Saturday, November 28, 2009

F.A.Q. #1: Distribution

After being open more than 15 months, we get asked a lot of questions. As I work my own bar at least 20 hours a week, I have gathered my own collection of mental notes. I will likely be writing about some of the questions that get asked the most over the next couple of weeks.

A couple months ago the friendly guys from The Eastburn in Portland popped by on a quiet afternoon. Not more than a couple of words in, I was asked if they could buy a keg to take back up to Portland. I would wager that most breweries and brewpubs in Oregon are equipped to do this. Not so with us. First of all, with a few rare exceptions, we don't do any kegging. Our brew length is 8 firkins or 2 UK BBL. This translates into around 90 US gallons. There have been a couple of instances where there was enough ale left in the bottom of the fermenter to draw off into a corny keg, which holds five gallons, providing an interesting demonstration of the difference between a kegged and a casked version of the same ale. But, for the overwhelming amount of the volume produced, a pub interested in handling our ale would have to know how to handle a firkin.

Now, I know that there are a small number of establishments in Oregon that advertise cask conditioned beer. I also know that what they are in truth handling are kegs, likely Sankeys, to which they affix a beer engine. The contents of the kegs are dubiously named cask-conditioned beer, which in many cases simply contain ale destined for keg that has been drawn off from the fermenter and primed in the cask (keg). Handling a firkin is different. The requirements are: stillage, preferably with an auto-tilt; proper temperature control; sundries such as spiles and the right kind of taps for hammering into a keystone; and, very importantly, someone who knows how to handle all these things. So far, despite extensive research, I have only found a handful of places that can handle this. I have high hopes for Block 15, as they soon will be handling real ale in such a way that I would feel comfortable doing cask swaps.

Another important reason for not distributing is simple economics. Even if a pub were to be equipped with all the trappings and knowledge for handling real ale, there is still the problem of (as we are a business) making any money off of selling them a cask. A firkin nominally holds 72 20 oz. pints. In reality we might get 68 or so. Multiply this by the $4.50 to $5.50 we sell a pint for over the bar. For the sake of argument, let's just say that I can gross $350 for a cask. Not counting the brewer's labor, because we don't pay him, the cost of goods sold is around 10% to 20% of the gross. Now, if you, the pub or bar owner, wanted to purchase a cask, you would want to pay in the wholesale range. Kegs, 15.5 US gallons, go for $130 to $140, generally speaking. A firkin contains 10.8 US gallons, or around 2/3 the volume of a keg, so you would want to pay around $90. I could argue for the premium nature of our beer, given it's rarity and the fact that we brew small batches. I did manage to get $150 for the two casks I brought up to the Firkin Fest last year, but I guess that that would be an exception. So, it's easy to see that selling a pint over our own bar is the way to go. We can make sure that it is well kept while at the same time keeping the doors open and the lights on.

Another nice reason for not distributing is that we can stay in control of the delicate liquid. Yesterday I put on the first cask of Tanninbomb, my oak-aged old ale. I like having the confidence that the beer will be handled properly and described and discussed by our own staff. I suggest you pry yourself out of your house and come down for a pint. See you at the pub.


Whorst said...

Interesting post. Cask ale in easily manageable in a Cornelius Keg, probably not in a sankey, because there's no valve for pressure release. I've probably done over a 100 in corny kegs by just priming and fining after fermentation, while monitoring the secondary fermentation with PSI meters attached to the "IN" connect of the keg. When the beer is cooled, it absorbs CO2 and the PSI meter will reflect this by moving down. By venting and getting the meter to read 0 while cool, I manage a perfect balance of CO2 on my system. Getting air introduced is easy, and can be done by just serving a few pints the night before. CAMRA, for what it's worth, define real ale as “beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.” So, according to them, you could serve it from a plastic bucket, as long as it was fermented and matured by a secondary fermentation in the bucket. I love cask ale, don't get me wrong, but the procedure and tooling required for ritual are archaic. I'm very surprised that someone has not developed a new age cask that has some sort of valve built into it, with beer engine connects that don't require tap and a mallet. The procedure for controlling CO2 levels with a porous, wooden peg, would also seem extremely outdated. Yeah, I know it works, but there are easy ways. A fifteen gallon Cornelius Keg would be a start.

Bill Night said...

Ted: I admire your emphasis on correct handling. In truth, almost every beer could be handled better than it is in most cases. That goes for real ale, fake ale, industrial lager, kegs, bottles...

One question, though. What's wrong with "ale destined for keg that has been drawn off from the fermenter and primed in the cask"? Aren't you being too pious by excluding that from "cask beer"?