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There has been lots of talk of late about cask beer, about margins, about brewer’s trust of those serving their beer (incidentally, a one-stop-shop for a lot of the blogs surrounding “#caskgate” can be found here). Well this isn’t one of those posts, it’s more about trust and focus on quality at every step of the process.
I was reminded at the end of last year, that it was 5 years since we first kegged our beer. At the time, in all honesty, we didn’t give our kegged range the same priority, care or deference that we reserved for our core established cask beers. As a result, whilst perhaps ahead of our time in many ways, we arguably fell off the pace as the “craft” revolution took solid hold. Caught betwixt two angry lovers of the die-hard CAMRA bastion of Real Ale and the “new” carbonated hipster-tagged wave of creativity and excitement. We never once shirked from our commitment to quality, nor from a desire to innovate or to take part. But arguably our effort to be all things to all people cost us some time in this part of the market. The fact that we’ve made 120 unique beers I think shows our commitment to experiment, develop and innovate.
The last year has seen the development of a new range of kegged beers, with new branding, and an attention to hop-induced detail that has seen our output double and demand outstrip our brewing capabilities. We identified a long time ago the need to supplement our kegged offering with these same beers in cans. But if this year has been about anything [see our 2016 Review here] it’s been about nailing down our quality, our procedures, our consistency and making sure that each and every single drop of beer that leaves the building tastes great.
We, like the majority of other brewers in the UK, do not have the space or bottomless pockets to house our own packaging line. If you’ve enjoyed a bottle of our beer, that beer was bottled offsite. This is an expensive undertaking, shipping beer to a specialist contractor, paying them to process and package it, and then shipping the finished product back to the brewery and THEN getting it to you to drink. So, after our raw material brewing costs, after the good ‘ol Chancellor takes his third, our contract packaging costs take up a significant part of our margin. Imagine then the difficulties of the squeeze from supermarkets and the like, to decrease what they pay, let alone consider inflationary rises.
One day, we’ll have the space, the site and the equipment to take back control of this part of the process. But in the meantime, we have to entrust our beer to others. We trust their expertise. As brewers we don’t like any part of the process to be outside our control. We spend a lot of time and effort finding the best materials, tracing each ingredient to source, working with our maltsters, hop farmers and yeast control labs to ensure that our beer is the best it can be. Also reacting to seasonal variance and all the various unforeseen occurrences that crop up day-to-day and week-to-week. So when we do enlist the services of others, we take great care, and oversee the process from start to finish. At the end of the day, there’s no point brewing a great beer if at the end of the journey it’s badly packaged – the drinker won’t necessarily make the distinction of where in the chain something went wrong, and they may write off any trust and brand-loyalty that we’ve worked hard to build. We’re proud of the beer we brew, and at times when our standards haven’t been met, we have made decisions to work with alternate contractors. It’s not about price for us, it’s about delivering quality and treating our beer with the care with which it was made.
It can’t have gone un-noticed that the can sector has been in such rapid growth. The virtues of canning Vs bottling are clear – they’re more environmentally friendly as a package type, they’re cheaper to ship and therefore export, they don’t let ANY light in to affect the beer (for those who scoff at light-strike: purchase two bottles of Corona, leave one in a dark room and the other outside in natural light for just 30 minutes and I guarantee you’ll taste the difference). They are also boundlessly more versatile in terms of social drinking – beers in the park, train-beers, beer at gig venues and festivals. Lots of places aren’t suitable for glass, or expensive keg-dispense set-ups. But put a can in someone’s hand and off we go! However, this is not to say that all canned beer is good beer. Just like saying all cask beer is good beer. In any package type you’re going to get some good and some bad. Some will have been brewed to, shall we say, a different taste, and some will be down to bad practice either in the brewing, the packaging or the dispense.
We’ve been planning cans for a very long time. To get the beer right. To get the design right. To get the supply-chain right. We knew from the outset that we wanted a finished product that would sing from the rooftops about who we were and what we could do. We knew we wanted a can in the hand of everyone in the land, and lands beyond. To be sure of this, in terms of shelf-life, consistency and commitment, we knew we had to go large. We wanted fully printed cans. This meant ordering 50,000 units of EACH design. Quite the commitment I think you’ll agree. This also meant ensuring that the packaging was on point. If we’re outsourcing this important step in our journey, we wanted to be absolutely certain that the folks doing the canning knew what they were doing. Although contract packaging is not a service that they generally offer, after a visit North of the border to our friends at Brewdog, a plan was hatched and put into action. Their German-engineered 40-head filler is capable of filling over 30,000 cans per hour. Their Swiss-engineered seamer employs a state-of-the-art ‘bubble breaker’, removing and replacing the pillow of CO2 on top of the beer microseconds before the cap is sealed. There will be no oxygen in these cans. There will be no compromise on quality and standards, and to boot they’re a great bunch! We couldn’t be happier to entrust Martin, Franz and the guys in Ellon, with our lovely beer.
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