Bigger Brewery, Crapper Beer?

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…

26 thoughts on “Bigger Brewery, Crapper Beer?

  1. A brilliant blog post highlighting the many factors that can influence a beer’s outcome.

    As someone who has a website where each new bottled ale I try is ‘baron rated’ I would like to say that my ratings are based on whether I would like to buy it again or not so that I don’t accidently buy loads of a beer that I forgot I didn’t like the taste of.

    I generally aim to ‘re-rate’ beers as I see them around so that I can give the poor ones a second chance. I’m looking at it from a flavour point of view for that particular beer – I wouldn’t rule out an entire brewery just because I didn’t like one of their beers.

    I also don’t have any problem enjoying and publiclly liking beers from large breweries: Marston’s Old Empire & Cobra’s King Cobra both get high scores along with the likes of Thornbridge & Marble.

    Consistency is something that we all desire though – something that Thornbridge have completely conquered – I’ve not tried a Thornbridge bottled beer which didn’t received a 4/5 or 5/5!

  2. I think the standard adjective is “crappier” ;~)

    Good stuff – I feel your pain :~) & I totally agree with almost all of it, but for a few small bits

    * I’m sure that while many are, not *everyone* involved in brewing on a large or small scale is all that passionate about quality.

    * While I totally agree that bigger does not by definition mean “crappier” as many expanding US craft-brewers can certainly testify. However, sometimes there does indeed seem to be a noticeable reduction in quality as craft breweries get bigger. Though quite why this is I’m not so sure & there are a load in the UK that strive wonderfully to ensure this doesn’t happen.

    To me the answer to this is in better education of brewers, drinkers, retailers & those in the pub trade. Sadly I’ve recently had several pints in award-winning & Good Beer Guide listed pubs & a brewpub – they ranged from undrinkable to tired with unbalanced & boring in there too. IMO none of those beers should have been on the bar, but somehow they all were.

    I know one local landlord who really knows his stuff – if bad beer gets sent to him, he sends it back, if mediocre but technically OK beer is delivered, he stops buying from the brewery – all because he’s conscientious & experienced enough to know the difference & his cellar skills & beer knowledge mean that the beers he chooses don’t hang around for long enough to get past their best!

    In contrast, I know other landlords that filter oldbeer back into casks, thus spoiling fresh beer with oxidised beer, yeast, bacteria etc – then they wonder why their beer reputation is shot.

    There’s some poor practice on all sides – bad beer being sold (IME some clean but dull & cheap ingredient beer from some regionals/national/multinationals & some unbalanced, occasionally infected from the dodgier end of the microbrewing world) add to this some drinkers who maybe too quick to judge & a smattering of landlords who don’t take care of their beer properly & answer genuine complaints with “No-one else has complained” or “It’s supposed to taste like that!” – it can all be a bit depressing!

    ex-Betwixt Beer Co Wirral

    • G’day Mike. You’re right, there are definitely a bunch of brewers out there who produce substandard quality beer and I agree that this is definitely an education thing. I find it hard to fathom that a brewer would purposefully put a crappy beer out into the marketplace, though guess it does happen from time to time.

      Cask ale in particular is quite an interesting product. Even though as brewers, we strive to make the best product possible, we then rely on someone else to “finish” the process. To cellar, and then serve our product… the same one that we have worked our butts off to ensure is in prime condition when it leaves the brewery. If you take another product… let’s say ribeye steak, for example, and it is judged the best in the country, then given to a chef who fries the hell out of it, leaving it like a piece of meaty, burnt rubber, it is the restaurant that gets a bad name, not the farmer… This is generally the opposite with beer and brewing. I know from being involved in the day-today operation of a pub that good pubs and good cellar practice generally mean good beer and understand why so many pubs in this country continue to close (and of course, others flourish and re-open)… it is due to education and the quality of a product.

      Personally, I think there are too many microbreweries in this country. Sure, there is always room for one more and there is always a relatively simple road to market if someone wants to sell cheap cask beer and undercut others, but unfortunately it is the industry that suffers from this practice. The sooner there is an acceptable trade practice incorporated into the pub and microbrewery industry, the better (though I know the administration of this would cost an absolute fortune and be impossible to police). Average and poor standard cask and bottled ale and publicans who can’t be bothered put a bit of a damper on what could potentially be the best beer country in the world. At least we can all make a difference!!!

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  4. In a country where we are brought up on heavily-subsidised carling and John smiths, you begrudge ignorance about the lifecycle of a live beer? Sorry but this is not realistic in the case of the average punter. I totally sympathise with you, but I think the education needs to come from the brewing industry.

    Reviewers of course should know better.

    I’ve often pondered the ignorance of the average beer drinker in the UK and how to address it, simply because I love Czech beer, the best beer in the world, and it is near-impossible to get it in the UK because nowhere will stock it to compete against subsidised carling. Madness! The large brewers are happy for the customers to be ignorant because then they can produce carling and John smiths- cheap, and tasteless brews.

    Bah, humbug.


    • An interesting response. You are the second person in as many months that has retorted with the “Czech beer is the best in the world” comment. Best beer according to whom? To Belgian Lambic and Gueuze lovers? To American Double IPA fans. I think this comment is as misdirected as my so-called ignorance about the lifecycle of live beer. As I mentioned in the post, tasting beer is both objective and subjective, so stating that one beer is “the best” is solely your opinion.

      I understand completely that the average Joe Bloggs beer drinker in the UK isn’t up to play with the intricacies of beer. This is not the type of person I am targeting with this post. It is the person that thinks it’s okay to publicly denounce a product and blame it on the brewery as opposed to looking at the possible reasons why a product may be different. I’ve worked for big breweries and small breweries and I definitely agree with you regarding the “ignorance is bliss” mantra that the larger corporations want you to go with. The problem is that smaller breweries don’t have the money to pump into beer and on-licence education, but what we can do is educate through things like social media.

      In my opinion, the majority of beer (with notable exceptions of course) is best drunk fresh. Cask ale in the UK has that advantage and a lot of the amazing filtered and unfiltered beers of the Czech Republic are also better that way. Just like Czech folk wouldn’t be that keen on cask ale, perhaps, the character of unfiltered Czech Pils would not appeal to the average ale drinker over here. Saying that though, one of the more generic Czech brands, Bernard, is something we have on often in our pub and it sells well, whether it be dark or unfiltered.

      Sure, Carling and John Smiths may be subsidised in the off-licence trade, but I can tell you as someone who lives in a pub (that my girlfriend runs) that the keg products are not. They are sometimes more expensive than cask ale.

      I’d like to hope that even small steps such as blogs like these help to inform those that want to be educated. You ask for education to come from the brewing industry? Hopefully, here it is.

      I also mentioned this was the second time I had been told that Czech beers are the best in the world. I was doing a Meet the Brewer night in York a few months back and there was a table of Czech people who attended. They’d had a few beers (in fact, the guy informed me they’d been drinking for seven and a half hours) and thought it was cool to talk over my presentation. That was fine. I’m a Kiwi and joked that New Zealand hops, which we use in a couple of our beers, were the best in the world. It got a few laughs (surprisingly, comedy isn’t my strong point), yet afterwards, one of the Czech guys came up and had a go at me for saying that NZ hops were the best in the world. He said I was talking rubbish and Czech hops were the best in the world. I explained to him that it was a joke and he didn’t get it, going on to begrudge me for speaking of the diversity and excellence of British ale. He insisted that nothing beat Czech beers.

      Now, history isn’t my strong point, but Czech beer, Pilsner in particular, originated through the malting technology that was developed by the British, leading to the production of pale malt. Prior to that, Czech beers were often top-fermented, dark in colour and cloudy. I could argue that Czech pale lager-style beers as we know them today came about because of British ale. What I will do instead is let you do your own research and then talk to me about the ignorance of the Czech lager drinker.

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  6. I really enjoyed this post Kelly. I think a ton of it holds true here in your homeland too, even though we have (practically) no cask ale to contend with, bottled and kegged product is extremely variable at times, and this often reflects on the brewer. Whether it should or not, I don’t know. There was a lot of debate, on and off line when I blogged on that issue recently, and no real conclusions were drawn other than, like your own view appears to be, “wishing things were better”.

    In our case, here in NZ, I hope the education level will gradually improve. In fact, that’s one of the primary goals I personally had for SOBA. That said, a lot of the bitching about big breweries etc comes from SOBA people, who should know better. I’ve always tried to play the ball, not the player – that is, praise of condemn each beer on its merits or lack thereof. Sure, I’l have a dig at what I perceive to be cynical marketing of a crappy product which our Big Two often indulge in, but in the end, if the beer is good, it gets nothing but praise from me. I don’t agree with you that all brewers are just as passionate and devoted though, and based on the ones I’ve met only, I’d definitely say there’s an inversely proportional correlation between size (or perhaps, “corporateness”) of a brewery, and the passion of the brewer. I’m no anti-corporate, but when I say “corporateness”, I mean that air of losing sight of the virtues of the beer you make, referring to it as a “brand”, and getting to the point where you might as well be selling widgets. I’m sure you’ve dealt with this back in your DB days? Anyway, I know you’re right, and there are great and passionate brewers everywhere, regardless of brewery/company size, but I’m just suggesting that I believe the truth of the issue is somewhere in the middle. 🙂

    Loved the Czech anecdote. You should have also slammed the guy down a bit by reminding him that Pilsner was basically designed for them by a German because their own methods were producing crappy beer!

  7. Gonna throw the cat among the pigeons… If there is a percieved downturn in quality when a brewery expands, could this be down to having to deal with multiples and wholesalers rather than direct drop to individual pubs? Working in a small brewery, I’d hazard a guess that the majority of problems we have with on trade quality come from accounts we dealt with through a middle man. Strangely, not when the middle man is another (reputable) brewery… There are always exceptions to this – I could name a few pubs I’d rather we didn’t deal with, however that’s out of my control!
    An example from a few years ago – a pub 50 miles from us wants our beer, being part of a chain, it has to go through a wholesaler. We drop it there (50 miles in the opposite direction), they then send it to head office, another 150 miles away, they return it to where we dropped it, then it goes on to the pub… This could mean that the beer has settled 3 or 4 times since it left us – what chance does it have of clearing, far less the length of time it takes to get there…?

    • @Malcolm Downie – Could be! (or could be part of it)

      I twittered about this problem this week, in response to a landlord who complained about microbrewers’ beers, saying they really should put finings in their beer – I suggested that the beer may well have settled several times before getting to him, and the finings might have been knackered by this – he said he knew that this wasn’t the case for his beers (I’m not sure how he knew that) but the problem always seemed to be with micros – I wonder, could it be that regionals etc are sending out almost bright beer, so thus avoid this problem?
      (I have no direct knowledge of this, I’m just trying to suggest a possible answer to it)

      • I don’t know about them sending out bright beer – I know a regional I used to work at fined beer at dispatch rather than racking, but I also know of several micros that do this… It’s an issue that bugs me, but other than sending stuff to pubs unfined and sending finings along with them (which would cause untold nightmares!)… Any suggestions?!

  8. Um, I never claimed to be speaking for anyone but myself. Czech lager beer is the best beer in the world. I am free man and can make these outrageous claims. British ale is the best ale in the world. there, I’ve done it again!

    I don’t know why people in the UK don’t care where their beer comes from and what’s in it or how it keeps. I think that attitude stinks. It’s such a broad subject and goes as deep as “Why there are so few freehouses these days?” through “When and why did the british public fall out of love with beer?” and just how we got into this position – but I do firmly believe that educating palettes is the right way to start and that interest in the product would follow.

    I again agree that beer is generally best drunk fresh but it’s a sad state that in my local pub here in Rotherham, a CHAIN pub (Sizzler) from a MASSIVE company (M&B), they have one real beer on (Tetleys), which has to last a week because nobody is trained to change it. I don’t drink there any more because there’s nothing reliable to drink. So in this case it’s the industry cartel that’s actively preventing taste (and hence beer) education and even selling more beer! Mental! What an industry. 🙂

    So what’s the fix? The object is that everyone is more knowledgable about ale. As I;ve said, I personally think the best way to teach people that don’t want to learn is to interest them by giving them something that tastes good. Onwards, and we’re into the realm of psychology. Most JS drinkers like the consistency of being able to drink JS wherever they go, in my experience. Real ale isn’t like that- there are eight billion brands and all taste different. That’s a big obstacle, particularly when not every beer is kept well and one badly kept ale is enough for a drinker to brand all real ale as bad.

    I sense this is something that has been and will be debated forever. I think that a mass produced (i.e. branded), consistent, tasty beer (and sorry to go back to it, but PU is a great example) which was made affordable and desirable to everyone would forever taint their taste buds with yummy flavour and put a serious dent in the hull of the Carling battleship. I think a price war between PU and Carling would be an interesting one.

    I’d love Pilsner Urquell to be £1 a pint for six months at my local pub and see the customer retention when it reverted to the normal price of Carling+40p. I bet that retention would be high. But who would fund this experiment?

    Anyway. I do think we’re on the same channel at least, and maybe we’ll rant at one another in @sheffieldtap at some point…..

    Time for a quick bottle of Gambrinus or two before bed.

    PS Re Bernard, you don’t know how much of a gem the @sheffieldtap is to me! Shame I live just too far from there for casual drinking.

  9. I think Mike may have a point here, but it isn’t by any means the whole story and I often say, especially when talking about well regarded breweries, that when I get a bad pint, it wasn’t likely that the beer was bad when it left the brewery. But and this is a quite a big but, a lot of beer leaves breweries that shouldn’t, especially from some micros.

    There is a difficulty in that the experienced cask beer drinker can minimise his or her bad experiences by various techniques such as asking for a taste, going only to trusted pubs, asking other customers what the beer is like etc. Sadly those likely to be most caught out by sub standard or rather, less than optimum beer, are those who are more casual in their drinking approach. For them, that bad experience is likely to severely put them off live beer. Despite the allegations, it doesn’t always happen when “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.” It happens in a lot of good pubs too. Why?

    Going back to some of the things Kelly says, I detect that old problem of the customer being to blame. Until the brewing and licensed trade understand that selling sub standard beer is unacceptable, we are always going to have this problem. Long ago those selling other perishable products realised that you just can’t sell stuff to people when it is past its best. Tesco et al would be horrified if their fresh food was off, but pubs deny it routinely. They can’t afford the loss they say. But what of the customer? Can he or she afford to buy a pint and then thoroughly not enjoy it, having to leave it, or have to face the embarrassment and difficulty of complaining? This is before we think of the reputation of the pub and future customer reaction to brewery of the “dodgy” beer. Every bad pint sold will I estimate cost the publican at least two more in lost sales and reputation.

    Yes there are many variables and we all hope to catch the cask at its peak, but control of the downstream went when most pubs were longer vertically integrated to the brewery whose beer they sell, though of course you still get bad pints in brewery owned pubs, so that’s no panacea either, but these brewers do have some control over the downstream.

    This is an age old problem and one of my hobby horses. A lot of smaller breweries only sell locally and can get some feedback as to their beer’s performance. Bigger ones are swimming in a different pool and have to take the rough with the smooth to some extent. Either way breweries with good reputations are less likely to be blamed for duff beer than the pub. So good products and strict quality control will minimise the problem.

    So does scaling up make a brewery’s beer less good? The answer is sometimes it does. Swap a traditional mash tun for a lauter tun and then try and match the beer exactly for example – not so easy – and lastly, the brewer doesn’t always know best. The customer does.

    Great discussion point.

  10. I totally agree, however the bit that gets me the most is the argument over ‘chemical beer’. The perception that there are artificial beers that are thought up in the lab as opposed to ‘natural pure beers’ is one I have to come up against all the time as a beer educator. Sometimes punters even claim to be able to taste the chemicals!
    I think this problem soundly comes from the brewers (or should I say Brewing Company Marketing Depts) who market thier products as pure, natural, chemical free … it says to the punter if that beer is making a point of being pure then this one must not be.
    The wine industry never painted it self into this corner (A synic would say because of all the additives they routinly add) and as a result dont have this silly situation.

  11. This thread is interesting to me (not in the industry) as the commentary seems to be from within the industry and it seems to contain two prongs: 1) Bad pubs and 2) Ignorant punters. Not wanting to make this the debate to end all debates, I’ve made my suggestion about educating punters, but how should the issue of bad pubs be addressed?


  12. Just a quick comment on the Czech lager being the best in the world. I would second that sentiment with the following caveat, when I talk about Czech lager, I mean stuff from Svijany, Herold, Bernard, Kout na Sumave and Budvar rather than from the stables of the multinationals.

    Having had Pilsner Urquell back in the day when it was lagered for 6 weeks rather than 3, it has changed as a result of SABMiller running the show. Gambrinus has also gone down hill, and now brews and ferments its beer at 13 degrees Plato before watering down for bottling. Velkopopovicky Kozel, once my favourite Bohemian lager has gone from a crisp hoppy beer to a sadly neglected Euro-lager. Radegast should really be re-labelled Standaghast it is that bad these days. And please don’t get me started on Staropramen, 30% corn syrup if I remember rightly.

    But “craft” beer, if you wish to call it such, is growing in the Czech Republic as consumers look to traditional lagers, properly made, with traditional ingredients. I challenge any ale snob to try a Kout na Sumave desitka and not be blown away at the complexity and flavour in that beer – it is a pity though that it is not available in the UK, even more of a pity it is not available here in Virginia 😦

    • I’m not denying the ridiculously high quality of Czech beer. It’s amazing stuff! I was recently talking to a friend involved in importing Czech beer to the UK, someone who has a lot of experience in the Czech brewing industry and knows a lot of the breweries and brewers well. He raised an interesting point, one that would be great to hear comments on.

      He spoke about the use of decoction mashing in the Czech industry, the fact that this system costs a lot more to set up and run than a standard single vessel infusion mash system as is endemic in the UK mcrobrewing industry, and highlighted the fact that if such capital expenditure was going to be made, then the beer had better well be good, so as to support the brewery as a business.

      Hence, trained brewers and staff would be hired, and hopefully the beer would be served well… perhaps an advantage of keg over cask is that in terms of cellar conditions and dispense issues, one really just needs a cool cellar, a cooling python and clean lines. I think this is important in maintaining the integrity of a product as a whole. Most people think of Czech beer as being high quality, they’ve done themselves great favours through the advantages of a draught product and sound brewery systems.

      This, unfortunately, doesn’t exist in the UK with a lot of micros. Often, someone looks at setting up a lifestyle business, goes on a quick course, sets up a brewery, sells average beer and for the first few months, or years, or even longer, may have issues with product quality through inexperience or lack of education. I’m not saying this is the rule of course… loads of brewers over here have done exactly the same, but make absolutely amazing beer! We’ve all been to a pub or restaurant that serves crap food… sure, the chefs may all go to similar colleges to learn their trade, it’s just that some are naturally better at it than others. The problem is, that in countries like Czechoslovakia, this may be less likely to happen because of consumer education (and pride… they love their product), the brewery itself and the fact that most brewers over there are formally trained.

      Would be curious on your comments regarding this.

      Another interesting note, regarding you mentioning the use of corn syrup. You’d be surprised to know that some highly esteemed microbreweries over here also use adjuncts… sugars and the like in their beers, yet still turn out high quality products. It is possible!

  13. @Tandleman – I agree with an awful lot of what you say, especially after my recent experience of having 5 sub-standard beers in the same day, all in award-winning GBG-listed pubs!

    While it’s correct that a change of brewkit can change flavour, but that wouldn’t necessarily be very noticeable to the average drinker, & with careful practices this can be minimised. Also any change wouldn’t necessarily be a drop in quality, just a difference from the previous brews.

    Re “the customer always knows best” – to me, customers are obviously vital to any sustainable business, and if they’re not satisfied with a beer or pub they should & often do rightly take their hard-earned cash elsewhere.

    But do they always know best? Not always in my experience – at their worst, customers like anyone can on occasion be wrong, rude, aggressive, ill- or mis-informed, quick to judge, etc, etc.

    But they can also be one of a business’s best assets – if your quality, marketing, and service are all good, you’ll hopefully be rewarded by hugely loyal and enthusiastic customers, proactive in helping to promote your product.

  14. The customer doesn’t always know best, but at the end of the day, the brewer can think what he likes about the beer, but if the customer won’t drink it……………

    Customer behaviour is another matter altogether.

  15. As a brewer I feel a post like this has been way overdue for sometime, so I salute you Kelly for bringing to light something that needles a lot of brewers, the fact that everyone gives a reason for why the beer they are drinking is not perfect with such bold confidence as if they’ve summoned a quantum computer out of their back pocket input the huge range of variables involved in brewing, conditioning & serving and have come to the CERTAIN conclusion that the fact the beer is not quite as it should be because the BREWERY has somehow devalued their product either through cost cutting or incompetence is to cut straight to faulting the brewery without careful consideration of all factors involved.

    The really knowledgeable beer commentators whether it be bloggers or commentators have an understanding about a wide range of factors affecting the beer in your glass, the natural variation of ingredients, a multitude of factors in the brewhouse to conditioning time, skill of the cellar person, cleanliness of glassware, amount of time on the pumps or in the bottle, microbiological processes when oxygen is present, age of the beer etc.. the list is truly endless, the more you read about factors involved in all areas of brewing & serving of beer the further down the rabbit hole you really do go, nothing is black & white in brewing, every brewer will tell you that.

    I’m not saying for one moment there is no beer out there that is substandard due to the brewery, there really is a lot, but all brewers ask is that drinkers and bloggers take the time to consider why they believe the beer not to be up to scratch and make an informed decision instead of going straight to the keyboard to gleefully make the world aware of a substandard beer you’ve had and how it absolutely MUST be the brewery’s fault.

    And to your point regarding size of the brewery, I don’t see people pointing fingers at the American Craft brewery scene who have grown on scales far greater than their British counterparts, in fact it could be argued that the bigger they appear to get the better their beers seem get, just seems to be inherent it the British mentality that big is bad, size is irrelevant, it is the ethos of the brewery & the PEOPLE within with ideals on quality & passion for their great product.

    You will find one fundamental difference with larger brewers with both good and poor products it is that the ones with poor products have a marketing team bigger than the entire team actually making the beer!

    The key to making informed comments on beer is KNOWLEDGE! Do lots of reading & drink lots of beer and one day we might all become experts…

    • Cheers James, great comments and I agree entirely! Knowledge is important for beer commentators, yet due to the nature of the industry, most people don’t care, they just want a pint!

      The lack of knowledge about what we eat or drink isn’t just endemic to the brewing industry however. If we are to believe the media, a lot of kids today don’t even have a clue about where things like meat come from, others can only name a handful of vegetables. We have so much information at our fingertips, yet continue to get dumber by the day! So many processed foods contain massive amounts of weirdness, yet no one even bothers to comment on these things! I remember doing a research project back at university on an enzyme called transglutaminase. This is used in the bakery industry to add volume to pastries and breads and when originally discovered, the only source of extraction was guinea pig livers. Bite into that croissant… Mmmmm, guinea pig liver. They did, though, figure out how to produce the enzyme through microbial fermentation. Just one example though of us not knowing what goes into our food. Why doesn’t that loaf of cheap white bread from the supermarket not stale as quick as that which you bake at home? We don’t ask ourselves enough questions!

      Here’s hoping that people learn more and this helps them to appreciate our industry a little more, too!

  16. Kelly, I read your post after unloading half a dozen ullaged casks which I know were ruined by the publicans. I could have cried.

    Yesterday – warm and muggy – I went into three pub cellars with no cellar cooling – all of which were in the current Good Beer Guide. One – a holder of Cask Marque – had a cooler covered in mildew and another, regular GBG entrant and CAMRA POTY had a selection of beer taps sitting soaking in slimy water. Yet I supply other, smaller, less celebrated pubs where my beer is whisked into a cool cellar, vented, tapped and dispensed through sparkling equipment, cellar books kept up-to-date … and they never feature in the guides. Needless to say, if they ever mention that one of my casks wasn’t up to standard, I KNOW that I have a problem and I can rely on their feedback to help me improve my brewing.

    It galls me that entry to commercially important listings such as GBG and CAMRA POTY etc is gained without consideration of such elements as cellar cleanliness and consistency of quality at point of serving. How many pubs would let customers check out their cellar? (“Oooh”, I can hear them saying, “health & safety, y’know, can’t have you going down these steps”) And although Cask Marque do de-list if standards fall, how many delisted pubs leave misleading signs in pub windows, implying a standard of care which is higher than that actually apparent in the pub cellar? Is there a role for trade organisations such as SIBA here? Why are cellar conditions apparently unimportant to local environmental health officers?

    We have decided to trade with new customers only after we have checked their cellars. There are several pubs here in Cumbria which I decline to supply during the summer months because of their cellar conditions. Other brewers just aren’t that fussy. Many don’t concern themselves with cellar care – they just drop beer at the hatch and run. Or deliveries are made by dray staff who don’t know about cellar care. This is where the big boys have the edge, and all praise to them for running coherent, comprehensive cellar care programmes which micros just can’t afford to do.

    I think we need to take a leaf from the supermarket books, and make sure that we have a hand in ALL stages of the supply chain – otherwise in some respects we are just wasting our time keeping standards up in the brew house.

    • Great comments, couldn’t agree more! I spoke of brewers being passionate folk, but I do wonder if this highlights another important question… Is the market saturated? Would a brewer just drop off his beer and run if the market was less competitive and micro-brewed beer was treated as the premium product it can often be? Would they be more interested in ensuring that their beer was looked after and served in pristine condition if they could get, say, £10-20 more per cask? If this happened, the revenue from an average 10 bbl brewery could quite easily allow another brewer to be hired… someone that could be put in charge of checking cellars, educating pub staff, helping publicans if they need to improve the conditions with regard to how the beer is served.

      Pipe dreaming, I know… This isn’t the state of the industry at the moment, but I do wonder if peoples perception of so called “pongy” ale can be changed.

      We are lucky enough at Thornbridge to have such a person. Sure, he’s part time, but the difference he has made, particularly in pubs in the local area where our beers are permanent, is invaluable. He understands what we put into making the beer, is as passionate about it as we are and understands how a beer should be looked after, what a cellar should like like and how it should perform, and is the first to tell us if he has doubts about certain pubs, or thinks they need some work. In a lot of cases, this makes our beer better, which is fantastic.

      The industry is moving on, but it’s happening slowly. I just recently read about Dave from Pilgrim Brewery’s ( story about the challenges he had setting up a microbrewery back in 1982. Remember… less than 30 years ago, people looked strangely at a golden bitter! How times have changed!!!

      The more brewers that become aware of quality, not only in production, but in the place of dispense, and the sooner they are able to overcome any issues, the better. I think there is no easy solution to this though. I do think the market is reaching saturation and I hope that only the strong survive… those that care about the supply chain as you do. Good on ya!

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