Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Innovations in Cask Technology

That word "innovation", just like "sustainable" and "craft", get well overused in this business, but I think we're on to something here. Introducing the Pumpkin Cask.

Just hollow the gourd out, and after carefully hand-drilling in a bung hole and gently fitting a gravity tap, fill it with strong ale and put it on the bar. It was Halloween night party time after all. We had a little trouble with the gravity tap, as it has a hop filter inside that quickly got clogged up with orange bits, but had good luck with one of the Cask Doctor taps we use in the cellar.

Our 7.6% "Oh, The Humanities!" Strong Ale had sufficient oomph to drown out some of the funkiness that seeps from the walls of a pumpkin. After about an hour in the cask, though, it got weird. We did manage to sell a little of it to the adventuresome risk-takers, and I had at least two pints before the night was out.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

England 2014 : Part The First

Roughly two weeks ago I returned from two and a half weeks in England. I had not had a holiday (vacation, for you Americans) in nearly two years, and it was showing all around. Melancholy. Ennui. The ancient Chinese curse (may you live in interesting times) manifesting itself on the domestic scene. A yearning for the Old Country. Footpaths. Bleak windy moors and fells, replete with sheep and the occasional flagstone stretch of path or lopsided cairn marking the way down to a cozy rural pub. Coal fires and conversation. Beans on toast. A ridiculous amount of proper hand-pulled beer.

I had promised myself that I wasn't going to work whilst away. You know what I mean. Dragging out the iPad and being the antisocial old git in the corner of the side room pretending to be a blogger. I kept my promise. Back I now am to the increasingly chilly river office, of which I have several, enjoying one of those last few days before it gets too cold to sit out here with a pint and a good book.

Yesterday I finally washed the clothes that I bore on my back for 17 days while on my trip. Air France had cancelled my flight from Paris/Chuck De Gaulle to Manchester and promptly lost my baggage. Although I was rerouted on British Airways and finally made it to Manchester six hours behind schedule, I was not to see my backpack until the night before I had to fly back to the USA of America. I was going to burn these clothes when I got back, but thought better of it, and am now absorbing the memories of a wonderful trip to the Yorkshire Dales and Cumbria through the patient, loyal fabric that took about four days on a stretch each time to develop a ripe, manly smell. Thank God for the modern washing machine.

This is the first of a series of posts about some thoughts and blather from some of my favorite spots on the planet.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Now We Are Six

A little Winnie the Pooh reference there. We are now six indeed. Time finds us at this moment, in fact, a week after August 13th when our little real ale pub up in the woods crossed the line into its seventh year. I was too busy wrangling mountain bikers (who drank almost all our beer this last weekend during Mountain Bike Oregon), a brewery and paperwork to write anything about it at the time. Exhausting work this. I wonder if Pooh is old enough to hoist a pint.

Hard to believe isn't it? I feel like I've aged ten years during that six. Unless someone wants to buy a pub so I can retire in my 50's, I guess I'll give it a go for another six. Meanwhile, we better get cracking on producing some beer. It's embarrassing to be down to three handpulls.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

In Praise of CoolBot

A timely email from Tony, a British expat who has visited our pub a couple times and who helps out at The Beer Shoppe in Yakima, Washington, and an anonymous comment on my last post, pointed my in the right direction for solving our cellar refrigeration issues. I was prepared to crack open the imposing electronics package of my new Sears Kenmore air conditioner and figure out how to bypass it when I was saved by CoolBot.

This device is ingenious. It turns a normal, everyday, working air conditioner into a refrigeration unit without messing with the electronics. How does it do this? It has a little heater that is attached to the temperature sensor of the unit with a piece of foil. This fools the unit into thinking that it is warmer than it really is. Brilliant.

The old guy was icing up every day in a serious way, so I was determined to fix it when I got back from Portland late last Wednesday night. Started work at about 10:00 PM and had the old unit out and the new one in by 12:30. The CoolBot was very easy to install and set up. I waited around until about 3:30 to monitor its performance, and was satisfied that by the AM, or rather later in the AM when I returned to open the pub that the cellar and its contents would be sitting at a pleasant 52 degrees.

There ya go. Instead of dropping four or five grand on a fancy refrigeration unit, get yourself a 10,000 BTU air conditioner and a CoolBot for around $600. Well, there is building a room and insulating it, but you knew that.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Lessons In Refrigeration

It had to happen. It was time for something to break; as inevitable as death, taxes and noisy neighbors. When we built the pub we decided to go cheapo DYI and build a cellar and cooler behind the bar using air conditioners. Cheap air conditioners from Sears. After all, it's a room 10' by 8' by 4' that has to be kept at 50 of Heir Fahrenheit's degrees. We could have installed a professional ductless A/C, and spent an order of magnitude more money, but this was more fun and had that rebel element to it that has a myriad of satisfying qualities.

Well, this pour old boy has been churning out cold air for six years now and is growing weary. There's nothing quite finer than popping into the pub of a morning, with a skip in your step, whistling an old Steely Dan tune, eager to prepare the pub for a fine day of the eat, the drink and the merry, to confront a big block of ice where your A/C unit used to be.

It's summer now, and the pub is running, and often heaving, seven days a week. Unlike the winter when we shut on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, making significant repairs is awkward. We certainly can't have a frazzled publican crawling around in the cellar behind the bar with a fistful of tools during service hours, where the bar staff has to explain why the cask ale is room temperature. I brought my A/C guy out to have a look and make suggestions. The installation of the ductless A/C that we originally rejected as being too efficient and practical was reintroduced, but the sticker shock got to me and the fact that it would take a whole day of having two frazzled A/C guys crawling around in the cellar behind the bar with a fistful of tools during service hours, where the staff has to explain why the cask ale is room temperature, wasn't sitting well with me.

So I bought another Sears Kenmore air conditioner. As I was attempting to purchase the new toy, carefully checking dimensions to make sure that the new unit would fit in the same hole through the block wall as the old unit, the nice Sears service man asked if the warranty was still good on my old one. When I told him that I yanked out the electronics and substituted an external temperature controller, he just silently shook his head and took my debit card.

The old unit is still limping along, and requires a couple of manual defrosts per day. Scheduling time with an early morning rise and a handy helper is my next step. I've unboxed the new guy and have been gazing at it with a look of unbridled hope and admiration. It's got all new electronics that I get to figure out how to bypass. What could go wrong?

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Out of Hibernation

hi·a·tus [hahy-ey-tuhs]
noun, plural hi·a·tus·es, hi·a·tus.
1. a break or interruption in the continuity of a work, series, action, etc.

It's a little hard for me to understand, but I've had as many as three people say that they miss my blog and wish I would get back at it. Alrighty then. You asked for it. The hiatus is over.

Eugene Beer Week kicks off this week. We're not in Eugene, but we're accepted as part of the community. Even the new Eugene Ale Trail that Travel Lane County kicked off last night at 16 Tons Cafe has us listed as a bonus destination. I brought down some beer and we had a good time.

I hadn't done a cask remotely in a while, so I had to remind myself of all the things that are required for serving real ale outside the safe confines of the pub. Having all the tools and taps and sundries, including ice quilts and jackets, is part of the job. I ordered a set of new quilts from UK Brewing Supplies a couple weeks in advance and prepped them up.

Keeping the temperature within the proper range is the trickiest bit. The quilts help but are not perfect. If only every pub had a cellar. The last time I sent out a cask was back in November at the Horse Brass Pub in Portland. The covered alley between the pub and offices was the perfect temperature back then, and we just stored the firkin overnight out there. I wish it could have been served from the same location.

I'll be back down again with another cask at the Tap & Growler on Friday. Of course this requires coming down Thursday to set up, but that also dictates that I have to go to the DeFazio/Papazian event and participate in some heavy schmoozing. I'll manage.

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.