Tuesday, 31 March 2009

CAMRA and I

It seems this post is a little overdue. Recently I was slightly taken aback by being accused of being schizophrenic by Tandleman and ducking and weaving by John Clarke in response to this post. Now it's not the fact that they pointed these things out that I was surprised at but more the fact that they thought I didn't know or that they themselves thought it odd.

So, it would seem that it is time for me to nail my colours to the mast as far as CAMRA is concerned.

I love real ale. I love drinking it and I love the fact that it is an important part of my business. The longer I am in the trade the more I feel this way and the more I am convinced that it is going to be a significant part of the future of the licenced trade. I also believe there are other beers that can compliment real ale and help promote a better beer culture, which in turn will help real ale.

I support the main aims of CAMRA. I am a member and try to be involved where I can. But CAMRA is a consumer pressure group and its policies conflict often with my attempts to make a measly living out of my pub. Therefore I am also a sceptic.

The CAMpaign for Real Ale does, as it's core purpose, exactly what it says on the tin. The organisation does also campaign about other issues such as pubs closing. It organises the Good Beer Guide and publishes various other beer titles. I don't have a problem with these things generally.

CAMRA is the only beer and pub orientated consumer group in the UK. Perhaps there should be another one, but there isn't. It has always been, in my mind, a significant pub campaigning organisation. Very often the combination of the "fizzy chemical rubbish" type talk, "the war against lager" slogan and the very definition of real ale can be at odds with the wider issues of the licenced trade. Pressures on pub owners come from all sides and CAMRA is one side of this.

Full pints, beer price, pubs closing and many other side issues makes CAMRA the voice of the generic beer drinker as well as that of real ale. But its determination to give the message that real ale is the only thing that counts makes the organisation seem schizophrenic to me. Real ale is not the only thing that counts in a pub, so if CAMRA cares about pubs it needs to accept that we can discuss these things.

The mass media is not taking beer seriously as a quality product. I think this is partly as a result of narrowness of real ale. Do we really have to form a new beer consumer group to cover wider issues? One that will inevitably fight against CAMRA? Would that really be a good thing? I think we all need to do more to help protect the image of quality beer in a more holistic way. 

I really enjoy the active and constructive commenting that occurs in the beer blogging world. I try to engage in it constructively and intelligently. I don't know if I manage that, but I really try. Yes, I also watch my words sometimes in the hope of avoiding damage to my business unfortunately, sometimes, I get the bit between my teeth and go for it.

Sometimes comments from others make me think and change my own opinions. Perhaps that also makes me seem uncertain about what I think. Perhaps it shows I am not sure exactly what to think on many issues. I'm not going to blindly stick to my principles when somebody has convinced me I'm wrong. This, surely, is one of the great things about blogging.

Avoiding discussion on issues and not being "sidelined by siren calls luring us onto the rocks" feels a little like believing the king has all his clothes on, just because somebody told you so. Of course these discussions are occurring, all over the place in the blogosphire. It's upsetting some people, perhaps that is a shame, but also it's probably inevitable.

Is this ducking and weaving? I don't know, I'm just trying to be honest, that's all.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Closed pubs

I've noticed recently a couple of pubs that have closed.

The Golden Fleece at Calder Bridge has never raised much above the radar for me. While it was still open it advertised free WiFi, cheap food and all sorts of deals. It has never concentrated on quality and never done real ale very well. Now it's closed. Calderbridge has one other pub which, when run well, as it is now, beats this one hands down. The Golden Fleece would be better left shut and changed into something else.

The Globe at Gosforth used to be a good pub for older teenagers. I'm guessing they all do drugs now. It's also never been very significant at the real ale job. Recently they advertised two course meals at ridiculously low prices. They took all the handpulls out and went all trendy wine bar, chrome font and sweaty condensation kind of rubbish. There are several good pubs in Gosforth, this one isn't needed.

Doing deals that costs more than revenue is going to result in failure. Ignoring handpulled ale in a rural location will result in the same; I said so every time I drove past these pubs during the last couple of years.

So pubs, leave the aiming at the lowest common denominator to Wetherspoons. They are good at it and fill a gap in the market very well. Raise your game, get the quality right and charge an appropriate price for it.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

A night out in Whitehaven

I've had a busy time this last couple of days. Working hard and playing hard. Spring is well on it's way, the clocks have changed and the visitors are now arriving in numbers that make opening worth while. I've got at least two extra blog topics as well as unfinished thoughts on BitterSweet. It'll just have to wait.

Additionally, last week, I got an email from an old work colleague inviting me to a night out. Actually, he's not that old, being only about the same age as me, but I've known him a while. It seems Stuart was finally leaving the old place for pastures new after 26 years with the old company. There was me thinking he'd be there till he retired. How could I refuse? A chance to catch up with people I haven't seen for nearly 6 years.

The venue was Whitehaven. Meeting in The Bransty Arch, a Wetherspoons outlet. Oh dear. Well never mind. On for a curry after and then around town. It should give me a chance to try out some beers. Last time I went around Whitehaven on a night out I was, as yet, to be turned into a beer nerd. Then I drank Guinness and little else.

In the first pub, despite it being part of Tim Martins empire, would be fun as I'd get to meet up with old friends. Indeed, the banter would have made up for any shortfall in beer quality and Steve's business advice on beer strength added to the amusement. But actually, I was reasonably impressed with the beer in here. Not quite so impressed with the overall ambiance and feel, but then I'm a country bumpkin.

So on to the curry house. Generic bitter or lager on draft. I guess these beers might have a name, but they couldn't be bothered to print it on the menu. I decided to plump for Kingfisher as at least it was named. I'm sure I'd have been disappointed by the "bitter". Still, the owner coped well with the sudden group of around 30. We caused some headaches with ordering and table arrangements.

So, where to next? Oh no, back to Wetherspoons. Still, a couple of strong beers to try, that was nice. Late on on Friday I found the atmosphere getting a bit rough. Wetherspoons doesn't encourage inappropriate drinking eh? A drunk knocked over a glass and it was left for ages rolling around and threatening to drop on the floor. My licensees instinct saw it at least got sat back on it's base.

An intermediate stop in a cask free bar resulted in me saving my liver for a round. Why did I want to waste money and coherence on Extra Cold Guinness. Gee, how things have changed. Thank god, we're moving again. Where next? "The Candlestick" I suggested "At least it's got proper beer".

Alas, the Candlestick is a Robbies pub. Double Hop the only offering. Goodness me, no wonder The Bransty Arch sometimes makes the Good Beer Guide, it had the best beer all night. I noticed that the other 2 cask drinkers in our group avoided the Doublehop. Apparently, it's always crap in there. Is it the beer or the pub? Perhaps Robbinsons is appriciated better back in Stockport.

There are two good pubs in Whitehaven. The Vagabond and The Whittington Cat. Personally I prefer The Vagabond.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Beer, the chauvinist drink!

Now that goes against all my mothers attempts to avoid me becoming sexist. It seems though that I'm peddling a most bigoted product. Perhaps I already sort of knew that. Ann doesn't really drink beer, a greater proportion of my female customers don't drink beer compared to their male partners and this is probably a pattern all over this country and perhaps the world. It's surely not the beers fault though, is it?

For a business this is perhaps crazy. Half of my potential customer base doesn't really like to drink one of the main products that underpin my whole strategy. This is not something that I've given much thought about, until today that is.

I got an email today from The Bitter Sweet Partnership, which apparently is a multi-million pound investment by Coors brewers. For some time now this giant multinational brewery has produced little of interest for me. This initiative however has generated some interesting detailed market research results.
"The BitterSweet Partnership conducted research of over 2,000 women to get their thoughts and found that there are very real barriers and myths that exist around women and beer."
The significant result from the research was that there was little wrong with beer itself, only 25% of respondents wanted the taste changed. Most were happy with taste, it was image that was the significant factor.

Direct comparisons were made between the image wine projects against that of beer. There are figures given in the report that show significant biases. Here are the bullet points.

Image of wine drinkers

  • Sophisticated
  • Independent
  • In control of drinking
  • Successful
  • Health conscious

Image of beer drinkers
  • Overweight
  • Binge drinkers
  • Strapped for cash
  • CHAV
  • Uneducated
  • Masculine
Most worryingly this appears to only be a UK based perception. Many other beer drinking countries including America, Ireland, Italy and Turkey have a greater proportion of beer drinkers being female. The report suggests our beer drinking culture is stuck in the 1950's.

Why do women in the UK see beer in such a bad light? OK Coors identify branding as a problem along with targeted advertising aimed at the male proportion of the population. Big breweries sponsor sport, are we really that surprised? I also think that the beer world is very masculine, beer nerds, regular pub goers, beer writers and beer bloggers are generally male.

No pints please

I knew you wouldn't like that. But it seems the women don't like it too big. A nice looking smaller thing is more their choice. A sexy and interesting branded glass would be a much nicer proposition.
"The fact that for cocktail drinkers, the way their drink is served is the second biggest reason for choosing (46% compared with 7% of beer drinkers) suggests a need for the beer industry to offer alternatives to the pint glass."
Beer information

Wine lists and other information it seems makes other drinks more appealing.
"Looking at the experience in bars too, there’s an imbalance between the information available about wine and information about beer on offer. Around a quarter of women said that ‘they never know which type of beer to buy or order’."
..and for the Pub?

Pubs are places where people go to drink beer. Yes, you could drink wine or spirits or alcopops, but most of the volume is beer. If the whole of the beer industry is geared towards and giving out a masculine signal then pubs are missing out on enticing 50% of the population. Anything that can reduce this impression will be good for pubs. Perhaps, for once, I am friends with Coors.

A bit of quality

As readers might know, I've been playing a little at putting my ale in keg. I'm not doing it to try to reduce my cask sales or in any way to undermine the great reverence that cask deserves. For whatever reason there is a section, even now, of my customer base that does not like cask ales. Some of course drink wine, others drink spirits, some might even be teetotal, but some like to drink beer that is not cask.

Two years ago we decided to remove all major British keg brands from our bar. A bold decision that I'm pleased about. We used to sell a brand of standard "lager" as well as a "premium" product from the same stable. We also sold Guinness, which the sales rep very thoughtfully told us we'd be better off not selling as the throughput was too low. We are very proud to have 85%+ sales of cask beer as a total of our draft sales. We sell a very low volume of keg.
 
If I'm on the bar and I get asked for a lager I give a taster of my own keg and a taster of something else. Fair enough sometimes I loose, but often I don't. I get lots of compliments from people on how nice my "lager" tastes, despite it not being lager. I've given up telling people that it's not actually lager, because most start to go glassy eyed once I start.
 
It may be true that people are being polite when they say they like my beer. Indeed, it is interesting how many people walk to the bar and say "It would be rude to come here and not try your own beer" I often reply that they should drink what they want. After all, I only have to buy other peoples beer, brewing my own results in me doing even more hours for less than minimum wage. In any case, I do think there is genuine appreciation, which regularly makes my day.

My keg beers do not compete with my cask beers. If somebody wants cask then that's what they buy. It does however make some keg drinkers realise that there might be more to beer than cask, smooth, lager or Guinness, which of course there is, but not terribly available in this country. I rather think it might make some habitual keg drinkers think about cask.

Jeff Bell talks about Adnams Spindrift. Although I've not tried it myself, I don't think that it would be much different to my kegged version. Jeff seems indifferent to the product. I think it is a way of enlarging the quality beer market rather than competing with cask or lager. Why not? I'm probably going to continue with the concept, the trouble is the keg the beer is in right now is on loan, so I need to spend some money on some kegs of my own. Ann looks after the money. Time to grovel I expect.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Real Ale IS important

Do you ever stare information in the face and not get the full picture? I know I often do. But then there is such a terrific amount of information in the world that it is impossible for any one mortal to understand everything. Just to make one's capacity for complete understanding more difficult somebody, sometime ago, invented the Information Superhighway which helps deliver tremendous amounts of knowledge all over the world via the Internet.  Beer information is only a small part, and beer blogging an even smaller part of this virtual world.

Despite the relatively tiny size of the interactive beer information system languishing on the web, I cannot manage to absorb all the fact and opinion. Just to complicate matters, CAMRA have kicked off a forum, which provides further trains of thought to consider. This forum has found critique in some quarters, but personally I think it is a good idea. CAMRA has an image problem, some are unable to accept it has, but it is there. I'm not saying the image problem is fair, and there is indications that it is improving, but it is still there. I believe the forum will show why there is an image problem and the vast majority of members who read the discussions are going to work this out and act.

There are some discussions that clearly show entrenched positions that are as futile as the WWI front line tactics over 90 years ago. However, one of the threads was a very interesting discussion on cask breathers, a subject I also discussed previously. I discovered the CAMRA forums as a result of a link from this thread to my post. That's nice, I put my pennies worth on the forum a couple of times and also noted that there was a motion put forward to challenge the CAMRA view at the AGM. All progress I thought, probably as a result of the discussions causing realisation that the CAMRA position was more than just a little bit silly and entrenched.

A little while later I was reading Tims interesting anti CAMRA views and noted that he claimed the forum to be "full of ignorance and the usual CAMRA brainwashing drivel". Now this puzzled me slightly as I had posted on the forum, although I now realise in fact, not in the particular thread Tim was referring to. I commented to Tim that the forum can't be completely full of drivel because I'd posted there, make your own mind up if that's true. In any case, Tim responded with the facts as he saw them:
"I did notice that the thread regarding cask aspirators started with a whole lot of rubbish, but has resulted in an interesting discussion and put the issue back on the agenda for review at a CAMRA weekend away. A positive outcome which is a direct result of your blog post. You should be proud."
Now I read that just before evening food service "I know all that" I thought, and disappeared into the kitchen to cook some food. But then the significance started to niggle at my brain. Did my post really have that effect? Personally I think a whole lot of other peoples views, including for instance The Beer Nut, has had a dramatic effect on this positive outcome. Indeed, a realisation by the majority that one or two individuals are probably talking out of the top of their head helps. Even if it was my post that caused this result, I can't take all the credit as there were others feeding me relevant technical information.

Still, it's quite a humbling experience to slowly realise that I might have played a part in CAMRA reconsidering their stance on cask breathers. It's one of a number of dogmas that are on my tick list to challenge. A list that is one of the reasons for starting this blog in the first place. I should surely be proud, as Tim suggests, to have had this sort of result. Alas there is something bothering me about the potential for such a major change of CAMRA rulings.

But don't worry, I'm not going back on my original quest to change this view. I really do hope that the view is softened a little. Many people realise there is more to good beer than real ale. It is possible for great beer to come from a keg. I know, I've had some. Rarely do we get good keg beer in this country. What we need right now, in the industry, is some very strong innovation. We need pubs and beer brewers to be ever more innovative and to be able to think outside the box. Most dedicated breweries and pub owners are scared to be progressive because of CAMRA. Abolishing the demonetisation of both cask breathers and keg beer is essential.

But what if the "thin end of the wedge" argument shows some sign of realizing the worst fear? I don't want to be remembered as the man who killed cask ale. In fact I don't want to see Real Ale as a style of beer diminish even slightly. I don't think it will, even if we see a growth of craft keg beer, but I want to make sure.

So, if you are a CAMRA member, just have a think about the full picture. Cask breathers will improve the reliability of quality beer. Making quality beer more available through appropriate use of good technology can help the industry. Help me work towards supporting the cask breather as a solution in the right circumstance and I promise I'll show you that it can build the future of cask beer and the pub industry.

And I'll always fight for Real Ale.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Beer Pannacotta

I mentioned about the Guinness pannacotta that I had at the Black Dog Inn on Wednesday. It really was surprisingly good. For a chef, brewer and beer nerd I don't really put much thought into the food possibilities of beer. I really liked the dessert and just had to try and make it myself. In a fit of unusual generosity I am going to share the details of this malt beverage culinary experiment.

A pannacotta is basically a flavoured cream set with gelatin. I didn't figure it would be difficult but wasn't sure about getting the proportions right. Surprisingly, the results were spot on. Here's my version.

Makes around 6 portions.

Ingredients

600ml beer, use one that is malty and not too hoppy (I used Stringers Porter 4.7%)
600ml double cream
300g dark brown sugar
8 leaves gelatin (check packet for exact amount for volume)

Method

Soften gelatin in cold water or as per instructions on the packet. Put the cream, beer and sugar in a pan and heat through to dissolve the sugar. Bring gently to the boil. Check sweetness. Cool slightly. Remove softened gelatin from cold water and stir thoroughly into the hot liquid. Pour into moulds, cool and chill until set.

To turn out place mould in hot water for a second, put a plate on top and turn over giving a sharp shake.

And that is it!

I suspect if the liquid is allowed to cool more and then stirred before putting in the mould it will prevent settling out of the cream. I quite like the layered result.

A part of the problem


“Oh there he goes again” I can here you thinking “another complaining post from the Woolpack Dave guy again”. Well yes… and no. Our business is very weather dependant. If it rains we get significantly less in the way of customers. If the sun shines it can be better. If we get a period of good weather we see a good increase in steady custom.

Last year we had a good spring and early summer. It was that good that our next door neighbour started to flap about our shared water supply drying up. That was in June. It feels like we’ve not had any good weather since, until today.

It’s Saturday, it’s been nice weather for a few days, we’ve had a few late bookings for the rooms and it looks like being a busy day

All we need this year is a good summer. I don’t just mean us, but the hospitality industry and the wider economy as well. Good weather puts everyone in a good mood, boosts confidence which can only be a good thing. In a recent industry poll weather was cited as the biggest thing that affects trade, over and above smoking. So here’s to a summer like ’76 and if anybody starts complaining about their garden needing watering, gag them.

As an aside, these blog poll things are fun, and also informative. I have commented on average beer consumption in a pub per person in the country being less than 2 pints a week. I am sure I can count on one hand the number of weeks, since I was, eermmm, say 17, that I consumed less than 2 pints per week. I am guessing that beer blog readers will show higher than average beer consumption.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Quality and price

My mother, god bless her, was prudent with money. Her parents, my grandparents, even more so. After all, my mother was one of 9 children and was born during the war, these things necessitate questioning of any expenditure. My paternal ancestors were perhaps slightly better off but none the less had a high appreciation of good value for money. 

Despite some very clear cultural differences between the families they all left me with an underlying and enduring sense of the value of quality. Spending a little more, occasionally, on something more expensive, if the quality justified it and it could be afforded, was acceptable.

It seems then, strange to me, that keg products are able to command a higher price generally. Standard British "lager" typically sells in most pubs for at least 10% more than the same strength cask, despite it's large scale production benefiting from economies of scale. Guinness typically is easily 20% more than cask in most pubs.

This would seem to indicate a lack of appreciation, by cask ale drinkers, of the product being delivered. However, my own experience would contradict this.  A piece of advice I was given when I started in business was to work out the required markup necessary to cover overheads and simply sell products at this markup. If a product costs more to buy in then the supplier has to be confident the quality of the product matches the asking price. It should not be up to the retailer to absorb price differentials.

When starting here we believed that there was a maximum price customers would pay for beer. For that reason some breweries never featured in our line up. That changed when I tried Coniston's beers. They were more expensive than Jennings and would have resulted in too high a selling price at my pub, so I thought. I tried them and put my normal markup on. The price difference didn't stop Coniston's beers from out selling Jennings. Consistently, I have found that if I put a good quality beer on next to a poor quality beer the good quality sells even if it is a little more expensive. Sadly, Coniston has slipped a little down the pecking order as newer and more exciting beers have emerged from the likes of CLA and Keswick, but still, it's a good beer so we'll have it again someday.

Venue also has a part to play in price sensitivity. Why else does Wetherspoons have to charge such low prices? I charge typically £2.50 a pint and upwards, the remote location and seasonality justifies more, but I'm too soft. The quality of my own brewed beer it seems, mostly, justifies an even higher price. My Tenacity has gained significant approval from nearly every single customer. My own beers outsell every other beer I have on the bar irrespective of price or style. Perhaps that is just the novelty factor. I don't sell it anywhere else.

I find the poll, and it's emerging results, on Curmudgeon blog interesting and useful. There clearly is a spread of opinion about the acceptable price of beer. Jeff Pickthall has been banging this drum for sometime. Personally, although every business needs to keep an eye on appropriate pricing, I also think the industry needs to concentrate on quality across the board. Good staff, good furniture, good decor and the best beer all cost a little more. Giving the customer a quality experience will avoid Tandleman's gripes and justify a higher price.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

All the blacks

Today was supposed to be our day off. It's a novel concept, a great idea that almost never gets well executed. After I cooked breakfast for our one resident we headed straight out to visit a trade show at Bowness. We knew we had to be back for the evening as we had bookings for dinner and more residents checking in. We're still working on getting our staff for the season so we couldn't be out long.

The trade show was rubbish. A greater than usual number of accountants and solicitors and very little in the way of real hospitality related exhibitors. However, Black Sheep had a stand there. I had a nice chat with the guy on the stand, who gave me a taster of their beer. It tasted like, well, Black Sheep Bitter, which is OK I guess. He quoted the through put of the brewery at 72,000 barrels a year. OK, it's a little more than the Cumbrian micro capacity at around 20,000 a year, but puts things into perspective, I suppose.

They were showing off their new handpull. It's a curious device that I can't help thinking might alienate existing cask ale drinkers. I had heard about the innovation last December when I bumped into the technician in Brussels. I had completely forgotten about it so it was unexpected. My first reaction on seeing it was that they've got some form of nitro keg offering because of its chrome plated shiny look. It doesn't look like a handpull at all to me. I think it might put off the traditionalists that they surely should be aiming at.

From the brewery's point of view, the fixed brand handpull forces the pubs to only have Black Sheep through that beer engine. Nice trick. It could also be argued that the look might change the perception of cask beer into a more trendy product. Lets wait and see. The man I spoke to was certainly upbeat about the success of this dispense technology.

After fighting off, from other exhibitors, the usual torrent of invitations to enter to a rubbish free draw in exchange for being put on a mailing list, we hot footed it out of the show and well away from the honey trap. The Barrow Beer Bard needed a return of something he'd forgotten. Not his head, although after stories of triple bed dreams, one wonders. There is also a Bookers in Barrow-in-Furness so two birds with one stone. Oh, there we go, back to Jeff's dream again.

Having completed the day's business ahead of schedule a trip to a pub might be in order. But which pub? Ann consulted the GBG and CRAG. There seemed to be an obvious choice, it was declared. "You'll like this one" Ann said "The Black Dog between Dalton and Askham near the animal park, and they might be doing food". I'm sure that's the one Jeff likes, I thought.

On entering the pub I was greeted by the customers at the bar "It's Dave from The Woolpack" came the declaration "I was reading your blog the other day". I thought I was far enough away from home not to be noticed. Plus, with 60 million people in the country and only a handful of readers I'd have thought the chance of being spotted as a famous blogger was remote. It turns out he also knows my uncle. You see, that's why I avoid bad language here. Next I'll be finding out my Grandmother reads this blog.

I should say a little about the pub, shouldn't I? Well it is just spot on. Food is excellent, the beer is tip top and frankly, I'm a bit jealous of the owners having such a lovely place. 5 handpulls running and the two beers I had were good. The chicken I had was just right. I followed this up with Guinness and Brown Sugar Pannacotta for pudding which was delicious and paired well with the stout I tried. That might be an idea I have to pinch. I can see why Jeff Pickthall might see the Black Dog Inn as one of his favourite pubs. I think I might even dare to classify it as a gastro pub that works.

Then we went back home to serve our small number of very appreciative customers. All in all a grand day off.

If any of my Barrow based family read this and ask why we didn't call, it's not personal, it's just the pub got the better of me, I know you'll understand. Next time maybe.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

A pub's not just for Saturdays

A while ago I signed up to statcounter to get some details of visits to my blog. It's free and therefore worth every penny I pay. It's really interesting to see how people get here and what they might be looking for. A couple of other bloggers have commented on the curious search terms that people enter.

I get more interested in the times and days that visits occur. Clearly on a Saturday you are all in the pub rather than playing on the Internet. Well done.

But it does raise an interesting question. We are busy enough on a Saturday, but for about half the year we'd be better off closed for some of the week. Should we close the doors when we know trade is too low to justify being open?

Luckily Easter is getting close, we'll be inundated with people then, it's mixed blessings as we could do with the money, but for a few days it will be pandemonium.

95% water

In wine making the Terroir is important to the characteristics of the wine. In beer there seems to be much less concern over exactly what might affect the end result from the location of the brewery. For most breweries there probably is little that will affect the outcome, except perhaps the skill of the brewer himself herself themselves. The brewery can source grain and hops from wherever they like and these are the things that affect the beer most. But there is one ingredient that is most important, the water.

We're on a private water supply. The acidity is just fantastic for making good beer, although the water is very soft and adding a few trace elements is handy. Because it comes from a peat bog the water is loaded with organics. I've often wondered what affect these organics have on the beer. Anyway, we've been brewing for three years now and the beer is good, so a change to the water supply would really mess things up.

The problem with the water is that the acidity corrodes copper leaving green stains down the baths. We decided to install a limestone filter bed this winter to stop the problem, but this upset the balance of the water for the brewery. A bypass route was installed with brand new 25mm blue pipe giving pure high flow water for the brewery. When used with the new cooler I bought last year it cools 2.5 brls of wort in around 30 minutes, much better than the 3 hours it used to take.

Trouble is the output is too close to the water treatment pump. The shock of the pump starting and stopping tends to blow apart fittings. 25mm pipe fed with 60psi water sure makes some dampness when unimpeded.

I brewed today. Light Cascade at 3.4%. Next week I cask it and then brew some more as part of my second brewery workshop. There are still places available if anyone is interested.


Monday, 16 March 2009

What is Lager?

I did it, my fizzed up ale works.

Today I was asked for a pint of lager, not that Lindeboom pilsner, but it had to be lager. I gave the gentleman a taster of my fizzed up ale. It's actually a light mild, at least that's what the local CAMRA tasting panel said, so that's what it must be. It's called Saazy Lamm and is 4.3% ABV. I think it's bland and actually tastes better chilled and fizzed than it does cask conditioned. It is made with lager malt and Saaz hops but then fermented with Nottingham ale yeast. It was cleared in a cask and then decanted into a keg.

The customer decided that it was just the type of lager he wanted and proceeded to order a whole pint. I also gave him a taster of the Lindeboom just for good measure. No, that was no good at all apparently. He only likes lager, not pilsner.

So, there you go.

Floors and ceilings

Floors and ceilings need space between them. If not we'd have nowhere to walk around within buildings. If we raise a floor so that it is less than 6'6" from the ceiling some people would bump their head and the ceiling would have to be raised.

I used to think that there might be something we could do to stop the problem of cheap booze in supermarkets. I used to be in support of a minimum pricing policy to stop the increasing differential between pub and shop prices. Price of beer in the supermarket increasing to the same as 'Spoons would result in the price going up there as well and so ripple through to the price ceilings. I do believe there is a reason why the differential exists, it's market forces.

As a licensee it might be nice for the government to tell the industry that we have to charge more for alcohol. There is indeed part of me that thinks that perhaps drink is too cheap, but I would think that, I am very successfully making very little money out of the stuff.

I just don't feel comfortable with the government producing minimum price legislation. Knowing how it went with the smoking ban it will probably end up being illegal for me to provide a free taster for the wary customer. Or perhaps I might like to run a promotion that permits me to give away a bottle of wine with a meal. Where do you draw the line? Knowing this government the line will be at zero tolerance. Most of all though I agree with the growing feeling that this is just another prohibitionist style attack on the whole drinks industry.

I know I'm only repeating what many other bloggers have already said but I don't think it can be said too often.

There is an interesting piece by a GP on the issue. Thankfully prohibitionism isn't supported by many GP's either.


Sunday, 15 March 2009

Cumbrian Beer

A discussion on Tandlemans blog saw my brewery accused of being no threat to the likes of Marstons. Of course, I was a little bit miffed at what appears to be a very truthful comment. The truth can be quite hurtful sometimes. It's true though that my brewery probably produces the second smallest output in Cumbria beaten only by Abraham Thompson in the insignificance stakes. But then you see I'm not trying to compete with Marstons and their unexciting variation-on-a-theme seasonals, despite them being well produced.

It is my belief though that the combined output of Cumbrian breweries, leaving out Jennings, is big enough to worry even Marstons. I thought I might have a guesstimate of the total brewing capacity of Cumbria, just to illustrate the point. The figures here would no doubt fail the detailed scrutiny of Ron, but I'm not as patient with detail as he clearly is. His tables are more colourful as well. The figures are based on quick research from the GBG, Internet and my own knowledge. I believe it to be a fair estimate, but would need more time to be accurate.

It is also worth noting that this is an estimate of maximum capacity per week, not achieved output. My output for instance, as an average over the year, is about a quarter of maximum.

Jennings at Cockermouth have a brew length of around 160 barrels. The total brew capacity of all the other Cumbrian breweries are significant compared to the Marstons breweries.

It's nice to be a small brewer in Cumbria. There is a level of cooperation between some of the breweries that is nice. I'd like to see a greater level of cooperation but it would seem that coordinating such cooperation is akin to herding cats. I believe individual breweries may not be a threat but combined and coordinated the total is greater than the sum of the parts.

If any brewery would like to confirm their true capacity then I am only too happy to update here. I understand that such information might be considered commercially sensitive, but perhaps this sort of information might help dispel the "Cupboard Brewing" myth.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Mature beer

Last night I had the pleasure of Jeff Pickthall's company. He brought some rather nice samples from his secret stash of aged beers. We sat in my bar, drank beer that was 2 years or more past it's best before date and behaved like the two beer nerds that we are. We of course also mulled over various issues that surround beer including the tie, cask breathers, fizzy beer, class and beer, the price of beer and even sparklers.

Despite all of that we managed to completely avoid physical violence, even when we talked about sparklers. This is even more strange when you consider we were drinking beers with strengths like 5.5% and more. We all know that strong beers are responsible for alcohol fuelled disorder. Don't we?

Perhaps we didn't fight over these things because Jeff has been in the trade, and like so many others in the trade our disagreements on these matters are small. This seems to be in contrast to those who don't rely on licenced retail of alcohol to earn a living. Perhaps the difference between the likes of us and others in the trade is that Jeff and I don't know when to keep our mouths shut.

Yesterday evening I got a lesson in beer tasting. I know what I like, which is a large range of beer. I also know what I think is bland and unexciting. I have been frustrated by being unable to describe as eloquently as others the flavours I am getting. Last night helped towards filling in that gap.

The beers, for anyone interested, were:

Anchor Brewing Co
Our Special 5.5% 2004

Immediate nose of Christmas pudding
Cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves all there and well balanced
Underlying flavours of port wine and burnt currants

Alaskan Brewing Co
Smoked Porter 6.0% 2003
Best Before Jan 06

Nose of single malt, Islay maybe
Flavours of plums
Slight oxidisation - damp cardboard. This was the first time I positively identified oxidisation.
However for me the oxidisation was inconsequential compared to the lovely full flavour. I might have to find more of this one.

Sierra Nevada
Celebration Ale 6.8%
Best Before Sept 06

Barley Sugar, citrus orange pith, marmalade - surprisingly un-bitter for a west coast USA beer. Jeff suggests that's the aging process.
We did the tasting to this point in order of strength, I personally would have put this first.

Girardin
Gueuze 5% - no date found

Cider, vinegar and lemon flavours.
One of the more tart geuezes that I have tasted.

Finally, with pallets fairly shot, we compared a 12 month Orval with a 6 month old. The year old had nearly no aroma and frankly was poor. The 6 month old was much better. I strongly suspect this is due to batch problems rather than aging as both bottles had best before dates right into 2013.

Of course this morning I felt just a touch rough. It was pleasing to know that Jeff's head was also feeling the effects. We did have several pints of regular ale as well.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Rubbish at any price

I often find myself disagreeing with Roger Protz when he writes, I'm not really sure why but something doesn't seem right when he talks about pubs. He can sure come out with some pearls of wisdom but they are often buried into bigger messages that don't make sense. Although he takes up the cause of the pub I can't help feeling that he is generally out of touch with the real problems facing the thousands of small businesses that form the pub industry. He does try, bless him, and I believe he's a very nice guy.

Last week there was a piece in the Morning Advertiser titled "Careless talk costs pubs" and on the page in the printed version is a big picture of supermarket own brand lager with large star badges proclaiming the 22.5p per can. Although this is a trade paper it does get seen by the man on the street, surely this is the sort of careless talk that does cost pubs. OK, so the picture may not be Rogers fault, I'm guessing he only provided the words.

Why are we, the trade, comparing 2% rubbish lager against the quality service that we provide? We shouldn't. The stuff in the supermarkets is often so rubbish that any price is too much. We need to get out and tell people how wonderful pubs really are. We should be shouting out that people should go to the pub because it's great and a service worth paying for. Lets stop this negative image we are all now projecting.

I firmly believe that we need to point out that pubs charge a little bit more because they are fantastic places to enjoy great products. It's about added value. No self respecting pub would want to sell a lager that is only 2% and tastes like fizzy water. The trade needs to stop talking down the industry and start showing customers how great the trade can be.

It's quiet for us mid week this time of year. We rarely take enough money to cover the overheads, but I'm not complaining. We're getting jobs done that we need to get done, like the new disabled loo and capping the chimneys. More importantly the phone has been red hot this last couple of weeks with people forward booking our rooms for later in the year. I really do think it's going to be the year of the "Staycation" holiday. All we need is a glorious summer.

If people are to stay at home this summer we need to entice them into the pub. If the trade keeps reinforcing the idea that everyone would be better staying in the back garden drinking 2% own brand lager then perhaps that is what they will do.

Pubs are great. Pubs are fantastic. I love going to the pub and always have. I believe many people do love to go to the pub and don't mind paying for quality, comfort and top class service. You can't buy any of that at the supermarket.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Cumbrian Brewery Merger

I am a fan of Cumbrain Legendary Ales, a brewery located in Hawkshead. David has done a great job of producing some excellent beers. In fact I like all his beers and even my least favourite, King Dunmail, is exactly as it sets out to be, a good old fashioned traditional best bitter. For the last couple of years David phoned us every couple of weeks and convinced me to take some beer, often, to Ann's disgust, when we didn't actually need any.

I got the news this morning that CLA had been bought and David was moving on. Oh no! who's taking his place? Is someone being threatened by his success? Is it a buy out by a bigger brewery? I thought I'd phone to check.

I got the familiar "Cumbrian Ales!" greeting on the end of the phone and start talking to David. "What's happening then, where are you going?" I asked "What's this about you giving up brewing" . "It's not David it's Roger Humphreys" came the reply.

Thank goodness, I thought, somebody has bought it who knows what they are doing. Roger, of course, is the owner of The Kirkstile Inn which is a fine place that purveys good food and beer. Matt brews beer with the help of Hayley in their very own Loweswater brewery. I am particularly fond of their Loweswater Pale Ale as I have mentioned here.

Roger is one of those nice brewery owners who doesn't behave like he's hiding some sort of secret art that can't be discussed with other brewers. He's one of those nice guys that deserves the success he's clearly achieved with the Kirkstile and I hope this success continues. I also suspect he's the type of guy that will respond to the links provided here with some sort of reciprocal gesture, seeing as he's already a reader of my blog.

Do you think that was too blatant?

Now Loweswater brewery is about the same size as my brewery. Getting beer from Roger is not normally possible. Like me he only has sufficient for the demand at his own Inn. Roger told me he was planning on moving production of some of his very nice ales to his new acquisition in Hawkshead so we can look out of his wonderful LPA to become more widely available.

Roger told me that Hayley will take over most of the running of the brewery with a bit of help from the talented Matt Webster. So my order, that I put in with David, is going to be delivered by Kirkstile Inn staff next week.

Now, I just wonder if Roger is going to start buying up more pubs and if so at what stage I should object to the tie? Plus, I have still to find out what David is going to do next...........

Natural Carbonation

Suitable for a beer wedding?

video

Seehttp://forum.camra.org.uk/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=85 for background
also see http://stonch.blogspot.com/2009/03/really-really-bad-idea.html
Oh and http://hardknott.blogspot.com/2009/02/toeing-line.html which is where it started for me.

Sorry about the video quality. I'll use spot lights next time. It was done in one take as I only had one bottle. I know, you can't see the bubbles, but they are there, honist.

Now make your own mind up.

Oh, I've just tried my kegged micro brewed fizzy rubbish. It's picked up enough un-natural carbonation now. It tastes bland and fizzy, just like I wanted it to, but it's about 10% the price of the Duvel shown here.

Some people think that us in the industry should not talk about dispense methods as it only distracts from more important things like the beer tie. Perhaps they are right, too many people who think they are experts on how beer is best dispensed actually know jack poo. Maybe they should just concetrate on drinking good beer and leave us to make and serve it, even if that does mean blankets of N2 (That was especially for TheBeerNut, in case he drops by) Good beer speaks for itself.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Robbed

Many years ago a young man, probably slightly before his 18th birthday, discovered a drink called Old Peculiar. It was probably 1982 and the pub was in a well known Lakeland Valley. This young man had on several other occasions disgraced himself drinking far too much fizzy Scotch Bitter to only be subsequently calling out on the great white telephone. OP was found to be quite therapeutic and provided many a jolly evening of convivial socialising in this classic Cumbrian pub and little ill effects suffered except for a thick head the next day.

Thinking it was bitter that was the problem and that dark beers were OK a Guinness drinking career ensued for many years. Unfortunately this young man did not understand the difference between real ale, bitter, old ale, stout or keg beer.

A little while later a small up and coming brewery in Cumbria found this pub to be useful as an outlet. Yates brewery, started by the late Peter Yates, found this pub to be ideal for promoting his beers. Yates beers have been sold there ever since. Possibly, without the likes of this type of establishment, the little brewery would never have got going. Drinking OP, and remembering about Yates, contributed significantly to the young man in this story and his fascination with beer.

The young man is a little bit older now and is of course me. I run a real ale pub and micro brewery and my introduction and understanding of the trade was helped significantly by my time drinking and working at the above mentioned pub.

In a recent local CAMRA branch meeting Yates and Robinsons were both commented upon. Yates is a Cumbrian microbrewery. Robinsons is not. Which do you think the branch likes. Yes, your right, Yates. It's a damn good beer and much better then Robinsons. But the sad ending to this story is that Robinsons have bought the aforementioned pub. The end of Yates in one of the first pubs to support the brewery. Now do my readers understand where I'm coming from when I object to the tie?

Please excuse the rubber bands in the picture. The Landlord is quite rightly demob happy. I wish him all the very best in whatever he does. He's a good guy and I don't blame him one bit. I hope the incoming lessee can make it work - I doubt it personally, he'll be paying too much for the beer.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Hitches and problems

If you were a beer fanatic and had a fiancee that also liked beer what better place to get wedded than a real ale pub? Perhaps, if it were a brew pub you could commission a special nuptials ale for the occasion. A good friend of ours had this very same idea and approached us with the idea of registering our Inn for such events. We'll, give it a go we thought, after all it might get us some extra trade. I was apprehensive though as there was bound to be some procedural legislation driven bureaucratic problem, as there generally is with these licensing people. Undeterred we progressed with the application, paid the £915 fee, and awaited the inspection of the property, which was scheduled for today.

The appointment arrived and the very nice lady loved the location and the proposed rooms. She was really keen to see us get a successful application. But then came the question: "Where are your disabled toilets?". Uh oh! Well...we don't...sort of....really have any. "What about wheelchair access?"...Nope. Apparently, if we are not Disability Discrimination Act compliant we might well have the whole idea thrown out.

I agree with the DDA principles. Something that goes along the line of disabled people have the right to an independent and dignified way of joining in with life as if able bodied. Fantastic. If a disabled person came to my pub I would bend over backwards to provide what I could for them and attempt to preserve their dignity as best I can. However, I have a roof to replace soon which will cost around £40,000. This is a more important spend than the likely modification costs of around £20,000 to this 475 year old building required to comply with the DDA.

In the 5 years we've been here wheelchair users have spent around £20 in this Inn. We are in the middle of the mountains, they don't come here. It would be a bit like providing facilities for elephants at the South pole, because they would have the right to be there. So, the result of this particular piece of legislation is that a nice little wheeze, that might help to give this Inn a little more life and provide people with an interesting place to get hitched might get stopped by bureaucrats.

Lets hope not.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

It's often about the food

I've been thinking quite a lot about the negativity that exists in the trade. It's certainly there. One commentator recently noted that the licensed trade can be worse than farmers for complaining about how bad things are. Although things are pretty bleak right now there are some good things if we look for them.

Whilst thinking about the positives I remembered a piece I wrote sometime ago that never got used. It mainly talks about pub food and the style that should be considered. I realise this is probably biased towards the remoter rural pubs. Town centre pubs have a different situation. I hate writing stuff that doesn't get seen, so here it is:

How to survive the recession - a guide for pubs.

Before the worldwide economic situation revealed itself, pubs and beer brewing was already under great strain. Put simply, the size of the market is shrinking; people are not willing to spend as much in pubs. To compound this problem the costs associated with running a pub are increasing at an alarming rate. This equates to a very simple outcome. Many pubs will have to close because they will not be able to make money. The current economic situation is simply making this worse.

Does this mean all pubs are doomed - are we all going to close? No, I don't believe so. There are many ways that a pub can mark out its differences and ensure that it builds a strong customer base. In our view this is the secret; mark out the differences. The way that pubs fail in the first instance is that the landlord tries to please too many people, running themselves ragged in the process, increasing costs trying to deliver a watered down version of what could be delivered.

Pubs that provide the bland, one size fits all service are likely to have problems unless the establishment footfall is captive. It is difficult for the landlord to say "sorry we don't do that" and watch the potential customer leave. Whatever you do though, some will not enjoy the experience, so deciding who you want in your pub and delivering for them gets you there quicker.

Sadly, the most important thing to consider is what style of food offering is to be provided. The size of the market for most pubs for just pure "wet" trade is small; and getting smaller. The smoking ban, health issues regarding drinking to excess and a significant reduction in drinking and driving have affected this trade. The main revenue for most pubs now is going to be food. So deciding what type of food is going to work best is the key to shaping a customer base. Trying to deliver too big a menu is often a mistake that is made. The overall quality will suffer and the style of operation will be unclear.

Fast, cost effective food will work in a busy pub. Where the pubs location provides a good residential customer base the trade will grow as people understand that value for money is provided; Volume provision for a volume market. Providing good quality, wholesome, honest, beer soaking food might be the route for developing a great pub.

But value for money does not mean the same as cheap. Quality, that demands a premium, can be considered good value to an increasing proportion of the population, providing that the quality promised is delivered. Looking at the numbers of potential customers and providing added value might increase spends per head, but this will be at the expense of footfall. If the establishment is unlikely to achieve volume then this might be a way forward. The result will be a more select establishment.

So where does real ale fit? I have long argued that top quality real ale fits well alongside food in the same way as a fine wine. Irrespective of the pubs food offering, be it fine dining or beer soaking, always provide the best real ale that can be found. Choose some beers that are not served in the pub down the road, don't continue to buy off the brewery if the quality is poor or inconsistent, and learn how to keep it in tip top condition.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Quality, that's the good news

We were without any electricity today. United Utilities were replacing stuff in the valley electrical supply. There is one line up the valley so any work necessitates a complete power down. We decided that we should be closed for the day. We decided to attend a Cumbria Tourist Board Members Meeting instead. They can often be useful if they have relevant subjects by the speakers. Today it was about food and drink, so right up my street.

Chicken ParcelOn the way out we met the Post Lady and so grabbed the post. As my knee is still slightly swollen Ann was driving. To prevent me from nagging about her gear change I read The Morning Advertiser which was amongst the post. Andrew Prings editorial was mainly encouraging readers to find some good news. Too many of us are "talking down" the trade. I think he's right and I'm just as much to blame as everyone else.

So, that put me in the right mood to look for good news. Luckily, despite some serious potential problems for the tourism industry in general, there was indeed some worthy points of optimism. It is a message I've heard many times before and indeed has contributed to shaping what we do here. It is the message of quality.

When running a business it is important to look at ones competitors. I have regularly done this. I look at similar businesses that are doing well. Crucially, it is the businesses that have decided to focus on quality that have consistently provided better business results. Food, in particular, is the area that has been most successful in nearly every single case study I have heard about. A pub, inn, hotel or restaurant that makes an improvement to the quality of the food does better. That seems obvious doesn't it?

Baked AlaskaThis really does explain to me the "Gastro Pub" phenomena. The reason why more and more I see comments about such and such a pub doesn't do pies, or sausage or chips anymore. It's because this is the good news in the pub industry. I have been to so many business seminars where the examples of success are not the regular pub stuck in the 70's doing something not much better than chicken in a basket, but are the ones doing something a little more fancy.

One speaker pointed out today that the majority of decisions about the venue for a night out or a weekend away was being made by the female of the relationship. For the ladies, value for money is not just about how many calories are on the plate for £9.99, but the quality of what is there. The majority of social spending is made by couples.

Of course the other bit of good news I heard about today was that quality goes hand in hand with local. Chianti was discussed alongside locally produced Real Ale. The Michelin experienced chef was very much in favour of the local stuff.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

The King Canute effect


Canute the Great, also known as Cnut, or Knut is of course famous for the legendary story about him trying to hold back the tide, and failing. The act was of course to demonstrate to his subjects just how powerless he was to stop some inevitable forces.


We all know that pubs are closing and this is of course a terrible problem we are facing. It does distress me though that What’s Brewing, and many other CAMRA publications are banging out mantras like “Stop 1 in 8 pubs closing”. How do they intend to do this? They intend to do this by metaphorically lying down in front of the demolition bulldozer.


The reason 1 in 8 pubs are going to close is that they need to. The industry is not viable as it stands. There is over capacity and under demand. Please CAMRA let the poor ones close and you’ll end up with a better industry.


I want CAMRA to succeed in achieving something. It would be better if the organisation worked with the industry for once. We’re all in this together and it’s tough, resisting a change that is inevitable will only alienate the industry that you want to thrive.


There might be things we can do to help but I do not believe the current CAMRA approach is one of them.

Monday, 2 March 2009

A Screw Loose

Tomorrow I exchange my normal cocktail of caffeine and alcohol for an unknown general analgesia. Unknown to me that is, the anesthetist will presumably know exactly what he's giving me. After midnight tonight I am Nil by Mouth. They are trusting me on that one........better get the pints in now.

I'm having a screw removed. Yeah, yeah, it's already been said, I need all the loose ones tightened. Anyway, having broken my leg a couple of years ago it's been decided that it's a good idea to remove the 2" No10 that held the break together. The procedure includes something called an arthroscopy. Hopefully, I'll wait until I get home before becoming legless.

So, probably be a couple of days before I post again as I'll have to readjust my body to all these unnatural drugs with which they will no doubt contaminate my alcohol stream.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Kids and Dogs

Meet Duke. Isn't he nice? He came into the pub today for his daily supply of ice. He likes ice. He also likes our supply of doggie biscuits we keep stashed behind the bar especially for our doggie customers. He came in with AJ and Mags and it was good to see all three especially when they noticed our improvements. Mags though does insist on drinking Kriek in pints, much to Ann's distress as we'll have to order a new keg now.

We like dogs. I might have mentioned this before. Providing they come with well behaved and discerning drinkers all is well*. However, kids, well they can be a different matter.

I relate an exchange between our barman and a customer. "Can we bring our children in?" questions the customer "We've left the dogs tied up outside". "I'd rather you did it the other way round" replies my barman.

Now it's not that we don't like children. I have some of my own which I tolerate from time to time. It's not even that I object to them in pubs, per sae. But I do object to parents who treat pubs as kindergartens. Get them to sit down nicely and then the adults can get the drinks. It is so irritating when a bar is lined up with children peering over like it is a sweetie shop counter.

*Badly behaved dogs are only that way as a result of bad owners. Mind you, you could say the same thing about children.