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.


  1. I think most eminent beer writers would agree that ALL Thornbridge beers are tasty and interesting.

    Can you do a half brew or less? I agree that the vast majority of the market is always going to be session beer, even beer geeks mostly drink session beer, if they were honest. "interesting" beers are best done in titchy batch sizes for the reasons you mention.

    Anyway, good to have found your blog.

  2. I guess I have been away from the UK for way too long now, but 5.5% seems perfectly sessionable to me these days.

  3. Dave, if I could do a half brew, I would! The turn-down on this plant is 7 BBL, which is one of the reasons why I'd advise anyone upgrading to 10 BBL from smaller plant to hang on to their old kit. It's not just the copper ... it's not practical to harvest yeast from a 10 BBL fermenter which is only half-full. And whilst it's sitting there fermenting away or hogging a cask it's holding back production of the better selling beers.So my next purchase is SMALLER kit. I always was one for bucking the trend! Maybe the way ahead is the Abbeydale route, with lots of blends? We're experimenting with this at present, with some success (Spice, Spring, Ritson's Mk 1).
    And, Al, maybe you have been away for too long; often anything over 4.2% is described as 'too strong' by most landlords. Especially if it looks dark! Maybe if it were possible for 'real' men to be seen drinking a half pint? Tongue in cheek, of course.

  4. We get a similar story at Daleside. Most of our seasonals have been sub 4% recently. The only way to shift high abv beer in the UK well is probably to go down the Brew Dog road, and concentrate on bottled beer for off-trade and export.

  5. Hang on to old kit? For once my hoarding instinct has been vindicated; I couldn't bear to let my little brew kit go.

  6. Good idea, Dave, don't let any of it go - we're even dusting off the old homebrew kit to see if we can do a few experimental runs. Maybe another good idea would be for smaller brewers to work together so that we could run the odd 10 bbl brew for someone in return for using their 2.5 bbl kit? There's probably lots of rules and reasons why not. And once we get into logistics, due diligence, whose water is best etc, it probably wouldn't be at all practical. But a girl can dream ....

  7. Shelagh, I'm sure the practical difficulties can be overcome.

    Anyway, yesterday I popped into The Wasdale Head Inn and found aforementioned beer on the bar. At 5.5% probably not what I should have drunk after a day on the fells, but it would have been churlish not to have tries it.

    I can report it was delicious; bags of fruity esters, I do hope it is successful for you.