Beer quality, the elephant in the room

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….

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12 thoughts on “Beer quality, the elephant in the room

  1. Fascinating post. Recently I had two beers from a small London brewery which were absolutely foul. Bought from Selfridges. I’ve never had issues with said breweries beer before so I can only assume it was down to the store’s handling of the beer. Unfortunately for me and the brewery!

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  2. Great piece Pete, fully agree with the points you’re making here. I know you were decent enough not to name the breweries that the bad bottles were from but I hope you did the decent thing and got in touch with the breweries in question. The only way the young element of the industry will get better is if they know where they’re going wrong and what they need to do to improve.

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    • Cheers Matt, yes a gentle email was sent with batch numbers and a bit of info about the faults.

      Emailing breweries about faults in their beer can be a tricky business. Many people are happy that you have been in touch and appreciate the feedback as it allows them to improve and possibly pull a particular batch from circulation if need be. Some however, regardless of how tactful you are take it as a personal affront.

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  3. I’ve effectively given up on bottle-conditioned beers from new small breweries because it’s such a lottery. A 1in 4 chance of getting a dud just isn’t good enough.

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  4. What a fantastically written piece Pete and so very true in so many ways. We have been to a lot of small brewers that have no quality checks at all and they can afford it, but they simply don’t know what they should be doing. Brewing by numbers is easy but running a brewing business is not. They only learn how to deal with issues when they arise and then its too late. However the quality focus is changing, but as in the brewers case it requires someone who knows what they are doing to provide a solution that requires honesty, transparency, training and the ability to change behaviour. This is something AVANI does every day and we are slowly making waves.

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  5. The “bar operator” you refer to – I’m 99% sure I know who you mean – is hardly obnoxious – I think he was certainly just pulling your leg in this case as he’s thinking of investing in a BrauKon himself for another venture!

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  6. Excellent piece – I now try to remember to open every BCA from a new small brewery I don’t know well over the sink, since the chances of a foamer are so high. Mind, I’d rather see the quality-in-the-pub issue solved first …

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