Wednesday 27 July 2011

Fantasy and Superstition

Today I am wearing my lucky Wednesday socks. You may think it strange that me, a man of science would have superstitions. Brewing is an art which relies to varying degrees on luck. Sometimes in the best run breweries where everything is measured and controlled the biological nature of the process leads to a change which is undesirable. In fact undesirable doesn’t cover it, a living hell and a waking nightmare comes closer.

Since I have been brewing I have accumulated a laughable range of superstitions. The day begins with getting up at a time where the minutes are not 13. 5:15 is fine, 5:13 spells disaster. The lucky socks are then donned with the right one worn inside out. The magpies encountered on the way into work must be saluted, called lovely, and asked how their wives are. I must then spit and touch blue then black. Also on my route in I must weave in and out to avoid the manholes in the road. This superstition has led to a few near misses and one finger greetings from oncoming motorists.

On arrival I must follow my usual routine of checks and later when I read the micro results this must be done in a specific order starting with getting the anaerobic bag out of the incubator. The time 11:11 is lucky and I try to look at clocks around this time. Unfortunately eleven thirteen (I can’t write the numerals out or this post will be blighted) is very unlucky, so my timing must be good. The brewery boiler is kept running by a rusty horseshoe on the burner cover. This horseshoe was moved across from the old burner when we up-scaled. It has not proven to be overly effective over the years but we persevere.

Should my superstitions not do the trick I hedge my bets by working hard and maintaining a healthy level of distrust of all equipment and analyses. As I have discovered this week there are some things in life which you can’t gain through hard work, superstition or luck.

Be lucky       

Tuesday 19 July 2011

See how your rules spoiled the game

There is a fact which is oft quoted, “On average when a customer has a good experience they tell two people. When they have a bad experience they tell ten”. This may be true, partially true, based on the truth or inaccurate. I would love to see the survey techniques, population and the statistical analysis behind it. I had a good experience on Saturday night with the best meal I have had in recent memory so I thought I’d do my bit to shift the statistical balance and tell you, the thousand or so people who view my blog each week. The meal at the Longcross Hotel, Port Isaac was solid, unfussy, flawless and satisfying. As an aperitif I had a bottle of Cuvee Saint-Gilloise which was sensationally fantastic and could have contributed a slight halo effect, as did the very well kept Sharp’s served at the bar.

I would like to pass on my commiserations to Brewdog for losing their pitch at the GBBF. There is a silver lining of course. In cancelling their booking CAMRA have managed to remind Brewdog that they do in fact hate CAMRA and everything they stand for. I wonder how such strong feelings could have been forgotten so readily? It seems now that they were only going to buy a pitch there to save drinkers from the scourge that is cask ale and beer made without American hops. The thousands of pounds saved should be some consolation and could be used to stage a radical stunt out the front of Earl’s Court involving burning effigies of middle aged people with sandals and beards or perhaps a tissue paper model of a noble hop cone. I’m sure that as people with integrity and a respect for beer and brewing they will let their boycotting of the event do the talking, I for one hope so.       

Thursday 14 July 2011

Winning the X Factor

Sometimes by accident or imposition I watch some of the X Factor and the now, very similar, Masterchef. At some point in these programmes you encounter the inane interview with contestants who have to confirm to the producers that winning does indeed mean everything to them with varying degrees of conviction, hysteria and sincerity. The first time I saw one of these I asked myself what achievement would mean that much to me? Winning the rugby world cup would have been nice and a number one single for my band Snot Trof would have been an unlikely but welcome financial gain. The All Party Parliamentary Beer Group Brewer of the Year however has been my X Factor for as long as I have known of its existence. Yesterday I found out I had won.

When I started my training back in 1996 I read in The Brewer Magazine that the Head Brewer of Marston’s, Paul Bayley had won the Brewer of the Year. I used to drive 20 miles to buy nips of Owd Roger when I was 18 and Pedigree was my Geography teacher’s favourite beer. At the time I thought one day I would like to work for him bringing happiness to chubby 18 year olds and geography teachers. I never dreamt that in 15 years time I would be receiving the same award. I still can’t quite take it in (clich├ęd but true). Looking down the list of great brewers who have won the accolade before me I felt somewhat of an imposter. This award is another dream that working for Sharp’s has helped to realise and I owe a vast debt of thanks to the team at the brewery for making the beer and the business what it is today as well as tolerating me day in day out!


While I am about it I should thank all those who have helped make me the brewer I am. Jean-Marie Rock, Tony Skipper, Chris Evans, Peter Scholey, Jeff Drew, Martin Kelly, Andy Rolstone, Kevin Mitchell, Paul Corbett, Peter Simpson, Buster Grant and Ade Redgrove have all been a pleasure to work and trade with and have shaped my career by varying degrees. Thanks should go to the Beer Writers; the late Michael Jackson, Tim Webb, Roger Protz, Adrian Tierney-Jones and Jeff Evans for helping ignite the spark of beer love back in the mid ‘90s. Thanks also to all brewers around the world who make the beers that I love and continue to be an inspiration to me.

Before the event I was pleased enough to have my beer paired with the starter, I never imagined I’d be getting the award. To anyone who was at the dinner last night I apologise sincerely for my appallingly unBritish reaction to the award. Seeing a grown man cry is never pleasant, especially one as big and ugly as me. Trying to compose myself after I received my tankard was not made any easier by Dave Wickett receiving a very well deserved lifetime achievement award directly after. A very emotional moment. Seeing Dave and watching him accept his prize made the evening complete.     

Saturday 9 July 2011

Why write, and then leave me cold?

It is a tired Friday night. My conditioning tanks are nearly all empty. My fermentation vessels full, a scenario which spells busy! I saw a hand-written letter on a desk in telesales at 7PM and for an hour or so the stresses and strains of the week seemed insignificant. The letter was from a landlord complimenting Sharp’s on our beers and saying how they are the most popular beers on the bar. Competition wins and critical acclaim are great but for most brewers what counts most is the voice of the customer.

Some brewers are able to be philosophical about their beer. They prefer people to like them but aren’t overly worried if some don’t. I’ve never managed this. To me if people like my beers I’m elated and if they don’t, devastated. A former boss said to me "don’t worry it’s only beer". My response did not do a great deal for my prospects of a pay rise.

We once had a landlord who would sell loads of our beer all year with no problems at all. A month away from the price negotiations he would start to pick fault with what we sent him. He would suggest that it had changed and was not the beer it once was. He would also hint that he could slag our beer off to his customers and promote the competition if we did not reduce his prices. When he visited the brewery to negotiate next year’s price it was suggested that I was locked in a cupboard to prevent me from getting near him. They didn’t have to in the end because I was busy elsewhere but put it this way, I’m glad that I didn’t see him (but not as glad as he would have been!).  

Making something you love and sending it to a customer feels as if you are laying yourself bare. Like asking the girl you fancy for a dance at the school disco. Approval is food for the soul, rejection is insult and heartbreak. Sounds a bit dramatic but when you care about what you do that’s how it is. It doesn’t make for a contented life because the lows are felt more acutely than the highs. The highs however are so fantastically intoxicating that it’s addictive. When I worked at the Berkshire Brewery making Fosters and Kronenbourg I missed the highs so much that I only stayed for three months. The fact that the flavour panels were a chore also contributed.

Spare a thought for brewers like me when you are sampling beer but most of all be honest and constructive with them. Some of the most important improvements I have made to my techniques have been wrought from criticism. The most profound betrayal of a brewer is to slag his beers off behind his back.

Bier met liefde gebrouwen drink je met verstand. If ever a phrase had been brutally raped it is this one!

Tuesday 5 July 2011

Do hear me as you sleep?

A quick post just to let you know that a couple of 9s of 18-month aged honey tripel will be on sale at Chelmsford Beer Festival. It is leaving the brewery as a 9% ABV of balanced flavour explosion (if I do say so myself). I hope that it finds you in good order.

Saturday 2 July 2011

A Date with Density

My blog has become boring. How do I know that? Because my mummy told me. She said a tiredness has crept into my writing and my prose has become sloppy. For this dear readers I apologise and I will try harder to tease, entertain and scintillate. This week has been one of those weeks. Last week was also one of those weeks so I am hoping for a not one of those weeks next week. If you get my meaning.

On Thursday Sharp’s said adieu to Mike Queenan our Molson Coors health and safety guru. Mike has been with us for a couple of months and has coped admirably with trying to help us raise our game in terms of health and safety. The health and safety professional is a modern day crusader riding in on a white horse and converting the unenlightened masses to the gospel of the risk assessment and safe working practice. Revered by all, they bring meaning to an otherwise directionless world. I hope irony can be sensed through a screen. I didn’t envy Mike’s role one bit (although the wages would have been nice). As a stranger to the company, Mike had to come in and make busy people’s lives more complicated and accept as much cooperation as you would expect under the circumstances. Mike has left Sharp’s a safer place than when he arrived. I shall miss winding him up to the point where his head starts to glow.

After supermodels and brewers, chefs are my favourite company when enjoying a few moderately consumed beers. Last night I was out with one of Rick Stein’s head chefs and along with passionate discourse about food safety regulations we discussed the celebritisation (a word which I have just invented) of the gastronomic arts. Like me he was passionate about getting the fundamentals right before playing around with challenging and innovating. He said since the advent of the celebrity chef most of the new chefs entering his restaurant are trying to run before they can walk. Simple food done well with clean and clear flavours beats elaborate dishes which are poorly conceived every time. I think the same applies to beer. There are a lot of brewers talking about which strain of Brettanomyces they are going to use in the 80 year old sherry cask to age their 14% Centennial barley wine but don’t understand what the figures on a malt analysis sheet mean. I once heard a brewer describe his elaborate temperature controlled mashing regime which was quite unnecessary for the malt he was using. In the end it turned out to be entirely pointless because the thermometer on his mash tun hadn’t been calibrated for two years and was 10oC out!

I was asked yesterday what my favourite beer is. That’s an easy question for me because it’s Duvel for reasons previously explained. It did lead me on to thinking about my top 10 favourites. Modesty of course prevents me from naming anything I am currently making. As you will see they range from the slightly unfashionable to the very unfashionable.

1. Duvel
2. Westmalle Tripel
3. Courage Directors (1989)
4. Sierra Nevada Harvest 2008
5. Orval
6. Ind Coope Burton Ale (1991)
7. Cantillon Gueuze
8. Dupont Avec les Bon Voeux
9. Harpoon IPA
10. Brakspear Ordinary (2000)

If you don’t agree let me know. It won’t change anything but at least we can have a row!