I’ve only worked in five breweries in my time as a brewer. They’ve all been slightly different, some big and able to brew hundreds of thousands of litres in a day, others smaller and brewing only a thousand or so litres a day. They’ve all been great breweries and produced technically great beer. Some of them have even started small and then got larger as demand for their products grew.
But there are always murmurings. whispers with hands over mouth, knowing nods and winks. Little statements along the lines of “that’s not even craft beer you know”, “that beer is just made of chemicals”, or “it’s not as good as it was before they upsized”.
It’s the last statement that upsets me. If this statement was to come from a professional brewer, someone versed in the intricacies of the brewing process and technology, someone formally trained on a tasting panel with the chance to taste the beer in the same situation every time, then nonsense like that above wouldn’t worry me at all. But often it doesn’t. It tends to come from the people we make beer for. The customers or the folk who love a pint or the beer geeks, sometimes even from the blatantly misinformed.
Why should I be upset? There seems to be a thought that once a brewery increases in size, it loses it’s craft approach, the beer suffers and there’s that inevitable “it’s not as good as it was when they were smaller”. I’ve seen this time and time again on blogs, I’ve chatted to people and heard it again and again, yet it always upsets me. When a brewery is lucky and successful enough to grow, the last thing on the minds of the brewers is that the beer should taste different or be substandard. Sure, sometimes it will be subtly different due to slight variations in things like vessel dynamics, water supplies or processes, but there is a lot more that comes into play with beer flavour than the brewery or batch size. You also have to remember I say subtle changes. These are discrepancies that are generally not even able to be picked up by the brewers at the source of brewing, let along further down the supply chain.
Let’s take cask ale as an example. I brew a cask of Hopton as per normal. 4.3% alcohol, Maris Otter pale ale malt, Amber malt, Bramling Cross hops, a hint of Pilgrim as well in the bittering addition. I brew it at the Hall. I brew it at Riverside. One brew on our 1640 litre brewery, the other on our slightly larger 5000 litre brewery. I taste them side by side. They taste, for all intents and purposes, the same. The rounded, biscuity malty kick is the same… it should be, it’s the same recipe. The slightly citrus, hinting at berryfruit hop nose is the same. As it should be.
The cask sits in the cool store at our brewery. It goes out to a pub. We put our standard shelf life on to it. The publican decides to allow it to condition for 2 weeks in his or her cellar and places it on a horizontal stillage. That’s the right of the publican. They can do what they want to do with the product they serve. The beer is spiled, allowing a release of condition for a couple of days, goes on and is sold. The first day it is full of condition, sparkling bright, tiny effervescent bubbles and a lingering white foamy head. The second day is similar. Maybe a little more rounded in flavour, a bit softer, a bit smoother… the air that has been drawn into the cask as every pint has been pulled has started a series of chemical and biochemical changes to kick off. The effervescence is a little less than it was, but it’s still a cracking pint. The third day dawns, a pint is drawn. Again, the beer tastes fine, though maybe the hop character is more subdued, the mouthfeel a little more tired, but it’s still a decent pint. Business is slow this week though and the cask isn’t finished. The publican leaves it on for one more day. He or she has tasted the pint and is pleased with the flavour and aroma. There is no wet carboard oxidised character. There’s no vinegary taint that can result from aerobic infection, the beer is beginning to get a little tired, but is still decent, a lot better than some of the fresh ale that has come from some other breweries. The cask gets finished and the cycle is repeated.
Let’s think about this. Over a four day period, probably one more day than is acceptable for a 4.3% cask beer if you ask me, the beer has changed. It’s gone from bursting with condition and freshness to being a little lifeless, yet still an acceptable pint. Imagine you are the customer on that first day. You’ve never heard of Thornbridge, don’t have a clue about the beer, but give it a try. It’s fantastic. Lovely, rounded maltiness, nice clean and crisp hop notes, well integrated, so not too much malt or hop dominates. You love this beer. In fact you like it so much, you write a blog about it. You keep an eye out for it every time you go to the pub, but don’t see it again until 6 months later.
You eye the pump clip and ask for a pint, wetting your lips in anticipation. The pint sits in front of you. Okay, the head is almost non-existent… a bit strange. You take a sip, put the pint down and walk out (or ask for a new one, depending on your demeanour). It is flat, has none of that character that you remember from when you first tried it, it is verging on sour and you make the decision that the brewery must have changed something.
Never mind that the pub you went into may be new to cask ale, doesn’t know how to serve it, doesn’t have a rapid throughput of ale, has dirty, greasy pint glasses, seldom cleans their lines, has a filthy, damp, wild yeast and bacteria ridden cellar or any of a plethora of problems. Never mind that the cask itself may have got to a pub via a wholesale distribution company who had held it in their ambient warehouse for 2 weeks before discounting it heavily and selling it with only a week left on the shelf life. In your eyes it is the brewery’s fault.
You decide to look up their website. They have just upscaled. They are now three times the size that they were! You grin to yourself as you have knowingly found a solution. You know for a fact that when breweries get larger, there beer proportionally becomes worse. You know that it is the businessmen and money-counters that now run the brewery, scrimping and saving and using “chemicals” instead of wholesome ingredients like hops and malts. It doesn’t matter that “chemicals” cost a lot more than the standard raw ingredients. You were down the pub the other week with one of your beer drinking buddies and they had heard from a reputable source that lagers were made of chemicals. Your mate even told you the name of one… Dihydrogen Oxide… sounds bloody nasty, you reckon. The brewery must have joined the dark side. Cut down on their hopping rates to save money, used cheap adjuncts instead of wholesome British malt. You’re gonna have to blog about this one…
But before you do, you decide you’re being a bit tough. You give them one more chance and go for one of their bottled beers… Your mate had had it at home for almost a year and gives it to you as a gift. You pour it into the glass and notice it’s a bit hazy. Your beer drinking buddy had told you that hazy beer must be infected. It tastes okay, not as hoppy as you would like a big IPA to be, maybe even a bit oxidised and sulphury. However, you think that this brewery might actually be okay after all. A bit on the dubious side, you buy one of the same beers from the new fandangled brewery… the one that is three times larger. Probably going to be rubbish, you think. They are bigger and we all know that bigger breweries mean crapper beer. It tastes completely different, way too many hops, bitterness that you don’t think is rounded. It’s that new brewery for sure.
It doesn’t matter that the first bottle had sat on your mate’s shelf in the sun and heat for a while. It doesn’t matter that it was past it’s shelf life and had also been sitting on a bottle store shelf… in the sun and heat, for a month or two before it was bought. It doesn’t matter that the recipe has changed. That the hops used in each batch showed completely different characteristics (even though they were the same hop) and the idea behind the beer was to showcase this. It also doesn’t matter to you that it’s an extremely fresh bottling. You make the decision that it’s the upgrade. They should’ve stayed small.
As you can see from my examples, I’m not playing around at being subtle. This is endemic to the industry and is a real shame. I’m yet to meet a brewer that isn’t passionate. Whether they are brewing Carlsberg or Heineken or running a 500 litre brewpub. The guy that works his butt off making sure that every keg of Fosters is consistently of a high standard and meets the same flavour profile that it is expected to every time is just as passionate as the guy brewing a quadruple IPA in a brewpub, his nose in a bag of hops, mash paddle in hand. Both of these people are working at making the best product they possibly can. If only they could control what happens downstream.
Think about the situation you are in when you taste beer, especially if you are reporting on it or going to publish tasting notes about it. What had you had to eat prior to tasting the beer, had you had a coffee earlier that day? A cigarette? Maybe you’d had a cold the week before or a spot of hayfever. Perhaps you’d tasted using a different glass than usual. Perhaps when you did a comparison, you forgot to factor in the age of each product. Maybe last time, you’d been drinking big, bold IPAs before tasting, whereas this time you had been supping Milds. All of these things are important.
Tasting beer (and commenting on it) is interesting as it is both objective and subjective. It is based on your experiences and what your incredible olfactory system is able to do. It’s based on tastes, textures and aromas that you have experienced in your past and the power to recollect these and relay that information. And it is about opinion… it is about what you like and dislike.
As consumers and as customers, we are all allowed to have an opinion, whether it be educated or uneducated. Just remember though… it might not be the brewery’s fault…
*I am aware that “crapper” is not a standard comparative adjective…