Beer Quality Under the Spotlight

Michael Donaldson reviews the recent discussions on the quality of craft beer

Geoff Griggs is the doyen of New Zealand beers writers.

He’s an experienced judge and a judicious writer and has been an unfailing advocate for great Kiwi beer for over 20 years.

Last month he started his regular column by stating:

“When I started writing about beer in New Zealand 22 years ago, I never imagined I’d have the need to write this column.

“Furthermore, it’s a column I’ve never wanted to write and one which surely won’t win me many friends in the New Zealand brewing industry – an industry I love and have a great commitment to. Some will see it as an attack on the craft beer industry, but it isn’t meant to be. It is my hope that raising this issue in a public arena will go some way toward seeing it addressed.”

Griggs’ beef was the poor standard of beer on the market.

“There is far too much faulted ‘craft’ beer coming onto the market,” Griggs wrote. “And with many craft beers retailing for around $10 a glass, that’s just not good enough.

“Here’s a recent example. A fortnight ago Luke [Nicholas] and I were both in Queenstown to judge at the annual Smiths Craft Beer House New Zealand India Pale Ale challenge. The event, which sees Kiwi brewers invited to supply new, locally-hopped, IPAs to be judged and then served on tap over the weekend, attracted 22 beers (the bar’s maximum number of taps). Having sampled all of them – some during the judging process and others afterwards – we agreed there were only five beers for which we would have happily handed over our own hard-earned cash. That meant 17 of the 22 beers were sub-par or faulted.

“As expected, some lacked balance or were blighted by oxidation and age (the latter odd, given they were all new beers), but for many others the problems were more serious, with undesirable bacterial and fermentation-related issues much in evidence. I’m sorry, but that’s ridiculous. Such problematic beers should not have left the brewery.”

Griggs’ column was widely circulated on social media and drew a number of responses from congratulations on his honest assessment to condemnation for tarring a young industry with a grubby brush.

Smith’s Craft Beer House general manager Chris Dickson who organised the event in question, asked: “As an industry how can we deal with this sensitive subject?”

He then picked up one of the threads in Griggs’ article, as articulated by Epic’s Luke Nicholas, that marketing and cute labels seemed more important that beer quality.  

“Before any fancy labels do the talking (and they inevitably will), your beer must be ready – if for no better reason than your peace of mind and self-respect. If you can’t afford to pour out what you’ve brewed because it was done incorrectly than you need to ask yourself if you’re in the right business,” Smith said. 

“Geoff’s column has started lots of discussion and identified opportunities for issues in brewing, bottling, transport, storage, refrigeration, retail and dirty beer lines.”

Jason Bathagate, head brewer at McLeod’s and a real evangelist for quality, joined the discussion on Facebook.

“Can we be clear on what faulted beer is? Infected? Oxidised? Out of balance? Stupid ingredients? If a brewer makes a beer and it tastes like he/she wanted it to, and you (any anonymous drinker) don’t like it, does that make it ‘faulted?’ I just want to make sure there is a clear line between creativity, expression and personal taste,” Bathgate wrote.

“I agree that there is a great deal of neglected and poorly manufactured beer in the market, Chris made some great points. There are many breweries that make beers that I don’t care for, simply because I don’t like the flavours they have put together, that doesn’t make it faulted. In my opinion faulty beer is, severely oxidised or infected, or showing signs of fermentation issues.

“Out of balance is personal taste, unless it is for a competition and the beer is being compared to a particular style.”

Luke Nicholas, the king of hops, made an interesting revelation about his famous Epic Pale Ale. The beer is rightly lauded for the way it revolutionised the industry toward hop-forward beers. But he pointed out that the most critical part of creating that beer was the yeast management.

“Having been at this event [Smith’s IPA Challenge], and judged 11 of the 22 beers, my main comment would be diacetyl and other fermentation issues. It would seem many brewers with these issues need to just take a moment and look at their yeast/fermentation management. You should create a happy environment for your yeast. Get to know what your yeast likes. If they are happy they will make yummy beer. If you stress them out you will be able to taste that too. Even review the strains of yeast that work in your brewhouse. When I first brewed Epic Pale Ale I desperately wanted to use Chico yeast for it but found due to the configuration of the tanks this yeast wouldn’t floculate in a way that it could be harvested and repitched in a viable way. We trialed six different ale strains before settling on American Ale II as it performed the best in the way of flocculation as well as flavour profile. YEAST MAKES THE BEER!!!!”

Dave Nicholls of Moa further broke down the issues saying there three elements to the bad beer experience.

The first was faulted beer leaving breweries. “I would like to believe this is a small amount but sadly this is not the case.”

Second, stock age in the marketplace for packaged beer. “We sell bread not baked beans but how many of our retailers understand this. Getting a beer under a month old is rare. Low O2 [oxygen] and cold distribution slow the aging but do not eliminate it.”

Third, draft beer quality. “Low turnover and line-cleaning frequency are the two biggies. I am sick of the “we have 16 beers on tap” but take 12 days to sell a keg of anything. Dirty lines – there is no excuse.

“Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet for these issues. It is just hard work and not accepting mediocre.”

Kelly Ryan of Fork Brewing doubled down on the shelf-life issue but acknowledged brewers were a prisoner of the retail system that demanded 12-month best-before dates because they want to keep stock on shelves long enough to make sure it gets sold, even though it often gets sold in a parlous state as a result.

I generally don’t buy beer anymore – mainly because of packaging and storage issues. We have many great brewers brewing great beers and are then thwarted by the system that is put in place to stop retailers from losing money.

“Historically, a 12-month shelf life for a simple NZ Draught or lager was pushing it. All brewers that brew large volumes know that there is unpredictability in the potential storage of the finished beer. But it’s a business and it is done.

“Beer’s quality is diminishing. The system for selling packaged beer hasn’t changed, whereas the styles of beer have.

“The retail market isn’t catching up quick enough. The knowledge of brewers, whether fresh or established brewfolk, is still teetering on the brink of understanding… particularly when it comes to ambient storage of delightfully aromatic beers.

“I still remember working for a brewery that fought a supermarket chain to reduce shelf life to six months. Hopefully it’s still happening for the beer’s sake.”

Ryan’s point about those “delightfully aromatic” beers – or any beer with a heap of flavour – is critical here. The more flavour compounds in a beer – from malt, to hops, to yeast to minerals in the water – all of them break down over time and that is exacerbated by time and heat. Back when we beer had no flavour we could push the limits of shelf life but those stands simply don’t work for flavour-packed beer.

When Patrick Mace from Lagunitas was here recently (see story Pxx), I picked his brains on the whole subject of beer quality.

He was generally impressed by the quality of the beer he had here – but when he listed the breweries he sampled (Garage Project, ParrotDog, 8-Wired, Tuatara, Black Dog) he was probably dipping in his toe at the top end of the market.

But I also had some beers that I would describe as green, they were basically home brew and I was left thinking `I paid $10 for that?’.

A lot of people right now are jumping into the game because they see it as a new way to make money but they don’t have the passion for beer or the brewing skills.

I see these new breweries popping up and the beer’s not good. When people fail, as a brewery near us did recently, people blame it on too many breweries or the economy but it’s their beer.

If you have a good beer you won’t make it or won’t do well – you need a great beer. The bar has been set by established brands and your good home brew is not going to cut it.”

The other lesson he had for would-be brewers was to have a good business plan and some idea of how to get to market.

This is a serious business and you need a good business plan. How are you going to get to market? A lot of people see it as an entitlement: `I’m new, I’m local you should put me on tap’ but that’s not how you sell beer. Distribution is complicated and competitive – getting your beer to the masses is hard.”

And finally: get good equipment “because making good beer is hard, man”.

Anyone with any doubts that a serious issue is facing the industry should do well to heed the words of the ever wise Yeastie Boy, Stu McKinlay.

“I reckon there’s a few folk with some deep down panic in the beer world, right now. Things will not get easier in the future.”

And if things aren’t going to get easier, what is the answer to this problem? How does the industry ensure quality?

Pursuit contributor Jason Gurney, on his Brewhui blog suggested an industry-wide audit system.

We need to facilitate an audit system regarding brewing, packaging and distribution models,” Gurney suggested. “If a brewery is having an issue with beer quality, then it’s feasible that this issue is caused by a systematic problem with the way they are brewing, packaging, and/or distributing their beer.  There’s nothing like documenting each step of your process for identifying where things can be done better – and as such, the Brewer’s Guild need to facilitate an audit system that is easy to access and actually valuable from the perspective of the brewery.  I would suggest that international, independent advisors could again be useful here – but it’s also possible that a national peer-review system could be effective too.  It really depends on how much we truly believe in the collegiality of the brewing community.”

Back to The Pursuit of Hoppiness: August 2017

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