Quality is the most talked-about issue in craft beer right now. Many homebrewers are starting commercial breweries. There is no compulsory quality control to open business, so brewers have to take the initiative to educate themselves. As the number of U.S. breweries multiplies, speculation rises about whether a bubble burst and sudden recession are imminent. Quality will determine who is still brewing in ten years.
On May 6, the San Diego Brewers Guild and the SoCal Business of Beer, held an educational summit addressing quality in the beer industry. Speakers from some of the most prominent breweries in Southern California addressed subjects like biological issues in beer, how to install a sensory panel, and how to start a quality control lab.
When we think of brewing it’s hard to dispel romantic ideas of what the process is all about. Gone are the days of Frauleins stirring copper kettles and Clydesdales carting barrels around. Modern commercial brewing looks a lot more like an Bill Nye the Science Guy-meets-industrial warehouse - lots of digital instruments, stainless steel and beakers - it’s no coincidence so many brewers have chemistry and biology backgrounds. The inspiration for a new beer may come from anywhere, but it must be backed up by scientific method and mathematical rigor.
In order to ensure that the beer you’re drinking (or brewing) is of the highest quality it can be, consider the following quality issues.
5. Consistency is the best measure of quality beer
A brewery’s ability to replicate their flagship beer is a measure of their quality control. “Consistency is more indicative of quality than anything else,” said Rick Blankenmeier, quality assurance supervisor at Stone Brewing Co. Unless the brewer is intentionally tweaking the recipe, the beer-drinker should have the same assessment of how the beer looks, smells, tastes and feels every time. How do you achieve consistent beer? CIP, SOP, and GMP. In other words, see no. 4.
4. You can’t talk about quality without a ton of acronyms
- A built-in cleaning system that allows you to clean your brewing equipment without disassembling the system.
SOP: Standard operating procedure
- A checklist that ensures every person working on the beer handles it the same way.
GMP: Good manufacturing practices
- In the world of food this means hair nets. In the world of beer this means beard nets.
HACCP: Hazard analysis and critical control points
- Making sure there is no cleaning solution in your beer. And writing everything down in case the FDA walks in.
FDA: U.S. Food and Drug Administration
- You probably know this one. It’s where government meets food.
FSMA: Food Safety and Modernization Act
- Reform laws that prevent food contamination (yay!) while adding red tape (boo!).
3. Every brewery should have a sensory panel
“The human palate is more sophisticated than any machine in quantifying a very subjective thing,” said Rick Blankenmeier. A group of trained beer tasters can detect off-flavors in your beer (like infection and oxidation) and assure the beer is true-to-brand (consistent).
To start a sensory panel, wrangle reliable volunteers who are genuinely interested in helping you produce a quality product and can be available to taste at least three times a week. If that’s only the three guys who comprise your brewing company, so be it. Train your participants on the basics of taste and attribute training, and evaluate every batch of beer for appearance, aroma, taste, and body, and whether it’s true-to-brand. For a brewery the size of Golden Road in L.A., you would have 5-10 consistent panelists.
2. Every brewery should have a lab
Starting a lab is a fraction of the cost of starting a brewery. If brewers have to dump a batch of beer because of an infection or other contamination, the cost of raw materials, equipment usage, and man hours that go down the drain with it make lab costs worth the expense. “It pays for itself if only one batch is saved from the drain per year,” said Brian Scott of Karl Strauss. “You’re safeguarding your product and company by verifying your product is clean.”
So where do you start? According to Chris White of White Labs, you start with a microscope. “So many breweries don’t have a microscope. The prices are inexpensive and the powers are immense.” With a microscope, your beer, and a little online help you can monitor yeast health and see what kind of bacteria might be giving you trouble.
Once you go into bottles, cultures become more important, “Every beer that goes into package should be plated,” White added. Cataloging the product you’ve sold is critical.
Even testing your water will improve the consistency of your beer. With the drought in California, water is becoming harder and mineral content needs to be accounted for. Hard water may need to be filtered or blended; “Hard water accentuates bitterness, so testing is important, especially in hoppy beers,” said Rick Blankenmeier.
1. The government wants in on beer
While quality standards are largely self-imposed in breweries, explosive growth in the industry may be slowed by federal and state lawmakers, and legislative changes are often to do with quality.
The FDA is creeping in on craft beer. In October 2013, the FSMA proposed a rule that would regulate the spent grain that brewers give or sell to farmers. When a beer is made with malted barley, the leftover grain has little use to a brewer - but it provides excellent feed for livestock. This ruling would have imposed unnecessary restrictions on the handling of spent grain, making it impossible for breweries to afford giving their grain away. The grain would go to landfills instead of being sustainably reused as feed.
If spent grain doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, it is the second issue addressed on the FDA's FSMA website. After receiving over 2,000 comments regarding this proposal, the FDA announced in April that they would revise said proposal. But this will not be the last move that affects the beer industry.
In the state of California, newly proposed legislation will allow the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) to hire six more full-time investigators to prosecute violations in bars and breweries. While many brewers desire this increase because it will raise standards, increased enforcement may also punish minor offenses that end up impeding brewers.
It’s not all bad news though. Chris White added, “The better job we do regulating the industry ourselves [through quality control], the more the government will stay out of it."