Quality control is the name of the beer game
Although not the most glamorous aspect of brewing, being able to provide the consumer with an assurance of your beer's quality is where it's at. Stephen Beaumont believes that what has previously been the preserve of the industry's larger brewers now needs to trickle down into craft beer.
The other evening, I selected a well-regarded, high-strength, barrel-conditioned ale from the bottom of my wine fridge – home to those beers that present better at cellar, rather than refrigerator, temperature.
Popping the cap, I made my way out of the kitchen, only to be stopped in my tracks after a few steps by the sound of beer sloshing onto the floor. By the time I got the geyser in my hand under control, I had about 150 millilitres of beer to mop up.
After a bit more had been expelled from the bottle into the sink, a quick swig revealed the gusher to have been caused by an infection in the beer, evidenced by the unintentional tanginess it now possessed. The remaining half-litre or so joined the rest of the bottle in the kitchen drain.
Around that same time, a brewer in the US took to social media channels to explain away the swelling and, in some cases, rupturing of its cans of fruit-flavoured sour beer. The fault, the brewer rather famously maintained, lay not with its own sanitation or some problem with the packaging line, but instead with the consumer.
If said patron was not wise enough to keep the beer refrigerator cold at all times, the brewery's message went, there was a chance the cans could swell or explode – the heavy implication being that such is the nature of 'proper' craft beer.
Craft beer needs to step up quality control
These two instances, one personal and the other very public, raise the very important matter of 'quality control' (QC) – occasionally also known as 'quality assurance' (QA). While this matter is taken very seriously by most larger brewing companies, the smaller players have approached QC with an almost cavalier disregard. And, that has to stop.
QC has always been an issue for craft brewers, as far back as when they were still considered microbreweries. In a sense, it was as understandable back then as it is for the ultra-small operations starting up today.
Lab equipment can be expensive and when the founders of a new, often under-financed brewery are choosing where to spend their dollars, fermenters and bright beer tanks and four-head bottlers or mini-canning lines make more sense on the surface than microscopes or dissolved oxygen metres.
Inconsistency was a selling point
Further, even as such brewers grow, there's always a battle to be waged between expanding brewing operations or controlling the quality and consistency of what leaves the brewery. The former generates revenue almost immediately, while the latter, in a best case scenario, merely confirms that all in-house operations are functioning as they should.
The thing is, back in the 1980s and early-90s, the competitive landscape was much different than it is today. And, to a certain degree, still now, the national and multinational brewers were derided for the boring consistency of their beers, whereas microbrewery beers were ever changing and evolving, which is what made them exciting.
If you want to drink the same, dully predictable thing day in, day out, the thinking went, then major label beers are your thing. If you want thrills and chills and flavour with a capital F, then you'll pick a microbrew. To a certain degree, inconsistency was a selling point!
Consumers demand consistency
Today, however, brewers are numbered in the thousands rather than the dozens or hundreds. The competition is not just between big brewers and small ones, but also small ones and smaller ones, regionals and imports, multinational-owned 'craft' brewers and independent ones, as well as pub breweries and multi-format packaging operations.
The beer consumer has more choice than ever before and, pivotally, more outlets through which to complain when a purchased beer is not as it should be.
So, while some very small production breweries can get away with swelling cans or off flavours developing in their limited edition beers, at least in the short term, any brewery owner or operator with aspirations for growth and prosperity should take QC very seriously.
As evidenced time and again on a more-or-less daily basis, reputations can be made – or ruined – at the drop of a hat on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and any number of other social media platforms.
All it takes is for one post to go viral and suddenly tens of thousands of beer drinkers remember that brewery as the unreliable one.
QC is something that large brewers - big regionals, nationals and multinationals alike – do very, very well. If a consumer has too many experiences of paying hard-earned money for expanding cans of undrinkable beer, which might be as few as one or two, it'll be the brewers that guarantee their quality and consistency who will be best-placed to welcome them back to the fold.