What is quality?

I fell into an interesting discussion on Facebook yesterday that was started by Gary Spedding, a long time colleague who runs Brewing and Distilling Analytical Services, a company in Kentucky that can do complete analysis on beer, spirits, and other beverages.
Gary referenced this Article and also a talk from Michael Lewis, my brewing professor at UC Davis back in the 1980’s, at this year’s Craft Brewers Conference in Washington, DC, that was critical of craft beer quality in general.

Michael Lewis’ talk at the CBC was quite provocative, which I’m sure was his intent. He scolded the craft brewing community for being smug in our success, and cited that most craft brewers don’t have the wherewithal to really deal with important quality issues, especially those that could hurt the consumer. And when compared to large and/or well established brewers across the world, he is absolutely right. Now to be clear, there’s no microorganism that can grow in beer that can make people sick, which is just one reason why it is such an amazing drink. But his examples included bursting bottles, which some of us have had to deal with, and also the rampant use of herbs, spices, foods, and other botanicals in beers. Brewers sometimes don’t list their unusual ingredients that could potentially make some people sick. And he has a point. With the exception of Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, and some of the other brewers who have graduated from microbrewery status to “Regional Craft Brewery”, most of the smaller brewers in the USA have very rudimentary labs, don’t really analyze their beers, and don’t necessarily do all the due diligence required when adding an an unusual ingredient to their beers.

As Gary Spedding points out, the TTB, which governs brewers and approves formulations (recipes) for beer, especially when the beers include unusual processes or ingredients, is a shrinking agency. Once under the umbrella of the old Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the TTB (Tax and Trade Bureau) split off at some point after 9/11, and currently has a very small staff that cannot handle the sheer volume of brewers’ formula approvals that come across their desks. And many smaller brewers, especially those that only sell their beer at their pubs, taste rooms, or just locally, don’t even bother with TTB approval, as long as they have local or state label approval. So there are a lot of beers out there that have ingredients not reviewed by the TTB, which I find a bit unnerving.

So what is a quality beer? It’s different depending on who you ask, which is part of the problem. Some people view quality as pushing the envelope, being creative, and brewing unique, groundbreaking beers. Some, who I refer to as the “style police”, look at a beer with an eye towards accepted style guidelines, and knock a beer if it doesn’t conform to certain style parameters, such as bitterness, sweetness or dryness, malt character, hop intensity and the like. Others look at consistency in beers-does the beer taste the same from batch to batch? I can tell you that this is very important for us at Stone-we want people who are buying a six-pack or case of Stone IPA to know what they are getting, and to get what they expect. A lot of people don’t think American Lagers have any quality, and to me that is a big mistake. Just because someone doesn’t like the flavor of the beer, or the fact it is brewed with cereal grains, doesn’t mean that the beer lacks quality. The consistent flavor of these beers with so little malt and hops flavor is actually quite an amazing technical feat, and it takes a high level of talent and skill to pull it off.

To me, quality means all of the above to a certain extent, plus whether the beer has a proper balance of flavors, and also the absence of off flavors, such as diacetyl (butter), acetaldehyde (green apple, pumpkin seed), phenolic (band-aid), and oxidation/age (cardboard/harsh/stale). Let’s look at a few of these off-flavors in more detail:

Diacetyl:  There are people that say buttery diacetyl is acceptable in some styles, and I call BS on that. In my opinion that’s a cop out. Perhaps that’s because I learned from Dr. Michael Lewis, and Anheuser-Busch, but I cannot drink a beer if it has even the slightest trace of diacetyl. Diacetyl is formed by yeast during fermentation, and is taken up by again and metabolized by yeast during aging, so the resulting beer should have none. Diacetyl in beer can be a result of a fermentation issue, unhealthy yeast, rushing the beer through aging, or in some cases, a bacterial infection. And I cannot stand the movie theatre buttered popcorn flavor in beer that results from diacetyl. When I worked at San Andreas Brewing Company, we used a dry yeast strain (this was before Wyeast and White Labs) and occasionally, one of our flagship beers, Seismic Ale, would throw some diacetyl.  I hated it when this happened, but many customers who came into the pub absolutely loved it. It was quite confounding and frustrating, but we still worked hard to ensure the beer didn’t have diacetyl.

Acetaldehyde is another flavor that results from fermentation issues, and is present in beer either because the beer hasn’t been aged long enough, or if the yeast health is poor, the yeast cells die and burst, releasing this flavor into the beer. In any event, acetaldehyde is hard flavor to discern at lower levels, and is one of the hardest off-flavors to detect and also fix. There is a common misperception that the green apple ester that some people use to describe Budweiser is acetaldehyde. I’ve heard this from very experienced, knowlegable brewing educators, and it is absolutely wrong. Budweiser has the lowest measured acetaldehyde levels of any major American lager brewer, the green apple ester is something else, and this exemplifies some of the confusion about this off-flavor. Not to name any names, but there is one lager brewer who operates in this country whose beer has definite acetaldehyde-and I think it’s a characteristic of their yeast strain, because it’s very consistent in their beers. So is this an off-flavor? To them perhaps not, but I find it unpalatable.

Oxidation: The other off flavor that drives me crazy is excessive age. This exhibits itself as grainy flavors, harsh or cardboard/wet paper flavors in beer. As craft brewers have become better educated, I’ve seen a drastic reduction in instances of diacetyl or acetaldehyde, but graininess is still something I see a lot, and to me it’s a major flavor flaw. People who drink a lot of import beers have become accustomed to this flavor, and may even find it desirable in some cases. And craft brewers are among the worst offenders of beer freshness. Many assign 6 month to one year code dates on their beers, without really testing, let alone considering, what the beer will taste like after that much time sitting on a dusty shelf. I can tell you, beer with any hop character is going to lose the hops within a couple of months, and will be harsh, grainy and undrinkable very soon after that. This oxidation character can be controlled to a certain extent by keeping beer free of oxygen post-fermentation and during packaging, but many small brewers lack the technical skill to measure dissolved oxygen, let alone control it during packaging or fixing the situation when oxygen levels are high.

Beer drinkers, by and large, are not familiar enough yet with these off flavors to make an accurate judgement as to whether the beers have quality issues or not. And that is because large brewers, who many people grew up with, are technically skilled enough to prevent off flavors in their beers. So people aren’t used to tasting beers with off flavors, and often can’t identify off flavors when they are present. And so they base quality on other things, like uniqueness, hoppiness, maltiness, unique sour character, or simply whether they like the beer or not. However, at some point, as the less experienced consumers become better educated about beer, low quality beers with high levels of off flavors are going to turn some people off, and that could have a negative effect on the whole industry,

Here’s the real issue: With so many breweries popping up right now, which in general is a good thing and is very exciting to me, there are some breweries that have brewers who lack the education, experience, or sensory acumen to ensure consistency and prevention of off flavors in their beers. I can’t count how many small breweries I’ve visited that don’t even have a microscope or pH meter in their facility, and this makes me nervous. Brewers that believe they can judge their beer’s quality by sensory analysis alone are missing the boat, there are some basics regarding Quality Assurance that absolutely must be adhered to. I remember seeing a presentation by Ruth Martin at Sierra Nevada, where she outlined what a craft brewer’s quality regimen should be as they grow and expand their distribution. It was a very gratifying talk for me, because we had been growing our quality program very closely to what Ruth recommended, and we continue to so so.

I remember, many years ago, I walked into a brewpub, and talked to the brewer, who had just been hired on. He had been a line cook in the establishment’s restaurant, and when the previous brewer left, they gave him the brewer’s position, despite the fact he had no experience brewing beer, or any technical education at all. And this situation made me very upset. First, it annoys me that some brewery owners see so little value in brewing experience and will hire people that don’t know what they are doing. A brewer has to be many things, and recipe creator is just a small part of the job. If the brewer doesn’t have a good understanding of the importance of cleanliness and sanitation, off-flavors, how they are caused and what can be done to remedy them, brewery safety, yeast management, etc. the beer is going to suffer. Secondly, this poor kid had no clue about brewing, beer styles, ingredients, and what makes a quality beer. He was put in a position to fail, and that angered me.

Unfortunately, as the craft brewing industry is enjoying a nice boom right now, a lot of people are starting breweries that just don’t understand how critical it is to have someone who knows how to brew at the helm. And too many people are starting breweries because they have money and think it would be cool, vs. having a real passion for beer and the art and science of brewing. And I think that’s sad, and potentially damaging to the industry.


20 thoughts on “What is quality?

  1. Pivní Filosof

    Great read.

    I believe that there are two kinds of quality, the objective, which is basically what you describe and it’s determined by the intention of the brewer and therefore, doesn’t leave much room for discussion. Then there’s the subjective, which is determined by how much you like/dislike what you are drinking. A beer that is well made, i.e. has good objective quality, will have more chances to be considered subjectively good than one that isn’t.

  2. Pingback: Stone brewmaster on questions around quality in U.S. craft beer | Fruit of the Bine

  3. Nate

    “So what is a quality beer? It’s different depending on who you ask, which is part of the problem.”

    I hope you mean it’s part of the problem when attempting to answer the question, not a problem in and of itself. Differing views on quality keep craft beer interesting.

    Let me pick on diacetyl. You clearly dislike it, but that’s just like your opinion, man. I hate it. But “many customers who came into the pub absolutely loved it.” It doesn’t mean the beer with bad yeast was good (I get the point about brewer intent), but it implies that a good (to someone) beer with diacetyl character could exist. Preferences and sensory experiences vary: personally, I can’t taste amazing technical feats, but others clearly value the consistency, and to some poor supertaster, Bud might be the equivalent of Ruination IPA.

    Let’s go back to the brewer intent thing as well. On one hand, beer is an industrial product, and consistency might be considered a component of quality. On the other hand, it is an agricultural product, and a live one at that. I may find beauty in a series of rustic ales that never turn out the same way twice, preferring serendipity to consistency, and I might not care what shows up under a microscope. I may appreciate that a brewer takes year-to-year variations in hop harvests and nails the same profile year after year, or I may prefer that they roll with what’s available, and serve me what’s good right now.

    I’d be surprised if you have not heard these arguments before, and we probably agree that your definition of quality doesn’t match everyone else’s. My claim is that it should not match. If every new small brewer aspired to be just like today’s regional craft brewers with a small twist, well, I’d find that to be a somewhat boring industry. Except for exploding bottles – you got me there – only my definition of quality will do for me.

    1. mitchsteele Post author

      I don’t disagree with what you said. Quality is in the eyes of the beholder, certainly. And it does keep things interesting to an extent.

      However, uneducated brewers and consumers can perpetuate quality issues or issues with consistency. Fine that a small farmhouse/rustic brewer makes seasonal variations to their beer, I get that, it’s part of the attraction. But a brewpub brewer who is trying to make the same recipe more than once, and it comes out different every time…well despite often saying it’s normal variation, it’s really an indication of an ingredient issue, an equipment issue, or a technique issue. An experienced, well-educated brewer knows how to identify and address these issues and fix their beer. Inexperienced brewers struggle with this, or worse, ignore it.

      And I don’t agree with you on diacetyl. Every brewer training program in the world teaches brewers how to minimize diacetyl in their beer. Brewers who purposely leave diacetyl in beer are taking the wrong approach, IMO. It’s virtually impossible to control to hit a certain level of diacetyl because it is a biological/biochemical process. So brewers who do this, and there are a few, usually have wildly inconsistent diacetyl levels in their beer. To me that’s a problem. It’s far easier, and more sound, to ensure that diacetyl is sufficiently reduced by the yeast.

      And if you ever saw the effort and infrastructure that goes into making Budweiser consistent across however many breweries they now have, I think you’d be impressed. Most people are.

      1. Jeremy

        With regards to uneducated consumers, people rarely have a deep understanding of what they are consuming. They know they like it or someone told them they should like it. I’m not even sure that someone would be able to notice or care about the variation from batch to batch of most brewpubs.

        For the small group of “educated” consumers, we can tell variations and we have a basic understanding of what went wrong, but couldn’t possibly be large enough keep all of the craft brewers in business.

        I remember buying a Stone Ruination a long time ago for a friend and he looked at the chalkboard menu after taking a sip and stated “I like this “eepah” (IPA) beer”. I corrected him at the time, but now I realize that it’s these consumers that buy enough beer so that Stone will distribute far away from California. These consumers could care less about styles, diacetyl, or the TTB.

    2. jbierling

      “Bud might be the equivalent of Ruination IPA”

      Naming names, what are these manufacturer(s) that feature diacetyl/acetaldehyde?

      Curious: Has anyone bottled up these “off” chemicals/compounds so that “bad” beers could be created to test/practice identification of these flavors?

      1. mitchsteele Post author

        Yes, several companies can provide vials of many off flavors found in beer that can be used for sensory training. The Siebel Institute in Chicago is one.

  4. Goose

    Great article man! Yeah, while going through the masters program at Siebel we had the chance to try many of these off-favors. One that wasn’t mentioned in your article that is a definite indication of bad brewing practices is DMS, which has the cooked vegetable flavor and aroma. This one if not taken care of early on is impossible to remove. While in Germany it amazed me at how consistent some of these lighter brews were with no off-flavors. I think in the US we tend to hide a lot of off-flavors with beers that are higher in alcohol and/or behind a mountain of other additions such as spices. Anyways, I hope that we continue as a brewing community to educate ourselves to provide our consumers the freshest best tasting beer possible, and not just settle on following some recipe without any technical understanding of what is behind the process and how to improve it if there are issues.

  5. Kurt

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article, and I’ve certainly shared the thoughts on quality over the past year with the exponential amount of microbreweries, brewpubs, brew groups, etc that pop up even in my local area. The market is becoming saturated with sub-par brands and beers that lack character and passion in the brewing process.
    There’s a brew-pub not too far from me that is extremely popular, and will soon be selling cans throughout a major metro area, but their beer has always been bland and watery when I’ve had it at the pub, and I’ve had about most things they’ve made. When I found out their brewer was someone who had no experience prior, it didnt surprise me at all, and it certainly shows. There’s brew groups that are trying to start a full running facility without having any experience other than 5 gal batches, and are more focused on promoting their brand as opposed to refining their beer.
    I’m glad someone is touching on these issues.

  6. Andrew

    I am curious about the green apple flavor in Budweiser. You are insistent that it is not acetaldehyde, and I trust you that you are right (having brewed the beer for many years). From everything I have read, been taught through sensory and off-flavor training, and my formal brewing training has indicated that it IS acetaldehyde. If that very distinctive characteristic of Budweiser is not acetaldehyde, then what exactly is it, and what is causing it?

    Cheers and thanks for taking the time to write this article!

    1. mitchsteele Post author

      Acetaldehyde level was a Critical Process Control Point for all AB’s beers. Every single lager tank was measured, and the numbers typically were below 5 ppm. That is less than half of what the other major American Lager brewers had in their beer.
      The ester profile of Budweiser comes from many fifferent compounds. One compound I remember being on the high side was ethyl acetate, which comes off as intensly fruity (some may say apple-like) at the levels found in Budweiser. Ethyl Acetate is the compound used in fingernail polish remover, at high levels, smells like it, but in beer, it comes across fruiteir.
      Wish I could remember exact numbers…

  7. Javier

    I love this article, I’m a homebrewer in not too far away in Anaheim. I was wondering if you could point me in the direction as to setting up a basic lab and any info where I can learn more about this aspect of brewing. It might seem like overkill for homebrew, but I’m in love with the brewing process and every facet of it, and I like to really dedicate and immerse myself in something completely. I’m a huge huge admirer of Stone and of you Mr. Steele, you are a tremendous inspiration to myself. Thanks. Couldn’t find an email on the website and I wouldn’t be able to fit this in a tweet, haha, so I thought this would be the best place to reach you, again thanks.

    1. KentE

      For a start you might try the book: ‘Yeast: The Practical Guide to Beer Fermentation’
      By Chris White and Jamil Zainasheff Has a lot of info on how to set up and run a lab. White Labs (Chris White) sells a microscope kit to get you started.

  8. Troy

    Mitch, you make a great point about small breweries not have at a minimum of microscope or pH meter. I don’t know, but could the BA assist and possibly put a small “Lab” equipment package together and provide some training on how to use them? This could benefit those small breweries with consistency.

  9. Doctor Bob

    With all due respect to a number of comments to this article, Product Quality in manufacturing relates to conformance of a finished product to established standards what ever those standards may be. Therefore, Product Quality is not subjective although the establishment of some of the standards may be.

    Whether you like or dislike a beer is a matter of Product Performance. For example, you could have a beer that significantly fails to meet it Quality standards yet you find it delicious to drink. On the other hand, you could have a beer that you detest but which meets all its Quality standards.

    It is important in all manufacturing operations to understand what the terms Quality and Performance actually mean. As a long time Homebrewer, I concentrate on Performance since consistent conformance to my rudimentary Quality standards is basically irrelevant to me and my friends. Commercial brewers, regardless of size, should concentrate on both Quality and Performance to be successful.

  10. Mike

    Great article–opens my eyes a bit wider to the craft brewery world. I didn’t know that many (perhaps only some) craft brewers take such a lackadaisical approach to the process. And I share your horror at a line cook being given the responsibility of brewmaster. Shows how easily things in life can become twisted and distorted. Every once in a while that results in something new and wonderful, but most times it’s a train wreck. Thanks again.

    1. mitchsteele Post author

      I don’t necessarily think it’s a lackadaisical approach, I think it’s lack of experience and knowledge. If you get into the brewing business to make a quick buck, that’s the wrong reason.

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