“He’s at that difficult stage”

Every business I have ever worked for has been “at that difficult stage” – a bit too small, not quite big enough to get the benefits of something or other, be it tax breaks or efficiencies of scale or bulk purchasing power or whatever is flavour of the month.

So it is no surprise that Bolthole is at that difficult stage. In my case the difficult stage is whether to grow or not.

At the moment I sell everything I produce and I am flat out in production. I have up-scaled once by squeezing a bit more out of the mash tun and buying more fermenters but I can’t get much more out of that … I could buy another fermenter, but that is just working harder not smarter.

I know I am not maximising my opportunity because I dare not speak to off-licences or local pubs and restaurant in case they want more than I can supply.

The trouble is the next step is a big one … premises and stainless steel by the shedload, both of which mean cost commitments which need to be paid for by selling beer.

Having given this a lot of thought I have decided to stay small. I want to produce something I am proud of, that is driven by quality, not cost and brings a degree of hoppiness to the people I know (or will get to know).

Every batch different; every batch the same!

The challenge for small batch brewing is consistency: is the next beer the same as the last. Well the short answer is “mostly”.

Every time I brew a batch of a particular type of beer I use the same recipe and method. But like baking a cake it always comes out slightly different. That doesn’t mean the processes have not been followed or that the “quality control” is poor, just that things are slightly different every time.

The ingredients might be called the same thing, but each harvest is different and changes with storage. The process might aim to use the same temperatures and durations, but the enzymes in the barley can be really firing today or the thermometer might be slightly off or the yeast is having a bad day. So there is a natural variation in each batch.

Now I think that is great. I expect the beer to be “good”, but sometimes it just comes out plain exceptional. And I simply cannot tell you why.

On top of that there is the “development” of the beer. By that I mean slight changes to the recipe either forced by circumstances or by design. So feedback on a beer might be that it’s not carbonated enough – easy enough to correct. Or that the beer is too bitter or not bitter enough (again correctable though less easy). Sometimes it is the availability of the ingredients, especially hops, and how they are treated (pellets are very different to use than flowers … I use both).

So small batch beers made by hand will have a natural variation which I don’t seek to eradicate. That’s the human element which I value in just about everything. Take out the human element and you get the blandness of mass production … cheap but at a price.

CAMRA

It would appear that despite my best efforts to hide, CAMRA have spotted that the BoltHole exists.

I blame Paul Baker at the Brunswick Club who in a dire emergency bought one of my experimental beers … Dark Secret, which hasn’t made it to the market yet. This was for a CAMRA meeting and despite it being 9.3% abv Imperial Stout seemed to find acceptance … to quote:

” it went really well, [they] loved the dark secret and I also sold some of the chocolate glory. Come the end of the night they were drinking it by the pint [shear madness] … Camra were very happy

Thanks Paul (?)

So now I am on the CAMRA list of breweries, have a brewery liaison officer (hi Martin) and keep getting emails from strange places (the latest from the Czech Republic).

I hope this isn’t the road to sales and profits and happiness …

Christmas already … the story of the beer that escaped

One of the best parts about being a brewer is that you can make special beers for birthdays and anniversaries and Christmas. And Christmas beers are particularly special because you can go for it in a big way. So I have started brewing the Bolthole Festive-ale beers.

I currently have 2 in mind: a dark and a light, both at around 10% abv.

Festive-ale Dark is going to be an Imperial Stout; black, rich and bittersweet

Festive-ale Light is going to be a pale Tripel; blonde, light and spritzy (is that a word? … ’tis now)

Both of these beers will require a double mash: mashing half the malt in the water (liquor in brew speak) to extract the sugars and then mashing the other half of the malt in the same liquid (can’t call it water anymore). This gives a double concentrated wort (original gravity of about 1095).

Both beers are going to have a lot of hop character, but in different ways: the Dark is going to be hopped with “big” american hops, bitter and full. The Light is going to be hopped with more floral hops, less bitter, lighter and fruity (but still 10% abv).

Both beers are going to need a pretty robust yeast to ferment all that sugar down, so I’ll be using a Belgian abbeye yeast (the sort of thing the Trappist monks use in their strong ales).

I’ll be bottling them in two sizes: 750ml champagne size bottles for sharing and 330ml for when you only want a small one.

Did a trial brew on the Dark last week and it escaped! … from the kettle during the boil partly due to incompetence (I turned my back for 2 minutes) and partly due to the high sugar content. And it escaped from the fermenter because the yeast was so happy with such a rich sugary wort it got carried away and filled the fermenter and climbed out through the air lock, across the floor and made a break for freedom (clearing up that sticky mess was fun!). Not got as far as tasting it yet, but I will report back.

This 10 second real time clip gives you an idea … the liquid in the air lock was originally clear, before the escape.

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Market Day

So we took our wares to market on Saturday at Bath Farmers Market. What a fantastic day! I loved it.

Loads of interest and people trying and buying the beer – Blonde Bombshell went down best as it always does, closely followed by Indian Summer and Bitter’n’Twisted which the Chocolate Glory being a more specialist taste (about half the Blonde sales).

Great feedback on all the beers and on the labels/branding (so it was worth it).

Anyone interested in farmers markets, try Bath. It is fantastic. Set in an old railways station with an arched glass roof, the sun was beaming in, the jazz duo were playing and the people were friendly and welcoming.

Will be doing that again! I’m aiming for 2nd and 4th Saturdays of the month.

 

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A few of links to help you find the market:

Google Maps … it’s behind Sainsbury’s

BFM website

Green Park website

They grind slowly, but they grind fine

I have been inspected by the local food police – I mean Environmental Health / Food Standards Agency / Bristol City Council (I’m not exactly sure of the relationships here). That is not to complain about being policed … these were friendly local police, just making sure everyone gets on and no one gets hurt.

It’s been a few months since I got my provisional licence as mentioned in a previous blog, and now I have had the full test, and I am glad to say that we got a 5 star rating – which I am naturally delighted with!

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Hops shortage leads to birth of a new beer

So a mild state of panic has set in here. There is a world shortage of hops or rather, one particular hop that I use in Blonde Bombshell … the legend in it’s own lunchtime: Nelson Sauvin.

This “new” hop has found favour with the craft brewing scene and given it is only grown in one place in the middle of nowhere, New Zealand (sorry to all Kiwis but it seems a long way from Bristol) it’s run out. It was always VERY expensive but it gives a lovely fruity Sauvignon Blanc flavour to pale ales, so was worth it.

Now I can’t get it and my stocks are low.

But I think I have a solution – Mosaic – another new hop that is going to be wildly popular and soon become unavailable! Brilliant.

Mosaic has a light fruity flavour profile with overtones of blueberry, so slightly richer than NS. It is also new (2012) expensive and hard to get, but worth it.

I’ve used Mosaic in experimental brews and it is fantastic. In a side by side tasting with NS, Mosaic comes over as smoother with a richer fruitiness rather than the slightly dry acidic white wine of NS.

So the Blonde Bombshell is going to be in short supply, but there is a new blonde on the block, Platinum Blonde. Coming soon!

UPDATE:

Here she is my new baby:

Platinum cropped

Just when you think you’ve got it all sorted …

So you spend months organising yourself, building up stock, getting your market stall together, sorting out a venue and your grand opening day … and then you pick up an injury. So here I am sitting on my sofa under doctors orders not to move watching the snooker.

SO FRUSTRATING!

But I do have stock and if anyone wants any I can still do that bit.

First Sales?

OK. So we’ve mucked about with (and shelled out for) premises and licences and recipe development and “brand”. Now we’ve got to sell the stuff otherwise we can’t afford to play this game anymore.

So the plan is in three stages:

  1. personal, small scale … me doing all the work either from the website or at farmers markets
  2. a few local outlets around Bristol … independent off licences, free houses, local clubs
  3. whatever comes after that ….

So actually its a 2 stage plan in the full knoweledge that there might (or might not) be more after that. We’ll cross that bridge when it’s burning.

First public outing is at Bath Farmers Market on 9th May. If you have never been to BFM, I strongly recommend it … take a look

Soon I am going to have to put a purchasing system on the website to help people get the goods, but that feels a bit scary (and corporate … Google might own my soul). Probably more hoops to jump through.

 

A brand?

What on earth is a brand? And why bother? Surely a good product sells itself.

Oh if only it was that easy.

When you are buying a new beer you are working on trust, shelling out money for something you haven’t tried before. So What the beer looks like on the outside (in our case the bottle) is very important. Do you trust it? Does it appeal to you? do you want to be associated with it?

So the aim of branding the Bolthole Brewery was to provide people with the reassurance that the stuff in the bottle is worth trying. Once you’ve opened the bottle and tasted the liquid inside then the brand has done it’s job – it’s now over to the quality of the beer. Is it interesting? does it taste good? Do I want to drink more or others by the same brewery?

Naturally I want you to say yes to all those questions – but that’s not down to the brand … that’s down to the beer.