought. Mind you, if the level of skills around here prevent successful use of a relatively simple bar code machine then what hope is there for appreciation of craft beer?

Well, whatever the reason it makes me think that perhaps there is a real gap in the market. I'm not sure I can make and bottle beer at a price that makes it economic for the cut throat pricing in off-sales retail, but it's worth a further look I feel.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009


I have always worried about my local paper and it's approach to alcohol. They are very reluctant to give local pubs good publicity. Unless of course we pay for it. When the local rag's advertising sales guy comes round I point out the editors bias but to little effect.

Today I see this headline:


Now, with a partner who used to be a paediatric nurse I would agree that there are some problems with under-age drinking, but the article seems to also be condemning parents who supervise responsible alcohol consumption by way of supervised education. Complete prohibition is surely not the way.
" was a misconception that parents believed their children drinking at home was acceptable, just because they could keep an eye on them."
But further more, there is still the suggestion that it is getting worse. This is despite industry statistics that are showing that alcohol consumption is dropping from it's high in 2003-5 and is in fact dropping faster than it has in 6 decades. So why the final paragraph?
"If drinking behaviour remains the same nationally it is likely that the number of alcohol-related admissions to hospitals in England would exceed one million a year in two years’ time."
Follow the link, you may comment on the article if you like.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Beer, women and sex

A great combination don't you think? Combine all three together, and providing you don't spill too much, it sounds fantastic. I'll be honest, I like women and sex just as much as I like beer, perhaps more. I also know what appears sexy when it comes to the look and behaviour of women. I'd like very much to see more women drinking beer, if I put my beer lovers, brewers, publicans hat on; But if I consider my masculine sex instincts with true honesty, I find that beer drinking women don't look sexy. Well, at least not drinking regular British beer. A nice goblet of Belgian fruit beer, well that is a different matter.

Now go on, shoot me down for being a male chauvinist. Perhaps you are right, but if it is conditioning, then why is this despite the fact the my mother drank pints? I think it comes down to what we males think looks and appears sexy. It's all to do with instinct.

I know a lot of people in the beer world want to try and eliminate this natural sexist bias. The beer world seems to be healthily full of moderate, liberal, anti-bigoted people. It is this very fact that makes the whole scene so damn friendly and enjoyable, so I'm not asking for you to treat my inner feelings as acceptable or right, but just to say that I know what turns me on and women drinking beer ain't it.

My point here is that I think the greater general male population would agree with me. The greater female population knows this, at least subliminally. Women also want men to find them sexy, to flirt with them and eventually form a relationship and find love. Most women believe that the first stage of this is to look sexy so as to attract attention. It's just a courtship ritual that has parallels throughout the animal kindom. This courtship ritual most often occurs in a social drinking environment. Many people don't really give it a second thought unless they have some sort of anti-sexist agenda.

Ignoring the most powerful of human instincts, the thing that put us here and the thing we will do that might generate more of us, is ignoring a powerful driver for most people. Sex is more important to most people than beer. Even for me it just about wins. Give up sex or give up beer? Drink beer and never have sex? Sorry beer, I know which I'd choose and I suspect the rest of the population would agree. OK, perhaps for women they would prefer to think along the lines of love, relationships, marriage, children and life companionship, but ultimately, it's sex.

Women don't want to look un-sexy and so here is one reason they don't drink beer.

Now, please go easy on me, I'm expecting to be flamed here, at least consider the fact that I've got the balls to post this.

This was provoked by Kristy's post on the BitterSweet partnership blog. I'd have commented there but you seem to need an account - I already have too many on-line accounts.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

What is a Microbrewery?

Being the one who brews the beer, when sat around in the evening chatting to customers, I often get asked a lot of the same questions. The most common question is about volumes. Queries about how much I brew and how big my brewery is are common. I would get irritated answering the same questions all the time, but it's about beer which is a subject I like to talk about. Elaborating the answer helps to make it more interesting for me, but then that tends to encourage more stupid questions.

I can answer very easily questions about my own brewery. After all, if I don't know the answers then who does? Admittedly, the ever increasing risk of dementia might be an issue. The one question that does crop up time and again is that of the definition of a microbrewery. Just how small does a brewery have to be to be a microbrewery? I often get asked that question and because I'd really like to have the answer I'm going to explore the concept here.

To lay down a bench mark I'm going to start with the sub 60,000hl per year definition of a "small brewery"1 as determined by HMRC2. To put that into context I brew around 60hl per year. I could get up to around 300hl per year if all I did was brew beer, however, I have a pub to run. So the reader can clearly see, even if mathematically dyslexic, that I am nowhere near in danger of having to pay increased beer duty rates.

Just in case numbers do baffle you, I'll give some illustrations. I'd have to increase my brewery size by 200 times to reach the threshold. 5 fermenters of 240hl each should do it. A mash tun of around 5 tonnes grist capacity to feed them. I'd need around 9,000-12,000 firkins if I expected to sell most of it as draft, although bottling would help reduce this number. I don't know if the reader can imagine what all this might look like, but to me it is anything but micro.

I'll have a little stab at my own view of the volumes I think define a micro brewery. Please bear in mind this is only an opinion and I'm sure the reader will have their own view. If we think in orders of magnitude, if I'm saying that a brewery of 2 orders of magnitude bigger than mine is too big to be a microbrewery then something around one order of magnitude, or ten times the size of mine might be.

So, my definition of the maximum size might be a 30hl brew length and around 500kg of grist. You can just about mash that volume by hand, so that, in my view, is a good level to consider. At this size the production, sales and transport activities would justify perhaps 5-8 full time jobs and it's likely to have a sole trader or partnership model of business. A nice family owned company I'd suggest.

There is another level in the beer duty definition. Below 5,000hl per year a brewery gets a full 50% discount on all it's duty. My imaginary brewery above, if it had 3 fermenters, would be unable to brew more than this. This makes me confident about this definition.

The 60,000hl per year brewery by contrast will have mechanised mash rakes I'd guess, will probably fit the limited company model, will employ around 50 people or more and start to feel corporate. At this volume it will probably have sales of up to £10 million per annum. This is starting to sound familiar, but I promised not to mention that particular brewery for a while and a promise is a promise.

Lets take another brewery as an example, the White Shield brewery. At about 10hl brew length it easily fits my size criteria. Owned by Molson Coors however makes it part of a large multinational, but do we care? Of course, the head brewer cares, Steve Wellington cares very much about the beers he makes. When personification of the metalwork occurs, I believe Steve calls the brew house something like "The Old Lady", then you have a real life relationship that breathes character into the beer.

But then perhaps size doesn't really matter at all. If a big brewery can still think like a microbrewery then perhaps that is what really matters. In America they use the term craft brewery and craft beer to describe their quality beer scene. Of course some are very large, like Sierra Nevada for instance, and will be very corporate in their business outlook. But they all produce good beer and there is such a vast difference between that and the output from the vast mash filters of the huge multinationals as to render the definition clear and easy.

In the UK we seem to have a more difficult time defining what we think is good and worthy for the beer connoisseur. Are the outputs from the various Marston's breweries not good craft beers for example? Despite the White Shield brewery being part of a huge multinational it's beer is well revered and rightly so. Robinsons, Fuller's, and Green King have all produced at least something that has impressed me, even if just a little. Perhaps their main outputs are as dull as dishwater, but then perhaps that's what the masses want anyway. The key thing for me is how do we compare these breweries to the likes of Sierra Nevada or Stone for instance who produce some very interesting beers and probably are similar in size to our "regional" brewers.

I am of course asking rhetorical questions, which by their very nature have no clear answer. The reader will have their own views, which of course I'd be happy to know about. Indeed, that is the point of this post, to explore where we think the boundries lie between microbrewing, craft brewing and whatever else we would like to define.

At the end of the day though, does it matter how big the brewery is, so long as the beer is good?


1Details for this can be found in HMRC Beer Duty Notice. hl=hectalitre or 100 litres or about 176 pints or 0.61 of a brewery barrel.

2Her Majesty's Robbing C***s

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Getting Dog'geared

Dare I post about this subject again? Everybody is getting fed up of hearing about it. I guess it's a bit like watching a 24 hour news channel when there is breaking news of a big disaster or a major government scandal, all you ever get to hear about is the same story. Additionally, some are highly critical of otherwise sensible beer geeks wetting themselves over this. Ah, that made me think. Oh well, one last post and I'll shut up until there is some more real news on the subject.

BrewDog are arguably the most controversial brewery in the UK. They certainly are unconventional with their approach to both brewing and marketing. Now it would seem they are also being unconventional in their approach to funding expansion plans. Their ordinary “b” shares are valued at no more than around £50, if you are very kind, according to a city source. However, BrewDog are offering them for sale at nearly 5 times that asking £230 each. How can they justify such a high asking price on what would appear to be a balmy investment? James seems to think it's perfectly reasonable.

The first problem is finding people who will buy their shares. With such a high price being asked, when the current intrinsic value appears so low, makes it a bit like asking champagne prices for Green King IPA. To continue the drinks analogy; BrewDog are hoping we will believe they are a good vintage, our shares can be laid down and return good on the investment in a few years time. Even so, people in the city don’t think it’s a good investment so why should we?

The mastermind behind the whole operation, James Watt, is hoping his mastery of viral marketing will work wonders. He and his co-conspirator Martin Dickie are just young lads in their 20’s, not long out of University. Being part of the IT generation you’d expect internet wizardry to feature in everything they do. Certainly to date their beers are the most blogged and twittered about beers in the UK online beer lovers arena. Not always seeking full favour, but these boys are only too aware that nearly any publicity is good, especially if your target audience are punks. Loving every bit of publicity, they are repeatedly criticised by authorities for appearing to use inappropriate advertising, only to find that the criticism brings them more publicity. Giving beers provocative names and making beers outrageous strengths gets you noticed, smart boys. Making the beers taste good helps a whole load too.

These guys are hoping to work their magic on the beer lover’s world, hoping there will be enough people who will buy into the BrewDog dream and ignore the fact that the current value doesn't look good against the asking price. They are hoping that people will believe their promise that they have expanded so much in two years, that they can keep going and in another two will be close to maximum capacity of their new brewery. If they succeed it will make them nearly 10 times the size they are now. They claim their initial business expansion is unprecedented given their original investment and we will see a good return within a surprisingly short period of time.

We of course forget the rumours about a BrewDog/Stone collaboration. The brand is likely to expand with enormous effect in the USA. Watch this space, as the information I have would indicate that something along these lines will be happening.

I travelled by train to London to join the BrewDog party. I was twittering the subject with my beer friends on the way and finding that not many are likely to take up the offer. With threats of being blocked, I wonder if I have lost some friends, such was the apparent hostility from some. Although some are interested in investing, but just think the price is too steep, and others just haven’t got the money “or the balls to tell the wife” what they’d spent the money on. It seems punks have got more sense, or perhaps they just lack vision. This could be a problem for the whole project; one of the risks is the chance that the capital raised would be insufficient to enable the project to go ahead, or perhaps it will but at a greater cost due to having to use banks to finance.

But it’s early days yet. James has a way of making it work. I’ll be surprised if he doesn't pull some magic rabbits out of Martin’s mash tun, although sources close to the management team have hinted that Penguins are more likely to feature. After all, Nick Griffin will need beer in his new all white Antarctic retreat.

I’m intrigued at the responses I've seen around the other blogs. Reluctant scooper has drawn up his own incentive plan put forward as a suggestion. To be fair to BrewDog I think some of the suggestions might turn into reality anyway. It is to be expected that any shareholders meeting would sure be a fine party. A members goody box containing some bottles of a special members beer plus tshirt, glass and bottle opener is highly marketable and could be costed at the £20 Mr Scooper is suggesting. After that, as far as I can see, it's just a change of name and perceived status. The word I get from James is that "we are happy with how it is going so far" so perhaps no repositioning is needed.

Tandleman asks why they need to expand. The answer seems to be straight forward, they are running into capacity problems with their existing plant. That capacity problem occuring despite a doubling of the brew house capacity this year. It is reported that the online shop is nearly bare of product and indeed a quick look myself shows that the beers I'd be interested in are out of stock. You can’t brew any more beer when your fermenters are full.

Impy maltings, not surprisingly, complains about the goth totty being used in the marketing. I'm still trying to work out if I'm a sad old lecherous git for liking it or if it's really just another joke. The punk fashion started when I was about 13 and so for me it is retro amusement. The girls in question, once the party was under way, did seem to look like they felt uneasy and out of place. I nearly went to talk to them, but was afraid of looking like a lecherous old git. Thinking back, my trips to London normally show me just how devoid we are, in this Cumbrian valley, of pleasant eye candy and when I come to think of it, the PunkGirls were unlikely to raise my pulse compared to other sights I saw, sorry girls.

John makes some comments here and here. John is a financial journalist by day. He has experience of understanding good investments and he's still unsure that this one is. I've been through the experience of thinking the same. But if you add the tangible assets1 BrewDog now have, plus the growing brand of BrewDog and everything they stand for, with the growth that they have already achieved it is difficult to compare this to the type of company that has an office in Canary Warf. A company that turns over £1 billion a year is unlikely to grow tenfold in two years. One that has a turnover of £1.5 million a year might, especially if it has a track record of ten fold sales increase in the last two years2.

I was sceptical about the two yanky guys. What is Skyy vodka anyway? I've talked to Keith Greggor and he seems genuine and friendly and more importantly talks confidently about what he thinks of his company's £600k investment. He sees that his investment is in two clever guys who are too young to be that smart. He is somebody who has built successful brands elsewhere and feels humbled at the natural marketing abilities of these guys; he's investing in James and Martin.

Finally though, the fact that they have achieved so much interest so far proves that they can do it. If they can get otherwise sensible beer geeks wetting themselves then I've got confidence that they will bring this new brewery to fruition and carry on to grow the brand. So far it surprises me how few people know about BrewDog. I mention them in my place and the vast majority have never heard of them or Fraserburgh. They have nowhere near saturated their potential market and in this day and age of over-burdensome legislation, risk assessment and cotton wool wrapped society I'm happy to chance an arm on these outrageous guys.

"BrewDog is about breaking rules, taking risks, upsetting trends and unsettling institutions but first and foremost, great tasting beer"


1The site of the new brewery, that will be worth £4 million once planning permission is granted, is not currently shown at this value on the balance sheet.

2January 2008 BrewDog turned over about £20k that month. July 2009 they turned over about £250k. OK seasonality might have some effect, but just look at the graph of sales data in the prospectus.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Live Music

There were some good things that came out of the 2003 licensing act. I can't think of many, but apparently the whole thing was a good idea. Oh, we did get a little more flexibility over licencing hours. I'm not sure that was all that useful to me, but that's another story.

There were quite a few things I didn't like. One was the apparent increase in bureaucracy and the fact that the cost of that was placed squarely on the shoulders of the licensee in the form of outrageous increases in the fees payable. It probably created a few new jobs in the local council offices for people who preferred to shuffle paper rather than do any real work. I suppose it's better to have people who don't like getting their hands dirty tucked safely out of the way, but I'd rather my business didn't pay for it.

A key objection of the 2003 licensing act was to hinder significantly the ability for publicans to put on the occasional live music. If I'd been blogging then, I'd have no doubt had lots to say about it. The two in a bar rule was abolished, and the whole process of ensuring compliance was made way too complicated for many pubs to understand. The basic advice I've ever received is that if I was to have live music of any sort I would need a variation to my licence. Obtaining the variation would cost me money and I'd open a whole can of worms regarding my building that might mean making improvements that could cost tens of thousands of pounds. The advice to me was that adding live entertainment to my licence would be more trouble than it's worth. This is still the current thoughts for most pubs.

We used to have live music here from time to time. It never made me any money and more often than not I lost out. The cost of putting on the music was never covered by the extra people it was supposed to bring in. I could have advertised but I didn't want to attract the attention of the local council environmental health Gestapo who seem determined to ensure that they interpret the rule book in such a way that it inhibits business, rather than encourages it.

I learned today that a significant relaxation to this is possible. There is a suggestion that venues that hold less than 100 people could be exempt. Some are suggesting this doesn't go far enough, the original calls were for the exemption to apply to venues up to 200 people. For me I'm quite happy. I'd like to have the problem of having to say to somebody "Really sorry mate, we've got ninety nine in already, there's a nice pub down the road though."

Please let this exemption go through. I'd like to bring back occasional live music to my place, it's fun. It's never going to make me lots of money, but the atmosphere is much better when it happens. Not only do the current rules make it harder for pubs to operate, it is also killing live music.

The guys in the pictures are my very good friends from the band called Vortigern. They don't make money out of what they do, mostly they have real jobs that do involve getting their hands dirty, especially as one sells carpets. The money they might earn from gigs just goes into buying a new effects pedal or the most monstrous bass speaker stack that ever existed in Cumbria. They don't get many gigs these days, mainly because the local council keep jumping on any pub that tries to hire them.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Dog Tired

Firstly an apologies to my Twitter followers who noticed my silence. My BlackBerry appears to have been stolen by an opportunist thief so my journey back home was somewhat lonely. I actually could have tweeted when I got home midday but didn't think that everybody would miss me as much as it seems they did. It's so nice to know people care and missed my tweets.

My camera and laptop remained strapped to my body. I'm glad because I still have the pictures of the party

Of course for those who don't know, I have been in London to give the management of BrewDog my thoughts on their corporate strategy. As the very first "ordinary B" shareholder I feel it is my duty to ensure my investment is being well looked after. A grand party was had at The Bishop of Norwich. I'm not going to say much more just now as I have some more sleep to catch up on. For various reasons I slept no more than around a total of 5 hours between Monday morning and today midday.

I have one very important observation to make - echoed by other people at the BrewDog event. We expected James and Martin to be as audacious as their beer and perhaps they are. But this recklessness and ambitiousness does not result in the brash, overconfident and arrogant personalities some might imagine. These guys are incredibly friendly and have a real measure of humbleness that neatly balances their imaginative business drive. OK, maybe I have to say that seen as I am now a small part of what they are doing.

I'm sure I'll have more to say soon on BrewDog's ambitious plans, meanwhile Mark has posted his own thoughts. Interesting Mark has better literary imagination than me, but I always did OK at sums - I'll be giving some more thoughts on the money side of things in days to come.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Doggy Style

Equity for Punks is apparently much more than just having a share in a brewery. After all, I could buy shares in Marston's if I was stupid. I've have never in my whole life bought shares before. At 2am this morning twitter alerted me to the fact that was live and I could buy shares in BrewDog - thanks @robserowski. I decided to do so, after all it's not every day you get to be one of the first of 10,000.

I then started to look at what I'd bought. I downloaded and printed out the very lengthy document of 36 pages to assess. My brief financial assessment is here. On paper I was beginning to doubt my investment, although in the grand scheme of business a couple of hundred quid is nowt - I've been robbed of bigger sums by rogues, but that's a different story. You have to remember what made me jump in immediately and buy some, without thinking. It's the whole BrewDog story; the innovation and the boundary pushing and the viral marketing. If you look at what they are planning you see that anybody who buys shares is buying into more than just a load of stainless steel.

There are two geezers who developed a billion dollar vodka brand that I've never heard of, well maybe that might be good. More importantly they are developing a brand new site where a completely energy self-sufficient brewery is planned. Interestingly, Sierra Nevada are ahead of them there, only in California you can benefit from solar panels, I'm guessing in Aberdeenshire windmills might be more appropriate.

A new brand of beer is planned. Each brew will be individual and packaged in numbered bottles. Called Abstrakt it will be more art than beer, whatever that means. In half champagne bottles1 and could be very interesting. Their Zephyr is now fetching significant sums on the Ebay. The new brand will be launched in January. Hopefully this might well be something that will catch the attention of the restaurant trade and bring greater kudos to the beer world.

Equity for Punks promises to allow fans of BrewDog to be involved with their brewery through the web site. It will be interesting to see how much notice they will take of 10,000 fans, but still it does carry on their interactive theme. I'd just encourage James to comment on other peoples blogs slightly more often - having to poke him very hard with a pointy stick to provoke response can be fun, but I like to be nice to people as well.

I'm still a bit sorry that the news wasn't something revolutionary in brewing, but I suspect I'm being unfair. BrewDog are revolutionary in brewing every day they brew, so that wouldn't be new either. I'll have to settle for a new business model, although to be fair you could smack me round the head with a new business model and I'd still not recognise it. That's why I'm only a poor brewpub owner and little BrewDog share holder and not the director of BrewDog. It's because I haven't got a degree in business law, so all the guff that James has produced to describe the business model is just gobbledygook to me.

So I've bought into the growth of BrewDog; A national brand that is certainly anything but bland. I sell some of their beers here in bottles. I think I might just look at selling more. I feel they are part of the answer to the complaint I have about beer and food that I have talked about before. I think there is more they could do along the lines of beers for food, perhaps as a shareholder I will get involved in helping there.

Their image is progressive and trendy, just what the beer world needs and a significant part of their success. Perhaps for some it is too trendy, I've heard people say that, but that's OK, it's not the stuffy old generations that are the future of the beer world.

So I remain sceptical about the financial benefits of such an investment. A city advisor who has commented on the value puts them more at £50 each if you ignore the beer discount. I'd tend to agree after my own brief look. For some the discount might be worth a bit, but most people have managed to get that anyway, I wonder if they will stop the promotional codes now? But it really is about more than just money. It is buying into a concept about beer that is the real deal. It remains to be seen if 10,000 people get it.

That, I think, is enough blogging for one day. I'm off to London soon to join the party tonight. I get the feeling slightly that I've been hoodwinked, but I'm going to enjoy it anyway. Loads of beer people that I know are going to be there. I suspect a whole lot more that I don't know about will be too.

Of course you can check out the details of the scheme yourself on


1Green bottle? bad move I suggest.

Punk Equity

It seems I am a Punk. I own shares in BrewDog, which I bought through so I must be a punk. I buy beer from BrewDog - beers for punks. I need go no further.

Now, I need to know if my £230 is well invested. £2.3m is the total that Bracken and the others are hoping to raise. The total, should they sell all 10,000 shares, will be worth only 9% of BrewDog. That results in a complete value of the BrewDog brand of £25.55m. Do we think it's worth it?

Well, as a share holder I need you to now all to invest in their cunning plan. Without the £2.3m investment it won't get to the £25.5m value they are expecting. The trouble I'm having is that the current value of the assets and liabilities are not much more than £0.5m and they are only looking to expand 10 fold. So we have to assume that their current brand and fixed asset value is around £2.5m based on a £0.8m turnover and negligible profits.

Admittedly they are expecting final year turnover to be significantly higher as they are rapidly expanding. Additionally, low profits could easily be due to heavy investment, but still, I'd like to see more on the bottom line myself.

But hey, if you are a visionary, what do numbers matter? If you can buy into the idea that they are on a mission "to show people how rewarding and exciting craft beer can be" then what are you waiting for? If you can consider a beer to be Abstrakt1 and enjoy the fact that it is, then go ahead, invest in these to young ragamuffins, what else is there worth investing in these days? Not property and for sure not banks.


1Read the document on the web site.

The Dogs Share

BrewDog have floated shares. I've bought one - £230. 10,000 shares are available which makes, wait, £2.3 Million. Shit, I'm going to love this tomorrow later today. They had better put my £230 to good use, that's all I can say. "As a share holder Mr James, can I just say........."

OK, update - these shares seem to represent 9% of the total value of the company. So BrewDog is estimated to be worth..... £25.5 million?

It's late, or early, I think I need to read the document I just printed and post later.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Dog Virus?

Tomorrow BrewDog will finally reveal "The single most exciting, influential and ground-breaking thing to happen in the British brewing industry for decades". The BeerTwitterSphere has been getting more and more excited about the news. I've booked a ticket to get to London tomorrow so that I can join in with the hysteria. But are we all getting worked up over another publicity stunt with the customer base doing most of the work and no real payback?

Of course we're getting used to BrewDog's viral marketing. Send out a tweet here, post a blog there, slip the odd bottle of something new into orders. Releasing beers with provocative names and pronouncing their products "beers for punks" is bound to raise an eyebrow in the current Daily Mail style shock-horror-were-all-drunken-bums journalism enjoyed today. Back it up with press releases and a few rumours and the machine is rolling a little faster. Just as the momentum is picking up give it another kick in the form of the strongest beer in the UK. Wow, that got us noticing things for sure.

So, how are these young upstarts doing it? After all, they are not long out of University and already they have made a big name for themselves. They've only been going since April 2007 for gods sake. I've been brewing longer than they have. How dare they take over the world so soon!

Anticipation for sure. Tomorrow we'll get to know if the world will really change. Perhaps it will for the beer geek. For me, if the world of beer changes a little for the better then it's worth it. But I worry that I've been taken for a ride. Have I spent nearly £80 on train fares that I needn't have done? After all, I only have to look at their web site at 7am to find out what the fuss is about.

If it's really the biggest thing to hit brewing in decades then how can I miss out tomorrow? Of course I have to go to London and of course I had to book the tickets in advance. If it turns out that I've wasted my time and money and it's all just a pile of dog poo then James and Martin have one less fan - they are too clever to risk that, aren't they?

Well, I'm not going to guess what it's about. I'll just trust them1 and wait. Tomorrow we find out.

What I really want to know is how Bracken tweets, I'd really like to see that. I have no doubt that Bracken is the most intelligent BrewDog in the whole world, but the physical incompatibilities with human I.T. must be insurmountable. I suspect it's got something to do with James's beard.


1What am I talking about? James studied as a lawyer, you can't trust lawyers.

Making Money from Beer

I managed to get hold of a hard copy of The Cask Report. I spend too much time sat at this computer, so I didn't really want to spend more time reading the on-line version, and printing out a heavily coloured PDF uses so much toner. Right, that's my grumbling about it out of the way now I can concentrate on singing it's praises. It is of course one of those good news stories amongst the drinks industry doom and gloom that seems to have dominated the press over the last few years. The basic message is; cask pubs do better, make more money and are less likely to close. The "cask beer value chain" as Pete put's it indicates a whole lot more about pubs that serve cask. I suspect if you are a regular reader of this blog you will have already found the report, if not go to the website now, the report is far better than anything written here.

It does make me think, "value chain" - value means cheap. I can tell the reader is already thinking about arguing with me. Value and good quality don't generally go together in any advertising spiel. Added value gets talked about in marketing, but that to me is something different and is about getting more money. Look around the supermarkets, "value range" what does that tell you? It spells out cheap to me.

The the economics of the industry are far more complex than the general pub observer would like to have us believe. It really is not as simple as reducing the price of a pint and the hoards will flock. In fact, I have observed that this is usually not the case, simply because dropping the price results in corners being cut and so the service drops below the acceptable level. "I wouldn't go in there, the beer is cheap but you stick to the carpet" There are some exceptions and Wetherspoons springs to mind. They focus on providing a value service and do so very well. Their quality must be satisfactory as it is a very successful chain. Of course much of their success is due to economies of scale and integrated purchasing and transport logistics.

I'll digress for a while to bring in another piece of information that has surprised me. It's taken a year for me to really understand this but it parallels the pub industry and the connection is beer. It turns out that it's also extremely hard to make money out of writing about beer. My membership of the guild has put me in touch with lots of great people in the beer writing and brewing world. I've listened to and queried about the remuneration and what I've learnt is it's not great. There are something like 150 members of the British Guild of Beer Writers. Some are employed in other work that touches on beer writing, some are brewers and do contribute to writing about beer, some are beer bloggers or even just licensees interested in supporting the work of the guild. Very few are actually just writers who make money out of writing about beer.

There is a connection here; Beer. All the members of the Guild are passionate about beer. I know a lot of publicans who are also passionate about beer. I know of very few, if anybody, who is really making a good living out of beer and I think I understand better these days why.

There is something else that ties these groups together and that is a willingness to work to deliver beer, or information about beer, with very little reward other than the very reward that beer itself gives.

I am at a stage in my career where I need to start thinking about the future. I have to start thinking about how I am going to pay for the nursing home when I'm old(er) and (more) decrepit. I have to start finding reasons to stay in the beer industry because my previous £40k a year job, with weekends off and 30 days leave a year looks a lot more tempting.

The problem is that the cask report does highlight the fact that cask beer is often cheaper by some considerable amount than it's poorer quality big cousin, the big brand lager. I'd say the average differential is around 20%. That can't be right. Cask ale is a better quality product, generally looked after by better quality people in better quality pubs. Value? if we carry on undervaluing cask ale in monetary terms it'll drive those that care about it out of the industry from shear financial necessity.

Before I leave the subject I'd like to mention one place that intrigues me; The Rake at Borough Market. I'd never been until the other day and I'd have to say I like it. I'm not sure it's that much more expensive than other similar alternatives. It was very busy when I was in there on a Wednesday evening. I did not find the staff at all rude and enjoyed my nice time there. I wonder if the staff have a second sense for identifying customers whose sole aim in life is to find cheap beer? I crumbled and paid money for Nanny State 1.1%, which was an unbalanced hop monster, but the best low alcohol beer I'd ever tried. I'll be back there tomorrow late afternoon as I have a date with a dog later that evening and will need some Dutch courage.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

International Beer Challenge

More beer, this time last Wednesday. I think I'm starting to catch up with myself at last. The International Beer Challenge 2009 had it's presentation of awards in the Royal Society of the Arts Vaults. An interesting location two floors underground. Rather prevents any twittering, which is a shame as my BlackBerry had been fully charged. OK, I'll take some pictures instead. Would you believe it my camera battery was flat. Luckily I managed to find a socket and get some life back into it.

I wasn't sure what the awards were about. I'd not even had a chance to swat up before I went, but I was keen to find out whilst I was there. Of course these gatherings are always useful for networking anyway, and learning as much as I can about how the beer world works. There is the completely incidental issue of getting to taste a few beers, not that that had any influence on my desire to attend.

It's about bottled beers, if you haven't already done what I should have done two weeks ago and checked the web site. "The world's largest packaged beer competition" it says. I wonder if that's true. Surely we can't do something bigger than the yanks? Well whatever, there was probably as many different bottles of beers as I've ever seen in one room, or dungeon. Although having been to Delirium Café in Brussels I guess that's a lie. However, I got to try a few more than I'd normally try in one session.

As for the awards themselves? Well here are the winners of each section

NABLAB - Bill Brewer, Harvey and Son
Ales - Highlander, Fyne Ales
Stouts and Porters - Prince of Denmark, Harvey and Son
Lagers - Samuel Adams Traditional Bock, The Boston Beer Company
Wheat Beers - Hefeweissbier, Weihenstephan
Fruit Beers - Redoak Framboise Froment, Redoak Boutique Beer
Speciality - Bracia, Thornbridge

The overall winner was - Hefeweissbier, Weihenstephan

Interesting, I didn't rate it very highly, I'm sure I've had better Weissbier. But there, just my opinion.

Now what I thought was interesting was the section on branding. The point being made was that most bottled beers need to sell themselves on the shelves of supermarkets. A good brand needs to stand out amongst other brands and be recognisable and look desirable. It's not good enough just to make quality beer. Pete Brown gave another interesting talk on the subject1 of why it is important to look at how beer is sold. I'm going to start believing him before long and do something about my own image.

I was intrigued by one category in the Design and Packaging section which seemed to be awarded for not dicking around with an existing brand. Don't fix what ain't broke - Somebody should tell Microsoft that, eh Pete? Ahem...anyway, I was quite pleased that Robinson's lack of progressive thinking actually won this for them. Old Tom won because they had the good sense to maintain a branding that stood up as an icon of enduring quality whilst not looking out of place alongside contemporary designs. At least that was something like what was said.

I did try Old Tom and can say I did quite like it, so there you go.

There were two other awards in the branding bit;

Repackaged - Clouded Yellow, St Austell Brewery
New - Ola Dubh 40, Harviestoun Brewery

I had a nice chat with the Green King head brewer, my notes say he's called Ed Kentishbarnes, I do hope I've got that right. It surprised me just how similar their brewing process was to Fullers. Blending probably at different stages of the process but still using two different streams to control the parameters of the finished product. Moreover I am reminded of one thing - brewers have no secrets, we all like to chat about brewing. From that we can again be reminded that beer is a social drink.

The full list of results are here, if you're really interested. Actually, if you're not interested they are still in exactly the same place, sorry but your disinterest will not make them go away.


1None of us believed it was that big, but a good story teller... well.... tells a good story.

Lager Of the British Isles

Phew, here we go, another event from my trip away from Cumbria; Lager this time. I'm hoping to catch up before I go again on Tuesday. I never expected when I planned our nice little sojourn that I'd end up with such a busy schedule, but the diary dates just kept coming in. This time an event at The White Horse at Parsons Green about lager.

Most people who know me well enough realise I don't give much time to lager. My barman has even less time for it, when asked by customers what lager he would recommend he normally replies with "None, all lager is shit" or some other inappropriate sales patter. See what I have to deal with? The flack I got from him for RSVPing the invite can't be repeated here but lets just say he questioned my true gender.

But in the spirit of considering a true open mind I had to try. After all the group being represented is trying to establish a respectability for quality British made lager, that is worth supporting. But would I find something I like? Well actually I did. Seeing as Mark does a good job of summing up the proceedings there seems little point in me saying much more about the beers other than I pretty much agree completely with his findings.

I'd like to be a little more abstract with my thoughts about lager. I recently remember two beer people discussing which main steam fizzy yellow stuff they would prefer, should they have to suffer such a fate. I can't remember the brands under discussion but what struck me was the comments on their various flaws. To me lagers major flaw is that for most occasions it's too cold, too fizzy and too tasteless. Complaining about diacetyl1 or dimethylsulfide (DMS)2 creates a scientific surprise for me. I thought the main fault of such beers was the lack of any taste, it seems I'm wrong.

As an ale drinker who generally looks for plenty of flavour these sometimes subtle defects can pass me by. This fact seemed accentuated by one of the lagers being pulled from the tasting session. I found it to be fine and in fact quite tasty, but I was assured there was plenty wrong with it. So I'm seriously considering starting to drink these beers with known flaws, just so that I can understand the various complaints I hear about off flavours. It seems I'm underestimating the job of assessing lager.

A good do it was, I enjoyed it and wish every success to LOBI, despite my brain finding little jokes about lout drinking hooligans LOBbIng it out for the girls. Apparently the alternative acronyms are far more obvious, oh dear.

What was nice for me was I got a little chat with Oz Clarke. Of course I complimented him on the Oz and James drink to Britain series and suggested that more on the same lines would be lovely. I think he was a little defensive about the program's faults, like the issue over CAMRA being ignored and James being less than nice about Ratcliff Ale, clearly he's been badgered about these things before. I doubt any mainstream popular program would get things just right for the hardcore beer lover and overall I don't think the first series did any harm to beer and probably did some good.

Did you notice, "first series". Yup, my understanding is that there will be more programs. Oz seemed quite confident that the Beeb was right behind the idea of further programs. I hope so. I left Ann to work her feminine charm on him whilst I went to find more beer. Perhaps he'll convince the team to come out and film at my pub next, that would be fun.


1Diacetyl is a fault with beer that causes a buttery or butter scotch flavour, apparently. It's normally due to the beer being taken off the yeast too soon.

2Dimethylsulfide(DMS) can create cooked corn or vegetable flavour. It is normally caused by insufficient boiling of the wort during production.

Barley Wine Number Two

OK, here it is, the second instalment of the barley wine seminar. Excuses like having to work in the kitchen now out of the way I realise that there is another hindrance to me relating the proceedings of the second half of the event; that of the beer and crack being good so my note taking seems to have faded. It normally does once I start drinking beer, it's more the social aspect of it rather than the drunken effect, and I'm sticking to that story. Drinking is a social activity after all.

We tasted barley wines with cheeses. I remember the cheeses clearly, mature Cheddar, Stilton and Brie, but forget which beers were paired with them. I'm considering self flagellation by way of punishment for this serious lapse of diligence. I can however remember the effects of this food and beer matching session and there was a different beer presented to match each cheese.

Mature Cheddar with it's nice bite works well with a moderately bitter beer however the one we had was slightly overpowered by the Cheddar. Still, the creaminess of the cheese worked well with the toffee caramel flavours in the beer.

Moving to the Stilton clearly a more powerful hop presence was needed and in this case I felt we had a good choice of beer. I like Stilton and there is a chance that my perception is coloured here, but the experience worked well.

Finally, the creamy Brie works fantastically with a more malty caramel beer. Brie could so easily be overpowered by a beer with too much hop presence, but this one was perfect. I like Brie as well - hang on, what am I talking about? I like cheese, period.

Of course the dried fruits, big body and powerful liqueur flavours present in all the beers help the cheese and indeed I suspect would with a number of other foods. The overall experience is one of the best beer and food matchings I've ever enjoyed and much better than the one from the Tate Sommelier I experienced about a year ago. Perhaps as a guild we could do more to promote good beer and food pairings.

There were many barley wines to try and Adrian Tierney-Jones lists them in his blog. I'm really not one to give a great list of beers and critique each one. Every single beer was fantastic and the danger for any contender would be that the overall quality was so high that everyday fantastic might loose out to sublime. Several had vintages and in particular the 1999 Fuller Vintage Ale stood out as something special, not just because the beer is good but because of the overall ethos that goes along with it. I had tried the 2009 at the GBBF and the fresh compared to the aged was very interesting indeed. I smuggled a bottle home which currently has an imaginary "drink me" label tempting me every day. Ann particularly liked the Harveys Elizabethan Ale. Big Foot was too hoppy to be a barley wine in my view, but that's the way the Americans do things. Conversely Lovibonds Wheat Wine would be great with some more hops.

So, things starting to get a little more relaxed and with the danger of memory failure we sat down again to listen to the second batch of speakers. Barry Pepper kicked off with a light after dinner style piece on Yorkshire Stingo, which it turns out I had difficulty pronouncing correctly. I blame the lack of a Yorkshire accent rather than any effect from the beers.

Steve Gibbs of Durham Brewery gave a talk on the micro brewers perspective of making barley wine. As a micro brewer myself I felt it was all obvious. That must mean he was telling the truth but it does leave difficulties in me finding the surprising revelation to pass on.

Jeff Rosenmeier gave a very informative talk on his Wheat Wine, which I mentioned needed more hops, but he himself had already come to this conclusion. Mash hopping is used, rare in this country but useful in this beer due to the high level of wheat malt. Wheat mashes tend to be very sticky and can result in a stuck sparge. Hops in the mash help to break up the malt and replace the lack of barley husks. Honey is used in the beer's production and there was some question about when to add the honey. In the boil the honey can loose much of the aromatics that are the very point of using honey. The problem is that honey is not sterile. The high sugar content stops any bacteria from growing when honey is stored, which is why it can keep for years, but adding it to wort without any boiling might encourage these bacteria to multiply once in the ideal growing medium of fermenting beer. Jeff puts the honey in at the end of the boil, at flame out. However, he is considering putting it in after cooling and hoping the yeast will compete and so play to the numbers game of brewing microbiology. Honey in beer is a controversial one. I like mead and so I liked this. If you don't like honey then you'd be disappointed.

Jeff talked about waxing the bottle top. This has been proven to help ageing in beers. As a secondary seal it is used to prevent oxygen getting at the beer and maintain condition. It's even possible, apparently, to hear a hiss as the wax is broken proving that it does really have an effect. It is interesting that the example bottle of a very old beer indeed was also waxed. Steve Wellington had brought along one of only a few bottles left of Ratcliff ale. Pete Brown was lucky enough to try some just before his epic journey to India. Apparently we were not worthy enough to try it, but there is an excellent description of the ceremony surrounding the opening of the bottle and the flavours encountered in Pete's book Three Sheets to the Wind pp73-74.

Which I hope brings me on neatly to Pete's little bit of the day; Selling barley wine. Of course most people who have read Pete's books will know his roots lie firmly in marketing. His words don't need to be repeated here as he has kindly copied them onto his own blog. They make tons of sense to me. The key thing is that we have to rethink beer when we get to the premium market. Barley wine and other strong beers like double imperial stouts, imperial IPAs and the like deserve a different approach. Packaging and glassware are part of that.

A key point though is that it was stated "Drinking is about ritual", and the example came back of the opening of Ratcliffs ale in Pete's book and how everybody was transfixed around this very special bottle. Part of the ritual of removing the wax on a corked bottle gives another reason to consider this packaging addition, further adding to the ritual of drinking. Anyway, just read Pete's blog, he makes more sense than me.

The floor was open for questions and comments. Earlier I had heard a comment from somebody that questioned the place of barley wine. Claiming to really like the beers we were trying the gentleman also declared "I would never go to the pub and drink this". I asked myself why not? We will drink wine and whisky and gin and vodka and rum and port but not barley wine. No, because we are stuck in the thought that beer needs to be between 3.5% and 4.5% and served in pints, anything else is just stupid, apparently. I really feel that we should consider taking a leaf out of the Belgians book on this one. Different styles of beer deserve different glasses and different measures. The more that I explore the premium beer world the more I realise that we are missing out on promoting them due to blinkered, dare I say it, flat earth approach.

Melissa Cole sparked controversy by having a dig at brewers for only using technical descriptions for the flavours in beers. Hoppy, malty and estery don't really inspire the lay person. An irritated retort ensued from somebody seemly insulted but I'd have to agree that we could be more descriptive rather than technical with our beer tasting notes.

Finally free reign was given to the marvellous array of beers to try. I was expecting great things and was sure I would enjoy the experience. Whilst I loved them all there were some that were simply outstanding. I opened my first post claiming that barley wine was for old women. That seems to be the perception but I'd say this is a style that could be modernised, not by way of changing the style, it stands as a robust drink in it's own right, but it's crying out to be made trendy and I've a feeling we're on the cusp of it. It also seems that the style is worthy of the maturation fine wine receives. If a well made beer can still be drinkable after 140 years then perhaps we can consider expanding on Fullers excellent idea of vintage ale and give beer it's much needed step up out of the mass media gutter. Maybe beer might be the drink of the nation, the drink that cuts across classes, but we're still in danger of alienating greatness with a form of inverted snobbery that still clings to the drinking classes.

Sadly the coach was ready to leave bound back for Sheffield and the promise of a pint. I was strangely looking forward to sinking a regular 18oz plus proper northern head. Unfortunately, the few that were left wanted to visit several pubs so halves were in order. Mind you, I'm glad we did get to a few, Sheffield is looking good for a beery trip in the future.

I can't finish this post without a mention of the hotel we stayed in that night. The Hillsborough Hotel is a brew hotel, there are not many in the country and of course every single one is special. This one is no exception, or perhaps it is, seeing as it is exceptional. Stu is a top brewer and is not afraid to push the boundaries a little. His Unpronounceable IPA at 7% Indian Pale Ale 7.2% brewed with Pete Brown1 was on tap "Are you sure you want a pint? Do you know how strong it is?" I was asked. I didn't care, I was getting desperate to get my hands around a proper one, yeah, I'm disagreeing with every thing I've said above but just sometimes only a pint will do. We were brought a special jug of Ring of Fire from the cellar, newly tapped and "dry chillied". I've never had chilli beer and was not quite sure whether I would like it. A nice fresh chilli nose that threatens a bite that will blow your mind, I expect this comes from the whole chillies in the cask, but it turns out that it's bouquet is worse than it's bite with this beer working surprisingly well. I think I had around a pint of the chilli beer as well, which was probably good going after the day I'd just had. Eventually I found my bed, contented after a thoroughly enjoyable day.

A smashing breakfast next morning was followed by a grand tour of The Hillsborough Cellars, which is where the Crown Brewery lives. I was in a rush because I'd left my BlackBerry charger at home and I wanted to find a shop that could sell me a new one. Unfortunately in my rush I left my bottles of Celebration Ale behind, which Stu had kindly procured for me. Sadly that means I'll have to visit the Hillsborough again and probably be tempted into another beer exploration around the steel city of Sheffield. Ann thinks I left them deliberately so that I'd have to go back - as if.

I think I've drivelled on a little too long already about barley wine; Time to move on - onward to the great capital of our little island. Time for more beery exploration to engage in and a treat in first class on the train to get there. Interestingly I ended up thinking that I'd rather travel standard class on a Virgin Pendalino as the ride is so much smoother, the East Midlands Trains rattle and tilt terribly, now I know why it's only £6 more for first class.

Incidentally, my search for a charger turned out to be a frustrating but eventually successful escapade. It was in a Virgin shop that I managed to find my phone charger, the Branson empire managed to regain a little kudos with me again after a complete and utter fiasco trying to buy a parking ticket at Oxenholme.

Next I need to cover an event hosted by Lagers Of the British Isles. Yes, that's right, I had an evening of lager drinking. Have my beer explorations found me a lager I like? You'll just have to wait until the next post.

Meanwhile, there is also a post on The Beer Justice blog about the event, in case I haven't bored you quite enough.


1You see, this is what happens if you try and cram too much beer and blogging into too few days, the accuracy starts to deteriorate.....see blog comments.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Beer with food

For those waiting for the second instalment of the barley wine seminar proceedings I'm afraid you'll have to wait till tomorrow. Trying to accurately portray what others have said turns out to be a whole lot more difficult than just spurting out my own incoherent thoughts. Today I need to be in the kitchen for a while so I have to blog quickly.

Food though; we talk about beer with food and beer and food matching. Great idea that is seldom executed very well. I know we're generally rubbish at it here and I'm not sure how we can improve. One of the problems we have is a constantly changing menu and cask selection. Updating the beer blackboard every day and getting to the point of updating the menu is as much as we get to.

I've always been interested in good food. I don't blog about it here very much but have openly admitted to being a food snob. Indeed, I entered the industry primarily interested in food, not beer. That's changed quite a lot these days as beer seems to have taken over my life, but I still have a keen interest in food and would like to see the two working together more. We visited the Restaurant Show at Earls Court for a couple of hours on Tuesday. It's run it's course for us at the moment, it seems to present nothing new, although the economic situation over the last 2 years has dented the new innovation that we go to find. Certainly the size of the exhibition is much smaller than previously.

Every year we have visited the restaurant show. It's given us some great ideas about food and other aspects of running a food led business. Wine and spirits are often being exhibited at tasting sessions as a key part of the selling process. There are interestingly also some of the PubCo's exhibiting and even this year a whole competition for Gastro Pub chefs. As for beer....what beer?

Shepherd Neame have been there, and were this year, but only showing off their brewed under licence beers. As I think one friend of mine has commented "Watch out for BUL", an unfortunate acronym I feel. No sign of Spitfire or Bishops finger and why not? Well I think I know why, and I'll try to explain.

Having tasted some fantastic barley wines with some classic cheese styles the day before what I found further confirmed the main barrier to beer with food. The barley wines matched the cheeses so well, much better than any standard beer might and showing up the key problem with standard British beer and food matching. Standard session pub beer does not go with food. No, don't argue, it jolly well does not.

OK, maybe with your steak and ale pie, gravy and peas, maybe with your curry and rice or possibly with battered cod and chips, which is why we think about these foods in pubs. But when it comes to better quality food these thin, watery and relatively bland beers just fight against the food and destroy the joy of both. At best a regular session bitter acts as a palate cleanser and might, if you are lucky, contrast with good effect, but the best food I have ever enjoyed has always been with wine.

But I'm a beer writer, I can't say these things. Surely fine dining food must be able to match with beer? Yes, I very much believe it can. We need to think in the same way as the sommelier in a great restaurant. We need to think about what is bold enough to stand up to great food, what can match and compliment to provide an integrated experience. Without this approach we are still going to find a great gulf between the beer and restaurant trade.

At the barley wine seminar the beers we tasted with the cheese blended and complimented bringing out the best in both. I'm not sure I would go quite as far as saying that the sum was greater than the parts but at least it was moving in that direction. The reason in my view is the fact that these barley wine beers were generally stronger and matured, and the similarities to a good Vin du Bourgogne, for instance, are not lost on me.

Funnily enough, as I type this I get a comment on twitter from Jeff Pickthall. He ate a very nice meal last night but he had "3 ales all fresh but all very similar. Had pigeon starter and rabbit main + Hawkshead and Ennerdale bitters but craved Belgies". Thanks Jeff, spookily on queue. For me, with this type of food the Belgian beers just win hands down, although I would also settle for a barley wine.

There are several very good beer wholesalers in this country. I have never seen any at the Restaurant Show. Come on beer industry, lets start joining in with the restaurant trade rather than moaning about them taking trade from pubs. Lest start producing more beers that better match food and get them out there into the restaurant trade.

If any beer wholesaler wants a passionate speaker, who also has a little experience with food and understands what might turn on a food operator to the right type of beer, I'd be interested in helping at the next restaurant show.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Barley Wine Number One

Barley Wine, it's something of an old ladies drink. Nobody really gives it much thought these days. Often at beer festivals something turns up that is strong enough for people to declare it as a barley wine, simply on the grounds that it is too strong to be beer. I have Tokyo* on sale in my pub and it's easiest to sell by using the description of barley wine, after all, we can understand the concept of a strong fruity drink when related to the fruit of the vine1. Do we really understand the difference between barley wine, old ale and intergalactic fantastic stout?

On Monday this week I attended the British Guild of Beer Writers barley wine seminar as the start of a beer exploration week. Perhaps I would understand barley wine better.

Arriving at Sheffield station ahead of schedule I met up with guild members and was introduced to the head brewer of a slightly bigger brewery. It's nice to be recognised as "Woolpack Dave" by key people in the brewing industry, and more so by their interest in the beer blogging world. People in the industry do read beer blogs, at least some do, and they like the information it gives them about grass root beer drinkers and their thoughts. The point that came through was that it is the comments as much as the posts themselves that can be most illuminating. A lesson for me to appreciate those who comment but with whom I might not agree. Opinion, after all, is just opinion.

More people arrived and we had a quick tour of an interesting project for a brewery tap of our hosts, Thornbridge. In 1904, or there about, a building was erected as part of the station. The waiting room included a bar with echoes of a disappearing Victorian splendour, the bar front long since destroyed but the back bar, dusty and neglected, threatened to once again shine through with polished mahogany and large shiny mirrors. Apparently the new bar front is being manufactured elsewhere. The 1350 bottle beer range should cap off for an interesting bar and a fantastic beer gateway for what turns out to be a great beer city.

From here to the delightful setting of Thornbridge Hall for the seminar. Many people serious about the subject of beer in all its various forms, were in attendance to try and "make sense of barley wine". Although the subject makes sense to me now, I'm not sure as a writer, brewer or beer drinker, I can communicate that sense as well as I'd like to. Part of the reason is perhaps because the subject was covered in good depth and with great interest, but in a polite and democratic way that failed to reach any firm conclusions. For me this adds to the charm of the event, but might detract from it's usefulness to the greater beer world. Here I will try my best to single out the key important things I learnt, but suffice to say this is probably scratching the surface of the subject.

The style that is barley wine seems a little confused. Our first speaker, Mark Dorber, did an excellent job of helping to focus on the style. The first point of course is the very question of style itself. There are a few organisations2 who try to define style, and there are often discrepancies between these definitions. The inevitable arguments about what is "true to style" are bound to ensue. As Mark pointed out "beer does not make itself" and style guidelines are useful for brewers as a spring board for progression and a hook to help define a product. The arguments about what style a beer actually is might never go away and frankly is a superfluous distraction. Mark did help us to understand the basis for this style, and therefore helps me to further develop what I think is an under developed drink, from a commercial point of view.

An exploration of the various attributes ensued; There is little point trying to sumerise what Mark said, because he's done it so well himself, so I will quote verbatium his own summary from the powerpoint presentation.

Amber to deep copper in colour

Intense, estery fruity aromas and higher alcohols present – big brassy hop aromas on US inspired beers - more restrained in UK

Full-bodied - 8.5-12% abv, monuments to pale malt and single barley varieties with firm, balancing bitterness in UK

Residual sweetness capable of attenuation during months/years of maturation in oak cask (rum, bourbon etc) or bottle

Liquorous, fortified vinous, silky texture and smooth mouthfeel

UK barley wines will have no tannins from grain and in the past tended to use low alpha noble hops – now changing

US barley wines have high alpha primary hop flavours and tannins in youth – mellowing with age

Aftertaste should not be characterised by Burtonising mineral salt dryness – key textural contrast with Imperial IPAs
A key interest for me was the astringency caused by tannins from the grain. Considered by some as a fault in beer but it's presence in grape wine, if carefully controlled, can act as an antioxidant and enhance it's maturation process. Wines with higher astringencies when young are harsh and unpleasant but mature better. I am keen to understand how this could effect barley wine during maturation and indeed if it could be controlled to good effect to produce outstanding matured strong beer.

John Keeling, head brewer at Fullers talked about parti-gyle beer. Apparently much of the beer produced by Fullers is made this way. As the sparge progresses, the wort is diverted into different coppers to produce the various production strength beers. One copper would be at 1080 and one at 1020. The cooled worts then being blended into the fermenter to produce the final products. An interesting advantage is that alpha acids polymerise better in the copper at lower gravity giving a better hop utilisation. John was keen to point out that this is not high gravity brewing, which is a different concept again, with parti-gyle, beer fermentation occurs at product gravity.

Brewing in this way enables a strong wort to be used for barley wine, such as Golden Pride and Fullers Vintage while still utilising the second runnings, blended with some of the first for the main stream ales.

Of course the unique characteristic of Fullers yeast was mentioned. A Golden Pride brew sheet was shown from 1966 where the yeast was on it's 926th generation. It does make me wonder how we can be sure the yeast was the same as it was nearly 1000 generations earlier, but of course that's the point; yeast evolves and is changed by the environment it lives in. Equally the ingredients of beer have to be varied as the yield from the grain changes or the alpha acid content of the hops changes. It is the job of the experienced brewer to adjust quantities and even possibly varieties to acheve a consistant result. "Marketing and management think that to get consistent beer you do the same thing every time" but John, at least I think it was John rather than the next speaker as my notes get confused here, asserts it is all about taste and experience. There, that makes these guys craft brewers in my view.

Despite the attraction of traditional techniques the use of the old square fermenters often don't produce good results. It was pointed out that the use of newer cylindrical-conical fermenters often increase the chances of winning CAMRA awards. Clearly good beer and traditional methods don't always go together. Just because this form of vessel is used to make mass produced poor quality lager does not mean it will make poor beer generally.

The next speaker was Steve Wellington of the White Shield brewery, the guy who looks after the "Old Lady" and so keeping Coors just about acceptable. He was keen to point out the need for saying hello to such an austere and aged old brewhouse as if you forget, you are sure to have a bad brew day. Pete Brown talks about this brewery in his book Three Sheets to the Wind, so it was nice to hear a little more about it.

Here he talked about what I understand to be Bass No1 but I'm left a little confused about it's status. Coors seem to own the brewery that Bass No1 was brewed on but AB InBev own the Bass brand. Still, Steve seems to know an awful lot about how it could be brewed, although my understand is that it is not currently being made. Maybe this seminar will produce a new interest in barley wine and the White Shield brewery will once again make barley wine.

The key notable point was the difficulty of getting more than around 1060 - 1070 wort from all grain mash methods. Bass N01 was sparged to produce this gravity and then boiled to reduce the volume and concentrate the sugars. The boiled wort would have an S.G. of 1105 and take many hours. Often done overnight the brewer would creep back into the brewery next morning, without forgetting to say hello, and hope there wasn't just black tar in the bottom of the copper. A dark concentrate that originally contained no coloured malts is the result. 6 brewery barrels, or close to 1000 litres, is reduced to half of that volume.

Conversions of sugars into other compounds colour the wort and no doubt add to the final characteristics of the product. With a hop loading 6 times what you'd expect compared to an ordinary beer due to the low uptake of hop flavours the end result is a glorious rich dark malty beverage with just enough hopping to offset the sweetness.

To round off the first session Steve Grossman of Sierra Nevada explained a little about the production of Big Foot which is their 9.6% ABV barley wine. It is interesting in the craft beer scene in America how big and bold is favoured. Extremes of flavours and alcohol marks out the differences more than considerations of cask against keg or authenticity to anything previous. Consequently their barley wine is also very hoppy and bitter.

If you've got this far in reading you've done well. It was an interesting day and I've only covered about half of the proceedings. I could have written more detail so far, but even more of you would have got bored. I haven't even covered the most interesting things for me, which is the cultural issues surrounding stronger beers. Hopefully in my next post I'll cover what some of the other speakers say and hint at where the British beer industry and pubs alike could gain from barley wine.

If you want more information on the barley wine seminar then Malt Worms and Beer Justice have also covered the event.


1The name wine of course is linked to vine, the plant type that grows the fruit used to produce the regular vintners beverage. In French this link is much more obvious by their name of vin. Of course everybody already knows this, so this foot note is pointless.

2Mark uses The Brewers Association and The Beer Judge Program as examples of barley wine style descriptions. The CAMRA descriptions are also available but not mentioned. There seemed to be some irritation towards CAMRA's attitude to styles, which I'll confess I didn't quite grasp.