Tuesday, November 26, 2013

I am Craft, and I am strong.

Just supposing we wanted to brew a really strong beer, how would we go about it?  Let's put aside the question of why we would want to do such a thing (I'll come back to that).

We could start with lots of malt.  Problem with that is, unless we're planning to leave a lot of extract on the grain, we'll just end up with a giant lot of regular strength wort.  Sure, we could boil it for hours and hours, but this is going to give us all sorts of unpleasant burnt notes in the beer (and, unless we're good at cleaning, in successive beers). We've all tasted that kind of thing.

We could use malt extract.  This is essentially wort made in a dedicated facility,  then concentrated, often under reduced pressure. We can buy it in big jugs (or in IBCs, if you want).  This is a pretty good way of going about it.  Obviously, you want to get most of your gravity from the contents of your mash tun, but in most strong beers, in my experience, we can go up to 20% malt extract without spoiling things.  Of course, 50kg of malt extract is hard to handle (it's terribly sticky and difficult to pour out for a start), but it can help make a reasonable amount of high-gravity wort without requiring more malt than would fit in the MT.

Malt extract has got a bit of a bad name among homebrewers.  The reasons are various, so I'll limit myself to pointing out that stuff that's been sitting in tin cans for months on warehouse shelves doesn't compare with the stuff that a commercial brewer will use.

We could add sugar.  This might be glucose, or even plain sucrose (which we can buy in big sacks from just down the road).  Of course, because these sugars are pretty much 100% fermentable, the resulting beer will be drier  (i.e. have less residual sweetness and a less heavy body) than an all-malt ,or malt extract, beer of the same alcoholic strength would be. Now sometimes, we'd want a beer to be lighter and drier - it goes to drinkability, which is why the the history of modern British brewing is, in a sense, a history of sugar.  Strong Belgian beers are marked by their use of sugars, it's that digestability thing, innit?

Again, homebrewers have reported all kinds of unpleasant effects which they put down to the use of sugar.  Of course, they've typically added a high proportion of sugar to a crappy malt-extract based kit (see above) and then bunged some crappy half-dead yeast into it, so I think we can safely discount most of that.

Because these tricks (adding sugars or malt extract) would enable us to get either stronger beer, or more beer, out of the same size kit, they're often called brewlength extenders.

We could, if we wanted to, add enzymes. Malt, of course, brings its own enzymes with it. (That's the point of malt).  But if we were using significant quantities of non-malt grain, we might choose to supplement with stuff from a bottle. Enzymes are often used in the MT to help get good conversion (starch into sugars) if we're brewing with a lot of, say, rice or maize. You generally find the enzymes called amylases used in this way. But these aren't the enzymes I'm interested in here.

When we boil our wort we effectively fix its sugar composition.  We destroy (or, technically, denature) the mash enzymes, so that the proportion of fermentable and non-fermentable components stays the same (until the yeast gets to work).  But we can, if we choose, add enzymes after the boil, in the fermenter or in a conditioning tank.  There are a few options open to the brewer who opts to follow this path, but the basic idea is that these enzymes break down the unfermentable "dextrins" and release fermentable sugars such as glucose. Upon which the yeast proceeds to chow down.  So it's the same basic idea as adding glucose.

There's a few gotchas associated with post-boil enzymes, following on from the fact that the sugar composition of our wort has been, now, unfixed:
Unless we pasteurise the beer these enzymes are going to carry on working until there are effectively no sweetening and body supporting dextrins left. None, nada, zilch, absolutely F.A. Hence, a fearsomely dry, thin, beer.
Also, in packaged products that contain live yeast, since fermentable sugars can continue being released by enzyme activity for quite some time (months?), there's a real danger of overconditioning. 

So, given that post-boil enzymes are difficult to control, somewhat risky, and can't produce better effects than adding, say, glucose, why would anyone use them?  In some cases, I suspect it's little more than marketing bullshit. We'd be able to say, "Look, here's a strong beer we made with only malt - no malt extract or sugar added!", conveniently neglecting to mention the Amyloglucosidase derived from a selected strain of Aspergillus.

But why set out to make a remarkably strong beer anyway?  I'm broadly in agreement with HardknottDave in his rhapsody on one of his own beers, strong beers do offer flavours that you just don't get in their smaller bretheren. We're not ashamed or afraid of alcohol, so don't see any need to make a beer weaker than it need be.  At the same time, I feel that we get into diminishing returns around 10% - and this is just a personal taste thing.  Over that level of alcohol, hot, even burny tones are difficult to avoid. Very strong beers are often too sweet, which I don't like, but that's probably better than them being burny with alcohol and too dry. I'm sure there are brewers who can pull it off, but I can't think of any off the top of my head. I'm sure extended (and I mean extended) aging will pull some of these beers together, but who's got time for that nowadays.  Again, it's often down to marketing bullshit

Friday, November 22, 2013

Postcard from the Edge-case

"It's obvious," said the Professor, sketching rapidly on the table cloth, "that the CAMRA locALE scheme is bound to produce some anomalies, particularly in branches not completely surrounded by other branch areas, as will be the case with, for example, those which lie on the coast."

"Firstly," the professor outlined one of the square demarcations, "here we have a branch area, with numbers indicating individual breweries in the branch - I've shown each branch having 3 breweries for simplicity"

"OK professor, and the circles would be showing the breweries considered LocALE?"

 "Right," the professor beamed "My diagram isn't an exact representation of any particular area, but it it suggestive of how different branch policies may interact and lead to sub-optimal outcomes."

He continued, "Let's compare the strategies of branch A and branch B."

I could see that Branch A had a bigger circle around it than B, and I told the professor so.

"Yes" he smiled, "A larger area, but the same number of breweries! As it happens, seven. This branch has chosen a broader definition of local so as not to penalise their members for a geographical accident.  Being at the edge would have given them only 4, or possibly 5, locALE breweries if they'd used the same criterion as their neighbours in branch B"

 I told the professor that this seemed fair enough.

 "Oh yes" he continued "perfectly fair for the members, and after all, it's a membership organisation. But look at it from a brewery point of view." He regarded me expectantly.

I shook my head, I couldn't see what he was getting at.

"It's simple," He wagged a finger at me, "How many circles is each brewery in? That is to say, how many branches consider each brewery local?"

I must have looked more than usually puzzled, because he continued, "How many circles is brewery 3 in?"

That was easy, "Just one"

"Yes" he chuckled, only one branch considers brewery 1 a locALE brewery.  But what about brewery 11?"

I studied the tablecloth.  Then it struck me, "Ah, brewery 11 is contained in 3 circles!"

"Yes" said the professor, "Brewery 11 has been made locALE by branch A, but of course branch B hasn't reciprocated by offering this courtesy to brewery 1.  Why would they?"

"But what this means" he continued sadly, "is that in order to make sure that their members have a good choice of locALE, branch A has handed a competitive advantage to breweries not based in their branch area, which is denied to breweries that actually are!"

Thursday, November 21, 2013

You put *what* in it? #2

It's a funny thing, when you think about it, that we're not required (here in the UK) to put proper ingredient listings on beer.  It's the only essential (made) component of my diet that is granted this exception.  I realise that many people don't care, as long as it tastes good, and that's fair enough.  Of course, there's also the point that quite a few of the wacky things we put in beer (and other food producers put in their stuff) are classed as "processing aids"* rather than ingredients, so there are often some quite interesting things used to make food, that don't really make it into the finished article.  Some hold that an ingredients list would be, in effect, a recipe for the beer and that brewers shouldn't be obliged to give away trade secrets.  This is probably nonsense.

We're updating our bottle labels and you'll notice (those discerning few who choose to buy our beer), that we're introducing an ingredients list.  It's all because we're, like, "Unconditionally Guaranteed Honest, Non-Evil, and Hype-Free!", and not because we have to.

You might also notice that we don't provide "responsible drinking advice".  This is because (1) we don't have to, (2) we're not qualified to give you health advice (no, Dr Becky isn't that sort of doctor) and (3) because we're happy to treat you like grown-ups.

We do, however, include a notice about allergens on our labels (and always have).  i.e. "Contains Gluten".  This is a legal requirement.

We're currently working on our one "gluten free" product to ensure that we can continue making this claim as the science around this issue develops.  This isn't in bottle yet, so this is a bit off thread I suppose.

What we don't do is make claims on our labels, here, or elsewhere which are intended to be deceptive, or might risk misleading our lovely customers. This would be legally awkward (I'd guess) and definitely plain wrong.

*"Processing aid" means any substances not consumed as a food by itself, intentionally used in the processing of raw materials, foods or their ingredients, to fulfil a certain technological purpose during treatment or processing, and which may result in the unintentional but technically unavoidable presence of residues of the substance or its derivatives in the final product, provided that these residues do not present any health risk and do not have any technological effect on the finished product.
 (some emphasis added)

Monday, November 04, 2013

Staying "true"

Following HardknottDave's shock Craft apostasy, we're pleased to confirm that all our beer is now, as it has always been,

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Bad Taste in Mouth

We popped into a CAMRA BF recently. One of our beers on so I thought I'd check it out. Nice to see it was on handpull.

But, oh dear, what's this? An unpleasant musty taint. "Right" says I, "I'll have a taste of that from the tap - not from the pump - if you don't mind" (I'm wearing one of our excellent T-shirts so it looks like I might be the brewer or something). And sure enough, it's the pump that's tainted, not the beer. I point this out. The clip is turned round. I retire. Fuming a little.

In a little while, a festival organiser strides over to me bearing two glasses. "Here", he says, "One from the pump - one from the tap". I gather it's some sort of test. I sniff, I sip. I firmly thrust the tainted one in his direction. "That one. Take it away."

Becky couldn't even take a sip.
Another brewer remarks that the beer smells to him like fresh trout. Not fishy. Earthy.
We discuss the earthy flavour of trout. He frowns when I mention eating stocked rainbow, as he fishes the rivers for the l'al brown jobs. I gather I'm a trout pleb. Or he's a trout snob, or something.

Over the next half hour I'm regaled with accounts of how thoroughly the pumps (which spend a lot of the year in storage) have been cleaned. And how carefully the beer is checked before connecting it to them.

Meanwhile there's a certain amount of checking from the pumps going on. A few more pumps are found to be tainted, and replacements rounded up. There's a couple of beers that won't be going on this evening, but all should be well the next day.

So, what shall we take home from this?

1. The musty taint that can build up in beer engines and lines can be difficult, or impossible, to remove by normal cleaning. These flavours have their source in bacterial (or fungal) growth and are detectable and offensive at homeopathically tiny (parts per trillion) levels. The chemicals responsible - geosmin, trichloranisole and others, seem to migrate into and through many plastics. So cleaning the surface - the inside of a pump or tube - might give you temporary relief, but a reservoir of taint lurks in the mass of the material to slowly diffuse back to the surface and into the contents. If the outside of plastic tube is contaminated, the mustiness will pass right through into the beer.
 We touched on this all some time ago.

 2. While the threshold for these off-flavours is very low, there's a wide range in individual sensitivity. If you're tasting beer for any purpose other than your own enjoyment you'll want to be sure that you're at least as sensitive as the bulk of drinkers.

3. Cleaning (pumps and lines) is not a magical operation.  It's a rational process that's easy to measure. Just having performed line cleaning does not of itself guarantee that the lines are fit for use.

4. Festival organisers - check the beer you're actually serving. Sure, don't put it on a pump until it's been checked at the tap.  But do check what's coming out of the pump. Every session.

5. Festival organisers - it's not neccessary to administer taste tests to brewers. Beer is what we do for a living. You're the amateurs. In the nicest possible way.

Friday, August 09, 2013

New look for beer? Really?

This'll be copyright the very lovely Tring Brewery
You may have seen something about this recently: "It is believed that Tring is the first brewery in the UK to use applied colour psychology, and to recognise the importance of colour in influencing emotion, mood and behaviour. " Well, hardly. But we'll let that pass.
Here's some "genuine" colour psychology for you - actual research rather than the opinion of some hippy. (and I'm not branding the no doubt enormously talented folks at KM Design a bunch of hippies - Tring clips are their work)

You ask a giant load of people to tell you how strongly they associate given words with particular "emotions". At the same time, you ask them if they associate any colour with each word.  Do your stats and you can have a go at figuring out what colours they're associating with "angry" words, "sad" words etc.

Colour signature of emotive terms: percent of emotive terms associated with each colour. For example, 32.4% of the anger terms are associated with the colour red.
Source: Crowdsourcing the Creation of a Word–Emotion Association Lexicon
Saif M. Mohammad and Peter D. Turney
Computational Intelligence, Volume 59, Number 000, 2008

It might be a bit of a leap (and my sincere apologies to the authors) to go on to wonder what this means for our marketing effort here in the happening world of beer. And this is only the opinion of some hippy (me).
I guess we wouldn't mind having our customers feel trust, anticipation and joy when they see our point of sale - so let's go for white and green - perhaps throw in blue and yellow.
Since we're not going for anger, sadness, disgust and fear, let's avoid black and red. So not much hope for Tring's "Colley's Dog" there.
Incidentally, brown seems to be a boring colour (with negative hints), doesn't it? I wonder what that means for the awesome world of beer.

Friday, August 02, 2013

On still having change for the tram home.

Of course, when I was a lad...etc.
Data here.

Tho' 2/3 of people believe that drinking out is too expensive...

And according to research by Mintel, £4.4bn a year less money is being spent in pubs now than five years ago -  around £80,000 per pub (even with 6,000 fewer pubs).
(As reported by PMA editor Rob Willock.)

Monday, July 29, 2013

So, is it a bubble?

Well, I don't know. It's easy to see a bubble in retrospect, but rather harder before the fact.

It does look like there's a steep climb in new starts without any real market justification (that I can see).

And of course, the quaffale numbers aren't claimed definitive.

But you should see the most excellent Quaffale site for more info.


Oh Piss.  The late Simon Johnson beat me to this graph 6 months ago, his here: http://i528.photobucket.com/albums/dd323/haddonsman/brewery_zpsdaf90b09.jpg

Another Update: Some important dates for consideration when looking at these wiggly lines:
1979 Birth of what will become firkin chain (Bruce's Brewery)
1988 Firkin chain acquired by Midsummer Leisure
1991 Firkin taken over by Allied Lyons (and expands)
1993 (I think) All those little cellar tanks taken out (and sold 2nd hand)
1989 - 2003 Beer Orders in force (I think)
1999 Punch sells off 110 firkin pubs.
2002 PBD introduced.
2009 UK base rate goes down to 0.5%

And Another Update: According to Quaffale, of the 585 breweries opened since (including) 2009, 127 (21.7%) are brewpubs.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Truth in Advertising.

Lest we forget...

 BrewDog is a post Punk apocalyptic mother fu*ker of a craft brewery. Say goodbye to the corporate beer whores crazy for power and world domination. Swear allegiance to the uncompromising revolution. Taste the hops, live the dream. Learn to speak beer, love fruit and never forget you come from a long line of truth seekers, movers and warriors - the outlaw elite. Ride toward anarchy and caramel craziness. Let the sharp bitter finish rip you straight to the tits. Save up for a Luger, and drill the bastards.

"It wasn't removed because of them [the ASA], we just happened to be switching up the website content."

And, as someone else wrote:
"its great people have got that much time on their hands to report companies over insignificant things like language on a website"

Crikey, who would do such a thing?

A later clarification:

"because we needed to make room to talk about our Equity for Punks offer"
Ah, gotcha.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Beer competitions

The subject of judging at beer competitions came up on that twitter again.  There are valid concerns about the credibility of these things which get raised from time to time, as well as the broader question of "what's the point of them anyway".  First some specifics:

How are beers tasted blind?

Speaking from personal experience as one of the organisers of the SIBA North Beer festival / competition, "blinding" the judges (as far as possible - and I'll come back to that) is something that's taken very seriously. While the actual organisation of the competition is down to SIBA's professional staff, the logistics are the joint concern of the "central powers" and the regions.  The way it works is this: A load of judges are  assembled in a big room, and a load of beer in another one. A further area is reserved for beer handovers. One bunch of people (the cellar team) draw the beer from the (easily identifiable) containers, take it out of the cellar, and hand it over to the volunteer runners who carry the jugs (labeled with a code) to the judging tables.  The SIBA central staff (behind a screen) hold the key and can (later) figure out which beer is which.

Now, short of active cheating, or marked incompetence, this system ensures that no judge can know which container the beer they're tasting came from. 

So you have a table full of judges sniffing and tasting beers, holding them up to the light, pulling faces, passing comments, holding forth on what makes a great beer, asking the self-appointed experts what they think, trying to sway each other, etc, before marking down their scores for a bunch of predetermined criteria. Munge all these scores together and you can pick the highest scoring in each category, which can go on to be judged in another round, and so-on, until you get the top 3, and award them Gold, Silver and Bronze in their classes.

All the gold winners can be judged against each other (tough job, depends how you do it) and a supreme champ and a couple of runners up can be decided upon. 

That's one way of running a blind tasting beer competition.

What's wrong with this picture?

In a sense, everything.  Firstly, the judges. Someone who drinks a lot of beer, and who has a fair idea of what the beers entered might be, can probably recognise some beers.  So they're not 100% blind.  Of course we can also include (and we do) some people who don't necessarily drink a lot of beer.  Which you might think would be a disqualification for judging.  But there you go. 

Blinding isn't the big problem that some people seem to think it is.  I don't think cheating is a significant problem, and I believe most of the judges would indeed score a great beer higher than a merely fair one that they happen to be familiar with.

I don't know where you, dear reader, stand on CAMRA,  but it's worth mentioning that a fair percentage of our judges are selected from among CAMRA activists.   Many of these will be trained tasters with a lot of experience,  highly qualified to judge at this sort of thing.  Some will be utter gobshites.  Same goes for judges from the licensed trade.  You could argue that the same could be said for the brewers who judge.

And of course, there's a tendency (in all of us, I suspect) to prefer the things we're used to.  So there's probably some bias in the judges toward the kind of beers that they're more comfortable with - which gives us a tendency to conservatism.  Far-out beers need not apply? Beers in less popular styles might not do as well as an aficionado might think they should.   It's a beauty contest judged by fallible humans who bring their own prejudices to the table, not an objective test of beer greatness.

Consider also (he said, donnishly) the dynamics of small groups.  There's always some tit who wants to "lead" the group. And sadly, perhaps, there are those happy to be led. So instead of a hundred independent judges we might end up with a few loudmouths commanding votes disproportionate to their expertise (but in line with their sense of self-worth).  N.B.  I say "might", I have no personal experience of this happening in a beer competition. 

Why do we need so many judges? There are only so many respected beer judges in the world and many of them would at least want expenses to swig and sniff for a day for us.  But a judge can taste (and swallow) only so many beers before falling over.  So a lot of beers need a lot of judges, which means the quality of the judging pool isn't necessarily as high as you'd like. We have some great judges, of course, and a number who are less great. 

And then there's the judging criteria.  We score beer on things like "appearance" (including clarity?) and "sale-ablity".  What about hazy beers?  What would it mean to have a beer scoring well on everything except  "sale-ablity" - is this a trap placed in the way of stronger beers?

The award system itself is problematic - are only three beers (the medal winners) any good?  Are the others, which didn't make the cut, therefore crap and not fit to drink?

Who is the competition for?

We love awards.  Validation. Confirmation that it's not just us who think our beer is lovely - See my awards!  I'm a real talent!  My beer is great! That other beer isn't.

When a brewer wins an award they tell the public.  There's an idea that it'll help us sell beer.  Our customers must surely know that because it won an award it's good beer - better than other beers they could buy. We might get a bit of press for it.  Drinkers might have heard of it before they see it on the bar, or on the shelf, so retailer risk is reduced.

Drinkers can order a pint (or buy a bottle) of an award-winning beer secure in the knowledge that it's going to be better than mediocre, or even, really good.

Or is it just (and particularly for a trade organisation like SIBA) a mutual back-slapping exercise.   Brewers telling other brewers (who make the kinds of beers that the herd of brewers like) that the herd of brewers liked the beer.  A beery circle jerk.  

What's to be done?

A beer competition has to be credible.  It has to offer valuable information to the drinker.  Without that it's no use to them.  And if no use to the drinker, what real use (apart from the warm feeling we get when our fellows give us a pat) is it to the brewer?

I'd propose 3 main changes:

A reputable, external chief judge (or several).  We need a name that the drinker respects.  And not just as a figurehead.  The competition needs to be reviewed and this person should be involved with that process 

Judging criteria should be reviewed and published for debate.  Get rid of sale-ability for a start - that's nonsense.  How can a good beer be not sale-able?  Would it depend on the price? Bollocks.

The awards structure should be revised. It's not bloody Highlander ("There can be only one").  And it's not the Olympics (what does bronze mean? Good, but not really all that good?). All the beers which are excellent should be recognised.  Sure, pick one to be champ, but make it clear that this one is the judges pick of the excellent.

If you've read this far, thank you. If not, f**k you.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The price of beer.

Beer's not a particularly "cheap" product. Indeed, there's a case to be made that it's perhaps the most expensive way that an alcoholic beverage is routinely produced. The ingredients are costly, the labour (particularly for small outfits) is a big element. There's a high power requirement, and (again, particularly for the little guys) the overheads can be high. It's heavy and bulky to transport. It needs to be produced under clean conditions that would tax most small, shed-based businesses. And there's the duty - and the VAT on the duty. VAT is a bit of a bugbear. Since we're turning agricultural (no VAT) malt and hops into industrial beer (20% VAT) we have to collect a lot of VAT, and send it off to the government so that they can pay it to the banks.

All that said, there's a wide price range seen for what, on the face of it, are quite similar products. In some cases, an arguably better product can be had for substantially less than you might pay for something from some trendy brand. *

So, are these high prices a rip-off? Is this gouging? Profiteering? Taking the piss? No, of course not. Thing is, we have an enormous amount of power as consumers here. And by "here" I don't mean "on the Interwebs". We can choose not to pay the price asked and buy something else, cheaper. That we don't (or at least some of us don't, or at least enough of us so that people can make a business selling this pricey beer), tells us that objectively these beers aren't overpriced. Drinkers (some, enough), are making the judgement that these products offer enough value to make them a good buy at that price.

Those of us who do feel like we're in danger of being ripped-off, gouged, or having the piss taken can avoid that hazard by simply walking away.  Un-stung. No worries.

On the other hand, what does it mean to say a beer is being sold too cheap?

If I'm making lovely beer that my customers really like but I don't charge enough to cover my costs, pay the bank and the government (so that they can pay the banks some more), feed the family and replace our tattered clothes periodically, while making enough to invest in my business going forward - I'll go bust. I won't be able to make any more beer and my customers will be deprived of the opportunity to buy it. That's too cheap. I'm stupid. We all lose.

I know some brewers do make "cheap" beer. Often it's not very good. That's one way of doing it. Sometimes the price reflects the cost-saving strategy of not paying suppliers or the Excise by dipping in and out of cunning pre-pack administration arrangements.  The rest of us lose out by having to pay more for malt and in taxes to cover the shortfall owed by these bad actors.  That's too cheap.

Bottom line:  If you think it's too expensive (i.e. doesn't offer the value to justify the price) don't buy it.  Don't whine about it. You'll just make yourself unhappy.  And if you think it seems "cheap", ask yourself why that might be.

But if it looks like a good buy, if the price is worth it. Buy and enjoy cheerfully. You did a good thing.

*I'm not making a value judgment when I use the word "trendy", it's just an observation that some brands are, while others aren't

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Yay Us! Again.

More lovely awards, this time "taste cumbria" Cumbria Life Food and Drink awards.
I'll expand on this later.