Let's Talk about Beer Quality

 

Chris McClellan

6.29.18

 

MADE BADLY, STORED INCORRECTLY, OR SERVED WITH DIRTY EQUIPMENT, BAD BEER IS THE SILENT KILLER OF OUR NATION'S OTHERWISE THRIVING BEER INDUSTRY.


The deeper you plunge into the beer world, the more detailed the picture becomes. Where once you saw the word "kellerbier" and thought nothing of it, you now ask yourself "I wonder what kind?" Where once you asked your friend where the nearest brewery was located, you now ask "what's your favorite brewery in town?"...and you're bound to get a pretty darn good answer. People change. Questions change. Perspective and relevance shifts. It's all good.

Where once (when I was young, and naive, and much thinner than I am now) I thought about "beer quality" as simply a small part of the supply chain, I now see it as an all-consuming, vitally important piece of our industry, and most relevantly, as the single biggest inhibitor to growing the proverbial beer pie in the next 10 to 20 years. 

I'm going to break Aesop's heart at this point in the post and tell you the moral of the story ahead of time: If you're a brewery, distributor, or retailer, and you're not investing as much as you possibly can into making sure that that the quality of the products you sell are the best they can be, you must reprioritize. Quality beer is vitally, crucially, and unbelievably important to your bottom line, plain and simple.

Let's define "quality"

For the sake of this post, we're going to split our definition of quality into three broad categories. Ask a beer industry veteran or a casual consumer their definition of "quality" and you'll probably get an oh-my-god-I'm-so-sorry-I-even-asked answer...it's a tough nut to crack, to put it lightly.

 
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Here's what I'm not concerned about during this discussion - For the purposes of this post, I'm not interested in whether you like the beer. The heuristics around that discussion are suited for an in person debate over a few beers, and one I'll gladly participate in, but not now. Put in a different way - For the purposes of this discussion, Anheuser-Busch makes a portfolio of very high-quality beers. So does MillerCoors. It's unbelievably consistent, within style guidelines (Yes...Coors Light smells like crab apples if it gets above 37 degrees F, but that's neither here or there), and built for a purpose. I'm talking about John Mallet's, one of the world's most revered brewers (from Bell's Brewery), definition, which covers:

  1. Fitness for intended use — speaks to expectations of the consumer.
  2. The absence of defects - Check out "Quality of Product" below.

Quality of Ingredients

Well-modified, consistent bags of malt. Fresh (or pelletized) hops that come from trusted sources. Healthy, vigorous yeast strains that ferment beer properly. Clean, consistent water. We do not live in the 1840s, and none of these things are hard to procure in 2018 in the United States of America. Luckily, 99% of the production brewers who make beer these days are well aware of this. But...just like great Italian food is almost completely dependent on the freshness of the tomatoes and how recently the pasta was made, great beer can only be as good as the stuff you use to make it. 

Everyone knows this, and if you don't know this, I'm sorry that this is the first time someone has told you. You're probably not in business anymore.

Quality of Product

As Jeff Alworth, one of the best thought leaders in the modern beer world, says ,“Don’t be afraid to call a beer bad". Beer quality starts with great ingredients, but many a poorly made beer is put on tap at your local brewery just the same. You know that feeling you get, whether you're an experienced beer drinker or not, when you have a sip and think "eh"...or when you simply get the vibe that the brewer tried the beer out of the bright tanks and said "that's good enough", and then went home for the day. Half-hearted, bad tasting beer is ubiquitous, and this is where you could start to slot in a lot of breweries in terms of the beer they produce (this is where I'm looking at large, domestic breweries). As I stated earlier, we're not going down that particular rabbit hole today.

You can smell lack of effort a mile away, and it stinks, but more important to this discussion are noticeable brewing-related flaws in the final product that could have been avoided, fixed, or not served in the first place. The buttery slickness of diacetyl. The sharp, unpleasantly fresh tang of acetaldehyde. The unmistakeable rotten egg smell of overly sulfitic compounds in the beer. I personally teach, and have taken many, classes on brewing related off flavor identification, and it's a valuable skill to have in your toolbelt as a consumer.

Again...most production breweries are very cognizant of these issues and are very good at addressing them. A vast majority of the beer being produced in the United States is technically great, but this is still prevalent enough of an issue to warrant bringing up and keeping top of mind.

Quality of Delivery

 
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This is, without a doubt, the heart of the issue in the modern beer industry, and as someone who works for a brewery that literally built its brand on the quality and consistency of their beer (Guinness), I can tell that it's still the single biggest sales driver for us in 2018. We need break this section down even further, and if you're someone who works at/owns a restaurant or bar, I'm begging you...please read this. I'll be speaking exclusively to Draught Quality in this article, but please reference the resources I've outlined below for the rest.

There are indisputable pillars that define the best practices of how the beer should get from the can, bottle, or keg to your glass, and it's all part of the quality chain in the retail environment. This is where we're losing beer drinkers...whether you're a trained beer expert or not, you know when you've had a lackluster experience, and most of the lackluster experiences start and end with poor quality management at retail. The most common result of a lackluster experience is that you don't order another beer, or you starting drinking some other form of alcohol for the evening and don't return to beer.

This is really really really important. Have I hammered that home yet?

Draught Quality at Retail:

  1. Clean your draught lines...consistently - I have worked with hundreds (thousands, probably) of bar and restaurant employees who still do not grasp this concept. You will sell more beer if the beer tastes like the brewer intended. You will make more money if you sell more beer. People will drink more beer if it tastes good. You will waste, or foam away, way less beer if your draught system works properly. You will foster a reputation of quality at your establishment and your patrons will intrinsically create a mental link between the experience they have, their opinion on beer in general, and how often they patronize your establishment. The breweries, to which you're a customer, will be eternally grateful for the effort you put in, whether they express it or not. If you serve draught beer, you must do this, and you must do it consistently.
  2. If you do not remember when the draught system was installed, or the answer to "when did you last replace part/all of it" is "probably at least 15 years ago", you need to replace the entire system - I completely understand how expensive this is, and how easy it is for me to sit here at my computer and type these words, but non-functioning or broken draught systems have much higher long term costs than the initial outlay of putting in a good one. Bad draught systems will never, ever pour good beer. It will be too foamy, or too warm, or too cold, or full of yeast and bacteria growth, or all of the above. Bad draught systems don't make you money. They don't make the customer happy. They just cause problems. The number of times I've told this to retailers and gotten the classic "do you realize how much money that will cost?!??!" response is too many to count, but I say it nonetheless because there's no alternative. Invest in your draught system and you will never regret it...I promise.
  3. Become a quality ambassador - I'm not an unbearable, overzealous beer snob. But I know my business, and I can tell you that building your expertise around retail quality will only benefit you, and the beer drinkers that pay your bills. Do you know how your draught system works? Can you quickly and easily troubleshoot it? If you can take the time to become a quality ambassador for yourself and the people around you, regardless of where you're drinking beer, you'll create an environment of learning and appreciation for the subtle and not-so-subtle best practices needed to make the beer drinking experience a great one.

Let's put a bow on it

Entire careers are built on the information I've provided here, and this is simply a short attempt to continue to build on the quality narrative for all parties involved. Quality is simply the end result of the focus we put on the products we sell, and the manner in which we sell them. Consumers will benefit, breweries will benefit, and retailers will, unsurprisingly, benefit the most. If you're new to beer, I've outlined some resources below that will help you get started, and if you've been in the business a long time, I earnestly hope that you can take up the cause and work with all of us to build a bright, and delicious, future for beer.

  1. The Brewers Association's Draught Beer Quality Manual - This is the bible for anyone needing a refresher on all best practices associated with serving draught beer. Learn it, love it, know it. 
  2. Micromatic, which is the world's largest draught equipment manufacturer, runs a very helpful series of courses on draught systems, quality, etc. If you're in the business, studying for Cicerone, or just want to get better, then you should take one of them.

 

Chris McClellan