Discovering Beer in the Land of Whisky

Flood, Sweat and Beers

My brewing mojo has a pulse. It’s faint, but clear.

 

Kilburn is an area of North London about three miles west of Camden Town. It has a rich history of music venues, plenty bars and restaurants and a vacant railway arch. Arch 14A to be exact. Kilburn lies across three boroughs and has the highest Irish population in London. The arch itself sits within Camden and may well have been built by Irishmen. The musical connections of the area include the original name of Ian Dury’s band, Kilburn and the High Roads. Live music is still a feature of bars up and down the Kilburn High Road, but the Kilburn National Ballroom and the wonderful Luminaire are sadly no more. The former once featured gigs by the likes of The Smiths, Blur and Nirvana, but in 1999 was converted to an evangelical church in a rare reversal of the normal trend.

 

I have developed an arch fascination of late, searching online for one that might provide a good home for the brewery of my dreams. Having a brewery in London that isn’t in an arch is apparently considered a social faux pas. These desirable residences are plentiful enough, but rarely seem to be eligible for fresh occupation. Network Rail and Transport for London jealously guard their precious brood of semi-cylindrical brick-built beauties, releasing them all too infrequently to the horde of admiring would-be tenants. Arch 14A is under the auspices of TfL, which I’m told does not augur well.

 

Any arch in a storm, as the saying doesn’t go. This one offers just less than 1200 square feet in return for a rent of 14,000 British Pounds per annum (my new Mac offers only $, € or ¥ currency signs). The area is great, the price is reasonable and, though a smidgen small, the size will do just fine. The viewing takes place next week and I expect a crowd, despite the ostensive, offensive lease terms that provide the landlord with a one-way rolling six-month break option. Untenable, or maybe that should be untenantable! Still, it’s progress, and having an arch that lies next to a street called Shoot-Up Hill would be pretty cool.

 

Research continues in earnest with visits to Crate and Hoppy Collie breweries. The latter is a nano brewery, tucked away at the back of an Italian restaurant on the Fulham Palace Road. A blowy 15-mile round trip on my bike was rewarded by an effusive welcome from Viola, the hoppy (happy) Collie and her Californian owner Travis. Occasional brews here yield about 250 litres for onward sale to a cluster of pubs, rewarding a day’s labour squeezed between the confines of a full-time job.

 

Crate also involved a 15-mile cycle, but there the comparisons end. Crate is housed in a large, white building, nestled by the canal, a javelin throw from the Olympic Stadium. In addition to the brewery there’s a bar and a pizza restaurant. Sitting outside for lunch, overlooking the canal, with a pint of IPA and 12π square inches of delicious pizza in front of me, made this a particularly good day at the office. Owner Neil has already expanded to having 37 staff, just 15 months after opening. Let’s colour that successful. It was also quite inspirational and I basked in Neil’s enthusiasm.

 

I had to work into the evening, but I didn’t mind. The LBA had a social event planned at the historic Fuller’s Brewery, to celebrate the retirement of a founder member (of the LBA, not the brewery). Awesome location, free beer and a fascinating tour topped off with the cracking (tapping) open of a polypin of excellent Russian Imperial Stout. This nectar was the Tsar attraction. After taking on some buffet fuel we ventured out for a pub-crawl along the Thames, talking beer, drinking beer and relaxing in the camaraderie of the London Beer Alliance.

 

In other news, I’ve been trying to rent out my new flat in Wapping and, one day, had occasion to take a stroll around the area. Looking closely at a weathered sign above the Cable Street Inn, I saw the name of Meux’s Stouts and Ales. This fired my curiosity and led me to read about the history of Meux’s brewery, one of the larger players in early 19th Century London. My research unearthed an event that had spookily taken place exactly 199 years earlier to the day, close to the junction where Oxford Street now meets Tottenham Court Road.

 

Big was beautiful in these days and breweries would compete for having the largest and grandest vats where the beer would be matured for many months. So large were these vats, that Meux’s were able to host a dinner for 200 people within one. As well as bragging rights, this scale offered efficiencies that smaller players just couldn’t match. The event of 199 years ago to which I allude began in one of these vast vats. One of the metal rings holding it together broke and soon after the whole vat gave way, releasing over 1,000,000 pints of Porter. The ensuing tsunami caused a domino effect, breaking open other vats, the sum of which created the legendary London beer flood.

 

The flood killed nine poor folk, although the ninth of these actually succumbed to alcohol poisoning some weeks later. He may therefore have been among the throng that thirstily and lustily approached the torrent with pots and pans, to rescue some booty by looting the fruits of the brewery. No criminal charges were levied against Meux’s and they even successfully recovered the prepaid duty from the Government. The Dominion Theatre now stands on the site of the old brewery.

 

With the likelihood of not having my own functioning brewery until possibly a year hence (and unrelated to the story above), I have become somewhat enchanted by the idea of outsourcing my brewing and bottling to a contractor. No nasty leases, limited capital at risk, much shorter timescales, no brewer required, but a fast-track to branding, sales and marketing. I just need to design the beers, order 750 litres at a time, store it in a wee lock-up and purchase a van to enable distribution. Ideally this is only a precursor to the main event, the support act if you will, but I wouldn’t entirely rule out a future starring role for this much simpler business model!

 

I’m learning that to successfully run a brewery you need some combination of the following: relevant experience, suitable qualifications, useful connections, skilled colleagues and a bit of luck. I don’t think that you need to tick all five boxes, but at least three would be pretty helpful. My scorecard is so far looking thus: none, very limited, very limited, none, not a lot. Not a great report card then, so my mission, should I wish to accept it, must be to gain some experience. Sure, I could do another course, but it’s time that I worked up a sweat. My new goal then, is to get some (unpaid) work in a brewery. I’m happy to assist with the brew, clean, deliver, sell or make the tea.

 

I wonder if anyone is looking for a Pentagenarian intern?

 

 

 

Mojo Brewing

The Grand Central train that I boarded at King’s Cross was redolent of 1950s New York both in its style without, and the photos of a pouting Marilyn adorning the carriages within. However, this iron horse was headed not for the Big Apple, home of so many cool cats, but rather Sunderland, home of the Black Cats (Sunderland FC), who had grabbed the headlines that weekend for the hasty removal of their colourful Italian manager, Paulo Di Canio.

 

The emotional chill of leaving home on a Sunday night to venture into the unknown was thawed by the stunning red sunset to our port side, somewhere south of York. A rubbery, microwaved Panini bounced around my tum as we rattled our way north, arriving late into the deserted landscape of downtown Sunderland. After following a meandering route, I was pointed to my temporary home by two cheerful bouncers outside a sad and empty bar.

 

After a terrible sleep on a bed crafted from badly made porridge, I braved the foggy morning walk to Brewlab and, arriving predictably early, sought refuge in the local greasy spoon. The coffee was instant but my scrambled eggs took longer. Mr Di Canio was the preferred topic of hungry punters, sandwiched between friendly greetings and hearty orders of stotties, the local ‘delicacy’. I devoured the last of my scrambled egg mountain, vacated the sole table and bid farewell to my friendly hosts. Time to dive in to my three-day start up brewing course.

 

Brewlab’s HQ is situated at the end of an industrial estate on the banks of the River Wear. It consists of a small brewery, laboratories and a teaching facility. The coffee and biscuits on offer mean that I shall not be taking the greasy spoon detour again. Our class consists of 19 blokes and one lady. There’s one bloke who already has a brewery and one about to kick off, but the rest are either making plans like me or absolute beginners.

 

We were schooled in the practicalities, chemistry and marketing skills that would be critical to our success. Talking beer all day and again with some of the guys in the evening was a treat. The grim stories of a saturated market didn’t put me off, as I see things differently. But neither did I leave certain of my future as a brewery owner. What the course did for me was to make the whole thing starker and more tangible. I didn’t come away with a green light or a red light, but at least some more light had been shed on the shadowy future of Orbit Brewing.

 

I’m in the USA for two weeks now, traveling around Nashville, New Orleans and Memphis. Driving an automatic car in cruise control down empty roads affords me plenty space for bouts of reflective introspection. Beyond the questions about how much to invest, where to set up and what to brew, lurks the biggest question of them all. How much do I want this?

 

One day, here in NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana), the introspection had morphed into serious doubts and deep questions. I found a coffee house near our hostel and had to swallow a laugh as I noticed it was called Mojo. Mojo was brewing (coffee), but where was my brewing mojo? Later, on the bus into town, I see a girl with ‘passion’ tattooed on her neck. Where was my passion for beer? Tattooed on my neck, etched on my heart or just scribbled in a blog?

 

I started to ask myself whether my greater passions lay in travel, music and writing. After all, the Tea Leaf Paradox was born from a deep wish to travel and write. Beer was the skeleton of that story, but writing and travel were the flesh and the spirit. As I make plans for Orbit, I’m writing about the experience and my branding will be all about music. Maybe I should put all of my effort into freelance writing and keep my money to indulge my passion for travel and music?

 

On travel, I’m struck by how much America seems to be about religion and cars. I’m only surprised that we have yet to encounter any drive-thru churches. This vast land has bred many sprawling towns bereft of soul, lacking a heart and with community limited to the myriad flavours of church. We found a Hilton in Tupelo and I asked how far we were from the centre. “Why, y’all are already in the centre honey!” This was a world of dry counties, deserted streets and drive-thru pick-up queues.

 

New Orleans was a fine exception. Real personality, character and edge. Shaped by its colourful history and the ever-present threat of wild storms, it feels enticing, bohemian and dangerous. None of these adjectives could be used to describe Graceland in Memphis, but I felt I got to know Elvis the person – the boy, the man and the star. His life contained so much greatness and genuine joy, but also a sense of someone who was often lost and lonely. I even shed a tear by his graveside, noticing that his granny outlived him, his parents and his stillborn twin.

 

So, back home in London, I’m not just looking for premises, kit and a brewer, but also the passion and purpose that will (re)-ignite my mojo. If Orbit Brewing is to come to life then I have to start taking some chances and live with the risks. If not, then I’d better come up with a pretty good Plan B to take the place of Plan Beer.

 

The jet lag is keeping me awake until the early hours, giving me a darkened stillness in which to incubate my thoughts. I soon realise that there isn’t a Plan B. I’ve undertaken a marathon climb up a challenging mountain with little help and no experience. No surprise then that I’m feeling this way, but I think I can make it. I need to keep going, I need some luck, I need some help and I need to keep going.

 

Henry V famously endured his ‘long, dark night of the soul’ before drawing on his depths of personal leadership and encouraging his troops ‘once more unto the breach’. He had to defeat the French with a broken army; I only have to create a brewery. How hard can that be?

Breaking Even

I took a break from beer, books and bad acting over a recent weekend, so it seems only fair that I offer you some time out too. My diversion took the form of an event that I had been looking forward to since I first experienced it exactly one year ago. It promised fabulous music, lovely food, great weather and plenty of delicious beers (doh – that didn’t last long, did it?). The End of the Road festival has everything that Glastonbury has mostly lost, and is the antidote to corporate events like Reading, V and T in the Park. The headline acts were David Byrne, Sigur Ros and Belle & Sebastian, but I was looking forward to some of the more intimate sets by the likes of Allo Darlin’, El Perro del Mar and The Staves. As if all of that wasn’t enough, my mate Kiwi Dave and I would be traveling down (and sleeping) in dear old Brian.

 

The Thursday evening was very chilled, with an atmosphere like a private view before the hordes descend on the exhibition. The food, beer and weather were all present and correct, and the smallest venue (none of them are very big) featured a pretty cool line-up of previously unannounced bands. I love it when you get something extra that wasn’t on the menu and this looked like a very tasty amuse bouche (oreilles?). Sadly, our earlier shenanigans of squeezing Brian down a single-track road where everyone else was going in the other direction meant that we missed the excellent opening act, the superbly named Evans the Death. This was however more than made up for later on by a face-melting Deap Vally live performance in the tiny Tipi Tent. To steal the words from my muso mate Mark’s description, having seen them on YouTube:

 

“Foxy looking girl musicians? Check

White Stripes vs The Donnas musical vibe? Check

Cool “Fender” style font on bass drum? Check

Sassy proto-glam music video? Check”

 

So, it was with a broad smile across our melted faces that we continued our research into the mind-boggling real ale selection on offer that night, before crashing out in Brian in the happy knowledge that the festival hadn’t even properly started yet…

 

No sooner had I returned to London than it was time to attend my first ever, proper, London Brewers’ Alliance meeting. This was held in the back of a pub run by Ed Mason, owner of Five Points brewery and our host for this evening. The meeting reminded me a little of those I used to attend in my working days, as there were minutes, matters arising and an agenda. Like in any meeting there were strong voices and quiet folk, but having the most to say wasn’t always correlated to making the most sense. Where this meeting differed most however was in the plentiful supply of delicious, free beer and the friendly, collegiate atmosphere: incredible given that we’re all in direct competition.

 

So, I learned a lot, met a few new people, and left feeling both invigourated and scared. The meeting had refreshed my will to be part of this world, as well as refreshing my palate, but I had found out about yet more new breweries being born, or at least conceived, to add to the burgeoning population – a brewery boom, Generation 4X perhaps. I’m getting used to these swings of mood and have learned to respect them. I wouldn’t be doing this at all if I didn’t feel excited about it and I would probably be doing it horribly wrong if I didn’t feel scared about it.

 

I needed help. Luckily help was now on hand, as I had my first meeting with Paul up in Knutsford, near Macclesfield. Knutsford is a pleasant little place from where many folk make the commute to Manchester for work. Manchester is of course home to the biggest football team on the planet, while Knutsford hosts an international three-hour endurance race for penny-farthing bicycles every ten years. I wasn’t here for that sporting oddity though; I was here for the beer – or at least an education in beer. Here’s some of what I learned:

 

  • I could make lager without breaking the bank
  • I’d be better to contract out my bottling
  • I should definitely have an off licence
  • I should use fresh hop flowers, but dried yeast
  • Paul makes a decent cup of tea

 

With my card having been suitably marked I now felt ready to embark on a proper business plan where I could capture my dreams together with the host of realities that surround them. I now knew much better how the beer game worked, my strategy for playing that game and the tactics for entering the game. I also had a much better idea of the table stakes and had to hope that I’d be dealt a decent hand, so that I could grab my share of the money on the table. I’ve always been rubbish at cards though…

 

To keep my brain from addling in a vat of beer, I make sure I return to the world of writing on frequent occasions. Sales of the TLP continue to be slow but I have been busy planting seeds for future growth. I’ve sent 21 books to lucky Scottish brewers, one to the media bloke at CAMRA North London, one to the nice lady at the Camping & Caravanning Club and one to the CEO of VisitScotland. There are, no doubt, many more people and places to whom/where I could tactically lob a book, but I felt quite pleased that these last three neatly covered beer, campervans and Scotland.  The CAMRA bloke even promised a review in the London Drinkers’ magazine and gave me an intro to his national equivalent who showed an interest in making TLP available on their website. Not sure that Amazon will welcome the competition though.

 

Reviews of the book are trickling onto Amazon and slowly seeping into double figures. These consist of three mates, one relative, one brewer, three strangers and two on the .com site that could be any of the above. All have awarded five stars except for one bloke who gave it four. I think he’s closest to the truth frankly but I’m grateful for everyone’s support, faith and unfettered generosity. I’ll never achieve the 5,000 or so sales needed to break even on Brian’s diesel bills, but I’ve probably earned enough to cover all the macaroni cheese pies I ate.

 

More on the Orbit business plan next time, but let me leave you with this thought. Based on some initial numbers, raw assumptions and optimistic arithmetic, I reckon that just to break even I would have to sell 32 30-litre kegs each week. Doesn’t sound too bad, but that’s the same as nearly 3,000 bottles of beer just to cover expenses, ignoring depreciation and paying nil salary to me! Maybe I should make macaroni cheese pies instead.

Scary Monsters

I can’t act and I don’t know much about brewing. These are significant handicaps if I am ever to describe myself as ‘Robert Middleton: author, actor and brewer’. I have at least written a book, but that doesn’t really qualify me as an ‘author’. Not in my book. But, of these three noble professions, writing is my best shot at success for now. However, my ability to shift units has thus far been lame at best and entirely dependent on friends and family. Nonetheless, pride and curiosity drove me to scour the available sales stats for any signs of life.

I had almost forgotten that I had earlier taken advantage of the ‘free promotion’ option on Amazon where your Kindle book is offered with a 100% discount (sounds better than ‘free’) for a period of five days. This seemed like a good marketing ploy so I triggered the promo and thought no more about it. After some trial and error surfing on the Kindle site, I found all my stats including what felt like a Golden Ticket. Until now I had been labouring under the impression of my sales crawling painfully into double figures. If you will permit me to count a freebie as a sale then these now numbered in the hundreds. The promo had worked…and some.

[Warning: this short paragraph contains a fair amount of numerical analysis.] I was soon feverishly counting up the worldwide sales and found that I had shifted 304 free units as well as selling 53 ebooks and 13 paperbacks. So, not yet time to reveal myself as being another JK Rowling in disguise, but not bad. 189 of the £0.00 sales came from the UK, 92 from the US, 15 from Germany (!) and the other 8 were scattered around the globe. While all of this did little for my pocket, it did warm my heart. It also led to one other happy moment that I shall later share.

I have myself purchased 74 copies as author (it’s cheaper), of which 25 are for my second cousin Craig in Canada, for onward distribution to golfing buddies. The 49 have recently arrived at Middleton Towers and so I can now decide which lucky blighters will be receiving them. There are a bunch of folk I need to thank with a copy and others where the apparent gift will mask an underlying, cunning marketing plan. Four of these books are however already earmarked for the British Guild of Beer Writers Awards, which I am entering with the same expectation of a winning outcome that I would attribute to buying a lottery ticket. You’ve got to be in it to win it though, as my mum used to say. On that note, I also learned just in time about the inaugural awards at the North American equivalent of our BGBW and managed to lob an electronic TLP over the Pond just ahead of deadline. You never know…

<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>

I have some dark moments when I’m awake at night and thinking about the Orbit brewery. There’s something about the imposed sensory deprivation, with neither light nor sound, that brings my deepest fears to the surface. At these times I feel like running away from the whole idea of running a brewery. It seems nothing short of preposterous for an outsider like me to think he can make a success in an industry I know almost nothing about. Worse, I would be risking a six figure cash sum that could instead be nestling happily in my bank account. What am I playing at?! I can’t brew, I’ve never run a business and I’m trying to make this work all on my own. Madness, madness, they call it madness.

But I know that I can’t walk away, so I just have to find a way to make this work. That means walking before I try to run and having someone hold my hand as I take my first steps. I’m not going to discard my dreams of a cool brewery and bar, making and serving great lager with me at the decks playing vinyl records for the admiring crowd, but maybe that’s phase 2. Or 3. Time to figure out a sensible phase 1 business plan and get some help.

For every time I feel low about this project there’s at least a couple of times I feel pretty buoyant. One of these came when I visited five breweries in two days. The brewing world is full of lovely people ready to invite you in, hear your story, tell you theirs, wish you luck and send you off with a couple of free beers in your hands. How many industries do you know that treat a potential new competitor like that?! It’s like being able to ‘ask the audience’ on ‘I Want to be a Millionaire’ – a crowd hug. Seeing these breweries in action really sharpened my vision as well as soothing my fears.

My business coach once told me that leadership wasn’t about walking down a path; it was about hacking your way through the undergrowth to create a new path. That pretty neatly sums up how I’m feeling right now – just gotta keep going. Progress along this new path is like playing a video game where you sometimes get chased by monsters and sometimes find a treasure that helps you along. One treasure arrived in the form of news that my Brewlab ‘Start-Up Brewing’ course had been brought forward to September. Sunderland here I come! There’s also a wee bonus boost ahead with my first proper London Brewers’ Alliance meeting being held next week. But still, I was walking alone and not at all sure about my direction, so it was time to ‘phone a friend’.

After some brief research I found the brewery consultant who seemed to best match my needs and reflect my ethos. Paul came with tons of experience, a helpful website and a friendly face, so I got in touch and soon we were having our first chat on the phone. As well as making me feel a little better, this also galvanised me into getting on with my business plan and fine-tuning my elevator pitch. My plans still have plenty at stake, a fair amount of risk and could still fail, but I’ve toned it all down a bit. Somewhat like taking the ’50:50′ option when you’re not sure of the answer.

So, with my lifelines all used up, but some progress being promised ahead, I can look forward to September with a few more ounces of belief nestling in a corner of my man bag. Before we leave August behind though, I should share the other happy moment from my burgeoning/withering writing career. Reviews are the fuel of sales on Amazon and so far I had two, both from friends. Then, to my absolute delight and astonishment, a stranger gave me a really glowing review and four stars. I almost felt like a kosher writer, especially when he said “this is a really good read and just as enjoyable as anything by Bill Bryson”.

While this is no doubt a crushing blow to Bill’s ego, it brought a blushing glow to mine! Okay, it was just one guy, and he did confess that his interests included ale, Scotland and campervans, but it felt to me like getting an extra life on that video game, just before you were about to expire. Right now I need all the extra lives I can get, if I’m going to defeat all the scary monsters ahead.

Gotta get to the next level…

 

Well Made Up

It’s 8pm on a hot Thursday evening and I’m sitting in a cluttered room inside a deserted office somewhere near St Paul’s. There’s an effervescent 21 year-old Essex girl applying make-up to my face and the table in front of me is scattered with a wide range of cheap snacks and expensive slap. My make-up artist has been calling everyone ‘babe’ since I arrived, which hasn’t helped me learn anyone’s name, including hers. With eyes closed, as she paints away my lines and powders my Scottish skin, I introduce myself as Robert. After a short pause for comic timing I add “but you can call me babe”. She nearly laughed.

 

So began my first ever experience of working as a film extra. The job had come up in an email just two days earlier; I applied that day and was hired the next. I imagined extra work to only involve ‘being’ without any element of ‘doing’ and, in particular, nothing involving acting. I was a bit perturbed then to find that I was expected to ‘crack up laughing’ on cue. I had also envisioned that playing an extra would be a group activity but there were only two of us in addition to the lone actress. We nearly weren’t any at all, as Security did everything in their power not to let us in the building, despite our Irish host Breff’s best efforts. I bet that never happens to De Niro. But, after much ado about nothing, we were swept inside – the ‘talent’ had arrived.

 

As we chat and change and receive our brief briefing from Breff (actually it was Viggo but I couldn’t resist the alliteration), we can hear repeated, hollow echoes of ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’ coming from the cludgy next door. This is, apparently, where they’re shooting the ‘toilet’ scene ahead of setting up our office scene, having already shot the lift scene. Better for the scene not to be heard I reckon. Let me share the plot with you. BT Vision Karaoke is a television channel that allows Brits who haven’t got talent to sing over the backing tracks played on screen. The scenes for this promo are designed to send the message that you don’t have to annoy people by singing in public (lift, loo, office) when you can sing at home instead. This message is reinforced by the reactions of those subjected to the unwelcome, if dulcet, tones of our chanteurs.

 

My nerves have gone by now and ‘babe’ has finished her work so I’m feeling made up and made-up. I walk over to the ‘set’ and take my place next to Georgina, my fellow extra. We’re strategically placed behind the lead (only) actress, Julia, and wondering if we’ll be lucky enough to be the subjects of a focus pull. The cameraman claps (forgotten his clapperboard I guess), the Director says “action” and we’re off. My directions have changed from ‘crack up laughing’ to ‘look pissed off, walk over and hit her on the head with a notebook’. I don’t feel at all comfortable about this, it’s not funny (least for Julia) and apparently I’m taking too long to do it. This idea is soon ditched and by some process of celluloid osmosis we hit upon the idea of throwing scrunched up paper balls at our karaoke colleague instead.

 

This is funny. Unfortunately it’s too funny for me and Georgina and we are gently chastised for sniggering and not appearing pissed off enough. Several takes later we have controlled our mirth while the camera’s rolling but the inter-take process of having to collect the paper balls and recycle them into the next shot sets us off again. Then our professionalism kicks in and we are rewarded with the heavenly sound of Viggo saying, “that’s a wrap”. We’re both relieved and delighted as we couldn’t have listened many more times to Wet Wet Wet’s version of Love is All Around and were starting to throw the paper balls with greater venom and accuracy. Method acting. We clamber back into our civvies, say awkward goodbyes (one mwah or two?) and I make my way home with a light smile on my shiny, powdery face. You can sing along here.

 

In other news, I’m delighted to announce that it’s also ‘a wrap’ for the paperback version of my book, The Tea Leaf Paradox. At £7.99 I’m not sure it’s great value compared to other books you can purchase on Amazon for the same price, but maybe people will be fooled into thinking it must be pretty good because it’s expensive. If I were in their shoes I’d opt for the £1.96 Kindle version instead though. I’ve ordered 49 copies of my own book for marketing purposes, so there’ll be some work to be done when these arrive next week. I know 49 seems like an odd number (and it is) but being seven squared I figured it was a beautiful number and might bring me luck. Really, these things matter! For those of you who prefer ‘round’ numbers, you can content yourselves with the knowledge that the proof copy I had previously ordered does make the total up to 50.  The proof copy arrived about a week after I pressed the ‘publish’ button, which may appear illogical (and it is) but delivery choices were ‘slow’ or ‘expensive’; I chose ‘slow’ but then couldn’t resist publishing before it arrived. At least I can present mum and dad with the proof copy as a memento when I see them tomorrow for their 60th wedding anniversary celebration.

 

When people ask me what I do these days, I say, “I’m between a book and a brewery”. This usually ends the conversation for all but the most determinedly curious. Progress from book to brewery continues at a slow pace, but after a couple of polite reminders I am now officially included on the circulation list of the London Brewers’ Alliance. Regular meetings start next month but my first experience would be at a ‘social’ event at the Fuller’s bar. It took me a while to twig exactly which Fuller’s bar they meant but then I realised it was actually in the Kensington Olympia, where the annual Great British Beer Festival was being held. Meeting people I’d never met before, in a crowded bar in an exhibition hall full of beer aficionados, seemed like a challenge but at least I could experience the fest and neck a couple of beers in my £3 commemorative glass.

 

Waiting in the queue to enter, we had to endure half-drunk ‘trade’ delegates, exiting from their afternoon of ‘networking’, taunting us with calls of “there’s no beer left, we’ve drunk it all”. Each specimen uttering these words basked in their perceived originality and humour, unaware of their unwelcome repetition. Soon we were allowed to flood in to the cavernous space and I explored my new environment. If you wanted beer, food and bar games you had definitely come to the right place. I noticed the occasional pile of sawdust masking an earlier beer spill and wondered why they didn’t just mop it up? I hope it was an undigested beer spill. The punters, while a mixed group, were predominantly male, middle-aged, hairy and overweight with a subset sporting features that would not exclude them from being an extra in a medieval crowd scene.

 

Remembering I was here to ‘work’ I got a beer, found the bar and looked across the sea of faces hoping for some tinkle of recognition. I knew no one and no one knew me so I just dived in and chewed the fat with anyone wearing clothes branded with a London brewery name, working my way up to meet Steve (Secretary of the LBA), who had made the kind invitation for me to attend. There was little more to achieve here so I took a final walk around, spotting the glitterati of the beer world, especially Beer Beauty who is Birmingham’s only beer sommelier as well as being a writer and presenter. She was effortlessly entertaining her admiring companions, so I loitered strategically before pouncing on my prey. I am an avid follower on Twitter and bravely/lamely introduced myself as such to spark our conversation. She was lovely and by the end of our chat I had a promise to check out my book, the possibility of an invite to the Beer Writers’ Awards dinner in December and a new follower on Twitter!

 

Awesome; I was well made up!

 

Getting in on the act

My Twitter followers still only amount to a pathetic 9, but I’ve recently been honoured with being the humble subject of a #FF. Now, this may look like some kind of abbreviated swear word to the uninitiated but all Twits out there will recognise this as ‘Follow Friday’. Basically it’s a shout out that you can make any Friday to promote someone you follow in the hope that others will follow them too. They haven’t. Thanks for trying though Maureen.

I also owe Maureen thanks for connecting me with Gae-Lynn Woods in Texas, who is a proper author. She has written two crime thrillers and I’m currently reading the first, The Devil of Light. This book has scored an average 4.7 from reviewers while her new book boasts an amazing 4.9. I’m too modest to draw attention to my own average score of 5, mostly because it emanates from two people, both of whom are mates. I’m very grateful nonetheless and it would of course have been crushing if they’d awarded any less!

Gae-Lynn gave me some sound advice and also introduced me to lots more social networking sites. I’d barely begun to adapt to Twitter after eventually mastering Facebook, and I now I discover that there are dozens more of these virtual worlds out there, made just for authors. Triberr, Goodreads, Wattpad, LibraryThing, Shelfari and even Booksie! I do realise that you have to scatter a lot of seeds to earn a few green shoots, never mind a harvest, but enough already! Gae-Lynn, on the other hand, Tweets constantly, using tools to manage her Tweet flow (smart huh?), but still found time to re-Tweet my blog. A sweet Tweet indeed, but still no luck. Where are you Follower #10?

When you search for my book on Amazon it appears alongside two others. You might imagine these to have similar titles or themes but no, they are called ‘Physics of Sailing’ and ‘The Beauty of Murder’. On further inspection I find that the reason for these apparently incongruous connections is that each book mentions the Tea Leaves (sic) Paradox within its pages. Not my book of course, but the phenomenon itself. I panicked initially at their pluralisation, but it seems that Einstein himself referred to this Paradox using a singular Tea Leaf. Actually, I think the plural makes more sense, but my version sounds better and you can’t argue with Albert.

With the paperback launch somewhat delayed at the design studio (aka Fabianne) I decided to return my focus to creating a brewery, as that is actually my chosen future path. I’d booked up a tour at the Camden Town Brewery and took the chance to meet up with the guide beforehand to pick his brains. Mark Dredge is a beer/food writer who has won awards for his Pencil & Spoon blog and beer writing and has now published a book about craft beer. I did my best to appear credible, at least as a potential brewery owner, even if not as a writer. He did seem to confirm that I had my high level plans about right, but I certainly didn’t detect any signs of fear about this potential new competitor. He did say though that there are very few truly great brewers out there, so finding one will be really hard. Right now I can’t even find a crap one!

The tour itself was ace. There were about ten of us and after spending 15 minutes saying hi and having a beer, we walked around the brewery and drank serious quantities of beer before finishing the tour and being left to, er, drink even more beer. I mean, there was jugfuls of the stuff that just kept coming, and it would have been rude not to try each style at least twice. I would recommend this tour as a very cost effective way to get drunk and meet people, but that would mask the quality of the tour itself, which was excellent. But, yep, not a bad way to get drunk and meet people, all for £12.

Boosted by this success (and having passed on three business cards to my fellow boozers) I then contacted a few more breweries and have managed to nail down visits to three of those over the coming weeks. I’ve also had my invitation to the London Brewers’ Alliance confirmed and signed up for a three day ‘start-up brewing’ course at BrewLab in Sunderland in January, so progress on the brewery field research is being made. I was kinda done with the pub research by now, having crawled my way around 24 of these last week, so I reckoned it was time for some desk research. I’d already figured out that I would need brewing equipment to make beer (smart huh?) but I don’t have the expertise or language to properly describe what it is I’m looking for, even if I knew what that was. So, pity poor Andreas from Braukon (suppliers to Camden Town) in Germany when he reads my pathetic attempt at a serious enquiry. I need this information though as buying brew kit will probably be my largest outgoing – up to £100k and maybe more.

Next up was premises. I found a few companies who are letting agents for suitable, light industrial (category B1, techy dudes) properties not too far from central London. I’m getting a feel for what’s out there and what it costs but know no more about my exact requirements for property than I do for the brew kit. It seems that I should budget for about £15-20 per square foot and should be looking for about 2,000 of these little fellows ideally. Some of the places looked absolutely fine from a practical, manufacturing perspective but did not in any way make my heart sing. Then I discovered the Network Rail website where they rent out units under railway arches and the old ticker burst into song. #Smitten.

I handed over one other business card this week, to a bloke called Kal who had just engraved a photo book for me. Turned out he’d been in film, which we got on to when he described the many famous folk he does work for, like engraving Robbie Williams’ shades with ‘RW’. Anyway, I cleverly/clumsily turned the conversation around to ask him how one connects with a production company or film crew, should one wish to make a documentary about Scottish breweries. He warmed to this, gave me a few tips (then probably filed my card in the bin), and I thought about who my presenter would be, all the way back on the tube. Any ideas dear reader?

So, with my book not going anywhere fast and the brewery only creeping forward, I was pleased to receive notification of some work for extras in a photo shoot the next day. Applying seemed daft with holidays approaching, but in a moment of madness I hit the button, not expecting to ever hear back. A day later I received an email telling me that I had indeed been chosen for a promo shoot for BT Visions Karaoke – a television program that brings karaoke to your living room! The shoot was taking place at BT HQ and I had to be there from 7pm til 11:30pm. Not ideal when I had to rise at 4:30am to catch a plane but, hey, this was my big break! I wasn’t at all put off when I learned that the program was moving from telly to internet, but my nerves multiplied when I saw that there would be some acting required. Extras having to act? That wasn’t in the script. Worse, all my fellow extras had acting experience already. I just had stage fright and no tools to manage it with.

So, how did my debut go? Has Follower #10 appeared yet? And has the long-awaited paperback finally found its way to Amazon’s virtual shelves? Most importantly, am I losing my bottle with the brewery as well as my battle with the booze? Tune in to Orbit FM next week for all the answers and more.

Mwah! Mwah!

Clipboard and Pen

I’m not expecting sympathy, but I shall seek some anyway. This last week I have spent several afternoons wandering the streets of sunny Camden, making visits to myriad bars. My purpose was entirely work related as I wanted to research how much freedom bars have in choosing the beers they sell and whether local craft beers would be on their list. I managed to make my way around 24 hostelries in total and, other than tasting one beer under duress, I didn’t touch a drop. This sad fact is my opening gambit to at least prepare the ground for a snifter of sympathy.

You may be surprised to learn that about half of the pubs in Britain are tied, usually through a lease or tenancy, to either a brewing company or a pub chain. Another thirty percent are also part of a group but are managed rather than leased. Just one in five can be deemed a ‘free house’. These statistics matter greatly to the potential brewer (me) because it means that to get your (my) beer into 80% of the UK’s pubs you need a deal with a corporate entity and that ain’t very likely to happen! (Get those sympathy tokens ready.)

Some of the bars I entered would be considered pretty fu**ing hip and trendy and you might at first expect that they would be owned by some cool dude who decides exactly which fresh and tasty local craft beers get to appear in his joint. Sadly, this was rarely the case. For example, the shortest shrift I got anywhere was in Lock 17 who said “we’re not allowed to talk to anyone about the beers we sell”. Quite amazing for a bar. In Barfly I was told (by a very friendly young lady) “people don’t want to try anything new unless it’s cheap”. (Insert first sympathy token here.)

However, possibly my greatest disappointment was the Hawley Arms, surely one of the most loved bars in London. The chap there was extremely helpful and kind but I was flabbergasted to discover that they are owned by Greene King (GK) and have pretty much no sway over the beers they sell. Worse, the beer I tasted was called ‘Noble’, a craft beer made by GK. This is significant dear reader because if one of the hippest bars in Camden is not only owned by a huge company like GK, but also sell a (frankly rather nice) craft beer made by same, well, what chance do I have? (The more charitable of you may wish to consider adding two sympathy tokens here.)

Now, if you have read this far with all of your sympathy tokens still intact then allow me to break your duck. Let us consider all of the above sorry tales as a mere backdrop and imagine if you will the scene. A fifty year old bloke with no experience in brewing or the licensed trade walks into an achingly hip bar in Camden, sporting (oh, the shame)…a clipboard and pen. Repeat until funny. It only dawned on me later how naff I must have looked and wished that I’d worn a t-shirt with ‘Twat’ on it, so that they might at least think it was all an act of self-ridicule. Surely some morsel of your sympathy is merited?

So, the results of the Camden jury are in. I took note of every beer on sale in all 24 bars, established their ownership, enquired after their freedom to choose what they sold and also assessed whether they’d buy local craft beers where possible. Each bar was marked for ‘freedom’ (none, some, loads) and ‘taste’ (ditto). Only one scored a double ‘loads’ (the Black Heart) and five scored a double nil. There was a free house with nil taste (“people want Fosters cos it’s cheap init”), one with nil freedom but excellent taste (such a waste) and fourteen others in-between. A weird one was Dublin Castle – a free house, with an envious reputation for live music, that has been ordering all of its beers through Scottish & Newcastle for 35 years. That’s just wrong! In the end I’d found one bar that might, just might, buy my beers, seven that at least wouldn’t eject me from the premises immediately and 16 that probably would. (Any remaining tokens may be donated here.)

There’s good news too. Bars that did stock local craft beers (especially Camden Hell’s Lager) told me that it flew off the taps – it never rains but it pours (beer joke). Indeed, the Black Heart were selling 30 kegs a week of Hell’s Lager alone (a whopping 2,640 pints). They also told me that in their view there’s still room for more craft breweries in London, but making great beer isn’t enough: necessary but not sufficient. You’ve also got to have knockout branding and slick marketing. Combine those and (maybe) you’re laughing. (No, you can’t have your tokens back!)

My conclusion then is that this project is still alive and at least twitching if not kicking. I’ve learned loads about the licensed trade, its limitations, the wicked web of distribution and how you can conquer all of that with fantabulous beers and brand. Camden Town brewery are the shining example and if I want to emulate them then I can’t do it in my home Borough. I need to find somewhere where I can do a ‘Camden’ that isn’t Camden.

Before I leave you, there was one other patch of blue sky that put a smile on my face. While reading through Sophie Atherton’s blog ‘A FemAle View’ (curse those beer puns), I discovered a link to a group calling themselves ‘CAMRGB’ or Campaign for Really Good Beer. This renegade outfit somewhat cocks a snoop at CAMRA’s insistence that the only really good beer is real ale and everything else is tasteless, fizzy, chemical-infused rubbish. Finding this website and sharing well-aligned philosophies with the chap in charge was a revelation and an absolute turbo boost to my weakening enthusiasm. I am now officially signed up as member 708 and fully prepared to do my duty in this noble cause. Which reminds me, that Noble beer was annoyingly good.

Oh, one other thing, I’ve been diving head first into social media recently, both to promote my book (sales now approaching double figures, woo hoo!) and to build my network in the world of beer. Among the many channels I’ve explored, the most important by far has been my inauguration into Twitter. I am not at all fond of tweeting and even less fond of being tweeted at, but I can’t deny its value as a means of social mediation. I’m currently following 43 and being followed by 5, two of whom are my mate Gordon. Well, it’s a start.

Cheers!

Coming out of my shell

This week I noticed a similarity between brewers and hermit crabs. I had been studying the 45 or so breweries presently operating in London to pull together a spreadsheet that summarised all the data I was interested in. This task revealed a number of insights. London might be one of this planet’s greatest metropoles (or metropolises if you prefer), but it is chock-full of ‘local’ breweries. Sure, there are a few large players but the norm is represented by the brewing equivalent of corner shops, named after the street/area/town that they’re in and producing about twenty casks per brew. Wonderful. I love that London can still feel like the sum of its villages and that we can indulge in locally brewed beers while also enjoying the fruits of living in a city that has attracted three Olympiads.

My second observation was that ten of the breweries have names beginning with the letter ‘b’. This means that nearly 20% of the names of London breweries start with ‘b’, whereas less than 4% of words in the English language start with this letter. A very rough check around the UK reveals about 190 breweries whose names also begin with ‘b’ (again about 20%), so it’s not just a London thing. We all know that brewers love puns when it comes to naming their beers so maybe they also favour alliteration when naming their breweries?

So what does all this have to do with hermit crabs? Once, while spending a day on a beach in Panama, I noticed a cast (collective noun fans may approve) of hermit crabs beside me. They were investigating a large, empty shell but, as each one tried it, they had to concede it was too large for them. Then, in Cinderella fashion, a larger crab (let’s call him the crabfather) came along, checked it out and in one swift movement, discarded his old one and occupied his new home. The other crabs had watched this transition with awe and fascination, as now there was another spare shell to try out for size. After much shoving, pushing and the odd bout of pincercuffs, the crabfather’s old abode soon had a new tenant. This continued for about half an hour until every crab had a new home and what had started with a large, spare shell, ended with a tiny, spare shell.

The brewer connection is of course the common practice of one brewer wishing to move upscale while another new entrant covets the unwanted smaller kit. Thus, these little beer factories are moved around to meet the present needs of whichever brewer is first to snaffle his snug-fit brew kit. So, if you decide to brew in someone else’s shell does that make you a hermit crab brewer rather than a cuckoo brewer?

Talking of premises, I did manage to find somewhere that at least met my basic criteria. I have no idea if this place would be suitable for brewing or if planning permission would be granted, but one feature of its location put me off further investigation. The location was Wapping, splendid in many ways, but it transpires that there is already a business called Wapping Beers – in Liverpool! That wasn’t what put me off though. Instead it was the discovery, via Google Street View, that across the road from this building is the DASL office. DASL is a London based charity that helps communities to tackle the problems caused by drug and alcohol misuse. Time to look elsewhere.

Life as a newly published author crawls along. I was inducted into the British Guild of Beer Writers this week, which felt like an exciting step. When I say ‘inducted’, perhaps ‘joined’ would be more accurate. My fellow members all seem to have splendid credentials, most are shining examples of the beer bloggerati and some are quite famous. I do feel like a gatecrasher when my own credentials are the sum of this blog and an ebook that presently ranks at number 48,165 on Amazon. With these lame statistics and the probability of running a brewery still a distant dream, I thought that perhaps I should further hedge my bets with a third option. It was with this thought in mind therefore that I signed up with the London Extra Agency. The first job that came up was for handsome men to pose as paparazzi in a Gucci commercial. If ‘handsome’ hadn’t put me off anyway, then the thought of lining up against Gucci models surely did.

So, with acting now occupying third place in my future career list I had better start making something of my first choice, brewing, and stop boring you all here with my second choice.  Until next time anyway, when I shall regale you with tales of my field research around Camden’s pubs. Someone’s got to do it!

First steps…

I’m standing in a lush green valley, the sun is shining and life is good. I look up at the mountain rising above me, as it disappears into the clouds that shroud the unattainable peak in mystery. I could turn around, walk away and relax in the long grass but something tempts me to start walking the paths of the foothills. There are many paths and I don’t know which one to take; I’m walking but not ascending, the peak just as distant as before. I try different paths but none seem to lead anywhere and there are no clues to guide me. I don’t have a map but actually I don’t need one, as I don’t know where I’m going.

I’ve never been on this mountain before, I have no sense of orientation and I don’t know what lies at the peak. The valley below is exerting its magnetic force on my whole body and I know that if I stop for just a moment I will be consumed by its allure. My growing passion and deep purpose are all that protect me from the irresistable pull of the comforts of the valley. I realise suddenly that I can’t do this alone, that discipline and doggedness won’t be enough. I need a guide and I need to let the mountain subsume me because the pull of the valley can’t take me down if I’m a part of the mountain.

That scenario pretty much sums up how I’ve been feeling during this first week of Going into Orbit. Sitting at my computer, alone in the wilderness, I’ve at least learned a few things about premises, brewing kit and the competition. I have so far counted 45 breweries within the M25, which seems far too many for my liking, but I’m probably still missing a few. Researching brewing kit has taught me that the sum of what I know and what I know I don’t know, doesn’t get close to what I don’t know that I don’t know. If you know what I mean.

A small breakthrough on premises though. My philosophy has shifted from halving my costs in the sticks to paying premium for footfall. I need a place where plenty of punters can peer at my beers and pop in to purchase a pint. I’ve also realised that it would be folly to be mean with the space I need for brewing, fermenting, conditioning, storing, working, selling and playing. This ain’t gonna be cheap but I reckon it’s gonna be worth it!

All of this was jolly interesting but I knew that I wasn’t going to learn to swim from a correspondence course – I had to jump in the deep end, explore the network, let the mountain consume me. I figured my best bet was the youthful (and useful) London Brewer’s Alliance (LBA) – where else would a prospective London brewer go to find allies? My email prompted their response and my phone message triggered their reply, which gave way to a most illuminating conversation.

Paddy began by giving me some very good reasons to make my way back to the valley. I mean, why would someone who’s never brewed beer, worked in a pub or run his own business enter the market at a point when it’s never been more saturated? That lush green grass bathed in sunshine was starting to look more appealing. Ignoring the danger signs for the road ahead I continued to walk with my guide. I was heartened when he confirmed my gut feeling that I needed to have a brewery with a shop out front. I brightened and lightened at the news that I would have absolutely no problem attracting a brewer. Indeed I might find that the queue stretches right down Camden High Street, so the trick will be finding the right one. This is a task that I shall commence forthwith…

Then came the advice that I could have anticipated but was perhaps afraid to face. His sage words cautioned me to set aside all thoughts of how large or small my brewery should be, what type of kit I should purchase and what my cool logo should look like. My priority must be to understand the market, its shape, its players, its scale, the competition, the customers and most of all the reality of driving enough sales to keep my brewery afloat. Great advice but how on earth do I do that?

If you’re a student on University Challenge you need two things to lay the foundations for success – great people on your team and a starter for ten. My starter for ten was kindly offered on a plate by Paddy who invited me to attend the forthcoming social meeting of the LBA on 13 August. If I’m going to have anyone on ‘my team’ then I need to shake some hands and share some beers in the coming weeks. My homework wouldn’t happen at home; I needed to do some field research, but this time without Brian.

So, while my internet research will continue in earnest, the priority is to visit some breweries, connect with some brewers and begin the task of collecting the wisdom that I will need if I am to make a successful ascent. This is where the virtual stripe I earned touring sixty Scottish breweries might earn me a guest pass into the world of London brewing. Tales of my journey with Brian and my soon-to-be-born paperback version of the TLP are the currency I can use to gain entry. I still can’t see the peak, I’m lost in the foothills and the temptations of the valley remain but I’ve taken my first steps and I have some paths to follow. Onward…

The Tea Leaf Paradox is born

English: A teacup on a wooden table. The leave...

English: A teacup on a wooden table. The leaves have collected in the middle after stirring because of the Tea Leaf Paradox. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hi! After a gestation period of 9 months and seven days, I am proud to announce the birth of my first book, ‘The Tea Leaf Paradox’. The book shares its birthdate with Brian, my campervan, who was 25 on Saturday. It’s a bit scary to finally offer one’s virgin literary creation to the world but hopefully it will provide some entertainment for less than the price of a swift half. You can find it here.

This day may represent the end of one story, but it also heralds the beginning of another. Having never home brewed or been educated in brewing and with no experience of running my own business, I’m going to start down the path of creating my own brewery. The best journeys are usually those you fear most and plan least so this one should be memorable. I’ll be doing my very best to lead the way through the mysterious tunnel ahead and would be most grateful for your company.

So far I have a name, ‘Orbit Brewing’, and some broad ideas and principles about the type of beer I want to create. It must have top quality ingredients, no additives whatsoever (although I might be persuaded to add some copper finings) and be allowed plenty of time to condition properly. The core range will be exclusively craft beers as opposed to real ales to ensure that if perfect beer leaves the brewery, perfect beer gets served to the customer.

There are 45 breweries currently within the M25 so the competition will be tough. I believe in my heart though that there will always be room for gorgeous new beers, especially as these may be the catalyst for punters migrating away from the mega-brands. I would love to visit all 45 breweries in London, even just to say hi, as well as learning about our brewing community. First up though will be the Camden Town Brewery as I love their beers and they’re just round the corner.

Seems like a good start. Cheers!


The Tea Leaf Paradox

Discovering Beer in the Land of Whisky

Louise Higgins

Featuring artworks by Louise Higgins

THE BROWN DERBY PUB

Cocktail Lounge - Bar - Restaurant

Campaign For Really Good Beer

Discovering Beer in the Land of Whisky

Pete Brown

Discovering Beer in the Land of Whisky

A FemAle View on Food & Drink

with Sophie Atherton - journalist & beer sommelier

CALLED TO THE BAR

Discovering Beer in the Land of Whisky