Well, here we are on the 1st of March 2019 and I’m sat in the passenger seat of our 7 tonne refrigerated Iveco with Rik driving us from Cambridgeshire (home) to Loka Polly brewery in North Wales. We will be collecting about two tonnes of their newly launching “Augment” range in keg and can to take from their own coldstorage to our coldstorage … 4°C all the way! We will then ensure selected venues (those with 4°C coldstorage) we will be covered by refrigerated vehicle deliveries too. Folks participating in the Augment launch at this quality level are: The Stoneworks, Peterborough – Hopmaster General, Rushden – Kilder Bar, Birmingham (plus many other great bars who will be getting this beer super fresh and chilled for most of its short lifespan until the 8th!)
Brewery @ 4°C
⇒ Transport @ 4°C ⇒ Warehouse @ 4°C ⇒ Transport @ 4°C ⇒ Bar @ 4°C
⇒ Consumer(intah mah mouth!!)
And that is coldchain. If you remove one of those “4°C” links and replace it with ambient you no longer have a chain. This is why us at Jolly Good Beer rarely use the phrase “coldchain” because it feels dishonest to be using it without some FULL coldchain implemented from brewer to consumer.
With the distinct exception of some higher standards for established cask ale distribution, most wholesaler distributed UK beer moves around the UK as follows… and I gratuitously throw in the word “craft” now mainly to draw a distinction between traditional pubs and the new wave of beer retail…
Brewery @ 4°C (some!)
⇒ Transport @ ambient
⇒ Warehouse @ ambient
⇒ Transport @ ambient
⇒ “Craft” Retailer @ ambient (10°C if lucky)
⇒ Consumer (nah, I’ll pass)
In 2014 I started Jolly Good Beer and we did this:
Brewery @ 4°C (some!)
⇒ Transport @ ambient
⇒ Warehouse @ 4°C
⇒ Transport @ ambient
⇒ “Craft” Retailer @ ambient (10°C if lucky)
⇒ Consumer(umm…? Yeh, OK, go on then)
I’m not sure if we were the first to be fully coldstored or not (for all beer not just cask!) – but we were possibly the first to go to 4C and first to really start thinking about real coldchain distro. From this base we’re building up a set of customers who fix the problem at the retail end too, giving us this:
Brewery @ 4°C (some!)
⇒ Transport @ ambient
⇒ Warehouse @ 4°C
⇒ Transport @ ambient
⇒ Craft Retailer @ 4°C (wot cares)
⇒ Consumer (yeh, this is good)
Amongst Jolly Good Beer customers these 4°C beer heroes are: The Stoneworks, Hopmaster General, Kilder Bar, The Rusty Bucket, Double Barreled Brewery Tap – and we have more in the works as new bar and bar improvement projects line up for 2019.
It’s worth noting that good traditional pubs have reliable ~10°C chilled cellars and this is also pretty great for beer on the assumption that sensible pubs are buying for at most the next fortnight of supply and not keeping stock stashed at 10°C for weeks on end. (Flash coolers and long draw are another problem entirely.) It’s really only with the advent of “craft beer” that this weird low quality make-do standard of kegs sat in ambient spaces and flash cooled for dispense started to become a thing regularly seen. Meanwhile the standard for off-trade is nearly entirely warm beer on warm shelves… albeit slowly the “store cold” message is spreading and at least some shops are deploying refrigeration for stock of the more sensitive beers… but very few are like Hereford Beer House who keep all their stock and back-stock refrigerated. Bear that in mind: you see stock in fridges, hurrah, but how is the “back room” stock being kept?
But the take-home (beer) here is: coldstorage at retail (both off- and on-trade) is slowly becoming “a thing” and we must celebrate these folk working to make beer better, not merely running with the grim “it’ll do” status quo. And Jolly Good Beer wants to create the supply chain to match. (Literal quote, I was once told: “But nobody else is doing this, I don’t see any point in bothering” – from a person who doesn’t really like beer at all but thought the “craft beer” sector was the cash-cow they wanted to yoke.)
In recent years we have seen some improvements in the import side of the industry – in our case notably for Amundsen, Stillwwater, and Against the Grain the good people at Cask International set up the supply chain to our warehouse at 4°C. Hurrah! And the same for our direct import shipment from Firestone Walker. It seems a bit mad we’re getting foreign beer delivered to warehouse at higher standards than UK breweries use! So for selected imports and selected bars in 2018 we got to:
Brewery @ 4°C (some!)
⇒ Transport @ 4°C
⇒ Warehouse @ 4°C
⇒ Transport @ ambient
⇒ Retailer @ 4°C
⇒ Consumer(yeh, this is good)
But this is a tiny fraction of what we do – why doesn’t the UK beer get the frigid love?
Anyway – come end of 2018 in our small Jolly Good Beer world to bars “doing it right” we had just these pesky vehicle links to deal with. Not so much a problem in mid-winter, but realistically that’s maybe 2 months of not-so-much-of-a-problem and almost no weeks at all where temperatures actually drop to an average of 4°C or below. And this week we had “record” February warmth… not feeling so chilled now, eh? The worst vehicle link is that one to us from the brewery – where if you’re lucky a PM pallet arrives AM the next day within about 18 hours. But often it arrives more like 24 hours later in the arvo. And in the worst cases something goes wrong (one in ten sorta thing) and it doesn’t arrive until the next day and the pallet has been who-knows-where in transit for 48 hours and arrives warm to the touch. Even in the ideal case of a 12 hour next-day I’ve measured beer shipped from brewery coldstore arriving in smallpack (the most sensitive format) at around 20C in summer.
So the next goal of Jolly Good Beer was to fix that transport link and about 9 months ago I applied for my Operators License so I could acquire my first HGV. This week after a complicated 9 month gestation I have given birth to a coldchain by way of our refrigerated 7 tonne Iveco van. We’ve done two outgoing runs with this van – thus solving the least-damage “last mile” problem of the coldchain, but until we have beer arriving chilled we don’t have a chain! Thus today Rik and I find ourselves enroute to North Wales and Loka Polly and our first full coldchain product going to consumers via excellent retailers. It’s just a small start… and a special case of a product/range launch… but over the next few weeks we will be sorting out regular coldchain backhaul routes to key breweries who run by our own coldstorage standards internally and brew the most sensitive beers. Over the course of 2019 we’ll be phasing out all ambient vehicles and moving everything to refrigerated. (Finance offers invited, lol.) We’re connecting the dots – where the dots are our coldstorage and existing brewery and bar coldstorage, and the lines are refrigerated vehicles.
THIS IS COLDCHAIN
Brewery @ 4°C
⇒ Transport @ 4°C ⇒ Warehouse @ 4°C ⇒ Transport @ 4°C ⇒ Bar @ 4°C
⇒ Consumer(intah mah mouth!!)
It can be the difference between merely “good” beer and outstanding beer — between the “good enough” status quo and being top-of-the game. Especially when it comes to modern hop-forward beer styles.
So – see y’all at Stoneworks on the 8th (my nearest Coldchain-Ready bar) – or in spirit at one of the other awesome Loka Polly Augment Range launch venues.
Posted from the passenger seat of our refrigerated Iveco on the way to Wales!
Well, we’ve called time on the “festive season”, kicked out the stragglers, locked the door and breathed a sigh of relief. Yeah, I’m not really into it. Can you tell?
It is the time of year for reflection and resolutions, so I’ll go with the flow on that…
It has been a big year, a hard year but one of significant achievements – as I come to list some of them now I’m not sure how we managed it all! This is thus a rather large post… grab a beer, grab a seat…
Growth in 2018
5 weekly routes ⟶ 8
7 delivery zones⟶ 11
12,000 mile2 coverage ⟶ 20,000
5 staff ⟶ 10
2 vehicles ⟶ 3
~25% revenue growth
Achievements & highlights in 2018
Built a mobile coldstore direct-draw system in May
Dubbed the “Esky Bar” or #GFEB (affectionately known as Pablo)
Allowing us to support top-of-game exemplar dispense at over 10 beer events in 2018
And we end 2018 in a state of pleased & cautiously optimistic angst… It’s been a good year for achievements, but frankly I’m glad to have 2018 behind us, it often felt like a maelstrom inexorably drawing me in to pull me under. Circling ever closer to the depths. It hasn’t been an easy one – trying to balance and resource business growth it was, for me, a year of long hours and no weekends (and yeah, I know, hospitality industry innit… it’s no easier for many of our customers.) It was a year of hitting limits – mainly my personal limits – and those limits causing delays, customer service issues, things I consider failures. But we have worked through them – expanded the team, and Jolly Good Beer is becoming more of a “we” and less of an “I”. Perhaps the tide is turning, the sea calming, the spin slowing – the grim portal to the dark depths closing. What now… hypothermia? Sharks?
I’d like to focus on four subjects key to Jolly Good Beer – and present a bit of background on these, and then try and think ahead into where we hope these things are going in 2019…
People – The Lifeblood of Business
Melodrama aside – the key point in the deep dark watery paragraph above is the growing of the team. One year ago there were five of us – Lee and Peter in the warehouse and driving, Bill in the warehouse and doing some admin, Helen offsite raising invoices, and me doing a bit of all of the aforementioned and everything else. Bill left at the end of March, as he needed to move home to the US – it was sad to see him go as he was an effective and enthusiastic worker. And it wasn’t until he left that I realised how essential he had been… we’d lost a lot of blood… hello additional 30 working hours in my week!
Over the ensuing months we had a very bumpy ride, a couple of recruitment attempts that didn’t really pan out – which is a very high overhead situation for a tiny business (paperwork, training). We were stretched thin, hard up against limits – which caused a whole load of problems as I failed to adequately cover all of supply, sales, support, and accounting (to name just 4 of my jobs at the time). Then we had Dan start taking on some sales & account management load – it was the start of a much needed blood transfusion, I was then also lucky enough to nab Justin with his extensive industry experience – and between them Dan and Justin are taking over most of the customer-facing sales and accounts operation. The next lucky break was Amber – another case of the right person at the right time, well, to be honest the right time would have been April – but we should count our blessings. Amber comes with the right connections and experience to run the procurement & inventory operation fantastically, and you all have her to thank for keeping us in beer over the last 3 months – and for some of the fresh additions too. In the background Helen is continuing to do an excellent job – and helping more on further accounting, Lauren too did a good job tightening up our credit control but has had to take some time out to focus on other things now.
In the warehouse we’ve gone from two to four – with Rik joining in July then Simon coming on late in 2018. We’ve got an additional van and another on the way shortly. Lee, Peter, Rik, and Simon are the muscle of the business – getting the beer organised in the coldstore, picking, loading, and delivering. Rik is ostensibly our HGV driver, we just don’t quite have the HGV yet – and he is also very handy with the tools so has been helping with dispense work as well. Meanwhile Peter has stepped up to the plate, aided by Rik, in generally getting warehouse operations functioning more smoothly.
Finally, there’s still me here of course – and from time to time a bit of Kat dealing with IT and events.
That’s the team right now… we’ve doubled from about five to about ten. (I say “about” because we’re a mix of various time loadings!)
In 2019 in the fairly near future we’ll be looking for at least another driver, HGV preferably, and probably something in more core accounts/finance as attempts so far to outsource that work have yielded fairly abysmal results. It would be nice to see us supporting a team of 15 by the end of the year. Three more in warehouse/logistics, one more in admin, and perhaps another in dispense tech.
We’ve got a long way to go still, and no doubt hiccups will happen – fact of life really. But in 2019 I am hoping to bring our customer service back to where I want it to be. Our people are the key to making that happen.
Vehicles – Logistics is What We Do!
Our first US direct shipment of @FirestoneWalker has arrived. Properly chilled all the way to our coldstore 🙂
Really JGB is a logistics business – a specialist one of course, but ultimately our job is to move physical objects around the place. In a world of massively commoditised logistics operating a quality focused logistics operation has proven to be difficult. “The market”, per se, doesn’t value supply chain quality above supply chain cost. (People complain endlessly about certain courier firms… yet still use them.) So we see a lot of beer being shunted around the place via crappy courier and pallet operations.
I was delivering to a customer recently (I still do the odd delivery run, when resource limits demand it) and they commented how grateful they were that we actually deliver to their cellar, like a proper brewery dray ought to. I inspected for empties and took ours away, for which they were also grateful. The problem, the chap said, was “everyone else just uses couriers”. I’m not sure who “everyone else” is – but it means that at best the beer gets delivered just inside the doorway of the pub, and often just to the pavement outside. In their relatively small cellar they had a pile of probably 3 pallets worth of empty kegs and casks. This pile consisted of eCasks, KegStar, and brewery containers – the latter will be there for who knows how long? Some had distro labels on from far parts of the country. But the thing is these guys keep using these other services. Which kind of goes to show that whilst grateful for better service this doesn’t often extend to any perceived tangible value. I’m hopeful that things generally come around on that front – once the problems of the whole low-grade hands-off courier approach mount to a breaking point as it has for several of our customers. We don’t send brewery containers far and wide by pallet, we actively discourage pallet shipment and direct folk to whatever we think their best local option is – sending only the odd pallet to the persistent so long as it is just smallpack and OWKs, and always next-day-AM. And we never use couriers.
Presently we operate about 8 routes a week with up to three vans a day – in January 2018 that was 5 routes a week. Vehicles are expensive and we need to try and use them as effectively as possible – come February we plan to expand this to up to 4 vehicles running 11 routes a week with all customers serviced weekly. It’s going to be a real stretch to achieve this, and we hope the increased service provision brings the returns needed to make it work. As part of this we’ve extended our geographic coverage as well – a little reluctantly, but as encouraged by both breweries wanting us to get them to these areas and customers in the areas wanting us to get to them. I’ve been saying no to both for at least a couple of years… but it fits our plans a bit better now so we’re saying hello to new customers in London, Bath, Bristol, Gloucestershire, and Staffordshire – also having added Lincolnshire earlier in the year as the craft-beer battlefront begins to penetrate even through the East Midlands.
This may all sound “big” to some – but the reality is that we’re one of the smallest beer distributors, including amongst the “craft beer” focused end of the industry. JGB operates hand-to-mouth on available cashflow and scant earnings, so growth is careful and conservative. When we take big steps upwards it is generally after months of consideration – in this case it has been about a year since I started mapping out the wider logistics plan we’re now beginning to execute. With our first 7 tonne GVW refrigerated Iveco van all but sat in the yard…
The goal is to have two 7 tonne vans on the road in 2019 and three normal 3.5 tonne vans. The 7 tonne ones will both be refrigerated for coldchain trunking and backhaul operation, which we’re looking to potentially hook up with some satellite coldstorage locations. I’d like the 3.5 tonne ones to be chilled too – but it’s a difficult viability balance between this and payload. The future may be to move these to smaller van-format HGVs as well.
2019 is when we start to do some proper work to solve the next level of the coldstorage problem: coldstorage in transit.
Coldstorage – How Did We End Up Here?
Kat & I haven't slept since 8am Sunday… 4°C coldstore direct-draw "mobile" keg dispense is now a thing. At a CAMRA fest to boot! @cambeerfest is my willing and probably now somewhat relieved Guinea Pig (we rocked up 9.30am Mon for 4pm open doors after saying we'd be here Sat.) pic.twitter.com/WlZAL5adgr
When I started JGB in April 2014 I did two things before I bought my first beer: 1) bought a van 2) secured coldstorage. Back then the coldstorage was in the form on a mere 20 foot refrigerated shipping container. I did my research, I spoke to brewers – this was clearly the correct place to start out.
I never intended to become some sort of a coldstorage crusader. I started Jolly Good Beer with only one motivation: there wasn’t enough of the beer I loved in my area.
It wasn’t until further down the line that I discovered my approach of coldstoring 100% of beer stock was possibly unique in England and maybe the UK at the time (still not sure of that). Faced with what turned out to be a competitive disadvantage in terms of overheads one could easily have chosen to shut down the reefer, move to a shed, and join the status quo. But to me that seemed wrong – I grew up with my mum often saying: if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. A saying I think was inherited from my grandfather. I try to live by that mantra. So it seemed I needed to become a crusader for coldstorage – ultimately this means for beer quality. And I plugged on – two reefers, three… then our current 1500 ft2 coldstore found on a farm. Now we’re trying to work out how to expand that without breaking the bank…
It is now gratifying nearly five years later to see more people in the industry talking about coldstorage, and breweries perhaps starting to take it more seriously. Albeit always sweeping it carefully under the carpet when it comes to the hard reality that enforcing higher standards on this would leave them with reduced or limited sales. The reality is this is business – product needs to be sold to pay the bills. There is still a long long way to go. We should celebrate the folk taking quality seriously, like The Bottle Shop folks for example (thanks for the mention) who made a serious investment in this and are continuing to work to improve things up and down the supply chain. We especially celebrate those at the retail end of the chain launching with, or adopting, better practice – to name a few: The Stoneworks in Peterborough (my number-1 UK bar), Hereford Beer House, The Hopmaster General in Rushden, Kilder Bar and The Paper Duck in Birmingham, and of course Cloudwater setting the example with their Unit 9 and 73 Enid St bars launched in 2018. Yes, I installed 5 of these – I’m blowing my own trumpet just slightly, but without them being willing to try doing things differently, taking a chance on busting the status quo, none of this could happen. I really should mention Magic Rock here to – for they are the first people I saw talking about direct draw dispense in the UK with their taproom (which I have yet to visit) and they’re also responsible for introducing me to an enduring obsession with Perlick taps. (NY2019 resolution for me: finally visit the Magic Rock taproom!)
For me the end-goal here is “cold chain” – a phrase starting to show up more in UK beer. Too often, IMO, slightly abused – but on the other hand it’s fantastic it is now part of the conversation. It is still a puzzle to me that brewers will spend money keeping beer chilled in the brewery but live with the fact that care ends at their doorway. Some of these guys, even those selling the most sensitive styles of beer, will use 2-day pallet services in summer to save themselves 20 quid (on 3000 quid of beer!). When they’re having clear quality issues at point of sale – yet are reporting 20% net profit… but will not spend a trifle more to reduce the danger their beer faces in transit… the mind boggles. We’re back to commodification of logistics again here. Jolly Good Beer is actively working to solve this particular issue and I hope that 2019 sees us setting up our first 100% coldchain connections for UK beer. It seems mad to me that we receive imports from the likes of Amundsen, Stillwater and Firestone Walker fully coldchain to our coldstore but UK brewers don’t have the will to do it even in summer – if they won’t step up to the plate then we will, and we are doing just that…
We seem to have become “dispense experts” – with folk looking to JGB to set the standard and support improved dispense in the UK. This really did happen by accident and I still struggle with the idea of considering myself an expert on the subject, but here we are. There are many good dispense tech folk out there in the UK doing the best they can – they’re mainly limited by the materials and budgets available. The key issue with UK dispense is that as it is almost always “free” (cost: your soul) it has suffered decades of cost reduction to make it just barely fit for purpose in the context of serving low carbonation sterile filtered British lager. I stepped into this industry 5 years ago with a predominantly cask-ale hat on, but was positioned such that we became one of the conduits for a keg beer revolution amongst microbreweries. And brewers putting beer in keg without really understanding the basics, leading to many problems – which as the distributor became my problem. So by necessity I had to understand how dispense worked – so studied it, learning a lot from US Brewers Association sources and Certified Cicerone® material – then building my own dispense systems to get to grips with the parts and practical functionality. At base it’s all physics – gas and fluid behaviours – and I’m lucky enough to have had a reasonable amount of physics in my education covering this stuff.
Bit by bit I learnt how stuff works – I also did the BFBi NCCSIM qualification, completed in 2017, which was important for its coverage of regulatory and safety factors.
Wind forward nearly 5 years and here we are installing taprooms for folk like Cloudwater and having articles about dispense published in The Brewers Journal. It feels pretty weird, with a heavy dose of impostor-syndrome I must admit.
Ultimately it’s only happened because of that outlook mentioned above: If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Working with UK dispense equipment I quickly discovered a lot I don’t like about the materials readily available. And I couldn’t find anyone to do work to the standards I was looking for. And 2018 feels like the year this came to a head – with little left to improve beyond marginal tweaks. The final piece in our particular puzzle being buying 10km of high-grade Gen-X beer line. And beyond tweaks here and there I think there’s little left to improve on the work we have done for Cloudwater this year and I hope it contributes to setting a new sort of standard for UK dispense.
So 2018 was a big year for direct-draw dispense for us, with somewhere over 70 direct-draw lines installed for people and the building and deployment of our own direct-draw dispense mobile unit for festivals and events. And in 2019 we expect to do more of the same!
I’d love to combine all this knowledge and experience and open a bar or two … because it’s not like I have enough to occupy my time already, right? Whether or not that happens in 2019, let alone ever, is impossible to predict – but what I’m sure will happen in 2019 is more of the same: we will help more people do it right, we will spread more direct-draw dispense love in the UK.
We have some big goals for 2019, and have the team gathering together in Cambridge this week to try and create some sort of roadmap. I laugh as I type this… “roadmap” he says, this shit is getting serious now, innit. Jolly Good Beer is growing up – 5 years old in April this year.
There are difficult challenges ahead – I believe Jolly Good Beer has a bit more of a journey ahead of it before it becomes a sustainable business. It’s not an easy market sector to operate in, with very low margins – there have been some seriously difficult times in 2018, moments where I’ve come close to giving up even. There’s a personal element to business – a personal weakness perhaps – and the difficult times and heavy workloads can grind you down. We have had (and need to have) some tough talks with some breweries sometimes – and make sure we’re all on the same page and working together. It’s a young and chaotic emerging market niche – with a lot of maturing needed, a lot of experience lacking. In 2018 we’ve seen two distribution businesses wound down (gracefully, as much as that is possible), clearly indicting it was the weakest component of the larger mixed businesses they were attached to. We also saw two other mixed retail/wholesale businesses shut down less gracefully – causing brewers to lose money. I hope we don’t see too much more of this, especially the latter cases – brewers are badly exposed to risk in this, where an individual customer can be owing tens of thousands on a monthly basis. Managing credit control and cashflow is vitally important for all of us, a lesson often learnt the hard way.
In 2019 we will keep building on what we have – do more of the same and do it better. Continue working to make the 100% coldchain dream a reality, that’s become a core goal at the heart of the business. Quality, quality, quality! We’re not here to fuck spiders. Quality beer, quality supply chain, quality dispense. It is all about the product at the end of the day – we do this for the beer. And whilst dispense is really a peripheral business function that we don’t intend to focus on, we’ll continue to do what we can in that space as well – it is a key part of the beer quality equation. Attention to detail from the ingredients of the beer all the way through the supply chain and into the mouth of the consumer.
Also in 2019, by popular demand, we’ll have some more Jolly Good Beer hoodies & t-shirts made 😉
Atlantic are a major installer of cellar kit in the south east and are responsible for some of the installs I’ve been having a grumble about. I had a conversation with a chap there who was remarkably civil in his defence of what they do. (Considering the scathing tone in what I wrote regarding UK cellar installs.)
Atlantic do not fit gauges on regulators because the gauges on UK regulators are crap. (Not a direct quote, but it captures the gist of things.)
Now… better gauges _are_ available, but they’re not the standard, and if it comes down to a choice between no gauges and gauges that are unreliable they’d rather leave the gauges out. Completely understandable – and I see where they’re coming from. It is a proper conundrum.
The better gauges? Very few folk getting quotes for installs want to pay more than whatever the rock-bottom pricing option is… BrewDog will, and the odd one or two other outfits in London. But elsewhere it comes down to offering a higher quote for a job that a competitor will simply undercut by offering cheaper “equivalent” equipment. (A comparison of £4000 versus £9000 was given, albeit I doubt that can be entirely about the gauges!)
Thing is, whilst I understand all that, I still don’t see this as being a “craft beer” quality of install. And I don’t believe a one-size-fits-all approach to PSI is “craft beer” ready.
I understand where Atlantic are coming from on this however and it sheds a lot of light on the situation.
Two other points are integral to thinking about keg pressures:
The install without cooling for the kegs is fundamentally not “craft beer ready” either. I dislike seeing kegs as high as 12C, let alone ambient. This instability of temperature adds another variable that causes further requirements for pressure adjustments. The best I can do is not deliver too much beer at once, so such a place has only the kegs on plus limited reserves. (And ideally convince them to put kegs in some sort of cooler.)
Many breweries basically haven’t a goddamn clue. They can’t even tell us what their vol CO2 levels are. This is a persistent problem, as per my “Summer of Fob” post. I’ve come across some seriously dangerous kegs.
In my view the way forward is three-fold:
Breweries need to get their technical shit together and move away from this “craft beer” is “random WTF oh whoops!” beer… get vol CO2 _right_ for the beer you’re brewing, don’t keg it when there is plenty more secondary to go, stick the target vol CO2 on the keg label. If you can’t do that then bloody well sterilise it, before one of your kegs kills somebody.
Breweries/Distrib/Pubs need to get their storage shit together. I’ve a 4°C coldstore for keg now – in an effort to fight over-carbonation. Breweries ought to have the same. “Live” beers, especially ones with wilder yeasts, will almost certainly be able to attenuate further in the keg. Pubs are in a harder place here and the simple answer is: DON’T BLOODY STOCKPILE “CRAFT KEG” IN YOUR WARM (12C) CELLAR FOR WEEKS! (They do it just to bulk-order and save a few bob.)
Breweries/Distrib need to be a _lot_ more hands-on, and a _lot_ more supportive. Standards need to be set for cellar installs, and guidance and support in using the kit needs to be offered. (If the UCB can do anything this might be it… not piss farting about trying to define and “protect” daft terminology.)
Step 3 is part of what I am trying to do with Jolly Good Beer. I’m not bloody DHL-for-beer – I don’t just lob kegs at you. Hell – I can check that your pressure gauges are not too far out and replace them if they are. I definitely will be now that I know they’re considered so unreliable. (My US ones are still reading fine and they get carted all over the shop rather than just being stuck to a wall.)
Anyway… there’s always food for thought available. My take on this is that leaving the gauges out because the standard gauges aren’t good enough is not good enough. But that’s perhaps not a role that Atlantic ought to be taking – unless the customer is willing to shell out for a fully supported system. I’m happy to, and able to, test pressures and help get beer pouring – breweries ought to be the same. And more than that, the vast majority of publicans need more knowledge and information, something we in the business of putting beer in their pubs should also be providing.
It’s what’s best for the beer.
 I’ve always thought the Atlantic installs look really well put together. And when I hear folk are getting Atlantic in I’ve said: ah, they do nice installs – just make sure you get pressure gauges. (And some subsequently have.)
 We also discussed and agreed that KeyKegs are great for getting around a huge part of the whole carbonation problem. All you need is “enough” pressure to keep whatever carbonation is in there in solution. Of course this would be easier if breweries weren’t so frequently over-carbing kegs. I’m so/so on KeyKegs – I think this is a strong point in their favour. But I still see a “proper” steel keg as the best option. Robust and reusable… but top-pressure becomes much more important with them. The problem with temperatures was also agreed on.
 It does make me wonder about the US kit a bit. The ganged Micromatic regulators I buy work out at a good price. They’re the “premium” model. Although they still have the usual non-liquid-filled gauges. I’ve always tested mine against reference pressure and never had a problem aside from a recent pair that seemed to have been damaged in transport.
Don’t try to define craft beer, that way madness lies… [Added 3/8/15 21:41: Please don’t read this as me insisting there ought to be some sort of an enforced definition… nor that I think I am laying down a One True Definition of Craft… it’s just a thought exercise. I do still think the concept is worth pondering.]
But hey, everyone seems to be defining craft beer again. I decided to give it a ponder, to flog the dead horse per se. Nowt better than a well flogged equine corpse. (I clearly don’t have enough to do… like accounting, inventory, and sales for example.)
The problem is nearly every definition goes into some wishy washy non-measurable territory about “quality” and ethos. This isn’t going to work… after significant thought (5 minutes, but on the back of several-years worth of feedback loop), here’s what I boil it down to from my own personal perspective. This is _my_ best attempt at a definition of “craft beer”, it gels with a lot of others, even BrewDog’s, but brings in stricter ownership rules and discards what I see as unnecessary minutiae & subjectivity.
Brewery is “privately” owned and controlled.
This is about being in control of creative direction, not being answerable to shareholders and investors. Freedom. Being an exchange listed company _definitely_ rules you out of the “craft beer club” (which, to my pleasure, takes Greene King out of the definition, huzzah!). Collective employee ownership is OK however – that’s about as craft as you can get I reckon. You can buy a brewery and have it still be craft too, so I’m not tying this down to founder-owned. Look at breweries like Moor, for example. [Disclosure: I sell Moor beer. It is awesome.] I’ll allow breweries owned by rich benefactors as well, so long as they have entire ownership of the brewery, so I’m not tying it down to brewer-owned either. If the owner(s) build it up, and sell it to Molson Coors… craft status stripped. Harsh perhaps, the beer probably won’t change in the short run (it will almost certainly change in the long run). But I believe craft is about more than the liquid in the glass.
Investment companies / investors own, collectively, no more than 10%
I think equity-investment in brewing is fine, see “rich benefactor” above, but a large corporate or institutional investor pretty much says one thing to me: where’s the exit strategy? It isn’t quite universal, perhaps, but it is nearly always the case that investment means travelling a path towards a destination of either sell-out-high or get-listed. Cash-in, cha-ching… that’s not craft. On the other hand, making lots of money by building a mega-successful brewery is perfectly OK. It’s “selling out” that I don’t believe is craft, unless the “sell out” is privately to a private owner in which case there’s room for the operation to remain “craft”.
Beer clearly states origin and name of origin brewery. Origin fudging is not craft. I won’t budge on this one. Being shy about your production is not craft. If you’re embarrassed about how & where your beer is produced: it is not craft. I’ve no problems with cuckoo or contract brewing so long as it is done honestly – Yeastie Boys are an example of honest (and worthwhile) contract brewing. [Disclosure: Yes, I sell their beer. Because I love the beers.]
Beer lists all ingredients.
At a minimum top level ingredients, including brewing essentials such as yeast – so a list such as: Barley Malt, Flaked Wheat, Hops, Yeast, Blood Oranges, Otters’ Tears. I don’t really understand why this isn’t more normal, in my opinion it ought to be a legal requirement. But failing that – brewers should just naturally choose to do this! If you’re not proud of your ingredients, not ashamed to admit what goes into the beer, than you’re not craft as far as I’m concerned. I’m not saying brewers should give out the recipes to their beers – I am saying every beer should say what is in the bottle. And I want more than most here, as much as is practical. Malt types, hop varieties, yeast strain (and “our house yeast” is fine here). Whether isinglass is used at any stage too. Ideally this should be on the bottle, it can’t practically be presented for keg/cask – and sometimes hops have to change, often recipes evolve, but that’s what websites are for: 8 Wired, Hopwired[Disclosure: Hey, I happen to sell this stuff too.]
Brewery meets a (to be determined) set of basic standards.
This one needs some work. But, basically, I would lay down a set of minimum standards in addition to the core points above… I don’t think it is good to be too specific, like ruling out use of certain adjuncts, or brewing processes, etc. But there are some basics that are simple to audit. Some rough initial ideas: pays at least living wage (quality of people, I don’t think living wage is perfect but it is a start), invests in cold-storage (quality of beer), deals with wholesalers who invest in cold-storage (self-interest afoot here! But I believe *strongly* in improving supply chain in this direction – and the same applies for exporters and foreign distributors), educates employed brewing staff (owner-brewers excepted perhaps?), does not package beer in clear glass (personal enraged bugbear!) … what else? (All subject to debate…) [I’m, astonishingly, changing my mind on pasteurisation just a little, there are circumstances where I can accept it is not a compromise. Late additions of maple syrup, for example… how’s that for a subject for a “craft debate”?]
What, nothing about about size? Production volume? Etc… I think the US has shown that measuring craft by brewery size doesn’t work very well.
It may not quite be perfect… but it is “craft” as I see it, as much as I can pin it down within my own mind. Plenty of breweries I think are a bit crap fit within the definition, but defining craft beer can’t be about what I do and don’t like and it needs to be objective if it is to work at all. I use the word and if I’m to continue to use the word I ought to be able to outline what I mean when I use it… that’s one of the points of this post.
I’ve an ulterior motive in all this of course. Because I think, if done right, this can be used as a mechanism to drive change and improve quality in the UK beer industry. A proper craft beer representative body can pick up where SIBA fails to deliver, and bridge the gap to where the Beer Academy doesn’t quite seem to have the grunt to execute.
If there is to be a wider crystallisation of a concept of craft then mere definition is not enough… it needs an organisation behind it to work. Sometimes there are grey areas and a committee, perhaps, needs to make a ruling. For a definition to work lines do need to be drawn. And the organisation doing this needs to really stand up for the ethos behind craft beer… creativity and independence, and striving for quality. (We can’t make quality part of the definition, but an organisation can support and encourage it.)
This should be a membership based organisation like SIBA, where all breweries that meet the definition can join for a fairly low fee. (£250?) [But you don’t have to be a member to _be_ a craft brewer!] Major decisions are made on an open democratic basis – we have the technology to achieve this quite simply. The purpose of the organisation is to manage the membership, manage the definition, promote the concept of craft beer, and – importantly – make an attempt at defining best practice. Work to improve and modernise the world of great beer in the UK, which will be of benefit to everyone in the chain from farmer to drinker.
In the UK we’ve a lot to do to improve the pint of beer that ends up in the glass. SIBA isn’t doing it (but it does help), the Beer Academy isn’t doing it (but it does help), CAMRA isn’t doing it (and may actually have become a barrier to good quality).
Finally – “craft beer” should try hard not to look down on “not craft beer”. We’ll all have our own personal prejudices which we won’t give up (*cough*GreenKing*cough*). But we have to accept that some multinationals do make a high quality product, and sometimes it even happens to be rather tasty.
This has been a craft community broadcast brought to you by the vested-interest department… and I may very well change my mind tomorrow. Or after I’ve had a beer.
P.S. In all of this I think it is well worth being aware that craft is not necessarily equal to “good”, and non-craft is definitely not equal to “bad”. Good and bad are subjective and undefinable, there is debate even around identifiable brewing/beer flaws. Craft is not equal to “better” – but it will _usually_ be more interesting than the alternative thanks to the creativity and flexibility of the style of operation I think my above points encompass. Cases in point are to look at Greene King’s efforts at “craft”, and Marston’s “Revisionist” beers… which for the most part I don’t think are _bad_ beers, but they’re clearly contained and restrained beers… yet are the most “adventurous” beers breweries of this scale and shareholder-value maximising sensibilities will produce. (You can still brew really dull beer within the points of my attempt at a definition above, of course.)
Keg… in summer… in the UK… it is a fucking pain in the backside. Currently I am having a “summer of fob”. (“Fobbing” is what happens when a beer is too foamy to serve, “foam on beer”, there are several ways fobbing can occur – carb level, temp, flow rate…)
Keg is quickly becoming core to my distribution business. In fact I’m slowly moving to less and less cask volume and considering dropping cask entirely so I can focus more on keg and packaged beers. But there’s a problem with keg – I’m getting higher ullage rates, and an ullage is effectively eliminated sales volume, work done for nothing – and that hurts my small business. It strains relationships with pubs and breweries too. I’m sat here as the middle-man copping the flack from either side.
There are key problems that I believe the UK beer industry MUST solve:
Breweries should not be releasing beers that will gain over 1 vol of CO2 outside of the brewery. Let alone 2 or 3 vols! Surely? Is that reasonable? I’ve handled kegs that are up at 6 vol CO2 (in steel thankfully) and had a KeyKeg at 4 vol CO2 recently. That is on the verge of a KeyKeg’s maximum PSI rating at room temperature. If that 6 vol CO2 beer was in KeyKeg it could very well explode at cellar temperature. If breweries do this it’ll only be a matter of time before a serious injury occurs. That could be in the brewery, could be in distribution, could be in the pub…
Distribution should be keeping kegs cool. This is unpasteurised unfiltered beer folks, it _will_ continue to attenuate somewhat. If you leave your kegs lying around for a week at 20C in summer they’ll probably gain some CO2 and thus result in fobbing. Causing issues at the pub, causing bad vibes, ullaged kegs, and hassles for both distribution and the brewery. I have a 10C coldstore and I’m not happy with that, but many “craft” distributors don’t have a coldstore at all. Hell, too many _breweries_ in the UK don’t. My own goal is to have a 4C-max coldstore for keg and packaged beer products. Some think me a fool… perhaps I am. It certainly isn’t currently a competitive advantage in a market where pubs will do anything to save a fiver.
Pubs need to learn more about keg beer. The BII ABCQ is pretty much a waste of time, someone interested in their job & beer quality will already know _more_. We need a UK-tailored equivalent to Cicerone. Not just that – but pubs need to _not_ buy 2+ months worth of keg stock at once and then leave it in their 12C cellar. See above point: it _will_ attenuate further, the CO2 will increase, you _will_ have more issues with fobby beer. Ideally I’d love to see pubs with keg cellars below 6C… I’m dreamin’ now… Not every beer will have it in it to go far enough to cause problems, but some will. Just do not buy and store kegs for this long unless you can keep them cold. That’s just plain good practice regardless.
I don’t think a pub ought to have to worry about knowing how to vent kegs to reduce CO2 levels – but whilst the above 3 problems remain unsolved the best alternative I can think of is that pubs need to learn how to do this. Yet the current status in the UK is that most don’t even know how to manage within-acceptable-bounds cases with pressure and flow control. The highest level of UK cellar training is the BII ABCQ and, frankly, it is barely even what I would consider sufficient as a “new-joiner briefing” in a serious bar or pub. It’s crap, it’s designed for Wetherspoons and similar bar chains that have standardised products and support contracts.
I have _NEVER_ come across a keg I cannot get pouring. That 60 PSI steel keg I mentioned worked just fine after some venting, and the beer was actually pretty awesome. KeyKegs are even easier to vent.
Now… how do we fix this? <troll>Pasteurise all the keg beer?</troll>
(I have views on the lack of refrigeration in UK beer retail too… that’s one for another time though.)
OK – so… I’ve been asked about four times by different brewers about what I think of the various sorts of kegs UK breweries are using. Each time my thoughts are expanded and now I have nearly 2000 2500 words worth of blather about kegs. I don’t have time to clean it up much… but I’ve been left with an unexpected gap in a day so… here is is, in pretty raw “brain dump” form.
Here’s my thoughts on a few of the keg types I find amongst the menagerie in my coldstore. Note that my own views are from the handling end – I’m a distributor not a brewer. I’m used to dealing with all these from receipt from brewery through to dispense of beer – helping pubs get beer serving, and serving beer myself at events
With respect to costs I suggest brewing folk talk to other brewing folk as, like I said, I am not a brewer so any vague cost info below is 2nd hand!
First, an aside on conditioning. Some folk simply fill their kegs the same as they fill their casks with final conditioning occurring due to continued fermentation in the keg. This is often a source of pain… venting a cask is usual, venting a keg is something UK pubs no nowt about. So unless you’re accurate with your conditioning in the keg then you’re going to have problems with returned beer. I’m finding more breweries are shifting to getting final condition nailed in CT before filling to keg. Then again folk like Moor seem to keg condition consistently and reliably. YMMV… I’d say it is a subject you’re best off talking about with breweries who use different methods of keg filling/conditioning.
Conditioning in kegs also means you want (IMO) to instruct pubs to let their kegs settle for 48 hours before connecting. (A lot will ignore this unfortunately.) Whereas racking relatively-bright to keg causes less “London Murky” hassle. [KeyKeg is a bit of an exception as it draws beer from the top and not via a spear, so you’ll have brighter beer sooner.]
I know a few folk who rack brightish into keg and then force-carb in keg… but this looks like a right pain. Time consuming and thus unscalable. Get yourself a CT!
Brewery Steel Kegs
Your very own steel kegs… Easy to handle. Robust. Expensive up front. And as much of a pain to track down and repatriate as your own casks. But breweries are used to handing cask tracking so just the same really. You also obviously need specialist keg cleaning equipment. Although I know at least one brewery de-spears their kegs for cleaning… and so far doesn’t seem to have killed anyone.
Most breweries with their own kegs have them in 30l with Sankey connectors. But I’ve seen a handful about who use A-type connectors, and some 50l kegs – 50l size is great for house lagers, etc… beers that sell in volume.
Summer Wine Brewery are an example of a brewery with a good population of their own kegs. SWB use 50l kegs for the 4.1% Pacer too. Another example is Outstanding brewery in Bury who have 50l A-type kegs – and focus on “house lagers” & Guinness-alternative stout markets – i.e. good quality indy replacements to mainstream “macro” lagers and Guinness.
With respect to keg size think about the market you’re targeting. The “rotational craft beer” market seems to be mainly about 30l keg sizes.
From an environmental PoV I side mainly with reusable steel kegs when it comes to selling beer to the UK market. I don’t trust the effectiveness of the recycling chain to be a great fan of any of the plastic kegs on “eco” grounds (EcoKeg do take reuse/recycle very seriously mind you!). The UK just isn’t big enough for the weight/transport issues to be a major concern. (But by all means use 1-way kegs for export…)
Close Brewery Rentals e-kegs – same as your own, but perhaps a better way to start out for some. I don’t know what the single-fill cost of an eKeg is but I am told it is “about half” that of what most are paying for KeyKegs. (Some breweries list eKeg vs KeyKeg pricing and charge less for beer in eKeg – some just average it out.)
The biggest drawback of eKeg is, I suspect, that you can _ONLY_ shift them to registered distributors such as myself. If you want to sell keg direct to customers you then have a problem. (I see plenty of abuse of the eKeg/Cask situation… which just drives up the cost for everyone so makes little sense. Don’t do it. [And I willreport any significant seeming abuse, as per the spirit of my contract with Close Brewery Rentals. Albeit I gather a handful of breweries have some special arrangements with CBR on this front.])
Some breweries who use eKegs: Buxton, Five Points, Hardknott – worth noting that these three entirely, or almost entirely, shift their keg volume through distributors. Five Points & Hardknott also have a population of their own kegs for direct distribution.
I have never had any technical issues with steel kegs with respect to coupler connections, leakage, breakage, or handling. (I have had the odd over-conditioned one, but this isn’t the keg’s fault.) Fifty litre kegs are a hassle to handle, but not too bad, and no trouble compared to kils (which I currently handle an increasing number of).
[I would be happier if Close Brewery Rentals didn’t call them “Craft EKegs” however. Grrrrrr…]
Available in different coupler types, but best to use Sankey as that’s what everyone else uses. The EcoKeg is a 30l top-pressure keg that works effectively the same as steel kegs. The Sankey connector is sturdy and I’ve never had any trouble using them. Breweries can buy these pressurised and ready to be filed as per a normal keg. Alternatively you can buy them with the top loosely screwed on so you can unscrew and rack beer in exactly as you do for cask.
As an added bonus the robust outer on an EcoKeg is opaque to light – and the inner bladder uses an O2 scavenging plastic.
They’re also part-reusable… under the name ReKeg. The inner bladder with connector can be removed and replaced with a new one.
The kegs can be (and are) collected by EcoKeg to be “ReKegged” at their facility in South Wales. Or EcoKeg can tool up your brewery to do the “ReKegging” yourselves. This way you can just have the bladders shipped to you and reuse your kegs.
I’ve no real handle on the costs of EcoKeg – especially with the ReKegging in mind, and TCO if you’re doing your own ReKegging. Speak to a brewer about this, or EcoKeg themselves.
The most well known user of EcoKeg I know is Moor – who also take advantage of how easy it is to condition in EcoKeg. Moor keg is consistent and reliable so in my mind prove both EcoKeg and keg conditioning can be a good thing.
As a distributor I’d be happy to see more EcoKeg about. I also collect EcoKeg empties which can be palletised for collection by EcoKeg. (No cost to me except storage space.)
EcoKegs have the disadvantage of being the size of a 50l keg despite being only 30l. But a storage advantage that they stack – which is nice. But they’re not as space-efficient as KeyKegs.
KeyKeg is possibly the most widely used “craft beer” keg packaging – and this is probably why it is possibly also the most discussed, and ranted about. The old cardboard-outer spherical KeyKegs attract a lot of dislike. They melt when wet, degrade rapidly with being moved about, and have a habit of dropping their balls. Unfortunately British weather tends to the damp side and sadly British cellar too… this doesn’t help.
However for the most parts the complaints are about the handling and the outer part of the packaging and this has now been fixed. The new “slimline” KeyKeg is, in my opinion, quite awesome. Easy to handle. Seems to be robust. Stacks beautifully too. Takes up less space in my coldstore than EcoKegs, and even steel kegs in a way. (More vertical, more stackable.)
The next complaint most often heard is that you need a special coupler for them. But folk like myself and breweries who use them tend to stock these. I sell them to customers at near-cost, which is about £38 ex-VAT. Brewfitt stocks them at reasonable prices now too.
One note is that pubs using KeyKegs really need regulators with gauges on as the usual 1st-stop to solving fobbing problems with them is to turn up the pressure. (Max rating on a KK is 51psi, mostly they work find at about 20 at cellar temperature, but I tend to run them at 30psi by default.)
Breweries who chose to use KeyKeg include much of the cream of the UK “craft beer” crop: the likes of Beavertown, Magic Rock, Thornbridge…
And I believe they choose them on the basis of beer quality. With KeyKeg the brewery gets the beer exactly how they want it and then packages it in a format that makes it harder for someone else to bugger it up. No CO2 top-pressure means no probs with the pub messing with the carb, or being cheap and using air top-pressure to dispense beer (it does happen). In fact KeyKeg makes dispensing with compressed air a perfectly reasonable thing to do. KeyKeg also reduces risk of contamination of the beer. I’ve seen CO2 lines in pubs that don’t look like they’ve been replaced for over a decade. I’ve seen some that seem have had beer backed up the lines even (and presumably never cleaned/replaced). Not to mention the sad state of coupler cleanliness I’ve spotted in places too. Line-cleaning via your coupler is great – but is not where coupler maintenance ends!
The new SlimLine KeyKegs are easy to break down to toss in the recycling too. Just how recycling-friendly they are I do not currently know however.
I don’t like these. I’ve had more trouble with them than any other form of keg.
Technically they’re the same as a steel keg, or an EcoKeg… top-pressure with spear. Folk can and do condition in them.
My problem with them is they’re not robust. I picked one up the other day and the whole top handle part fell off, and then it started leaking.
Another one that arrived recently was leaking from the connector.
I’ve had endless problems with the coupler seating on Sankey type ones – finding no way to get the coupler connected without having a leaky seal and thus losing (a little) beer over time and making a mess.
From another PoV I know brewers who will not use them simply because they do not trust putting their beer into anything they can see through. No matter how brown it is.
The brown plastic is another matter – apparently the recycling chain pretty much isn’t interested in this stuff and its recycle value is low to zero.
One plus of Dolium: they stack. They use about as much storage space as KeyKeg but aren’t quite as stable/sturdy when stacked.
Apparently they are cheap. They definitely seem it.
Just don’t. Really. NO!
Only reason I’ve had less trouble with them than Doliums is that nobody uses them any more. Last time I used a PETainer the spear actually fell out internally and I had to prop the keg up upside-down in order to dispense beer from it. Every PETainer I have used (about 4) has given me trouble of some sort. Their Sankey connectors seem to be even worse than Dolium.
A note on Sankey
For what it is worth I actually really dislike Sankey connectors. And doubly dislike breweries who ship Sankey type kegs without caps on the connectors! (Too many do this! They’re cheap… BUY. SOME. FFS.) I’ve had some that don’t even seem to have been post-fill sanitised by the brewery. The sankey connector is a grime-trap and a pain to clean. By comparison sanitizing an A or G type coupler in the cellar is trivial and quick.
But Sankey seems to be the defacto “craft keg” standard… so on those grounds perhaps the best choice for your kegs if you’re not going the KeyKeg route.
There are other kegs out there…
Not often seen, I’ve had some foreign beers in various forms of 1-way keg I can’t recall the names of. There are also EcoFass kegs that are a bit like KeyKegs (beer-in-bag) and a new entrant to the UK market is Emmerald. I expect we shall see more takes on the 1-way & plastic keg over the coming years.
In conclusion, the TL;DR:
The answer is not so simple. I’m happy to work with steel kegs, KeyKegs, and EcoKegs… they each have different properties and advantages. It is up to the individual brewer/brewery to determine what works best for them from the options available. I like the sheer robustness and handling of steel kegs, I like that EcoKegs are light as well as robust and highly reusable, I like the technology of KeyKegs as well as their compact and stackable form-factor.
I do not accept PETainers from breweries, and I think I’m resolved now to no longer buy beer that is packaged in Dolium. After one broke, dropped on my foot, and then leaked everywhere the other day I’m doubly unhappy with the things. (I was wearing steel-cap shoes thankfully!)