Friday, March 25, 2011

Brewing Cuckoo (Pt 1)

Cuck-oo: A grayish European bird (Cuculus canorus) that has a characteristic two-note call and lays its eggs in the nests of birds of other species.

Cuckoo Brewing has always interested me; there’s something about the cuckoo way, throwing such minor shackles such as, well - not having your own kit - aside and brewing just for the hell of it. It’s like Beat poetry; without form, practised by free spirits and producing one-off, off-centre beers. Or is it? My own view seems overly romantic. After all, Brewing is hard work – and once you throw in the business side of things, you’ve got a company like any other. So I decided to ask around and see what made people brew the Cuckoo way.

Andy Helm and Mark Seaman of Revolutions Brewing Company weren’t planning on Cuckooing. Their hand was forced due to simple economic spanners being thrown into their works; put simply, their kit took longer than expected to be available. Regardless, the pair decided to forge ahead. ‘The concept of cuckoo-brewing was unknown to us until circumstances led us to look for a way we could put our ideas into action and get our product to market as early as possible.’, says Andy. ‘We made the decision to set up a micro-brewery in August 2010. We quickly decided to buy a new (rather than second hand) brew plant and our initial discussions with the brewing consultant revealed a 7 month lead time for fabrication and installation. Once we knew we wouldn't have our plant until June-11 we saw an opportunity to turn this potential setback into an opportunity to test our ideas, expand our knowledge and hopefully earn some revenue.’

Using another brewery as a testing board seems like an excellent idea. Luckily, other brewers in the area seem to agree, and were happy to let Revolutions hijack their gear for a little while to get their hands dirty. ‘We eventually found Richard Billington, one of the co-owners of The Brass Monkey Brewery in Sowerby Bridge. Richard was very accommodating and encouraged us to try a couple of brews in November to tap into the Christmas market. Our original intention had been to start in January. He even allowed us to use some spare casks which meant that we didn’t have to purchase our own for a few months.’

For me, this is a perfect example of the willingness to help that seems to pervade the independent brewing industry as a whole. Is it a surprise that the concept of Cuckoo exists in Brewing, but isn’t prevalent in many other industries? Is it too romantic to say that The Beer is King, and even helping others make unique, new brews and get established brings reward other than financial? Maybe.

Andy outlines their basic arrangement. ‘For us it's a great way to make our beer and get it out to market without having the overheads of rent and rates. We pay our share of water and electricity as well as all the cleaning chemicals so the cost per brew is a reasonably good reflection of the marginal brew costs we will face under our own steam. As we make a little profit on each of the brews we can reinvest in new casks and things we will need for our own brewery. Over a period of 6-7 months of cuckooing we can reduce by about 10-15% the total amount we need to put into the business to buy the plant, cask washers etc. and fit out the unit.We are brewing fortnightly at Brass Monkey. This fits in with their current spare brewing capacity and is about as much as we could do without hitting issues of storage space for casks. We have 100 of our own casks which, if we manage them tightly, are just about enough for a fortnightly brew length of 25-26 casks. Cuckooing does have its natural limits unless your host has ample storage space for casks. We are lucky that Brass Monkey is in a large old mill. Other hosts might not have the space.’

The simple logistics of it all has also been a barrier, as Andy outlines, for Gaz Prescott and Dave Szwejkowski of Steel City Brewing. Steel City was born out of Dave and Gaz simply wanting to brew beer how they like it – Pale and super-hoppy. It’s a niche that has worked well for them, and the majority of people who drink their refreshing wares are pretty impressed. In fact, Ben McFarland recently deemed them worthy of inclusion in the ‘Breweries to watch in 2011’ alongside such forward-thinking outfits as Thornbridge, Kernel, Marble and Gadd’s. ‘When we started out 18 months ago, it really was a case of doing it to simply brew the beer we like, because no other bugger would do it!’ Dave and Gaz state proudly. ‘Since then there's been a real growth in our sort of beer - not that we're taking the credit - from the likes of Brewdog, Summer Wine and Mallinsons along with some more established names such as Pictish. However, we only brew once a month, so there's no way we could cover the cost of our own premises and kit’.

However, it took a little moving around before our intrepid hop-heads could find a permanent home. ‘After 2 test brews at The Brew Company, we've set up long term at Little Ale Cart. This worked out well, as LAC could offer us weekend brewing which The Brew Company couldn’t do due to increasing demand for their beer. The first couple of times at LAC, Gee (Resident brewer) was on hand to help and show how things work - but now we just get on with it. We find Cuckoo is a lot less hassle in the main. No maintenance issues; we pay one monthly brewery hire fee which includes kit, electricity, gas, peripherals (finings, cleaning fluids, etc). The only downside is that obviously we don't have exclusive access; but that’s only been an issue once, when we couldn't brew because 'our' fermenter was in use. Our current arrangement works well - Little Ale Cart brew during the week, we go in on a Saturday’.

For me, that’s one of the key points about Cuckoo Brewing that Dave makes; the arrangement works well. You don’t even have to suffer too much when the inevitable occupational hazard occurs. When I asked Dave whether he thought all this hassle was worth it, he replied ‘Of course, there's times you just feel like giving up and going home - last month we had about 20% of our brew wasted because for some reason they were popping their shives, and that wiped out the profit for the brew. At the same time we managed to break an expensive hydrometer, so there’s more money down the drain. But that can also happen with your own kit, it's not exclusive to cuckoo brewing - and when it's your livelihood it's even more frustrating! But, 95% of the time, it's fun. We don't brew often enough for it to become 'just a job', a chore, and there's a real satisfaction to seeing your beer on the bar, seeing people enjoy it, seeing people actively seeking it out’.

Dave’s brewing partner, Gaz Prescott, also points out that the freedom – at this level – to brew what you want is liberating. ‘Our beer is never what you'd call "market friendly" and, I think, is some of the most extreme in the UK but in a good way! It's not really our mission to make undrinkable beer - and definitely not stupid beer for a cliquey few. But we do want to explore the mish-mash of UK and foreign cultures by mixing it up a bit and seeing what comes out.’ He also reinforces the point made earlier about having people on hand to help out and, if needs be, pinch ingredients from. ‘One good thing is that there's always someone else we can ring for advice, help or to borrow something like a kilo of roast barley or some hops! Other brewers can do this with neighbouring brewers but we can do it with the two other in-house teams!’

In the next part, we’ll get another side of the Story from some Cuckoos from across the Pond. You can catch Revolutions Brewing Co at The Hop in Leeds on Sunday night (27th). A Meet the Brewer event will run from 14.00-17.00 and will be followed by music from Sarandon and others.


Barry M said...

Nice piece, Leigh. I often thought this is a good way to help potential commercial brewers test the waters. Would love to try it!

Oddly, I don't think I've heard the term Cuckoo Brewing before. I always thought of it as Gypsy brewing, a la Mikkeller. Sounds more romantic :D

arn said...

Really interesting, the actual dynamics of it all, good post.

Mark Dredge said...

Nice piece, Leigh! Good to see a bit of interview and extended writing. Great story too - I like the idea of the cuckoo brewery making small scale and doing things exactly as they want to.

I love the Revolutions Brewing Co branding. That's very smart and I'd buy it simple on that alone!

Leigh said...

Thanks for the comments guys: more to cone in part 2...and there may be something of interest for you, Barry!

Brian said...

Really interesting insights there, Leigh, good post.

Having spoken to a couple of other brewers with experience playing cuckoo, I think it very much depends what you want to get out of it. Unless you have built up plenty of cash in the bank, have another source of income, or just don't have anyone other than yourself reliant on you making money, it seems hard to produce enough or sell enough to make it an economically viable career in the long term. I suspect it's arguably even tougher to get your brews in to the market as well. Gaz and Dave seem to have got the balance right though, as a 2nd job, even a hobby, it sounds like a dream (Ask me in a year or so, and I should be able to tell you if it is!)

Leigh said...

Thanks For your input Brian; keep in touch. I do agree; very much depends and seems viable in it's own way. Keep in touch.

Barry M said...

You bloody tease. Hurry up and hit the publish button! :D

Gazz said...

Will keep an eye out for cuckoo, thanks.