Culture of Excellence: For the betterment of beer, every brewery must invest in the science of quality assurance

Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Riley Seitz grew up right along with Minnesota’s craft beer industry. In 1989, her dad took a job at a fledgling Summit Brewing, then located on University Avenue, where she’d drink 1919 Root Beer and get rides up and down the ramp of the keg cooler. But the highlight for Seitz was heading down to the brewery’s lab to see Gerri Kustelski, who served as Summit’s quality manager for nearly 20 years. Kustelski kept young Seitz occupied looking at bug wings under the lab’s microscopes, sparking her enduring love for the sciences.

Seitz went on to study microbiology, and returned to Kustelski’s lab to shadow the industry matriarch in the ways of quality assurance and control. Having graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2014, Seitz is now quality manager for the 42nd largest craft brewery in the country, Surly Brewing.

“Other labs where I’ve worked, it’s mostly just a job for people where you can use your degree. But in the beer industry, it’s different,” Seitz says. “People are here for a reason, and have so much passion, about art and creativity, and music and the sciences.”

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It’s passionate pros like Seitz who ensure that when you drink your favorite beer—whether from the liquor store, on tap at your local pub, or in a growler fresh from the source—that brew is clean and consistent every time. By combining an in-depth knowledge of fermentation chemistry with adept palates, Seitz and her peers do everything from keeping beer free of unwanted off-flavors, to diagnosing yeast health, and inspecting the brew system to make sure everything runs ship-shape.

Minnesota’s largest breweries, like Surly, Summit, and August Schell Brewing Company, all have fully equipped quality management labs with multiple staff. (Coincidentally, all three of Minnesota’s largest breweries have labs expertly led by women). But more breweries than ever before are understanding the need to invest time and resources into quality assurance programs to ensure they are producing consistent, high-quality beer. All it takes is dedication, a keen eye for detail, and a healthy dollop of elbow grease.

Quality as a culture

Rebecca Newman, director of quality at Summit Brewing // Photo courtesy of Summit Brewing

Rebecca Newman, director of quality at Summit Brewing // Photo courtesy of Summit Brewing

For Rebecca Newman, director of quality at Summit Brewing, quality assurance isn’t just a job title. It’s a culture of excellence.

“Quality is a discipline,” Newman says. “Whether you’re making tomato soup or beer, quality has to be at the heart of what you’re doing.”

Newman spent over 30 years working in the labs of breweries like Sierra Nevada, Boston Beer, and Dogfish Head before arriving in Minnesota two years ago. She finds the term “quality control” limiting—in a brewery that thinks in terms of quality control, the production team is simply “beer police” who wait until a problem arises in order to address it. A better model is that of “quality assurance,” where the process is more preemptive and predictive.

“That means, for example, doing things like a cell count of your yeast to ensure it’s viable before pitching it [before fermentation],” Newman says. “Not just hoping that maybe it will turn out.”

But for Newman, it’s most effective to think in terms of continuous quality improvement, or CQI. Instead of merely troubleshooting, CQI charges quality management teams to be innovative, and defines the organization through the adoption of “total quality management,” which makes quality a part of every process.

“You wouldn’t start a brewery without a business plan, and the same goes for a quality plan. Quality should never be something done after the fact. Then you just lose in the long run,” Newman says.

In order to operate at a solutions-oriented level, a brewery—of any size—needs a plan for how they can achieve good quality management.

Head brewer Mike Hoops working in Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery's basement lab // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Head brewer Mike Hoops working in Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery’s basement lab // Photo by Aaron Davidson

“Probably one of the most important things a brewery can do is documenting their entire brewing process throughout every step,” says Nasreen Sajady, a quality assurance consultant and owner of The Microbrewologist. Sajady has worked with several Minnesota breweries of all sizes to get their quality management processes running smoothly. “[…] It’s the best way to diagnose a problem. If something goes wrong, you can go step by step through the exact procedure to figure it out.”

Through mash, sparge, boil, pitching yeast, fermenting, filtering, and packaging, Sajady advises all her clients to develop a standard operations procedure and spend more time training brewing staff on all the steps. From an in-depth analysis of every beer and the flavor profiles to specific gravity at different points during fermentation and even pH levels, knowing the process inside and out allows a brewery to better monitor quality and comply with those all-important state and federal regulations.

Even at a small brewpub, like Day Block Brewing in downtown Minneapolis, these ideals apply. Every step in head brewer Adam Weis’ process is mapped out for his 10-barrel brewhouse. So when he’s dealt a problem, like if the grain he ordered was inconsistently milled and makes mashing less efficient, there are procedures in place to solve anything that comes his way.

The tools of quality assurance

As sour beer rises in popularity, quality assurance labs are on the front lines of keeping microbes in their place—and they have a host of equipment to help.

“As we’re working moving beyond Saccharomyces and getting into Brettanomyces or Lactobacillus on a larger scale, we have to make sure that we’re not cross-contaminating product as we’re moving beer,” Seitz says. In Surly’s labs, she uses a device called a PCR Lightcycler that allows her to replicate the DNA of whatever bugs might be in a given sample of beer. It’s an important tool for monitoring cross-contamination.

Photos by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

At Summit, Newman noted the importance of a spectrophotometer, a tool that uses ultraviolet light to measure properties like color and bittering units in a beer. Newman and her team can use a spectrophotometer to examine samples of wort in order to predict what color the beer will be. That way, if the wort is a bit too dark or too light, adjustments can be made even before the next brew is complete.

Such gadgets, and the staff of scientists trained to use them, don’t come cheap. But simpler tools like a microscope and hemocytometer to monitor yeast health, pH strips to measure acidity, and a hydrometer or refractometer to measure specific gravity (and thus, the alcohol content) of a brew, are important for any brewery to have, just as Weis does at Day Block.

There are plenty of resources out there for the budding brewer or quality control professional to learn more about quality assurance tools and processes. The American Society of Brewing Chemists, which recently had its annual conference in June, has articles, webinars, and even new series of short videos on useful tips for beer microbiology.

Despite how accessible such materials are, Sajady noted that sometimes selling the idea of quality assurance, especially to new breweries can sometimes be an uphill battle.

“People will say that they have a microscope and that’s all they need,” Sajady says. “But the quality of your products is a long-term investment.”

Fighting off-flavors—and more

For Weis, the best part of his job is to see a customer light up when they taste one of his creations.

“That’s the greatest feeling ever. And it’s why you do all the cleaning,” Weis says.

While the glory of brewing may be in creating delicious recipes, none of that would be possible without a strong regimen of cleaning and sanitation. Brewers at all levels often note that they spend just as much time—if not more—cleaning as actually brewing.

It may not be sexy work, but it’s work that can save a brewery a lot of money and heartache in the long run.

“If a keg contaminates a bar’s tap lines, they’re done with that brewery,” Sajady says.

Rebecca Newman leads Summit's staff through a sensory analysis of off flavors // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Rebecca Newman leads Summit’s staff through a sensory analysis of different off flavors // Photo by Aaron Davidson

For Seitz, as Surly dives into beer markets outside of Minnesota for the first time, she and her team are focused on understanding the shelf life cycle of Surly beers. They test (and taste) the beers both warm and cold, to make sure the best product fills your glass. At Summit, Newman and her team conduct similar processes, or sensory panels, to understand how each of Summit’s beers taste when “spiked” with an off-flavor, like buttery diacetyl or the green apple tartness of acetaldehyde.

Contamination can sharply affect a beer’s final flavor. If intentional and true-to-style, the delicious tart, grassy, spicy, and stone fruit flavors of sour beer can keep customers coming back for more. If unintentional—rendering an IPA lip-puckering, or worse, lending metallic, cheesy, or even vomit-like flavors to a beer—contamination can drive customers away.

“We need every brewer to understand that our work is as much about protecting the consumer as it is about flavor,” Newman says. “I can make a great potato salad at home, I do it every summer. But do I want to make it for hundreds of people and serve it in a store?” This same consideration for flavor and food safety should be built into the culture of every brewery.

As the craft beer drinking public has become more educated, brewing consistent, quality beer is more important than ever before. With the market flooded with beer options, breweries that are investing in QA/QC are not just ensuring the health of their beer, but the health of their business.