Happy New Year and thank you for your ideas on the Orbit Brewing strapline. Many were funny, some cringe-worthy and none of you should give up your day jobs. Ever. Two efforts from my friend Scott are worthy of mention though. First, the Carry On (Dodgy Pun) prize is awarded to ‘Orbit of Alright’. Sid James would have approved. Scott also suggested ‘Orbit – Get out of it’. Now, if I were running a coffee shop in Amsterdam, this may well have been a praiseworthy effort. I would, though, prefer to turn this around to ‘Orbit – Get into it’! This, for me, carries a more positive ‘enjoy’ message, rather than Scott’s ‘trousered and beyond’ implication, and is not inconsistent with the title of this series of blogs. My own best, but still poor, effort was ‘Unfiltered, Unfined, Unforgettable’ – very 1970s and sounds more like an advert for Gitanes than beer. I already gave up my day job though.
The festive season has done nothing to accelerate progress on the brewery front, but neither are we stagnating. At present I have a designer, the choice of two accountants, a whiff of a bank account, a draft lease and the promise of help from a local consultant (Stuart from Twickenham Fine Ales). I am determined to sign that lease this month, as soon as I have confirmation that the electricity comes in three-phase format and no other obvious barriers to brewing exist. Locating sub-terranean plans has proven impossible, so fingers crossed that we can locate the drainage pipes without chopping through electric cables. I’ve also asked for a post box to be welded to the gate, but as the post office don’t seem to even recognise the address, that may prove unnecessary.
My research today has been on the relative benefits of one-way disposable kegs versus the traditional metal variety – hours of fun. The latter sort require significant capital outlay, expensive equipment for washing, and the logistic hell of repatriation from the pub that had them. Not to mention the possibility of some light-fingered Londoners nicking them for scrap value. But, they do make long-term financial sense and they do look like proper, professional beer dispensation devices. Heavy metal rules!
The disposable (recyclable) variety are the new kegs on the block. No capital outlay, no washing and no need to fetch them back. They’re also lighter and more efficient, with less of the beer being wasted. There’s also no need for bars to pile up empties in the back yard. A small amount of specialist equipment is needed, but maybe the main objection is that they just don’t look as kosher as the traditional kegs – more like a large stationery item. My thinking? I reckon we keg off with these and make a longer-term decision down the road apiece.
Every year since we met, the aforementioned Scott has published his top ten albums and distributed these among grateful buddies. This practice has evolved into a niche art form, with categories such as ‘best song on an okay album’, ‘best re-release’ and ‘best song in 6/8 time by an all-girl band’. (I made that last one up.) He creates three CDs each year – albums, singles and covers. I am but a pottering amateur by comparison, but do love the process of deciding on the top discs of the year. My picks currently include Tricky, Austra, Fossil Collective, Annie Hardy, Torres and, of course, King Khan and the Shrines. What would be your top three of 2014, readers?
The Tea Leaf Paradox had its best month yet for sales, shifting about 120 Kindle downloads and over 30 hard copies in December. (Despite this Christmas ‘rush’, I still have only 12 reviews on the UK Amazon site – c’mon peeps!) This unprecedented buying frenzy preceded the article published last month in Camping & Caravanning magazine about Brian, our trips with him and the creation of the book. I’m hoping that may bring about a post-Christmas boost in sales, but a new marketing plan will be needed if TLP is not to sink without trace. Brian is warming modestly to his newfound fame though.
Enough of music and literature: back to beer. I’m a bit of a veteran and something of an expert when it comes to fighting one’s way to the bar and getting served promptly. A combination of cunning, competitive spirit and bodily osmosis does the trick. The whole queuing and shoving thing does seem rather archaic and unwieldy though. Where the punter requires the creation of a cocktail or a shot of something exotic, there is really no choice but to seek the expertise of the barkeep. However, if you just want a beer – bottle or draught – it seems positively Dickensian to still have to adopt rugby tactics on the way in and a balancing act on the way out, so as not to spill a drop.
We can easily serve ourselves coffee, tea, soft drinks and even petrol without any trouble at all, and pay on dispense. Why not have the same with beer? Enter coins or credit, select your bottle or fill your glass. This simple idea delivers happier punters, shorter queues and allows bar staff to focus on the fancy stuff. The bottles may need to be plastic and the dispense mechanism would have to be gentle, but I can’t see many flaws. Minimum age controls, regular re-filling and state of the art anti-tamper mechanisms would all be needed, but you’d serve more beer and save on bar staff! Check this for some innovative automation inspiration: http://www.buzzfeed.com/arielknutson/vending-machines-you-wont-believe-exist
We finish this first blog of 2014 with news that Yoga Rebels (my partner Jo’s cleverly named business) have won the Yeo Valley British Business of the month award. We spent much of December chasing behind Muddy Matches (a dating agency for muddy (country) people, no less), but gained enough momentum to catch and significantly surpass our farmer-baiting foe. The reward for this achievement is a month of being featured on the YV website. Woo hoo! A postscript to this success came when I noticed that London-based Crate Brewery had been nominated for January. This seemed like a stunning coincidence until I remembered that I had actually nominated them a few months ago. I really do need to have less time on my hands (and be careful what I wish for).
I’ve been meaning to replace the elastic band (aka drive belt) on my old Systemdek turntable for probably the last 15 years. It has always worked fine at 33 (and a third) rpm, but resolutely refuses to stay in place at 45. Consequently, my collection of old vinyl singles has lain unloved in dusty boxes through at least four house moves. It took just thirty seconds and ten quid on Amazon to double my RPM options. Then, one thing led to another and I quickly accrued cleaning fluid and cloth, a supply of record sleeves and a spindle adapter for records with big holes in the middle. An indulgent evening was later spent re-discovering, cleaning and gyrating to my seven-inch wonders of the world. Alone.
This brings me to the Spitalfields Independent Label Market. Spitalfields, as you may know, is a market in the City of London, so named because there was once a hospital in the fields there. In addition to all the normal retail attractions, about 80 independent labels were presenting their wares this particular Saturday. As if that wasn’t reason enough for me to pop along, there were also to be twenty or so London craft breweries tirelessly refreshing the punters. Nirvana.
With my deck’s newfound 45-rpm capabilities, I determined to find myself a single (record) to take home. I cruised my way through the labels’ stalls, stalking their progeny and loitering with salacious intent. Like an eagle I circled my prey before swooping down to pounce upon it – a fine looking picture disc of Ice Cream by the New Young Pony Club. I wanted the record, but I’d also chosen this morsel so that I could have a chat with lead singer Tahita who was wo-manning their pitch. I chatted shyly, accepted her offer to sign the record and wondered why the bloke next to her signed it too. (Turned out he was the guitarist – oops.)
My joy at buying vinyl, meeting Tahita and necking a beer was strangely tempered by sad feelings of there being an awfully good party, but not being invited. To be at this party you had be a brewer, in London, with a brewery and a market stall. I wasn’t. I carried my record and my feelings home with me to enjoy a night of pizza, vinyl and wine. I know not of a finer tonic combo. For good measure I inhaled the wisdom of Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata.
Monday was the day by which the losers in the race for the Southwark railway arch were due to be informed of their sad fate. I imagined that the winner was by now measuring up ‘my’ space for his brewery. I took a long run along the canal and through the park – a perfect way to sort out the muddle of thoughts in my head. Should I forget brewing? Could I tutor maths? Perhaps working in the zoo would be fun? (I was running past London Zoo at the time.) I didn’t have an answer – I needed a sign.
I returned from my run and checked my emails while I warmed down. There were two from Network Rail. One strangely contained only an attachment I had seen before. The other I assumed to be the ‘Dear John’ letter. Well, I had to admire their efficiency, if not their taste in tenants. I prepared myself for their gentle words of rebuttal, but I wasn’t being dumped; I was being proposed to. The arch was mine! This precipitated a vacuum of numbness, a second reading, a brief doubt that maybe I’d bid too much and then: not elation, not fear, just relief that my path was chosen, the first step had been taken and I now had a real chance of presenting my own brewery stand at Spitalfields 2014!
So, after three or four months of planning and learning, I had finally reached the starting line. I strode a little taller into the LBA meeting the next evening, looking around imperiously at some new faces to let them know that I was virtually a veteran of these gatherings. We met at the Stag Mortlake brewery, once used by Watney’s in a different century, but now the home of AB InBev’s Budweiser factory. I use the word ‘factory’ because that’s how it felt due to its scale, lack of personality and hi-tech processing. All of that technical genius wasted on producing 1.000 bottles of Bud every minute.
I must say though that I loved the visit. The bottling plant is a blur of Bud, the tanks are super-ginormous and the process is minutely controlled to make sure that very little colour or flavour remains in the beer. As well as barley, they also add maize and rice. Wood chips (pre-treated of course) are introduced later, not to add flavour, but to help remove some. Then finally the bottled beer is heated to 62 degrees so that pasteurisation can occur. It’s beer Jim, but not as we know it.
This mad week continued with a visit to the opera (Satyagraha) and then the much-awaited British Guild of Beer Writers’ annual awards dinner. It was the first outing for my Simon Carter petrol-blue suit and a rare appearance for my Ask the Missus black winkle pickers. I needn’t have bothered though, as the paparazzi obviously had better things to do that evening. It was just like being at a corporate dinner again, except: I’d paid for it, half the blokes weren’t wearing a tie, you had to beg if you wanted anything other than beer and the host was quite entertaining. We were seated so close to the doors that any remaining crumbs of hope for an award were swiftly swept into oblivion. The winners hailed mostly from within the inner circle of scribes, whereas I had yet to dent the outermost edges of this subset of the literary circus.
Let’s return to Orbit. To make a splash in beer-world you need (consistently) great beers and brand. I decided to tackle the latter at an early stage, as naked bottles don’t sell beer. I lovingly wrote my brand identity brief explaining the philosophy of the products, the target market and the association with vinyl records. The first designer loved the brief but hated the brewery name – Orbit. This sent me into a froth of beery, vinyl nomenclature, yielding such morsels as: Jukebox Brewery, Vintage Brewing and Bootleg Brewery. The next designer took the opposite view and considered Orbit to be a fine name indeed. He got the job.
Your festive season homework, dear reader, is as follows: if Orbit Brewing were to have a tagline/strapline/slogan, what would it be? Orbit chewing gum has “Just Brushed Clean Feeling” and the recently formed Orbit Brewing Co. in San Diego has “Reach for Orbit”. I’m sure we can do better (some inspiration below).
Merry Christmas to all and here’s to an amazing 2014 when we will indeed be Going Into Orbit! As Bowie so eloquently put it: “Commencing countdown, engines on…”
Can you name the brands behind these slogans?
- Reassuringly expensive
- …is good for you
- …refreshes the parts other beers can’t reach
- Australians wouldn’t give a ____ for anything else
- Probably the best beer in the world
- Give him a right good ________ tonight
- Good, better, ________
- …puts out the fire
- He who thinks Australian, drinks Australian
- The Other Side of Dark
- The Genuine Article
- Turn it loose
- I am Canadian
- Would you say no to another?
- You never forget your first girl
My three-mile cycle to Kilburn had been stupendously mistimed. I’m not really superstitious, but I am sensitive to the signals I receive from what most people would consider unrelated sources. I like odd numbers, especially primes, and believe that coincidences carry messages. We all do this to some extent when we say that something ‘augurs well’ for a particular, desired outcome. It might be a rainbow, a £10 win on the lottery or Aunty Betty’s corns suddenly getting better. Any or all of these might give us a warm feeling that our football team will win today, but scientists would insist that they are completely independent events.
The Augurs were of course priests, common in Roman times, who would predict the future (aka the will of the gods) by studying the flight of birds. Were they in a flock or alone, what direction were they flying in and what type of birds were they? This was known as ‘taking the auspices’. Today we’d consider it just ‘taking the piss’. It was pissing down in Kilburn that day and I didn’t think that augured well at all. Not a bird to be seen either.
The scene that greeted me as I strode toward ‘my’ arch could have been Dickensian if only the vehicles being tended to in all the other arches had been of the ‘one horse power’ variety. I walked drookit through the dank, dark and dreary lane toward my prey at 14A. Oliver (appropriately) greeted me and had already offered up sweeteners, like a rent-free period, before we had even released our manly handshake. I had a look around and soon understood his apparent generosity. The dimensions were favourable – almost square with a high roof and a half-mezzanine floor – but you could smell, see and feel the damp, mouldy, foosty atmosphere. Couldn’t they have cleaned it up, added some flowers, maybe made some fresh-baked bread?
There was just the one other interested party there that day and guess what business they were in? Yep, brewing. This was helpful as we could pepper Oliver with questions until he definitely wasn’t begging for more. The kindest thing you could say about this arch was that it had potential, but that would constitute a euphemism of gargantuan proportions. To quote the 80’s band Orange Juice, you’d have to ‘Rip it up and Start Again’. Given how green I am in the worlds of beer and commerce, the last thing I needed was a building project on top. I won’t even begin to describe the archway communal loos, but do you remember that scene in Trainspotting?
It had at least stopped raining by now and I took the opportunity for a walk around Kilburn. There were plenty bars right enough and you were spoilt for choice as long as you wanted an Irish one. My unrealistic optimism was still painting a rosy future picture in my brain, but by the next day I had written this future possible out of my future perfect. That said, seeing my first arch did act as a turbo boost to my brewing mojo and frankly got my arse in gear. I’d been drifting when I could have been designing beers, creating my brand and firming up my financials. Time to get serious.
Sales of The Tea Leaf Paradox have been drying up like a long-discarded, used teabag. I was clutching at straws with yet more cut-price promotions, and looking out for my next Amazon review like a mother at the window on her daughter’s first date. My marketing channels had yielded virtually nil returns and CAMRA were turning their back on me. Then, out of the blue, I got a call from that highly respected, cutting edge, fashion-savvy periodical the Camping and Caravanning magazine. Their journalist, Leda, was clearly more interested in our various camping adventures than my book, but she was soon talking about Brian like she knew him personally. I imparted a few anecdotes, answered all her questions and sent off some fetching photos of our old chum. The ‘Brian’ feature will appear in their January edition, due out by Christmas. I wonder if they’ll make him the cover star? Or the centrefold!
A few days later I had the chance to share this exciting news with Brian personally, as I had to pay him a visit to have his French accident damage assessed. His onesie had bundled over his head, blown up by the storms a few weeks earlier, exposing his rear to the freezing weather. He looked cold, but not at all cool. After a brief check-up, we firmly reattached his onesie and let him return to his hibernated state.
So, The Tea Leaf Paradox has sold 6 Kindle and 7 paperback copies this month – pathetic. Maybe the article will help, maybe I need to ramp up my marketing, maybe I need to force CAMRA’s hand a little. This is looming large in my thoughts right now, as next week brings the British Guild of Beer Writers annual awards dinner. I don’t expect to win anything of course (I’m no Pete Brown), but I can at least make some contacts and maybe get some advice. With 6 hours of beer drinking scheduled for the evening, I’m not sure I’ll remember any of it though.
Back to brewing. You wait ages for an arch and suddenly two come along at once. This one was south of the river – nosebleed territory for me, but I cycled my way across the Thames and through the Elephant & Castle to take a look. No smell of baking bread but otherwise immaculate, about 1,500 square feet, decent area, tucked away and with a small yard to call it’s own. My helpful host explained that, due to high demand (including yet another brewer), they would be going to closed bids. I pitched in at £18,000 p.a., £2,000 above the asking price. I explained what a perfect tenant I would be. I waited for the phone to ring.
I’m still waiting.
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?
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?
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.
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…