There’s been a lot of press around lately in a few trade-related magazines regarding microbreweries. The articles have mentioned brewers from a few larger breweries talking about the inconsistency of beers produced at microbreweries and that microbreweries are seemingly just one-trick ponies crafting beers that mostly just have novelty value to get CAMRA folk to try them.
Is this just a story for stories sake, an attempt to completely divide an industry that should be working together now more than ever, or just sour grapes from larger breweries who have been producing good, traditional, quality beers that, have unfortunately not moved with the consumers palate.
I live in a pub called the Coach and Horses in Dronfield, North-East Derbyshire. My Kiwi girlfriend, Catherine manages the pub. It provides us with wages and is our home. As it is the Thornbridge Brewery tap, it is also partly responsible for me having a job. We serve beers (and by beers, I mean the generic term of ales and lagers) that are not Thornbridge beers. I’m not a fan of some of them and some of them are produced by large breweries. I find their quality and consistency excellent, yet I find them lacking in flavour. Yet, according to some customers and other folk I chat to, this was not always the case.
It is almost as if an accountant has come along, tried to cut costs wherever possible, spoke with managers of the brewing process, convinced them to use cheaper hops, or an isomerised hop extract that provides a similar bitterness and aroma for a cheaper amount or even to use caramel extract instead of kilned specialty malts to cut costs. But I’m sure this has never happened.
I’m also sure that no marketing executives have ever convinced the brewery bosses that triple filtering a beer sounds like a great thing to turn into a marketing initiative as it somehow denotes that the beer is of superior quality. I’m sure they’ve explained that the average beer drinker is oblivious to the fact that filtration can steal some flavours and aromas from the beer and that the perception of a beer all comes down to their brand awareness and how it makes them feel as they hold the bottle/branded glassware, logos held high for all to see.
I’m sure these same brand managers have never come up with billboards highlighting the use of cheap, starch-filled brewing adjuncts such as maize or corn in place of richly flavoured malts as part of the marketing strategy.
I can keep going, but I’m sure you get the point. It is true that microbreweries can sometimes produce inconsistent beers. I know this because I am a brewer in a microbrewery and I know that we constantly work on flavour matching our beers due to the inconsistencies that can come with small-batch production and the effect that variations in ingredients can have on these batches.
But what I also know is that I once worked in a large brewery. I learnt about the importance of quality and consistency of product. I understand it and everything we do at Thornbridge is based around the production and delivery of a high quality product.
I do though, have a bit of a gripe with consistency of flavour when it comes to microbreweries.
We are producing a product that comes from nature. The water, hops, barley and yeast are (or were) living things. In winemaking, the irregularities in grapes that occur from nature result in a vintage. One year the wine is incredible. The next, it is terrible and should be all made into vinegar. This is accepted in winemaking, yet not in brewing. Sam Calagione from Dogfish Head Brewery might have the answer in one of the best articles I’ve read for a long time. Read it here. Sam likes to say that Mother Nature makes wine, while brewers make beer.
Does this mean that people are happy to accept that it was a crap year, it rained far too much, so the Chardonnay tastes like water, yet the minute their pint of ale doesn’t taste the same as that one they drank four years ago, that the brewers are doing something wrong? Hmmmm. Maybe. Yet, from experience, I can say that when you brew beers that are, for example, heavily hop-lead beers, and the subtle nuances that can occur in a hop crop from year to year are exacerbated by using a massive amount, then yeah, it might taste slightly different. Brewers don’t accept this though, which is why we always experiment with a variety of hops, in variable amounts to ensure that the beer tastes as good, if not better year upon year. Inconsistent maybe, but hopefully better!
Brewers do make beer, and if they aren’t working in a mega-beer factory producing quality, consistenct products, they’re probably toiling away over a hot copper, recording every possible variable that they can with a lack of expensive laboratory analysis, sensors and automated and computerised equipment. These guys are also trying their damnedest to produce flavour-filled, quality and hopefully consistent products as well.
To any large brewery folk reading this, us small guys just want exactly what you want. We look up to you and all of the quality checks and the facilities you have to educate and learn. The potential vehicle you could use to let everyone know about great beer. I love being a brewer because of the comradeship and passion and openness that permeates this industry. So, let’s all just work together and teach people about beer. No more grumpiness about micros stealing market share, yet doing it with bad beer. Please!
I know, I live in a dream… Somebody get me a beer!