RedWillow | Brewery and Bar in Macclesfield
A Passion Shared
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Blog

2016: A Retrospective

Guilted by several other breweries offering their thoughts and reflections on 2016 and with a rare moment of quiet, I've pulled together some musings. If I had managed to get my timings right, I would have been able to write the retrospective I had been planning exactly 1 year, 1 month, 1 week and 1 day since the brewery move. However, work has a habit of getting in the way of my job. 2016 has been full of progress, expansion, and developments and, albeit a few issues which I will touch upon, we are looking forward to the year ahead after what has been a successful year for the brewery and bar. 

Expansion

If anyone reading this works in IT then at some point, when discussing data migration, someone in the meeting will say, ‘it is like changing the engines on a jet whilst flying’, to which some wag will then quip ‘and a single engine plane at that’.  Moving a brewery whilst attempting to not impact production is, as we found out, even harder.

The original plan was that the brewery would be fully moved (just down the road from our original site) in June 2015. Equipment was purchased, excitement was boundless and like any project with multiple parties involved, it over ran and we ended up having to move the brewery in the run up to Christmas. A cunning plan was hatched; brew like crazy, fill every FV in the old brewery, move the brew house, plumb, wire it all in and start brewing in the brewery into the new tanks, then bring the old FV’s into the new brewery as we emptied them… easy! Whilst the idea seemed, potentially, vaguely feasible, we didn’t have to test it out as our permission to brew was delayed (despite me backdating the letter) and by the time it came through we’d taken all the beer off.

The new brewery had a few teething problems (notably a chiller that we could not get working in the configuration we wanted), but the main thing I would change is we are now split over two locations (production and warehousing) which is obviously having an impact on logistics and productivity which is an issue we need to address before too long.

Towards the end of 2016 we also installed a new canning line modification which allowed us to double production and release 5 more cans into our line which is definitely a highlight of the year. 

People

In October 2015 if you had asked me; “What do you think is going to be the biggest change for us in 2016?”, I would undoubtedly have said the brewery move or the canning line installation and I would have been wrong. The biggest and best changes we made, was bringing on board some exceptional people…

For me, the person that has had the biggest impact was bringing on Amanda, our Financial Controller back in May. Paper work, finances, cash flow, credit control is incredibly important, but it is a slow insidious death that creeps up on owners, taking you away from what you should be doing. Like many business owners, I’d put off recruiting a Financial Controller, because a) I am a control freak and b) I did not like the idea of spending money on what I mistakenly thought was non-productive labour. At some level I knew how much time I was spending on that side of the company which meant I was spending less time on the brew floor, being innovative and running the company (you could probably argue it was running me for a considerable period of time). What I never really appreciated was how much of my time was being spent doing the 'wrong' jobs in the brewery. 

Mel joined us in April on the brew floor bringing her infectious enthusiasm and eagerness to learn about brewing that makes her a great ambassador. In October we stole Nadia off the bar and brought her on board as our Events and Marketing Coordinator (although, obviously, we are too ‘craft’ to do marketing). Nathan took over RedWillow Bar as Bar Manager in November after what had been a few months of inconsistent management. Finally, Steph has done amazing things with the bar’s food menu since September. Without singling out the newer staff too much; of course I must commend the other members of the team for their consistent hard work throughout the year. 

Quality and Consistency

In the old brewery; it was pretty much a brew house, fermentation room, cold room, toilet, and a wooden box that we built that just about functioned as an office. We had no space at all and everything was squeezed in to the max. One of the things we wanted to achieve with the move was install a small lab to enable us to measure IBU, EBC, forced fermentation tests etc. Whilst we were getting these tests run remotely for us on a periodic basis, the lack of continual and immediate results was an issue for me. When we moved, we had the perfect space to install a lab and as it turned out, it was very much required.

Moving site is always going to be problematic. We had to untrain muscle memory of brewing and slowly get used to the new layout and ways of working and combined with a new packaging format (cans) it was in some respects painful.

We suffered two big quality and consistency issues last year. One entirely our fault and one that if we had better procedures in place we would have stopped before it was an issue (needless to say, those necessary procedures are now in place).

The biggest issue we experienced last year joyously coincided with the first release of the cans (Wreckless and Shameless). We had been having a few issues with our house yeast strain; pH was not dropping as quickly and as far as we would have liked which caused flavour stability issues. It also started producing huge amounts of diacetyl. We had to recall cans from the market, which is never fun and logistically painful. At that point in time we could not trace which batch of cans had gone to which customer (our tracing was mainly for tracked products, i.e. casks and steel kegs), so we had to do a belt and braces recall. We got a good chunk of them, but some, still made it to consumers. Over the coming weeks and months we spent a large amount of time and money trying to work out what was going on, refreshing our yeast line (several times), changing water treatments, aspects of brewing etc, but in the end we took the decision to move to a new strain of yeast and, in a metaphorical overnight, the issues went away.

In February, myself and Caroline headed out to Italy to meet one of our distributors and their customers and we decided to take the opportunity to tag a few days on for ourselves (if you run a company together and you have children, you don’t actually spend that much time together). I remember being sat down in Verona having lunch when the phone rang and with that call, and any possible chance of relaxation stopped. The brewers had transferred a beer from FV to conditioning tank and when they checked the pH of the beer post transfer, it was 4.8-4.9. Working through each step of what had happened, we found a batch of auxiliary finings that was not actually auxiliary finings, but a very alkaline product. So… almost 100HL of beer destroyed in total, every cask pH checked to ensure there had been no earlier contamination and a whole new set of procedures put in place.

Looking back on the monumental stress of that period I take many positives (I must!), because we examined every aspect of what we did and tightened up on all our procedures, testing etc and our consistency has measurably improved. If I go to a restaurant and have a great meal, that I recommend to my friends and they eat there, but the food is not the same (to misquote Simon)...that isn’t craft… it is inconsistent. If we have one overarching goal this year, it is to be continually strive to be measurably consistent, we are not there yet, but we are working on it.

Conclusion

If I tried to predict in detail what we will be doing in 2017 I would probably do as good a job as a 2016 political pollster. Our goals are pretty straightforward; keep working on consistency and quality, open bar 2 (but I’ve been saying that for 2 years now!), and most importantly.. have fun! Thank you to all our customers who continue to enjoy the beer we love producing... here's to more of the same in 2017. 

Toby. 

Toby Mckenziebrewery