Sunday, 22 January 2017

Small Brewer's Duty Reform Coalition

I've oft raised concerns regarding SIBA, the trade organisation of independent brewers. Over the past two years or so I have moved towards a position of working closely inside SIBA to achieve change through engagement rather than shouting from the sidelines. Arguably this is a more responsible and constructive activity1.

I am a member of the Policy Committee, which is currently looking at various issue that are becoming more public, notably progressive beer duty(PBD)2, and access to market3. These two issues are extricably linked in many ways.

SIBA originally started out life as the Small Independent Brewers' Association. It was decided some time ago to change the name to Society of Independent Brewers, but for the sake of simplicity retain the original acronym. One can have a view on the appropriateness of the change, and the subsequent closer working relationship with the likes of BBPA, regional brewers and even major multinationals.

Things are coming a little bit to a head. There is the recent formation of a coalition of brewers named "Small Brewers Duty Reform Coalition" (SBDRC) who are now looking to change the duty scheme to favour what is called "The Squeezed Middle". See the details here. I believe this to be a threatening and aggressive move, especially as many of the protagonists are SIBA members. It does not help us to work sensibly to produce a fair and cohesive strategy for the future of PBD.

If you have been following this blog so far this year you will note that I am greatly concerned about overall saturation of the beer market; great for beer drinkers, but not so for brewers large and small. The whole market is being squeezed significantly. Indeed, we feel like we are the squeezed bottom4.

The basic premise for the perceived need to change PBD is that there is a barrier to growth and there may be some merit in looking at that. Without going into detail, it is difficult to grow beyond 5,000hl due to the structure of relief as the increase of duty at 5000hl is very sharp. There is another much less convincing argument that it is unfair that brewers over 60,000hl get no relief at all, as they still fail to have economies of scale. Frankly, it is complete nonsense to imagine a muti-muillion pound businesses see similar diseconomies of scale compared to micro-brewers and to conflate the two issues is dishonest.

SIBA have nicely and robustly countered the SBDRC announcement with its own press release.

I want to voice here my own Hardknott centric view on all of this. Micro-breweries are going out of business. I hear of one gone into receivership just this week. Other micro-brewers are either activating or considering significant retraction of activities. Much of the reason for this is because the "squeezed middle" are driving down prices, and significant to all of this is recent huge mandated  price drop for SIBA members into Enterprise Inns.

If we change the nature of PBD significantly we will see the "squeezed middle" using any duty benefit to further drive down the price in the market increasing damage to an already struggling micro-brewery industry. The only true benefactors will be PubCos and brewers with significant pub estates. There is already significant evidence to suggest that the vast majority of duty decreases of any sort are simply demanded by retail chains to improve their bottom line.

The work done behind the scenes to deal with these issues is complex, sensitive and contains significant alternative perspectives. I simply put my point of view across here, but it is one that I would expect most brewers of our size (1200hl/yr) to agree with. It is also worth noting that I represent around the average size for SIBA members, and therefore would expect SIBA to take as much notice of me as they would of any brewer bigger than me.

Further more, very few SIBA members are above 5000hl, over 90% of SIBA members are below 5000hl and benefit from full duty relief, essential for their very existence. The remaining 10% or so appear to be significantly more powerful in shaping SIBA policies and certainly carry more weight and have more resources to help influence policy.

One would expect SIBA to defend PBD completely and utterly. Up until recently this is exactly what has been happening, and I am hopeful that this will continue to be the case. I am significantly scared that this may change if we do not fight very strongly against SBDRC and some of the noises being made by larger organisations.

Part of the problem is that SIBA has grown now to include some fairly big brewers. Brewers can now be a member of SIBA even if they brew a colossal 200,000hl per year. This represents businesses that turn over tens of millions of pounds per year. They are huge. It is inconceivable that they can relate to the difficulties faced by 90% of SIBA members.

Now, SIBA is a democratic organisation, which in itself begs the question as to why we have allowed ourselves a position where we have such giants in our camp. I believe there is a core reason behind this, and my main reason for writing this post. Change is made via regional meetings, representation is sent via trusties to the board. Additionally, there is a route for major changes to be made via motions to the AGM. If I understand correctly, these motions have to first be approved at regional level for onward consideration by the board before finally being presented at national AGM (BeerX) for a vote.

I see there being some significant flaws in this process. Firstly, many of the brewers below 5000hl are working their butts off just to stay afloat and cannot afford the time or fuel to travel and engage with this process. I believe the direction SIBA would take would be significantly different if many more members engaged.

This is the key message behind this post. I am considering two motions to the AGM. One that ties any change to PBD to a significant, meaningful and proactive change to access to market for brewers below 5000hl. The second motion would question the rationale behind having membership over 60,000hl and the associate membership category, perhaps demanding a referendum on the policy to determine if the membership is happy with the status quo. My reason for this second motion is that I believe members over 60,000hl significantly compromise SIBAs ability to act for the majority of the membership.

For these, and other motions from other breweries to be successful we require as many sub 5000hl brewery representatives to attend both regional AGMs and the National AGM at BeerX in March.

If any micro-brewery cannot attend then there is an option for proxi-voting, which I would strongly urge members to activate.

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1Although sometimes frustrating from the point of view of this blog, as to write publicly regarding some issues would be unprofessional. Equally, there are comments I'd like to make from a Hardknott perspective that would be in disagreement with a broader view of SIBA in general. This part is hugely frustrating. Hardknott has a unique ethos towards beer and it is important to get that message out.

2Progressive beer duty is the scheme whereby small brewer's diseconomies of scale are partly helped by a reduction on the amount of tax we pay. Without this duty us small brewers would have an incredibly difficult time competing in the market and there would certainly be much less choice in the beer world. If we lose this relief many brewers will find it difficult to continue and we would see significant shrinkage in the micro-brewery market.

3A significant proportion of the pub market is tied to particular brewers. This might be through ownership of the freehold of the pub, or it might be through less obvious barriers through ownership of dispense equipment.

4With apologies, we know who to blame for this phrase, and suitable admonishment has already been administered.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

The emotional cost of social media

I've had numerous compliments for my previous post regarding my doubts about the future. It does seem to me that my best writing comes from an honest and open description of difficulties, even if risking wider damage to overall public's perception. Indeed, BBC Radio Cumbria was in the brewery on Friday to record an interview as a result of that post. I didn't want to do it live, normally I do, as I was certain I'd say something I'd later regret. Hopefully it will go out next week, if I get to know when I'll post on twitter.

So, with the bit between my teeth, and the potential risk associated with a runaway creature, I feel it is time for me to explore writing about a deep angst I now experience and has possibly taken me close to mental illness. Yes, 2016 was that tough, I hope this post will turn into therapy.

I've built a lot of my business through the internet. Back in 2008 I had been exploring various ways of making my business do better. I was advised, amongst other things, to write a blog. Engaging Facebook was also seen by various business mentors to be a thing, although I continue to have my doubts about how useful that is. Applying SEOto tempt Google to rank higher is a thing I studied courses on.

I started to write a blog about my business, and searched for other blogs to see what people were saying about pubs and beer. That was over 8 years ago. I became engrossed into the whole discussion about beer and pubs, cask and keg, sparklers and CAMRA and numerous subjects. I even won an award with the Guild of Beer Writers, which gave me immense pleasure and even briefly made me think that I could do it for a living.

In 2009 a thing called Twitter started to gather momentum and I joined in. It can be great fun and I've met a lot of people via that medium and reached customers I'd have never achieved to with any other form of communications. We pushed out our message and continued to work to promote Hardknott beers through our move away from a brewpub to stand alone brewery.

Broadly it has worked. I have very little doubt in my mind that I would not have progressed Hardknott anywhere near as far as we have without interactions on social media. I haven't always got it right, and certainly have made some mistakes. There have been good natured discussion on many occasions, and equally some flame-wars at other times. When it goes well the feeling of success, of acceptance by the wider community as a person of knowledge and wise words, it is an incredibly useful motivator by way of emotionally uplifting feelings. Money almost doesn't matter in the grand scheme of thingswhen it goes right.

When it doesn't go right, things can go very wrong indeed. After the euphoria of success of the early days there comes the realisation that staying on top becomes more difficult as more and more people enter the game. I am now realising the huge buzz of success can be replaced with a downer so large as to create withdrawal cravings similar to what I imagine a drug addict may experience. It does make me ponder the damage that might be done to emotions as a result of attempting to promote a business on the internet.

I do like a good discussion. I like to think I can consider a point of view that might differ to mine and put across an analysis of the situation in a calm and collected way, providing the other person is trying to do the same and not just being antagonistic. However, when I am arguing for my very existence, when I know that for several years I've been making fairly substantial losses and I am fighting through my blog, or twitter, or whatever to keep alive the passion in my heart it becomes very difficult to not see some commentators as just being deliberately disruptive. I like a sensible discussion, but not an all out argument, and definitely not anything that resembles being flamed, or where I feel the need to flame someone else because they appear to me to just poking a pointy stick for the sake of being nasty. I feel it is especially difficult when it seems to me to be for the sole purpose of undermining my own convictions.

I truly believe in what I am doing. I do have a passion to brew great beer, to make a difference in the beer world and try to realign the drinkers view of beer. I think to some extent over the last 11 years of brewing I have done that. But the passion can sometimes manifest itself as great hurt when I feel I care more than those that I interact with and when those people I feel ought to be my friends. Indeed moreover, when to me they would actually benefit by my attempts to improve the lot of the general micro-brewing scene should they allow me my point. It is difficult not to just see it as being malicious.

I don't know if it is me, struggling to make my own business work. Perhaps it is the desperation of others who feel the need to attack anything I do that is aiming to big up my own beers, or justify something I'm doing. Of course on some occasions it could be my own paranoia creating an imaginary enemy, which is an explanation I oft considered3. It is highly likely that it is a combination of all of these. However I have felt lately that in most forms of on-line interaction an incredible increase of tension and uncomfortable situations.

My main form of promotion for my brewery has been, and probably still is via the internet. I have felt an increasing sense of discomfort recently to the extent that I feel I have developed a level of depression, a form of adversity and reluctance to engage. Perhaps I am too needy, perhaps I am not as cut out for on-line engagement as I thought I was, perhaps I am just too sensitive and if that is so then perhaps this is another reason to consider more carefully my future.

There seems to be significant information suggesting that social media is creating mental illness in young people. I can't find a really great link that is not just sensationalist news items that say we should be watching out for our kids. Why just young people? Can old people like me not suffer too?

It has drawn me to consider the risks of promoting a business via social media. I notice one eminent brewery owner reduce his on-line activity stating it is due to feeling uncomfortable with some of the interactions. It also makes me consider that perhaps all writers who take themselves seriously find themselves needing to gain sufficient praise and acceptance and that perhaps only a small dose of cruel critique may send them into a spiral of unhappiness.

It is important for me to try and get the balance right. The purpose behind this blog has changed, to some extent. Moving from being a brewing pub-owner to being a brewer has certainly changed my perspective. It is essential for me to work at promoting my beers and the best way in my mind to do that is via my blog. It is obviously not helpful to my own state of mind or for the promotion of my beers if I continue to try to manage, with carefully constructed arguments, comments that appear to be trolling.

I know I haven't always engaged appropriately when dealing with comments on here, or discussions on twitter. Indeed, sometimes I have felt huge stress and even anger, which is incredibly unhelpful to everyone, and may in fact make me look a little like an internet troll myself. So, time to fully engage comment moderation and be selective about the comments I permit to be posted. I can normally tell when a thread is likely to drag me into a difficult situation. I also think it is important to try to avoid starting to respond, or even look at the comments elsewhere that are likely to create a situation.

Besides, I want to feel happy, and want to be able to write and engage. I can't do that if I'm scared to be here.

There might be a wider issue here; I know many brewers are struggling at the moment. Since our New Year post I've been contacted by several brewers saying their lot this last 12 months has gotten worse. This is in addition to the already strong indication that all is not well in the industry. Perhaps we are all feeling the pinch and taking it out on each other, I can't imagine that is a good thing. Let us focus on fighting those outside our own impassioned group of dedicated brewers, rather than appearing to tear each other apart.

Over 90% of the total beer brewed in the UK is made by less than 2% of the breweries. They are the true enemy.

Less than 1% of the total beer is made by over 90% of the breweries (those under under 5000hl), which includes me and many very great breweries. Will simply must stop pissing each other off.

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1SEO = Search Engine Optimisation

2If I were honest I don't care about money as such. I do like new toys, I like to live in a nice house and it would be nice to get way on holiday, but to me money is a way of measuring success, but only one of them.

3Although, when casual observers say to me "I thought <insert name> was your friend" I have to conclude it is not just paranoia and generally reply "So did I"

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Looking forward

The start of 2017; how the hell did that number get so high? This is now the 54th year in which I have been alive (I was conceived at some point in 1964) and I have seen 53 New Years brought in, although admittedly for the first one the only thing I might have seen was vague pinky-red light through the walls of my dearly missed mother's abdomen1. I guess perhaps there might have been some contemporary music of the time that filtered through, which might explain a strange attraction I feel to much of the music originating around that time.

What do we have in store for us in 2017? Where am I going and where is Hardknott going? I have to say at this point I'm very unclear, other than knowing things really have to change drastically. 2016 might have seen a few bad things happen, like Brexit2 and Donald Trump, and what does seem to be an inordinate number of celebrities dying3. It has been a little bit of a contraction for Hardknott, if I be truthful. Our bar on Millom station just wasn't working, for so many reasons and it simply had to close after two years of operation, rather regrettably. We have shed several members of staff, for various reasons and to date have not replaced themTurnover has shrunk slightly, although what is nice is not in proportion to the shrinkage of staff.5  Early indications are that with reduced staff, reduced production and careful choice of sales we are perhaps not in loss so far this financial year.

It is highly possible that this represents a re-group. A chance for us to reconsider and contemplate where we are and where we should go. It gave me great pleasure this week to see that Cloudwater have posted about their future. It is impossible to ignore this mighty force in the craft beer scene and there is a lot to learn from their forward-looking vision. There has already been various questions raised about their plans to cease cask production and Boak and Bailey as ever thoughtfully consider this.

These things inevitably feed into my own considerations. We've been brewing at Millom now for just over 6 years. We have yet to make any significant profit. Indeed, although somehow we make ends meet, just, we have seen our wealth actually decrease as we fund this mad-capped idea, and lose out to various bad choices we've made.We've effectively been stuck since about 2013 due mainly to lack of funding to invest and the difficulty in up-scalling any further. We are plateaued and are somewhere between a rock and a fucking very, very hard place indeed.

This effectively means we've been paying to keep Hardknott alive. For the past 6 years Ann and I7 have been managing to keep it afloat. We had a dream, we believed we could make it work and we still believe that, but it has cost us dearly. This is set against the knowledge that many other brewers feel that there simply isn't the money in the job and several have either stopped brewing or even gone into administration.

The thing that really gets to me is that the one format our beer goes out in that loses me most is cask. I am majorly pleased to see Cloudwater effectively make the same point. We are literally paying for the privilege of putting our beer into cask, the price point in the market being so damn low. It costs us more to make, sell, distribute, get back the empties and fund the cash flow lag created. Then we have the fact that there is office staff time spent chasing all the bad payers out there I have no idea why we still do it.

I have continually made the point that we sell our beer way too cheap, and we are way too small to be viable as a craft brewery making really great beer. Beer that has more care, more time in tank, better ingredients and more wastage due to dry hopping etc. However it seems that in Cumbria there is a continual downward pressure on prices created by there being an oversupply of beer and far too many breweries.

Cloudwater rightly manage to command a premium. Good, they deserve it. Even so they have not yet made a profit even though they now turnover more than £1m. We manage around £230k on a really great year. We cannot achieve higher than that without upgrading the brew-house and potentially relocating8.

To make the next move we require around £100k investment, and probably more, just to get our brewery efficient enough to be competitive. Raising money when the accounts look so poor is no mean feat. Even if we secured funding from banks or other financial institutions I expect the interest rates alone would negate the cost-benefits of any investment right now. It seems to us the only thing that might help us to make a go of it would be to sell our home, downsize and in so doing release some capital. I'm going to be honest, this scares the living shit out of me, not least of which because although we will release capital our house is really efficient and low-cost, our bills are low, should we move into a draughty house we might see bigger bills, which we cannot afford on our none-existent earnings.

Our house is on the market, and I'm hopeful that we will find a buyer this year. Our plan requires that we move and so I can no longer hide the fact that a move out of Millom is essential. I understand it is possible to find some quite nice caravans and this sacrifice will be worth it to save Hardknott. What if even that doesn't get us on an even footing? We will have risked everything to secure a future for what we believe is Cumbria's very best craft brewery.

Apart from downward price pressures and upward coststhere are some very scary noises being made by the big boys in the beer industry. This week I find out about an FT article where it is claimed that there is a squeezed middle represented by brewers above the small brewers relief threshold. I have known about this for some time due to involvement with SIBA's policy committee.  The bigger breweries are claiming, the ones that say they are in the "squeezed middle", that they get no benefit of economies of scale. Clearly this cannot be true, but are in any case pissed off with us little guys for getting a duty discount.

It's a pity they are rocking the boat as I quite liked breweries similar to Moorhouses. I think it is time for a gloves off approach to these breweries myself, and to the larger breweries that no doubt are using these small pawns in their master plan to prevent great micro-brewed craft beer from becoming more the norm. The trouble for me is I know quite a lot about the threat created by the combination of oversupply and these big boy muscle flexing activities and worry about continuing viability and the sense in investment. They are threatening the small brewer's duty relief. If they take that we are doomed.

Of course it's not small brewer's duty relief that is the cause of their problem. It is the over supply and a decrease of value of beer in general. A crowded market where the product is largely seen as a commodity, when there is over supply, the price is bound to see downward pressure. If there are also upward pressures on costs eventually something has to give. From my perspective I have to look very carefully indeed at the situation.

"Looking forward" said the title. Indeed, and this is what I should do, but this post isn't doing that very well. So, let us formulate a plan. I think the options look a bit like this;

1. Look very carefully at our pricing and consider a significant increase.
2. Look very carefully at cask and either put up the price or stop producing it10.
3. Look very carefully at our operation and consider if we should just wind up what we are doing.
4. Do something very, very different.

What is very, very different? Is that not the same as giving up? No, definitely not.

I do not believe what we are doing here at Millom, the way we are doing it, has a long-term future. It might be possible to make it work in Millom, but only by achieving both significant inward investment and a significant increase of locally based sales. I do not believe either are possible in the short term11.

Investment is needed, and this cannot come from traditional sources. What I can promise is that if we do manage to sell our house and do manage a relocation plan we'll be approaching The Crowd, i.e. you, to help match what Ann and I are planning on risking.

More importantly any move will have to see a brewery that looks a lot different to not only what we are doing now, but different to anything anyone has ever seen in the UK before. It has to truly be audacious. It has to not only has to look different, and be different, it has to sell in a different way and  provide our drinkers with a different experience. Everything about it has to radically change the perception of brewing and make a change to the beer landscape of the UK.

Well, that's the plan anyway. I have many great ideas, some of them very exciting indeed. They will need to be honed, massaged, and beaten into shape. They need to be realistic and achievable, but only with blood sweat and probably a lot of tears. They will take a huge amount of effort, some conviction, support from many people and an understanding from some of my critics in the industry that we have big fish to fry. There will be some big personal risks to be taken and we will not be able to afford to take prisoners, big or small.

There are some big brewers out there after my skin, and yours. It doesn't matter if you are a local brewer, or a brewer further afield. Perhaps you are just a drinker, and don't see the danger. Perhaps you are a naive brewer who thinks that you are not part of the big beer market. Perhaps you are happy with us moving back to a beer industry with fewer players, which is what the FT article is really saying. Which ever way your motivation is, get on board, be part of what we want to achieve, and see a real change to the way micro-breweries can operate. Come along with us, if nothing else just for the giggles. But remember we represent the little guy fighting against those old established doctrines put out by many bigger and more powerful entities than us in the industry.

I think we represent the future. It might be a difficult one for sure, but if you want diversity in the beer industry and want a future that isn't the same old homogenous line of predictable beers lining every bar then come on board, support us and be part of it.

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1It's not specifically my mother's abdomen I miss, of course, but just the person in general. Conversely, there are an increasing number of days I feel a return to 1964 might well be a great idea. A reboot if you will. But this post is supposed to be about looking forward, so let us try that shall we?

2Yes, I am a remoaner. I feel strangely proud to be so, considering there was a time I was mildly Eurosceptic. I know, if you are a Brexiteer you'll be shouting "It was democracy" and all that. We should just shut up and accept the will of the people. However, if it had been 2% in the other direction I'm damn sure Nigel wouldn't have just fecked off and he would probably be shouting about how damn close it was. Hey ho.

3My kids don't seem to know who half of them are, and I remember my mother often saying things like "Gracie Fields has died" and me having no idea of who the hell she was talking about. There is an idea that as you get old you notice more people dying who you used to know, or know about. Cool, there is so much to look forward to in life.

4As a part of our New Year review I am pleased to say we are tentatively considering increasing our staff numbers, but will only do so if we feel we can afford to hire exactly the right people.

5For which I have huge thanks to extend to Scott who has worked incredibly hard to make sure the beer continues to get brewed and ensuring that actually this train didn't get derailed in that incredibly difficult year.

6The bad choice there was to agree to let a rogue have any credit what-so-ever. That man effectively stole £2000 from me. Actually, not just from me but from Hardknott, which I think is bigger than just me. It has left a huge dent in my enthusiasm and trust of people. It has left a huge dent in the motivation of the team here. He has effectively stolen from what I believe is the heart of what should be a strong driving force of great craft beer in Cumbria. He still owes it to us, just in case anyone is wondering. And no it is incredibly unlikely that I will let the subject drop until he pays me back plus interest.

At this point I am also going to mention the builder who's negligence wrote off our van. I'd also like to mention his insurer for failing to make appropriate payments. This is another event that has been rather crippling to me in more ways than one. Apart from it being perhaps the scariest moment of the year. Apart from the fact that every time I go out delivering myself in the van, which I have to do more often now due to staff shrinkage, I think about that big builders van apparently reversing towards me at great speed, and the subsequent impact into my side of our van. I fret about the insurance claim that is still not properly sorted, because the insurance company (NFU) refuses to acknowledge that there were significant issues brought about regarding our ability to deliver whilst the van was sorted, and that fact that my shoulder is still not really right, and hurts terribly at the end of a delivery run. The fact that they didn't offer me enough money to be able to replace the van so we fixed and made do (thanks Ryan for the door, you are a star in many ways) The fact that to replace the van, with its sign writing, would cost a lot more than the figure offered. The fact that every time I go out in the van now I hate it and strongly suspect I have some form of PTSD. This collision was in no way my fault and was the obvious negligence of the other driver failing to put the handbrake on in a fully laden 3.5 tonnes transit complete with driver's door buckling extra industrial tow hitch. I often think about the poor biker lady who's frantic arm waving attempts to warn me of impeding doom were to no avail. Added to this one troll on twitter questioned my sharing of the difficulties of delivering beer to sometimes extremely financially unviable locations. That particular idiot added significantly to my stress.

7I cannot understate Ann's incredibly hard work at keeping the ship together. Fighting off suppliers who almost never extend as much credit as some of our customers expect. The phone calls incessant from suppliers who want paid, rightly so, but who inevitably distract us from making beer. Or finding enough cash to pay suppliers because they rightly have us on stop. And yet if we dare to phone up some places for them to pay the bill they conveniently don't have the right people to talk to, or more often think we are being unreasonable despite the extent of the monies owed or time it has taken to pay. Oh, and the lies, them lies, why? Because they are making money out of the credit we extend to them, that's why.

Ann has absolutely been a bedrock of support to me. Even when I've had my worst days of wondering why the hell I'm trying to fight for this dream, she's been there through my foulest of moods. Knowing that there are days when she absolutely has to insulate me from some of the difficulties she has keeping the finances right. I do love her more than ever.

8We have identified that we rarely travel for the business without going through junction 36 on the M6, irrespective of the trip. Be it for deliveries, be it for sales calls, be it for meet the brewer events or for some trade event or other it is just about 95% of all our trade goes that way. Being in the south west corner of Cumbria puts 270 degrees of our immediate radius in the sea. The other 90 degrees consists mainly of mountains and the beautiful, but obstinate Black Combe standing defiantly in our path leaving only two narrow corridors from which to escape.

Of course there are ways of making a name for oneself from a far flung corner of the Universe and in doing so getting sufficient sales into more lucrative markets. Breweries have done it in the past, but generally it involves some sort of awesome, outspoken, audacious and game-changing noise making on the Internet. It can even help to bring along those friends who decide to ride with it. Unfortunately my own appetite for such things has been very severely dented by Internet trolls who I used to think of as my friends. This is a bigger problem for me than I expect they appreciate. 2017 will be different, it has to be. It is important whatever I do to get our message out and to ignore and perhaps even censor childish, irresponsible, distracting and mischievous noises off. They are the biggest reason I refrain more and more form blogging, and in turn sees my business suffer.

9Again, I have argued in the past that our costs are going up and as a result we need to put our prices up. This year in particular most of our suppliers are trying to put up prices, which of course we are resisting. It has been disappointing to me that some Internet trolls, that appear to me to be the sort of people that should be finding ways to help us all to increase the value of beer, have shot me down in a most un-useful and self-defeating way. Why are there people in the brewing industry that want to depress success and want to argue for a below cost supply of beer? These are people that are not doing very well themselves, so why drag everything down?

10I personally think that this amounts to the same thing. Cask has a price point. We can't make it for the price point demanded by the market. If we put up the price it won't sell in sufficient quantity to justify making it.

11We should note the phrase "I do not believe" - it might be possible should we invest significant amounts in both brewing equipment to increase efficiency and a major promotional push into the local environs. Perhaps some sort of crowd funded investment program could see the local fans we have both invest in the brewery and help us to push stubborn local licensees to stop buying shit, knock down priced beer. I have my doubts, but there is a little bit of me lives in hope, and I do know there are a significant number of fans out there who would like to see us stay.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

A Hardknott Christmas #2 - Azimuth Profiteroles

As explained in my last post, making food that incorporates hoppy beers is a challenge. Making a dessert with an IPA might seem ludicrous. However, I have a thought squirrelled away that has niggled at my brain for some time. Golden syrup, for instance, and treacle perhaps more so have a tangy bitterness subdued by the sugars that is not dissimilar to well executed hop bitterness, as is found in Azimuth.

The secret to making good beer, as with great culinary creativity, is balancing flavours to meld into an overall experience that meets with approval. I was curious to know what might happen if I combined the hop flavours of a good beer with the sweetness of a classic dessert. I knew it might not have worked, but as it happens I am very pleased with the results.

I decided to trial making choux pastry buns filled with creme patisserie and all with as much of the liquid replaced with Azimuth as I dare. In the end I managed to make sufficient for a dinner party of 4 and incorporated a full bottle of Azimuth in doing so.

Mindful of the need to avoid overheating of the beer, the recipe choice required the liquids to be boiled at some point in the process. This is breaking rule1 number 1 of making food with hoppy beers. I felt I had to try, and really, nasty industrial beer is pasteurised by heating it to silly temperatures, so I figured if I was careful it would work out OK.

For the choux pastry; I'm not here to replicate the plethora of recipes out there for general cooking well established classics. I'm trying help incorporate beer into these things. Good choux pastry recipes are all over the place on the internet, but they vary quite a bit. If in doubt I fall back on a book first published in 1950 with the edition we2 have reprinted in 1976 to include metric measures, if you please.



Despite the plethora of internet based information, you still can't beat a papery thing. Sadly this particular culinary bible seems to be out of print.

In this case I used 125ml out of a bottle of Azimuth to replace the water. The trick, as always with beer, is to only just take the beer to the temperature that is needed, and if at all possible avoid boiling. For choux the boil immediately prior to dumping in the flour is to distribute the melted butter. I got the mixture just under the boil and stirred it a little. Same thing really. After that I followed the recipe as if I had simply used water.

Once cool you can make the paste into whatever shape you wish to, using a piping bag if you are that way inclined. We aren't posh enough to have a piping bag, or arsed enough to make one from  greaseproof paper, I simply dollop on a baking tray. Make sure you cook them well enough otherwise you get a soggy centre and they collapse when cooling.

There are a huge number of creme patisserie recipes, with great variations. I could not find a definitive one either to link to or to post a copy-write infringing photo on here. Anyway, I did dick with this a little, so here goes.

Dave's IPA Creme Patisserie

Ingredients;
200ml Azimuth (The rest of the bottle)
100ml double cream
Vanilla pod
4 egg yolks
60g caster sugar
20g plain flour
10g corn flour
knob of butter3

Method;
Mix the Azimuth and cream in a pan, split the vanilla pod down it's length and remove seeds, put seeds and pod in the beer cream mix. Gently bring to just under the boil, set aside and rest for a minute.

Mix the egg yolks and sugar together well and then stir in the flour, both types.

Pour the hot liquid onto the egg yolk mixture and whisk. Return to the pan and heat until just and so boiling stirring all the time.

Remove from heat, beat until smooth, add knob of butter and continue to mix.

For best results, to ensure a smooth mix and to get out that vanilla pod, pass through a sieve whilst still hot and beat again4 before covering with cling film and cooling.

Then, take your choux buns, or whatever shape they are, and fill them with the confectioners custard.

Decorate if you want to impress, or just shove them in your mouth and eat them. Either way, I'm truly impressed with the resultant flavours.

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1My rules, I'm not sure if anyone else has made up a set of beer cooking rules, but I'm making my own up as I go along.

2I was going to say "I have" and I remember that there is an inscription in the inside cover clearly stating that it is Ann's, by rights. I'm sure my Grandmother had a copy too, which I believed I had inherited. Despite it's claim to be a "Northern Counties Cookery Book" I still find it to be a bedrock of general culinary information. Note use of salt, a pinch is great. Choux is generally considered used for dessert, and some call for sugar, but normally only if it's a Home Counties recipe. **rolls eyes** bloody southerners.

3Not margarine, or any sort of "I can't believe", butter tastes like butter, everything else is 5h1t3. However if you are concerned the butter is optional and just helps to add a nice sheen to the creme.

4On both occasions that I tried this there was evidence of the creme splitting after passing. I simply beat a little to recombine whilst it cools a little more. I guess it's the fact that I use double cream AND a knob of butter. Well creamy.

5It seems chefs use the word "pass" by itself to mean strain or pass through a sieve. Which is handy, and counters the word superfluation that irritates some pendants, as in the phrase "fry off the onions"

Saturday, 10 December 2016

A Hardknott Christmas - #1 Beer Pork Pie

My journey to being a brewer started with a general love of food and drink. My move away from a much better paying engineering job to the rather less financially secure future was driven by a passion for cooking and making tasty things. I still love all that sort of stuff and when I have time I spend hours making food that really, considering the man-hours, is incredibly labour intensive for the relatively small end result; but it's a labour of love that I cannot help myself getting drawn into.

Pork pie, done properly
Christmass is a time when many people who are normally far too busy to make great food start to turn to the Christmas classics. Be it a Christmas cake, a nice big ham, mince pies, yule log and of course the full turkey dinner complete with far too many sprouts and a healthy dose of stuffing and pigs in blankets. If you can't do it at Christmas when on earth should you?

A defining memory for me is that of my mother making a huge pork pie1, for which the process seemed to start with half a pigs head. I loved that pork pie, possibly partly because my Mum made it, and there is an unconditional need to enjoy every course up to pudding and cake2 lest I miss out on some due to having four brothers.

Speaking of which, I have to offer a hat-tip to my little brother for being the catalyst for this little experiment. A recent visit to see him resulted in me leaving with a very nice home-made pork pie for lunch on the way home. I'm not saying I'm competitive or anything, but I'm damed if he's going to beat me at making superb food.

It got me thinking about how to incorporate more beer into some of the cooking I do and in doing so giving me blog topics which I hope are inspirational to the reader. As an introductory post to this subject it seems I have quite a bit of information to disseminate, please bear with me, I am hopeful that it will be useful. It seems quite difficult to spend 3 days trying to perfect a pork pie recipe and not have a few things to say about the subject.

Hoppy beers, especially when dry hopped, are not best suited to incorporating into food3. This could put Hardknott beers at disadvantage. Making a slow cooked stew with Azimuth for instance will likely be the route for making a bitter stew and ruining a great beer.

Time for a cunning plan, which I hope will ripple through to a series of beer recipes over the next couple of weeks or so. I started with my own version of a pork pie, incorporating not one, but two beers.

There are many great pork pie recipes. There is little need to recreate them here. There is a solid one on the BBC food website. I shall try to focus on the detail of the beer incorporation in my own way and leave the reader to seek out his favourite recipe.

Pigs trotters make for the best jelly ever.
Jelly, this has to be the fundamental starting point for a pork pie, although it is actually used to finish the pie 😐. And jelly goes back to the even more fundamental culinary basic of a great stock4, it is my assumption that this is where the pigs head came in when my mother made pork pies. In my case I decided to go with pigs trotters, most really good butchers will let you have some for next to nothing and they make just about the very best jelly. In my case I got 8 in exchange for putting a couple of quid in the town clock fund. It helps that we prefer to buy in the local butcher rather than have to select the predictable shrink-wrap bollocks that are in the fridges of the local supermarket. He is a good chap our Paddy.

As it turns out I didn't need 8 pigs trotters. Two perhaps would have been quite sufficient. On the other-hand, we now have a significantly over-spoilt dog who really doesn't know he is born, and a dinning room floor that resembles a cave inhabited by a huge pack of carnivores. We also have sufficient pork jelly to make any amount of pork-related dishes. It'll freeze well I expect.

I covered the trotters with water in my biggest pan, which is about 12 litres. After simmering very gently for about 6 hours and straining5 the result was around 6 litres of a stock of the loveliest consistency, which seemed like it would probably set easily if chilled without further treatment. However, I decided to reduce6 it to around a quarter of the volume until the hot bubbling stock was really thick and almost like syrup. On cooling it set quite hard similar to those jelly cubes you buy for kids parties. This was exactly as I required. Effectively I've done all the boiling needed before adding any beer and in so doing removed the liquid volume that the beer will later replace.

My pork stock reduced to the
minimum gloopy sort of consistency
Of course a quick solution would simply be to carefully dissolve gelatine in beer, but I expect the result will be significantly less satisfactory and lack the meatiness I've achieved. The overall effect I was looking for was that of making a good solid jelly that also containing beer. One approach would have been to simmer the pigs trotters in beer. I knew this was foolish for all the reasons I've touch on already. I wanted to get beer into this jelly but by minimal heating of the actual beer as possible. My concentrated pig jelly was an absolute perfect starting point.

I decided to use Newton's Downfall for the beer-jelly. Well, it is 30% apple juice and apples and pork are a good match. I took a full 330ml bottle and made it up to about 500ml with my pork jelly concentrate. I then warmed the beer-jelly mix very gently to get the jelly thoroughly dissolved in the beer, but only just so as to not over-heat the beer. This can then be put in the fridge until needed for finishing the pie. This quantity should be about right for the size of pie I'm suggesting here, so long as the pie is greedy for jelly, which can be tricky to achieve, as I'll come to. I am also planning on trying to use the idea in some sort of terrine, work in progress.

To the pie itself. I did decide to strip all the meat and other soft tissue from the trotters to incorporate into my first prototype. Having now done it once I'd say it's a bit of a ball-ache and it's best just to give the lot to the dog and let him sort out what he wants. However, I am considering laminate flooring to replace the carpet in the dinning room.

Nutmeg, black pepper, chopped garlic, thyme, sage,
mace and salt as the seasoning mix for the pork meat
For the successful third attempt I used belly pork mixed with a little bit of bacon. Some people like to use leaner meat and add a little bit of pork fat. I am completely unsure why, as belly pork seems to get there much more economically. What is perhaps more of a question is the coarseness of the chop or grind of the meat. I think one of the defining things with my mothers pies was that it was not 100% pork mince. There were lumps of pork. I decided to simply chop up my belly pork into very small lumps rather than have it minced as I like the course texture.  Adding a little bit of chopped bacon certainly seems to help both flavour and colour wise. A total of about 1.5kg of pork meat seems about right.

I added nutmeg, mace, salt, sage, thyme, chopped garlic and black pepper. Most recipes ask for white pepper, I prefer black, personal choice and exact choice of herbs and spices, and quantities, is down to individual taste. I do really like the mace and nutmeg combo though, it's the defining spices in Cumberland sausage.

Scott suggested I try using Dark Energy in the pastry. I was, and if I were honest still am a little unsure about this idea, but I'm running with it for now. On the positive sides the finished pie browns easier and somehow the pastry is smoother and better bound. However, I only did one trial without so there is too much human factor to consider in the variability.

Filled pie, with apple on top, just before the lid goes on.
Next time we see inside it'll be cooked and scrummy.
As the pastry is going to be baked I was concerned about the increase of bitterness. This it turns out does not seem to be an issue7. However, despite the raw pastry having a quite delicious looking chocolate colour, I'm not convinced the finished pie hasn't got a greyness about it when cut into that might be considered unappetising.

None-the-less on making the hot water crust I ensured that I heating the beer until just boiling and no more and then immediately dumped in the flour. Kneading the resultant ball of dough as quickly as possible seems to be the key. The dough at about 60 degrees it's hard to handle, but ensuring a smooth dough and getting it made into your pie case quickly brings rewards. I strongly recommend, by bitter experience, using a pie tin with a removable base. A less satisfactory solution is to use a solid pie dish with foil lining.

For reference I used;

250ml Dark Energy (other beers can be used)
200g lard or pork fat (The fat recovered from the stock works well)
560g plain flour
1 tsp salt

A couple of months ago I was given some windfall cooking apples by a kindly neighbour. At the time I made an apple pie, but still had loads of apples left, so I froze them. Pork pie with apples and apple beer? Seems perfect, so in went the apples.

My Newton's Downfall and Dark Energy pork pie.
Also useful as a doorstop or any other application
where significant matter and energy density is required
and absolutely no use whatsoever as part of a
calorie controlled diet - please consume responsibly
and follow with a brisk 5 mile walk
DO NOT ATTEMPT TO EAT UNLESS SHARING
I'm a bit of  stickler for food hygiene. I worry a lot about inappropriate heating or cross contamination, or meat not being cooked appropriately. Pork of course is a potential for health risk. I like to check anything I can with a meat thermometer. Most recipes seem to call for about 2½ hours at 250℃ and I can confirm by thermometer that this works well getting the core temperature to about 75℃.

Once the pie is cooked and started to cool we want at some point to get our jelly into the pie.8 I seem to have perfected a way of preventing most issues with this. While the pie is still warm, about an hour or two after finishing cooking, wrap the underneath of the pie with clingfilm and place back in the pie dish. This way the jelly cannot leak out of the pastry case but everything is still warm enough for the jelly to percolate all the little nooks and crannies it needs to get into. Warm the jelly just enough to get it nicely liquid. It took me several hours of topping up the jelly to get my best pie as full as I could, and it took most of my 500ml of jelly. The idea is that the jelly and the pie contents are more-or-less cooling at the same rate thereby eliminating food safety risks.

Cool and then chill, preferably overnight.

Share and enjoy, washed down with lots of beer, whilst recounting the story of the time one of your brothers stole all the chocolates of the Christmas Tree whilst the other got the blame. That's porkie pies for you. (it wasn't me)

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1Well it seemed huge, I was only little at the time.

2We all knew we wouldn't get pudding if we didn't eat up our mains. When you have brothers who will happily eat your share of cake you daren't miss out, even if it does mean you have to eat sprouts.

3Do I hear you ask why? Basically, beers that have great hop character without being over bitter generally have hops added late in the boil or in dry hopping. Us brewers are looking for lots of juicy flavours and aromas but without the isomerisation of alpha acids.

Alpha acids come from hops and are the source of bitterness in beer, but these compounds only create that bitterness after being in the boil for a period of time. To minimise that bitterness production but to maximise on the lovely hop characteristics we want we put most of the hops in very late in the boil or in dry hopping. However the alpha acids are still there and will convert to bitterness quite quickly should we boil the beer again. Additionally the great flavours and aromas we love in good hoppy beers come from compounds that are a lot more unstable or volatile and will be destroyed or driven off by heating.

4Making stock doesn't create the most exiting bit of on-line entertainment, but I did a little video a while back about chicken stock. We do this all the time in this house and have a quantity of chicken stock in the freezer meaning I can rustle up a savoury rice in about 30 minutes. If I have one culinary tip to give anyone to improve their home cooking it's learn how to make stock. Once you try it you'll see why I object to stock cubes. You can watch the rather boring video here.

5Once I had strained the stock off the bones etc I skimmed the fat off the stock and tried to leave the sediment behind. This is easier done by cooling and chilling overnight in the fridge. This way the fat is solid and can be scoopped off the top and then the bulk of the now jellyfied stock dug out off the solid sediment. You need patience, an spare day and a big fridge. I currently lack all of these things.

6Stock reduction by boiling is a great trick to use when trying to concentrate flavours and consistencies. Of course many commercial convenience additives are made the same way. Classics are tomato sauce, chutney and jam. Commercial gelatine is no doubt produced in a similar way.

7I do know that alpha acid utilisation becomes significatly less efficent in strong beers like barley wines and double IPAs. If we couple that to a sweetening effect of the carbohydrates in the wheat flour we may get an explanation of a flavour that actually does work quite well.

8We have a number of conflicting constraints to worry about. Number one is that we want this high risk food to be chilled as soon as possible. A big pie like this isn't going to cool quickly. If it cools too far and we try to get the jelly into the pie it will set and not permeate the pie well enough.  If we pour in hot jelly into an already cool pie we risk local reheating of the meat and so create a potential bacterial growth. If we pour warm jelly into a hot pie the jelly will run out of any small hole it can find in our not-quite-perfect pastry. For reasons of food safety most recipes call for the pie to be chilled and the jelly only just melted before application to the pie. I can confirm this is a silly thing to do as you will get a thimbleful of jelly into the pie before the jelly sets and blocks the steam hole, unless you have feeble watery jelly that isn't worth diluting your pie with. Equally we should still worry about damaging the flavours of the beer with heat.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

We're better than the Bank of England

Five Pound Note - not vegan friendly
Apparently the new five pound note has traces of tallow in it. Tallow comes form cows, mainly. Veggies, vegans and Hindus for instance are getting upset about this.  This is a bit of a shame as I quite like the new more durable version. It occurred to me however that our bottled and keg beers have been free from all animal products for several years, but we just haven't really made a big deal out of it.


As it so happens, before the meaty five pound note scandalwe had already started to get our labels revamped to reflect the fact that our bottled beers are indeed significantly more vegan friendly than the five pound note.


We'd been spurred into action earlier in the year when CAMRA also performed a silly cock-up by making a big fuss about isinglass2. Silly old CAMRA, after all, it is only really cask beer that uses such finings. Dirty scummy keg beer and bottled beers that are not "Real" will certainly not contain isinglass. So the bulk of the beer CAMRA was campaigning for was in fact the very thing they were on that occasion complaining about.

Hardknot Bottled Beer - very vegan friendly

The first of these new labels have started to be used on new bottles we're producing, watch out for them on your next beer buying spree.

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1To be honest, I'm having a struggle calling it a scandal. It's an unfortunate oversight caused by the fact that much of industry uses by-products of animals during manufacture. Most of us are blissfully unaware and would not make the effort to check. Vegans do care and can avoid purchasing products containing such animal derived compounds. Of course as the five pound not is now is fairly wide-spread circulation it is difficult to avoid using it if you do care. A rather silly and embarrassing thing to have happened. Rather than calling a scandal I'd prefer to use the term silly cock-up.

2I am sure most readers of this blog do not need me to explain about isinglass, but just in case....cask beer is generally racked direct from the primary fermenter into the cask. It may well have quite a high loading of yeast and other debris. The brewer puts a does of isinglass into the cask to help the suspended solids drop out once the cask is laid nicely in the pub cellar. The trouble is isinglass is manufactured from fish stuff. I'm not a vegan, but I still object to it because the stuff is quite horrible. It is often given the nickname of whale jiz, which is a fairly accurate description of it's appearance.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Hibernal Glow - a winter warmer


Buy Hibernal Glow

Well, here we go, the big rundown to Chrimbo. Every year we question if we should do a Christmas beer or not. Will it all sell, or will we have a job-lot left effectively unsalable in the New Year.

We've been lucky with our previous offer, Figgy Pudding, and managed to sell it all in time for Christmas. However, with the margins on beer being so damn tight it is important not to end up with waste that effectively turns margins into a negative number.

This year we went for something that was sort of Christmassy, but still without being overtly packaged as such. It's really just a winter warmer, a beer to hibernate with.

We made a chocolate orange porter, because it's a nice thing to have this time of year. Packed with orange peel and cocoa nibs you can certainly say that both are there in abundance.

I love winter in Cumbria. At least when it is cold and clear, rather than that miserable wet and windy season. I've been out on the fells and got various bits of imagery of our inspirational county, and bunged it into a very short video.

As usual we worked very hard to get a label design that matched the quality of our beer. The guys at LemonTop Creative pulled out all the stops and produced the rather arty design very befitting of the work of art inside the bottle. I'm really pleased with it, both the label and the beer.

It's getting to be a bit of an obsession of mine to take the label artwork and bring it to life. It is a sort of outward expression of intent as to the inward effort we put into creating our beers.



Hibernal Glow from Hardknott Brewery on Vimeo.