01 Jun 2011 @ 9:10 PM 

I have this really basic problem with the craft beer industry. Well – it’s not really a problem, per se, so much as a difference of ideals.

For all that craft breweries talk about how different they are from the Big Boys, they really trend toward the same: a flagship beer with a few supporting brands. As brands expand the key word isn’t “flavor” it is “consistency.” Based on what I hear at the Craft Brewers Conference, from personal discussions and advice through panel topics, I’d say that everybody’s ultimate goal is consistency over anything else.

There’s a lot to be said for consistency.

I truly believe that every great brewery has its own character. It’s an over-arching flavor or terroir, for lack of a better term, that is infused into all of that brewery’s offerings. Maybe it’s due to the equipment, or something in the process, or even just a certain ingredient combination that they use a lot – it doesn’t matter. There needs to be consistency in that character. You also want consistent quality in a brewery. A brewery should always be striving to make great beer. Will you make one every once in a while that’s just good? Or that maybe needs some work? Sure. Absolutely. Shit happens. (Heh.) But you need to learn from those mistakes to make that beer better, or know when to cut your losses on a recipe. The goal should be “consistently great beer.”

But when you’re talking about what it tastes like? Consistency is just insane. Similar? Sure. But always consistently the exact same? You’re ripping the soul out of the beer. You’re talking about using a palette of constantly changing agricultural ingredients and an actual live organism to make the exact same product every time? You must be joking. That’s like saying that you’re going to go to the art store and buy completely different paints, canvases, and brushes every time you shop and paint exact replica pictures. Will you get close? Sure. But exactly the same? Not unless you take some of the “art” out of the art.

What if the wine industry valued consistency over variability? Would there be as much mystique about different years, vintages, and terroir? If the agricultural differences between each field and batch of grapes were all blended out of the wine, would people buy case after case for aging purposes?

In beer, why do people age special release beers if not for that variability? If all beer tasted the same after aging why would people bother to buy different years and compare them? What’s the point of a vertical if everything tastes the same?

Craft brewers see a constant stream of variable products. The alpha acid content in hops varies from year to year and even from field to field. You can adjust how many hops you’re including in your recipe to keep the bitterness the same, but that will invariably change the amount of essential oils you’re getting – and even those essential oils may change depending on those variables… or others, like when they’ve been picked.

Malt changes from year to year, from field to field, and from maltster to maltster. Can we work to blend away these changes and to reduce any character influence these agricultural changes have on the final product? Certainly. But isn’t that what we snobbishly accuse AB-InBev of doing all the time? I remember one of my instructors at Siebel saying that there is something like 60 batches of beer blended into every can of Bud. Why? Consistency. They know that each batch tastes slightly different, for a variety of reasons. They also know how to achieve consistency to an amazing degree.

And what’s the buzzword I hear around the craft industry? Consistency. Why are we working so hard to emulate those we work so hard to distance ourselves from?

I don’t want to fall for it.

This is why I like to tell people that at Mystery Brewing Company I’ll never make the same beer twice. It’s not completely accurate, of course. I’ll be making the same recipe over and over again, but rather than try to minimize every single variation between the batches, I’d like to celebrate them, tell people that they’re there, why they’re there, and why they should be enjoying them.

“We had to replace Hop X with a similar one, so in this batch you should tastes notes of A, B, and C instead of the normal X, Y, and Z you’re used to tasting.”

“It was really hot in the brewery while we were fermenting Batch 9 of Evangeline, and we think it is a little fruitier than previous batches.”

But don’t get me wrong – it’s not about having a lazy process or being transparent about having a lazy process. The plan is to work hard to make every batch of beer as good as it can possibly be, and then to give as much information as possible to the drinker to let them know what is going on. What’s the malt bill? What hops were used? What yeast? How is this different from other beers that we’ve made? How is it the same?

One of the things that I’ve learned over the years as a homebrewer and a drinker is that the more I learn about a beer, the more probable it is that I’ll enjoy it and others like it because I can made educated and informed decisions about it. The craft industry lacks this as a whole – we strive for sameness and we don’t tell anybody what we don’t have to tell them, sometimes not even alcohol content.

I want to change that, and I feel like the only way to do it is to do it myself.

Consistent quality, but real beer has variability. That’s my motto.

À votre santé,


Responses to this post » (6 Total)

  1. Jeremy says:

    Here here!

    I really enjoyed the article and agree whole heartedly! I just wandered across your Kickstarter page for Mystery Brewing from Wilderness Brewing. I’ve always stood up to your motto above, and actually am in the midst of taking that to the extreme, starting a nanobrewery (from Kickstarter as well) with completely rotating varieties, where I’ll be constantly evolving those flavor profiles from batch to batch and year to year.

    Cheers on a great blog, it’s always been a good read!

    • erik says:

      Heh – and that’s the other half of my business plan. All seasonals. No flagship or “line” of beer, changing beer with the seasons and all that.

      A lot of people tell me it won’t work because customers (read bars and restaurants) want to be able to buy what sells, not what you happen to be offering. I figure in a large enough beer market, I can inhabit the “seasonal” slot much more easily – not sure what the market in Louisville looks like.

      • Jeremy says:

        Yup, same idea! Welp, I’ll be starting off as a taproom then shifting to (3 tier gasp!) distributing to local restaurants soon after. We have a number of beer bars who will throw anything good* on tap and a number of local restaurants that love anything local. That pretty much sums up Louisville here, HUGE support for local, as we say “Keep Louisville Weird”.

      • Jeremy says:

        oh, p.s. i’d love for a shoutout LouBrew if you’re game 😉

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