Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Wedding Saison

There is no doubt about it, becoming a brewer puts you in the spotlight. People are paying good money for your creations, and you have to deliver, so it is vital to receive good feedback from customers. Positive, critical feedback helps you make better beer. Not everyone's palate is the same, so you can't simply please yourself all the time (well, most of the time you do) so when people do come back with comments - good or bad - it is really helpful and certainly influences what I do in the future.

So when one of my best customers came back to the brewery and told me how much he enjoyed the saison it was a real confidence booster. But I wasn't ready for what came next. 'We have a wedding coming up next year and I wondered if I could buy some beer to give to our guests at the reception. Maybe you could brew one for us'. I had only brewed a few relatively few times, so the pressure was on. 'Yes, I can brew you a beer' I said confidently, 'what would you like?' We decided on a saison, packaged in half champagne bottles, corked and caged and I would design a label. He ordered a hundred bottles.

In the ensuing months I brewed in other breweries and borrowed a Russian Doll brew kit from Brendan but when that suffered a catastrophic failure I was without the means to brew at Poppyland. As spring approached I was worried that I needed to get started if the saison was going to be at its best for the August wedding. At last Brendan delivered a mash tun and a kettle and lent me a fermenter and the necessary pumps and pipes. I was in business again. So the first brew on the 14th of May was the saison. I was thinking that it should be possible to re-visit one of my earlier saisons, Out of the Blue and its brethren from the same gyle, Seafood Lovers' Ale and Flowers of the Field. In late June and early July the elderflowers would be out and that would make a nice addition to the saison and there was just enough time to have it matured and conditioned by the date of the mid August wedding. The beer was brewed and racked and I went on holiday to Italy, where the elderflowers were already in bloom. The groom's parents had asked if they could accompany me in the field to gather the elderflowers, so they could feel that they had a hand in the making of the beer, so on my return we had a lovely afternoon mooching through the lanes on North Norfolk, seeking out the very first of the elderflowers, for the season was late after a dreadful long winter and a terrible spring. We gathered the last heads just as the sunny afternoon deteriorated into spots of rain and gathering cloud. But it was a very pleasant way to spent an afternoon.

The saison which had been maturing in two kilderkins was dosed with Soraci Ace hops and the elderflowers. The flowers were picked from their heads (which takes ages) and steamed for a few minutes in the kilderkins and the hops were added before the beer was run in and left to stew to absorb the flavours for 17 days. The beer was bottled on 10 July, just over a month to drop clear and condition in the bottle. If left longer it would continue to improve.

The design of the label also proved to be a collaborative effort. A friend of the happy couple had done a lovely caricature of Alice and Ben and I was asked to incorporate it into the design. Then came a line drawing of Voewood, the striking venue near Holt that would be used for the reception, and a monogram incorporating their names and the date of the wedding. I amalgamated the caricature of the couple and the drawing of the house into the front of the label and overlaid 'Wedding Saison' in a suitably carefree font. I was pleased with the design and so were Ben and Alice and Ben's parents.

Next came the collection of the order and the feedback on the beer. I hoped they liked it and that it was well-behaved and frankly I had my heart in my mouth as I awaited the verdict. It was a great relief then when Paul sent this message:
'We thought we would wait until we had time to properly enjoy a taste, so we tried a bottle last night, and we were not disappointed. It fits the bill as a perfectly balanced ale. We particularly enjoyed the elderflower notes which came through, and think that it is an ale which will be enjoyed by all the guests whether they be beer drinkers or not. We met the happy couple for lunch today as well Alice's parents, and we have given them a bottle each to try before the day, so hopefully we will have some feedback from them too. They were all certainly very impressed with the presentation, and thought the design of the label was perfect. We will be more than happy so serve it to the guests and are sure it will add to the day. Thanks for all your efforts on our behalf, and there will be more feedback to follow.

And Ben added:
'My Dad showed me the beers at the weekend; they look absolutely fantastic! Thank you so much for all the work you've put in. I'll make sure we get some good publicity shots for you!

Good luck and best wishes to Ben and Alice, what a lovely couple:

Friday, 11 January 2013

Step up young man

I have often spoken of how my journey into brewing so far has been blessed with good fortune and good timing and with many happy coincidences. Resources, advice, opportunities and chance meetings have just appeared before me exactly as I needed them. But perhaps the greatest of these chance meetings was the day I pitched up at Brendan’s brewery, ostensibly to buy a corking machine for my home brewing, not knowing about his crusade to raise a new generation of brewers or the Barley to Beer Project (funded by the Leader Programme). It was mid October in 2010 and late in the day when on a whim I decided to detour to Ickburgh and see if the IceniBrewery was open. On arrival just before dusk Brendan Moore was characteristically on the phone. When he got off we fell to talking about brewing and I let slip that I was going to be redundant soon and had been contemplating a new start in microbrewing. I knew enough that I was determined not to compete head to head with the established breweries but that was all. Maybe I would brew premium beer, possibly Belgian style beers and IPAs and sell them in bottles, as opposed to casking it for the pub trade.

Two hours later Brendan was still in full flow, telling me how I should not follow his own career trajectory, brewing as much beer as possible, delivering it all over the country, selling to pubs for relatively little gain and arriving home exhausted, only to get up the next day and do it all again. All this was reinforcing my own notion to brew better beer, so the customer gets an amazing experience and the brewer can get a just return for the time and financial investment. This notion is something of a mission with Brendan. Some brewers are dismissive of this approach and sceptical too of the prices that Brendan claims could be charged for beer, if it is done right. Don’t follow the traditional British brewing model, he said. Look to the Americans and the Italians who are reinventing what beer can be: innovating, experimenting, pushing the boundaries, astonishing the public and winning new admirers who are willing to pay premium and super premium prices. Brew from the till backwards, he said. Make the best beer you can, take infinite pains but decide what profit you want to make and calculate your selling price accordingly, taking all your fixed and variable costs into account. The beer might be £10 a pint, or £20 or even £30 but if you put passion and commitment into brewing this beer you will find the customers. And with good margins you won’t need to find so many customers, because you’ll be brewing beer that has impact and will keep for a very long time, so you will not need to brew so much to satisfy the drinker.

This is a hard business model for the average brewery to take on board. Beer has been traditionally considered as a cheap drink for the working classes, a thirst quencher, a provision that is sold in pubs and supermarkets. Volume counts and price is important so the brewers have to work really hard just to keep up the output. This was not the model for a one-man-band brewer like me, who is entering semi-retirement but at the same time starting out on a new part-time career. The trend in beer sales is downward. Pubs are closing every week. The brewing world is changing. Craft brewing on the other hand is steadily growing, taking market share from the big industrial brewers. But craft beer needs to be different to the traditional brewing trade. Despite the number and diversity of beers and breweries in Britain, many are simply variations on a theme, not all that different from each other, crow-barred into a session beer format and frankly sometimes rather dull. Appealing to a mass market can mean finding the lowest common denominator, within a tight envelope of flavour, style and price. There should be nothing that would frighten the horses and recipes, ingredients and processes are pared to the bone for maximum efficiency. Many make beer that is merely adequate; optimized to make the best profit, not the best beer. This is industrial beer and it has been this way since the early 19th century. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are amazing ingredients out there and processes you can employ to make unique and satisfying beers - extraordinary ales. This is the way to go he said. Look at the Slow Food movement, look at bakers and cheese makers and other artisans who take immense pride in their work and who are cultivating niche markets for their extraordinary products. Look for new ways to market beer and innovative places to sell it.

I was persuaded to join the East Anglian Brewers Cooperative and encouraged to help establish this new model. Membership also opened up the opportunity to buy the best Maris Otter malt from Teddy Maufe at the Branthill Farm at favourable prices. I have written elsewhere about the pleasure I have in driving from Cromer to Wells with a boot full of beer to sell to the Real Ale Shop and returning with a boot-load of prime malt to turn into another batch of beer.

Members of the East Anglian Brewers Cooperative debate the issues of the day at West Lexham.

I was also able to benefit from a series of workshops, briefings and seminars that Brendan has organised with Tastes of Anglia. Funding from the Barley to Beer Project has brought about training days in 2011 and 2012 that were just heaven-sent for a start up microbrewer like me. They have given me knowledge, business insights and skills that have eased my passage into professional brewing. I went to training days on malt, hops, making extraordinary ales (slow brewing), marketing with video and social networking, building a luxury brand. On those days I networked with other brewers, both established and newcomers and was briefed by professional tutors, maltsters, brewers, hop-factors, media experts and management consultants. They were good fun. I recorded many of the presentations on my tiny digital sound recorder and I have been able to play these back at will in order to fully absorb the wisdom they imparted. With help from the media experts I set up a website, a Twitter account and use Facebook to network with my customers. These courses inspired me and provided practical knowledge. The subsidy from the Barley to Beer Project has not only made it possible to stage these events but also made them affordable. I am very glad that I came on the scene when I did and was able to benefit from them.

Paul Corbett of Charles Faram, hop factors brought and introduced 70 samples of hops from all over the world
Inside the old piggery at West Lexham brewrs get to handle and smell the hop samples.

East Anglian brewers enjoying lunch at Tony Hook's pop-up restaurant at West Lexham, the venue of several training seminars.

I have made a few mistakes along the way and still have a lot to learn but I would have been making many more and much bigger mistakes without the advice and guidance from the Barley to Beer Project. Above all however I think it is the support and encouragement that stops me wondering off into the wilderness. Over the past few months I have found that Brendan was right. There is a market for super premium extraordinary ales. Every now and then I look at an email he sent. It explained why some of the courses didn’t tell me exactly what I was expecting to hear – practical, technical advice on how to brew. He retorted with this:

“It is not you (who has used more hops than any other brewer and has studied more beers) that needs help. It is YOU and me who can break the cycle. Look to real innovators like George and Neville (who gave us the miracle of Maris Otter - set less seed and get 50% more yield, and it is the best malting barley ever) and Teddy Maufe (who turned a small chapel on this farm into the saviour of his farming life).
“The reason you are not getting any technical advice on brewing extraordinary ales is because there is none where you are expecting to find it. You are our expert. Step up young man, your way is clear, your stage is empty, burst in and fill it! The rest of us still have these Fuggles to use up and I know a brewer who decides on what he brews by the number of labels he has left to use up because his printer gave him a good price on fifteen thousand.”

So, stand back, here I come… I am about to burst in.