Tuesday, May 19, 2015

'Craft' beer's pandemic of quality un-control?

An instructor at the Siebel Institute once told me that there were two types of breweries: ones that had had an infection and ones that would have an infection. As 'craft' breweries proliferate like blooms in spring, beers gone bad will proliferate like weeds on the lawn. It's an inevitability, simply by the sheer number of brewery openings.

How a brewery handles that instance is a sure measure of its integrity and competence. Hide it? Go public? Mouth platitudes like, "we brew the best beers," or recommit to quality control and laboratory procedures?

A Richmond, Virginia, brewery recently found a problem in a beer and destroyed it, and went Facebooky public about it.

Here are two more 'craft' breweries' whose beers recently have 'gone off', but, in response, have done the right thing. Three Stars Brewing is a brewery in Washington, D.C.

3 Stars Brewing Company is issuing a voluntary recall of their 750ml bottles of Pandemic Porter due to an unintentional development of flavors in the final product.

“We take great pride in all of our beers, and Pandemic is certainly one of our favorites. Once in bottles, this batch developed some unintended flavors. We do not find that that this batch lives up to the quality that you, our valued customers, deserve. While there is no risk of harm from consumption, we feel that this batch of bottles falls short of our standards.”

An accidental sour can do more harm than merely leaving a bad taste in your mouth. The bottle might explode. Here's how Intuition Ale Works, a brewery in Jacksonville, Florida, dealt with a lactobacillus-infection in a beer.

Intuition Ale Works is announcing a total recall of our 2015 Underdark barrel-aged stout. We have found through testing that the 2015 batch contains lactobacillus that is causing unwanted sour flavors to develop in the beer.

Lactobacillus is commonly used to deliberately sour beers like lambics, Flanders reds and other Belgian styles, and our staff has enjoyed tasting the way this year’s Underdark has developed. We traced it back to one of the older bourbon barrels that we used for the 2015 batch of Underdark.

However, we realize that a sour stout was not the intended style of this year’s Underdark, and it is not what you purchased. We are therefore offering a full refund to anyone who chooses to return their unopened 2015 bottles.

In the meantime, please store bottles of 2015 Underdark in a cool place before returning them. We are concerned that the beer will continue to ferment in the bottle which will cause excessive pressure and the bottles could potentially explode, especially if they are stored in a warm environment. Avoid transporting bottles of 2015 Underdark in your car if it will be left unattended in the heat for an extended period of time. To be extra cautious we recommend storing and transporting bottles in a box.

Paul Gatza, Director of the (U.S.) Brewers Association (BA) went all macho-tough at the recent Craft Brewers Conference on the topic of quality. He told the assembled brewers:

Many people in this room have spent a lot of time and dedicated a good portion of their lives to building this community that we have today. So, seriously, don’t [mess] it up.

This could easily be read as an attack by big 'craft' on small 'craft.' The former has the wherewithal to conduct extensive and expensive laboratory analyses. And big 'craft' breweries have more to lose if drinkers have bad experiences with beers from smaller breweries. A customer might broad brush all 'craft' as problematic.

Small breweries might not have the funds to build and staff state-of-the-art labs, but even small steps toward quality control are better than no steps. Gatza guessed at a 10% figure of 'craft' breweries as producing poor-quality beer of some sort. Ten percent of the U.S. total of 3,418 'craft' breweries is 341 breweries. That would be a lot of bad beer.

The BA is right on this aspect of the quality of beer: if a beer tastes bad, a brewery will lose customers. The proliferation of 'bad' beers —and, anecdotally, I have heard of not just a few examples— isn't just a numbers thing. There are 'craft' breweries who fail to be proactive.

I hear often: "Oh, yeah we'll build a lab at some point after we get open." That's parsimonious procrastination, and risky. Understanding the processes at work —and they are microbiological— is as much a part of "we make the best beers," as sweating over a mash tun. Mean what you say.

The three breweries, above, identified problems, and say they are investigating the reasons for them.

Otherwise, an accidental sour can be a dangerous thing.


  • My apology for the breathless Buzzfeedy-ness of the title of this blog post. But you did read it.

  • For more from YFGF:

1 comment:

  1. And then there is Starr Hill approach, turn a bad batch of Amber Ale into malt vinegar and sell it, or when a cellarman accidently pumps Northern Lights in a fermenter of Amber, call it Amber Lights and sell it as an anniversary beer!


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