Monday, 23 September 2013

A Philosophical View of Craft Beer

I was sent an email containing a scanned copy of an interesting article the other day. The friend who sent it knows my interest in the question of Craft Beer, what it is, and whether it is relevant or not. I actually think my friend is fairly ambivalent about the subject, generally declaring he just likes beer. None-the-less, the article obviously fired a level of recognition of something that he did like.

The article in question appeared in Brewing and Distilling International - I'm not a member of the IBD so I don't get a copy. The article is called "Craft Beer - A Philosopher's Perspective". I liked it a lot. As I can't link to the article, as it seems to only be available in print, I shall explain what it talks about.

It talks about direction of fit. It talks about whether a beer is produced to appeal to a large potential customer base, or if the beer is made to appeal to the brewer, or perhaps a brewer and his mates, and then an attempt to try and find enough people, or convert enough people into liking it.

This is exactly, to me, what most true craft brewers are doing. Making beer they believe in and then attempting to convince people to like their approach to beer. These brewers truly believe they make something that people should like, but perhaps it doesn't conform to the staid conformist beers on general sale.
"If you want to make a successful, high-
selling beer, brewing a beer tailored to suit
people’s tastes, the beer-to-public direction-of-
fit is the rational approach"
And actually, more recently, as we've grown from where we were three years ago, we've made some beers deliberately to have broader appeal. There are many breweries who only ever do that. Moreover, and I think this is very important, it's got nothing to do with dispense format.

The other day I found myself in a London pub, with a series of about 6 handpulls. I tried most of the beers, and frankly, they were all the same in everything but name. All quite refreshing, balanced and very competently brewed, but to my palate quite bland and watery and with very little hop character. Obviously all brewed to fit the tastes of the wider1 cask beer drinker.

I still believe we stand by, and will continue to stand by the basic principle outlined in the article.
"Craft brewers are crazy about beer in the
sense that their desire to brew good beer has a
public-to-beer direction of fit. They try to
make a product which fulfils their conception
of the perfect beer and try to bring the public
over to it. As such, they’re personally invested
in the product. This is why craft beer has the
kind integrity and authenticity characteristic of
old-fashioned craft."
 The article was written by Andrew Jorgensen and published June 2013.


1 "Wider cask beer drinker" - what am I talking about? The width of the drinker has got nothing to do with it I expect.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

A Workshop Manual for Beer

A long time ago, when I was much younger than I am today, I used to do nearly all of my own car maintenance. I enjoyed it, quite a lot. The pinnacle of this success was taking a Triumph Dolomite 1500 twin carb1 engine that had mangled a big end bearing, stripping it down, sending the crank for a regrind, the head for a skim and rebuilding the whole lot. It started first time. Blow me over with a feather.

A socket set, a torque wrench, a set of allen-keys, various other tools and not least, a Haynes Manual was essential to complete the task. I still have all my old Haynes Manuals. I know I should throw them out, or sell them on eBay, but I just can't bring myself to leave go. Even the smell of swarfega gets me reminiscing about happy days.

Home-brewed beer has always been something well within the reach of those who want to have a go. It's simply not cost effective when you consider how easy it is to get hold of great beer these days, but for most people who do, it's not about the money. It's about gaining a skill, about being good at a hand-craft. The move of car makers to make cars so difficult to maintain always smacks of forcing car owners to use the dealers for servicing and repair. Beer, at least in this respect, is different. I like that, many real home-brew enthusiasts make some of the best beer evangelists there are.

Haynes manuals must be less popular than they were 20 years ago, probably as a direct result of the futility of trying to do anything other than an oil change or a fan belt replacement yourself. It makes me a little sad, really, even though these days I do not have the time to spend hours under the bonnet of our vehicles.2 It's nice to see Haynes do rather quirky manuals about all sorts of things these days.

That Dolomite eventually died completely, in the end. It seems the 1500 should have had 5 main bearings but Triumph only gave it three. Doing 85mph on the motorway for any more than 3 miles caused the oil to stop flowing to the middle bearing due to centrifugal force and so the bearing went. Again.

Anyway, you've probably guessed by now that I'm a fan of Haynes manuals, which is good, because they are just about to launch one on beer. I don't know what it's like, and if I get a copy I might even review it, but I think it's a cool idea. Apparently it tells you all about how beer is made in big breweries, and some stuff about how you can make your own.

It appears to be written by the British Guild of Beer Writers Chairman, Tim Hampson, as far as I can see from the Amazon website, although the Haynes PR peeps seem to omit him from their press release, shame.

The Beer Manual applies the unique Haynes Manual practical treatment to the world of beer and introduces the reader to the wonderful range of beers and the drink’s rich social past, which is entwined throughout our history and culture.
With the aid of numerous photographs, practical sections describe the brewing process in a large commercial brewery, and offer step-by-step guidance for those who wish to brew their very own beer at home, whether from an off-the-shelf homebrew kit or by devising their own recipes and sourcing suitable raw materials to produce unique beers. 
Case studies chart the journeys of brewers who have turned the rewarding hobby of home brewing into viable businesses. A huge variety of aromas, tastes, colours and strengths can be created by brewers, whether professionals working for large international brewers or amateur enthusiasts in their kitchens at home. 
This book challenges the notion that only wine can be matched with fine food, and looks at why beer should be an essential ingredient in any creative cook’s kitchen. This is the essential guide for new and experienced home brewers, and for readers wishing to learn a little more about beer’s journey from barley and hop fields to the glass.

Pictures curtesy of Haynes Manuals

1Twin carb!! I remember how excited I was as a twenty odd-year-old at getting to own a twin carburettor car. Injection was still a long way off my reach in those days.

As for the Dolomite, nick-named the "Dollop of shite" by a friend of mine, in the end I came round to his way of thinking.

2Actually, I lied. The right hand indicator went on the van the other day, again. The garage replaced the indicator stalk last time, but it clearly wasn't really the fault. Ford, the silly people, put the relay box in a place where the contacts would collect salty road water and corrode specialist crimp contacts. I fixed it myself, and even had to use a meter and a soldering iron. I also bought a Transit Van Workshop manual, published by Haynes. It's got circuit diagrams in it. It's almost accurate, well, more accurate than the official Ford owners manual fuse numbering anyway.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

VAT in the on-trade

Regular readers will know that I take great interest in taxation across the industry. I remain quite split, in reality, on what is best to be done. On the one hand our tax bill, even as a small brewery taking advantage of progressive beer duty, is quite a high proportion of our sales. On the other hand, I support the need for publicly funded services like the NHS, schools, police and transport networks. The money has to come from somewhere.

Alcohol always has been, and will remain a cash cow for the Revenue. The vast majority of the general public have been successfully convinced that we are all very naughty and deserve to be punished. All we can hope for is to defend our position and if we are lucky, nibble a little to our advantage. Any improvement has to be realistic and achievable. The Scrap The Beer Duty Escalator was a huge success. I believe the Burton MP, Andrew Griffiths, was a great influence on this success.

On the surface the VAT Club's call for a reduction of VAT for the hospitality trade seems laudable. The argument goes that the supermarkets have zero VAT on food, so why should pubs and restaurants pay 20% VAT?

Now, there are several holes in this argument. Firstly, supermarkets still pay VAT on alcohol. Pubs would still have to pay VAT on alcohol, even if the proposed cut in VAT for the hospitality trade were realised. OK, so it could be said a reduction in VAT on food in pubs would help, right? Well, no. Food led pubs are actually doing all right, generally. The losses in the trade are the wet lead pubs. A reduction in VAT on food would not help wet led pubs at all. Indeed, it would probably further damage that sector.

Where it would help most would be in high-end restaurants, you know, the ones where you'd typically have over say £60 a head charges by the time you'd finished. Out of the £60 there would be a £10 VAT element. Fair enough I say. This is the underlying issue. VAT is zero rated on essential or altruistic purchases. Food to take home and feed your starving kids with should always be zero rated. Papers and other printed matter is good for your cognitive wellbeing. Eating out is a luxury. Going to the pub, or even drinking alcohol at home is, really, an indulgence. Sure, it's an indulgence that I firmly believe, when done responsibly and in reasonable moderation is good for the soul, but most of the general public would say it is an indulgence.

It is also interesting that Tim Martin has entered the fray. His chain of cut price Wetherspoon's pubs has, in itself, caused huge damage to the pub trade in general. Most of his pubs are not the community pubs that we love and want to maintain. They are cavernous unglamorous pile-em-high and cut price locations frequented often by marginal alcoholics.

Now, I'll admit Tim's empire also attracts people who are just looking for a value night out. Perhaps people who work hard, on low incomes, and deserve an affordable pint or two. All fine and dandy, and my desire to see free market forces at work does mean that I would never like to see positive action against him, contrary to my gut instincts about his places. However, I do not see why he should get preferential treatment against wet only outlets, which is what the crafty bugger realises, in all likelihood, he will get if he succeeds with his aims.

So, I feel that his attacks against Andrew Griffiths are a direct attack against one of the biggest supporters of the beer industry we have in the government. Andrew realises that this call is not realistic and even if something did happen, it would be unlikely to happen for on-sales alcohol. He realises it is unlikely to happen because, frankly, it would be a lot of money. scrapping of the beer duty escalator was good, and the additional penny off a pint. He realises that we need to be realistic and continue the defend and nibble tactic that works well.

What Andrew has argued is that a VAT cut to 5% would represent a loss to the Revenue of around £11-12 billion. It seems to me that Andrew understands the complete impracticability of such a cut, which represents over £200 for each and every person in the UK. That money would have to be found from somewhere.

I've stayed away from this argument because I know it divides opinion in the trade. What has recently been called to my attention is that The VAT club is run as a commercial enterprise. One French bloke seems to be running away with industry money with the promise of getting VAT cut for the hospitality trade. So now I feel like making a fuss.

Now, I might be proved wrong, and a huge drop from 20% down too 5% VAT across the hospitality trade might realise itself, without prejudice against alcohol. I doubt it, but if it does happen, I'll happily eat humble pie.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Hardknott in Sainsbury’s

Last week was the launch of the in-store round of the Sainsbury’s Great British Beer Hunt. We have been successful in getting Infra Red to this stage. This involves us shipping 19,9921 bottles to the central depot for onward distribution to over 400 stores by Sainsbury’s own logistics.

Infra Red is not a beer that we sell a lot of in draught formats. Much of our output of this beer is in bottle. Indeed, in stark contrast to draught sales, it is the case that it appears there is a sweet spot for bottle beers in the 5%-7% range based on the demand we see. 4% beers, at least for us, sell in lower volumes in bottle.

I believe there are several factors that might improve our chances of getting though to the final, but for certain strong sales will help. If you would like to see more Hardknott in future then buying our beer from this scheme will help.

It seems appropriate for me to comment on the issue of supermarkets and their approach to selling beer. I’m sure some of you will be thinking that we’re selling out. I’ve seen comments on twitter and elsewhere regarding the fact that the breweries are being screwed and that it’s just a loss leader exercise.

What I can say with complete confidence is that the price charged by the supermarket, at least in this instance, is at an appropriate mark-up. We knew the price we’d be paid for our product well in advance and could make the appropriate commercial decision. The volume of beer delivered for this contract represents more than the total sales for the whole of January this year. Furthermore, all we had to do was take the bottles off the line, pack in boxes, onto pallets and out the door. Less than 24 hours from tank to lorry. 12 pallets of beer in 2 shipments three weeks apart. Save for the stress of meeting the deadlines, and a couple of long bottling shifts, it was a breeze.

We love the rest of our customer base too. We like having a variety of beers, we’d get bored otherwise. However, it can be a real logistics problem making sure we have the right beers in stock, in the right packaging and ready to ship. Every week Graeme, my production brewer, hassles me for a brew plan. I have to refer him to Ann who can try and guess what people are going to order in two or three weeks time. We never guess right. Almost always we have too little of this, and too much of that. Last time we did a stock take we had over £20k of beer stock, just to be able to keep enough on stock for potential orders.

If I only had Sainsbury’s as a customer I would not need to keep £20k of beer in stock and could operate a leaner just-in-time business. I would then have £20k more in the bank, or at least, owe the bank £20k less.

The exercise has made me realize that supermarkets are not loss leading, they are doing deals with breweries to shift volume. The loser may well be the pub, and this is unfortunate. But you can’t buy Continuum, or Azimuth, or Queboid, or even Katalyst in Sainsbury’s. At least not yet. I expect that if they take on any of these beers we may well invent something else exclusive for the on-trade, it’s not really that tricky.

Supermarkets give a very powerful and cost effective way of getting our beers to the people who want to drink them. It helps us get our beers to people who can’t normally get them. It helps get beers to people who might not be able to get to pubs as often as they like, perhaps because they have young children, or live somewhere where it’s a car drive to the nearest decent pub.

Obviously I’d like to get through to the next round of the competition, where we supply for a 6 month period, at a price that is slightly better. The bad news for you guys is that the price on the shelf will likely go up.

However, if we don’t succeed in this round, and to be fair the odds are against us, we’ll look elsewhere for similar volumes. After all, we have staff wages to pay and a bottling line that needs using to be worth having.

Meanwhile, be pleased that Infra Red is available at a really knock-down price, take advantage and fill your shopping trolley.


120,000 doesn't divide by the supply size of cases of 12.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Craft beer means nothing outside the beer blogosphere

The title of this post is broadly what some are trying to say. Of course, I don't agree.

Now, perhaps it's true to say that a significant proportion of the general public may not "get" what we are on about. But then, the majority of the general public drink major brand lager by choice, and they most certainly don't like any of that "bitter" when asked if they would like to try something off handpull.

Before someone want's to criticise my overgeneralisation above, I have many times, when been behind a bar, offered a taster of cask beer and had this sort of rebuff.

To get back on topic, although I might be minded to agree that the term Craft Beer is not known by huge numbers of people, I disagree that it is confined to the understanding of a select few. It must be important because some of the big brand owners are trying to use the term too.

I do understand that we might have to disagree on how important the term is. However, there are media type giving the Craft Beer some credence.

A website called The Creative Tourist  has done a piece on Craft Beer. It's difficult for me not to like what they have written. I suspect it will annoy some of you.