Thursday, 31 December 2009

s'pose I'd better

All the beer bloggers are doing it, I really don't feel that I can miss out, I'll have to do some sort of seasonal review of how I saw the year. It's not a bad idea really, it's the first full calendar year that I've been writing this blog so it's reasonable to have a go at summarising the year as I see it. It's certainly been an interesting year. Mind you, I could say that about every one of the 44 years I've been around, but not all of them I could look back on with quite the same sense of achievement.

I did consider using Mark's template, but to choose the very best proved to be quite difficult. I don't really like choosing my "best of" anything. I'd have to take it far too seriously as I'd be afraid of missing a real gem. Also, things are different, not necessarily better or worse. I hate missing anything out that is good, and the same is true of people. For this reason I am not even going to try and highlight my favourite blogger or twitterer or the best beer or brewery, you are all very special to me. I feel especially guilty due to the mentions I've had in several other blogs this year, so all I can do is apologise for not joining in with that little game.

This time last year I was in Oregon, USA, staying with my friend Ted Sobel. He's not featured much on here for a while, but I believe his Anglo-American brew pub concept is doing well. Ted is a lover of cask beer and there is very little of it out in his part of the world. Apparently I'm partly to blame for his mad idea of setting up a brewpub in some remote town called Oakridge in the Willamette Valley. Apart from it being great to see what Ted had created out there, it was also the first time in five years we'd been away from our own place for more than a week. The whole experience and ability to relax is one thing that has kept me going for the last 12 months. I know I've only scratched the surface of the area when it comes to beer. I will be returning, but probably not next year.

This time last year I had only met a few people from the beer writing world. A couple of bloggers, a couple of professional writers and a handful of industry people. I didn't know last Christmas where this blogging thing was going, or what I'd carry on writing about, if I'd run out of ideas or who on earth would be interested in what I wrote. Throughout the year the base readership has grown, I've met many people including other bloggers, many more beer writers from other antiquated media, a few celebrities and a whole load of brewers and other trade people. I worry that I'll lose interest at some time, as I've seen it happen to others, or that more pressing issues will take me away from the keyboard, but I'll keep blogging until that seems to happen.

During the year I've seen new bloggers come and I've seen one or two drop away. The overall beer blogging scene seems to be going from strength to strength. I'm still excited that this medium, that anybody can join, is growing into something which attracts the attention of a wide audience and although beer bloggers haven't yet struck a mass media worthy mention, other bloggers have and it's only a matter of time. I've also now got many friends in the beer blogging world, the comradeship is delightful and I hope I can continue to improve my contribution to that. I'd mention some here but I think it would be completely unfair to miss anybody. I don't get to read as many of the blogs as I'd like to, there are so many. Keep it going guys.

Of course there is the Award I achieved with the Guild of Beer Writers for this blog, I'm still very pleased about that. I have to consider what to do next now that I feel I have at least proved my writing has some sort of provenance. I want to continue in this medium but also I want to explore the possibility of printed media. I have to work out what to do there as I know I have to do the legwork. I have some projects in embryonic stages of planning, but I need to look more carefully at the next stage.

Beers, well, I choose not to do any sort of listing of my years best beers. I don't keep notes on beers and although I'd class myself as a ticker in some ways, I'd much prefer to enjoy my beer drinking experience than make substantial notes on every beer. I have drunk many more different beers this year than perhaps at any other time in my life. I have been introduced to beers that break out from the normal pub style session beers. Not that I don't like the session beer anymore and the vast majority of beer that I drink still comes into that category. I have fallen in love with more styles of beer, that's all. I hope to continue to explore the beer world in this way. Perhaps then I will look out for next years winners during the course of the coming 12 months.

My own brewing is getting better. I've got lots still to learn and I don't think that'll ever stop. I need to perfect the bottling of my beers; I'm not happy with that yet. I want to explore different styles of beers and possibly look at producing some interesting beers by developing my experimental brews of this year. I need to think about how the brewing is going to evolve and how I can fit that in with everything else I do, but I'd like to look at increasing capacity at some point in time.

Our time in the pub seems to be maturing. For the first time we seem to be capable of getting through the winter without exceeding normal credit limits. We seem to have made the place at least a little bit profitable. Takings are up a little and we're more efficient by cutting out some of the none profitable services. To do that in a year when the overall economic situation seems dire we must be doing something right.

Finally, I must thank a few people. Quite apart from the hospitality extended by beer friends everywhere, be they brewers, publicans, writers or just beer drinkers, there are some people who connect with my day to day world of this pub. There are the pub staff team during the year, this years team have been very helpful and loyal.

Jeff Pickthall deserves a special mention for encouraging my writing and for persuading me to get my arse to the GBBF and the Guild dinner along with pointing out several must try beers and pushing my brewing in interesting directions.

Without customers I would not have a business. I'm very grateful to the building customer base that understands what we are trying to do here. It's interesting developing a concept which is unusual and defies some base cultural doctrine that surrounds the pub industry. It was a punt going in the direction we've gone and it's starting to pay off. It would never happen without customers. Some special mentions are worthy in this respect. Lucinda and James drive over from County Durham just to have a drink and a meal, that's dedication. Rex and Jackie refuse to be barred, I tried, but they keep coming back. The Sheriff has worn out at least one tankard since we came here, although I hasten to add not just in our pub. Ivan and Chris are regular visitors and we have to make sure there is a stock of matured Blue Bore Bombs especially for them. Our dragon fly photographer and Mildly Complex lover is always a joy to have stay. Reuben, wife and friends helped us to stay sane when our lovably eccentric Washy visited and drank me dry of Zippy Red and allowed Lucy to adulterate Tokyo* with lemonade.

None of this would be possible without my patient partner Ann. She puts up with my inability to think about anything else when I'm writing this blog. She drives me home from various beer explorations normally without very much complaint and even manages to stay awake in the pub occasionally whilst I'm researching the beer.

It leaves me to thank all the readers of my blog. Without you popping in, there would be no point in me writing this. I used to write technical documents that were put in a file, just in case. I detest writing for nobody. There are plenty of activities I could do for my own enjoyment, writing is not one of them, it only makes sense to me as a way of communicating my thoughts to other people. Thank you for sticking with me this year and I hope you had a good Christmas and that next year brings you much success in whatever you choose to do.

Most of all I hope you enjoy lots of beer this New Years Eve, where ever you are, and remember to enjoy it all responsibly, until the point you fall over that is.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Some more BrewDog stuff

They are clever, you got to give them that. Bloggers want something to write about and it's handy to have a stream of information given on a plate. Yeah, OK, here I go again, more on BrewDog, but you see when I get stories that have an interesting side to them then it's not difficult find a reason to write about it. I need an excuse to write anyway owing to the recent acquisition of a MacBook on which I need to put in some flying hours. Handy purchase really, it gives me the excuse not to buy any more Equity for Punks as I am now officially strapped for cash until the new season starts.

This week these audacious chaps have given us a bit more information on their Equity for Punks regarding the specific promise in their prospectus regarding Abstrakt, a limited edition beer that we are told will be "more art than beer". Rake Raspberry Imperial Stout is allegedly AB:01, the first in this series. I'm slightly confused because the recent blog post on the BrewDog web site disagrees with the earlier blog post on the Rake beer. Also, sadly, the promised site fails to work. Still, that is what we expect from these guys, raw and unpredictable, that's why we love them.

For those who are interested the line up of beers planned, taken verbatim off the web site, are:
AB:01 will be a 12.1% vanilla bean infused Belgian quad
AB:02 may be a strawberry and black pepper oak aged imperial ale
AB:03 may be a 15% double hopped, double imperial red ale
AB:04 may be the Tokyo* we just put into Islay casks with raspberries
Due to be released in March it'll enable James and Martin to rob me of even more money. I'm at the very least going to "invest" to lay down in my personal cellar. I might even consider them as part of my eclectic beer menu, we'll see.

I guessed some months ago, when James was in the middle of his twitter campaign in the lead up to his equity launch, that some form of pub or bar chain was being planned. I cannot remember James' reply to me on that occasion but words along the lines of "Much more than just a chain of bars" indicated that I might not be wrong. Although the company is fairly quiet on this subject, there are reports that this is indeed in their plans.

Some seem to question this course of action. There are questions of how a BrewDog chain of pubs might operate, of how they will cope with the Fosters drinking masses or the bottle of Bud girl. I think that the commentators who are dubious don't share the kind of vision for pubs or beer that I do. There is a future in pubs and beer, but it isn't in catering for the masses and it isn't in the style of pub that relies on mass marketing for sales. BrewDog bars will no doubt rock a new style of pub that will help shape the future of the industry. These bars may well be specialist beer bars, it is certainly not a panacea for the future, but I'm sure at least some readers of this blog would welcome what is planned.

So, there are a few more reasons why BrewDog are continuing to increase in value. I know many do not share my view that there is something special in this brewery worth following, but I remain convinced that they are part of the future of craft beer in this country. Not the be-all-to-end-all that usurps all other beer considerations but one that is helping to shape the future by cutting new trails for the more adventurous, bringing their ideas into the licensed trade in the form of BrewDog pubs excites me tremendously,

I forecast that over Christmas more people would take up Equity for Punks. Bracken today tweeted the following:
"Seems like Santa Paws was giving away Breweries this Christmas! Lots of new Equity for Punks Peeps have joined our Pack!"
Followed up later by the indication that although the target of £500K might not have quite been met, it's close and we need to wait until the 8th to be sure. I'll of course be hoping that the target is met. I can't afford anymore shares, but I'm hopping a few more can. I'm more than anything else interested in how they will bring forward a new style of pub/bar/tap room. The next decade has loads of stuff to look forward to.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

A Stone's throw away?

I got a couple of emails yesterday morning highlighting the potential failure of BrewDog's Equity for Punks. It seems that they are only about 2/3rds of the way towards their minimum share uptake. If they don't hit the target of raising £500,000 then they have to give all the money back, including the £230 that I gave them.

Now some would think I should be grateful if that happens. I'd have had a close shave from the humility of BrewDog running off with my money and Martin and James making themselves rich. It's a poor investment after all, as the company can't possibly be worth £23 million. The really bizarre thing is I can't bring myself to think that way. It is possible that I've been brainwashed by BrewDog's viral marketing. Perhaps I'm completely barking mad. If that's the case then I blame Bracken, that particular BrewDog has a charm all of it's1 own.

So, why do I not want my money back? Well firstly because they are remaining right on track with financial performance. Turnover this year is expected to exceed £1.85 million and next year's turnover, with new contracts that have been won, will hopefully be in excess of £3.6 million.

They have stormed the world with Tactical Nuclear Penguin. They have installed a new brew-house. James gives more reasons in his Call to Arms as to why you should invest. In James' words in an email to me:
"A lot has happened since we launched EFP and it has all been overwhelmingly positive for the company"
BrewDog have been granted the planning permission for their new brewery. This apparently adds £3.5 million to the balance sheet. I think it is fairly difficult to value the company now; it's a fast moving target. One thing is for sure the value of the company is growing at an astonishing rate. OK, my investment might not be worth £230 yet, but it's getting closer and you never know, I might one day have the last laugh over the sceptics.

But - It's about more than money. BrewDog are giving an injection of vitalisation into the UK beer market. OK, not everybody welcomes their brash and alternative slant on brewing and marketing beer. They are challenging some of the entrenched views on beer but at the same time keeping an eye on the traditional market by putting out fantastic cask beers. I know, I was bowled over by Trashy Blond recently. For these reasons I'd like to see them grow.

One area of critique of the Equity for Punks initiative is questioning the reasons for growth. Why do they need a bigger brewery? In my view this is fairly simple. They are currently working night shifts to meet demand. The products regularly go out of stock on the web site and the demand for products will outstrip their ability to brew without this expansion. One criticism is the lack of cask beer availability. They can't get more cask beer out if they haven't got the brewery capacity.

Stone Brewing are thinking of opening a brewery in Europe. They claim there is demand for their beer. Perhaps there is but to me BrewDog have the ability to produce products as good, if not better than Stone. There is a market for these types of beers and for me I'd prefer BrewDog to take more share of the market rather than see Stone do that, not that I wish them any harm and it'd be even better if there ends up being room for both.

If you don't like BrewDog then don't invest in them. If you haven't got the money to risk then like any investment, don't risk it. If you don't do investments then fine, don't break a habit of a lifetime just cause I say so. Think of it just as a BrewDog fan club for sad impressionable beer geeks if that makes you feel happier.

You can invest on-line, it's dead easy. You will be able to do it on Christmas day if you like, spend that cheque that came from relatives on something for the future rather than putting it in the bank account and it being swallowed by the humdrum of utility bills. Perhaps you are looking for a Christmas present for somebody you really care about, who likes beer and BrewDog. There is no Christmas post to worry about. The notification all comes through by email and you can do the shopping at 23:59 on 24th December if you like2.

But, if you do like BrewDog and you have got the money then why not invest? Sure, it's a risk and the wise money is still unsure about the value. It isn't about the money though, it's about there being more exciting beer to be had, about having a say in what happens at the brewery and about 20% lifetime discount off their beer. It's about a BrewDog fan club for sad beer geeks like me3.

So, if you were wavering about the deal, thought you might but were unsure, then it's a punt. If it works out then those of us who have invested will have the last laugh. If it fails then I'll look a big fool, even more than usual. Nobody can be sure but an adventure into the unknown is much more exciting than standing on the sidelines criticising those of us that are prepared to take the risk.

You have until 8th January 2010 to make up your mind.


1I have been unable to positively ascertain the gender of Bracken, and I'm not going to risk upsetting the canine toothed charmer, in case I get it wrong and offence results in strategic height teeth being used against things that are precious to me.

2You have to remember that an email address and details of the person you wish the share(s) to be registered with will need to be entered rather than your own. I'm assuming there is no legal reason why this can't be done.

3And I know of several people for whom I have high regard will be tut, tutting at me over this post. Well sorry guys, something has captured me on this one so take the piss out of me if you like, saves you the job of thinking about it.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Contradicting thought processes

It's sometimes the shortest of comments that make the greatest impact. When they strike at a deep conviction that leaves resonating dissonance resounding through an already mixed up mind there is certainly contemplating to be done. And so it was, over a week ago, whilst allowing Jeff Pickthall to further educate me on the wonders of the Furness peninsula hostelries we had fleeting discussion about the most important issues of the day pertaining to beer.

I had opened by expressing surprise at the beer community's condemnation of BrewDog's attempt to further attack the Portman group. I haven't really expressed my view on this before, but whilst I understand the view that the prank that James had played was a little childish, it does point up the fact that neither the Portman group nor Alcohol Focus Scotland get what BrewDog actually do. Jeff offered the view that the Portman group was better than a government imposed watchdog. He also ventured that beer duty was the thing that we should all really get around to dealing with.

I'm not particularly renowned for parking a discussion and then spending a week contemplating it's implications. Perhaps it is previous scientific training that has taught me to look for the surprises that challenge existing knowledge and further explore the reasons for that surprise. When a source of information or opinion is valued it has to be carefully considered and added to the evaluation process. The start of this of course was my assessment of beer duty, which I truly believe is in reality a minor overall problem to the industry and moreover is a symptom of society's view of beer and alcohol in general. Tackle the symptoms only and the route cause will continue to be there.

What remains as the overall problem is a continuing belief by the majority of the population that alcohol is causing many major problems in our society. This belief permits the government to tax alcohol at increasing rates, and the increase is something we should worry about, but the only way to prevent further increases is to look at why there is such widespread belief about the problems of alcohol harm.

This leaves me still in a quandary about the Portman group. If I haven't already made it clear, Jeff is one of those beery friends who's views I take seriously. His points are based on thoughtful contemplation and a hatred of the Daily Mail. That is good enough credentials for me. He is also sometimes right I find, so I have to take his points seriously. I'd have to concede that the Portman group is better than any sort of regulation the numpties that are in charge of our country might come up with. It still remains that the Portman group have absolutely no handle on how the craft beer market works or the products that are being developed.

I have sold 24 bottles of Tokyo* this year. Everyone who has bought it are beer connoisseurs. Most have had a bottle between two or more and drunk it in small measures savouring the flavours, the moment and the company. Some then also bought a bottle to take home to have at Christmas. Without exception everybody who tries it has a sense of proportion and more importantly a sense of humour. They get the words "Everything in moderation, including moderation itself. What logically follows is that you must, from time, have excess. This beer is for those times." and understand what they mean. Excess does not have to mean drinking one and a half gallons of mass produced beer until you fall onto the street, vomit, piss in shop doorways and get into a punch-up. Excess is treating yourself to smoked salmon or a fillet steak or a romantic night away in a swish hotel with your nearest and dearest1 or champagne or Tokyo* in little glasses as a digestif after a splendid meal.

It still remains that the Portman group permit sponsoring of sports events. There is no doubt that the success of the major lager brands in this country are down to it's partnership with the major football clubs and the Premier league. The macho group-think nature of the blokes night out is only reinforced by beer's association with football2. The Portman group also permits adverts that run subtle but powerful messages of a sexual nature. I believe the strength of the multinational companies are always going to have a strong hold on shaping the volume sales of the products that are the real problems.

At a time of year when all my other beer blogging colleagues are considering the year that was I am also turning my thoughts to that introspective process. What I conclude is that we are all part of the checks and balances system that forms our society. Yes, there are problems of alcohol abuse in society. Yes, some of it is under control and the Daily Mail has over-exaggerated the message in that respect. The Portman Group is possibly better than the alternative and of course BrewDog are unhappy with them.

We won't stop the namby pamby nanny state whilst there are still dick-heads out there behaving in an unsavoury nature. If some town centres are a problem due to drunken revellers then there will also be people who care about trying to do something about it. While there is still news that can be broadcast which shows people happily carrying on in this way then we'll have a job preventing the vast majority of people preferring beer duty to a rise in income tax.

And the answer? I don't know, except the issues are still the same base issues that were around when I started this blog over a year ago. I'm not sure we'll ever prevent drunken disorder and perhaps it's no different to how it used to be. As brewers, publicans, beer retailers, beer fans and beer writers perhaps all we can do is to continue to brew, sell, drink and write about great beer. If we keep visiting the pubs that are doing what we want, but remember the ones that aren't might be doing it for somebody else, that is the only real thing we can do to keep pubs going.

I'd like to leave you with a thought. It's not really beer related but is relating to this brilliant medium that we are communicating through. I love music and I do not like the concept that is X Factor. Last night our 18 year old told us of the Facebook campaign to prevent the X Factor winner becoming number one. It was the first time I had listened to the chart show in many years. Controversial perhaps as there are a lot of people upset that poor sweet Joe didn't get the number one slot. Whatever, it's great that an on-line campaign can do so much. Perhaps something the beer community could think about. The problem we might have is finding a common cause.


1I believe the current fashionable term is "Lady Squeeze"

2Yes, that was a bit Daily Mail-think, sorry.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Beer Duty - is it evil?

I've been thinking, it happens from time to time. I do try and avoid the activity as much as possible as sometimes ideas occur as a result. Ideas can get me into all sorts of bother. Writing this blog started as the result of an idea. This blog takes up far too much of my time and thinking often causes new blog posts to be thought up, so, when the New Year comes around I'm going to make a concerted effort to go easy on thinking. It won't work, but I can give it a whirl. Perhaps if I drink more beer I'll kill more brain cells and thinking will become more painful, there, that was an idea.

On this particular occasion I started thinking about beer duty. My thought process resulted in me wondering if beer duty really was the big evil it's made out to be. My conclusion, put very simply, is that it is not as big a problem as people think, at least not to the pub at any rate. I think I understand this quite well as I brew beer and pay HMRC an amount that is proportional to the volume of pure alcohol that my little yeast cells make. I also know how much VAT we pay in total to the very same people. I also know the amount of income tax and national insurance payments we make as a result of being nice enough to pay people in exchange for an honest days work. Trust me, the beer duty is very small for a brew pub.

If I sell a pint of beer at 4% ABV 22p of that is a direct result of beer duty. For a big nasty brewery that makes millions of barrels of the stuff a year this amount is 44p. These values take into account the fact that VAT is a tax on this tax.

If we assume a pint of beer is £2.50, which is about what I've been charging this year, less than 10% is attributable to beer duty. The figure would be 20% if the beer is from a big McNasty brewery. Interestingly, for a pint tin of beer at the same strength costing a quid in the supermarket, nearly 50% of the price you pay is duty. Big slabs of beer will have possibly 80% of the purchase price paid as duty. I think beer duty benefits the pub. Supermarket prices will be far more sensitive to duty rises than pubs.

All spirits and spirit based RTDs attract a higher rate of tax at 27p per unit including VAT. Wine at 13% ABV attracts about the same as macro brewed beer which is 19.4p per unit. Micro brewed beer attracts 9.7p duty per unit. In actual fact most drinks attract a higher rate of duty per unit than beer. Almost no alcoholic beverage attracts less duty than micro brewery beer except cider in the range of about 3.8% to 5.5% and the very specific still cider and perry at the strengths 5.5% to 8.5%.

So, with the exception of particular strengths of cider, alcohol duty is less unkind to beer than other drinks. I would worry that if we complain too much about beer duty the government might say that it would be best if all alcohol was taxed at the same rate as whisky. That would be a bit of a bummer for beer.

A pub has quite a lot of high cost overheads: Cost of staff, electricity, heating, insurance and mortgage or rent are probably the big ones. Stress and wasted resources caused by stupid government legislation and my requirement to be compliant with a whole load of rubbish is what really effects us. Perhaps this is why most people in the industry really aren't bothered about beer duty. I'm going to stop thinking that beer duty is bad in the New Year. There, I can stop thinking about something.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Forbidden Fruit

I blame the parents. The influences that surround young people in the home have a significant effect on the way that person grows up. In many ways you would think then that Sir Liam Donaldson's latest advice is sound: Don't let children drink before they are 15 and don't permit drinking in front of children. This is based on scientific research, and a final guidance is given on alcohol and children.

There is an underlying principle here that is absolutely correct. The way we deal with alcohol in the eyes of our children will effect their attitude to it when they are older. It is the responsibility of parents and any other adults to ensure young people develop with a mature and healthy regard for social drinking. How then can we make sure that this happens?

In the eyes of our chief medical officer the best way of doing this is to be overly protective and bring up our children in a completely alcohol free environment. I fundamentally disagree with this and once again I shall try and explain why.

Responsible drinking does not just happen by running a prohibitionist attitude towards young people and then suddenly letting them loose in an adult drinking culture once they reach a legal age. There are significant and detrimental effects of this method of youth discipline. For a start, no adult has enough control over youngsters to be able to watch their every waking hour. Levels of responsibility have to be carefully increased as the young person gets older. By the age of 15, which is the age that is now being recommended for a young person to start their responsible alcohol training, most young people already have a strong social life outside of the family home. If no parentally supervised drinking has taken place there is a very real risk that this activity will have already commenced on the park benches. The age old forbidden fruit will have tempted too much and the real problem of park bench drinking will have started.

I do have to point out that I understand the medical and social risks of young people under the age of 15 drinking too much and too often. But then that is something that even a 44 year old like me has to worry about a little for my own health. It is however a matter of, and here is that word again, responsibility. Of course I'm not going to allow my children to drink 4 pints every night, for that matter 4 pints in any night. At the age of 12 and 13 I wouldn't even consider allowing them more than say a couple of units one night a week. I cannot see how this level of responsible and supervised drinking can damage their well being. Indeed, if it is backed up with the one message that I believe is more important than anything else: It is not big and it is not clever to get drunk and behave like a dick head.

On Christmas day I hope we will sit down for dinner. There may be as many as 3 under 15 year olds at the table. There might be some wine and there might be some beer; we have a good cellar to choose from here. Does Liam really think I'm going to tell these young and intelligent people that even one glass is endangering their lives? Does he really think that telling them they are not old enough to understand yet how to enjoy this mysterious pleasure is somehow going to lessen their desire to try this out-of-reach taboo?

I firmly believe that it is the steady alienation of young people that creates some of the problems today. Drinking culture is much more generation divided today than it ever has been in the past. I know it is perhaps becoming a cliché, but the public house is a safe and supervised place to drink. A public house and a private house have some things in common and private houses, where a responsible adult can supervise, represent the best training ground a young person can get for responsible and healthy drinking.

There is a base message underneath the prescriptive detail that perhaps we need to look at. The way we deal with young people and alcohol can shape their future drinking habits. This I fundamentally agree with. I just do not believe that prohibition ever helped anybody when it comes to drinking. Being drunk in front of young people is indeed showing a poor role model. Excessive drinking by young people will cause medical problems with immature and developing physiology. These are facts that presumably is where the science is. However, the occasional drink never hurt anybody and if done as part of education this can only be a good thing. I believe there is a poor connection from the science to the advice which is further proof of the neoprohibitionist stance of this Government.

I do not believe this sort of detached thinking is the solution to the problems of drink induced health problems. I am not denying that there is evidence of real problems and there really are sections of society where drunken behavior is a big problem. Education is the solution, not draconian age limits. I feel insulted that as one of the "middle class" who really does believe that the education of the developing future adults in my care is being handled correctly, they have the wrong target as usual. Of course, I would like to think that if the young people who are carrying my genetic information into the future, along with instilled wisdom, will realise that lack of respect for the culture I'm training them in will result in a firm rebuff.

A slow and careful introduction to the art of drinking is more effective than false and arbitrary age limits. People do not suddenly mature into a different person at a magic age. Of course we should be concerned about how those young people in our care are nurtured. Of course we should be worried about them drinking on park benches and do what we can to prevent it. Giving young people the park bench as the only option available will drive them there, unsupervised and with the inevitable consequences that brings.

While I was checking the information about this issue on the Department of Health website I did find some good news; Sir Liam Donaldson is to retire next year. Not before time. Unfortunately, I doubt his successor will be any better.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

What value the pub?

We know that pubs are having a hard time. The market is shrinking and the more I think about it the more I wonder if there is anything that can be done to help. Additionally, there are big pubs springing up taking a share of that shrinking market. I'm sorry to mention them again, but The Wetherspoons model is extremely successful and obviously what the vast majority of the pub customers want. If we can get to the point of accepting this then it raises some interesting issues.

Today I have read some detail in a report that has been issued by the commercial estate agents Fleurets. It doesn't really make very good reading unless you are looking to buy or lease a pub. If you own a pub and are hoping the value of your pub has gone up in the last 4-6 years then think again, it probably hasn't by very much. Mind you, not many investments have done particularly well in that time. Of course in business you can expect to potentially lose if you invest in something. That's the risk of doing business.

Please allow me to digress for a short while. If I had bought a shop I could probably sell pretty much what I wanted from that shop. There might be some limitations but basically if it is legal to sell it then I could. If I set up as a butcher, only to find that the bottom fell out of the meat market due to competition from supermarkets or because everybody went vegetarian then I could change to being a baker or candlestick maker or even, should I choose, a newsagents or clothes shop. If things got really tough then turning the property into a house would also be an option. This happens a lot with shops and nobody blinks an eyelid, generally.

A couple of years ago I got into a discussion with somebody regarding this very issue. I was concerned about how this individual was actively standing in the way of a failed pub gaining planning permission for a change of use into a private dwelling. My argument is that if a pub cannot make an honest living for the landlord then it should be sold. The reply was that there were too many people making money by deliberately running pubs down so they could make a killing out of a change of use. This was only made possible by the over inflated domestic property market, or so it was claimed.

Now that we have seen a massive downturn in the economy, one that is argued to be the worst since the Second World War it is alleged, the domestic property market has collapsed. Contrary to the assertion that the differential between the price of a house and the price of a freehold on a pub was distorted, the values of pubs have possibly fallen faster and further than house prices.

What I find even more interesting is that the larger pubs seem to be more desirable and therefore not dropping in value as much. This reflects the fact that there is a minimum trading which makes a pub viable. Below this there are very real disadvantages of the lack of economies of scale. It is sad, but the community pub that is seen as in need of protecting is going to get harder and harder to keep alive due to economic factors.

It might be sad that the last pub in that village of 100 houses is closing, but I wonder if we are fighting an inevitability by trying to prevent a change of use.

Pubs need to be live

I am a great fan of live music. I'm not much of a fan of most piped music in pubs. I simply love a great live gig in a good boozer. Sadly this is becoming an increasingly rare occurrence. I have found it difficult to find any advantage of the licence trade of the 2003 licencing act, but it is certain to me that there are plenty of disadvantages. One disadvantage of giving councils overall control of licensing is that they would rather not grant entertainment facility than risk complaints about noise nuisance.

I know several semiprofessional musicians and they have reported a reduction in their ability to get work. We would like to hold more music event's but our communications with the council do not make the effort we need to put in to make it happen worth the payback.

There has been a suggestion that premises that hold less than 100 people should be allowed exemption. Apparently councils are worried that it might result in an increase of noise complaints. Feargal Sharky has hit out at the inward arse covering tactics of the kill joy local councils. I just wish they would take a more can-do attitude rather than running scared in case some anal retentive complains.

The Publican is trying to help out with it's Listen up! campaign. I don't know what we can do, very few of these campaigns seem to make much difference, but even so, I'd like to think something might happen. Legislation these days is working very hard to kill everything that I enjoy.

Monday, 14 December 2009

All alone in the City

Running a pub in the far outreaches of a quiet valley in the Lake District has me sometimes losing patience with city folk. The ones that for instance expect a road to the top of Scafell Pike, or a train, or a visitors centre. Then there are the ones that didn't take a map or compass on the hills, or did, but didn't know how to use them and the mist came down and they came down in our valley, rather than Borrowdale or Langdale. Expecting a taxi firm to be just down the road and take them the 60 miles trip around the mountain for a few quid and when they don't it's all our fault. Oh, and their wallet, with all their money and cards in it, was left in the car. I haven't found an answer to this predicament without turning into a charity.

There are various other subtle differences between where we are and even a moderate town. No mobile phone coverage is one that un-nerves quite a few. There are no street lights, no white lines in the middle of the road, no cash machines or filling stations and very few shops. Best of all a healthy population of wildlife which takes some man hours to ensure it has no impact on various aspects of the business. I could tell you stories, but you wouldn't believe me.

I'm guessing city folk must think the same of me when I end up on their patch. I always enjoy my trips to the big city, but I always enjoy coming back home and the last trip was certainly no different. I did nearly lose it completely, throw all my toys out of the pram and I'm still looking for my dummy. I don't expect you really want to read this long and boring story, but I've written it anyway, so I thought I'd publish for the hell of it.

It didn't start well when I found that my lap top, which I'd reinstalled windows on a few weeks earlier, had not been activated with Microsoft. I didn't check before I left home and it seems the 28 days grace had elapsed. I could not use the damn thing until I sorted it out. I hoped that if I could find a free WiFi connection somewhere i could sort it out. So I popped over to The Gunmakers as I seemed to remember Jeff saying he had such a thing. Luckily he did and in exchange for purchasing a few pints of beer and dinner for me and Ann I was furnished with the password. Unfortunately we still needed to phone MicroSoft, but it all ended up OK in the end. Dinner was fab.

The reason we were by now desperate for a working laptop, complete with internet connection was to find us a hotel for Friday, Saturday and Sunday night. We had a hotel for that night and the following night but had intended to stay with my brother over the weekend. This particular brother lives over at Shooters Hill, not too far away, and he works doing something in Whitehall. However the powers at be in Whitehall, and there are too many to argue with, decided he needed to work that weekend, in a different city. It's OK, London goes quiet at a weekend, Stonch says so.

Ann set to on the now fully functional laptop complete with mega fast city internet connection. Funnily enough, which was no faster than the one I'm using here in remote Eskdale, so you see, we do get some technology here. But alas, the lass could get no hotel for Friday or Saturday. Sunday, no problem, a rather nice sounding one on Russell Square. Handy, as we had to catch a stupidly early train out of Euston on Monday. After a while Ann gave up, I was already getting to the point of not caring owing to the beer, and besides, we needed to get to our hotel for that night, before going off to meet up with Jeff Pickthall for a few more beers.

In a fabulous misunderstanding over the amount I'd agreed we'd pay for our accommodation for these first two nights it tuned out we'd booked into the shittiest hotel I've ever stayed in, ever. We opened the door to the room and fell over the bed. Apart from a tiny alcove behind the bed that was the room. A shower room could not be any smaller and still get a shower, toilet and wash basin in it. I've seen bigger wardrobes.

Still, we only wanted a bed, it was dry and once we suggested to the owner a little bit of heating would be nice, it became slightly less cold than the inside of an igloo. We went out again to warm up. A few nice pints in the company of Jeff Pickthall and some delightfully sceptical friends, and I was quite content. Perhaps being able to open the door to the hotel room and simply fall onto the bed had it's advantages.

The next day we made our nice trip to Fullers. During that visit we mentioned about our problems of the hotel for the weekend. No problem, they found us a nice Fullers pub for Friday, a little more expensive than I'd have liked but assuming the old adage of you get what you pay for, then it should make for a nice counterpoise to the slummy place we were in at that time.

That night, the very same night that I won my runners up award at the Beer Writers dinner, back at the hotel in the wee small hours of the night we heard the most awful banging. No, not that sort, not the amorous enthusiastic sort, but what sounded like aggressive thumping. Lots of raised voices in a foreign language and a continual thump, thump, thump. I imagined some poor sods head being thumped against the wall as part of gang land revenge for the hotel slum slummiest hotel. I eventually gathered enough courage to venture onto the stairwell only to be met by two nice ladies who wanted to check in. I'd have loved to have helped them more thoroughly but decided to find out where the receptionist was. I found him trying to break down the door of another guests room due to the loss of a key. Do hoteliers not have spare keys to the rooms in London?

I'm in danger of sounding Dredgy here, but surely this isn't what an award winning beer writer should have to put up with? Just to add to my overall frustrations at the episode, on the way back downstairs to our room a drunken Scotsman seemed to take a dislike to me. Why do angry swearing drunken Scotsmen always sound really hard, even when they are 4'9"and 9 stone wet through? I disappeared into our room only to hear the voice of his girl friend pleading for him not "to start anything else tonight Jimmy". Sounds like I had a lucky escape.

Next day we were so pleased to be checking into the Fullers pub. Over by Blackfriars Bridge but first a walk to the tube and then, more of a walk the other end because Blackfriars station was closed. Bugger me, a wheel on my nice big suitcase gave up only 50 yards from hotel slum. I'm sure I dragged that pathetic heap of crap a mile that day. I was beginning to wish I hadn't bought all that Fullers vintage after all. I'm sure that case weighed in at 40kg or more.

Finally we get to The Mad Hatters. Ooh, plush! Now this was not what I expected from a chain-tied-house-local-regional-brewery. What a contrast to hotel slum. If I had any doubts about Fullers, then this dispelled them. John was right when he told me their estate concentrates on quality not quantity. Having checked in we then went to meet my brother before he was off to do whatever important thing it was he had to do for our Majesties Government. He had another 6 bottles of this years Vintage that he had liberated from a supermarket for me. I was seriously worrying about how much more beer we could get in the luggage before the whole thing would burst open on a tube platform. We met in The Porter House, Convent Garden. The market just around the corner gave a plethora of wheeled suitcases to choose from. Problem solved.

The day after the guild dinner finished in part with a trip back to The Gunmakers. Later we wheeled my new suitcase back to the Mad Hatter and finished with 1845 and Golden Pride. A very nice day in the end, but still no hotel for Saturday night. We were getting the message that there was a climate change rally, as well as football, and all sorts of excuses but it seemed London had no beds left for Saturday night.

In the morning we loaded up and checked out. A pint of Chiswick in the bar and still connected to the Fullers WiFi but still we had no place to stay. We decided to find a hotel somewhere near a friends pub out at Chorley Wood. Duly booked we headed off to the tube. Down the steps into the station and bugger me sideways, there are bloody engineering works on the very lines we were taking, a bus replacement service is provided but customers should allow an hour extra for the journey. An hour! And our Oyster cards needed topping up again - we can't have used that much travel can we?

In a fit of temper we un-booked our hotel, which we hate people doing to us, and gave the nice man in the kiosk a hard time. Apparently our Oyster cards recorded an unfinished journey. We should have checked out and back in again at Bank. Bloody technology. I got an incredible urge to go over to the man who had a climate change placard and punch him for messing up my day. We struggled to Leicester Square as there would bound to be some sort of tourist information place. Didn't find one and the crowds were getting infuriating especially as I was pulling around a huge amount of beer. It wasn't until later that we realised it was one of the biggest London shopping weeks in the lead up to Christmas. Yes, I know, obvious really. Eventually,after considering cutting our losses and going straight home Ann pointed out we'd end up stuck in Millom because we'd miss the last train, we decided an hour on a tube replacement bus wouldn't be so bad after all and re-booked the hotel.

Finally, out of the crowds of Christmas shoppers I started to regain a sense of humour. Even on the replacement bus things seemed much better. Gill and The Gov, when we got to meet up with them later, were a joy to see, Oh, and Duchess of course. We met up with them again the next day for a pleasant walk around surprisingly nice parks only spoilt by some form of Santa Claus convention which I still don't understand. Of course no Sunday would be complete without Sunday lunch and a few pints of real ale, which is what we did.

Being Sunday, we saw a quieter London on our return. A posh hotel in Russell Square and a nice relaxed dinner alfresco under the heat lamps in Covent Garden listening to a rather talented busker doing covers of Dire Straits and the Eagles. You can say what you like, the guitar parts for this music are fantastic when done right. They were done very well indeed considering the total number of performers equaled one. The warmth of the patio heater helping to make our December evening pleasant but at the same time makes me wonder what effect the thousands of such inefficient heaters have on the environment.

On our way back to the hotel we entered Covent Garden tube station. There was a repeating message saying "Can Inspector Sands please report to the control room immediately. Can inspector Sands..." repeated over and over. It turns out that this is a precursor to station evacuation. We didn't go any further and sure enough within a minute the evacuation alarms rang. The staff started hurrying about closing shutters and chivying people out. I suspect this sort of thing is common place to the city dweller. It was all very curious and a little intriguing to this country lad. After about 10 minutes we were allowed to re-enter the station to continue our journey back to the hotel.

Next morning at 7:30 we were sat on the train back to Cumbria. I love this train ride, so relaxing and entertaining. "Rolls along past houses, farms and fields"1 and the estuaries on the south Cumbrian coast are a delight by themselves, despite the train slowing to what would otherwise be an irritating crawl. Two changes and less than 6 hours later we were getting off the train at Ravenglass, which is at the estuary of our very own River Esk. The air smells wonderfully clean. A short car ride home and it's still less than 6 hours since we left the hotel in Russell Square.


1"The City of New Orleans" - Steve Goodman

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Big(ish) brewery that thinks craft.

Right, I need to get back to some proper writing. It's all very well being pleased about recent event's, but that's done now. I have to get to what this blog is about; beer, pubs, perhaps food and anything else to do with the crazy industry I seem to be part of.

In my remote place tucked away in a distant and occasionally wet part of the British Isles I can become detached from the reality that most people experience. I'm glad of that detachment most of the time and today, with the weather fine it was nice to continue my outdoor maintenance on the roof. Nevertheless, I have more reporting to do on the trip to London last week. I very much enjoy these trips to the big city. I couldn't live there - too many people all crammed into too little space - but I enjoy the cultural things we don't have here. You know, things like street lamps and buses, cinemas, theatres and best of all beer that is different to the beer I get at home. Sometimes I even find beer that is better than at home.

I had an invite from John Keeling of Fullers Brewery to visit him in his big "industrial1" plant. I had previously met him at the barley wine seminar and had been more than just a little bit impressed by his enthusiasm. I did wonder what brewers of big breweries actually do. I guessed they didn't dig out the mash tun very often or clean the copper for that matter. I'll apologise now for any inaccuracies here. I didn't use my note book as I felt I needed to just soak up the feelings and attitudes in the brewery; to see if I could get what the core differences, and more importantly, similarities between the really little breweries like mine and these regional breweries. I think peoples attitude to beer is far more important than brewery capacity. Facts and figures don't a good beer make, good brewers are what make good beer. Fine and enthusiastic ones, I normally find.

Although I was keen to see the brewery it was more getting to understand the ethos behind the place that interested me. So when John had invited me to visit I made it a key part of my trip to London. I heard various comments about Fullers; Some think they produce ubiquitous beers like London Pride, it gets everywhere in London for goodness sake. Other people think they produce fantastically interesting beers like London Pride, and it's great that you can get it all over London and it's one of the things that makes it worth going there for. When you get differences of view like this it makes life interesting. I seem to think the views on other very young breweries follow similar themes.

In the eyes of some it cannot be possible to make good beer in a large brewery. Furthermore, there is some debate about what makes a good beer. For some the ability to drink a gallon is important. For others maximum flavour is the key. Some would say that there are beers out there which have been made without any consideration to their drinkability. Other people would say that the vast majority of beer in this country is boring and only the stuff brewed with masses of American hops is worth drinking at all. I'll confess to being one of the latter types of people and upon mentioning this to John he threatened me, that next time I'm in London, he would take me out and show me just how drinkable London Pride is. It would be churlish to refuse I feel. My principles will only stretch so far you know.

We arrived at the brewery on a wet December day, luckily whilst walking down Chiswick Lane from the tube the rain actually stopped. Signed in and badged up at reception we waited for John to meet us. The lovely smell of brewing hung in the air like an enticement of a good perfume. In his office we had a chat about the relative sizes of his brewery compared to Coors2. We looked at some old brewing logs that Ron Pattinson had been nosing at earlier and John refreshed my memory about how the Fullers parti-gyle system worked. I'll come onto that shortly. As I suspected, it turns out that John doesn't actually brew, the name on the door says "Brewing Director". There is a real brewer who looks after the day to day brewing, but just to confuse me, apparently he doesn't dig out the mash tun either.

John had to go and have a meeting with more important people than himself. It's difficult to imagine who might be more important than the Brewing Director in a brewery. I suspect it's those bean counting type people who have far more control than they deserve. Thankfully, John seems to have them under control, but even so he felt that much as he'd prefer to stay with us and talk about beer and his brewery, he really must go and kowtow. Derek Prentice, who is now the real head brewer has not been with the brewery long, was to take us around the brewery. That was fine seeing as Derek is just as nice a chap as John and equally as enthusiastic and knowledgeable about beer. It's a good job really seeing as he has an awful lot of beer to look after.

We were taken to see the Victorian part of the brewery. Now unused since 1984 its a marvel of engineering from that time. One of the two original mash tuns is retained in the building. The remaining copper really is made out of an orangy brown metal and is encased in a thick layer of brick. It looks great to the romantic traditionalist, and apparently it was even quite energy efficient. The bricks act as a combined insulator and heat store, which must have made it a right bugger to clean as it would have remained hot for hours in there. The wort for the next brew is held in a tank above and so kept hot by the heat from the boiling of the previous brew. Back when it was build in 1823 it was fired by coal. In the 20th century a steam calandria3 was installed in the copper. That must have made it even more of a bugger to clean. To this sentimental brewer it is a piece of engineering beauty, but by modern standards completely wrong for making beer; As well as being troublesome to clean it has now been found that in most cases brewing beer in copper vessels causes WHO limits on copper in food stuff to be exceeded.

We then moved on to look at the new brewery. This was installed as part of a major refurbishment in 1984, which was when the old copper was last used. The main brewhouse is surprisingly compact and modern looking and as it is only 25 years or so since it was built I guess it should be. Considering the old brew house was in use for 161 years this one has a way to go yet. When we were there they were just in the middle of a boil and the mash tun was being cleaned out. It turns out that nobody gets into the mash tun to dig it out. It's all done by a mash rake and CIP4 equipment. The coppers now use external colandrias which also make cleaning easier. In fact CIP is used in nearly every vessel in the brewery. I think that's cheating. Still, at least it means everybody can walk around looking smart rather than my usual brew day look.

Parti-gyling, I said I'd get to it. The brewery has two mash tuns and two coppers. There are two streams of wort, often the same grist mix in both mash tuns, although I'm assuming they could be different. The first runnings at perhaps an OG as high as 1090 from the sparge is run into one copper with one hop recipe. The second, much weaker runnings at perhaps 1020 is run into the second copper with a different hop loading. After the boil the two streams are blended to make different beers. The resultant wort is at production OG. This is not high gravity brewing, which is a different thing altogether. The great thing about party gyling is that Fullers get to make the occasional barley wine like Fullers Vintage and at the same time make a low ABV beer resulting in very efficient use of barley.

I love fermenter rooms. The smell of the yeast getting going on the malt sugars and some of the hop aromas wafting around reminds me of the fact that there are billions of little microorganisms working hard in the name of beer. I wonder how often they get thanked for the brilliant job they do. I know that the yeast is incredibly important to Fullers. They have about 10 people in their lab looking after it. Isolating and nurturing the correct strain has been a key part of quality control for them for a long time. Every crop of yeast from a previous fermentation is carefully checked for viability before being pitched on. If any problems develop a new batch is cultured up from yeast that has been carefully preserved on agar slopes.

Some discussion was had with Derek regarding the behaviour of my dried yeast. Most pitched on yeasts form a crust on top of the beer at the end of fermentation. In all my experience and that of several other brewers who use dry yeast, it tends to drop out very easily leaving nearly no crust. Derek's concern is that the lack of a crust might allow in bacteria. Good point perhaps, although thinking about it I don't use open fermenters anyway. An advantage of 90 gallon Grundy tanks is that I can stick a lid on any time I like.

Fullers now use cylindrical fermentation vessels for all their beer. Back in the 80's some were installed with a view to making lager. Their lager brewing didn't last long and so they started to make their standard beers in the newer vessels. It made better beer and they won more CAMRA awards with it. So, to cut a long story short all the square fermenters were replaced with cylindrical ones. Cylindrical stainless steel fermenters are much easier to clean than square copper lined ones. Even so, Derek still reminisces about old square slate fermenters in a previous brewery he worked in. You can't take the romanticism out of a good brewer.

On route we spied some old oak casks lying around looking like they had been abandoned. I didn't find out why they were not in the nice old undercroft where casks used to be stored. I'm guessing there is a duty reason for that. Breweries do not have to pay any duty on beer until it is shipped out but some HMRC officers can be touchy about beer in duty suspense being stored in the same place as beer is consumed. Anyway, it turns out these casks contain brewers reserve. As this is being typed John tweeted that he's going to organise a tasting sometime of all his experimental beers. It's been noted John. I learnt some interesting stuff about whisky cask aging and from John. Subject of another post probably.

Finally we look at the expansive casking and kegging hall. An automated keg facility packages some of the Fullers beers for export. Anybody who reads this blog will understand that I wonder about the possibility of putting quality beer into keg for markets in this country. I'm unlikely to ever sell London Pride here but if I could get a 30 litre keg of Golden Pride, well, that might be a different matter. It would be fun for the beer festival. The kegging line is almost fully automated including a very intelligent robot that handles kegs to and from pallets. The robot is called Les, apparently after the chief engineer. Not, it would seem, because the chief engineer is also intelligent - although I'm sure he must be as you don't get to make a place like this work if you are not - but it's because Les stands in the middle of the room waving his arms around.

Interestingly, the kegging line is justified on the throughput of beers from larger breweries. Fullers can keg tanker supplied beers for less than the difference between the cost of tanker supplied and keg supplied beer. Nice way to increase the revenue for the brewery and I guess it must help transport problems in and around London. Bulk supplied beer can be brought into the area in less vehicles.

Casking takes a little more manpower. It is not easy to automate putting beer into cask. There was obvious signs of people doing real hard graft. Somebody hitting the keystones into the casks and somebody else manually controlling the cask filling. That's nice to know that not everybody in the brewery swans about in suits all day.

Before leaving we retired to the aforementioned undercroft. A traditional vaulted cellar where up until sometime in the second half of the last century beer was conditioned in casks. It is now a nice tasting room come function hall. We tried some beers, well you have to when you're in the brewery, don't you? I tried London Pride and yes John, you are right, it is drinkable. But don't let that honesty from me prevent us testing the limits of that theory at some later date. I particularly like Chiswick Bitter as a session beer. I think I remember it having Northdown and Challenger hops in it. Anyway, I like that one. As we moved up in strength my beer geek side kicked in and I started to get nice esters and stuff, I love the fruity notes you get in these beers, but you wouldn't want to drink a gallon. Vintage and Gales Old Ale were also tried. I'm starting to wonder why I buy Belgian beer when there are some equally as good beers this side of the Channel.

Gales Old Ale used to be made in wooden lined fermenters. It gives the beer it's distinctive sour edge that some people find difficulty liking. Gales was bought out by Fullers and the beer production moved to Chiswick. There are no wooden fermenters at the Griffin brewery so how is it still made? John explained that they brought the last batch to be made at Gales and put it into a conditioning tank. Each time some is bottled an amount is left in the tank and a new batch of fresh beer added. The micro-fauna in the tank grow and flavour the beer to create something very authentic. Whatever, I like this beer too.

Before leaving we visited the shop. That was dangerous. We'd taken a large suitcase and a rucksack so as to maximize beer carrying capability. We had the rucksack with us at the brewery and filled that with several different years of Vintage, plus some Gales Old Ale. Pleased with that we headed off. Later, when we packed up during a move of hotels my suitcase lost a wheel on a curb. Beer is heavy when it's added to your luggage. I so wish Sapient Pear Wood was real. Anyway, the London hotel/luggage/tube disasters needs a whole new post. Fullers came to the rescue in part - look out for the sad story of a country bumpkin adrift in London.

So, my main thoughts behind visiting the brewery was to get into the ethos of the place. There is no doubt that London Pride and the other session beers are the core business of the place. Although they have a tied estate it's not big compared to some and a large proportion of the volume is sold to the free trade. You can't argue with that. Moreover the estate concentrates on quality premium establishments, which my luggage story shall confirm. I like Fullers and that's not just because they were very hospitable to us during our visit. I like the enthusiasm of John and Derek. It's not just about barrelage and money, although without making a profit no brewery can exist, but it's also about making good beer, and that they do too.

That was a long post. Amazingly, I could write more, perhaps it's a good job I didn't use a notebook. I can't really imagine anybody will read it all, except perhaps John Keeling himself. I do hope he's got a sense of humor. I did feel that perhaps I was digging a big hole for myself and insulting this great brewer with my little jokes. I hope not, it's all in fun. It's also interesting treading the line as a beer writer who wants to be honest about what he sees but also not upsetting companies that extend hospitality to amateur beer writers like myself. I hope I managed to get the balance right. My conclusion, as expressed in the title of this piece, is that so long as John and Derek are in charge of brewing, there will always be a firm foot in the craft beer market at Fullers.


1Hey, I'm kidding, but if you read all this post carefully you'll know that. "Industrial" is a matter of perspective.

2Fullers make about 150,00 brewery barrels of London Pride a year. Coors make about 6 million barrels of Carling per year. 40 times as much and irrespective of anything else I might say I know which I'd prefer to drink and that ain't the Carling. John likes to think his brewery is closer to the size of mine. I'd disagree as I only make about 50 barrels of beer a year total. John and his team sell 300 times as much London Pride as I sell of my own beer total. Perhaps I need to start making drinkable beer.

3A calandria is a set of cylindrical tubes used to heat one fluid by passing another fluid through. A heat exchanger effectively.

4CIP = Cleaning In Position. It's dead good. Yes, even I use it for my fermentation vessels.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

A posh dinner with posh beer

I'm new to this really. I've been writing this blog for just over a year and very much the new kid on the block. It's a bit daunting at first with all these great people I'd read about. I was too late to join in with the Beer Writers dinner last year and anyway I was stuck in an Amsterdam hotel that very evening trying to get to Portland Or, USA, to sample some West Coast USA beer. Anyway, the point is I was already getting a little awe struck by the prospects of getting involved with this prestigious guild that I'd already heard lots about. The dinner and awards ceremony sounded like a very big deal.

In the intervening year I had built up more and more anticipation about the event. Apart from the hope that I might get an award I was also interested in meeting more people in the beer writing world, and of course trying the expert's choices on food and beer matching. I'd heard people raving about the dinner as well as one or two disgruntled noises from other quarters. I like to remain open minded about things, and anyway I think I was still in the awe struck mode of being among stars of the beer world. I felt quite a bit of excitement, and I was trying to nonchalantly keep that under wraps. Surprisingly, I still had a good appetite and tucked into the canapés with delight and polished off a couple of beers, which helped calm the inner nerves a little.

After finding our table, we sat down with childish anticipation for the promised culinary excellence and beer pairing to die for. But first Adrian and Tim grilled the Chef Christian Honor on the presented menu, well, perhaps he was just lightly poached. A nice little introduction which was neatly put together. It would be good to think that the stick in the mud traditionalists got the point; even if they didn't agree with the choices, it's a little bit like art; in the eye of the beholder. Moreover, the efforts by the organisers were not done over a few pints on the back of torn up beer mats, no, lots of thought has gone on here.

The first course was an interestingly presented clam chowder. The soup was tasty enough but on the rather extensive flat rim of the bowl was a croquet topped with caviar, a mussel and a pea sprout planted upright. Paired with Meantime Pilsner, which I got to try before the soup arrived, and found to be a totally agreeable beer. The refreshing and bitter hoppy beer worked well with the creamy soup.

Next there was the smoked venison filled with goats cheese on top of a fig and apple juice terrine. This was served with Duchesse De Bourgogne. This beer is already a beer I like. I love goats cheese, venison, things that are smoked, figs and apples. What could go wrong? Absolutely nothing. This was heaven and the best course for me. It's difficult to improve on the description on the menu, so I won't. The food was very well executed and the beer matched like a dream.

The Rabbit matched with Ringwood Old Thumper caused a stir. Most on our table didn't like the beer match. It didn't help that the first aroma I got from the beer was citrus urinal blocks, but bear with me. The Rabbit was actually cooked quite well. Some complained it was dry but in fact rabbit is an extremely lean meat. When I cook rabbit I use a stuffing that has a little bit of pork fat in it to offset this. I enjoyed Christians execution of this dish. Towards the end of the course I tried the beer again. I felt that after breathing for a few minutes and loosing a little carbonation I got estery notes which I found agreeable.

As the Fullers Vintage 2005 and Camembert were being served Zak decided time was running out and the awards should be announced. That was it, no chance to really savour this one. Nerves started to set in. I had promised to twitter the results so I had to get my BlackBerry out. A spoon full of cheese and a mouth full of beer. Nice, but the taste and smell senses were overtaken by anticipation. Brewer of the Year, Travel Bursary, Beer and Food Writing. I twittered them all trying to keep ahead by typing in the title while Zak was giving his speech and only having to copy down the details of the name off the helpful power point slide, but even then I know I spelt at least one persons name wrong.

New Media Awards Runner up.. oh shit, this is my gig. Take my mind off it by typing the title into twitter.

Now, I'd gone to the event very much telling myself that I probably wouldn't win anything. There was someone deep inside that was desperate for a prize. My concious self kept telling him to STFU. I knew that if I didn't get something I'd be disappointed, and I knew that was likely, so I'm working out how to look happy about getting nothing.

Zak started to read out the introduction and the questions about what the category was about, blogs? Video tastings? I forget exactly what he was saying "get to the bloody point Zak" I thought, still, I try to keep calm and detached. But the following words, kindly sent to me by Zak, still fill me with emotion;
"The judges felt very strongly that along with the quality of the writing, there should be some further attempt to engage with the online community - either through inviting people to contribute to their blog by asking questions of the reader, or by providing a unique point of view that perhaps cannot be accessed through any other channel.
There are many honourable mentions here, but quality and consistency also play a part. Given all of this, we are happy to announce that the runner-up in the Brains SA New Media category, for his blog about the trials and tribulations of running a pub in the remotest reaches of Cumbria, is Dave Bailey"
During this speech there was the full range of over confident certainty right through to complete self doubt and back again, several times. Additionally there was a peculiar part of me not wanting this one because then I can't get the next, arguing with the sensible one who is saying "don't be daft, you'll be lucky to get this". At some point in time Ann said out loud "It's you" before Zak said my name.

I guess I'd better fill in the tweet when I get back from the stage then. If the truth be told I was having difficulty not smiling some sort of bizarre, disbelieving smile whilst at the same time making sure I was portraying just how pleased I was.

I got my cheque and returned to my seat. I continued to tweet the results. Mark Dredge beat me and Pete Brown, of course, got the Beer Writer of the year. For what it's worth he must have tweeted the fact before he went for the stage. I'd already filled it in and just hit "send" when it was confirmed, that's where my money was. My cheese didn't get finished. Neither did my chocolate pudding. I did have quite a lot of the Fullers Vintage and the Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter. I don't care whether it's innovative to put C hops in a stout or not, I liked this and I imagine it goes well with the chocolate and the rest of the palaver in the cake. I had gone beyond caring about the food, I'd done it, I'd got an award. The beer was a friend of mine though, I like beer, very much and that night I loved it more than anything.

I don't think I can state just how much I enjoyed the evening. No, I don't think it was just because I got the result I wanted. I'd go again just for the food and beer. I'd go again just for the company and the chance to meet more people of like minded views, or perhaps even with different views, but who care about beer and breweries and the like.

I wonder if the people who organised the dinner got the thanks they deserve; Adrian Tierney-Jones, Tim Hampson and Mark Dorber? I wonder if the traditionalists know how much effort goes into making the food created by Christian Honor? I wonder if anybody thanked Zak Avery and his team of judges?

I think a great deal of effort went into a superb evening. I'm grateful, I'll look forward to next year and I'll try very hard not to be disappointed if I don't win anything next time.

Heard it on the radio

I sent out a press release yesterday. BBC Radio Cumbria are almost always the first people to respond to these things. Today was no different. Hopefully they will excuse my breach of copyright - I'd like to think they will appreciate my complete buy-in to the things that are made possible by "the unique way the BBC is funded".

The conversations always seem to go a different way to how I expect. I'd prefer to work to a script. Anyway, they want me to take part in a recorded audio diary in February when we re-open for the season. It's only 140 words for each of 5 days, but hey, it's exposure.

Anyway, here the clip.

What next?

Of course, over the next week I need to write up my interesting trip to London and all the excitement that this country lad had in the big bad city. First though, I want to consider where this beer writing nonsense is going for me over the next year or so.

I'm the one on the right ->

I could plan to win Beer Writer of the Year in 2012. I could have chosen 2011 but our brilliant Mark Dredge has already thrown down the gauntlet on that one. They say the secret of being successful is knowing which fight to pick and this one I'll concede right now. But I guess that providing I have work good enough to enter I'll still have a go. Despite the award being important, it doesn't pay the bills and for this reason, as well as perhaps some others, my writing needs to concentrate in other areas.

When I first started talking about my entry to the British Guild of Beer Writers annual awards it must have seemed to some that I was being self-indulgent. Perhaps there is a little bit of truth in this. However, I justify my honest excitement and subsequent pride with a more important overview which is of course, a concern for beer and pubs. After all, this is broadly how I make my living. Beer writing is nothing more than an interesting extension bringing little in the way of tangible returns. Indeed, my prize money only just about covered my trip to London, although I would have still gone even if I had no chance of winning, that's not the point.

I always have an eye on the money, although this is in conflict with my principles, which run far too deep. This conflict gets me into trouble with both myself and others close to me far too often. Customers can sometimes get embroiled in that mêlée of opposing desires too. Entering and winning a prize has come at quite a cost, besides the man-hours and distractions to my core business there is the wearing of the patience of my partner and family. I have to find a reason to do this which is more than just winning a prize that doesn't cover the overall costs. I have to spend the next year or two turning this into a paying concern and it would seem that beer writing by itself is not the way to go.

Don't get me wrong, I understand and appreciate the intangible benefits. Not least of which is the increased traffic to my pub's website. Well over 50% of my trade comes via that route and without it my business would not be viable. My blog tells people what we are about, what we do, what we stand for. It helps to prevent people coming to us and being disappointed and it also helps to direct the type of people to us that appreciate what we do. Moreover, I've had many people come to my pub as a direct result of my blog, I've made many good friends and there are less obvious business benefits gained through these friendships for which I'm very grateful.

Despite this I'm not sure the time spent at the keyboard is entirely commensurate with these benefits. I’m interested in knowing how to maximise reward and I suspect I'm not going to do this alone. This is my ulterior motive for talking about the awards, not because I think they are important, although of course they are, but more because I want to make them a little more important to other people. Despite beer being still the most popular drink of the British drinker, beer writers don't get the kudos which I believe we deserve. Wine, for instance, has several notable celebrities who further its quality appeal; Oz Clarke for instance, to name just one. I know Pete Brown and Roger Protz have made T.V. appearances, but we have nobody in the Guild who makes it as a household minor celebrity (OK, unfair to Oz Clarke, who does happen to be a Guild Member).

I want to make the work of the members of the Guild more noticed. Sure, by doing that my own notoriety will be boosted a little, but as a small fish amongst better writers I'm unlikely to reach great heights, but you never know. More important to me is to improve the overall kudos of beer as a quality drink. For far too long beer has been seen as "dirty". The drink of drunken chauvinistic rugby players and yobs that vomit on the street, piss in shop doorways and cause whole town centres to be no-go areas. What we all know is that beer is not the cause of this but the attitude of the drinkers and volume producers. Beer is no more responsible than, say, white rum.

I'd like to see Pete Brown on the T.V. more often. Why can't we have a T.V. show that includes a weekly beer choice? Perhaps Saturday Morning Kitchen could feature a few interesting beers. I want to get involved with the Guild in putting together a stronger pitch at the T.V. companies to get beer into their food and drink programs. I’d like to see this done collectively as a Guild rather than each member pitching their own ideas; the total greater than the sum of the parts and all that.

Returning to the problem of money; there were 150 or so people at the dinner on Thursday evening, many actual beer writers and some people from the beer industry. The prize money and some of the beers were given by breweries by way of thanks to the Guild Members. However, in an industry that is worth many millions of pounds I think the prize money is small thanks. Why is this? Well, for a start most beer writers have little time for the output of the vast majority of the industry. Only a small proportion of the revenue from the industry is the "craft" sector. The rest of the industry couldn't care a great lot about beer writers, who tend to only talk about artisan beers. For this reason we are out on a limb.

I want to look at how we can encourage more of the industry to concentrate on brand enhancement. During my recent visit to Fullers it was clear that this is a big part of how they remain focussed on providing a bridge between what some beer enthusiasts see as mass produced uninteresting beer like London Pride and much more interesting beers like Fullers Vintage and Golden Pride. I will be writing a large post on Fullers, partly because I owe the brewery at least for their hospitality but moreover because there are plenty of good things they do there that are often overlooked by the hardcore beer geeks. Even Coors are maintaining this brand enhancement with the White Shield brewery. These things are more than just nice little gestures; they deserve great recognition irrespective of the size of the organisation behind the brewery.

We have to remember that many of the smaller breweries which we love so much have small marketing budgets. Many beer writers are now writing blogs and in doing so are providing free marketing for these breweries. This is good, but it doesn’t pay for the man hours of time spent writing. Such writers perhaps don’t want anything in return, and the ever growing number of quality bloggers is good for beer in general. For me, I do feel I need to work out how to pay the bills. I do get some discretionary exchanges and I’m very grateful for that when it occurs. It is however insufficient to enable even the beer writers that are better than me to make a living out of the job. Some breweries, I am starting to think, work us beer writers very well indeed and give back almost nothing in return. Perhaps they might think a little bit about that.

Beer writers and the beer industry have to work hand in hand. Beer writers love interesting quality beers. When presented with them we like them and often write about them. Sometimes we might disagree about what is good and what is pushing the boundaries too far, but generally we’ll talk about them. If as writers, we want to get something out of the industry, we have to put something useful in as well. To that end I have some ideas that I want to follow up and so here I present, for want of a better word, my manifesto for the next year.

One thing the artisan beer world in this country has to sort out is consistency of the product in the glass. It really can let the side down. The brewer has to make consistently good beer. This is of course different to a consistent but boring product. We expect some variations in a quality beer. If it is made from malted barley and whole cone hops there is always going to be some seasonal and gyle variations and we forgive that. We do however expect unwanted flavours to be controlled, for instance DMS, dactyl and phenols are very easy to control if brewers understand their causes. Despite having a poor palate for these things I have started to notice these problem flavours more and more. Simple training of brewers at the microbrewery level needs to be considered. As beer writers I believe we can gently encourage newer smaller breweries to improve their products by reinforcing the various avenues available for training and information. There is a great deal of false information in the microbrewery world about how to make good beer, lots of myths that really could do with being tackled.

Of course, the other key to a good glass of beer is how it is looked after in the pub. In this we have the biggest myth of them all. We consider cask beer to be the only quality beer in the UK. Increasingly, I become convinced this is a little bit of a misnomer. Cask beer can indeed be a very high quality product and one that I love when it is done right. It can however be a complete disaster simply because it is not understood by the pub. I want to work to improve methods for serving cask beer reliably in good condition but further I want to make keg beer more respectable amongst beer fans. I don't want to do this to undermine cask but more to explore where there is a missing link in the whole of the industry. I believe that there is a missing market for draft beer; in the restaurant market for instance. This is starting to be filled with craft bottled beers but there is a chance for quality craft keg beer to make in-roads. I want to help explore how this can be nurtured and encouraged by breweries from the smallest to the biggest, it isn't rocket science.

More immediately for me I have one book proposal in early stages of acceptance with a publisher. I have another longer term project which I need to focus on honing some detail on the proposal. I have also been independently invited to contribute to another book. The really nice thing is that all this was before I won my award, so hopefully things are looking up.