A year on and still evolving

A few weeks ago we celebrated our first anniversary at the premises, an occasion which saw us unveil several changes to our way of doing business. Instead of pouring beer direct from the taps, we now have beer engines. Instead of using chiller probes to keep our casks cool, we now have a chiller cabinet behind the bar. Instead of resting five casks in cradles atop the bar, we now have eight auto-tilts inside a chiller cabinet. We also have two additional keg lines, which means we can serve seven beers in total (four cask, three keg). It’s been a sea change, and an expensive one at that, but it should eventually pay for itself (although I am dreading the next electrics bill).

Ever since we started trading, it seemed we were not selling as much beer as initially predicted. I put this down in part to our popularity with women and their preference for wine, cider and gin (some nights half our customers or more are women). I also know our prices are higher than elsewhere in the neighbourhood, but who can compete with Carling for £2/pint? Plus, I noticed times when our beer was not in top form because of the challenges involved in keeping it cool, giving it sufficient time to settle and allowing proper secondary fermentation.

I knew however the biggest factor holding back our beer sales was the lack of head on our gravity-served pints. For every enthusiast who’d rave about us being ‘just like a beer festival’ and complimenting us on pouring pints fresh from the cask, someone else would grumble that our beer was ‘flat’.

It did no good pointing out that a fresh beer with good condition but no head will feel just as lively on the tongue, if not more so, than one agitated by sparklers (which can be used to make less-than-fresh beer continue to look appetising). No, the first sip of a beer is taken by the eyes and Northerners especially want to see head atop their pint, like they see on the telly (ads which are designed to condition customers to accept, nay, welcome a short serving: browse all the promotional imagery for Guinness and you’ll see what I mean).

So for quite some time we mulled over how exactly we would remedy the situation, while staying conscious of the fact that it would take a good deal of effort and expense. We don’t have a cellar on the premises and we didn’t want to take up any floor space with a purpose-built chill room. The only space we could utilise on the premises was the wall behind the bar where a low shelf supported two casks and a few crates were attached to the wall for our spirits.

In my mind’s eye I could see how the same space could be filled with a 3×3 rack, but I wasn’t sure how it would be enclosed and chilled, nor how we would go about lifting the casks. Every system I had seen involved a cask-lifting truck which looked to be half the size of the rack itself!

Have you got something…smaller?

On a visit to a marvellous new micropub in our vicinity, The Chiverton Tap, we made a note to get in touch with the metal fabricator who had assembled their cask stillage in their cellar.

Then over the weeks that followed we brought in several tradesmen to have a look at the space: a refrigeration engineer to run through cooling options, our joiner to discuss building a cabinet and the aforementioned metal fabricator (Colin from Arcol Cask Master). Each of them assured us they could deliver, but it would be up to ourselves to co-ordinate their efforts and pull together a workable design.

We put Colin to work first in August and tasked him with assembling a 3×3 cask frame. He came up with several novel solutions to our circumstances. Instead of having us wheel a truck around to lift the casks (then not having any room to put the truck away), he was able to attach a pulley system to the frame itself. In order for us to lay the casks down, he tracked down heavy-duty sliding drawer runners. For each of these he was able to incorporate auto-tilts, meaning we’d be able to pull a unit out, use the pulley to lift a cask onto it, then push it back into place where the cask could rest and start to tilt up automatically as it emptied.

I went to Colin’s workshop in Colne to see the frame as it neared completion. Colin had casks filled with water to test the set up and showed me how the pulley and drawer runners would work. I left him to crack on with the finishing touches, including a lick of paint. A couple of weeks later he brought the pieces to our premises and had it up in less than an hour. The only wrinkle was that the lowest rack proved to be too narrow for 3 casks to sit together in a row because of the way our bar counter jutted out.

We took a bit of a risk because the refrigeration engineer had not seen any of this, nor had we agreed what type of cooling unit would be used, so we could only hope that there was sufficient space at the top (up to this point we’d only had vague assurances that something would work). In the end what caused us the most consternation at this next stage though was the difficulty in pinning down the refrigeration engineer to come have a look and fit a unit. Colin was having the same problems talking with his local refrigeration engineer. It seemed everyone was too busy to help us out with our odd little job. In the meantime, it was getting closer to our anniversary weekend.

What was aggravating is that customers were coming in and seeing our new above-ground cellar with casks resting on it, but we couldn’t yet fully utilise it. We still could only use the same two chiller probes that had cooled the casks on the original shelving unit. Then, our beer engines and triple keg font arrived and with these on the bar there was no room for the casks we had sitting there. For several days we could serve only two cask ales.

After the second or third time when our original refrigeration engineer missed an appointment and/or didn’t return a call, we did a Google search and contacted the first local company that popped up, Ultra Cooling of Stockport. They were on site the next day to measure up and were ready to install a cooler within the week.

Before they arrived our joiner enclosed either side of the steel racking with a wooden frame. We discussed panels or doors for the front, but needed something that could slide out of the way so casks could be lifted up from the floor and slotted inside. Then, our joiner had a thought: UPVC conservatory panels! No cabinetry, just plastic panels which we could lift off and on. For the first couple of weeks these were screwed into place until he came up with the idea of using adhesive magnetic strips.

With the refrigeration unit in place (a fan that previously had been used for a vending machine and blows cool air straight down into the ‘cellar’ space) our joiner was able to complete the enclosure of the racking and the good folks at Outstanding Beers came to sort our beer lines and keg arrangements. They did stellar work for us getting us up and running in time for opening night and here they were again a year later seeing us through the next stage of our evolution.

The small line cooler under our bar was replaced with a larger unit that now sits upstairs in our office, freeing up space under the bar for two kegs (the keg lines are inside a python that goes up the wall to the new, larger cooler which now sits upstairs in the stock room and then down again to the font). Our joiner cut out a piece of our bar front and put it on a hinge, creating a hatch for moving the kegs in and out from under the bar. He also hacked away a bit of shelving underneath the other side of the bar, creating a cubbyhole for a third keg. Seeing that we’d have more stock and empties, we had him build a low ledge in the customer seating area at the front under which we can tuck four kegs. His other big job was to build a plinth on the bar, using the same beech wood countertop, to give our beer engines enough space to operate. Some months before he had built a bottle rack above the bar so the bottles displaced from their crates could go on display and be in easy reach.

We can now serve four cask ales while four more casks are settling and/or finishing secondary fermentation. Up to six more casks can be stored under our stairs. When one cask finishes, we can move straight on to another (whereas previously it would take at least 24 hours before a replacement cask would be ready).

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Keg-wise, one font is dedicated to Outstanding’s superb Continental-style Pilsner, while we use another font to serve Outstanding’s equally delicious Stout (we aren’t tied to Outstanding, but our options are limited when it comes to locally-produced keg stout and porter). The third font is for what I call ‘pale and interesting’ beers, mainly IPAs by the likes of Ticketybrew, Runaway, Shindigger and Brightside although we’ve also had Cloudwater’s Grisette saison (our first try with keykegs…more on that little adventure soon!).

We may look more like a proper pub now with our gleaming brass hand pulls, but we remain true to the micropub spirit: everything remains independent and mainly local, right down to the crisps and old-fashioned soft drinks. Our task now is to get the word out that it’s ‘all change’ at our premises (and to get ourselves into CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide). More details on our publicity campaign and charm offensive soon, but in the meantime we raise a pint and say ‘cheers’ to everyone who has been so obliging in getting us to this stage.

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