Wednesday, December 4, 2013

No More Overhead

Wouldn't that be nice, to run a business without any overhead. That 2% to 6% typical profit margin in this trade might even double. However, that's not what I came here to talk to you about today. I came to talk about beer lines, a.k.a. trunk lines, a.k.a. pythons.

For the last five plus years that we've been open, we've had to put up with excessive fobbing when dispensing beer from the gas (guest) taps. Not only does this increase the time that it takes to pour a pint (which tends to irritate the staff), but also causes considerable waste as the foam that gets spooned out of the glass ends up in the slop bucket for feeding the bacteria down the sink at the end of the night. Since I was trained in setting up cask dispense and not keg dispense, I was not aware of the intricacies of what's called balancing a beer line. I ignorantly though that beer would flow through anything. So, instead of running the pythons under the floor from the cellar and cooler behind the bar, which involves the nasty business of cutting concrete, I thought it would save time and effort to just run them overhead through the woodwork above and inside the bar.

This was a Bad Idea.

Now, more than five years later, the beer is pouring just fine. Since we are on our Winter hours, being closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I determined that this would be the year in which the problem got solved proper. Last week also contained an additional day of closure called Thanksgiving, giving us a little extra time to work out the kinks. So, late last Monday night I started cleaning out the cellar and the bar and getting ready for an early Tuesday morning of concrete bashing.

As you can see, the two pythons run up from below and into the ceiling. Notice the fancy Sears air conditioner that we use as our refrigeration system, with the glycol lines that run through a small race car radiator.

Since Ben is younger than me and more spry and savvy with things like jackhammers and hammer drills, he volunteered (I think) to work with the concrete and my job was to deal with all the plumbing, clamps, fittings, liquids, etc.

Now, I've worked with a lot of mechanical things, rebuilt engines, spent years fiddling with hardware and software engineering, and am seldom surprised by the "Always One Principle", which often competes with my adage of "What Could Go Wrong?". This states that there is always at least one thing that has the potential of breaking off, dropping into a gutter, sproinging across the room or otherwise getting in the way - you know what I mean, that one manifold bolt out of four that breaks off and has to be drilled out. Sure enough, as I was muttering "What Could Go Wrong", we discovered, upon cutting the floor, that there was a large chunk of metal directly in the path of the future python trench.

We'd forgotten that was there when we built the bar, having just paved over it with the epoxy resin floor. It turned out be be encased in solid concrete, and took half a day to hammer out. 8 1/2 inches in diameter and 19 1/2 inches tall, it appears to be a drop safe that was ensconced in the floor when the building was built around 1945. There is a groove on the top surface that looks as though it used to house a handle, and a groove around the rim suggesting threads.

Whats inside? Beats me, although speculation runs the gamut - time capsule, drop safe full of gold coins, who knows? It is currently sitting in the front corner of the pub, easily up to the task of making a great conversation piece. It will get opened. Some day. Not sure how.

Anyway, by Wednesday night the pythons were in place and the concrete poured. I finished all the hookups and so forth later in the evening, and even updated the glycol lines at the shanks in the coffin box to provide better cooling.

So far, a week later, the experiment has been a success. The over-carbonating of the kegs caused by having to force the beer through 40 ft. of line with a significant amount of elevation gain using 18 lbs. of pressure is over. They are running at a comfortable 14 lbs. and are dispensing like a dream. I still prefer cask, which is what we sell the most of, and the benefit there is that the shorter lines also cause less waste there as well. So, we'll see you at the pub for a perfectly poured cold one.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Lonely Little Guy

That's what happens after four days of a busy Mountain Bike Oregon weekend, and that was after the last night. Granted, many of the firkins were already leaning by the time we opened the door for business.

That was taken at 11:00 PM on a Sunday. One poor little firkin left over. Note to self, for the next pub make sure there are two slots on stillage per handpull.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

And Then We Were Five

This was meant to be composed in a fit of brilliance yesterday, being that it was our fifth superannuation and we are still alive. With all the craziness going on this summer, I haven't really had time to reflect on what this means. That one-day-off-a-week project that I started this Spring didn't really materialize, except for last Friday when I took a half day. Perhaps this Friday I can attempt another half and just think about the pub.

Five. Yowzer! They say it takes three to five years in the BEST of times. It hasn't been so, something having to do with an economic downturn or some such thing. There were dark moments in the first three years when I just wanted to chuck it. Cash flow was poor in this diminutive and isolated mountain town. Then slowly in the fourth year we started to get caught up on the back bills and got the Oregon Department of Revenue and the IRS off our backs. In the fifth year we made some needed improvements and repairs to the kitchen, cellar and walk-in cooler and started staffing up a bit to cover the increased traffic. This is the first year that I've brought in brewery assistance and had double help in the front of the house during the peak hours on the weekends. While it cuts into the cash in a big way, it improves the customer experience and allows me a little time away. To plan. To scheme. To have a pint or two in someone else's pub.

Looking ahead, we are still thinking about growing this segment of small family-run pubs. I can't say too much at this point, but it's in the works. I don't suspect there is enough trade in the off-season to justify opening seven days a week, but that may come with a few more years. However, there are some other pub improvement projects we want to deal with during our closed days in the winter. And, I thought it might be time to start blogging again.

Anyway, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, PUB. I'm heading up front for one of those rare pints of our birthday beer, a cask of 7.1% Old Ale called "Oh(k), The Humanities!" aged for the last six months with oak chips soaked in Laphroaig. See you at the pub.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Jan 2, 2013 - Not a Grumpy Publican Post

Just a shortie today. I was sitting here in the quiet pub (being closed on Wednesdays during the off-season) and dealing with end-of-year inventory and paperwork and so forth, and realized that the last time I'd blogged was somewhere in England back in November. Tempus fugit ex nostrilium. I'm trying to get used to writing the number 2013 on checks and thinking about a new calendar year. 2012 was, in my opinion and as the records show, our best year yet. We seemed to have turned a corner. Overall gross takings at the till were up almost 15% from 2011. This is cheery, and means that I don't have to write a grumpy publican post to start out the new year. 2012 also won us an award and installed me in my first foreign meet-the-brewer video. What could be finer?

Looking forward, progress is being made on planning for the next pub, albeit more slowly than I would like. And that's my fault, as I keep experiencing difficulty letting my staff do stuff that they are perfectly capable of themselves. Must. Let. Go. Also, I've been working on refining my recipes, particularly my session beers. It's interesting so see that putting a mere 100g less Galena at the top of the boil makes an enormous difference in the balance of the final product.

And before you wander off and forget to plan a visit to the pub, this year's Tanninbomb, our oak-aged old ale, is extraordinary. The new cellar we built last summer has been causing just a small amount of increased conditioning, especially over three months it takes to age, so it takes a bit of breathing on the stillage to get it right. I'm quite happy with that. It's worth the trouble. See you at the pub.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Celebration of Prevarication

I know some who plan their vacations down to the last detail. All the major tourist highlights and media-flogged points of interest must be taken in in the most efficient manner as possible; a jamb-packed orgy of stress-inducing sights and sounds and diesel tour busses. Not fun, really. I prefer a richer experience that can be experienced by sailing the gentle, wayward breeze of organic encounter in the pubs and footpaths of England.

Last night this errant breeze had unexpectedly washed me ashore at the Bridge Inn in Santon Bridge, Holmrook, for the World's Biggest Liar Competition. This is an event that originated in the 19th century, and still runs strong on an annual basis. I had first read about it while staying for a couple of nights in Wasdale Head back in September of 2004 on a random walking jaunt across Cumbria. I never expected that I'd see the day I might witness this noble and solemn spectacle.

Be it known that I'm not trained in journalism, and I somewhat reluctantly blog. However, uncertainty reigned supreme as I found myself charged by the Hardknott Brewery in Millom to be their blogger representative at the pub. The choices were to (A) tell a five minute equivocation under the bright lights of the stage before a crowd of over a hundred crammed into the function room of a rural public house, or (B) write about the event over t'Interweb.

On the five mile walk over to the inn from the train station I thought up a handful of less-than-true figments of my holiday-corrupted imagination. The illusion of a large, hirsute American taking the stage was taking on a cloudy, misshapen and ambitious form. To my ultimate benefit, over my first pint at the bar, the barkeep formed me that tall tales that don't connect well with the Cumbrian locals, their folklore, their history and their local color might not be well-received. Good enough for me. Plan B goes into effect, and I'm merely left with enjoying the show stress-free and scratching together some sentences for the 7 people who actually read my blog. Perfect.

Through connections that I don't completely understand I was put at the press table at the side of the stage, notebook in hand, pondering the sense that I didn't really deserve this. That didn't stop me from attempting to take notes and liberating an assortment of Cumbrian ales. The Jennings Brewery, who sponsored the event, had on a special Biggest Liar ale that was brown and biscuity and reminded me of my own "Quid Hoc Sibi Vult" Special Bitter which I hope is still on the pumps back at the home office. I felt at home, as I most often do in this part of the globe.

There were 12 contestants this year. Having been to Cumbria many times in the past, indeed spending a splendid tour learning English brewing techniques and pub operations over the years, I had not a whit of trouble sorting through the regional accents and local references. Around the third contestant I began to see the structure of the storytelling, for that's what it came to be in my mind. This is the weaving of tall tales; a celebration of prevarication. Part of me wanted to compare the act and delivery with stand-up comedy, but, for reasons I can't quite put my finger on, there was something special going on here. You can't bottle this and stick it on a shelf at the local tricky-tacky shop. Selfishly, I wanted all the cameras and media and promotion to just go away and bring me back to a lost era when tales would be spun at a local around a coal fire with a pint of the usual.

Ah, the stories. It is not my intention to write reviews here. I'll leave that to the local media. But, ah, the stories. I was particularly amused by the true account of a journey to Whitehaven trying to sell a box of four kittens. There were stories about badger ancestry, web-footed cats, the origins of the word haggis, the rhyming meter of the tale of Ruby Tuesday's sister. This is an art that sadly persists in its absence. There were three winners, but they all won.

Altogether it was a splendid and unique evening, and I am thankful to all who made it possible.

Speaking of unique, it quickly became well-known that an American publican and brewer was on the premises, observing and writing. I was asked more than once whether I would consider putting on an event of a similar nature at my own pub. No, I replied. Not going to happen. Full stop. I understood the event to be unique; it belongs here and only here, and only gets lost in translation. To commercialize it and exploit it would be tragic. This is not something that should be interfered with by a large American, or anyone for that matter, and that is not a lie.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Notes From Cornwall

Cornwall was fantastic. However, I have had to leave it a bit earlier than I expected. There are rumblings and goings-on up north, of the beery variety, that have put me on a train back to familiar Oxford. Then tomorrow I head up to the Lake District. I don't totally know what awaits me up there, but that's the way I like it. I do know that there is an event planned in Leeds on my last night, and I would also like to spend a couple of days pottering about the pubs and fells of Coniston.

Sadly, I'm seeing more pubs going corporate. By this I'm not talking about design, layout and atmosphere (that's a different matter), but rather staffing and management. It is harder to run across the publican-led pub, especially in urban areas. And the smiling, friendly staff that engages you in a conversation is the exception rather than the norm. Kudos to the Tinner's Arms in Zennor near St. Ives. The barkeep warned me that the 5.2% ABV pint that I was in the process of acquiring was " a bit strong", and the landlady gave me advice for the walk over the neck of Cornwall to Penzance. I give high ratings there to the Admiral Benbow and the Turks Head.

Cornwall is definitely dominated by the St. Austell's brewery. A large percentage of the pubs I visited were tied. Last night I was in Fowey on the southern coast, a beautiful little harbor town. Out of the five pubs, four were tied, and the fifth sported Sharps Doom Bar, Wadworth 6X and, you guessed it, St Austell's Tribute. While there, staring out over the harbor, I got to witness a young, cocky Diageo boy replace a shiny ice-cold Guinness font with a newer and shinier ice-cold Guinness font. Yuck.

I'm supposed to be in the land of the unsparkled pint, but an Austell's pub in St. Ives was dispensing "northern". Nothing wrong with that in my book, unless the sparkler was used to prop up a fading cask, which was the case on more than one occasion. I ran across another in Fowey.

The business plan for the satellite pub is coming along slowly. Thoughts and images need time to soak in. I finish this entry from my new favorite pub in Oxford, the Rose and Crown off Woodstock Road, which I discovered off the Good Pub Guide. A free house with a well-kept cellar, lots of little rooms, and a covered patio overgrown with vines. It's also bereft of students. Cheers!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Don't Look For Me at Work - I'm Not There

[Bloggers note: I couldn't figure out how to upload pictures from an iPad, so edited accordingly. Any insights out there?]

It's Saturday already. It was Wednesday morning when I landed in Manchester. After a lovely two nights in Oxford revisiting some of my favorite pubs like the Bear, the Old Bookbinders and the Turf, I'm now enjoying my first full day in St. Ives way down the tippy end of Cornwall.

I had hoped to make a blog entry earlier, but finding reliable WiFi has been a chore. It is showing up more in the pubs than I recall in years past, but there seems to be something odd and persistently unreliable about it. It reminds me of a rotating lighthouse beacon that smiles on you for 10 seconds once every four minutes. Many things are opposite of the way they are back in the States, such as light switch positions, traffic lanes, and the inability of hot water taps to decide whether they are on the right or the left, so perhaps zeros are ones and ones are zeros and my portable American electronic device is caught in a state of bewilderment.

Ah, the pubs. Pubs to the left of me. Pubs to the right. Good pubs. City pubs. Rural pubs. Locals pubs. Tourist pubs. Student pubs. Cozy pubs. Wetherspoons pubs (yes, for the sake of research I need to go in then and have a look around, and to have a £1.49 pint to stay in budget). I'm here to research pubs, to study them (in a purely academic fashion, of course), to scrutinize their design and atmosphere and architecture. There is a business plan in the works and I'm sorting that out.

Another reason to be here is to have a cracking good time off, and to ensure that any work I perform whilst on this Island is something that I do in my spare time and when I'm in the proper mood. So, as such, I'm off for a pint.