Our good friend Process Improvement

The Aggregation of Marginal Gains

I wanted to take the time to talk a bit about our philosophy and systems here at Pig and Porter. Although we’ve been a limited company since September 2012 it’s only since I took the plunge and gave up my day job two years ago that we’ve been what you might call a full time business.  Both of those years have been fun but, make no mistake, a hard slog. There have been times when I’ve slept at the brewery and I’ve lost count of the number of times Robin’s spent his weekends in front of his laptop doing financials when he ought to be pottering in the garden or going to gigs, two of his favourite pastimes.  I’m happy to report than the year end accounts are in and not only did we increase turnover by 50% on last year but we also we made a small profit.

As we moved from being a “hobby” to a fully-fledged business we picked up loads of new skills; we never stopped learning and we don’t expect we ever will. One of the guiding principles has been learning from our mistakes, improving processes and following marginal gains theory in all that we do.

Marginal gains theory is not new; perhaps the most commonly quoted example involves Sir Dave Brailsford the performance director for Team Sky, the GB professional cycling team. The theory goes that, if you make a number of small improvements to a process or a company it can add up to a more significant improvement overall. For those of you unfamiliar with the method, an excellent description is here.

Having used the process myself when I was doing my A level English as a mature(ish) student some years previously I can vouch for it personally. So when our business advisor suggested we apply the process to our production I was eager to adopt the method.

At Pig and Porter we believe that “if it is the best for the beer, we’ll do it”. Those marginal gains might not directly affect the quality of the beer, for example it might be a process that shortens the day. A shorter day means less tiredness which means fewer mistakes and a happier workforce. It might be a process that improves flavour and aroma in beer. The first one we made came as a result from moving from cuckoo brewing to our own kit.

We’ve a 10 barrel kit which means broadly 40 casks worth of beer per brew; however some of our brews yielded as few as 35 casks while others yielded 38. This led us to go through each recipe and modify it to yield the maximum number of casks (or equivalent) per brew. We now get between 39 and 42 casks of each brew depending on our mash efficiency; essentially more profit from the same day’s work.

Other process improvements we’ve implemented over the last two years include:

·         Modifying the cask washing process both to increase the number of casks washed in any given day and to reduce the number of casks requiring a rewash.

·         Analysing and adjusting dry hop additions to afford maximum contact time during the fermentation stage (this came as a result of one of our key customers contacting me to say how much hoppier one particular gyle of a beer was over another which led me to examine the brew sheets more closely) .

·         Moving from paper brewing records to online ones (google docs) to allow offsite record checking.

·         Switching to a different brand of base malt to give more consistent results

·         Buying a pH meter and getting a better understanding of mash pH (still some more work to do on that)

·         Researching and then implementing Force Carbonation methods to get reliably carbonated keg and canned beer

·         Spending a significant amount of money (best part of nine grand, as it happens) so that our beer is stored in a cold room appropriately sized for the amount of beer we produce and reducing the chance of under conditioned cask beer getting to our customers.

But it doesn’t stop there. Brewing is an evolutionary process, there are always some things we can get better so for this year we are concentrating on the following process improvements:

1.       Researching and trialling alternatives to isinglass which we believe will improve the flavour of the beer at the same time making the beer vegan friendly (currently the only beer that includes isinglass is our non-dark, cask beers. Dark beers, all keg beers and all our canned beer is always unfined. If in doubt, the cask labels always give finings status so ask your friendly bartender).

2.       To nail water chemistry properly (we have three different water sources which our water supplier changes periodically without being able to communicate to us when they do it). This will enable us to produce beer which is more consistent in flavour.

3.       Develop a yeast management strategy which will mean using a wet yeast for the bulk of our brews, improving the flavour and shortening the conditioning time.

I’ve seen this work with other breweries so I know it can apply to ours. I want improved results in the glass for drinkers and publicans alike so that you can continue to rely on the beer that Pig and Porter produce irrespective of whether it is in cask, keg, can or bottle.