Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Micro Brewery and The Bubble.

Too much...

...and too little. 

...it's a gas thing. But it's not a straightforward thing.

A few days ago, I posted this review of Okell's very nice 'Doctor Okell's IPA', in which I expressed a certain concern that this excellent beer had been let down by a noticeable lack of carbonation.

In short, it felt a bit flat.

A couple of days later, something quite wonderful and really rather fascinating happened.

Okell's got in touch, (that's the 'wonderful' part) and they offered some insight into precisely why my beer might have been behaving that way (and this is where it started to get 'fascinating.')

Initially, they brought to my attention a certain aspect of the beer production process which is slightly different for a large number of the most exciting beer companies in our midsts, something that applies to a fair portion of those companies who are often loosely assembled under the banner - 'micro-breweries'.

Basically, Okell's - like very many other micros - don't actually bottle their own beers.

This concept of shipping out beer to a third party for the final phase of the process was already very familiar to me (although I hadn't known Okell's worked in this way) and I'd learned over time that it was a perfectly standard and accepted system within the industry. Personally, I'm all in favour of it, because bottling beer is a serious undertaking and very different from the art of brewing itself, and it can be at this very tender stage that a well crafted ale is compromised simply because the proper tools or expertise isn't in place in or around the brewhouse.

But the contact from Okell's came as something of a Eureka moment for me, because I suddenly had my grasp on a possible explanation for why certain beers are sent out either too gassy or not gassy enough, and I knew that - whatever the reason - it hadn't necessarily been the respective breweries themselves who were to blame for it.

It would in fact be this elusive 'third party' who, in spite of the high standards which these other companies doubtless apply - are never dealing with their own 'babies', but merely with the product of someone else's dedication and endeavour.

Indeed, it transpired after a bit of investigative work by Okell's themselves, that a gremlin had indeed got into the system at the bottling stage, and that some beers had been released slightly under-carbonated.

I duly informed them that I felt like some boozy version of Sherlock Holmes and was glad that the mystery had been solved. (Not least because their IPA is otherwise such a blatantly fantastic beer!)

My point, dear drinker, is that the next time you crack open a bottle that has it's carbonation all wrong, do bear in mind that the people whose name sits proudly on the label aren't necessarily the ones responsible.

In fact, it is far more likely that those people on the label would be even more annoyed than you are that the beer in front of you hasn't reached you in the way they intended.

I felt duty bound to share this adventure with you, as I am sure you would have wanted me to.

Yours with stuck out chest,

S Holmes.


Baron Orm said...

Really interesting post and I wanted to say that we tried our sample bottle of Okells IPA yesterday (full audio review coming soon) and it was perfectly carbonated so obviously from a different batch.

It's a shame though when a brewer's hard work (and reputation) is on the line due to a third party.

The Hearty Goodfellow said...

Baron - Absolutely. The further grim details of the Okell's case suggest that breweries ought to make very regular checks on any off-site procedures. Even if it makes them appear overly fussy. The carbonation levels had been set below the correct amount (possibly after being altered for another task) and had stayed there due to nobody realising there was a problem.

The brewers themselves are always more likely to spot this kind of error, but it would require a visit to the site for it to be noticed. Being present on site would also allow the brewery representative to actually sample the batch before shipping, which would quickly reveal any irregularities.

Baron Orm said...

The quality control visit is a good point and I can't speak for Okells but I know that the other IOM brewery Bushy's are bottled 'off island' in the UK meaning that any visits to the bottling plant could be expensive.

I'm wondering what the best solution is for this?

The Hearty Goodfellow said...

Orm - Interesting point. I wonder if in cases like that it might just be a case of being a little more vigilant about checking records and keeping in touch. And perhaps also being a shade less inclined to place total faith in other companies.

Human error or technical glitches can creep in at any time, and someone needs to be looking for them. That someone needs to be a person who knows what an 'error' would look or taste like. In other words, a brewery rep.

One way or another, they should feel free to ask for checks to be carried out without feeling too fussy or demanding. It is a livelihood after all, and we've seen here that little things can and do get overlooked.

It's not an issue of blame, it's just good practice.