On my quality soapbox (again)

I haven’t posted here in what seems like forever. Those who know me know that I have a lot going on right now, both personally, and professionally, and the motivation to sit in front of the keyboard and type out my thoughts just hasn’t been there lately.

This is a post I wrote soon after the Craft Brewers Conference in April, and just never got around to posting, so here it is..

From April 2014:

During the keynote session of the Craft Brewers Conference, Paul Gatza, Director of the Brewers Association, gave his annual state of the industry talk. In that discussion, he told a story about going to a beer festival and trying many really bad beers from newer brewers. These brewers thought their beer was fantastic, and were buoyed by the positive response they had received from their customers, so they had no idea their beer, from a technical standpoint, was flawed. This is cause for concern. Paul’s  takeaway message: “QUALITY QUALITY QUALITY and “don’t f*@k it up” for the rest of us.” A lot of craft brewing people have spent years building this industry, and one serious quality issue could really ruin the great momentum that has been built.

In the biggest honor of my career, right after Paul’s opening address, I was awarded the Brewers Association Russell Schehrer Award for Innovation in Craft Brewing, and as I walked up on the stage to say a few words, I decided then and there that I would follow up Paul’s comments with a few of my own, which ended up being something about how the growth of this industry is great, but if you are starting a brewery, please, please, please hire a brewer who knows what the hell they are doing.

A few hours later, Dr. Michael Lewis from UC Davis gave a seminar where he stressed the importance of having technically trained brewers on your staff. And he took it a step further, saying that it is also important that they have an independent certification of their mastery of the craft.

Recently, my friend Jeremy Danner from Boulevard Brewing Company posted on Facebook the following: “Fellow brewer types, as you plan your trips to GABF this fall, if you can afford a week in CO, you can afford a microscope. Buy one.” I loved this post…

If you’ve read my previous blog posts, you already know that beer quality is very important to me. It is important that, as brewers, we all strive to make the highest quality, most consistent beer that we can. As the saying goes, a rising tide raises all boats. On the other hand, a craft brewer making lousy beer can drive fledgling craft beer drinkers permanently to other beverages, like wine or spirits. And that’s bad news for all of us.

Unfortunately, there are some brewers starting up who don’t understand the importance of this, and worse yet, how to achieve it.

I teach the Wort Production and Recipe Formulation for the UC San Diego Extension Brewing Certification Program, and one thing I constantly preach to my classes is that if you are starting a brewery, at a minimum you need to invest in a microscope, a pH meter, and hydrometers. Basic stuff, right? But I’ve walked into so many new breweries that have none of this, or perhaps just hydrometers to check gravity, and it just makes me shake me head. And not enough brewers out there have had any formal sensory training, and know how to identify off-flavors in their beers, and subsequently, how those off flavors are formed, and how to fix them or prevent them.

Again, beer quality, as defined by most brewers, has a very clear meaning: The ability to brew beer with no off flavors, the ability to brew the same beer consistently from batch to batch, to recognize and fix quality issues before the beer gets packaged, having the recognition of when its best to simply dump a beer that has gone south, and the ability to evaluate beer ingredients to brew the best beer possible.

Notice I did not mention formulation. To me, that’s where the consumer comes in. Once all the brewers master the art of quality, their formulations can come under fair scrutiny by beer drinkers, who then use their purchasing power to determine which beers thrive and which beers don’t.

I’ve seen many people take the opinion that having poor quality beer out there won’t affect the overall growth of craft beer. In other words, beer customers won’t turn away from craft after having a poorly brewed beer. In some respects that is true-one bad apple won’t spoil the whole bunch. But here is a reason why brewing quality matters: The craft industry is now a major factor in overall beer consumption. Big brewers are starting to really focus on craft beer, and they have the marketing power to exploit poor quality beer and generalize that across the entire craft beer scene. This is not a joke or an idle threat, look what Anheuser-Busch did to craft beer in the 1990s, when they drove the expose on Dateline with Sam Adams and the concept of “who really brews your beer”. The fallout on craft beer started immediately afterwards, and it took years for the craft beer business to recover, and most contract brewers disappeared. These big brewers understand quality, and have a lot of power, and if they ever figure out how to effectively combine these two elements to convey their message it could have a very bad effect on the rest of the industry. Fortunately, for us, their Executives and Marketing folks still don’t “get” what craft beer is all about, so they haven’t been able to effectively talk about this with any credibility.

As MIchael Lewis says, it’s not good at all for craft brewers to get smug with our success, spend too much time patting ourselves on the back, and rest on laurels, since a potential quality disaster is just around the corner.






12 thoughts on “On my quality soapbox (again)

  1. Steve Buller

    My main question to you, how should I educate myself? I’ve attended undergrad and graduate school for my field of interest. Over the past couple of years I have been dabbling with craft brewing with relatively good success. What should I do to take it to the next level to insure I am producing quality products?

    I wouldn’t even dabble with the thought of going pro unless I knew I was making something worthy of entering the craft beer world. I don’t want to be another craft crap beer,

    1. mitchsteele Post author

      Steve: There are a lot of resources out there. Visiting local brewers and asking for advice usually works very well. There are some great books out there as well, good technical level books. Charlie Bamforth’s (from UC Davis) books are great resources, the Master Brewers Practical Brewer is another.

  2. Sean Lewis

    First I have to say that you are absolutely right — nothing is more important than the beer’s quality. However, I feel that there needs to be a footnote at the end reminding everyone that such sweeping generalizations made both by the presenters at CBC and in your post here cannot apply to everyone.

    For example, I take some exception to the idea implied by that every new brewery SHOULD start by hiring an experienced professional brewer, or a technically trained one. In theory, I think this is a good idea for the obvious reasons. Making the jump from homebrewing to pro brewing has a ton of hurdles to overcome. However, I have seen new breweries sprout up with “experienced” pro brewers that churned out uninspired, deeply flawed beers. Even had the beers been free of off flavors, they were still little more than a cookie-cutter Pale Ale and IPA on tap. Frankly, that’s boring, and boring beer can do just as much to deter new drinkers as flawed beer.

    Also, I wonder what the craft beer scene would look like had Sam Calagione taken Michael Lewis’ advice and left the brewing to the trained professionals instead of seeing what kind of trouble he could get into with a brew kettle. We can’t rely on the same institutions to continue supplying us with all the brewers, or brewing runs the risk of becoming stagnant. I also don’t believe that a bad beer here or there will deter the average customer so much as help them appreciate the dozens-or-so great beers out there for every bad one, but that’s a semantic debate and I understand the fear of putting your beer on the same shelf as a total disaster.

    But as I stated at the top, you’re absolutely right that quality must be the focus. There are ways a brewery can save money, but scrimping on fermentation control and quality control instruments should not be one of them. I’ve seen too many breweries monitoring fermentation temperature with an A/C unit and plastic fermentation vessels. That won’t cut it at the pro level.

    Sean Lewis

    1. mitchsteele Post author

      Yes, I don’t agree that every brewery should necessarily be staffed by a technically trained brewer, though I do think technical training is a critical way to learn problem solving skills. Some of the best brewers out there are those that have made the leap from homebrewing, without ever having technical training. That said, the one thing these folks all have in common is a thirst for knowledge, and a high level of focus on quality. You can learn much by visiting other brewers or extensive reading, but experience is critical too. What I don’t like to see is someone who has brewed 2 batches of homebrew being put in charge of a commercial brewery-and I’ve seen that, countless times.

  3. Flatulent Fox

    Boy oh boy… this is already a fairly noticeable problem across the craft beer industry, and it’s only going to get worse as this most recent glut of breweries-in-planning come to market.

    I can’t begin to count the number of guys I talk to and hear about, who have been homebrewing for maybe a year or two and are gung-ho on opening a brewery or brewpub. They barely know how to craft a batch at the 5- or 10-gallon scale and they’re full of dreams and visions of grandeur that simply aren’t born out by reality. But they’re plowing ahead, and churning out some pretty swill-y stuff.

    And then there are the guys who do have some real experience brewing who are turning out poor-quality beers but are either blind or ignorant to that fact. There’s one out this-a-way whose name I will not mention, who have turned out numerous batches of poor-quality and/or blatantly infected batches, including a well-publicized batch of exploding cans and a Berliner Weisse that smelled and tasted like Parmesan cheese. (Oh, and a cask ale for a real ale festival that reeked of acetic.) But somehow they continue on…

    I see a lot of parallels between the current state of the craft beer market and the last bubble in the early-to-mid-90s, but amplified to a much larger scale. But unlike then, I think the modern craft beer drinker is more sophisticated and knows a lot more about quality beer and styles, off-flavors, etc. and isn’t going to put up with garbage. I fear we’re soon going to see a bursting of the bubble, not because the market isn’t large enough to sustain it but rather that a lot of these fly-by-night brewers of substandard beers are going to fail through their own lack of ability to create a quality product.

    In the end, I really don’t care whose beer I’m buying. It could be an old standby, a trendy new up-and-coming favorite of the BA-hole and RateBeer set, a brewery that specializes in quirky and experimental beers or one that really focuses on traditional styles. But regardless of all of that, the beer has to be well-made and free from defects, flaws, off-flavors, etc. Period, no exceptions. And when I come across a substandard beer in someone’s portfolio, I might go back for a second try later and hope it was just one off-batch; but if the second is also substandard I’ll never buy their product again.

  4. Brian Gibson

    There are a lot of good points made here. The concern that the “big boys” have the power and money to paint low-quality brewers as poster-children of the craft brewing market is a real possibility. However, comparing to the boom-bust of the late 90’s is not a fair comparison. A large number of the small breweries that failed then were opened by “money men” riding the same high that fuelled the similarly-timed internet boom-bust, people that saw a newly burgeoning market and jumped at it with no knowledge or passion for the product. Of course, like startup failures in any industry, many were also passionate brewers with no business sense and ran through their investment cash before turning a profit (which is still happening today).

    There are a number of factors that make the current craft beer boom this time very different. The willy-nilly blind investing of the late 90’s is not happening so much in the current recession/post-recession economy. There is a strong nationwide interest in artisanal products that was not there in the 90’s. Tied to that is a pushback mentality towards large corporate producers of homogenic food products (recently amplified by Monsanto’s shenanigans). There is a much stronger consumer desire for flavourful craft beers. Breweries and brewing guilds/associations are (for the most part) seeing each other as partners and colleagues rather than cutthroat competitors.

    Perhaps the biggest difference is in the sheer amount of educational information available today. The consumer is vastly more educated about beer than they were in the late 90’s, when Jim Koch was still trying to explain what hops were and styles were almost unheard of. Homebrewing is now legal in all 50 states and homebrew clubs are more numerous and larger than they have ever been. The opportunity for self-education in brewing is at a level never before seen in history, and the cornucopia of ingredients available is mind-boggling.

    Formal brewing programs are also stronger and slowly growing more numerous as colleges add classes and certificate programs in brewing and beer appreciation. These programs are indeed impressive and wonderful (particularly the big three: Siebel, UCDavis, and ABG), however brewing is not a highly paid field and it is a considerable investment (roughly $16,000) without any Federal scholarship or loan support. This is a big bite to stomach, particularly if you are brewing weekly and upgrading equipment at home to further your own experience. It would be really nice to see more scholarships offered by associations/state guilds and tuition reimbursements by hiring breweries – these are currently very rare.

    The market is changing and these formal certificates are becoming more and more a pre-requisite to get a job as a brewer. I feel that the Brewers Association should be working much more heavily on getting government approval to accredit these programs to qualify for tuition assistance through the FAFSA channels. However, having attended one of the top engineering schools in the country, I can freely attest that school-learning, no matter how hands-on, is a poor substitute for experience. I have noticed that the UCDavis program recommends weekly or biweekly homebrewing in addition to their coursework and brewlabs. A certificate only proves theoretical knowledge and not practice.

    As was pointed out above, there are too many brewers out there who do not have trained palates and are incapable of detecting off-flavours in their own brews. I have talked to too many professional brewers who have no idea what the BJCP is. More so that a formal education, it is my personal belief that going through the process of studying for and taking the Beer Judge Exam and the experience of actually judging competitions is an absolutely invaluable experience for any prospective brewer. The included requiements of knowing all the basic beer styles, being able to judge a beer’s accuracy to a style, and being able to identify off-flavours and their causes are ESSENTIAL BASICS that EVERY prospective professional brewer should have under their belt. It also encourages one to taste and brew styles that may not have been considered before, expanding the experience base for their palates and homebrewing endeavours. The Cicerone program steps it up another notch, taking into account cellaring, service, presentation, draft systems, and the ever-growing more important interactions of food and beer – while also being more affordable than the formal brewing education programs.

    There will never be a substitute for the combination of theoretical knowledge and practical experience. Book learning alone will not prepare anyone for actually running a brewhouse and homebrewing alone will not brace anyone for the diverse factors involved in commercial brewing.

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  6. Gary Gillman

    Quality in the sense you mentioned, i.e., using (mostly) analytic tools, absolutely is Job No. 1. The reason is simple. Even if you have, say, the “best” ESB in the world, say Fuller’s, or Mendocino Red Tail Ale, what good is it if the beer in the glass is slightly acetic, or damp-paper oxidized, or slightly infected …? All these faults ruin a good beer just as much as a bad one. (By the way I find those beers very reliable, I am just taking the names as an example).

    But the other side of the coin is important too. You need a good flavor. While admitting this can have a broad definition, some beers just taste “right”, much better than others. I think Firestone’s Pivo Pils is much better than, say, Sam Adams Lager. Sam Adams Lager is good, but the former is much better, IMO. As you said, the market makes its decisions in toto and while inherent quality (taste) is not the only factor, it is one of them. Every brewer should aim, not just for a stable product, but a good-tasting one. I had a Coors Banquet the other day (this in Canada) and to me while technically impeccable it was almost undrinkable due to the corny, astringent, burnt caramel taste. Even amongst mass market products, some are much better than others. Amstel Light, say, is surprisingly good.

    Mitch, I hope (on another topic if you don’t mind me raising it) that you will post some thoughts soon on the revived Ballantine India Pale Ale. Your book’s comments on that beer, and your work as an ale brewer, make you ideal to do so! From what I’ve read, Pabst has not used either of the two recipes given in your book, but has gone in another direction including use of some Cascade and Colombus hops. My own recollections of the beer, dating from the mid-1970’s (Cranston) version to the (not so bad) Milwaukee one, is that it never had a citric/grapefruit pith-like taste. The taste was more English in style and I hope that aspect is retained. The beer may knock it out of the park and at a minimum, will be interesting to try. Pabst is to be congratulated for this initiative.

  7. Gary Gillman

    After I posted my note above, I found this tonight:


    According to the description of Ballantine IPA (1982, made in Fort Wayne, Indiana), the hops used were Bullion and …. Cascade! That is about 10 years before the beer’s demise in Milwaukee. I wonder if Greg Duehs knew this and incorporated similar hops in his mix both for that reason and availability. I must say I don’t remember the beer tasting grapefruit-like, perhaps the Cascade was used mainly for bittering and the Bullion for aroma (either pellet or via hop oils if still used). Hard to say. But knowing this now, I think I am good with some citric character, as long as it is not too pronounced.

    1. mitchsteele Post author

      I got the chance to try the new Ballantine IPA. It’s definitely over the top hoppy, and an interesting beer. It sure isn’t what I envisioned based on what I’ve learned about Ballantine over the years-it wasn’t amber, didn’t have any wood character that I could detect, and certainly hadn’t been aged. But it was hoppy as hell, and for a an American Lager brewer to pull this off, I was impressed. I’d drink it again.

      1. Gary Gillman

        Mitch thanks so much for your comments. Very helpful coming from a pro like yourself especially one so knowledgeable about IPA history. Something I noticed the other day in Jess Kidden’s pages on Ballantine: he has a section devoted to pre-Pro ads for the brand. One statement, which is not dated but seems from the very early 1900’s, calls the India Pale Ale, “very pale” while the XXX Ballantine is called “pale”. So I wonder if possibly they were trying to go back to this period.

        You didn’t mention that the beer has an obvious New World hop taste, so I take some comfort from that since in the pre- C hop era, it wouldn’t have had that character – setting aside how it was brewed in the 80’s I guess! Thanks much again and great list of beer cities – but you need to add Toronto. I’ll be happy to host some rounds if you ever make it here (garyg1@rogers.com).


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