Food Waste. It's Complicated.

Food Waste. It's Complicated.

When I talk to our customers about our work with food waste it always gets people really excited. It's a great thing that more people are getting engaged about the amount of food we waste and ways to mitigate it.

From the 'outside' looking in it can seem pretty simple, reduce your own waste and find a use for what has to be waste. It's not rocket science.

The problem is that our food system is so deeply ingrained around consumption and overproduction with complex systems of subsidies and tariffs that shifting the balance of the system takes a fair bit of pain. This was painfully clear on one recent food waste pickup.

This is what 3 tons of unwanted plums looks like:

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Now the reason why these plums were going to waste was a specific misunderstanding with a packhouse. A preventable waste but one that happens all the time.

But what you can't see in this photo is the 30 tons of fruit still on the trees out of shot which are going unpicked.

Why?

Well, the supermarket which takes most of this farmers production is trying to do a lot to mitigate their own waste. So the individual store managers are ordering less soft fruit as a result.

For this farmer, this is a really bad outcome of the growing awareness of food waste; and our farmers are really not in a position to suffer these kinds of losses.

So it's complicated. 

I'm a food waste fanatic but don't claim to have the answers. One thing we can do is to get into the habit of checking the labels on our food, buying local, buying in season, and still reaching for that punnet of plums when it's the last box on the shelf.

 

The arrival of the casks

It was a big day this week with the arrival of the first casks into our distillery.

Like most distillers, we exploit the legal requirement for US whiskey makers to use new barrels to age their spirit. That requirement means there is a huge supply of once-used casks which still have plenty of flavours naturally present in the wood. In addition to that they've been impregnated with some complex aromatics which have developed over the years in the spirit itself.

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I want to age the majority of my spirit in our distillery - small as it is - and for that purpose I designed the layout of the still house to be able to accomodate barrels along the back wall.

You can see in the photo below the area where we'll stack our barrels, with the first row framing in place for the first batch.

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Barrel maturation is an incredibly complex, and poorly understood phenomenon. It basically involves the addition of flavours from the wood, the breakdown of those flavours and flavours already in the spirit in the presence of oxygen, and the interaction of all of the above.

We've filled these first two with Apple spirit we distilled this winter and there it will remain until it is matured well enough for us to begin releasing. We'll age most of our spirits using the solera method, but that's a topic for another day.

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You can see the little Grappa barrel sitting on top of the brandy barrels on wedges of wood. Its a traditional method of stacking, and the barrels are easily strong enough to take the 250kg weight of each additional barrel on top. Here's what we hope it will look like in a few years - maybe not quite so sparkling clean!

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Distilling myths 1: The Master Distiller

Distilling myths 1: The Master Distiller

There's plenty of economy with the truth when it comes to marketing spirits, like any industry I suppose, but working on the production side of the industry I do my fair share of eye-rolling when I see the latest far-fetched claims in spirits press releases.

My favourites are when compromises in a process because of lack of equipment / knowledge / cash are dressed up as intentional in a grand quest for artisanship.

I'm generally amused by all this. It's a competitive business and we've all got to catch the eye of the consumer with a mix of science-magic-wordsmithery. But personally, I present what i'm doing in an honest way - honest about the successes and compromises - and I don't use language smartly to lead my customers to think I do something I don't.

So i'm going to drop the odd blog post poking fun at a few of the classics. See if you can spot them when you're out and about.


The first one is pretty harmless really. I'm sure we've all positioned ourselves as something we're not at one point or other. The night I met my wife I might have led her to believe I was a photographer despite having just begun a desk job in IT/marketing having dodged a proper job for ages as I half-heartedly took pictures and earned nothing.

But there are quite a few new-to-the-job distillers nowadays self-proclaiming to be a Master Distiller despite having distilled for a few years in total, at best, and with no technical knowledge beyond a pretty basic setup.

I'm not sure about you but I don't think you get to be a master anything in that time.  It's not really the 10,000 hour rule at work.

I've undertaken a Masters Degree in Distilling but I'm not going to claim to be a Master Distiller on that basis. For me, the title Master Distiller comes after many years of demonstrating distillation of a variety of high-quality spirits and being recognised for that. 

Pleasingly, in the last year the Institute of Brewing and Distilling have launched an industry qualification of Master Distiller which set the bar very high in terms of technical knowledge and industry experience. But for me, it is still something others bestow on you, not the other way around.

So next time you are presented a Master Distiller, have some fun and ask what that means ;)

The long answer to the short question

The long answer to the short question

We're in the season of the Christmas market. That means I'm out of the distillery and chatting to the good Gin drinkers of the South more than usual. One thing I pretty much always gets asked is THAT question:

So, what got you into distilling?

Now, I always give an honest answer to this question, but it's only part of the answer. It's the short part. By a LONG way. So I'm going to get self-indulgent in this post and give the other part of the answer: the long part.

The Short Part: Passion

This is how I usually answer the question:

I've been brewing and cider making as a hobbyist for 20 years and I'm also a crazy keen cook and baker. I love the science of food and drink, and I love distilled spirits. A few years ago, I embarked on a Masters Degree in Brewing and Distilling which gave me the technical knowledge to complement my practical experience. I love how distilling combines biology, chemistry, and physics so intimately, and I love how distilled spirits represent so intensely the produce that creates them. I'm also an environmentalist and, as distillation is a resource intensive process, I wanted to create a way of operating that is ultra-low impact, and be a vocal proponent of the food waste movement as I do so.

And I stop there. That is more than enough for a Christmas Market. But get just the right amount of Christmas spirit in me and you might get this too... 

The Long Part: Purpose

Sustainability & the concept of retirement

Once upon a time, retirement was a thing because if we didn't retire we'd die immediately through exhaustion or by having a horrendous industrial accident or something. Now retirement is an aspiration to spend summer months sipping cocktails on the beach and take up ornamental topiary while listening to test match special. That change has happened FAST.

The problem is this: to fund this longer and luxuriant retirement we need to invest a lot of our pre-retirement earnings in companies which will deliver us growth of at least 5%, in order that our pension fund supports us for the 30 or so years until the great sleep.

That necessity for return is pretty poisonous: unless we innovate or see huge productivity growth then we need to be consuming resources and churning material goods at a fair rate. Not something I'm crazy about. And neither am I crazy about blindly supporting a lot of high growth companies in whose moral compass I have a low degree of faith.

The earth can't take it. I'm not sure society is dealing with it so well either. 

The more I thought about this and the ability of the individual to impact this setup, the closer I came to a singular solution: disinvest from retirement. And the more I thought about not having a retirement, the more it appeals to me. Why do one thing slavishly for 40 years to then pursue leisure exclusively for the next 30? Why not average it out and work until I drop, albeit at a slower pace, and ensure I enjoy what I do throughout?

Robin Williams & the Second Curve

A few years ago, I read an article in the press titled "the top five regrets of the dying". It may sound a bit morbid, but I've always thought that it's worth keeping your ear open to the advice of the generations. It's worth a look.

The first one is this: I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

That's pretty powerful, particularly if you've grown up in the regimented British education system. It reminds me of that part in Tom Schulman's great Oscar-winning script, "Dead Poet's Society" when Robin Williams encourages his students to "seize the day".  That, from an actor who was himself unable to live out his later years after falling victim to dementia.

As well as having a determination to shape a different life, there are a few other drivers behind where I've got to. The pace of technological change is making some careers (including my old one) less important, and consumers are increasingly appreciating craft and provenance as they apply to spirits. And last, but not least, is the fact that I want to put my kids to bed at night, even if I do have to go back to the distillery for another three hours after story time.

A few of these themes have been captured nicely in the brilliant book "the Second Curve" by Charles Handy. He advocates renewal by jumping off the first personal growth curve to begin a new one afresh. You've got to be a bit crazy to decide that second curve is distilling...but hey...

Passion & Purpose

Maturing distilled spirits takes time. For most startups, that's a dealbreaker, but I've set up Greensand Ridge with a decades-long ambition, not as a brand to sell to finance a separate venture or a life of leisure but to make world class spirits in an ethical and sustainable way, and to do so until the great sleep...or a horrendous industrial accident.

All hail the apple

All hail the apple

How blemished does an apple have to be before you turn your nose up? Well, the supermarkets think not very. In fact, supermarkets, on your behalf,  won't accept many blemishes at all.

I was at the UK Fruit Show last week and took this photo of some extremely shiny apples. Perfection not far removed from what we are presented in the aisles. 

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New friends and local apple farmers, Peter & Gina, farm a few hundred acres a mile or so from the distillery.  In early summer this year, a freak hail shower passed through their orchards when the apples were golf ball sized, affecting a little under half the crop. 

The photo below is of one of the worst affected apples; most had one or two small dimples on, but still enough to make them unsaleable to supermarkets. 

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The fruit is now fully ripe and delicious, but can only be sold as juicing stock. Such a large amount of juicing stock causes a problem: it won't generate enough revenue to make it worth running the cold stores so needs to be sold straight away.  

This is the raison d'etre for Greensand Ridge Distillery. To be able to step in and take what may end up as waste, support local farmers and use amazing produce for mouthwatering spirits! 

Rightfully Rescuing Rejected Raspberries

Rightfully Rescuing Rejected Raspberries

Part of our aim is to work with local farmers to take surplus or unwanted produce and use it to create delicious spirits and limited editions. This partnership benefits the farmer as we are are able to take away the produce while paying a price for what may otherwise go to landfill.

One summer day I received a call from a local farmer who had a couple of hundred kilos of raspberries in his cold store that would not go to his supermarket customers. There's nothing really wrong with them - a bit of sun bleaching, a bit misshapen - but perfect for us.

You can't ferment raspberries - there's not enough sugar in them - so making an eau de vie by fermenting then distilling the fruit is not possible. Well, it is possible but you wouldn't get very much for your trouble!

In Germany they therefore create a Geist (as opposed to a Wasser, the fermented schnaps).  To make a Geist you steep your berries in wheat spirit for a month or so and then redistil the spirit in your pot still as usual.

You have to use a lot of raspberries! The flavour of a Geist is very delicate and so it is only reduced in strength as much as necessary. The spirit comes out of the still at about 85% abv and we reduce it to 40% to bottle it.

We don't add back rasperry juice to colour and sweeten the liquid to make a Raspberry Liqeur. We want it crystal clear, strong and fragrant. 

We like to drink it with tonic, like a gin, or with lemon juice, sugar syrup and egg white as the classic sour cocktail. Enjoy!

Building a distillery

Building a distillery

This isn't really a record of building a distillery. It's more of a photo collection of the physical work that took place over the 12 months running from getting planning permission to producing some spirit.

So, no mention of the licensing, HAZOP studies, training, financing, brand design, and on, and on...all of which I can bore you with in person some time.

One thing I will return to in detail are the specific ways we've met the sustainability challenges of running a distillery.  This project will hopefully not just be an exploration of that for its own sake, but serve as a template and guinea pig for all the new distilleries that follow us in the coming years. So i'll do my best to communicate those challenges and their solutions in future posts.

This is the Warehouse area before work started. Well, i'd done some exploratory work with a sledgehammer. You can see the stone runners of the Coach House floor where the cart wheels would have run, off the earth floor.

And this is the roof space. If it looks clean, believe me it was not. 100 years of plaster dust and squirrel droppings made for some unpleasant crawling about.

One bat survey, asbestos survey, structural survey later, out comes the ceiling and in go some collar tie beams to stiffen the structure before the ceiling beams come out.

Meanwhile, in the outside filth, eight cubic meters of clay makes way for a biodigester, which will munch through the liquid waste which can't be used as cattle feed.

This is one of the best bits of machinery i've ever seen; a kind of tank crossed with an old Massey Ferguson, it bored a hole from the Still House to the biodigester meaning the handsome victorian brick courtyard could lie undisturbed.

Here is the Warehouse building with much of the ceiling insulation & board in and most of the ceiling boards out. The stove has also gone in and all those beams will keep us warm for at least two years!

And here is yours truly taking some of the final beams out. This may or may not be a good demonstration of site safety practice.

Well we're getting there now! Painted, plumbed in, electrics starting to go in... A good old clean is needed though.

The production part of site completed and beginning to fill up with equipment. The Warehouse on left and Still House on right. But where is the STILL?

In here. Obvs.

And so began one of the most skillful demonstrations of telehandler operation you will ever see.

This is doctorate level telehandling. That bit in the air (reflux condenser & dephlegmator) weights about 350kg. I was having multiple anxiety attacks at this point.

But it all went together nicely (barring a few missing parts that has to follow on from Germany).

And after a long hard, but amazingly fun 12 months, here she is, ready to distil in, party in, feast in. See you here soon!

And after a long hard, but amazingly fun 12 months, here she is, ready to distil in, party in, feast in. See you here soon!

What's in a name

Greensand Ridge Distillery.

It's a bit of a mouthful. And a nightmare for graphic designers.

For me it perfectly captures what we're building here. It's not so much about location, although the distillery is just outside the village of Shipbourne in Kent, which sits just under the ridge and through which the Greensand Way footpath passes.

But it is about place. The Greensand Ridge is a line of hills which surrounds the Weald of Kent and Sussex. This is the area where we want to source our ingredients and capture flavours. The fields, orchards, nutteries and hedgerows. The ridge encircles and contains these flavours and gives us a focal point for our quest for great flavours and lost ingredients.

The Greensand Ridge, encircling the Weald of Kent and Sussex, shown in light blue in this terrible photo of a geological map. It's the remainder of a layer of greensand deposit which has been eroded away until just the edges remain; the north and south downs (mustardy-green) are a similar remainder, but of the layer of chalk that was laid above the greensand in the Cretaceous period.

I like the way the name reflects our ambition to build a truly sustainable business. That in itself has been a long journey and a steep learning curve but we know in pursuing it we are building with integrity and learning lessons about sustainability that we can pass on to other distillers.

Lastly, I grew up bezzing around on the Greensand Ridge so for me it's also a very personal name.  But personal in another way -  the ridge shares its profile with another escarpment in Shropshire, Wenlock Edge. It was on those hills that generations of my forefathers lived, and from where we got our family name, Edge. 

So a bit of a thing for ridges, you might say.  

When does a thing become a thing?

It's hard to put a date on when this crazy adventure actually began. I don't really need to but it's kind of nice to have a starting point. Like a birthday or something.

I began brewing beer before I was allowed to drink it; disallowed by my mum, if not by the authorities. I served my first home made cider alongside the champagne at my wedding. And various other concoctions have punctuated the years.

But although all those years of hobbying feel like part of the journey, I definitely wasn't on a deliberate trajectory to being a distiller.

Or when I returned to Uni to study Brewing & Distilling more formally? But again, the distillery was still a dream out of step with reality.  Better, when after a two year search for a suitable venue I bought an old Coach House, deep in the countryside with enough space and potential (if you squint your eyes just right) to build the perfect microdistillery.

But even then it wasn't a given. For me, the official starting pistol required one more part of the jigsaw to fall into place.

The planning application approval

It wasn't a given that i'd get planning permission. There's been plenty of people set up paint spraying businesses in rural properties over the years to make a change of use to light industrial a bit of a leap of faith.

I don't know what i'd have done had it not been granted. All those years of planning. All that money invested. Best not to think about it maybe. But thankfully the planners are a decent bunch really. They got the vision.

So that's it. 7th October 2015. The day a nebulous set of interests, skills, hopes and experiences kind of wound themselves around a purpose and refused to get off.