Saturday, 27 March 2010

Firkin casks!

Probably the most boring job in a brewery is cleaning casks.

De-shive it, hoik out the remains of the keystone, flush out the lees (complete with fag ends, slugs, crisp packets and on one occasion a Dinky toy), scrub off the label, stick it on the machine, inspect it, fill it .... then do it all again. Over a hundred times a week, and then get ready to start again next week. But there's one thing worse than washing casks, which is counting the little rascals. And then recounting them. How can we have bought so many and have so few in the yard? Where have they gone?

Every brewer I have met is preoccupied with 'the Cask Situation'. If we don't have enough casks, we can't empty the conditioning tanks. With no conditioning space, we can't empty fermenters. And if we have no empty fermenters, we can't brew!!!! So it's not just about getting back our expensive babies; lovingly cleaning and polishing them, recording their movements, sympathising over the dents and touching up the paint jobs. It's about our whole production schedule.

Whilst we are not yet reduced to standing over drinkers, urging them to hurry up so that their next pint can be pulled and we can collect the empty cask, we are beginning to think quite seriously about where we send our casks, and we've already decided to do our own long-distance distribution, having recently reclaimed casks which went out via wholesalers in our early, innocent days. Imagine our surprise last week when a search in a cavernous, dusty warehouse in the depths of Leigh revealled a cask which was last recorded leaving the brewery in May 2008. Where has it been since then? What stories could it tell?

In an ideal world all of our distribution would be to pubs like The Dog & Gun, where a Blonde can be delivered, go on the bar, sell out and be returned to us within a week. In fact all of our beers would be like the Blonde, which sells out so quickly that we're never worried about committing an entire 10 barrel brew to cask in one go, as we know it will sell in days.

But the truth is that there are pubs who will order beer and sit on it for weeks, and beers which will sell at such a rate that full casks rattle around the cold room for weeks. There are landlords who will squirrel away their empties in dark cellars, and landlords who will chuck them out in the yard to be spirited away by Tradeteam who then have to be chased (by us) to get the damn things back. (We have one in Liverpool at the moment - it was collected from Broughton in Furness, went by Tradeteam to Penrith, then to Burton-on-Trent, and it's now in Aintree. We didn't ask them to do it!

So when you pass a pub and see a cask being used as a scaffolding support or as an ash tray, to hold up a wobbly table or just looking lonely, spare a thought for we brewers who spend an inordinate number of hours caring for our babies.

What's in a name?

Here in Cumbria it's sort of traditional to name at least one of your beers after the local landscape (I love Hesket Newmarket for having the courage to name a beer after Great Cockup! For us that would have been a little too close to the truth, especially in the early days).

In fact I'm sure there are several fells which are the subject of hot disputes between neighbouring breweries, and I have a mental image of shive hammers at dawn as at least one local hotspot is equidistant from ourselves, Hardknott, Blackbeck, Gable and Loweswater.

BUT..... how many breweries have had a chunk of the Lake District named after one of their beers????

We were delighted to learn that the Fell & Rock Climbing Club of the Lake District have named a pitch 'Ennerdale Blonde' after our best seller. They say "The inspiration for the route came from our need to keep returning to this area to drink your excellent beer". I'm totally gobsmacked, but I can confirm right now that I will NOT be making this ascent to be photographed with a pint of Blonde in my hand, and anyone who knows me can probably understand why. However we are looking at a way of comemorating this unique honour and saying 'thank you' to the cragrats, so watch this space!

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

I spent the weekend visiting breweries in Sheffield - The Crown Brewery at The Hillsborough Hotel, Abbeydale and Kelham Island.

All amazing places, and there's so much to learn from each one - thank you, Stuart at The Crown, for spending over an hour with me instead of cleaning your lines! But it was soon time to get back in the Big White Van and travel up to Cumbria, and I have to say that the view from our brewery beats any of those I saw over the weekend!

It's sunny here at the moment, not too cold for a change, and the daffodills are beginning to think about breaking out. We are keeping our eyes peeled for squirrels (love the reds, shoot the greys) and the first swallows will be arriving in a week or so.

Time to concoct a new beer ready for Cask Ale Week. I'm not too sure how successful these national initiatives are, but we certainly notice trade picking up at the moment and we're expecting a busy Easter, a good thing after the disastrous summer, rainy autum and snow-bound Christmas which saw so many of our customers really struggling. Well done to Jim Chapple and his 'Cumbria is Open' campaign, which featured in national CAMRA publications. We really need this boost after months of scare stories in the media.

Anyway, back to the beer. As always the recipe is the easy bit, and dreaming up a name/pump clip design is the tricky part. Our theme is Spring (natch) and there has to be a daff on the clip, maybe a bunny or two, perhaps an Easter egg, bit of Christian imagery to stop it all being too commercial, perhaps a sort of 'glass of beer at The Last Supper' theme.... you see how difficult it gets? No wonder our designer despairs of us.

Any ideas, anyone?