Crap Beer: Slipping standards & lack of quality control threaten the industry

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Let’s just put it out there: There’s a lot of bad beer being made these days.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of good beer as well—even some great beer. The rapid expansion of small breweries has brought with it a new breed of innovative brewers cranking out finely tuned beers of all shapes and colors. Some are sticking with tradition while others are pushing at the edges of what beer can be. And with the number of breweries hitting record highs, these are amazing times for beer lovers.

But the fact remains that a number of brewers now stepping into the game don’t seem to know what they’re doing. A shallow understanding of style and history has them missing the mark on the classics. A limited grasp of the biology and chemistry required to make truly good beer leaves them with tanks full of off-tasting suds. And many apparently lack the ability to recognize those off flavors in their finished product.

Allow me to be clear about something: When I say bad beer, I’m not talking about beer that I don’t like.

I’m talking about beer with real, quantifiable flaws. I mean seriously under-attenuated beers that taste like wort. Diacetyl-laden butter bombs. Flat-tasting beers with muted flavors from using the wrong brewing water. Sour beers that taste like sweaty vinegar, and sour beers that weren’t meant to be sour. Medicinal-tasting Belgians. The unbalanced, train wreck, kitchen-sink beers with so much stuff that you can’t discern one flavor from another. These are the kinds of beers to which I am referring, and, yes, there are a lot of them.

No one is completely immune. Stuff happens, even to the best brewers. Sometimes a fermentation doesn’t finish. Or maybe that far-out experiment just didn’t hit the mark.

I’m not concerned with generally good brewers who sometimes get it wrong. I’m concerned with generally bad brewers who only occasionally get it right or brewers whose beer is best described as “hit-or-miss.”

Bad beer is not just a local phenomenon. Three years ago at the Great American Beer Festival, my strategy of seeking out breweries that were unknown to me was beginning to backfire. Where once the tactic yielded an abundance of satisfying samples, now the bulk of them were landing in the bucket. A brewer friend who has judged the GABF competition for many years confided to me that the number of unpalatable entries has skyrocketed. Bad beer is everywhere.

Why is it important to acknowledge this? In the mid-1990s, full-flavored beer saw its first big boom. The breakneck pace of industry expansion resembled what we are seeing today, and new consumers were being brought into the fold. Seeing the opportunity to make a quick buck, speculators also jumped on board—people with little knowledge of or actual interest in beer. A lot of bad beer was produced. Consumers, put off by bad beer, abandoned the microbrewers. By the end of the ’90s, the boom had gone bust.

“So what’s the big deal?” you ask. “We’re all speculating on when the current bubble will burst anyway. The market will simply weed out the bad apples.” That will likely be the case, to some degree. But as beer fans, is a ’90s-style bust really what we want? We’ve got momentum. Wouldn’t it be better to pull everyone up and keep that momentum going?

Yes, the market may take care of things, but I see something else happening. The current growth spurt feels strong. Year-on-year increases in market share, both in volume produced and dollar sales, indicate robust demand. Despite their increasing numbers, taprooms are still packed.

People want to drink beer from the source. So important is this notion that some beer lovers are frequenting establishments despite recognizing that the beer is sub-par. A friend of mine not too long ago said of his local taproom, “The beer’s not great, but I can walk here.”

And this is what concerns me. In theory, the market will weed out the bad. But in reality, the market right now seems to be propping them up. Taprooms are full and brewers are struggling to meet demand. Success leaves them little motivation to make improvements.

The cycle of negative reinforcement is complete as new consumers are entering the picture with the belief in the quality of craft. “Small is good. Local is good. Craft is good. This is small, local, craft beer, therefore it is good.” A new generation of beer drinkers is being taught to appreciate bad beer.

I don’t pretend to know what ultimate effect this might have. Maybe I should just chill. More and more people are joining the movement. The industry is growing. What’s the problem? But I have this nagging feeling that this situation isn’t in the best long-term interest of the industry.

Goose Island's quality control lab // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

Goose Island’s quality control lab // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

So what’s to be done? Educating consumers is certainly important. Organizations like the Cicerone Certification Program, the Beer Judge Certification Program, Better Beer Society, and my own A Perfect Pint, among many others, are making strides in this effort. But it is a gargantuan task.

I believe the onus is on the brewers. First, individual breweries must take steps to become aware of issues and to resolve them. Second, brewers must find a way to apply the much-touted “brotherhood of brewers” to the task of raising and maintaining quality across the board.

This is complicated, I know. Brewers pride themselves on being friends within a community, but they are still competitors in a marketplace. How willing can they be to open up their shops and give or take criticism and advice with others vying for the same shelf space? And who can take the time to mentor others when it’s a struggle just to keep up with their own demand?

It’s tricky, yes. But there are immediate steps that can be taken.

If you are thinking of starting a brewery, get training. Work in a brewery and gain experience. There is a big difference between homebrewing and commercial brewing, even if your operation is really just a glorified homebrew system. Learn the chemistry. Study yeast handling and sanitation. Familiarize yourself with styles and history. Understand what it takes to brew the same beer again and again with consistency. In short, give yourself the full set of tools that you need to make great beer.

Invest in a lab and learn how to use it. True, most small breweries can’t afford the kind of fully tricked-out facility that a bigger one might have. But small steps can go a long way toward improving quality. Get a microscope and learn how to monitor the vitality and viability of yeast. A good pH meter and a modest understanding of water chemistry will help to insure that you achieve a proper mash, wort, and beer pH for a more efficient brewing process and brighter flavor.

Rebecca Summit

Summit Brewing’s quality manager, Rebecca Newman, works to maintain the brewery’s reputation as a leader in quality control and assurance // Photo courtesy of Summit Brewing

For a more in-depth analysis, brewers should reach out to larger breweries with established labs, like Summit Brewing which has offered lab services for other breweries in the past. Find out if your target parameters are being achieved and let them tell you if your beer is laced with off-flavor producing chemicals. Once it’s verified, you can take steps to fix it. If you’re not comfortable having a competitor dissect your beer, there are commercial labs who will do the job for a fee. Remember: Knowledge is power.

Train your entire staff to recognize off flavors. If you don’t know what a flaw tastes like, how will you know if it’s in your beer? Once your staff is trained, bring a group together every day to blind-taste your beer. Ask them to evaluate trueness to brand and record perceived anomalies such as consistency of flavors, bitterness levels, hop profile, etc. Have them look for off flavors and report any that they find. Throw them a ringer every once in a while—a spiked example or an intentionally oxidized bottle—to keep them on their toes.

If every new brewer took these relatively easy steps, the industry would be well on its way to insuring the high-quality quaff that consumers desire and deserve. Trickier stuff like monitoring and mentoring can be figured out another day.

About Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint

Michael has a passion for beer. He is Minnesota's first Certified Cicerone (think sommelier for beer) with the Cicerone Certification Program, and a National Beer Judge with the Beer Judge Certification Program. In addition, Michael is himself an award-winning brewer. He writes a monthly column on beer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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