I’ve just poured two bottles of beer down the drain. This frustrates me. I’ve had a long day and the thought of those perfectly chilly brown torpedoes in the door of the fridge had been a sustaining thought all afternoon.
The first bottle I opened had no condition at all. Not even the most vigorous of pours could rouse a single, cheerless bubble of co2. Down the drain. The bottle had a middling amount of date left on it so it isn’t that the brewery had sent it out too early. The second bottle was mega phenol nastiness. I’ll tolerate a bit of sulphur, a touch of diacetyl even here and there but phenols have no place in pale ale. Down the drain too. I’ve retreated to the sofa about a fiver worse off with nothing to drink. Now I understand it is bad luck to have two duff bottles from two different breweries that end up being opened back to back but it isn’t the first time it has happened to me.
As the craft beer sector grows beer quality is something that is going to have to be more carefully looked at by brewers. It is one of the very few things we can look to the big brewers and learn about. They spend vast sums of money a year on QA, and as a result they get an incredibly consistent product. When was the last time you had a macro brewed lager that wasn’t bang on spec? There will always be issues with beers once they have left the brewery that are out of the brewer’s hands like oxidation etc, but the idea of opening a bottle of Heineken and finding it under carbonated or phenolic are unthinkable. I bet the vast majority of UK craft breweries don’t even have a budget for QA. That too is understandable, equipment and training for QA isn’t cheap and employing someone to do it is even more expensive. Most small breweries would rather spend £7000 on a new fermenter or some extra casks rather than a gehaltemeter.
I suppose to some extent using loads of technology to get a really uniform, consistent product might be viewed by some as the antithesis of what ‘craft’ is about. Small volume, hand produced products made with great ingredients, care and love. Some people take issue with automation in craft breweries for the same reason. Somehow in their minds a button on a touchscreen, a relay and a jolt of compressed air to open a valve rather than running across the brewery and doing it manually is ‘cheating’. ‘You aren’t a proper brewer, you just push buttons’ one particularly odious Australian bar operator jeered at me when I once went into his bar with a Camden Town Brewery hoodie on. Fuck him and fuck his shit beer bar. If a carpenter came to your house to fit a new kitchen would you expect him to drill all the holes with a brace and bit? Would you expect him to cut the new worktops with a hand saw? Of course you wouldn’t. Would you callout your accountant for using Excel or a calculator rather than a ledger and an abacus? No.
Every industry uses the tools that make the job in hand easiest to do, for the best result possible. A steam jacketed mash tun with an auto temperature control can monitor and adjust the mash way better than any human can, resulting in better beer, so why wouldn’t you use it? For me at least, ‘craft’ is about making the best beer you can. If technology helps with that and you can afford it then embrace it.
The more breweries we get using keykegs quality becomes an issue too. Brewers who have always made cask beer all of a sudden see kegs coming into fashion and decide they want a slice of the keg pie too. So, what they do is make their usual cask beer and rack it into keykegs, let it condition a little bit and send it out. What the bar ends up with is murky, under carbonated beer as the brewer doesn’t really understand how to keg beer properly. Proper conditioning tanks, known quantities of co2 in the beer and an understanding of how cellar dispense equipment works are all a must.
What we need is better, more affordable training and better, cheaper remote/travelling QA services. Here is a business idea for someone, we already have a mobile canning and bottling service so why not a trained QA person with all the kit in the back of a van. Set it up inside as a mobile lab (a la Breaking Bad) that comes to you once a month, swabs the brewery, checks your yeast, checks the spec on your last few runs of beer and gives you some training on how to use a microscope, best practice on yeast storage and troubleshoots any brewing issues you might have. I’m not sure how nobody has thought of this yet. It is more convenient than sending beer away to be tested at a lab, easier than employing a brewing consultant, cheaper and less time consuming than going on a residential course at Brewlabs or trying to do a correspondence course with the IBD. Beer quality in the craft beer industry isn’t good enough at the moment, we need to start talking about it.
Actually, has anyone got a spare old motorhome I can borrow? I think I might need to head out to the desert and work on this idea….