Monday 16 January 2012

Hardknott Æther Blæc Epsilon 2011

Just before Christmas I placed an order with Hardknott brewery's new online shop for some Æther Blæc Epsilon 2011 and Vitesse Noir, along with one of their rather snazzy goblets. The order arrived a couple of days later without fuss and superbly packaged.  I'll write about Vitesse Noir another time. This post is about an impatient opening of the Æther Blæc before I lay the other one down for ageing. 

Hardknott only make Æther Blæc once per year and this year they used whisky barrels from four different distilleries in which to age it. Epsilon is the first of these with the others to follow later. The barrel used for this batch was originally used by the Aultmore (Speyside) distillery that held slowly maturing whisky for 28 years, from 1982 to 2010. The Hardknott double imperial stout then replaced the whisky where it was left for six months, giving it chance to absorb all that whisky character - or as Hardknott put it so eloquently on the bottle "enabling the Æther spirit to infiltrate the Blæc magic".

The bottle I opened was numbered 563 of 636. Cracking it open, there's an immediate chocolate aroma noticeable. It poured with a 2 finger tan coloured head which settled quickly (quicker than I could photograph it below):

The nose is one of wood and oaky notes with a mellow whisky tone but roasty chocolate and malt sits nicely behind this. The carbonation is very subtle and within a few mouthfuls, the head dissolves completely leaving the beer sitting calmingly still in the glass:

The beer has a lovely rich, warming mouth feel which was perfect for the cold frosty night it was easing me in to. The smokey whisky flavours are very well balanced against the liquorice, malt, dark fruits and chocolate of the stout. This is a real sipper of a beer which warms and satisfies as your glass empties while you explore the flavours. It will be interesting to see how ageing changes those flavours and the conditioning.

How long should one age bottles such as this? What's your experience of laying down barrel aged imperial stouts and the impact it has on their flavour and conditioning? Is there a formula or is it trial and error?

Friday 13 January 2012

Breweries and Social Media - Facebook

Last weekend I posted an article comparing three UK craft breweries, BrewDog, Magic Rock and Thornbridge.  Rather than focusing on their beer, I looked at how they used Twitter as a vehicle for engaging with customers and promoting their products.  Each was found to have very contrasting styles and there were differing views as to which was most effective both in the comments and on Twitter. What wasn't contested, however, was that Twitter is a very effective vehicle for breweries wishing to engage with consumers and get their message out there. Magic Rock's MD, Richard Burhouse, noted:

There was agreement from Hardknott's Dave Bailey regarding the impact on his business. In a future post, I'm going to look at this impact in more detail but in today's post, I'm going to turn my attention to the behemoth of a social media network that is Facebook, using the same three breweries' fan pages. The depth and reach of Facebook far exceeds that of Twitter, with this BBC article suggesting 10% of the population has an account. This was driven home to me recently when I received a friend request from my mother!

Facebook clearly works very differently to Twitter on many levels, but fundamentally the principles are the same for a business wishing to reach out to and engage with consumers. Facebook provides private and business users with the ability to create 'fan' pages. Users can then 'like' these pages and the updates the creator (and optionally others) post to them will then appear in their 'news feed'. Users can comment on and 'like' posts to these pages to engage with the creator and other 'fans'. 

BrewdogMagic Rock and Thornbridge all have fan pages with differing numbers of 'fans', as shown below along with the growth rate:

As a relatively young business, Magic Rock has the fewest Facebook 'fans' with BrewDog far and away the most. Looking at growth over the last month graphically shows the following:

The first thing to consider is how frequently each brewery posts to their fan page. The below graph shows the number of posts split by day of week for the period from the 1st to the 12th January 2012 inclusive:

So BrewDog posted 28 times, Magic Rock 6 times and Thornbridge 35 times in that 12 day period. Thornbridge, as observed in the previous post, usually posts exactly three times per day during the week. BrewDog vary their posting rate and Magic Rock seem to prefer Twitter to Facebook.

Facebook provides in-depth analytics to owners of pages which allows them to understand the engagement and reach of each post they make and there are many articles out there which detail how to do that. However, comparing engagement across pages you don't 'own' is more of a challenge. This article caught my eye as it contains a formula for systematically measuring and comparing the engagement of posts across pages with differing numbers of fans. The formula is as follows:

The comments are weighted double compared to likes as the assumption (which seems reasonable) is that a comment takes more effort and therefore suggests more engagement. So, let's compare the engagement each brewery got on average across the posts they made:

This suggests that Magic Rock's engagement is high, despite the number of 'fans' and posts being relatively low. Reasons for this could be many and I'm not going to speculate on those. What is interesting though is that BrewDog and Thornbridge have similar overall engagement and a similar number of posts, so let's look at those in more detail. In order to do that, I analysed each post and classified them by type. The below tables compare BrewDog's and Thornbridge's engagement across each type:

In both cases 'questions' are the most engaging posts.  The below graph averages the posts of both breweries to illustrate this:

Questions are a clear winner compared to the other categories. Let's drill down into the most engaging posts from each brewery. Below are the three most and least engaging posts from BrewDog and Thornbridge:

BrewDog's three most engaging posts
  • [37.7, Question] If you aren't having a dry January, 'like' this status
  • [34.4, Question] What would you most like to see 1) A BrewDog Lambic? 2) Nara on Twitter 3) A Triple IPA 4) A Grandiloquent Fox? 5) A BrewDog Scotch Whisky?
  • [16.1, Question] What are you drinking tonight?
BrewDog's three least engaging posts

Thornbridge's three most engaging posts
  • [19.3, Question] Do you prefer the traditional interior or a modern finish in a local pub?
  • [19.0, Statement] We started the week brewing Jaipur. We're sure many of you will approve!
  • [17.8, Question] The price of beer is.....?
Thornbridge's three least engaging posts
  • [0.3, Statement] The winds are still going strong watch out out there!
  • [0.6, LinkReal Ale in 140 (and some). Thornbridge - Versa Weisse Beer [link to blog post]
  • [0.6, Link] A speachless review of Thornbridge Kipling.... [link to blog post]

Perhaps finding that links lead to the least engagement is not surprising as Facebook users may simply click on them rather than comment and/or like. It's clear though that asking 'fans' questions is what really drives engagement which makes perfect sense.

The final thing I wanted to analyse, was whether engagement on the two fan pages varied depending on the day of the week. The below graph depicts that data:

This is pretty interesting. Engagement seems to be better towards the end of the week.  So, what have we learned through this analysis:

  1. Fans are most likely to engage with questions, especially those related to the products or industry
  2. Fans are least likely to engage with announcements and links to other external content
  3. Fans are more likely to engage towards the end of the week

How do you engage with breweries on Facebook? Do you prefer engaging via Facebook or Twitter? If you're a brewery, how much importance do you attach to each and does this impact the effort you put into the respective social networks?

If anyone's interested in the raw data (I can't be the only one who loves a good pivot table!), I'd be happy to email the excel spreadsheet. 

Sunday 8 January 2012

Crondall Brewery

As an aspiring runner, Saturday mornings in January usually mean one thing - a long run, building up distance to train for a Spring marathon. This year it's Brighton, which is great because I can rehydrate post race with fantastic beer at the Evening Star. That adventure's for another day though and many training miles away.

These long runs often take me to the rolling hills and footpaths of nearby Crondall and Ewshot and this morning's run went along Dora's Green Lane and past Crondall Brewery, which is my local brewery. Passing by some 6 miles into my run was great, because it diverted my mind away from my tired legs and on to beer (it doesn't take much, let's be honest).  Returning home and catching up on twitter over a warm cuppa, I saw this tweet from Jeff Rosenmeier of Lovibonds:

Having never visited Crondall Brewery before and having no plans other than to rest my weary legs, I thought 'why not?' and off we went. On arrival, we were greeted by one of the brewery's three lovely border collies - Ben, Bob and Moss:

Keeping a watchful eye on the beer

The brewery is run solely by husband and wife team David and Chrissy Taraszek and as we walked in, Chrissy was discussing their Christmas seasonal brew, Crafty Santa (a 5.7% dark spicy brew) with a couple of regular customers - "I'd prefer it with more spice", said one. "No, maybe a bit sweeter", the other countered. Beer is all about opinions and this particular couple had come back to buy more before it ran out, presumably to continue their debate at home. 

We enjoyed a long chat with Chrissy and David over some tasters and they were more than happy to share their experiences and talk about their passion for all things beer. They founded the brewery in 2004, with the first brew, a beer for their upcoming wedding (named Mr T’s Wedding Ale, which reappears as Mr T's Anniversary Ale) hitting the mash tun on a cold spring morning in May 2005. Having had successful careers outside of beer, they took advantage of the timing being right for them to fulfil David's boyhood dream of owning and running a brewery. David took a brewing course, coincidentally also attended by Jeff Rosenmeier (they're still friends) and the couple acquired an old granary barn to convert into a brewery. 

The brewery relies almost exclusively on direct sales to consumers and has built up a strong local following in the seven years they've been brewing, with regulars returning week after week to satisfy their thirst for good beer. You can very occasionally find the beers on in local pubs and they also supply beer to local festivals including Reading, where in 2011 they showcased five different beers:

Crondall is very much a local brewery. There are currently no plans afoot to achieve global domination or establish a nationwide demand requiring round the clock brewing. The brewery exists to serve the local community, and does so very well. In the hour or so we were there, around ten people came, bought beer, chatted and went, being a mixture of regulars and new customers who will almost certainly be back soon. As well as selling direct from the brewery, they deliver locally in their shiny van and have built up a nice trade supplying bars for local parties and events.  Their beers are never bottled but they do ship 9 pint mini barrels via their online shop and by this means, their beers have reached as far afield as the USA.

The Brewery - Virtual Tour

The brewery is located on a working farm, sat back from the road off Dora's Green Lane. It's small but perfectly formed as you can see below:

Their shiny van outside the brewery

The tasting and bar area

Looking back, past the fermentation room and store

Where the magic happens

Empty casks waiting to be washed and filled

The couple renovated the former granary barn and installed the brewing equipment themselves and maintaining it is something of a labour of love for David, who was busy sorting a problem in the roof space when we arrived. This of course means they know it inside out and upside down and are well equipped to overcome the problems which crop up in the busy life of a brewer. Recent 'challenges' include the three heating elements in the kettle giving up one after the other, mid brew, and having to figure out a way to adjust the rotation rate of the sparge arm for a part brew. The brewery has some nice design touches, such as the mash tun being sat on a pivot, so it can be tilted on its side for digging out post mash.

The Beers

We were able to sample the brewery's three regular beers during our visit, those being Crondall's Best, Sober as a Judge and Mitchell's Dream. Below are the pump clip images along with some notes I took:

A refreshing light golden ale. Some initial subtle hop bitterness with a lovely clean finish. I could quaff pints of this sat in a beer garden in the Summer sun.

Slightly darker than the best (a light copper colour) with a lovely grassy hop aroma. Nice rasping bitterness which carries through to the finish. Very refreshing. I took a growler fill away! (£4.10 for two pints)

An amber red coloured beer brewed with Sovereign hops. Initial malt in the taste is balanced by the hops to create a beer with a richer body than the other two beers.

Crondall also turn out a number of seasonal brews covering a wide range of styles, from golden hoppy numbers for Spring through to full on stouts for Winter. I'll have to visit again to sample those.

Final Thoughts

I'm really pleased we took time out to visit Crondall Brewery and we'll certainly be going back soon. Chrissy and David's passion for what they do is apparent from the minute you meet them and this has enabled them to build up a great local trade and a business they can be proud of. If you're local to the area and haven't yet visited, you should.

In the coming weeks I'll be visiting and blogging about our other local breweries, Hogs BackAndwell and hopefully Ascot Ales in Camberley. As Jeff says, get out and meet a local brewer! Karma will reward you.

Friday 6 January 2012

Breweries and Social Media - Twitter

As someone who has discovered a lot of beers and breweries through use of social media, how breweries use Twitter, Facebook and other such sites is a subject which interests me. This post performs a direct comparison between three British craft breweries - Brewdog (@brewdog), Magic Rock (@MagicRockBrewCo) and Thornbridge (@Thornbridge) and their use of Twitter during the month of December 2011.  I'll cover their respective use of Facebook in a later post.

This is not about the products of these breweries or any preferences or favourites I may have among their beers (for the record, I like beers from all three!) so I won't be discussing those. It's really about producing a view of how they use these tools to promote their products and engage with customers.

First of all, let's compare the number of Twitter followers, follows and Facebook 'likes' they have:

Followers: 7,369
Follows: 803 (11%)
Likes: 16,398

Magic Rock
Followers: 1,562
Follows: 150 (10%)
Likes: 433

Followers: 3,725
Follows: 121 (3%)
Likes: 3,280

General use of Twitter

I'm going to focus on use of Twitter in December 2011, purely because that's the most recent complete month. The below three charts, created with Tweetstats show the number of tweets total and how many those were @ replies or retweets:


Magic Rock


These graphs suggest the three breweries use twitter very differently indeed. Brewdog, who averaged 6.8 tweets per day have predominantly outbound authored tweets but with a fair percentage of @ replies and re-tweets, suggesting some engagement with those mentioning and replying to them (the graph alone doesn't let you draw that conclusion - but a glance at their feed seems to correlate). They mostly use Twitter to communicate out to followers.

Magic Rock's Twitter usage during December (averaging 19.4 tweets, the most prolific of the three by far) was made up of mostly retweets, which again is backed up by looking at their feed. However, contrary to what the graph shows (the line is hidden), they also sent plenty of @ replies. They don't seem to send many outbound authored tweets to all followers, preferring to retweet what others have written.

Thornbridge, well, it's very curiously almost always exactly three tweets per day and it's one way traffic suggesting no engagement.  We'll look more closely at this in the next post - Thornbridge have a one way feed set up from Facebook and don't' appear to use the Twitter account directly at all.

Tweet Density and Distribution

Next, we'll look at when these breweries are tweeting. They're all UK based and the times below are GMT. A bigger 'blob' corresponds with more tweets at the time shown:


Magic Rock


Looking at the above, Brewdog mostly tweet between 8am and 8pm Monday to Friday but have a preference for tweeting in the morning.  Magic Rock are the most likely of the three to tweet during evening 'drinking hours', particularly later in the week when their tweet density increases. Thornbridge, well, you could set your watch by their morning tweet (yes, singular). It almost always goes out between 7 and 8am.  To correlate the above, the below graphs (I've excluded Thornbridge) show the aggregate tweets per day in December 2011:


Magic Rock


So who are Brewdog and Magic rock interacting with. Let's look first at @ replies:


Magic Rock

So Brewdog hearts Gizzi Erskine and Magic Rock hearts Zak Avery. Hmm. Seriously, there's not much to draw from this, other than to observe that both are engaging with trade customers and end consumers.  So, let's look at retweets:


Magic Rock

This is more interesting. Magic Rock is mostly retweeting pubs and pub landlords. Looking closer, they're letting people know where to find their products. Brewdog on the other hand are mostly retweeting @BrewdogJames.  This marries up with their general usage at the top of this post, with Brewdog mostly using Twitter for outbound communication and Magic Rock mostly using it for retweeting.  I wonder how many followers of BrewdogJames also follow Brewdog?  There's an app for that! They have 1200 odd common followers, so about 20% of those seeing the retweets have already seen the original message.

So what can we learn from this? Probably not much but it's interesting to see how usage of Twitter varies significantly between the three breweries. This may be down to a defined social media strategy or purely incidental.

How effectively do you feel each uses Twitter? Which approach of the three do you prefer? How does engagement via Twitter change or otherwise shape your perception of a brewery and their products? 

Sunday 1 January 2012

21st Amendment Back in Black Vs Kernel Black IPA

A visit to The Rake Bar on Sunday 9th January 2011 proved to be one of my beery highlights of the year, and it was quite a year (more posts to come on that!) so that says a lot. The occasion of course was the launch of the Kernel Brewery/Glyn Roberts Black IPA, described as an homage to one of Glyn's favourite beers of 2010, 21st Amendment's Back in Black.

I went along with my fiancée as something of a celebration as we'd got engaged on New Year's Eve and that morning had been along to Hatton Garden to buy the ring. I find that good beer is enhanced by good company and perhaps something to celebrate and as it turned out, this was a great beer which needed little help in that regard.

The afternoon passed by in something of a blur. The Rake may be a small bar but the outside patio area and covered section of Borough Market, behind the patio, means it can hold lots of thirsty drinkers and boy were they thirsty that day!  Both kegs of Kernel Black IPA were killed in no more than a couple of hours total and my ordering halves in respect of the 6.8% ABV meant I only managed about 4-5 halves before it was all gone.  As it transpired, Glyn drank most of it, for Quality Assurance purposes one assumes!

A quick google will find many reviews of that first batch. Here's a good one from Dave Lozman. It was as good in bottle as it was on keg that day and Kernel went on to brew a second and third batch, tweaking the recipe as they went with the ABV increasing to over 7%.

I hadn't even heard of 21st Amendment until then, despite having lived in the San Francisco area and being a regular visitor, so I made a mental note to check them out next time I was over and boy I was glad I did.

In October of 2011, I found myself sat in their restaurant in the SOMA district of San Francisco, staring into a glass of the beer which inspired the fantastic Kernel rendition. Now, having already spent a week drinking some very hop forward west coast IPA's, my tastebuds may have been somewhat attuned to the might of US C-hops but it seemed less hoppy and perhaps more smooth than the Kernel version, with the roasty notes of the malt playing very nicely with the flavoursome hops. It wasn't overly bitter but had a nice, yet subtle, hop kick on the finish. It's brewed with Columbus as the bittering hop with Columbus and Centennial being used for flavour before being dry hopped with Centennial and Simcoe. The floral, citrus notes of the former and the piney notes of the latter were both apparent on the nose and the glass didn't last long as I explored what was an excellent beer.  I took the opportunity to buy a six pack of cans to bring home. The artwork taken from their website is very eye-catching and I must say their branding is fantastic throughout their range.

The opportunity to taste Back in Black alongside that first Kernel batch was one I was never going to get, which is a shame. However, I was able to taste it alongside the 3rd batch which I believe was brewed in November 2011.

The can by that stage was a couple of months old with the Kernel Black IPA III being slightly younger. Tasting them side by side confirmed my thoughts from back in October. The first difference is apparent on the nose. The Kernel beer leaps out of the bottle up your nostrils, filling them with the floral, piny aroma you'd expect from an Kernel IPA. Back in Black requires a bit of swilling and sniffing to pick the same notes up but they are certainly there. The mouthfeel of both is a rich, luxurious one but they do taste quite different. The 21st Amendment brew offers more prominent roasty and coffee flavours with the hops sitting nicely alongside whereas the Kernel one is much more hoppy up front with the 'dark' flavours coming through later.  Both are very good beers and good examples of the black IPA style but for me, being the hop monster I am, the Kernel homage just edges it.

Beer is all about opinions of course and I like to share good beer, talk about it and hear what others think. I've got one can of Back in Black left (can't be many of those in the UK) and will happily share it with a fellow UK beer lover. 'Follow' this blog with google friend connect on or before 8th January 2012 to be in with a chance. I'll draw a name from a hat on the 9th and contact the lucky winner for postage details. I only ask that you tell me what you think!