Sunday, 9 October 2016

The downhill part of 2016 has commenced

As we head into October the year is getting ready for the roller coaster ride to December. The time of year where South Africa shuts down and goes into beach & fuck-it mode!

It is also the start of a new financial year, the crazy rush to get everything done before the calendar year ends; and the time summer shows its face in Cape Town. All in all it is an interesting, somewhat stressful, rather irritating and nice time of year.

I must say, I would much rather be traveling like a year ago than having to deal with normal life in the coming weeks. At least this year I am not stressing about the exchange rate while waiting for a brewhouse to be manufactured overseas and shipped to South Africa. But thanks to the shenanigans of our president and his cronies we are worrying about the exchange rate affecting all our imported ingredients and consumables.

This time round normal life comprises of dealing with prima-donna architects; unreasonable project timelines; juggling too much work with too few resources in the office; and trying to fit in brewing + bottling between day-job demands, family and exams. 

I guess there are worse things to worry about. I honestly hope next year is less crazy than this one. Based on past experiences - and as my brother says: "Hope is the first step on the road to disappointment! - next year will come with its own version of crazy. 

There are a couple of things we need to get right for the new year:
The work-brewing-family-life balance needs some attention. 
A proper brewing schedule, solid marketing and steady sales growth should bring some predictability at least. 
Opening our tasting room / weekend sales outlet. 
Finalising & implementing the big change/addition to Gallows Hill we have been toying with for quite a while.
I seriously need to let go of the mundane shit I deal with at work and focus on the work I really need to do, i.e. design guidance; quality standards; design overviews; growing the younger guys in the team; getting more Revit modellers; up-skilling the stragglers we have; getting more profitable jobs in; and getting rid of the bad projects haemorrhaging money...(struggling with the last one since en 2012)

The last few months until South Africa shuts down for 2016 is going to be interesting to say the least...

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Sunday Nostalgia... (The usual over-thinking, etc.)

Sunday afternoons can be the worst time of the week... Especially after a welcome break from normal life. It is usually the time when my brain starts running wild. 

The first thoughts to start churning are usually related to the usual worries of normal life ahead. Finances; admin; juggling personal, work and family time on a pretty full schedule; work deadlines; office resource constraints; arguing with lazy contractors and dealing with emotional + unrealistic architects; corporate bullshit; etc. 

Nostalgia seems to always surface as well... Thinking of good times; missed opportunities; missing old friends and acquaintances.

I never really miss my school years. School was boring and quite frankly we were not really at the point of figuring out who we really were. I do miss the simplicity of those days, roaming the streets with friends and the life we had though. Thoughts related to those days never really surface. Guess I've moved on. Giving up a home there at the end of school and moving to a University on the other side of the country pretty much put a bullet in the head of that life stage.  

My University years are a different story. It was a great time. Four years of hard work and freedom with awesome people who I will have lasting connections with for the rest of my life. Reckon it will be a part of my life I will always cherish. 

During this time I have made friends who will be part of my life forever. It is such a great feeling when you have friends who you can spend time with as if the last time you saw them was yesterday, when in fact you haven't spent any time with them in years... Almost like there is some kind of eternal bond. The relationships are more akin to that with a brother than normal friendship.

I really wish our group of friends were closer to each other geographically; able to spend more time together; and share our lives with each other. Unfortunately we are scattered across the country and the globe... From Hong Kong to Cape Town to Johannesburg to England to The United States... Despite our bond we are slowly growing apart as each builds their own lives wherever that may be...

Today I really miss them...

A fair portion of our little circle of friends have moved away for good and will most probably never really return to South Africa. To put it bluntly, the new regime in charge have fucked up a lot of good things in this country!! As a result many educated, younger people opted out...

Some days I also wonder at what point do you decide to call it quits... Say TIA (This Is Africa)... Fuck this shit, pack up and try to build a life elsewhere...
It is not an easy decision. It would mean leaving a support structure and many things you've built up behind. It will result in effectively ripping family structures apart... Kids not able to see their grandparents and cousins as often as they should. And me not having my brother just in the next neighbourhood. 

Ah well... For now... Let's rather focus on the present. Time to sit in the sun and watch the little one and cat play outside

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Mid 2016 recap

Finally it is beginning to feel like winter in Cape Town with short days, rainy and cold weather. With that we have also made it through half of the year. As always we are not exactly where we wanted to be, but looking back it actually went OK. So far it has been a good, interesting and challenging year.

From the start we knew this will be a challenging year. The main contributing factors were the following:

Dialing in a brewing system ten times bigger than our previous one is quite an interesting process.

With a much bigger system comes all sorts of complications to other tasks that used to be pretty simple. The coordination and details surrounding ingredient orders, bottle orders, screen printing, tag printing, tag assembly and bottling itself moves up a couple of orders of magnitude.

With that comes the financial implications. Each batch is quite an investment and cash flow is a bitch to say the least. (It is at this point where I have huge respect for the big boys skillfully managing this complex thing called "cash flow"; and I am VERY glad that we are pretty small and have not over-invested in our operation.)

Juggling a brewery with demanding day jobs and young families is no easy task. Adding the fact that one of the owners is busy completing final exams in orthopedic surgery makes the juggling even more tricky.

Very similar to 2015 we had another burglary at our brewery in the last month. The brewing operation was lucky as it did not loose any items. Our distribution partner on the other hand was not so lucky and lost quite a bit of dispensing equipment. Once again we had to beef up security and fork out some unplanned cash in the process.
We know our building is in a gritty part of town, but the lack of respect for other people's property and possessions in this area... actually it applies to our whole country... is a problem. Combine that with a strained police force and a legal system that cannot cope, then you have a mess of a situation. By the way...If you are reading this and one of those people who say our crime problem is because of poverty, the wealth gap or the previous political system, etc. I suggest you stop reading.

It is not!!

It is because of a lack of respect for others; a huge drug problem in our province; a failing education system; empty promises from politicians; a lack of consequences for offenders and in general a failing state where our taxes are not spent properly.
Anyway... Enough bitching for now. We will just get through this as all South Africans do. Guess we have all become hard-asses in this country. Make a plan and move on...

Now back to beer...

We are glad to have our new brewhouse running. The whole setup is not perfect yet and we have not quite found our rhythm on the new kit, but the beer is progressively getting back to where we want it.

To recap on beers so far brewed on the new kit. 

Batch 1 was a single hop APA with Cascade. The young beer was not what it should be. Our temperatures were a bit off and it seems like the pH was not where we wanted it. Now... After a number of weeks in the bottle the beer has lost it's green edge. It is good, but not up there with what we would like it to be. 

Batch 2 was a more aggressive beer. IPA with Apollo, Columbus, Centennial & Cascade.
With this one we hit the temperatures spot on and the gravities were exactly as intended. The pH is still a bit out of whack and it had a slight affect on the hop flavour, resulting in feint phenol flavours coming through. The pH also messed with hop utilisation and the flavour combinations a bit. The beer is good, but it can do with a little tweaking. The longer it stays in the bottle the better it seems to be getting. Not perfect, but at least it does not suck.

Batch 3 is the latest one - a single hop Black IPA with Centennial hops. We hit the temperatures & gravities spot-on and the pH was back to normal. So far it is tasting good from the fermenter - hop character is good and the roasted grain notes are minimal, as it should be.

Slowly but surely sales are also stabilising and getting back to normal. Soon we can put more momentum into expanding our footprint. 

The next couple of months will be tricky with work and study commitments, but after that we can focus on summer and the usual end of year beer craze. For the last two years all the breweries with decent following and good beers could not keep up. Two weeks into December many beers were out of stock. This year is set to be no different...

For now we would like to say thanks to everyone for their support and patience so far. It is great to hear when people enjoy our beers. We take our beer personal. Hopefully we will bring you many more beers to enjoy.

Friday, 18 March 2016

The realities of scaling up...

Scaling up a brewery - actually any business - is not a linear affair. To make ten times more beer may take just about the same time on brewing day, but apart from that everything else shifts a couple of orders of magnitude or more...

Something as simple as quickly popping into the homebrew shop to buy a couple of kilograms of malt you forgot about ordering simply isn't an option anymore. You need bags full of malt for this one day only, plus you need a good flow of ingredients for upcoming brew days. The same applies to yeast, hops, bottles, labels, etc. Getting everything to the brewery on time requires coordination, planning and sometimes even a bit of luck.

The brewing part is easy. Brewing on a bigger system quickly becomes the norm. It is different, but you quickly find a new rhythm. Mashing still takes about an hour; transfers & sparging can take a little longer; boiling is the same; cooling takes a little longer... Different, but not too different or unfamiliar. Once the cooled, hopped wort is in the fermenters and happy yeast is turning the sugary liquid into beer the real "fun" starts...

Packaging, conditioning, storage, distribution, sales, accounts receivable; ordering more ingredients & materials for upcoming batches...

What used to be a couple of hours to get beer into bottles becomes a rather well planned, full day of hard manual labor filling bottles; capping them; tagging / labelling; glueing & packing cases; and finally stacking packed cases.

It is on these days that you somewhat envy the big boys with shiny, advanced, automatic fillers & cappers... But at the end of the day the sense of achievement and satisfaction is much better the hard way. It feels good to have created something. Something that you and others can enjoy. A simple concoction of water, barley, hops and yeast... This simple product which is an essential part of the civilized world we know... Just imagine this world without beer !!

With the beer going to market and sales picking up the "real fun" is set to start...

Let's assume the beer is well received and there are no major problems. Gradually sales will pick up and then (hopefully) the whole setup is bound to gain momentum. At that point I predict (and hope) the following situation will unfold... as described by Tony Magee from Lagunitas... Running the brewery will become like being chased down the road by a pack of rabid dogs. In addition to being chased like this, managing cash flow in the business will be like falling down a seriously long flight of stairs while blindfolded. On top of that we will have to add managing people... And we all know managing people is similar to herding cats!

I am pretty sure we are in for an interesting, entertaining, fun and informative ride with our little brewing adventure...

Bring it on !!

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Expansion - Gallows Hill Brewing Co

Expanding a bootstrapped sideline business is a tricky and challenging affair. Despite the challenges it is actually a rewarding and fun experience.
On top of that it is also a serious learning process. Learning involves a little bit of everything… From plumbing and electrics all the way through to financing and taxes.
Since we have been building Gallows Hill Brewing Co at our own pace (we intend to stick to this going forward) and not always with the same exuberant fervor as others, I have decided to put in more effort to document and share our journey. Pretty sure there will not necessarily be weekly or more frequent updates, but there will definitely be more effort being put into documenting our expansion and progress with the brewery.

You may be wondering where we are heading with the brewery… As a start, let’s clarify what is important to us:
The brewery is a serious business, but it is by no means a “get rich quick” scheme. (Anyone getting into the beer business with that in mind should seriously reconsider their position.)
We aim to build the business in a manageable way into a sustainable small endeavour that suit our lives. Those lives involve young families and serious day jobs. Juggling all the responsibilities will be no easy task. We have to accept that this juggling may result in things at the brewery not always going as planned or at the pace originally intended.
We are local. Our operation is based in a gritty part of town undergoing a slow revival. Despite the issues of crime in our area we intend to stick it out and be part of building up our bit of the city. Breweries all over the world are contributing to uplifting rundown neighborhoods and derelict industrial areas.
In South Africa alcohol producers are too easily painted with a tar brush and depicted as the source of evil in our society. We accept that the country does have an alcohol abuse problem, but the mass consumption market is not really the market we are aiming for. Breweries, bakeries, butchers, green grocers, etc. are essential components of a properly functioning society. In our opinion a world without good quality beer is not worth living in.

Being a bootstrapped, small scale & amateur brewing operation (none of us studied fermentation sciences or went to brewing school) we will surely make a number of mistakes along the way, but our eternal strive will be to produce high quality beer our way. We are going to be honest about our products and we take everything about our beer and brewery personal. It is part of us. Due to running our brewery the bootstrapped way, some things we do will be a little unconventional.
The brewery is self-financed! We have no big financial backing or external investors at this point. It is simply a case of investing our own resources and income from our day jobs into the business. We are lucky to be able to do it this way. On the one hand it adds a certain amount of pressure to make it work and forces you to work smart and to make compromises in certain areas. On the other hand it gives us the freedom to do whatever the hell we want to. We do not have a banker or other investors breathing down our necks drooling for payback or returns on the investment.
We have day jobs and young families. On the one side we have two doctors and a little one who is not even six months old. On the other side we have a chef, a structural engineer and a 3 year old toddler. The doctors have crazy & haphazard working hours. My work can be sporadic, often riddled with deadlines, travel, corporate bullshit and having to manage people and projects across the country and around the globe. On many occasions family commitments and work demands forces brewery related tasks and plans to play second fiddle or to take a rain check for a couple of days. Having the brewery is a creative outlet for all of us. It keeps us sane to some extent, I think.
We are still fairly young. Even if we are completely on the wrong path and it does not work out, we will be OK. There is still a lot of life and living left. At least we hope so, right!
Back to where we are heading…
As a start. We are going to make beers that we enjoy drinking. At the moment that is to a large extent Pale Ale, India Pale Ale, Porter, Stout and Barrel Aged Beers.

Variation will probably be the norm. The perfect beer is something we haven’t brewed yet. Maybe we can get there… One day…
We are not in the game of pushing high volume, low flavour beer. We will also not participate in the price war game.
Pay to Play” is unethical and wrong. We will not do it.
Our initial growth will be fairly slow… This is largely due to demands from our day jobs for the next 6 to 8 months, but also because we would prefer to ramp up gradually. There is still a lot of learning and figuring out required.
This is probably a good time for a bit of a recap…
After a burglary mid 2015 - that cost us quite a bit of stainless steel kit - we got to the point of having to decide between plodding along as we were doing at the time, or taking it more seriously and expand the business. After a lot of deliberation, arguments, back-and-forth, etc. we decided on a brewhouse size, selected an equipment supplier and decided on a broad outline of how we planned to run things.

By a stroke of luck I tracked down a guy in our big-ass firm (one of the perks of working for a Fortune 500 multinational) running a small brewery in New Zealand with his best mate. After a couple of emails we learnt a lot from like-minded folks who’ve gone through a similar situation and managed to track down the actual manufacturer of the equipment we were going to buy through a middle-man. With a slight setback in time, scoring about 30% off the equipment cost and getting the opportunity to customize our brewhouse for very little additional cost, we pushed the button on the manufacturing of our new brewery.

Late in 2015 our 3 main brewing vessels arrived. Unpacking was a bitch in the scorching Cape Town summer heat.

Thanks to our bootstrapped approach the expansion is not a case of simply unpacking a couple of containers or crates, and paying a guy to fit the jigsaw together. We had to do it all ourselves. Sourcing all the additional pieces to turn 3 main stainless steel vessels into a functioning brewery is a mission. It is a real bitch when you factor in the generally poor service provided by most South African firms. It takes quite a bit of time to pin down good suppliers with who you can build a relationship and then work together to build a business. (More about that on another day)

Where we stand now there are a couple of small items still missing and a bit of tweaking that needs to be done before we can move into full steam production. At least we managed to run the necessary testing required, proper initial CIP and passivated the tanks.

This was followed by our first big kit brew day. Surprisingly the brew day went pretty smooth. Obviously there were a couple of process related issues. Mostly in terms of timing and a minor boil-over incident… Gladly nothing that cannot be sorted with some better planning.

At least we can confidently say we are now in the home stretch before we start brewing again in earnest.