Thursday, 7 October 2010

So it’s farewell, trusty swimming towel

The good thing about not being one of the world’s best-known brewers is that when brewing stops, there aren’t thousands of disappointed customers hammering on the door, and I don’t feel I have let anyone down.

The bad thing is that there aren’t thousands of mourners, either. But I like to think that there are one or two puzzled punters out there who are wondering where their weekly fix of Ennerdale Blonde has gone.

To cut a very long story very short, me and the other half worked our socks off to create a reasonably profitable business making and selling some good beer. We had the odd flop, the occasional infection, and lots and lots of rows. But we were making it, and as we gained in confidence and started getting more adventurous, eminent beer swiggers helped us out with good reviews. Thanks, Dave, I’m glad you enjoyed the Ritson’s.

And that’s where it all went horribly wrong. After standing back for three years, our ‘silent’ co-directors saw that all was becoming good, and wanted to buy me out for a pittance, but I didn’t want to sell so they went to law and shut us down.
They have now bought the assets of the company (but not the debts) and they are hoping to be brewing at Croasdale sometime soon. Good luck to them, and I mean that most sincerely, folks. It’s bloody hard being a brewer and a salesman and a businesswoman and a drayman and everything else.

So hard, in fact, that me and the old man are going to do it all again, in a new brewery in the near future. We’ll take the lessons of the past, and the contacts we’ve made with suppliers, and most of all the support and friendship of the wonderful community of microbrewers. But we won’t be taking the kit we have fitted and welded and hammered and banged and humoured into shape, and we won’t be taking a whole host of things left at the Barn one evening in the sincere belief that we would be back to rescue them.

So it’s farewell, trusty swimming towel. You were bought at Lewis’s in Manchester long, long ago, in pre-decimal days, and accompanied me to school swimming lessons every week. Fraying round the edges, you served as a gym rag in the aerobic boom of the early 80’s and you lived in a variety of rucksacks in my fellwalking days during the 90’s. Finally, much reduced by splashes of caustic but still bearing the name tag my mum sewed on you in 1968 you fulfilled a vital role in the development of Ennerdale beers by mopping up the drips from the hop filter. I will never see you again, swimming towel, but I salute you.

P.S. I’m going to continue wittering on, pestering other brewers, and learning about beer. The blog will doubtless move but it’s still going to be out there somewhere. I might even start writing about beer for a change!

P.P.S. Mancunians of a certain age will doubtless have different memories of Victoria Baths - the cold, the rusty taps, the swing-doors on the always too small cubicles, the eye-searing combination of chlorine and urine .... but I thought this picture was best.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Fast beers and slow brewers

Yesterday I delivered to a pub at 6.15 p.m. The poor landlord was frantically tapping and venting extra casks because he’d been told that ‘nine CAMRA people’ were en route to his pub, and he was worried because he only had four beers on the bar. I hope they turned up and drank more than the usual CAMRA trips. Three halves and a couple of extra glasses, please.

Anyway, it started me thinking about Marstons Fast Cask.

Fast Cask starts with bright beer. Chilled, filtered, and forced through some pretty sophisticated processes to strip out ALL of the yeast before racking. Then the yeast goes back, in a gel bead, to be released into the beer. And this beer is ready for sale “more or less immediately after delivery”.

Marston’s are very reticent about how this is done, for understandable reasons. I’m indebted to Pat O’Neill of South Hants CAMRA, whose excellent article explained the technology to me and provided the illustration I have shamelessly ripped off.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an attack on Marston’s or their Fast Cask beer. I haven’t tasted any, and I’m not questioning the quality. If you have tasted, and have any comments, please let me know.

I’m just a slow brewer, who can’t see why this is happening.

Marston’s say ….. “Our fastcask process delivers real cask beer that drops bright immediately and overcomes some of the operational barriers associated with cask beer.”

What are those operational barriers? Bringing beer in out of the sun on delivery days? Stripping down beer taps and washing them properly? Keeping a clean, cold cellar? Having coherent stock rotation? Not moving casks once they are on stillage?

It’s not rocket surgery, is it? I suggest that the landlords unable to get this right are also the landlords who dispense stale beer through dirty lines into smeary glasses.

It’s a bit like dining out at Witheringspoon’s. All of the operational barriers associated with good, fresh food have been successfully overcome there. It’s hot, reasonably tasty, and doesn’t cost a bomb. But it’s the culinary version of smoothflow.

I leave you with the image conjured by Marston’s latest press release.

Fast cask means that it will soon be possible to drink real ale on high-speed trains. Lovely.

Think back to every overheated, overcrowded, overpriced railway car buffet you’ve ever been to. You’ve saved up to buy a pint, and you’ve fought your way past the seatless and the smokers and the loo queues in the aisles. You’re trying not to touch the sticky counter top as you sway and shout to make yourself heard. You know that whatever you want to drink is going to be served in a plastic beaker which will spill and split before you get back to your seat.

(Which is in a set of four. Your three companions are overweight/selfish with the legroom/listening to something by Morrisey on their tinny IPod).

You carefully position your ‘glass’ of real ale in the 6cm2 of space left on the table, the train jolts over some points, and your glass is empty.

Don’t you wish you’d accepted the can of Special offered by the drunk in the next carriage?

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Out of the mouths of babes and Yorkshiremen .....

A few months ago, a keen young Media Studies student asked us if he could make a short film about our brewery. We agreed 'cos we are hungry for publicity and it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The film was unscripted and I was out for the day, so I can honestly say, when the brown stuff hits the fan, that I had nothing to do with this, your honour. I'm also prepared to apologise to the John Smith and Tetley shareholders whose personal fortunes may have plummeted as a result of millions watching this clip and seeing the light. Chance would be a fine thing ...

I also need to point out that although Phil suggests it's possible to drink ten pints of our beer without developing a hangover, this is not something which a Responsible Drinker should attempt to replicate.

Anyway, here it is. Yorkshire Phil, looking debonair in his woolly hat, talking about brewing at the sharp end. With some rather striking shots of our brew vessels which appear to have been recycled from 1950's space rockets.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Beer challenge

We’re making a 'challenging' beer today.

Not that our beer is usually dull, in fact we’re rather proud of it.

But in common with lots of other brewers, in order to sell enough beer to buy more malt, pay the rent and get the occasional tin of cat food, we have to keep the abv down to 4.2% and under. And this practice has led to one eminent beer writer complaining about Cumbria’s love of “unchallenging session beer”.

I take exception to this on two levels.

We sell to pubs as far apart as Rugby and Hexham, Fleetwood and Nottingham. We also occasionally sell to beer festivals. It’s only at these we can shift higher gravity beers, and the volumes involved are so small that frankly we’d be better off not bothering. One nine, but only if they've never had it before.

And we all know that the majority of beer festivals present the beers so poorly that it’s a work of art discerning any taste at all from the slops in your smeary, unwashed glass.

So, eminent beer writer, it isn’t just Cumbria where a lower abv is the biggest selling point.

But I'm more annoyed about the suggestion that lower strength beer is “unchallenging”.

Without singling out any particular beer, I know that the real challenge in brewing is to pack tons of flavour into a pint glass without using complex and arcane mixtures of six different malts, a bucket of coffee grounds, some dead sardines and a tin of Ovaltine. Some brewers manage it very well. Real brewers who know a lot more than I do about beer know this. I dare you, eminent beer writer, to try Thornbridge ‘Wild Swan’ at 3.5% abv and tell me that this isn't is a beer of true beauty.

I digress.

So today we are brewing an ‘interesting’ dark beer, and it’s certainly proving to be challenging. Getting the right balance of flavours, fitting sufficient malt into our mash tun, and wondering where we are going to put it after it's fermented are the biggest challenges for us.

It’s a 5.5%, and we’re brewing 10 bbl of it. That will last us until around November, we think, because apart from the odd sale to pubs which pride themselves on never selling the same beer twice, we know it’s not commercially attractive. Pub-goers usually don’t want to drink more than one pint of 5.5%, and landlords don’t want to tie up handpulls with beer which will sit around for over a week. And we don’t want to see any of our beers sitting around that long.

We have one customer for our strong dark beer, and he sells 2-3 18’s a week (yippee). In the season. Come November, he’ll be down to one 9 a fortnight. Unless, of course, the eminent beer writer and his mates get together and come back to Cumbria to drink this beer - and the many other strong and beautiful beers brewed by Cumbrian brewers. You drink it, mate, and we'll make it. But you have to drink enough of it. Or adopt our poor starving cat.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

I got those long-distance distribution blues

Delivery Vehicle Mk. I was our elderly but once elegant BMW estate. After six months the springs were a distant memory, so along came DV MkII. We called her Gloria. Well, we bought her on a Monday and she was a sick transit, so what else could we do? Gloria struggled, bless her, with the hills and the narrow tracks – to be honest she wasn’t too good with speed bumps – and so we sold her and moved on to DV Mk.III some 12 months ago.

Big White Van (BWV for short) has become a familiar sight in the more remote parts of the Lakes – some say we’re the fifth Emergency Service – and in the last year we’ve travelled over 40,000 miles in our mission to bring good beer at reasonable prices to the pubs and clubs of the north. So it was no great surprise to find ourselves involved in a road accident last week, when a rather large and expensive motorbike ridden by a man who really should have known better lodged itself (at speed) under the front end.

Scary. I really don’t want to relive the moment when I got out of BWV to look for the motorcyclist and could only see the rear end of the bike sticking out from under the van. Fortunately he’d had the presence of mind to ‘throw away’ the bike and just managed to slither clear in time, sustaining only a minor injury.

Likewise BWV. Just some cosmetic damage plus a smashed turbo thingummy.

So we contacted the insurance company and said “please, pretty please, can we get a replacement van?”. Several hours of paperwork later, there was a collective loud sucking of teeth from the van hire companies. Why on earth would anyone want a BWV? What do we mean, payload of 1 tonne minimum? Why would we need headroom? Casks of beer are only two foot tall, aren’t they? On and on it went. They can do Small White Vans, Medium White Vans, and any number of ten tonne trucks. But no BWV. I lost the will to live at several times during the course of the day.

Eventually a replacement was delivered. It’s pretty. There’s a CD player instead of the standard Ford crap radio all Transit drivers know and love. Seats are comfy, there are six gears, and at last I get the chance to drive a Merc. But it’s causing us serious problems. We’re having to jiggle around our deliveries and go out twice a week to some locations. Looks like anything over six 18’s is going to cause congestive spring failure and although there is a towbar, we’ll need to source a trailer.

So my point is, if you’re the type of person who likes to bowl along country lanes at speed, taking a little bit of a risk here and there, trimming the odd second off your travel to work times (you know who you are!), think again. You might be ‘lucky’ and only hit a sheep or a fell pony. You might be luckier still, and survive after a smash which shreds £8k worth of superbike into shiny scrap. But the poor sap you hit may have weeks of serious disruption to their business as a result of your cavalier behaviour.

No-one got hurt. Fine.

The insurance will pay up. Fine.

We will just have to work even harder just to stay afloat in this troubled time.

Not fine.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Q: When is a good pub not a good pub?

When you’re delivering beer in Cumbria there is plenty of time to think, and plenty of time for regrets. Yesterday (a relatively quiet day) we visited around a dozen hostelries, all of them ‘good’ pubs. That’s where the regret comes in – I’d love to stay on at many of them, and roll out into the evening air for a short stroll home rather than a 50 mile drive.

That started me thinking. What makes a good pub, a good pub? I’ll give you two examples to chew over.

One of my clients took over a pub which was always regarded as ‘good’ but which failed to make any money. It kept a good stock of beer and it managed not to provide any of the following …

  • Wide screen TV
  • Screeching children in ‘play areas’
  • Loud music
  • Plastic food

But it was never full. It was never cosy. And no-one seen drinking in there appeared to be having a good time.

Fast-forward 18 months, and it’s a different story. There’s still a goodly range of real ales, but now there is also a roaring fire. A small TV offers the opportunity to catch up on the news but doesn’t attract crowds of soccer fans. Children are evident playing in the garden, but don’t screech. Soft music plays in the background. The food on offer is reasonably priced and attractively presented, and best of all, it’s packed and everyone there seems to be enjoying themselves.

Meanwhile, in another part of the county, a client is trying his best to get into the 2011 Good Beer Guide. Rightly or wrongly, he has decided that this means he should have a constantly changing variety of real ales on his four hand pumps. His pub is also attractively and cosily furnished, after a recent refit, and it’s always busy with people who appear to be enjoying themselves. But after a period of intensive and wholly unscientific study (sitting at the bar for several hours one Saturday), I decided that his could never be considered a ‘good pub’.

For one thing, his wet/dry split is something like 10/90%, with the floor space in the ‘pub’ being allocated accordingly. On entry you’re greeted by a waitress, not a barman, and the massive chalkboards advertise not the brilliant beer but the (admittedly tasty and reasonably priced) meals on offer.

And it gets worse. At least half of the punters were drinking shorts and wine. No bad thing. But of the remainder, most were into fizz, and weren’t drinking a lot, to allow room for their three-course meal. In a three hour session, he must have sold around five pints of real ale, from the four on offer. So instead of having a good range of different beers on tap, he had four slow sellers, tired and unappealing, warm because they had stood in the lines, and altogether not likely to get him into any good beer guide. Yet they were excellent beers! (one of mine, a Hawkshead, a Coniston and a Yates).

Hmm. Not a good pub, then. So how come it’s in the 2010 Good Pub Guide?

Here’s my opinion on what makes a good pub.

  • it’s warm and clean
  • there are plenty of interesting things to drink and reasonably priced nibbles on offer
  • whoever is behind the bar is prepared to converse, not just rant
  • there’s nothing outlandish screaming loudly in my ears (I would also ban all folk music and anything by Morrisey but that’s just personal)
  • the loos are well stocked with soap and toilet paper
  • You don’t feel out of place if you’re not eating, and there’s somewhere to sit at a table without moving the pepper and salt
And, of course, they sell my beer. Or want to.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Business and Beer

Here at the Ennerdale Brewery we are very serious about our beer, in a sort of light-hearted way. We're beer novices who stumbled into the world of cask ale by way of doing an old mate a big favour, then we got left with ..... that's another story.

We're not brewers of long standing, we're just learning how to hold our own in beery discussions, but we are serious about our beer. We have a programme of continuous improvement, which sounds a bit glam but it's all about our trying, every day, in every way, to do what we are doing just that little bit better.

What we are most serious about is our business, because good beer alone is just not enough. We have to be a good business, a cost-effective, efficient, lean business which is consistent and reliable. Those concepts which seemed so dull and irrelevant when we were salaried employees with a safe wage packet are so much more important now that our mortgage depends on them!

So to improve our business we do a lot of finding out about other businesses, and in the course of this I came across a guy called Seth Grodin, a 'thought leader', in other words a man who writes books which state the bleedin' obvious in a way which makes you say "why didn't I think that before?" Seth's latest is called 'Tribes', and it explores the development of groups which share a common interest or passion. Groups like tickers and scoopers, or their less extreme fellows, CAMRA members. And then there is the tribe of landlords, licensees, and pubcos. Can you see the link with the real ale business yet?

The secret of being a good real ale business, it seems to me, is to balance the interests of the two warring tribes who form our customer base. I can produce beers which are 'interesting' and which excite the scoopers - but once they have scooped, they don't want to see it again.

I can produce beer which is 'commercial' and consistent, at a drink all day a.b.v. - but this gets fewer brownie points with the beer heads. In fact we have been condemned by one brewery in Cumbria as being too commercial. In other words, we're paying our way. And one day we might even make a profit.