Thursday, 22 April 2010

Foil Wrapped Biscuits and Segregation

Ever wondered why some biscuits in selection tins are wrapped in foil?  The same question applies to some chocolates in boxes of chocolates of course, but biscuits are what concern us here.

Most people presume that it is simply a presentational gimmick - a way of adding a 'premium feel' to the selection - but this comes at a material cost and seems unlikely to be enough justification in its own right.

Although some foiling of biscuits is clearly vanity, the biscuit afficionado prefers the following answer: "flavour migration".  Certainly orange creams, mint Creams and the like are more likely to be foil wrapped; and these are the biscuits that have the most intense flavours which are likely to migrate and contaminate the other biscuits in the selection.

Off topic, but it reminds me of my experience of working with a regional brewer in the UK.  Yeasts used in brewhouses are all registered and maintained in a central Yeast Bank.  Over time within the brewhouse the yeasts mutate as they are used (and if multiple yeasts are used in the same brewhouse, they breed as well) such that periodically the brewer needs to return to the Yeast Bank to refresh the yeast and ensure they are brewing the 'pure' beer for which they are famous.  The brewer I was working with had stumbled across one of their most popular brews as a result of accidental breedng and mutation of yeasts in the brewhouse, leading them to register a new yeast strain at the Yeast Bank.

So what does this tell us about Life?
  • Sometimes there are practical reasons for apparent aesthetic frippery
  • Allowing intermingling of cultures can create new and unexpected pleasures

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Why biscuits have holes in them ...

This is a shorter and simpler blog than my earlier ‘blessays’; but I have been chastised recently for failing to maintain this blog so though I had better step up to the plate (of biscuits?).

The ‘why the holes’ question is normally correctly answered by people with baking experience – quite simply it is to avoid the formation of air pockets under the biscuit (caused by moisture in the dough evaporating during the baking process).

Now you might think this is a trivial piece of information -- but that would be to underestimate the importance of dimensional integrity when a biscuit is entering a creaming machine.

To create a standard sandwich biscuit (such as a bourbon) you need to fire the base biscuit through a cream depositing process and then match the top biscuit onto it. This happens quickly and if either biscuit part is distorted or buckled going in to the creamer … well trust me, its not a pretty sight when one of those things jams. As you are I am sure aware, commercial biscuit baking is a continuous baking process with biscuits rolling out of an oven straight into the creamer. When the creamer jams there isn't a 'buffer' option to hold up the biscuit flow, so biscuits start getting dumped to waste if the creamer stops functioning.

So what does this tell us about life?

  • You have to predict stress build up and make allowances for relieving it.
  • Make sure you remember to let off steam to ensure you maintain your form (otherwise there’s likely to be a lot of broken biscuits on the floor).

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

When is a biscuit not a biscuit? (unravelling the mystery of the transitional biscuits ...)

To progress our understanding of biscuits and their significance in life we have to deal with some definitional issues; we need a framework to work within. When it comes to segmenting the biscuit market we are really most interested in market and economic definitions (well, I am anyway) but let's clear up some of the basics first.

The Word 'Biscuit' Itself
There is some rather dry enytmological ground we should cover here. Stick with me, I'll keep this as brief as I can and you'll be surprised how often you will be dropping this in to conversation!

biscuit = bis-cuit = twice-cooked. From Latin/Middle-French I think ... reasonably intuitively obvious; 'bi' as 'two' and 'cuit' as cooked (as in 'cuisine').

So why 'twice-cooked'? This apparently dates back to when biscuits (aka 'tack') were used as provisions for sailors and preservation depended on them being as dry as possible. So they were, well, cooked twice [I presume in practice this means 'cooked twice as long' as I can't see the benefit of two discrete oven sessions... maybe a follower might enlighten me?]. I did warn you this subject was a little (ahem) dry.

There is a tangent we could disappear on here about US terminology. Let's not. I think there is another Blessay in that subject if we get some US followers to this blog. Suffice to say, for the benefit of any American friends reading this blog, we are talking about what you rather quaintly refer to as 'cookies'. Bless.

Technical Definitions
As fans of the UK TV programme QI will be aware, during a prolonged European legal case around VAT (about which more later) the rather splendid definition which was concocted to define the difference between a biscuit and a cake was as follows: a biscuit is hard but goes soft when it is stale; a cake is soft but goes hard when it is stale.

I am neither qualified nor interested enough in the culinary arts to add value to a debate about ingredients and cooking times -- I'd much rather approach the debate from a market and economic perspective. So let's.

Market and Economic Perspective
Now things get interesting. If you have found your mind wandering over the last few paragraphs, now would be a good time to sip your coffee and nibble on a biscuit to ensure your brain is fully engaged; we have a lot to cover!

Retailers sell biscuits. A lot of biscuits. Over the years they have worked out how to organise their shelf space in a way that fits with how consumers think; so that strikes me as a great place to start. I assembled the rough montage below from camera phone shots I took of the biscuit fixture in my local co-operative store. [the efforts I go to ... ]

So is everything on this 'biscuit fixture' a biscuit? Are they twice-cooked? Do they go soft when stale? Let's agree we need a little more than those definitions if we are to usefully further our understanding of the biscuit category.

Nurse, I feel a Venn diagram coming on ...
This simplified Venn diagram should be sufficent to answer the question; let's take
each set in turn and consider the overlaps (the places where what I like to term 'the Transitional Biscuits' live);

  • Biscuits for Cheese: almost (but not quite) 'savoury biscuits' (crackers, waterbiscuits, etc.). The overlap with Sweet Biscuits highlights our first Transitional Biscuit: the Digestive. (We could of course simply define sweet and savoury biscuits and avoid any overlap; but that's far less fun!)

  • Cakes: this stuff is reasonably common knowledge now but just in case you've dozed off at the back of the class ... cakes don't have VAT charged on them, biscuits do. Are Jaffa Cakes a cake or a biscuit? From a fiscal perspective, a cake (no VAT); from our perspective (that of the well informed biscuit officianado) they are - you've guessed it - a Transitional Biscuit

  • Confectionery: consider, if you will, that iron horse of the confectionery market .. the KitKat. We will talk at length about the KitKat ( which is essentially a chocolate coated wafer biscuit) in later posts but but as you will by know have guessed we consider this (in its two fingered form as least) to be a Transitional Biscuit. Another useful definition should be mentioned here: the Chocolate Biscuit Countline (or CBCL). The 'Countline' bit means you buy it in specified quantities (eg. packs of 7 or 14) unlike traditional (pure?) biscuits which are generally bought by weight.

To ensure you're all paying attention I have added a few biscuits to the diagram that often cause confusion; let's clear these up now;

  • The Tea Cake: it's not a cake, it's a mallow-biscuit (more on these another time)
  • The ShortCake: nobody thinks that could be a cake, right?
  • The pink wafer: is a wafer a biscuit? Certainly -- in fact if we take the 'bis-cuit' view of the world we might argue that this dryest of all biscuits is possibly the closest thing we now have to 'pure' biscuit


When is a biscuit not a biscuit?

When it's a Transitional Biscuit. (I know that technically a transitional biscuit is still a biscuit; but I think you get my point).

What does this tell us about life?

Giving labels to things can provide the illusion of understanding them; but the more we truly understand the less comfortable we are likely to be with the labels commonly used.


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If you are wondering what its all about, see my initial blessay.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Why a bourbon cream is a better biscuit than a custard cream (and what this tells us about life ...)

Now, before we bite of more than we can chew here (ahem), let's be absolutely clear on one thing: this Blessay is not intended to be a debate about which is the best biscuit (we will need to build up to that one). This is simply a debate about the relative merits of bourbon creams versus custard creams.

To avoid any unnecessary confusion, let's make sure we have a shared definition of the bourbon cream and custard cream biscuits we are comparing. All biscuit references in this blog are to UK biscuits (we will cover the correct use of the term 'cookie' in another blog; american readers take note) and for the purposes of this debate we are assuming 'tertiary branded' examples (ie. not the cheapest possible Aldi own brand, neither your more premium M&S or Foxes versions). See below ...

We will select our bench-mark biscuits from the United Biscuits (UB) stable of brands; Crawfords should do the job.

[Peek Freans invented the original bourbon cream in 1910 ... the brand is now owned by United Biscuits in the UK and Kraft in the US although apparently UB no longer use the brand].

To the casual, uninformed biscuit consumer these two every-day biscuits may seem very similar -- as a reader of this blog you have a more enquiring mind than the everyman and will appreciate the following subtle but vitally important factors.

Mouth experience
The more observant amongst you will have noticed that the bourbon is a longer, thinner biscuit than the custard cream. Unless you are so plebian as to consume an entire biscuit in a single bite, the shape of a biscuit makes an enormous difference to the 'mouth experience' you will enjoy (and of course completely changes the logistics of dunking).

Consider a standard 'three bite' consumption pattern; with the bourbon the ratio of cooked edge, cream and 'middle bit' is reasonably consistent through each bite whereas with the custard cream the mouth experience is far less consistent. If you can't see this through 'conceptual visualisation', now might be a good time for a quick biscuit break; you'll see what I mean if you contrast and compare the experiences in practice.

Cost Economics
We will be returning to the topic of cost economics (and warning of the dangers of equating cost to value) in other posts. At this stage though, please allow me to use the somewhat gross simplification that a more expensive biscuit is a 'better' biscuit.
There are three factors that make a bourbon structurally more expensive to produce than a custard cream (I will summarise here assuming some basic understanding of industrial biscuit baking economics -- if this is lacking, later posts will make it all clear I promise);

  1. The limiting effect on the roll-moulding speed achievable with a longer biscuit (because of the risk of biscuit/roller separation failure) and hence the higher effective cost of production (ie. the allocation of time variable costs and the opportunity cost associated with oven capacity -- see later posts).

  2. The difficulty of controlling the cream depositing and subsequent 'sandwiching' process when a narrow biscuit hits a creaming machine at speed. I'm not saying it is as tricky as a jammy dodger (where a misaligned biscuit can leave the production floor looking like, well, an explosion in a jam factory); but there is little doubt that the risk of downtime is greatly increased with a thinner biscuit.

  3. The intrinsic cost of cocoa required for a (decent) bourbon and the ingredients costs associated with the sugar scattered on the top of a bourbon (particularly where sugar retention is ensured by a light fat spray over the biscuit).

This is a somewhat contentious point as it can of course be argued that what a biscuit is called can't affect its intrinsic qualities as a biscuit ("A rose by any other name ..." anyone?). ... and yet let's compare and contrast the images conjoured up by the words 'bourbon' and 'custard'. Personally speaking, Bourbon Street, New Orleans and Whiskey beat School Dinners and English Desserts every time.

I mean just look at a custard cream. Mock Baroque swirls? What's all that about?

So hopefully a simple enough and non-contentious opener: the bourbon cream is clearly a better biscuit than the custard cream because of its shape, its ingredients, its name and its appearance. Oh yes, did I mention that it tastes nicer?

Case closed!

What does this tell us about life?
Size may not matter, but shape does ...
Better ingredients generally lead to better outcomes ...
and names and appearances do matter!


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If you are wondering what its all about, see my initial blessay.

What Biscuits can tell us about Life ...

If you've stumbled across this blog looking for biscuit recipes or tips on how to bake the perfect biscuit then you're in the wrong place; sorry!

If, however, you are interested in the broader significance of bisuits from a strategic, socio-economic and even philosophical perspective, then read on ...

Through these blogs (or what should probably more properly be termed 'blessays', that is is a series of blog-essays) I will be attempting to illustrate how, through understanding biscuits, we can understand some of the fundamental concepts of competitive strategy. We might even develop a clearer understanding of the human condition and find ourselves closer to answering some of life's bigger questions. Well we might....

Amongst the topics I will be addressing are;

  • Why a bourbon cream is a better biscuit than a custard cream (and what this tells us about life ...)
  • When is a biscuit not a biscuit? (unravelling the mystery of the transitional biscuits ...)
  • Why biscuits have holes in them (and what this tells us about managing stress ...)
  • Foil wrapped biscuits (and what this tells us about segregation ...)
  • Enrobed versus moulded countlines (and what this tells us about the difference between value and cost ...)
  • The economics of digestive biscuit production (and what this tells us about first-mover advantage ...)
  • What happened to United Biscuits (and what this tells us about corporate strategy ...)
  • Why all bourbon creams are not the same (and what this tells us about cost engineering ...)
  • Kimberly, Mikado and Coconut Creams (and what this tells us about what it means to be Irish ...)
  • Wagon Wheels, Hobnobs and Iced Gems (and what this tells us about innovation ...
  • What Cream Crackers and Beer have in common (and what this tells us about chaos ...)

If any of these topics sound like they might interest you, please sign-up and follow the blog -- I won't let you down!

If you've enjoyed this blessay, do please sign up to follow me and tell your friends.