Sunday, 18 July 2010

When it all goes wrong.

Some time ago I read a couple of posts by Zak Avery regarding beers that are distributed by brewers despite them not being up to scratch. It has to be a tricky one for any brewer. Beer will vary from batch to batch. The precise flavour profile will be subject to variation. Large breweries making many thousands of barrels of beer a year can reduce this variation by using an arsenal of quality assurance weapons, consistent beer is the result. The smaller brewer's beer is likely to have greater variation due to the combination of consistency being traded for interest and the practical inability to apply all the techniques bigger breweries can employ.

A key activity undertaken by some of the bigger brewers, to avoid destroying beer that is out of specification, is to blend with other gyles. Clearly there is a limit to this, if a beer is so truly awful then no amount of dilution with good beer will save it, except perhaps at homeopathic rates. But still, many of the so called "off" flavours are present in all beers. Phenols, diacetyl, DMS, esters, lactic and acetic acids are probably all present in a well balanced beer. Most of the time they are below detection levels for most palates or counteracted by other compounds to simply augment the overall flavour profile. Of course in some beers these compounds are deliberately accentuated as part of the appeal of that particular beer. It is much easier for a large brewer to keep consistency and balance within limits.

Zak asks why brewers release beers that are not quite right, that fall outside what the drinker considers acceptable. I very nearly commented on his posts, as a brewer, but felt that the reply to this simple question is quite complicated. Much more complicated than I could attempt to answer with a simple blog comment. It doesn't help me in answering the question as the beer Zak cites is unknown to me. I'd love to have tried this particular beer so I could draw my own conclusions. However, I know there are many beers I love that other people just don't like, for whatever reason. Against this background I want to try and answer Zak's question from a brewers perspective.

I think I have distilled my own answer into two basic components. One is to do with the acceptability of the damaging flavour compounds and the other is a very simple financial consideration.

Firstly, the perception of flavour is very much a personal thing. Many people just don't get lambics or gueuze for instance, they would consider such beer more suitable for putting on their chips. Indeed, anyone who believes that a true lambic or wood aged beer does not contain any acetic acid1 is somewhat deluded, acetobacter is everywhere and balanced with other compounds, specifically lactic acid, gives these beers their distinctive flavour. Some people cannot cope with the levels of phenols found in some stouts2, I love them as it so happens. I'm also quite keen on tannins, which although generally considered a bad thing in beer does have some provable benefits when drinking with food and are present in many wines. I know people who adore diacetyl, which is a compound I'm reasonably sensitive to, and find objectionable in higher quantities, and Jeff Pickthall can detect it two blocks away and finds nearly any level unacceptable. It is interesting to me that many traditional British cask beers have levels of diacetyl which make them unpleasant to me.

It is apparent to me, that across the spectrum of beers available in the UK, the opinion of what is good and what is not is open to personal preference. An example of this is that I've been working hard to reduce the levels of tannins extracted from the grain husks during mashing and sparging. Although I'm convinced the effort is resulting in me producing more widely palatable beer there are at least two of my staunchest fans have commented that they are not as happy with the results.

Returning to Zak's question of why brewers release beers that are, in his view, unfit for sale. I think it comes down to a commercial judgement. Even a relatively small batch of beer can represent a significant investment, to simply destroy that beer can represent several weeks worth of bottom line profit to be lost. If, in the brewers view, the product passes his acceptability criterion for palatable beer then it will be released for sale. It might not be perfect beer and indeed I doubt many good brewers regularly brew beer that they don't feel could be improved.

There is the grey area where the beer might well be on the border line between acceptable and unacceptable. Especially in these difficult financial times the need to destroy a gyle of beer might well tip the balance between being able to continue trading or the brewery failing. The long term effect of the good name of the brewery being spoilt becomes academic if the business becomes insolvent.

It becomes more complicated with experimental beers; If a large amount of time and resources are poured into the production of a particular beer and the result is somewhat interesting, to the point that it divides opinion, then perhaps it is not wrong to release a beer for wider consideration and take any criticism as part of product development. The difficulty is knowing if the brewer, and perhaps his immediately available tasters, have called it correctly before release. Additionally there might be problems in knowing how the beer might develop in bottle before it is consumed, an almost impossible task for one off and experimental beers unless sterile chill filtering is employed.

It is important for brewers to receive feedback on their beers. This is even more important for experimental beers and I think Zak's posts and subsequent comments represents a little bit of a stand-off between discerning beer drinkers and craft brewers. It seems that beer drinkers aren't quite sure how to approach brewers and the brewers in turn are perhaps unable to field this feedback to their best advantage. Brewers are, after all, brewers and not communicators. I'm sure there will be a time when I make a beer that attracts negative reviews, indeed there are several beer enthusiasts who regularly give me constructive views for which I am very grateful and all goes into making changes to what I do.

This whole issue has been brought home to me very clearly recently when a bad batch of yeast generated impossible levels of diacetyl in two gyles of beer. Towards the end of fermentation there was a somewhat strange smell. The temperature in the brewery was quite hot at the time and although the fermenting vessels have a good temperature control I convinced myself that the yeast tide mark was drying out, warming and going off in the glorious weather we were having.

During racking I was still very unhappy with the smell of the bulk of the beer. I started to think that something had gone badly wrong. I continued to put the beer into cask, a total of around £1500 worth of beer. I put some into bottle for later considered tasting and quarantined the offending casks. A few days later I cracked open one of the bottles. Condition and clarity were very good, but sadly the butterscotch aroma was way over the top. Flavour wise I find diacetyl most unpleasant in any significant levels, the beer simply got tipped down the drain after the first sip.

This is the very first time I have ever had to consider destroying complete batches of beer, but there really was no option. £1500 of lost revenue is tough to cope with, especially as the brewing industry operates on quite tight margins. The cost of the malt, hops, energy and the notional value of my time has all come out of my cash flow and represents a set back to the engineering improvements that I really need to make to my brew kit. The beer was way out of specification and there was just no option.

On the plus side the mistake has also been quite liberating. There is a sort of self-satisfaction at preventing unacceptable beer being made available for sale. It has also taught me some important lessons for yeast handling and stock control, or rather, I should say re-reminded me.

I hope this post goes someway towards explaining the difficult decisions facing the smaller brewer when trying to get his product both profitably produced and to a standard that will protect the good name of his business. I'm not trying to make excuses, although there are many opinions as to what makes good beer and at this end of the industry I think many brewers find it difficult to sort out the many often contradictory comments. This can result in a head in the sand approach. When does balance become bland and when do extreme flavours become off flavours?

There is no doubt in my mind that the brewers that can engage in active communication in this way can look forward to improving their beers. We cannot afford to have official tasting panels, although my own small band of enthusiastic volunteer tasters are invaluable. After that I depend on feedback from further afield. It's a pleasure to hear positive comments. Equally I enjoy the nicely and tactfully put constructive points for improvement. Often I even find myself agreeing, no really, I do agree with people sometimes.

1Check out this link on acids in wine. It seems that wine buffs understand the process of fermentation a bit better than beer buffs. OK, it is true that grape juice contains significant acids not found in grain, but even so the PH of correctly brewed beer is surprisingly low.

Further indications of the acceptability of acetic acid is the fact that peracetic acid is used by many good brewers as a "terminal sterilant" as it requires no rinsing, at levels just above detection I've known experienced beer tasters to confuse this with a "Belgie" characteristic.

2I am finding the subject of the generation of such compounds intensely interesting. I originally thought that phenols were completely generated by the fermentation process. Looking at this article it would seem that they might well originate in the grain, which explains why stouts and other drinks with heavy use of darker grist are naturally more prone to having this compound in them. However, I have from time to time found it in lighter beers where in my view it doesn't belong.

It is interesting that wine making features more in the description of these flavour compounds on Wikipeadia than brewing. Further evidence that more understanding of how we can tame these various compounds is required in craft brewing. I'm trying to increase my understanding and will never profess to be an expert.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Beer is about friendship

I wonder how much business is done over a pint. The parish council, the village cricket team wicket maintenance roster, locating a builder to re-lay your drive or point your gable end or asking the local mole catcher, who can always be found supping a pint of Smelly Ferret, to sort out the little beggars who are making your lawn into an accurate scale model of the Himalayas. Perhaps in the big nasty cities these things don't happen, but around here many important tasks are organised over a pint, often the plan actually works out OK, despite and perhaps because alcohol is involved.

Somehow, people who drink beer together generally get along. Many a niggley grudge is swept aside when a pint or two is had. It seems to be the same when it comes to business that actually involves beer. I am lucky enough to come into contact with many people in the beer world, some are writers, some are brewers, some just work for breweries selling or communicating about beer, but it is a friendly and sociable community that revolves around beer. The sociability of these people fails, in my view, to fall into characterization associated with the size of the brewery, indeed, I note that Pete Brown recently looked at The Big Boys and compared and contrasted the attitudes of various multinational beer producers.

Personally I notice the attitudes of various brewers that can manifest themselves in subtle ways. I've written about Fullers, who I think are what I'd call a friendly brewery. They care about beer. I've also condemned Marston's, who have taken over our local Jennings brewery and succeeded in making that less friendly than it used to be. Yes, I know in that case they have the legal right to do what they do, but it is still a symptom of an aggressive business that happens to brew beer rather than a bunch of people passionate about beer who are making a business out of it.

Looking at Pete's piece, my interpretation is that AB InBev are the least friendly of the lot. Molson Coors seem to be the most friendly. Any reader who follows this blog regularly will know that there is perhaps a bias from me here; Molson Coors have buttered me up a little and there is no denying that. But, and this is the important thing, there has never ever been any legal agreement between myself and the good people at Burton. They promise me a few things and importantly deliver them despite there being no contract, and in return I say a few nice things. So long as I don't have to say anything more about Carling than recognizing the very important financial contribution it has to their business everyone is happy. Of course Molson Coors do make some nice beer too, like White Shield, which is a symptom of a company who is serious about beer. My free stock is running out, I might have to go and buy some soon, which I will happily do, as I think it's really tasty.

In contrast my experience of AB InBev is completely different. I understate in this post how the InBev crew had metaphorically pushed me out of the way when I was packing up from an event. The fact that there was just two of use to shift our equipment and but an army of them didn't cross their minds. The fact that we were already parked and in the middle of loading and would have only been a few minutes was insufficient to stop their bullying. They were actually quite rude and when I wasn't looking stole tools out of my tool box.

I also know that AB InBev will happily renege on promises to sponsor events, apparently it is OK to do this if there is no contract in place.

Jeff Pickthall has also written about the misleading advertising that surely insults the intelligence of most serious beer fans. Perhaps they can legally state that their beer only contains four ingredients, but it's not really the point.

In my view, out of all the commerce involved in the beer industry, AB InBev repeatedly manage to sink outside the scope of the friendship of beer. I doubt very much that beer writers will start saying nice things about them any time soon, but I suspect there will be an increase in condemnation if there are not a few important things sorted out.

Economies of scale

We spent most of the weekend bottling Infra Red. We only bottled 260, that's not really very many for the man hours that went into it. To be fair, most of our labour is either very cheap or free, I don't pay myself anyway and we have a willing volunteer who even goes home and blogs about the beer. All he cost me was a bottle of Tokyo*. Of course there was also Alfie, but he's working for his University fees. The thing is, at the present rate of bottling it just isn't economic, at least it wouldn't be if we had to pay wages for the man hours.

Today Ann has been looking at means of speeding up the process, which involves spending money we haven't got. As we have no idea how big the market is for our bottle products it makes it difficult to be sure how much to invest. The minimum investment, which is about all we can afford, will get us little more than a few more filling heads, which is one of the current bottle necks1 in the process. A little more expenditure would gain us some form of labelling machine, which would be nice, as hand labelling is slow, has variable results and is the most tedious job in the world after cask washing.

Of course we could spend many tens of thousands of pounds on bottling equipment, which would enjoy the economies of scale associated with high throughput, but without developing a market first we cannot even start to contemplate such investment. Without the economies of scale the beer cannot be sold at a low enough price without risking our dwindling cash reserves being further reduced. Without cash reserves we cannot invest in the equipment required to ensure we can produce beer at a reasonable price. It's to do with cash flow really.

In reality this results in all our bottled beer being relatively scarce. Even if we produce more we still have the logistical problems of getting it into various outlets, the transport costs can easily annihilate any profitability.

If you see Infra Red for sale in bottle you are an extremely lucky person indeed. I advise that a small amount of money is sewn into the lining of your jacket to ensure you have the capability to purchase such a rare commodity irrespective of the quantity of reddies that may or may not languish in your wallet.


1you really do not have to laugh.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Getting stuff to market

I think it started about September last year. I brewed a stout, sort of as an experiment, and put it into a whisky cask, why not? Later, I came up with a name and defence of my methods, which I thought to be fine and careful. I also made a barley wine, breaking the 10% barrier, which I know is nothing exceptional, but I was pleased it worked. The outputs of these processes are a few hundred, limited edition, hand bottled, naturally conditioned beers. They are special and should be priced highly, especially as I've already given far too many away in the hope that a few good bloggers will say nice things, which generally they did.

Having told my story about how I've made the beers my readers have harangued and harassed me to give them the ability to buy them. People have even offered to send me money and everything, but I didn't really want the hassle of taking orders, here and there, taking payments a bit at a time and packing and dispatching. Other people do that so very expertly. Instead we have negotiated an exclusive deal, which obviously resulted me in cutting my own throat on price,1 with the ever trusty who now have our products available for you to buy.

Now, a word of warning; we currently only have about half the stock2 left for these two bottlings. We haven't started on the 2010 version yet. I'm hopeful we will start soon on the next batch, but it is likely the current stock will run out before this years batch is ready. I'd snap them up quick, after all, they are fairly rare. will remain the only place to get our beers on-line, at least for now. The Wine Yard, Bare, Bacchanalia in Cambridge, UtoBeer and Open All Hours in Keswick all stock our products in their shops.


1Honest, would I lie to you?
2In Whitehaven, for years, there was a man selling the local evening news. He stood there every night with a pile of papers nearly as high as himself, proclaiming at the top of his voice, "Not many left now!" He might still be there for all I know.
But really, truly, there are only 16 out of 38 cases of Æther Blæc and 20 out of 42 cases of Granite left.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Heath Robinsonness

It's probably because my parents were brought up in the war. Most of you won't remember it, it was a long time ago, even before I was born. But back then there was austerity. No, real austerity. I mean, you think things are tough now because the council won't repair the pot holes and your benefit cheque just doesn't pay for the damage to your low profile wheels. For goodness sake, you can't even afford your mobile phone contract any more. Well, during the war, so I'm told, it was much, much worse. It was really bad then, you had to eat your pet rabbit just to survive.

Today we are in a period of austerity at Hardknott, not because we can't sell our beer, but probably because I've spent too much money on pipe fittings. Much as I'd like to get a proper mezzanine floor installed for my grist store, and have my old fermenting vessels fitted with proper cooling jackets, I can't. My fork lift truck is well down the flipping list. Unfortunately we need to sell more beer before we can afford anything else. More over, Ann seems to be selling beer as fast as I can make it, so I need to spend most of my time making it, leaving my spare time to either fix up the brewery, or go to the pub. For some reason the pub seems to win. Development of my in-situ fermentation gravity measuring system will have to stay in the planning stage and replacement of the flexible hoses with a more elegant solution will remain a pipe dream.

Luckily, my meagerly ancestors have taught me to mend and make do. It does have the advantage that I can get stuff working with minimum expense. String and sticky tape is great. The pictures here show most of my brewery in its current state, awaiting further vessels to be delivered so that I can organise the brewery into an efficient quality beer production facility. I might even run the cables neatly then.

Notice the mallet on top of the casks. It used to be my Grandfather's, and he's been dead 15 years. I suspect the mallet is some number of decades older. I doubt it'll last the year out with the number of shives I'm having to bash in with it every week.

Brewers objects of beauty No3.5 - spray head detail

Seeing as I've been asked; here is a couple of detailed pictures of the mash wetter from the previous Brewers objects of beauty.

The spray head is made from a carefully flattened piece of 15mm copper pipe. Yes, I know I've talked about not using copper in the brewery, but it's only hot liquor at this point and not particularly reactive. I suspect I could improve the design here as the coanda effect causes less of a spread of the spray than I expected. Still, it works.

The idea is that the angle of the main shoot is arranged to allow the grist to fall past the spray head on the opposite side of the shoot. The water spray and the grist stream both hit the turn in the pipe and mix at this point.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Brewers objects of beauty no3 - grist case and mash wetter

I don't know if readers of this blog are particularly interested in my excitement over the improvements I'm making to my brewery, but then, should I care? This is my blog and if I want to wax lyrical about the things that I think are good, then I'm going to.

Today we are brewing. The demand for our beer is increasing as we push into new markets. I'm trying hard to ensure that every brewday makes as much beer as possible, which involves mashing in as much grist as possible. The maximum my current mash tun can hold is about 110kg of grist, quite a lot to mash in by hand, although many brewers do. I have help today in the form of my nearly-14-year-old son, Alfie. You can see him in the background of the picture weighing out the grist. Despite his help I think the whole job of making the mash is so much easier with a grist case and mash wetter or mash hydrator if you want to be posh.

I have talked to brewers who are happy to mash 250kg by hand and they can't see the point of changing what they do. Sure, it's a good work out but there are bound to be temperature and consistency variations throughout the mash. I find, after mashing in even 100kg by hand, I'm getting to the point of thinking the mix is good enough, even though I know it isn't. It is quite hard work and the resultant mash often has sticky lumps when dug out, which is a sign of reduction in extract.

With the very Heath Robinson affair I have created, once I set the slide that controls the grist flow, and with the strike water at full flow, the mash tun fills almost without my intervention. Just a few turns with the mash paddle and a top up with hot water if required, and a mash at 65.5OC with homogeneous consistency is achieved.

If you brew beer commercially and you have the head room for it, get a grist case and mash hydrator, trust me on this one.

My grist case will hold about 100kg of grist and is made from one sheet of 18mm water proof board. It could do with being extended a little. The hydrator is made from standard 110mm drainage pipe fittings and a copper spray head inside. The hot strike water simple sprays on the falling grain as it travels down the pipe.

Warning, do not make a grist case out of MDF, it will swell with the humidity.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Brewing up a storm at The Rake

It makes no financial sense whatsoever to take 4 firkins of beer all the way to London. Even with several cases of beer as well it is still a dubious commercial trip. It is 295 miles there and 295 miles back again. That's 2 tanks of diesel at a total cost of about £120. It's about 6 hours driving time each way and at least one nights stop over. It really is completely bonkers and only an insane idiot would consider such a stupid idea. A sensible person would consider a courier. But I'm not sensible and never have been, so we took beer to London.

The Rake was the venue at which to host my beer's debut in our great capital city. That cosy left field beer bar that never ever fails to provide me with something new every time I go in. "No Crap on Tap" it says above the bar. I always find that to be true, but a place where crap beer certainly isn't tolerated.

The night had been advertised on other blogs like RabidBarFly and Pete Brown. Reports of the night have been done by Mark Dredge and Sid Boggle. Thank you to all who helped to promote the night including the many on twitter that re-tweeted and generally communicated about the event. Cool Fusion ran out before I left and Continuum was close. The other two beers, being stronger, didn't go so fast, but I think that they still went well and I'd assume they sold the next couple of days.

We also did some tastings of Æther Blæc and even better Granite with Keen's cheddar, which we think worked well. I'd have liked to have tried it with smoked cheese after a discussion I'd seen on twitter between Barry and Tania about cigars and beer, but unfortunately none could be found on the market.

I was nervous about how my beer would be received, some influential people from the beer world would be there. I knew that a couple of the beers had been complete buggers to get to drop bright, I know why and a post on that subject will be forthcoming. I took isinglass, finings adjunct and all manner of useful concoctions with me, but failed to leave any with Glyn. In the end we still never got the beer bright, which worried me.

It seems I needn't have worried, everyone was really understanding and loved the beer anyway. Great London beer people like John Keeling and Phil Lowry turned up and even people out of town, like Pete Brissenden. I felt like I was among friends and made new friends with the beer ticking community who were there in force. I'm still left feeling like I could do better, but there will be another time and the beer will be improved. I might even introduce some Amarillo hops next time, just to please Mark.

So, am I mad? you bet, but I'm glad we did it, it was a great night. I'm not sure I have a clear memory of the end of the night however, but trying pints of each beer, with and without sparkler, might just have been my downfall. Oh and a run along the gas taps, half pint of each. I'd also failed to charge up my camera battery, so by the time I'd recharged it the evening had almost finished, most people had gone and I was not in the most creative of photography moods.