Saturday 21 January 2017

In the Dry Dock

For those still linked to this blog or those who are skulking, half-cut, in the darkness by your lap top waiting for news of my next move so you can bitterly adjust the angle of the voodoo doll or leave comments on the Harbour web site under several different profiles saying I drown kittens and club baby seals, I thought I’d do a short and final update on my brewing life before this blog is stopped good and proper, forever. Of course, I appreciate that I’ve said “that’s it” before and therefore you have no reason to believe a word I say.

I departed Sharp’s and Molson Coors in 2015 to take on a new challenge at Butcombe. Many have speculated about why I left Sharp’s. I hope you don’t want me to explain because the truth is I can’t remember.

Butcombe is a genteel West Country regional brewery with an iconic bitter as its flagship brand and a name that Americans love. The team there are so genuinely nice that if they made a documentary about the place it would make Doc Martin look like Reservoir Dogs. Characters to a man. The greatest exemplar of which is Barry Badger, a man with the tact and civility of a butler from one of Somerset's great houses when sober who transforms into a Manc football hooligan after 3 G&Ts. 
How be on Tristan? 
Leaving a fast-paced 24/7 brewery on the Friday and starting there on the Saturday was a bit like going on Holiday. Just so I didn’t feel too comfortable it was arranged to have a 7.5-tonne lorry drive over my new sports car on my first day.  One of my start up goals was to work on the iconic Butcombe Bitter. I am not revealing any trade secrets when I say that the Bitter has at times, to speak euphemistically been slightly less accessible to delicate palates than is desirable for a commercial brand. Or as one of the staff there put it after 3 pints you felt like you needed a to get your throat relined. For the first few months every change I made seemed only to make things catastrophically worse but then, with help from my newly assembled flavour panel and the brilliant team of brewers we started to make some serious headway and the beer and sales improved to the point where we nearly ran out of beer. I believe they are still doing very well, they certainly deserve to. 

I also had the pleasure of getting Butcombe through an important food safety audit. Those of you not familiar with the dirty end of a brewing food safety audit will not appreciate true horror of the concept. You have to assemble a mile-high pile of paperwork to prove that things that you don’t need to do in the first place, because the risk is low to the point where it doesn’t exist in reality, are being done and relentlessly documented. Examples are taking the appropriate steps to ensure no one gets a Stanley knife dispensed into their pint glass or catches herpes from a bottle of Bitter. An auditor who used to be the food safety manager for Pete’s Pasties doesn’t understand that a knife won’t fit down a beer line or that the herpes virus can’t be transferred in a solution of beer (let alone survive in it), so you need countless records showing that you can account for every knife in the brewery and anyone with a cold sore has been sent home to watch Judge Rinder. You also need to get all your staff trained in how to segregate raw chicken from chicken pate. Vital knowledge for anyone making a chicken breast saison which is barrel-aged with chicken liver pate and foie gras but not really applicable to Butcombe. The only thing stupider was the fire consultant for Molson Coors telling me that we need to fit 3 fire extinguishers in a concrete room filled on with water and metal in case any of the above materials caught fire. I'm sure every beer drinker gets a warm feeling knowing their favourite tipple is a few pence more expensive because brewers need to protect them from the impossible. 

After Butcombe I had a brief sojourn in a personal development summer camp where I was coached in being nice to other people’s friends, not saying what I thought, caring more about ethos and the ethereal than beer and brewing and how to placate capricious drunks. All-in an enriching and valuable life lesson.

Next on the agenda was a move back to the most Cornish county in the UK, Cornwall. I started in Harbour brewing in picturesque Bodmin in November last year. Harbour is an exciting young brewery, with exciting young people, making exciting beers. You can see where I fit in. I am starting a Harbour-centric blog elsewhere but I will finish this post by giving you a flavour of what we are looking to achieve.

The plan is to bring artistry and creativity back into the brewing “space”. For too long beer has been about long hours, science, dedication and attention to detail when everyone knows the path to true greatness is gnarly and raw creativity. At harbour we are not afraid of going radical. For example, we have removed the roof from the Brewhouse so that our creative thought processes are not stifled by a ceiling and we can live in the stars on a nightshift. We have renamed the brewhouse as “our wort birthing space” and have installed a chill out zone with hammocks and piped in the sounds from a whale’s womb (or Radio 6) to enable spiritual harmony with the yeast. Because beer shouldn’t be about numbers but about self-expression, instead of tank numbers we have asked local graffiti artists to adorn the vessels with conceptual art and use this to track the brew. Every new brew concept is created over at least 6 months in a process involving bean bags, interpretive dance, throat singing and meditation. All our packaging is designed by clinically-insane amputees from Denmark because that makes it better. We are, as one brewer put it, spending time planning how we will cope with the hero worship which is bound to result from what we achieve. 
Niels, one of our can designers
The whole last paragraph is of course total bollocks (for Harbour at least). If you are interested in the real story, my new Harbour blog will be up and running soon. Join me there in a few days.    

This is the last song I will ever sing
I’ve changed my mind again

Good night and thank you.

Saturday 10 May 2014

Recipe for

Busy days, busy days. I had an hour in departures this week with no wireless and a useless phone so my 150 e-mails per day couldn’t find me. During my cold turkey I was motivated to write a blog post. As usual my motivation was annoyance/anger/incredulity at something a few people with more mouth than trousers believe as fact and broadcast with an authority without foundation.

One of the simplest things you do as a proper brewer is write a recipe. It’s a simple mathematic exercise using yields and a bit of experience and reading to predict how a beer will come out and through a number of iterations, getting it to taste how you want it to given the characteristics of your process. For the some it appears to be of the most fundamental importance. That is because they are not brewers and do not brew for a living. 

Why is there this misapprehension in some of the drinking public? It’s because brewing isn’t as simple as most people want it to be. A good analogy is cooking. Great chefs don’t do a great deal of cooking. They like great brewers design a process which brings their ideas to fruition. They procure equipment to their design, they assemble, train and manage their team, they set the specification of their ingredients and every aspect of what they send to the diner’s table. They have the level of education and experience, the talent and most importantly total dedication to produce great flavour under duress. That’s what separates the “chef” in a Nando’s and one in a Michelin- starred restaurant. 

Those who argue that failed/former chef’s, farmers, baristas, IT professionals etc. who like beer enough to give brewing a crack are modern day brewing geniuses after a year or so in a cheap brewhouse do not understand beer or brewing sufficiently. Greatness is not beginner’s luck. The only aspect of fortune in the development of someone who can make great food or drinks is when they are born with a demanding palate and a brain equipped with the attributes to make something to appease it. Everything else is down to hard work and sacrifice.

The hard bit about making beer is making sure that all the elements which impact on your recipe are defined, controlled and protected from balls ups, accountants and changes inherent in natural ingredients with time and season. Not writing a recipe. 

Also for those interested here’s some facts and opinion about the UK’s biggest selling cask ale from two learned gents and a shaven monkey with a face that looks like he’s fallen down stairs with his hands in his pockets.


Sunday 16 February 2014

And From Here on We Will Rise

Has it really been a month? No more than a month actually. I will not betray you by apologising. Jetting around Europe, drinking Sahti and long days planning 2014 expansions have left no time for blogging. 

February sees me getting out there at a couple of big brewing industry events. I am on a discussion (argument descending into insults and violence) panel at Craft Beer Rising and about 15 of my beers will be on show on the Sharp’s and Franciscan Well bars at the event. Here’s a list of the one off casks we are taking: 

Panzerfaust 2013
Brewed as a collaboration with Adrian Tierney-Jones in 2013 as the first ever black Gose beer in the world….ever. Smooth , creamy, tangy and appetising, a wonderful fusion of dark malts and fragrant dry hopping! Aged for a year to Gose perfection. ABV 5%

Honey Spice IPA 2013 cask
The cask version of the Connoiseur’s Choice Honey Spice IPA. It is brewed with Cornish honey and dry hopped with 4 US hop varieties and spiced with Malabar peppercorns. Aged in cask for 3 months 7% ABV.

Lactic Armageddon III
A honey ale fermented with brewer’s yeast to 7% ABV and then soured by lactic acid bacteria and wild yeast for 4 years until staggeringly sour and complex. Pure lactic enjoyment for the palate. 

Special Ale
Classic special bitter with Simcoe and Centennial hops. Deep rich flavours and a clean moreish finish. Has won world’s best Pale Ale and several other international awards. 5% ABV

Juniperus 2013
Brewed as a collaboration with spirits writer Lucy Britner using juniper berries from Plymouth Gin. Dry hopped with new world hops and fermented to 5 %ABV. Aged in cask for 6 months to produce a rounded and spicy amber ale.

Winter Berry, 4.4% abv
Complex malt and dark berry fruit flavours combine with a spicy hop aroma and a tantalising Morello cherry topnote to create an exceptional full bodied beer. Matured with whole British cherries for a clean, dry finish and lingering gentle bitterness with fruit overtones.

Also on show will be this year’s Connoisseur’s Choice beers, so this is an event I’m sure you will want to visit.

Next week sees me addressing the great and the good of the beer industry at the Beer Innovation Summit. I wouldn’t say I am nervous but put it this way, my brief case will be not short of Tena Man!

Finally yesterday was spent in the brewery filming a tasting film of all the Sharp’s beers with Adrian Tierney Jones and Ed Hughes. Being filmed drinking 10 beers did lead to a relaxed feel to the last couple. I hope I am not dribbling by the end.  

As soon as the film is on line I’ll put up a link so you may laugh and mock.

Monday 23 December 2013

Drinking's Answer to Lap Dancing

There were 12 casks in the cellar at Sharp’s this morning. A monstrously-record pre-Christmas week of sales reduced a stock level of over 17,000 casks to 12 like Christmas piranhas decimating a cow carcass. The buzz you get from a week like this is one of the best feelings in brewing. When I joined Sharp’s we were selling just over this amount in a year. 

I was in Germany last weekend. Cologne to be precise. My second time in the vibrant city, home of Kolsch, a pale ale that really wants to be a lager. I tried about 6 different versions of the style and enjoyed their cleanness although none really impressed. Spending the evening before in Brussels meant that these beers were measured with a tight gauge. My judgement may also have been influenced by what I think is the stupidest way to sell beer ever devised.

In Cologne you get beer in a slim cylindrical 200ml glass (less than half a pint). The reason for the small size is to ensure that your beer is fresh. Waiters with a special basket-like tray full of fresh glasses work their way between the tables and will replace your empty glass with a full one unless you cover your glass with a beermat. Great idea, no one likes flat, warm keg beer. What is a great idea in theory becomes a torture of deprivation when there aren’t sufficient waiters to replenish glasses when they are empty.

I spent what felt like half my life waiting for a beer. In the first pub I waited for 10 minutes with a mouth like the Sahara before I finally got a beer. As you would expect 200ml went in two sips and fewer seconds. My empty glass then sat on the table for another 10 minutes (leaving occasionally to be licked clean of beer by a desperate drinker). When the waiter came back I asked for 4 beers. I got one.

If you go to a Brauhaus in Cologne and find forehead-shaped dents in the table you know why! The scene of the red-faced Englishman going from hope to despair via anger and frustration was repeated in another 3 pubs before I gave in and went back to my hotel via the off licence. I wasn’t desperate to get blind drunk I just wanted to drink steadily and not spend all afternoon preoccupied with the likelihood of getting another beer before I needed to catch the train back home. 

The first thing I did when back on English soil was to walk up to the bar and order a pint, drink it and order another one. Ah freedom.

So as the year comes to a close it’s time to look back to a year of change and plenty of high points and forward to bigger challenges and rewards. I wish you a great midwinter celebration and a successful and enriching New Year.

Friday 29 November 2013

6 Years Gone in an Instant

It’s been a while. I’m on a train. All the elements of a great train journey are in place. The bloke opposite keeps staring at me, there is a screaming toddler 3 rows down and an unnerving smell is coming from the woman behind me. As I can’t think of any proper work to do I’m taking he opportunity for to do a long since due post. 

A lot has happened since my last effort. I’ve been to half of Europe looking at breweries, had several good dinners, great games of rugby, have almost bought a shiny new brewery for the Franciscan Well expansion in Cork, brought a couple of new beers to fruition with two more in tank and ready to bottle before Christmas and last but by no means least won around 10 other international medals in various beer competitions.

We decided to keg Pilsner because a trial in a select range of pubs was staggeringly positive. This coincided nicely with the win in the World Beer Awards, which was nice! Taking a highly conditioned live bottled beer and moving it to keg was a serious challenge in term of flavour matching. When you make a wholesale change to the format a beer is presented in you are never going to get identity. You need to capture the elements of the flavour which work in the original format and translate them to the new package. With the Pilsner it was the sweet fruitiness in the mouth and clean crispness of the finish which needed to be ported across the format change while adapting the dryness of the beer to make it work with a lower level of carbonation. I love the keg version more than the bottle but they are both beautiful in their own way. The flavour panel and I tried the beer side by side and were resounding in their approval for both. Given the amount of reorders we have had the drinkers tend to agree.

The Connoisseur’s Choice 2013 beers are all brewed and fermented with the Honey Spiced IPA back from the bottlers and for sale in our shop. I set out to make Honey Spice showcase the best that modern hop varieties can give. I’ve made no secret of my disdain for the unbalanced hop bomb which rips through the palate like lemon juice and crushed glass chewing gum, a beer brewed for idiots by idiots. We used £7,000 worth of hops in Honey Spice IPA so there was a major risk that we’d be in that realm of flavour. I am delighted to report that what we have produced is perhaps almost not bitter enough although still above the limits of accurate measurement in terms of bittering units.

My assistant after the selection process
 Last Saturday I had the extremely enjoyable task of selecting the vintages for the 6 vintage blend from my cask stock in the brewery cellar. A journey down beer memory lane! It doesn't seem like 6 years have passed since I brewed these. Some of the beer was stunningly beautiful, almost a shame to not be launched on their own and some of the 5-6 year old beers were a fresh tasting as when they were racked. The soured beer which was had a mild acidity to it 2 years ago was almost pure vinegar. I had to resist the temptation to add these but I am going to get a small amount bottled to either sell as hopped vinegar or extreme sour beer for any UK craft beer fashionistas who are following the US trend of replacing fizzy bile with fizzybattery acid as de rigueur in the “awesome” beer appellation. The blend is due to be assembled in tank on Monday ready for bottling mid-December. This is a beer I can’t wait to sample. 

Last of the Connoisseur’s Choice beers this year is the Premiant-themed Single Brew Reserve 2013. First wort and dry hopped with Czech Premiant hops, it is sitting in CTs 16 and 17 and smells absolutely stunning. An orange/lemon hop rhapsody I haven’t yet dared taste for the fear that it might not live up to the promise of its aroma.   

All of these beers are to receive a full all-guns-blazing extravaganza of pyrotechnic marketing brilliance in the launch in the weeks before Christmas. Then they will be available to enjoy.