If you’ve visited the brewery in recent weeks you’ll have seen us in a state of organised chaos. Having had a quiet start to 2017 – Dave and Emma even went on holiday for two weeks! – things quickly began to snowball and we have found ourselves constantly adapting to keep up with the growing interest in the brewery and our beer. The ongoing building work is the most visible sign of the changes, but there has been plenty going behind the scenes as well.
Back in February we sent out two pallets of beer (2, 688 bottles) to the online craft bottle shop HonestBrew, by some margin our biggest order to date. It was a great way to kick off the year and really tested our production and packaging capabilities, so we were thrilled when it shipped without any issues. Things stepped up significantly when, a week or so later, we received an email from the team over at beer box subscription business Beer52 asking if we were interested in appearing in an upcoming beer box that would go out to their 11, 500 subscribers. Viewed as a marketing opportunity alone it wasn’t an order we could turn down. However, at the time our daily packaging record sat at around 1, 500 bottles, so a fantastic opportunity to get our beer out to thousands of potential new customers also presented a few challenges.
Firstly, it simply wasn’t possible for us to package that amount of beer by hand in the time we had. It was a big order with a short delivery time and our dual filling head machine with in-line carbonation, with each bottle being capped individually by hand, simply wasn’t up to the job. Luckily, we were already buying empty bottles from Seimon at Mold-based Mobot mobile bottling and we decided to bring him and his Meheen M6 bottling machine in to help us get the job done. Seeing 1, 500 bottles an hour coming off the line – previously a full day’s work – certainly got us thinking and, as demand for our beer in small pack form continued to grow, and having worked with Seimon on a few more occasions since that mammoth order went out, we decided to take the plunge and order our own bottling line through Meheen’s UK distributors, Oasthouse Engineering. Our M6 should be up and running by the end of the summer.
But as great a job the new machine will do putting into the beer into bottles, it does not have an in-line carbonation capability. Carbonation is an area that has caused us some consistency issues in the past, as some of our trade customers will testify, and we have replaced over-carbonated kegs on a few occasions. A bit of reading and research encouraged us to try carbonating our beer naturally, using a spunding valve to cap the tank towards the end of fermentation. Our first attempt was on a batch of Dark Bay Porter back in April and we were chuffed with the results, the beer taking on a much smoother, more gentle carbonation. We believe it has made a vast improvement to the finished beer and now use the technique for all our beers, which again presented us with another challenge – how do you dry-hop beer that is already under pressure? The answer to that conundrum should be with us in a couple of weeks.
Having decided to completely change the way we package our beer we were suddenly faced with the issue of where to put it. We are currently running at around half our production capacity – selling around 11 barrels or roughly 3, 000 pints per week – but we have to empty a tank (we have two 10bbl capacity and 20bbl capacity) before we can brew again. That’s a lot of beer to store, whether in keg or bottle, so two weeks ago work started to double the size of our cold room by knocking through into our office. Eventually the office will go on the mezzanine level, as well as a staff room and small lab. For now we are working out of a 3m x 2m portacabin that is causing havoc with the traffic on Cae Bach. A new set of stairs have been put in while better storage solutions and, eventually, a remodelled shop and bar area are in the works.
To top it all off, next week we will be releasing the first in a new series of beers brewed using a Vermont ale yeast strain, meaning for the first time we are managing two yeast strains – WLP4000 and our house strain WLP090. Expect some bold, juicy flavours coming up.
2017 has been a big year for us already. On top of the changes to our process and the ongoing renovations at the brewery, our two newest members of staff have made a huge contribution, allowing us to, first, increase our production volume and, second, find like-minded outlets to sell the extra beer. We are growing as a team and as a business, and have learnt a huge amount in the last 12 months. Learning those lessons has helped us to make our beer even better and we hope to carry on learning and developing in pursuit of our ultimate aim, to brew the best beer we possibly can.