Thursday, 10 February 2011

The Soapmaker's dirty secret...

Soap makes you clean – everyone knows that. On the balance of probability, most people probably don’t know how it makes you clean (a soap micelle contains both hydrophobic and hydrophilic elements which interact with immiscible liquids to… I’m boring you, I’ve literally no idea who’s reading this but I can just tell I’m boring you) it doesn’t matter, the important thing is that it makes you clean.

However, what’s the story behind the story? Where does soap come from? What processes and alchemy take place? Well… It’s been my experience as a soapmaker that this is not a clean process – a fascinating dichotomy, I’m sure you’ll agree. In fact, further to this, I have documented proof from a house letting agency drawing issue to the fact that certain areas of the house were “embarrassing” when they were showing potential viewers. I’m not going to name names here as we’re about to try and get the deposit back and it’s all going a bit febrile.

Anyhow, the perfectly cured and wonderful, emollient and hard bars we generate usually begin life as one of several oils. The simple task of getting them into the right mixing pan, at the right temperature (even the right chemical state) can be somewhat trying; handling castor oil is the equivalent of trying to give jelly a hug… and not in a good way. So, right off the bat we have spillages and removing oils from areas where there should be no oil is no laughing matter as any number of BP chief executives can testify – crude, olive, castor… it’s persistent.
                                                                  Me, hard at work...

Then there’s the highly alkaline nature of pre-formed soap; all soaps contain sodium hydroxide (lye) and that requires the diligent soapmaker to wear rubber gloves, aprons and protective glasses as just one grain of NaOH can burn through your skin. The rubber gloves make it hard to hold anything, the glasses become smeared in oils which impair vision and the kitchen apron just… make a man feel emasculated.

These factors conspire against the hapless soapmaker; I’m none too graceful in any event and with the addition of artificial handicaps… well, it’s a comedy of spills and, due to the highly caustic Ph levels of uncured soap, thrills. It all adds up to numerous blotches of hardened soaps in every hue and shade the mind can conjure, as well as various ‘reject’ lumps of soapy putty of differing pliability and scent.

You’d think the simple application of water to a water soluble product would erase the problem… THINK AGAIN!

An immutable surfeit of soap. Did ever a man face such a dilemma?

Where were you when the world changed?

It is Beethoven; approaching his piano... days later the Hammerklavier is unveiled. It is Thomas Edison, circa 1870, dreaming of a world bathed in electrical lamps. It is Copernicus, looking to skies; looking and realising there is more.

It is Daniel Burt; tentatively experimenting with Activated Charcoal in a poorly lit utility room…

The genus of a world-changing notion is seldom juxtaposed with grandiose surroundings and a fanfare of expectation. The catalyst of change is not always one easily quantified ‘Eureka’ moment, more a favourable circumstance combined with an undiluted will.

In this instance, after weeks of saponfication, curing and airing, of subtle formulation and great personal sacrifice – BarSoap takes no small pleasure in unveiling its latest creation ‘The Black Stuff’ bar.

A bar imbued with the relaxing hops, herbs and minerals of a 500ml can of Guinness and granted a wonderful texture and the colour beholden by so many by with addition of activated charcoal – a substance which boasts both incredible cleaning properties and a lovely texture in this form. It’s all rounded off with a creamy head on the top of each bar.

Now, I hope this doesn’t sound too arrogant when I announce that I have created the finest soap… in the world. I was surprised when it happened but I double checked, this is the finest soap… in the world.

*recommended for (but not limited to) oily skin, acne, Guinness drinkers, soap buying public at large.
**The Black Stuff bar should be available in the next seven days!

Oil, Oil everywhere and not a drop to saponify...

It is a little after 1am I have the dream. Every night it is the same; I am jolted away from a fractured unconsciousness into a frenzied state of alacrity – Kate tries to comfort me and all the while, I silently mouth two words again and again “Coconut Oil”

Coconut Oil: it is what drives a soap maker, what gives a bar its lustre – without Coconut Oil a bar will not lather luxuriously; it will not be as durable a bar. In short, soap without this oil is simply not the best soap it can be; it is a pale facsimile, a sweet smelling lump of matter pretending to be hygiene product… an abomination.

In my dream I am a man of wealth and means, it is my simple desire to buy 12.5 kg lumps of coconut oil fairly and without deceit. Now, since its invention some 5000 years ago, money has allowed transactions like this to take place thousands upon thousands of times a day simply and without occurrence. However, in my dream I walk the labyrinthine streets of Manchester searching for this product – I am turned away from supermarkets (Asian and domestic), met with blank faces when I ask about kitchen suppliers at restaurants (Asian and domestic) and internet resources quote astounding prices; prices that make you forget that this is a simple compound that’s formed by hitting coconuts with hammers – there are loads of coconuts in the world and there is no shortage of hammers either… why the price disparity?

What compounds my dreams is that most mornings I get out of bed only to find the nightmare world and the material world have colluded and there is, in fact, no reasonably priced coconut oil to be found in all the land.

People sympathise; they advise me to search on the internet, seemingly mistaking me as someone who comes from the past who hasn’t heard of the internet. Unfortunately, it is what it is; the rather blinkered tone of this blog is endemic of a wider problem: food prices are up with bread, wheat and oils all being affected by a poor global harvest – I suppose in the face of this, two soap maker’s problems don’t add up to a hill of beans in this crazy world but really… £30 for 12.5 kg? Really?

Daniel Burt

Bar Soap Launch 18/12/10

The lamp shade cast an otherworldly glow throughout the living room - our lighting, casualty of a malaise of faulty wiring and ungodly coincidence, was but a distant memory, one of many mod cons we'd forsaken this greyest month of grey flecked Manchester. Kate and I sat, single minded and near feverish, wrapping, stamping and arranging soaps. The elegance and extravagance of our wares shaming the neglected Christmas tree - its baubles and tinsel ostentatiously garish, the rotting Scottish shrub bared its desiccated needles like teeth as we laboured on oblivious. As the fan heater battled against the temperature drop (-7 according to Google, our central heating long perished) I pondered out current predicament...

It is almost 7 days previous, as I laboured in Manchester Metropolitan Universities' labyrinth of bureaucracy and recycled air. I received an email from my sweeter half reading thus "Ok Mr Burt, your mission should you choose to accept is to sell at least one bar of soap legitimately by 12:00am Christmas Morning." I pondered this. There was no question of refusing - we'd been testing the soap; giving out samples, modifying and experimenting. We had a theme, a logo... dammit we had a brand! Continents had been conquered with less. It was time. Within the hour I located a suitable market stall at a craft fair on the 18th. The gauntlet had been thrown down and then picked up again with all the speed a broadband internet connection would accommodate.

Now, I find myself wrapping and considering pragmatic issues of book-keeping - it is the 17th and we are fast approaching the witching hour. However, with 7 brands of unique soap ready for sale, Kate and I succumb to our rapidly failing senses and sleep. We wake up at 6:15 knowing only two things; there has been 4 inches of Snowfall and the good people of Bradford deserve our soap

In spite of my near constant navigational errors and black ice that makes any kind of steering a futile gesture, Kate manages the journey to Victoria hall; a magnificently turned out slab of Victorian majesty and a fine venue for the finer things in this world. Our stall is set up; resplendent in period decoration and ornate baskets and if it wasn't for the near fatal lack of sleep I'd be thoroughly elated.

As people filter into the hall I find myself manning the stall as Kate mingles with the other stall holders. As people browse the stall I find myself slipping into an easy rapport - I want their money but I won't beg for it - I find myself discussing the science of soap making, the benefits of each constituent ingredient. Kate assures me that not everyone wants an in-depth discussion on saponification and the humectant benefits of honey - it gives me pause; so many people idly wipe this chemically formed block around their body and have not a clue as to how it works. Well, I'll save that discussion for another blog...

I have to say, there is a charming sense of community among the sellers here - as Kate gets names and information and swaps ideas with other sellers - some also come and peruse the store (our first sale, truly a moment of controlled euphoria, was to a jewellery seller) Kate also purchased a doll from this store... Basically, if you manage not to spend all your profits on idiosyncratic gadgets and adorable stuffed toys, it's a very pleasant way of spending a Saturday.

Well, in summation: it's with a sense of enormous satisfaction that we managed to create and package something that sold so well - not to speak out of turn but I'm thinking the average O2 worker doesn't feel this amount of joy after peddling an I-Phone (no offence intended O2 workers, do you need a bar of soap?). I'd say it's awakened a long dormant sense of mercurial capitalism (dear God...) Until next time Soap Lovers.

Daniel Burt