Apparently there’s something called a brewing schedule. I know this because as a brewer I keep getting asked what beers I’ll have available for beer festivals in three or sometimes four months’ time. But like the other mythical micro-brewing beast Profit, Brewing Schedule seems to now be extinct, remembered from the glory days of the 90’s and fast fading into folklore.
I’ll be honest, half the time I don’t know what I’m going to be brewing next week, let alone next month. And as for three or four months down the line? You might as well ask me what the hop availability is going to be like next year. I have an idea, but ideas change.
We’re not totally slapdash, we have the house beers (Temperance, Body Snatcher, Manchester Sun and Satanic Mills) that we brew on rotation, but we’re not restricted to them. Earlier this month we decided to brew a lower gravity version of Satanic Mills, and Peterloo Porter will be going into casks soon. We also decided that we weren’t really that happy with Temperance, so we’re trialling some possible replacements with Purity, Truth and the forthcoming Love. Although when we’ll be brewing Love I don’t know yet.
We respond to market demand, listening to what pubs and drinkers want, rather than spending money on marketing telling people what they should be drinking. We’ve been chatting to a few bars in town to see how our beers have been selling, and along with feedback at our brewery tap events we’re coming up with new recipes to meet those tastes, we brew them on our single firkin test kit and put them on at our next tap.
We can also brew things others won’t touch or aren’t able to fit into their planned annual production. Morag, the incredibly popular Imperial Sorachi Bubblegum Stout we brewed with Clever Yeti would be a massive risk for most breweries’ pilot kits, let alone full scale production. We’re also brewing a heritage beer for Manchester Beer Week and have been talking old recipes with beer historian Ron Pattison. Our beer from the wood has been proving incredibly popular, far more so than even we thought. And we’re fans of beer in wood! And we’re able to react to this and do more.
Which rather circuitously brings us back to the first point, apparently there’s something called a brewing schedule.
This is all a far cry from when I first started working in the industry back in the 90s. Back then breweries had their house beers and sometimes one or two seasonal beers. You could ask them four months, sometimes a year in advance what would be available for a beer festival, and they’d be able to tell you. Pubs would look forward to the change of seasons and the change of beers they could buy in. It was a very traditional way of doing things, everybody did it, it worked, why change it?
But people wanted more variety. The first year I worked in a pub, we tried to get in as many different beers as we could, and we sold just shy of 500 beers that year across eight handpulls. Three years later it topped 700 across twelve handpulls. I’ve no idea how many different beers a popular city centre bar could get through in a year now. With this desire for variety though we seem to have forced a change upon a lot of breweries, especially the smaller ones. Selling a beer into a pub once isn’t too hard, selling them the same beer though is very, very difficult. To do so it has to be both very good, and very good value. After all, a bar needs to know they can sell it, and that they can make a profit on it. Pubs may be the heart of communities, but they’re not charities. If the first beer sells okay, then a lot of pubs will be tempted to buy in a second, different beer. If their customers liked the first one, then it’s reasoned they’ll like something else from the brewery. And the pub gets to add another beer to its list of those stocked that year.
So breweries are producing lots of different beers to cater to this, which can play havoc with things like hop contracts. And hop contracts and the lack of hop availability can play serious havoc with brewing schedules. How can you plan what you’re going to be brewing four months in advance if you don’t know for certain that you’ll be able to get the needed ingredients? So you get what you can, and you brew what you can make from them.
This is a bit of a two edged sword, on the one hand you don’t have to worry about consistency if you don’t brew the same beer twice, but on the other hand, consistency is one of the forefront markers of quality. The more you do something, the better it will be. If you’ve never brewed a saison before but are giving it a go because it’s something new to you, and the only hops you can get are suited to it, then it’s very likely it’s not going to be as good as the fifth, tenth, or hundredth one you brew.
I’m not saying brewers shouldn’t try something new, beer would be very boring if nobody did. I still remember the first time Hopback Summer Lightning came onto the bar (lasted two hours), the first time a Roosters cask sold out (an hour) and the first time we stocked something from Kitchen Brewery (a week, it was a garlic beer). As brewers we need to experiment, we need to push the boat out and break tradition. We need to sit together in pubs over several pints and drunkenly say “Hey, you know what’d be a good idea, a beetroot and horseradish saison!” (Alphabet have just done this, I’m pretty sure alcohol must have been involved when planning it, but I do recommend everyone tries it!) And we need to go back to our breweries the following day, get the ingredients in and brew it! Which totally messes up any semblance of a brewing schedule that we may have cobbled together.
What’s been making me think about this recently is that I’m doing the beer order for the forthcoming CAMRA Left Bank Beer Festival at the People’s History Museum in July, and when asked a lot of breweries have been replying saying they’ve no idea what they’re going to have available in July. I know what they mean, after the next two brews I’ve no idea yet what I’m brewing either!