While largely unspoken, it’s a widespread truth that just because a beer is “craft,” doesn’t necessarily guarantee it will taste good.
As the American brewing industry continues to grow, the topic du jour for many media outlets is saturation. When will the craft beer bubble burst? How many IPAs can consumers stomach? Is there room for new players in the community when microbreweries are competing against their peers and not the multinational beer conglomerates? Who gets the tap handles?
I personally believe one can’t have too many local beer options at one’s fingertips, but the discourse has aroused a nagging question in my head. For me, it’s not “how many breweries can one city handle,” but at what point do the quality operations rise to the forefront of the movement and the ones producing lackluster beer start to falter because their products are inferior? When do people start acknowledging that just because it’s “craft,” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good?
At the core of the conversation lies the troublesome notion of quality. Figuring out how to differentiate a good beer from a bad one can prove tricky, because there are multiple parts to the discussion – the subjective drinker’s preferences for style and flavor, and the industry standards for objective quality measurement.
Learning how to evaluate a beer from both perspectives can help consumers play a more active role in the expansion of the industry. Craft lovers champion the movement and want to see every player succeed, but in order to ensure everyone has good beer to drink for the foreseeable future, it’s important to support the brewers who are producing consistently solid brews.
Like many products, quality control and assurance begins at the beer’s point of origin: the brewery.
Stone Brewing Co. is one of the country’s most vocal breweries on the topic of making high quality, honest beer. Brewmaster Mitch Steele says there are many opportunities for quality management, from raw materials through the final product. The emphasis lies on preventing complications, striving to meet specifications, and ensuring consistency at every stage of production.
Quality begins as soon as the recipe is configured and the ingredients are sourced. Where do the hops and malts come from? Is the water filtered or purified, or does it come directly from the city? Are the hops fresh and free of damage? Each element is a catalyst for quality.
From there, every step of the process must be conducted in the same time and manner with every batch, Steele says. For example, if a fermentation cycle is cut short, there are off-flavors that will develop that are not medically harmful, but will ruin the taste of a brew. Diacetyl is one of the main off-flavors to look out for; it produces what Steele calls a “movie-theater-popcorn buttery flavor.” Acetaldehyde is another off-flavor, which tastes kind of like pumpkin. “Some people describe it as green apple seed, or if you bite into the core of an apple, that kind of pungent fruitiness.”
Once fermentation is complete, controlling oxygen levels becomes important. Oxidation can occur at both the brewery and after the beer has been shipped off to bars and grocery stores, and makes the flavors turn “grainy, almost like intense paper,” Steele says.
“The other thing we look at is sanitation. How clean is the brewery? Do we have places where we are picking up bacteria? That’s really important too because you start getting spoiled beer out there, that leads to inconsistent beer and rank tasting beer,” Steele said. “It doesn’t taste good if you have Lactobacillus or Pediococcus in there.”
Off-flavors, oxidation, and sanitation issues are easy to prevent, Steele says, so when they do occur, it’s often the mark of a rookie brewer. “Now most people know how to formulate a beer, so you see less issues with beers that are completely unbalanced, but having the technical skill and being able to ID off flavors and how to fix them is a critical part of brewing.”
With any homebrewer able to acquire the right permits and open their own facilities, the margin for error and propensity for mediocre beer widens, because there are few industry requirements for getting into the game. Many do so without ever stepping foot into a production brewery, which means they are learning about quality control and large-scale beer making as they grow. A little experience goes a long way, Steele says.
“Homebrewing is great and I’ve know a lot of homebrewers who have become really great production brewery and brewpub owners, but it isn’t apples to apples.” Steele said. “You have to look at the technical skill of the brewing team. Do they have some experience? What are their credentials? There are some people starting breweries that don’t know anything about it really, and in my opinion have no business brewing beer commercially.”
Quality control and assurance might begin at the beer factory, but the drinker always has the last word. Personally, I run through a mental checklist every time I try a new brand. I consider clarity, aroma, carbonation, mouthfeel, flavor, balance, and finish. It’s not simply a question of the beer not having off-flavors and appropriate oxygen levels, but also: Do all of the beer’s elements come together to make a delicious pint? Are the batches consistent? Does the level of carbonation feel appropriate? Is it balanced and complex?
Steele agrees that while there are so many technical markers for quality beer, “it really comes down to whether you like the beer or not. Does it deliver? Does it meet the expectation? From a consumer’s standpoint, that’s the only quality discussion there is.”
I often think about how Randy Mosher describes “drinkability” in his book Tasting Beer. He says drinkable beers have “enough personality and depth to keep you interested, but with enough subtlety to keep you charmed right to the bottom of the third pint.” Which beers stir your curiosity and captivate your interest? Those are the ones I want to drink.
It’s an evolutionary moment for the craft beer industry in many small cities in America. Brewers making superb beverages will continue to get tap space, and those who are producing unsatisfactory brews will dissipate. It’s up to you, the beer drinker, to know what to look for in the quality discussion, and vote with your choices. Support the breweries that are making good beer, and then the brewers will do their part and the industry will grow in a healthy way.
“From a brewer’s perspective, I think we all want people that are in the business to make good beer,” Steele said. “And I can speak for Stone because we’re a big proponent of this. We’re trying to grow the craft industry, and we want to see the craft beer industry succeed and become a big part of our culture. If you have brewers that are taking shortcuts or brewing bad beer and getting it out on the market, it can set back the forward progress that we’ve made. I am a fan of a lot of different breweries, and I love the ones that are brewing innovative and creative beers, but if the beers aren’t very good, that’s not good for the industry as a whole.”
Photos by Emma Janzen