Tuesday 21 May 2024

Going bankrupt

In the world of beer there has been a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth about companies going bankrupt...and then re-opening immediately free of the debts they had to their suppliers.  I have personal experience of this from the inside so it seems a good time to write down what I can remember.

When I worked as a microbiologist the company I was at went bankrupt and managed to re-open a soon after with a slightly different name doing the same business. It had been obvious the company was not doing well for some time. A big customer had been lost so the work just wasn't there like it once was. When I saw the owners daughter updating her CV on a work computer I thought the company was definitely going under, but despite this it still came as a shock when it finally happened. I'd worked there for years so though intellectually I'd guessed I'd soon be on the sausage it hadn't prepared me emotionally for when reality hit. 

The old laboratory building

I went down the dole office straight away as they only start paying you from when you first tell them you're unemployed. The amount of money you get is pitifully small compared to a wage, so anyone who tells you benefits in this country are generous is an idiot or a liar. And speaking of wages when a company goes so does whatever money you're owed. There is some sort of statutory redundancy payment you'll get but again it was shocking how little it was.

When I found this out it all added to the shock as neither myself nor the owner when he was telling us the company had gone bust had realised quite how shit it was. I had agreed to stay on to finish the work in progress, cultures take a few days to grow so a microbiologists work is usually not something that's can be completed in a single day. When the owner asked us a few days later to stay on longer I did think that was pushing it. We weren't getting paid for the work we'd done or the work we were doing. One of the office people had in fact left immediately. But the boss said there was a chance the company would be bought and not losing customers would help. So I did stay on, it's not like I'd had any other plans. The owner of the industrial estate was not keen on the idea though. I guess he was one of the creditors getting shafted. He was persuaded to allow us to continue even though this was trading whilst insolvent which is definitely dodgy legally. 

The company did get bought, from the receiver though not as a going concern. Which I guess is the "pre-pack" bit that looks so cynical. As I understand it limited companies have their own legal existence so none of the owners were liable for any debts and creditors and the bank got whatever scraps, if any, they could get from the receiver. We stopped working for the old bankrupt company on a Friday and started for the new debt free company in the same premises, doing the same work, on Monday. We all kept our jobs, except the woman who'd stopped working immediately. I don't know how much redundancy money she got. We got paid for the work we'd done. I think all our suppliers continued to supply us, though for six months or so everything had to be paid for by pro-forma. I remember some awkward conversations when I phoned in orders and had to explain that we in fact a new company so any unpaid debts were nothing to do with us. 

The old owner was kept on as managing director but I did get a new immediate boss from the parent company and we did start to get corporate guff coming our way. I successfully used TUPE to not sign the new worse contract though all my co-workers did. Remember you don't have to sign everything put in front of you! See also forms requesting to voluntarily opt out of the 48 hour maximum week

How much debt was written off and what the creditors thought of all this I don't know. Though as I'd said apart from lots of pro-formas things carried on as they had before. I don't think any of the suppliers were small enough or owed enough to have their businesses seriously damaged, the thing that causes such upset. It seemed to me that's just how modern capitalism works. Looking up the wiki on limited liability I see that even when it was brought in (1855 in England):

"There was a degree of public and legislative distaste for a limitation of liability, with fears that it would cause a drop in standards of probity"

I seems this distaste continues to this day, and certainly there's a strong suspicion some of the brewery pre-packs have been lacking in probity. 

Personally speaking after the bankruptcy I was less happy with how the company was now run. This in the end lead to me retraining and moving into the brewing industry, which has mostly been a good thing. After I'd gone the lab was sold on and eventually when the lease came up for renewal the site was closed down. In a strange twist of fate a microbiologist made redundant then got a job at the brewery I worked at. And he's still there though I've now gone!

Monday 20 May 2024

A visit to Midleton Distillery

Since I've been a member of the Institute of Brewing and Distilling the importance of distilleries to seems to have been growing. There is a lot of money in spirits which I'm sure is entirely coincidental. Whisk(e)y distilleries are great places to visit though, usually old buildings, gleaming copper and dusty oak barrels. 

Which is also all that you're usually allowed to photograph and they tend to get twitchy about electric devices in alcohol rich atmospheres. 

Copper has to be used in stills to get rid of unwanted sulphur flavours and  wood is required for flavour and colour development. 

The Midleton distillery is big, Jamieson whiskey being one of the brands made there. Current output is 68-69 million litres of alcohol per year, grain whiskey making up 48 mla and pot whiskey 20.5 mla. Not being a distiller myself it's not obvious to me how big that is so lets see what I can convert it to in language I understand: 

My notes are a little confusing on the whiskey washes, as I have them down at 12-15% ABV and 10-12%. I'll take 13.5% as the average and 68.5 million litres of alcohol would take just over five million hectolitres of whiskey wash to make. So in brewery terms we're talking large multinational size. There are 500 people on site so that fits in too.

100,000 tonnes of maize, 35,000 tonnes of barley and 20,000 tonnes of malt are used annually. I'm not really up on Irish Whiskey regulations but using unmalted barley is distinctively Irish, as is triple distillation in pot stills (double distillation being preferred in Scotland).

We did get a good look at the six pot stills but sadly not the continuous still, a much more complicated bit of kit where the grain whiskey is made. Continuous stills give a purer spirit too: 94.4% ABV in this case, whereas the pot stills' new make spirit comes out at 84.5% ABV after the third distillation (first the wash still, then the feints still, then the spirit still). The wash is pre-heated from 25°C to 50-60°C on its way to the stills, which have a capacity of 385hl. Production of low wines at 45-50% ABV takes six to seven hours with the cut giving a short head and long tails. From the second still they get a 70% ABV product (high wines?). The stills have straight necks with lyne arms at 90°. There are horizontal condensers. The spirit is cut to 63.4% ABV for maturation. The stills are cleaned using 3% caustic.

For the pot whiskey the wash is made from 60% barley and 40% malt using mash filters. The grains are hammer milled before going to a mashing in vessel then into Mash Conversion Vessels followed by mash filters (they have three mash filters and MCVs). Enzymes are added to the mash, something they don't allow in Scotland. The mash starts at 52°C, has an hour at 60­°C and is raised to 77°C before going to the mash filter. The mash filters take at least 2.5 hours to separate the wort, 300hl of strong worts (75°S if all goes well) going to Fermenting Vessels (or should that be wash backs?) and 60hl of weak worts are recycled into the next mash. Eight tonnes of grist are used and usually there are 26 brews in 24 hours, though they can do 30 at a push. FVs are 2,000hl. Fermentation is carried out using M yeast supplied as a cream to 10-12% ABV (so I guess the higher figure I had is for the grain whiskey washes). 

They fill 3,000 barrels a day, mostly 200L. The barrels are filled from the top  through a hole drilled in the head. Evaporation and filling/emptying losses work out at 2% a year plus 4%. The barrels get three uses. Before packaging the whiskey goes through a vibrating sieve to remove char and wood before going through 150 and 110μm filters.  

We had time for a quick taste and they were kind enough to give us a sample to take away too.

It managed to make it back home before being guzzled. Aged in port casks and sweet it was ideal for a whisk(e)y lightweight like myself. 

Sunday 12 May 2024

Saving mild for another year

People think it's all milk and honey 'Spoons vouchers and discounts being a CAMRA member. But as CAMRA is a campaigning organisation there are responsibilities and obligations placed upon the membership. 

One that I struggle with each year is the requirement to drink mild in May. It's not that I have anything against mild in itself, it's just I seldom see it on the bar. So each year the search begins again and often I have to make a detour via the Royal Oak when on a trip to London to fulfil my obligation. This year I started May in Ireland, a country that fell to evil keg where few pubs serve cask beer so I didn't rate my chances. When I tweeted this I was admonished by The Beer Nut for my defeatist attitude and he valiantly tried to help me in my quest. What a coup that would have been! To have saved mild in Ireland! But sadly it was not to be and I failed to find mild poured from the devil's drainpipe on keg, let alone served as god intended. 

Back in Britain I could constantly feel the pressure from my undischarged duty. As it can be surprising how quickly a month can fly by I was determined to get the saving done soon. Advances in technology were my salvation as the beers on at The Crown are regularly updated on Real Ale Finder. 

Having a quick nose on Saturday afternoon I was delighted to see that the unambiguously named Dark Mild was on the bar so I hot footed it over for a pint. 

Very nice it was too. Mild, and my immortal soul, are saved for another year. 

Thursday 9 May 2024

A visit to Molson Coors' Franciscan Well brewery

After the Murphys visit I popped back to the hotel. Which was just as well really as my room had been totally cleared out: bag, jacket and even toothbrush gone. I figured I hadn't been hit by an unusually thorough burglar but instead it was a hotel cock up. The woman on reception had no idea what had happened but said "we'll find it" and was true to her word which was a great relief. I'm glad that one got sorted whilst it was early and I was sober, would have been a lot more agro when I rolled in at midnight. 

It was then on to Molson Coors' Franciscan Well brewery down on the quay. 

It's in a spacious building with lots of shiny kit. A lot of money has been spent on the brewery. which with an annual production of 16-20 thousand hl a year Molson Coors won't be getting back for in a hurry. But hey, it's nice to see a brewery that's not cramped and has decent equipment. A third of the beer made goes to the UK.

The brewhouse is a Braukon 50hl four vessel system, currently run at 4% evaporation after optimisation with the help of the parent company. A brew every four hours is possible. The vapour condenser on the copper stack recovers 12-15hl of water at 60°C. 

The site has a soft water supply which is carbon filtered to remove manganese and iron.

The centrifuge can handle from 12-16hl an hour for dry hopped beers (200g/hl) up to 35hl an hour for non-dry hopped beers. Dissolved oxygen pick up is negligible. 

The 20-22 tonne malt silo only has 17 tonnes added at a time so they don't have to flatten it with a shovel at the top! I guess not all the kit is flash!

There's a one tonne grist case and a 4-roller mill. 

The tanks are Dual Purpose Vessels used as FVs, CTs and BBTs and go up to 200hl in size. 

15% of the beer is canned. Printed cans with a minimum order of 480hls worth are used! That's a lot for a canning line that will run at 36-37 cans a minute. The keg line will do 100 x 30L kegs an hour. 

After the Franciscan Well brewery we went on to the Franciscan Well brewpub which rather confusingly is independently owned. It was rammed and took us a long, long time to get fed. The pizza was good when we got it but I'd still rather eat at 5pm if I can. 

I did manage to check out some more of the Cork nightlife after that. The bar serving a beer famous for its long largering time and not for the overwhelming taste of diacetyl we got won't be named but my cousin Rosi's recommendation, Sin É (That's It), will. It was cracking and good beer too:

After that I'd had enough CPD for the day so it was back to my belonging filled hotel room. 

Monday 6 May 2024

A visit to Heineken's Murphys brewery

As someone who takes my Continuing Professional Development very seriously it was without hesitation that I booked on to the IBD Study Tour of Ireland. We started in Cork, a city I liked the look of:

Connolly was a Wobbly too and the influence of the IWW could still be seen on the side of the building...

... along with some nationalist drivel.

But on to the studying. The first stop on the tour was Murphys brewery. The brewery dates from 1854 when a distilling family bought a hospital and converted it to a brewery. The company was bought by Heineken in 1983. 

It can be a difficult task getting into breweries owned by large companies and they can be restrictive on what you are allowed to see. In this case for Health and Safety reasons we couldn't get in the brewhouse which was a shame. They can do 12 six tonne brews a day in it in two lauter tuns. Heineken, Coors, Fosters, Tiger, Moretti, Lagunitas, Murphys and Beamish are brewed there, the stouts being perhaps four brews out of a weekly 35-40. Cider is also made there from sugar and concentrate.

They can mash every two hours and ten minutes, lautering takes three house. They have a holding vessel between the lauters and the copper, and unusually the yeast propagation plant is in the Hauppmann brewhouse. Overall extract losses are less than 7%.

They have heat recovery on the stack on the copper and a heat recovery tank holds hot water which is used to pre-heat the wort via a Plate Heat Exchanger. They have four 120 tonne malt silos and two wheat malt silos (though it's used at less than 5% so presumably they're smaller). Chocolate malt and roast barley are used for the stouts (Murphys and Beamish respectively) and colour adjustment. Maize goes in the Moretti. They have CO2 recovery and are self sufficient in it. They used to do a lot of filling of gas bottles do but not only do a small about of 20L gas containers. 

Heineken has a mashing profile 55, 64 and 78°C and is brewed at 17°P to 7.5% ABV before being cut to a sales strength of 4.3%. I'm also got something down about them mashing at 60°C not 55. For the stouts maybe? It's to prevent ferulic acid formation so they don't get a phenolic taste from 4 Vinyl Guaiacol. Mash pH is 5.5-5.7 and copper pH 5.3-5.5. Calcium carbonate is added in the Mash Conversion Vessel and phosphoric acid in the copper. 

Their 20 head keg filler can fill 850 x 30L kegs an hour. 

Maximum brew length is 330hl. Six brews of Heineken will go in a single Fermenting Vessel. Horizontal FVs have to be used for Heineken as they only allow a maximum height of 4m so they get the right ester profile in the beer. Wort is oxygenated to 20ppm. Fermentation is at 12°C for 10 days and it takes 28 days in total to make Heineken. Cider takes three weeks and stouts are filtered after 10 days. The stouts are carbonated to 1.5-1.8 volumes of CO2 in tank and nitrogenated just before packaging.  

Pentair cross flow filters are used and for lagers (but not stouts) PVPP is used for stabilisation. Total production is one million hl a year, at a push they could do 1.2 million.