Michael Donaldson looks at the growing drive towards quality beer.
In the past six months, I’ve been involved in judging at New Zealand’s two biggest beer competitions – the Brewers Guild Awards and the New World Beer and Cider Awards.
If there was one complaint the judges issued time and again it was about the number of oxidised beers crossing their tables. (The other gripe was about dry-hopping – either too much of it or badly executed – but that’s a story for another day).
The gold medal winners at both sets of awards was down on the previous year despite the entries going up so the question is whether the beers have gotten worse or the judges more critical.
A number of breweries are now making quality their number one task as they seek separation from a growing pack of newcomers to the market and that has opened up a quality gap. As the quality improves at one end it only highlights the deficiencies elsewhere. And with judges increasingly exposed to very good beer, both in their normal beer lives and at the judging table, there’s a relative shift that makes a once OK product now seem ho-hum or worse.
A few years ago, when quality across the board was not as high it is now, we were happy to accept a flavoursome beer with a few flaws in it because the underlying taste was so good. But now, a faulted beer – despite being full of flavour – loses ground to something that’s packed with flavour AND technically excellent.
Some of the ways breweries are improving quality is measuring – and minimising – what’s known as DO, or dissolved oxygen. Keeping DO to a few parts per billion prolongs flavour stability in packaged products. Others such as Tuatara, Garage Project and ParrotDog are investing in centrifuges.
In the beer business, the centrifuge has been around for over 50 years but only recently has the technology and the cost made it worthwhile for smaller breweries to invest in one – having said that, the price of a good one tends towards six-figures.
A centrifuge spins the beer at around 5,000rpm or more. Solids such as hop debris, proteins and yeast are spun out to the edges and ejected. All of this happens without exposure to oxygen. It helps retain hop oils and minimises wastage of beer that would usually be lost along with the slurry of solids. A centrifuge is seen as superior – and faster – than traditional filtering which can introduce dissolved oxygen to the mix. Those using them say the flavours in the beer are more coherent and less muddled.
Not every small brewery can afford such a huge investment but plenty are using meters to measure dissolved oxygen at various points in their system and ensuring the oxygen present at packaging time is as low as possible – as in parts per billion.
On top of that, cold transport and storage is becoming critical.
Many breweries in the US have their own refrigerated trucks to ensure their beer goes everywhere in a chilled state.
Jason Bathgate, head brewer at McLeod’s in Waipu, is so concerned about quality he’s making refrigeration part of any sales deal. He says the “lack of focus on the quality and storage” in the name of getting more beer out the door is “a huge mistake” many breweries are making.
“My strategy is to select specific customers around the country that will work with us,” Bathgate wrote in a recent blog. “Aside from a few select accounts, all of our product is sold to customers who keep our product refrigerated, period. We have even switched to shipping our products with a refrigerated transport company. They might take a day or two longer to arrive, but the beer is cold the whole time. Door to door.”