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.