Monday, 30 November 2009

Cumbria is open

We've got to the end of the season. On Sunday we locked the doors to have a little break for a few weeks. During November it's been very quiet and most days we were open we were lucky to cover the costs of any staff wages let alone the cost of heating lighting and the products we sold. It just makes sense sometimes to be closed. We are far away from the so called honey pots of the central Lake District and so when winter descends it goes very, very quiet indeed.

I think we've done all right this year overall. Slightly up on total revenue compared to last year. However, we're getting messages from other businesses in the county that indicate the economic situation hasn't always been good. I believe it depends upon the style of business but for definite there has been a shifting about of the way people spend their money. Some winners and unfortunately some losers.

Just to add to any discomfort it rained more in one day last week than it has ever been recorded. The effect of that was evident on the national news. The county is recovering and many parts are back to normal. However, the effect on businesses has been catastrophic. Many have pulled the stops out to get back on line only to find that the visitors still think the county is under water. This is not true. OK, a few bridges are down, but mostly transport is good.

Martin Campbell does some good stuff about Cumbrian produce on his sites and and today he sent me a link to a video he has produced showing just how nice our wonderful county can be. It's nice in the winter because it's quiet.

Beer Enthusiasts, That's All

There has been quite a lot of talk lately about the relevance of beer that is not real ale. Starting of course with CAMRA sticking to it's principles over extraneous gas. Real Ale Reviews talk about an as yet fictional beer festival that embraces all types of quality beer. I think that would be fun.

Mark at Pencil and Spoon talks about a Campaign for Great British Beer. There seems to be a growing enthusiasm for something, but what? Of course, perhaps we don't need anything. We have a great on-line community already enthusing about beer.

There is a lot of infighting in the industry. Pete Brown complained about it a little while ago. I talked about the same subjects recently, which brought out suggestions for forming some type of society that might take care of beer, just beer, in every form it took. Is this possible? What would be the aims of such an organisation? Do we really need one? What would be it's name?

I like the idea and would be keen to be involved, but if the promotion of good beer is the objective then what beer do we cite as unworthy? What I think is rubbish might well be another man's nectar. Equally, I know for a fact that there are beers out there that I like and others think are "style over substance".

The only real advantage of an all encompassing organisation, apart from providing a unified front against the demonising of beer, might be to organise eclectic, all embracing beer festivals. Beer festivals for Beer Enthusiasts, That's All. B.E.T.A. beer festivals if you like.

Saturday, 28 November 2009


I need to watch it. My posting here seems to be slowing up, I'll be dropping back down Wikio again, especially as there are a growing number of good bloggers appearing....... No, wait, I'm doing this because I enjoy it, aren't I?

Two posts ago, trying to put my own angle on some subject or other, it was suggested by my jocular friendly commenters that I was just trying to gain attention. It has made me think a little about the subject of the reward for the writing I do. I give fuller reasons in response to the comments on the above mentioned post, but in summary; of course I'm interested in how many people read my blog, I wouldn't be motivated to write otherwise, it's simple. However, removing tongue from cheek, the point about competitiveness being detrimental is not lost on me.

Although web stat information is important to me, it's just numbers. Wikio has always thrown up some dubious results, including my 5th position ranking, so machine generated popularity indicators like this are of limited value. What get's me more motivated are comments to posts. Nice thoughtful ones are better and constructive disagreement makes it interesting.

What really pleases me is when I meet people and without any previous discussion on the subject they tell me they read my blog. That's worth 1000 site hits to me. When I was at the Whitehaven Beer Festival recently I was very pleased that someone did just that. The problem is he also asked if I was going to write anything about the event so now I feel really guilty that I have not written a word about it at all.

What can I say, it's just as good as it has been the last few years. A number of our local CAMRA branch members work very hard to make it a success. They have an interesting enough range of beers for me to want to go, the atmosphere is friendly, there is enough seating for everybody and the beers seem to be served in good condition. I hope, despite the floods at the weekend, that the event was a success. It seemed busy enough on Saturday afternoon so I guess it was.

We took a couple with us who were staying with us that weekend and they really liked the friendly atmosphere. They mentioned it several times afterwards, so I'm guessing they really meant it.

But what was the beer like? Well I didn't have a bad one but my memory is fading on detail. I did have the presence of mind to mark on my program which beers I had, so here goes.

Bitter End, Festival Ale 4.0% - I did hear a bad remark about this one but I seemed to remember liking it.

Blackbeck Belle 3.7% - One of our newest breweries, a long time in the promise and finally delivering beer. I liked this one better than the first pale and uninteresting beer I sampled from this brewery a few weeks ago. This has a nice balance of coloured malt and hops making for a far more delicious beer.

Foxfield, Blackberry and Nettle 4.0% - One thing that this brewery can never be accused of is being uninteresting. Stuart doesn't let the possibility of failure get in the way of experimentation. In this case whole blackites and nettle cordial were put in the cask with a base beer. I quite liked the small taster I had, although I wouldn't say I'd have a whole pint, but then fruit beer isn't my thing.

Great Gable, Smokey Howe 4.5% - Other people felt it had just the right amount of smoked malt in it. I remember thinking I'd prefer a lot more, but I think that is just me.

Tigertops, Das Alt 4.9% - I've never had an Alt beer so I can't say if it was authentic. I did like it though.

WC Brewery, Gypsy's Kiss 4.1% - Nice beer despite the name suggesting it's brewed in a toilet.

Whitehaven, Ennerdale Spice 4.2% - The star of the show for me. Reminded me of Christmas spices and coffee or orange matchmakers. I loved it.

All in all I enjoyed the festival, again. I do hope that the popularity of the festival makes it worthwhile for the organisers. Moreover, my own Stout Baaaa 4.6% was liked by Mary, our branch chair, who "doesn't like stout". Sorry to CdeC who would have preferred Light Cascade 3.4%, but we'd run out of that one. You just can't be popular with everybody.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009


This is an old building. Bits are probably nearly 500 years old and possibly older. Unfortunately there are not many old relics of interest, apart from me. There is an old salt cupboard door dating from 1729 and a defunct, possibly 18th century long case clock. The salt cupboard door doesn't covet salt any more, in fact there is nothing but blank wall behind.

We were told that the clock was unlikely to be repairable with any sensible level of economy. It would have been nice but in business you have to have good reason to spend thousands of pounds. My brother, who has had more hobbies than Washy has pints in a night, and that's a few, has recently turned to clock restoration. He's taken the mechanism and has just emailed me with it's progress.

It ticks, apparently, has a 30 hour movement, according to his reckoning, and has every chance of becoming a fully working clock again.

I think the clock was bought by a wealthy Yeoman farming family called Vickers who ran this place when it was more farm than Ale House. The salt cupboard door was probably commissioned by the first Vickers here, John. The clock probably hasn't ticked for about 30 or more years. I've got a thing about clocks and success. Keep this one running and everything else will go like clockwork. Perhaps we'll gain a little bit of the Vickers success. Silly superstitious nonsense I know.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Where there's smoke there's fire

The two blogs that sit either side of this one in Wikio beer and wine rankings this month also seem to sit either side of me in opinion on the smoking ban. Pub Curmudgeon has always disagreed with the smoking ban and in fact declares it is one reason his blog was started. Tandleman on the other hand seems to take a positive view of the ban.

Recently Mudgie, as he seems to have affectionately been called, takes a sentimental view of what the smoking ban has done to a number of pubs. Prompted by this Tandy bravely starts a poll on the whole subject, with a set of statements out of which we are to choose one. The ensuing comments seem to have caused Tandleman to regret having opened the subject. Many of the comments are forthright to say the least. I'd be bothered if it were my blog and I do feel a little sorry for Tandleman.

When the ban came in I was a smoker. However, my pub was not dominated by smokers and undoubtedly the people who smoked most were myself and my staff. With trade that is more food and accommodation led than wet led it was undoubtedly useful for me to be able to ban smoking altogether. Subsequently I gave up smoking myself, which Ann and I both wanted to happen but realised that would be impossible without completely banning it throughout the building. For me, my relationship, my family and my business, I am glad of the ban.

But, and there are lots of big buts, I don't agree with a blanket ban. Civil liberties and the effect on sectors of our traditional pub industry make it unacceptable and draconian in my opinion. I'll try and expand on these thoughts by giving my opinion to each of the questions offered by Tandleman. I've included the numbers on the poll, as of today, as I think they are illuminating.

Should never have been introduced and should be repealed 41 (29%)

Whilst I think it is inevitable that some form of ban was going to occur, and to expect it to be repealed is a bit of a flight of fancy, the strength of feeling towards this option does indicate a huge amount of bitterness towards the ban. For some sections of society the party in power is never going to be forgiven. For one, I don't think it cuts down by the normal left and right politics either.

Should have been in introduced in a modified form to allow smoking in some areas 26 (18%)

This is my favourite solution but with caveats. Indeed, I never did understand why there was a complete ban. It is now not possible to have a social gathering in any building that is not a private residence, if my understanding of the law is correct, where smoking is permitted. We are not permitted any form of regulated smoking in any enclosed public space whatsoever. Not even a private members club.

I will admit though, that if we'd have been permitted this option in my pub, we might well have tried to find a solution. I've talked before about the problems of segregating rooms in a pub and during that discussion I came in for criticism. I'll be honest and say I'm pleased now that I don't need to do so for smokers. As the comments on Tandleman's blog illustrate, to ban a smoker from smoking takes courage.
Is a progressive and positive thing 39 (28%)

Is it progressive and positive to deny a significant number of people from engaging in an activity that they enjoy and has formed a key part of socialising for centenaries? A large number of respondents think so. In fact I'm sure statistics would say that the minor difference between the numbers voting for this and the ones voting for the first statement are insignificant. I think this shows how divisive the subject still is.

Is regrettable, but inevitable and we should accept it and move on 3 (2%)

Well, the law is the law and this is one that is unlikely to change. The anti-tie lot are perhaps just upsetting themselves unduly by fighting anyway. The surprise to me is that very few pick this option, after all it's a middle ground choice. It would seem very few who want to move on see it as regrettable.
Has ruined pubs and changed them for the worse 5 (3%)

This is where I, as somebody who is in the trade, has some sympathy for the anti-ban view. Yes, pubs have changed because of the ban. Some have failed. Certainly I can see Mudgie's view that the atmosphere is different and sometimes not as good. However, changed for the worse, overall? I'm not sure, but the trade is now very different.

Is a dead subject which we shouldn't even be discussing 24 (17%)

I think it's true that the law is unlikely to be repealed or even modified any time soon. I suspect the next government, which is likely not to be Labour, is not going to touch it. Public opinion is strongly in favour, I'd suggest, for leaving it as it is.

I'm not convinced we should not discuss and leave it at that. I think the one thing that the anti-smoking ban people are convincing me of is that restrictions on beer is going to increase as a follow-on. Our ability to enjoy ourselves will be further inhibited for our own good. Boxing will get banned, for your own good, rugby will too, for goodness sake, people get hurt playing that game, it's barbaric.

How long will it be before our ID card has to be swiped when we purchase a drink at the bar, just to ensure we have not had too many already? We need to keep the smoking ban in mind if for no other reason that to make us realise that there will be more pleasures under attack. It'll never happen? They said that about the smoking ban.

I'm glad Tandleman opened the subject. The strength of feeling shown in the comments from one section of society shows the creation of a grossly upset minority. As a publican I also get the same feelings discussed by people here, and I don't feel they are just a few radical extreme right wing activists. In an age where we take people from all over the world and embrace their diverse cultures I feel it is extremely dangerous to alienate something that used to be an inherent part of ours.

I wish to apologise to Washy. He's one of my best and most loyal customers and a friend. He's a smoker and wishes he could still smoke in my pub. I also know he reads this blog frequently.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

In the line of duty

My experiences of the emergency services in the 6 years we've been here have been extremely good. The ambulance service can't half get here quick when it's a proper life or death call. The Mountain Rescue are far more tolerant of the numpties who get themselves in the wrong valley than I am. The police, who sometimes come in for unfortunate criticisms, do an excellent job around here. We've been affected by far more than our fair share of criminal activity here and the police have been exemplary in their handling of every event. When we need their help they respond brilliantly and when everything is running smoothly they don't trouble us.

I have a strong regard for our justice system. Innocent until proven guilty being a cornerstone. The more heinous the crime the more certain the evidence has to be. Despite knowing some of the people who have committed crimes against us, the police and ourselves are frustrated by the the fact that evidence is not strong enough to enable the CPS to press charges. At best the charges are less severe than the crime deserves. My experience of the police is that they have a tough job.

We are a relatively sparsely populated county. People know each other and there is a lot of knowing-people-who-know-people. Yesterdays event's in West Cumbria left people I know in difficulties that I wish they had been spared.

The tragedy that befell PC Bill Barker needs no more words from me. However, there is a facebook group where you can leave condolences. It might help his wife and children.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Diversity and turmoil

It started with Pete Brown's excellent rant. How could I not be effected by that? It's troubling me quite a lot and I'm trying to understand it. I agree with Pete's sentiments about the fighting within the industry being counter productive to the overall benefits of the beer industry. However, I also care quite a lot about the issues that are being fought over. Be it the ability of the regular publican to make an honest living, the survival and perhaps growth of cask beer, the right of a brewery to make the strongest beer in Britain and not be criticised for it being so strong despite it being only the same strength as port. It also concerns me that the one consumer beer group confines itself to only one possible dispense method, and yes I know the clue is in it's name, let's not have that one again. I like good beer and like to see it prosper. I like pubs and likewise I am concerned with the difficulties the industry is having.

There is something in particular that Pete wrote which has gnawed at my subconscious since I read his post.
"So what do we do in 2009? Form a cross-industry lobbying group? Take pre-emptive action against tighter licensing restrictions and more duty rises? Fight back against the misinformation about binge drinking with a concerted, positive campaign about the benefits of moderate drinking and the truth of our wholesome pub culture?" - [No we don't]1
I realise that there isn't anybody to really represent me. CAMRA help me in their support for real ale, which continues to be the strongest part of my wet sales2. I'm a member of the BII, which seems to still be the best for me, but are a quiet ineffectual organisation as far as I can see. The BBPA of course represents the PubCos and regional brewers. The All Party Parliamentary Beer Group does a good job of lobbying but I can't afford to join them directly. I could join SIBA and there might well be some benefits there and I do keep thinking about it.

Then I look wider at my business. As with most pubs these days, the majority of my revenue is not in fact from cask at all3. I also sell keg beers, bottled beers, wine, whisky, food and accommodation. It is true that the cask beer is an expectation most of my customers have, but then they also have an expectation of clean sheets and toilet rolls.

I can see why Fair Pint are using underhand and possibly illegal tactics against the BBPA. Being run by the powerful major beer tie reliant companies the BBPA are a giant that Fair Pint are struggling against. Equally, the BBPA are there to defend their members, so the fight is inevitable. I can't help feeling that the BII and Federation of Licensed Victuallers Association are piggy in the middle and not really sure what to do. I don't really know the answer to this one, but it does look a little messy and it would have been better not getting to this stage.

Meanwhile, I look on a little bemused at the discussions that have developed over some lager being banned from a CAMRA festival. Oliver Thring has written an article on the Guardian website which has generated a lot of interest. Tandleman takes up the case for CAMRA in response;
".....the mistaken assumption that CAMRA is an umbrella organisation for beer. It quite simply isn't. CAMRA's role, as defined by its constitution, is to promote and defend the interests of cask conditioned ale."
You can't argue with that.

At this point I want to explore the position from the pub perspective. It is almost impossible, although I'll admit not entirely, to run a pub with no lager whatsoever. It is possible, although with difficulties, to run a pub with options of more diverse lagers. I know, because that's what I do. In fact it is more likely that if a pub majors in cask it is also likely to experiment with more unusual keg products too. I would argue this strengthens the position of the pub from a real ale point of view all the more.

I understand the opposition to any beers at a CAMRA festival that use bottled CO2, but perhaps there are some softer issues here. If at a festival a craft brewed lager is presented then it might have some effects that are beneficial to cask beer. Firstly, there is something there for the potential converts to try, those that do like something cold, fizzy and less challenging. Secondly, the beer fans will recognise and perhaps even try the product so next time they are going to that weird pub that doesn't serve any recognisable big brands with their reluctant mates they can reassure them that there really is a decent lager to try. And really, it will be cold and fizzy, not warm and flat. It's an easier move out of a comfort zone of the macro brewed fizz to craft lager than a straight jump to cask.

To return to the assertion that CAMRA is not an umbrella beer organisation I'd like to make observations. I think there is a need for this non-existent umbrella beer organisation and it's need is not going away, nor is it likely to. Meanwhile, CAMRA is the next best thing and I think will remain the focus for the void. Beer and pubs are intertwined and most pubs sell less cask than keg. CAMRA support pubs and so are even more likely to continue to come under scrutiny for their inherent and inevitable disdain of keg beer.

If I now try and look at this overall picture of the organisations on all sides of the beer world I see a very diverse mêlée of potentially confrontational perspectives. Is it perhaps an inevitable result of the great diversity in our beer and pub culture that there will be clashes of opinion. It is because we have an interesting and complex situation, which makes for an exciting world, that we will inevitably have diversity of opinion as well.

I didn't start writing this as another CAMRA blasting article. I'm more hoping to illuminate why there is so much of it about. And we don't need more of the "it's in the name" replies to this, we know that one and presumably as CAMRA is a democratic organisation 120,000 people can't be wrong. Pete Brown says he's "sitting very closely outside the industry looking in" I feel I'm only just in the industry and the closest I've got to a useful organisation is CAMRA and that's not quite what I need. In fact, much of the time I feel I'm further from the centre of the industry than Pete is and I've also got one foot firmly outside.

In conclusion I feel I've asked more questions here than I've answered. I wrote this yesterday and parked it for proof reading this morning. It seems this blogs twin4 Pencil and Spoon might also be looking at the same issues. I need to stop writing and start reading.


1 Your right, Pete doesn't write "No we don't" at this point. He writes something far more colourful and rightly gives his true thoughts on the matter. But as I'll ask Ann to proof read this before I post it, I'm limiting it to these words.

255% of my total alcohol sales plus another 5% "cask" cider.

3Cask only makes up 16% of my total revenue.

4Mark Dredge started Pencil and Spoon exactly the same day as I started this one.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The Environment

My fellow Cumbrian brewer Stringers is very concerned about the environment. And of course they should be, anybody who takes the head-in-the-sand view that global warming is an invention by nutter environmentalist sandal wearing do-gooders really is ignoring an important problem for the future. The science community is just about completely in agreement on the subject and it's only industry and commerce that depend upon our carbon economy that wants to really deny it. To my shame I do very little to help the situation. Stringers do by making their beer from renewable energy and write a nice blog too.

I've mentioned my new project, my barley wine. It's going well and I think could be a fantastic beer. Then again it might be a complete failure which would distress me in more ways than one.

When I mentioned it before Stringers asked:
"Barley wine? How long are you having to boil it for? How much power does that use? Do you get your own dead polar bear?"
Yes, good point actually, about 360kwh to be precise, over 24 hours boil for not much more than 240l of beer. 2 dead polar bears and half a dozen penguins as well I suspect. Compare that to an ordinary brew which might use a quarter of the energy, if you aren't being careful. Beer does take a lot of energy to make irrespective of what it is.

One of the good things about the big breweries are their economies of scale. 100 tonne capacity mash filters running many mashes per day. Banks of coppers with condensing flues to recover heat. Energy recovery systems on the fermentation tank cooling systems and probably many more energy saving features on modern plants. It's not done for altruistic Arctic creature survival, no, energy costs money and it makes business sense to save money.

Back to my own place. I've a big building. It's old, very old, parts of it probably over 500 years old. The walls are made of granite rubble held together, where it's well made, with lime mortar. A previous owner reports there is one part that appears to be held together with little more than clay. We don't want to investigate to see if that is true. Some walls we have had to put holes through show that the mortar is only used on the outer 4 inches or so and inside the wall is dry cobbles. The windows are 150 year old sash windows that are drafty. It makes our place energy inefficient. We spend more on energy than we do on the mortgage.

Lets look on the bright side. I use precisely zero carbon fuels to transport my beer from the brewery to my cellar, about 30 metres. I wonder how much energy mass produced beers use to get them to the retail outlets and moreover how much energy is wasted on these fancy extra cold condensation sweating fonts?

I do worry that in trying to keep this ancient hostelry running that I am in fact chasing an ideal that has no place in our modern world. Large town centre pubs, in disused bus depots, can be made all energy efficient and modern. Compact distribution networks that provide volume economies of scale so your pint can be sold at £1.69 and so also help out the environment. Furthermore, these great drinking barns are fully fitted with modern efficient kitchens, modern heating systems and no doubt the building is refurbished to building regulations insulation levels. Just to put the icing on that cake the town centre locations provides footfall levels that enable even further economies of scale and further kwh/pint sold benefits. Polar beers and penguins rejoice.

I think the traditional pub has a huge problem with modern efficiency needs. This is not what I want, because I like remote country pubs, in all their fabulous forms, much more than most town centre locations. But real carbon fuel consumption reduction is going to happen for economic reasons, not altruistic ones. I foresee that our traditional pub is going to become more and more expensive to run as the cost of energy increases over the next few decades. Will we still be prepared to pay the price, both fiscal and environmentally, in a few years time, to keep the traditional, inefficient pubs and breweries going?

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Beer Writers' perspective

I have Google Alerts set up on certain keywords. It generally tells me when popular ranking sites are saying something about beer or real ale or pubs. Jamie Goode's wine blog generated one such alert. His post is about the judging of the British Guild of Beer Writers awards. It seems the decisions are made, so everything I write from now on goes towards next year.The trouble is I've got nearly three weeks of increasing suspense before I find out the results. It's enough to turn a man to drink. Jamie, quite rightly, gives away no secrets.

I noticed Jamie reports a couple of interesting topics that seemed to dominate the work entered. One is the good old Portman group versus BrewDog. An argument that most beer writers love to hate and hate to love with equal proportions. The other is more interesting to me.
"A recurrent theme seems to be that although CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) has done some good things for beer in the past, they currently seem a bit out of touch and stubbornly defensive of their own particular vision of ‘real ale’."
Being one of the entrants who might have put this point across to some extent, I'm interested in why such an unbalanced view seems to dominate. It would be all to easy for me to say that it proves the point; beer writers are saying it is so, it must be true.

I'm not comfortable in saying that. I think there might also be the case that the CAMRA view might not have been well represented in the entries.

Shall we discuss?

That was a short one. Is all this twittering making me less verbose?

Friday, 13 November 2009

Various bits of news

It's quiet here now. The pub is in winter mode which means we don't open during the week. Hardknott pass is closed for repairs and in any case traffic along the road averages about one car per hour outside the summer season.

But still, there seems to be lots to do. I'm brewing today, a beer with an O.G. of around 1100, I hope. Needs many hours of boiling which will no doubt result in small but inevitable increased shrinking of the polar ice caps. Sorry penguins and polar bears.

I'm also starting to look at the options for selling beers in bottles mail order. Don't get too excited, it's very early stages just yet, I've got a bit of work to do before that happens. Quite apart from actually brewing the beer and the time it takes to bottle, I also have to explore various commercial difficulties such as economic and reliable ways of shipping from this far flung corner of the globe.

Last weekend we had another very successful wedding. I'm going to have to explore further how we promote that little addition to our repertoire. It's just something else to work into a long overdue revamp of our marketing and branding. If I get bored and we get a spell of fine weather, and yes it does happen even in Cumbria, we've got lots of outside painting to do. When it's raining we've got stuff to fix up inside too. So there, that's my excuses for reduced blog posting.

Hopefully I'll get a little bit of time to write next week; I hope so as I miss it. Meanwhile you can have a look at my second post as guest blogger for the BitterSweet partnership. I'd be interested in knowing what the reader thinks of what I've said or maybe more generally about the BitterSweet project.

That's all for now. Better go back and see if my copper has exploded yet.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

I do like session beer

In my previous post, and probably some prior to that, I seem to have given the reader the impression that I dislike session beer. This is simply not the case. When I look at my own drinking habits it is clear that the vast majority of my consumption of alcohol, either in pure volume or even if measured in units, turns out to be in the form of pints of session ale. I doubt if this will change.

My apparent attacks are not on drinkers who have a broad minded approach to beer and enjoy session beer as well as occasional other beers. My comments are more aimed at the stuffy attitude of those who create glass ceilings in the beer creativeness stakes. "I can't possibly drink that beer, I don't drink anything over 4%" is striking when they are talking about a 4.2% beer. Just how much effect do they think that 0.2% of ABV is going to make to their drunkenness?

Moreover, what gets me is the fact that otherwise sensible and controlled adults can't work out that they could actually explore beers up to 5% and perhaps higher. After all, drinking 5 pints of 4% is exactly the same as drinking 4 pints of 5% beer. Are these people not able to pace themselves? I would be surprised if many readers of this blog are quite so narrow minded.

I dream of the day that a little bit of glamour is introduced into main stream beer drinking. Currently, exploring beers that don't fit the regular session ale category is seen as something of an obscure pastime and drinking out of anything other than a nonic pint is unmanly. Interestingly, the same people will suddenly, at the end of the night, declare they are full and please could they have some boiled and re-condensed beer. Not that I complain, a shot of scotch puts more money in my till than a pint of beer.

I want to try and work in a piece of news that I think is worthy. My barman Alan drinks at a pub called The Brown Cow. Landlord Phil is a grand chap and well into his ales. Recently he had a beer festival at the pub which appeared to go very well. Alan reported back the various goings on when he came to work. He didn't say much about the beer except for one he was itching to tell me about; Bez Suchého Chmele - Jeden, 4.8%, Brewed by Steel City Brewing. Alan had never heard of them and was very keen to let me know what he thought of the beer. Very nice he declared and certainly the best he had that weekend. For many drinkers 4.8% is not a session beer, I think that is a shame as it sounds like it might just be a cracker.

Meanwhile I am planning the highest ABV beer I've ever done. Over 10% I hope. It should be similar to a barley wine1, but probably not with traditional British hops. It'll be brewed in the next few days but I expect it will take at least 6 months before it will be ready to drink. I'm hoping there will be a market for the finished product but it concerns me that the pint drinking mentality will stand in it's way.

I'll probably drink 1/3 of a pint of it once in a while, out of a nice stemmed glass if I'm allowed. After about 3 pints of something around 4±1%.


1No, a beer that strong is not automatically a barley wine.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Shed Breweries

I often get asked where I learnt to brew. People assume I had some home-brew experience or did a course, or perhaps both. No, none of this is the case. I used my tenacity and thirst for knowledge and the very helpful advice of my friend Stuart to get me going. One day brewing under the supervision of a knowledgeable brewer and then let loose on my own plant.

In hindsight I think I was extremely lucky. I followed the knowledge I was given and good beer generally resulted. I built up a model in my own head of why I did certain things and as I gained more knowledge modified that model in pursuit of better beer. Inevitably better results did follow, in most cases, but not without some errors along the way.

Up until a week ago I was still regularly finding information that contradicted my own knowledge about the making of beer. I very much doubt that this will ever stop but I felt on occasions unable to make rational decisions as to the information presented. What I did know was that some of it, especially from home-brewers, was based on inaccurate handed-down knowledge. And the sum total of my skills was no better.

I needed a course. A brewing course that would get me some authoritative information on the science behind the art of brewing. Making beer is a combination of chemistry and microbiology and doing the same thing each time, by rote, does not necessarily produce reliable results. The ingredients being largely natural and the environment changing from batch to batch, without measurements and adjustments variable product will result. Some might say this is what makes micro-brewing interesting, but it can also give breweries-in-a-shed a bad name.

Some members of SIBA have been less than kind about very small breweries, the ones in sheds. To some extent this is clearly sour grapes as we small people are making good in-roads to the market place. There is though some justification to the charge as the outputs from amateur-turned-pro brewer are much more variable. In my view this is a charm and to a beer geek like me an interesting beer is one that makes me sit up and take notice, not one that is an in offensive balance of boringness. But if I want to make a statement with my beer then I need to know how to control the outcome. If I were a painter who wanted a painting full of clashing colours then knowing how to mix that exact tone of colours is vital. If I want a beer that is going to be able to give a smack around the hop-head or one that might well have a bit of yeast bite because I've pushed the boundaries of ABV then I should understand what is happening.

After some research I came to the conclusion that many of the more successful consistent brewers I know have engaged the assistance of Brewlab in Sunderland. They do several courses but I decided that the most suitable for me was the Brewing Skills Development course. This is a 5 day course, nearly completely classroom based and heavy on chemical and biological theory. Very useful for existing brewers who need to know exactly why they do what they do and perhaps to learn why they should not do some things that they do. I went on said course last week.

I could go into great length here about the detail of the course, how the lecturers were witty, engaging and very knowledgeable. I could tell you anecdotes about my frequent good natured arguments about just how much hops can go into a beer before it becomes unbalanced, and how tolerant Chris was of my deliberate contrariness. I could also stress how important it is to engage in the learning process to maximise understanding. But I'll just confine my comments to saying how jolly good the course was.

I would say that having an "O" level in Biology and Chemistry is also handy. If you are a whipper-snapper then I guess GCSE's will do, the fact that you did them more recently should counter the inferiority of this newfangled qualification. You see, I can side with the traditionalists sometimes.

It did get me thinking; shed breweries do produce more interesting and innovative beers. Brewing beer that is nothing more than a carbon copy of a mainstream traditional ale seems a little pointless. "Brewed with traditional English malt and hops" is oft the proud marketing caption. In my book traditional equals boring. An over emphasis on balance and consistency from within the brewing industry may well be contributing to the lack of innovation discussed on Tandleman's blog.

In conclusion, I'm glad I brewed beer before going on the course. I'm also glad I went on the course. I know that brewing 4% session beer, irrespective of the innovation I put into it, is never going to make me any money. The lack of any economies of scale at 2 barrels brew-length does not permit making money at the price level that people are prepared to pay for normal session beer. I think if I had gone on this course before I started to brew I might never have started. I would have believed that making money out of beer is all about consistency and selling volume to the boring masses.

Having a small brewery I have to be different. As they say, it's not the size that matters but what you do with it. Now I am not only equipped with the experimental tenacity that got me this far and the willingness to break with tradition that governs boring 4% session beers, but now I have gained great leaps in my science knowledge surrounding brewing. This in total enables me to push a few more boundaries and make great beer that will satisfy any beer geeks that drop by, hopefully still keeping enough of an eye on balance, tradition and mass appeal.

At least that's the theory.

I still might not make any money, but if I'm not going to make any money doing something, I might as well enjoy not doing so.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Making beer Unisexual

As a brewer and licensee I have a vested interest in understanding the reasons why people might choose the drink they do. I have written before about the subject of the gender imbalance in the beer market. Dividing by sex is the clearest and most measurable of differences in peoples drinking habits. It's a subject that fascinates me intensely and so when the BitterSweet partnership asked me to write for them I was only too happy to do so. Yes, I know they are funded by the major multinational conglomerate Molson Coors, but it's all part of the beer world. And besides that, they own The White Shield brewery where there are some remaining bottles of the 140 year old Ratcliff's Ale. I know there is little chance of them letting me try it but the long shot is worth it.

I think the beer world is too masculine and here is the first post on the subject as guest blogger at BitterSweet.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Drugs and Prof Nutt

I am a licensed drug dealer. I sell alcohol to people and I have a responsibility to ensure that there is a level of safety associated with the sale of the drug. I also sell coffee and chocolate which both have physiological and neurological effects on the person who consumes them. There are no laws associated with these milder drugs, but we should not lose sight of the fact that they are mild drugs. Coffee and chocolate both have some minor detrimental health effects which for some people are not insignificant; obesity, ulcers, migraine, high blood pressure and insomnia to name some.

Alcohol has risks associated with it's consumption. Relatively small volumes make us unsafe to drive or operate machinery and there is little opposition to that fact. Regular lunchtime drinking would be sure to limit the ability of most people to perform their job role. In some cases occupational hazards might result. This writer knows of several people whose lives have been cut short due to unfortunate alcohol related accidents. I know of many more, and have seen many more people, get themselves into serious trouble as a result of inappropriate alcohol consumption

The opinion that alcohol might be just as dangerous as Cannabis for instance, and possibly more so, has been a view I have been aware of for as long as I've known about the natural plant substance and that is around 30 years. Additionally, alcohol would certainly be awarded a drug classification similar to that which current illegal drugs have, were it not for the fact that it has been around for many thousands of years. Alcohol does have an advantage over other drugs in that we have significant knowledge of it's health and social effects. We accept it's known detrimental effects due to the balancing benefits of social and economic lubrication. It also has significant flavour benefits that other more modern drugs do not have. We have a strong cultural balance and control over it's potential harm and it forms a useful benchmark against which to measure other drugs.

If the health risks of class B drugs really are less than those of alcohol then we should not sweep that fact under that carpet.

The sum total of effects on society due to the use of illegal recreational drugs are far less well known. The truth is also distorted due to the very fact that they are illegal. Indeed, it could be argued that the fact that they are illegal, but now relatively easy to obtain through black market networks, only goes to support organised crime.

I have mentioned before that I have worked close to scientists in the Nuclear industry. I have an acute awareness of the disparity between scientific knowledge, political knowledge and information published in the press. Very rarely do any two out of the three agree and normally all three occupy different corners of a public opinion boxing triangle.

I do not know if Professor Nutt is right in his assertion that alcohol is more dangerous than some illegal drugs. If he is right then I believe that fact should be out in the open and not suppressed just because it doesn't fit the message. What I do believe is that we should have open and frank scientific discussions about the overall effects. I do believe it is dangerous to pick and choose the scientists who advise the government just because the message is unpalatable. What I do know about science is that if a wildly inaccurate conclusion is made there are plenty of other scientists who will provide counter arguments.

Of course I don't want alcohol to be classified as a class B drug. But then neither do I want an increasing problem from drug dealers making illegal money out of the misery of other people. Interestingly, I am having difficulty finding where Prof Nutt is asking for alcohol to be treated as an illegal drug - it seems to me he is simply asking for current drugs to be measured against alcohol. Recreational drugs are not going to go away and the fact that they are illegal makes them all the more desirable to the very people we don't want to engage in them. Without proper scientific discussion about the issues, both medical and social, we will fail to answer the problems.

Personally, I would trust an outspoken scientist much more than a politician, even if his conclusions do need some challenging. If he is a good scientist he will welcome the challenge to scrutinise the information behind his assertions. I am worried more by the Government reacting against science than I am about the potential for alcohol to be banned as a result of science saying it is more harmful than Cannabis. There seems to me to be parallels to the past where authorities refused to believe the world might be round, or that it circled the sun or that perhaps evolution didn't happen.

I would like to finish by pointing out that we have very good laws to help us fight problems with alcohol. I understand the problems which might result if we find many drugs that we consider to be bad actually cause less problems than alcohol. In our cultural environment where even drink is demonised any excuse to tighten controls seems to be the policy our current administration favour. The potential that these issues might result in tighter alcohol laws is not lost on me and I for one believe the controls on alcohol are quite tight enough. But to me the real issues over Prof Nutt's sacking are how we deal with other drugs, not alcohol.