Job agony

Ken writes:

My work life is almost unbearable at the moment. I will bear it, of course, because I can bear almost anything. It’s one of the most important skills I learned studying philosophy, namely How to Take Beating. I feel like my self-esteem and credibility is taking a savage beating on an almost daily basis at work at the moment. I’m on a six month probationary contract at the moment, which I am convinced will not be made permanent. I want to write this post to blow off a bit of steam, but also to think about some of the positives I can take away from this if I really do get a P45 in a couple of months. (NB: Gosh! how many times can I say ‘at the moment’ in one paragraph?)

Things seem to be going wrong a lot at work at the moment. For example, we’re having difficulties with filtering beer leading to heavy losses. We’re also having difficulties with beer superattenuating, that is, becoming more alcoholic than we planned. This only happens at the expense of residual sweetness and mouthfeel in the beer so the beer ends up tasting crisp and dry (which can be a good thing, but only if that is what you want). Super attenuation happens because the yeast is still active in the beer after it is transferred to the conditioning tanks. We have a bit of a backlog in the conditioning tanks because it took so long to get our bottling/kegging equipment. We started brewing at the end of January, and the bottling/kegging equipment arrived the second weekend in March. We’ve got thousands of litres of beer in tanks waiting to be bottled or legged.

Bottling is itself a bit of a problem because the bottle filler only fills two bottles at a time, the capper only caps a single bottle at a time, the labeller only labels individually and there is a neck label that must be individually applied by hand as well. The bottles must be rinsed before labelling, to remove beer foam, and allowed to dry. Boxes need to be made up and labelled as well. Bottles need boxing up and stacking onto pallets. All told, producing a single bottle of beer takes about a minute. An 8 hour day contains 480 minutes. So we’re only capable of bottling, labelling, packaging etc 480 bottles per day or 240 litres. That’s 1200 litres per week, which is a problem, because we brew about 2000 litres per week. And they want us to produce more!

I’m only supposed to work 40 hours per week (9-5 M-F). I arrive before 9. I leave after 5. I don’t take a lunch hour but fit the sandwiches and fruit in my lunchbox around the available time. Does anyone recognise this? No. I’m being judged on results. So far the results are… meh. I’m no better than I should be.

My immediate boss seems to have lost all patience with me. To be fair, she is pretty stressed herself. Setting up the brewery involved a massive capital outlay and our early attempts (we’ve still only brewed twenty batches) haven’t really made any sort of dent in the loans. We’re still calculating the unit cost of making the beer (the real unit cost not the projections), and we’re still so inefficient that I doubt they make any money on it at all. Still, part of the problem would be the ridiculously labour-intensive bottling regime. But be that as it may, some of the problems stem from the boss’s insistence to sell every drop that comes of the new machinery. This has created problems for us. The first batch was out of specification and as a result had to be blended away which looked like a lot of jiggerypokery latterly when we tried to explain it to revenue. If we’d just dumped it as a trial brew, we’d have gained the same educational value, but not had the stress of squeezing it past the tax man. They started with, to be honest, ludicrous estimates of how much the brewery could produce in a week. This has meant that they want something to be brewed every week despite the fact that we aren’t actually selling much of it yet and we can’t efficiently package what we have made.

My boss has become really terse and unsympathetic with me. For example, I let her taste the rejigged version of a beer we have which I am not satisfied with. THe rejigged version is a marked improvement in my opinion. She didn’t like it, but instead of saying e.g. ‘hmm, I think I preferred the earlier version’ she said ‘it does nothing for me’. For example, we had a revenue inspection this week (more stress for everyone). The revenue agent asked how much the brewery cost. The boss gave a figure and the revenue agent said, ‘wow, well it had better work then’ and we all sort of laughed and my boss said, ‘yeah, Ken’ and looked at me. For example, she blamed me for the super attenuation problem, but it is really a scheduling problem as it would not have happened if the tank turn around times were faster.

Unfortunately, it is my duty to report any upsets and setbacks to my boss. So I am inevitably the bearer of bad news. If things go smoothly, there’s nothing to report.

OK. enough of that. what are the good things to come of all of this?
A. I know a lot more about day to day operations in a brewery than I did before.
B. It should be that much easier to find another job if this doesn’t work out.
C. If this doesn’t work out, I’ll probably be able to work nearer to home in the future.
D. They didn’t have to give me anything. They took a chance on me and that was itself a gesture of good faith.

What I want is for a natural diminution of stress levels as beer sales start to pick up and the problems get ironed out. I hope this is still the most likely outcome. I just need for there to be no more fuck ups. I’m going to operate a more stringent ‘need to know’ policy from now on. I have a tendency to be honest about everything, but when people are stressed, it doesn’t always benefit them to hear the details about everything.

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Swimming classes

Ken writes:

I’m really impressed with Hugh at the moment. He’s making huge strides in swimming but what really pleases me is just that he’s committed and fired up about it. It’s so pleasing to see a bit of energy and self-belief. Last week he said he was going to swim without arm bands this week and true to his word he did. He was powering through the water too. The teachers are pretty harsh, however, and didn’t make a big fuss about him opting to go without. They grilled him instead over kicking with straight legs. I think Hugh was expecting more fanfare, but he cracked on with it anyway.

Poor little Frankie doesn’t seem to be enjoying the swimming classes. He finds the goggles uncomfortable, the teachers bossy, and the combination of armbands and floats awkward and encumbering. He bears it phlegmatically and impassively though.

The classes provide an opportunity to study their characters a bit. Hugh can be hard going at home and never takes advice or instruction from either of us, but he’s a very attentive pupil who always tries his hardest for the teachers. He has tended to be quick to decide he can’t do something and dissolves into histrionics if things don’t go his way. It’s encouraging that Hugh has stuck with swimming long enough to start seeing rewards and hopefully start breaking that pattern. Frank on the other hand does what he is told without fuss but without seeking to please. We see him labouring to finish the length of the pool with a pained expression on his face but silently and without complaining. His stoicism is impressive. It’s just a shame he can’t catch any of Hugh’s newfound enthusiasm.

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Beer Losses

Ken writes:

I should really have a whole series of posts under the banner ‘things you don’t know about where you beer comes from’.

Yesterday we had an absolutely shocking day in the brewery. We lost about 500L of beer and I’m not really sure how. Fortunately we lost it before we had to pay duty on it so it’s not as bad as it might have been.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, we’ve had some problems getting the hang of the filter. Today was another one of those days when the beer would not filter properly. I believe I know the cause of the problem now.

One of the things I’m doing in the brewery is topping up the fermentation tanks (FVs) with fresh water after the main fermentation has finished. Because fermentation is so vigorous, producing a lot of foam as well as carbon dioxide, FVs have a nominal capacity of about 75-80% their actual physical volume. Since we have such a small brewery, topping the FVs up after fermentation has subsided is a good way of producing more beer form the same amount of kit. This is so-called ‘high gravity brewing’ and all the big commercial breweries do it. It can have detrimental affects on the beer if it is taken to extreme ends, like brewing at twice the normal strength, but at the level we’re doing it at, there are no detrimental effects. It is also such a simple thing to do, it’s quite possible brewers in olden days did something similar for the same ends.

Yesterday I topped up an FV with cold water and to make sure it was adequately mixed, I recirculated the beer for a short time. What I hadn’t adequately thought through, however, was the fact that this would obviously resuspend all the yeast and hop debris that had settled in the tank at the end of fermentation. I should have just left it there, but as we needed to bottle that beer to even up our inventory levels, I filtered straight out of the FV into the Bright Beer Tank (BBT). Only the filter clogged up almost immediately. This meant that only tiny amounts of beer were getting through unless I cranked up the pressure enormously, in which case loads of beer went spurting out the sides. We lost a fair amount to spray thinking about how best to solve the problem before stripping the filter down and adding more filter sheets. This clogged almost immediately again. I’m always reluctant to strip the filter press down when it’s ready to filter because the assembly has to be flushed with hot water to pasteurise it and to drive out any air bubbles out. Air in the filter sheets leads to high levels of dissolved oxygen in the beer which causes oxidation and staling. And we only have limited quantities of hot water. Eventually we stripped it down again and this time only put coarse filter sheets in as opposed to a mixture of coarse and fine filters like we normally do. This filtered well for a while before clogging again. The sheets can be reused, if we flush them with copious amounts of water, which I did.

Somehow the long and the short of it is that we ended up with much less beer than when we started.

I’m worried that the owners are about to lose patience with me.

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Speed

Ken writes:

I had a bit of a fright this morning. I was driving from Dublin to Leitrim where I work during the week. While I was on the motorway, I felt something under my feet ‘go’ (as in, ‘ping,’ as in, ‘oh fuck, what was that?’, as in, ‘help, I can’t stop accelerating!’). The accelerator pedal got stuck all the way down to the floor and I couldn’t pop it back up again. The car was just trying to go faster and faster! It was like that movie Speed. Fortunately I was on the motorway and was going about as fast as the car could go anyway. And fortunately the brakes still worked so I could slow up a bit. When I changed down to fourth, however, the engine suddenly jumped about 1000rpm, and didn’t really slow down so I changed back up. I had a bit of time to think because there wasn’t much traffic on the road.

My first thought was ‘I don’t really want to have a breakdown in the middle of nowhere. Can I get to my destination before stopping at a garage?’ It’s a good road most of the way there, but I would have to go through a couple of small towns where I’d need to slow down for roundabouts and possibly even traffic lights/pedestrian crossings. I called Alice because she had all the details of our AA membership (earlier this year, we noticed a debit on our credit card statement from the AA. Neither one of us could remember authorising it so we rang up about it. Apparently they’d been sending all the policy details to our old address and automatically renewing the policy each year because we’d never made any fuss about it. We got our money’s worth today anyway!).

Alice was alarmed to hear of my predicament and thoughtfully contacted the AA on my behalf. (Meanwhile, picture the countryside flying past as from a bullet train…)

Not long afterwards, a nice woman from the AA called to say they’d send a van out to get me and enquired as to my location (between Mullingar and Ballinalack on the N4, near Lough Owel). That seemed ideal so without further ado, I indicated, switched the engine off, braked and guided the car onto the hard shoulder at the side of the road to wait for the mechanic.

Behold, gentle reader, the cause of my misfortune:
accelerator cable
What you see if the cable connecting the accelerator pedal with the motor. The cable assembly consists of a metal cable in a mostly metal casing. The casing, however, has a plastic guide piece at the very top which is held in place by a rubber grommet* and bracket/eyelet on the engine. For some reason, the rubber grommet wasn’t pushed into the bracket/eyelet, as it is now, so that the plastic guide piece and cable casing weren’t lined up truly with the cable mounting. They were at a slight angle and because of this, the steel cable was just ever so slightly brushing against the plastic end of the cable casing. The friction this created caused the plastic to melt and fuse with the steel cable which is why the accelerator became stuck in one position (it might have been stuck in off; it just happened to be stuck in on). When the AA man saw it, he pulled the cable free of the plastic, brushed the singed and blackened plastic off the cable with a wire brush and pushed the grommet into its eyelet/bracket and that was that. I was back on the road in under five minutes! It was the first time he’d ever seen anything like it.

Pretty amazing when you think about it. A stoke of luck, really, but I’ve had flashbacks during the day just thinking about it. At the time, however, everything just happened very matter of factly. In a surreal way, it was not unlike when Hugh was born.

* I realise I’ve been spelling this wrongly as ‘gromit’ for ages. Must be all the cheese!)

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Hugh gets a trophy

Ken writes:

Hugh got a trophy at swimming on Saturday. The trophy is awarded each week, and this time it was given to Hugh for the biggest improvement. swimming medal His mother also bought him some pick’n’mix sweeties as a treat. He’s not the best swimmer in his class, but kudos to the teachers there for spotting that he really was trying very hard and doing things like putting his face in the water, which he is normally reluctant to do.

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Settling in at the brewery

Ken writes:

Just a quick post to record how things are going at the brewery. It has not been without a few teething problems, but we’re starting to get a good smooth flow to our processes now. Here is a picture of our leaky filter. We brew two beers and one of them filters nicely and the other one likes to leak out of the filter press. I’m not sure why. It could be that length of time the beer has conditioned before we filter it. It could be the type of yeast we use. It could be another aspect of the recipes. We do something called double filtering, which involves passing the beer through two sets of filters(coarse and fine) in the same filter press. It was leaking on the coarse side of the press, so we’ve added more filters to that side to spread the filtering duty over a wider total surface area in case that helps.

leaky filter

Here’s a picture of the apparatus of filling a keg of beer. We mostly use 30 litre kegs. The keg sits on a scales so we can accurately judge how much we’re putting in and how fast we’re filling it. This relies on the wonderous properties of the metric system that one litre of water weighs exactly one kilo. Beer is ever so slightly heavier than water, but we can still calculate precisely how heavy 30 litres will be. We can tell how fast we’re filling the keg from how quickly the weight is climbing. If you fill a keg too quickly, you get a lot of foam breaking out. This means that if we simply relied on foam coming out the tapping head to indicate whether the keg was full, we might underfill kegs (since a keg full of foam in the brewery would translate into a mostly empty keg in the pub when the foam had died back down). The tapping head is connected both to our carbonator and a separate supply of gas. The carbonator supplies the beer with a desired level of CO2 gas in it, and we use the separate gas supply to purge all the air out of the empty keg before filling (to avoid staling oxidation reactions), and to provide a small countervailing pressure in the keg to make sure that the gas dissolved in the beer doesn’t break out of solution when it is put in the keg. We’re aiming for what we call a black fill, where the beer is put in the container without any foam breaking out.

2014-03-28 12.17.13

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Sunday afternoon fever

Dot writes: kids are always ill, and one would rather they weren’t, for their sake and also one’s own; but when they are ill it is a mild consolation if they have something with a name, a disease that gets mentioned in children’s literature (so long as it’s not consumption or polio or something genuinely frightening). Hugh has scarlet fever.

Mrs. Egerton watched by her child. illustration

As always we hesitated to take him to the doctor. The symptoms were: acute headache, no appetite, intermittent fever, one episode of vomiting, and a blotchy rash which we nervously tested with a glass and concluded to be of the non-meningitis variety. We may be fortunate compared to many in Ireland, but I’m afraid the swingeing cost of a GP visit (currently €60) is still a powerful deterrent. However, I had heard scarlet fever was going around, and it is an infection rather than a virus, so I took him along and was glad I did. Hugh was very good; answered all questions in a sad, hoarse little voice; had a high temperature at the convenient moment (i.e. when it was tested); inquired politely if the doctor was going to have a baby (she very obviously was); and was rewarded with the official diagnosis and a bottle of penicillin which he finds utterly revolting.

While we waited for the medicine to be made up at the pharmacy I took him to the shop next door to buy a magazine. I fancied some chocolate myself and offered some to Hugh.

“No thanks,” he said, “anyway, it’s not good for me.”
The boy behind the counter laughed and I remarked that Hugh was more virtuous than I was. As we walked out Hugh said, “He was a teenager.”
“Yes, a nice teenager.”
“I could tell he was a teenager because he had metal teeth. All teenagers have metal teeth.”

Unknown

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