Monday, October 25, 2010

Consistency. Again. Sigh.

A sceptic wrote recently that they might:
...go out tonight and drink the grog of my local regional brewer and drink 5 pints of what is branded the same bitter, and all will taste different.

I've been trying to imagine some possible scenarios where this might actually happen. i.e. not just one of those things that we all nod at, without thinking "hang on, that's b*ll*cks".

  1. Objective
    • 1.1 Five pints in five pubs of varying quality
    • 1.2 "he's just changing the 'barrel'"
    • 1.3 glassware issues
  2. Subjective
    • 2.1 Drift of taste - saturation / habituation effects
    • 2.2 Other taste effects. Interference by peanuts / crisps / last drink /etc

I'm not going to expand all these points now. That would be really dull.
OK, so. Your Real Ale is known to be sensitive to issues in the first group. It can be kept or served badly, or well; at the wrong temperature; in dirty or inappropriate glasses. There may be some detectable taste change during the "shelf life", we're talking about live products, which will have some microbiological activity continuing (you'd hope mainly yeast). Equally, these types of beverage do have a serving life over which there will be some taste change. In the second group - since taste is an issue, then subjective taste changes will be noticable.

On the other hand, for other beverages served with high levels of dissolved gas, at low temperatures, in near-sterile conditions and protected from oxygen, flavour (as such), where detectable, will tend to be more stable. Since taste is less of an issue - it's been reduced to at or below threshold by fizzyness and temperature - the process managers / brewers can be more confident that issues of the second kind will be less troublesome.

That's the post-packaging variation pretty much deal with.

Looking at the big variables in the brewery - we can tolerate some variation, as long as it's less than most of our customers will detect.

For instance, bitterness (measured in units called European (or International) Bitterness Units i.e. EBU or IBU - pretty much the same) isn't well resolved by most tasters. You'd be very lucky to find an untrained taster who can spot the difference between 35 and 40 IBU (other things being equal). So in the brewery, if you're aiming at 40 IBU you'll need to be confident that you're between 35 and 45. i.e. +/- 10% is probably good enough. (I'm sure I've read that a lot of people top out around 70 IBU, so there'll be little perceived difference between 80 & 90 IBU. i.e. big beers are easy.)

Problem is, hops (a) change with age and (b) vary from batch to batch. So we (a) don't buy more than we need and we store them cold (we freeze open packs), and (b) recalculate how much we'll need based on the analysis of each batch. Not everyone does this - but since the inter-batch variation can be 20% - This might mean that your beer, meant to be 40 IBU, comes out almost 50 - quite a few people will detect this (the brewer should be one of them).

Gravity and strength depend (mostly) on how much stuff we put in. This will be mainly malt (and water - thanks Dave). Malt comes in handy 25kg sacks (for the small brewer that is - the big boys get it by the truck or railcar). That's easy - you need 125kg of malt in your recipe? Take 5 sacks and you're sorted. Well, not always. And this is a bigger problem the smaller your mash tun is (that's statistics for you). The maltsters seem to do a minimum fill - pretty much. Occasionally those 5 sacks could easily mass 135kg or (much more rarely) only 120kg. So before we start congratulating ourselves on the cracking Mash Efficiency we got this time, let's check-weigh those sacks-o-malt. Otherwise that beer's going to be almost 8% stronger than we meant it to be, unless we liquor it back (i.e. dilute it) in which case we've just knocked the bitterness (and colour and everything) back haven't we?

As has been pointed out before, the bigger brewers have the lab facilities and the big blending tanks that support working to real tight specifications. But there's no reason why with reasonable care a small brewer can't work to perfectly acceptable limits.

See, what I'm saying here is that the Real Ale is susceptible to post packaging mishandling. This is an simple one for the drinker - don't go to crap boozers. Or if you do - drink cold fizzy stuff that's harder to f-up. And small brewers need to weigh stuff properly, clean like crazy and do some simple arithmetic.

Always remembering that the important thing is that it should taste good. Consistently good.

Easy really. Touch wood. Fingers crossed.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Too long for a comment

Mr Lager suggests (on the Hardknott blog) that the point of the branding effort (he chooses Becks Vier for his example) is "Letting punters know what’s in it and ensuring the grog tastes okay" .

Well, no. Becks can (of course) knock out a largely inoffensive beer in pretty much whatever colour, strength and quantity their owners want them to. And of course they'll do that day after day.

The Bosses then spend piles of money telling us that it's "Different By Choice" - the product is presented as a Mainstream Alternative. Add some human beatbox stuff (remember when that was edgey?) and some special glasses (German technology) And what you've got is a marketing effort that says nothing about the beer except that it's made in Germany (= pure = good) and it's a bit weak (= not wifebeater).

What it does say is that it's "difference" and "choice" packaged up for men who aspire to drive a f*cking Audi and don't want to be thought of as the lout-ish type, they're way more hip than that. Look! I've made a "choice"! I have a nice shirt and pants, also some hip-hop. (Yep, and I know about Motorhead, but I'm quite mature now.)

Now that we've established the product's position, which we hope will appeal to our target demographic, we'll be needing some visible reminders of our expensive adverts. The drinker is paying a bit more to demonstrate his alignment with the product ethos, so we need to afford him a display opportunity. Hence branded glassware, POS, etc. That's branding.

I'm not sure why smaller brewers would bother putting their name on a glass. They haven't spent the money to make it worthwhile. Nobody cares. That's why a lot of people in Dave's survey aren't really bothered. RA drinkers are making all the statement they need by being seen to drink the stuff at all. A plain glass will do nicely.
i.e. I'm pretty much agreeing with Mr. Lager, in the end. In that most "Real Ale" products (particularly micro-brews) aren't strong brands. But that's not because they're weak products, but rather that the marketing effort is weak, or missing. Of course.
If consistency is perceived to be a issue in the market, then perhaps it should be addressed. Let's talk about "craft" products. Where simple consistency isn't a selling point.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Hazy Beer

This focus on clarity [in British ale] is annoying,” he says. “You get punters in a pub who think that if a beer is clear, then it’s good. A fantastic beer with a haze, they send it back. But the best beers I’ve had have had a natural haze. In Germany, you get a beer with a haze, it means there’s something good in there. Or an IPA – there’s so much hop oil in there it will have a natural haze. The IPAs that have a hop haze are usually head and shoulders above those that don’t."
Jason Hawke of Moor Beer quoted here

Well, we try not to let it annoy us. But I know what he means. Now, I'm not a master brewer, but I have done a bit of (a) brewing and (b) reading, so I hope I'm not going to be too far wrong in what follows.

There are a few kinds of haze you might come across in beer. Sometimes these will be "faults". Now "fault" is a funny idea anyway. Consider a starch haze. In a British bitter (pale ale, whatever), a starch haze is pretty uncommon (except perhaps for a beginning homebrewer) and it's probably due to a rubbish mash. In some beers (e.g. historical white beers) potato starch was used, and in others, high proportions of unmalted grain - which would have promoted such a haze. i.e. haze would be expected in these beers.

Protein / polyphenol hazes, again quite rare in British pales, put down to bad brewing or malting, but key in many wheat beers. In other beers may be due to high levels of hop or malt polyphenols interacting with normal protein content. Indeed, to promote a stable haze in some beers, refined tannins are added.

Lipid hazes, fats (or oils) suspended in the beer - bad if you've got trub spoiling your pale ale - but what if it's down to hop oil from your shedloads of late/dry hops?

Yeast haze - you'd expect a pale ale to have low levels of suspended yeast (< 10K cells / ml ?), but we all know of beers that are intended to be visibly hazy (or indeed opaque) because of yeast. Some brewers add a yeast product (biocloud?) to give a stable haze. Others use fish-guts to produce the stable sediment, and high clarity, that their customers expect. It's a fact that some yeast, in some beers, will present a hint of harsh bitterness (or bite) and is probably best left sitting in the belly of the cask rather than in the glass.

Chill hazes - those protein / polyphenol hazes are more stable at low temperatures and tend to fade when the beer is warmer. So chill a fresh beer below the intended serving temperature and a (transient) haze will be produced. I gather these hazes can become more stable with time at any temperature - so beer may develop haze as it ages - eventually the haze may become dense enough to sediment out.

All that said - for many British style pale ales - two key measures that are commonly assessed in the cellar are clarity and condition. If it's clear and not too flat - put it on sale. This is a simple, and usually effective, tactic for presenting beer well...

...Except when the beer is known to be hazy, when the cask has a big sticker on it saying "NATURALLY HAZY", when the beer is delivered by the brewer who tells the publican "this is hazy, you know".

Anyway, one of my jobs next week is to uplift a 9 of "Hop Priest" (an extensively hopped IPA), which was judged to be unsaleable because it's "too hazy". Ho hum.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


It will be soon.  Look out for it at the Swan (Ulverston) or the Dispensary (Liverpool).

Friday, October 15, 2010

Consistency. The bugbear of tiny minds.

Now, obviously, I do like a beer to be recognisably the same beer from gyle to gyle. And I do want it to be nice every time. But I don't need it to be exactly the same. Why would I?

Consider (if you will) those areas of human endeavour where consistency and standardisation are important: Screw threads, Firearms manufacture & er, stuff like that.

In 1841 Joseph Whitworth (a Northerner, naturally) came up with his standard threads (the first). This was neat. Now I can put a nut from manufacturer 'A' on a bit of stud from his rival 'B'. I win, everyone wins. Interestingly enough, even though we now have more modern screw thread standards (loads of them, some even metric!), you'll find lots of Whitworth's breakthrough in UK breweries. Where? In your RJT connectors - the screw thread is the coarse Whitworth. How about that.

Or, imagine a rifle. "And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this Is to open the breech, as you see." It's pretty important that the bolt is going to fit snugly in the breech. Otherwise all kinds of bad stuff will happen.
But rifles can't be made by hand. Not if we're going to use them in a proper Industrial War with literally millions of units deployed all over the world. They have to be made so that any bolt 'A' will slide "sexily" into any breech 'B', made perhaps miles away and years later.

On a related note, a pal-o-mine needed some unusual bits for a old car he would insist on nursing. They'd stopped making them of course. But he was able to call in to a light engineering shop where a nice old geezer with ciggie hanging out of the corner of his mouth was able to knock something up while he waited. Brilliant.

But it's an unpleasant reminder of how mechanised our spirits have become (in our mechanised world), when we expect our food and drink to be like machine parts. This is wrong. We should enjoy our beer (or wine, or bread) when it's not the same as it was yesterday. Is it better? Worse? Or just different?

Where we need consistency and standardisation, let's have it. Where we don't, forget 'em. Why aren't we sure enough of ourselves, our tastes, our identities even? Why do we want the world to be so unreasonably static around us? Things change - there is movement, and difference, and variety. Get over it.

The big producers can flatten it out. Grind it, and us, all down. They have to. That's how they work. But how did we let them convince us that's the way it should be? Are we stupid, or what?

Our old mate Gerard Manley Hopkins tells us that he's a fan of:
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Life should be full of strangeness Like a rich painting Mark E. Smith had it.
And I don't think he meant that it would be jolly to season our lives with a bit of bought-in strangeness. This is not the time for "pub jukebox" list game. In which I amaze and astound by shrewd choice of polycarb and vinyl. If it was, we endgame with "Fish Chart" - in which are reviewed works of Pike and Tuna Turbot first noted (but not preserved?) at Probe. Other claimants - You Lie Like Rugs.
"You don't have to be weird to be wired
You don't have to be an American brand
Mr M. E. Smith - totally wired
This is serious, in that we need to go the whole hog including postage. For maximum yuks.
A tip if you like, "LEAVE THE CAPITOL".
But what do I know? I'm more like
"commune crap, camp bop, middle-class, flip-flop
Guess that's why they end up in bands
Mr M. E. Smith - english scheme

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Vast majority of people don't live in London. Perfectly happy about it.

That London: 8 million
UK outside London: 56 million (7 times as many)
Whole world outside London: 6866 million (858 times)

Not theft - tribute.

Dark country clip
Yippie flag

Yep, I know.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Letter to Evening Mail

It's a shame that you chose to illustrate the piece on " drink can ruin the way you look" (EM 6 Oct) with a picture of a delicious looking pint of beer.
While no-one, least of all a brewer, should be complacent about problems caused by excessive drinking, study after study has pointed to health benefits associated with moderate consumption.

The piece goes on to consider the calorific content of various drinks, suggesting that the calories in alcohol have no nutritional value. While this may be true as far as it goes (and the same claim could be made for sugar), it ignores any positive contribution to our diet made by our chosen tipples; Beer, for instance,can be rich in anti-oxidants, trace elements such as silicon, as well as soluble fibre.

But above all, beer is a delicious drink of moderation, especially when consumed in the relaxed yet controlled surroundings of the pub - which is where you'll typically find the pint shown alongside the original piece. Your readers are lucky enough to be well served by a number of excellent local real ale breweries and many responsible publicans, who work hard to provide a healthful beverage in a safe setting.

Jon Kyme
Stringers Beer - Ulverston

Sunday, October 03, 2010

it's about the beer

"Of course, with you it's more about the beer, isn't it?" That's what a fellow brewer said to me a while ago. Meaning that they're happy to put the business of the business first. Not that their beer's bad, you understand, but I guess they see it as the means to an end.

Another brewery I know of, been going for more than 10 years now, seems to be doing pretty well. They get their beers out and about, have a couple of hundred fairly regular outlets, yet are pretty well known for their quality issues. Even at their best, some publicans won't touch it - "Like homebrew" - which is rather unfair on homebrewers, I've had some lovely homebrew, but I think I know what he means.

A pub I know of (not a local one), well-run and successful (so they must be pretty businesslike) has recently got themselves a little brew plant. Next time I get the chance I must nip in and try their beers in-house. I'd like to suggest that you look out for their stuff, but since a high proportion of what they've sent into trade is infected and undrinkable, I can't.

Now, take us; Our credit control is OK, the duty and VAT returns are done on time, we do watch the cash-flow, and we're generally pretty good on the old production planning and stock control, but I have to admit that we're not really very good at the marketing thing. We're not particularly "proactive" about developing new business, or bigging up our image. There's only two of us - I suppose we could hire someone to fill the skill gap, but since we went into this to be free, we're worried that being employers would be too stressful and diverting.

The Beer? We don't get it right all the time. We've come up with beers that not everyone likes. We've been let down by poor quality ingredients (we don't have the facilities or experience to always catch them). We've made mistakes - fewer nowadays.

We make some excellent beer. Simple as that. Beer that's at least as good as anything anyone else I know is making. "Almost beautiful" a (drunk) man in a pub said, and made to punch me for making him say something so soft. But we're failing you by not getting it into your glass, because we're not very good at selling. Sorry about that.

But you know, I'm almost proud of that, because for us it is "more about the beer".