The quality subcommittee of the Brewers Association, the trade association that represents small, independent breweries in America, yesterday announced its values, a mission statement, and a definition of beer quality.
This may sound incredibly dry, but it’s critical to the continued success of craft beer. Just as the Brewers Association definition of a craft brewer has done a lot (despite – or perhaps because of – the controversy it attracts) to influence how we see the business of being a craft brewer, this definition of Quality, if championed by the right people (the press announcement featured quotes from Jason Perkins of Allagash Brewing Co. and no less than Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada) could influence how we look at craft beer. Or, indeed, any beer.
Before I go on, here’s the definition:
What is Quality Beer?
A beer that is responsibly produced using wholesome ingredients, consistent brewing techniques and good manufacturing practices, which exhibits flavor characteristics that are consistently aligned with both the brewer’s and beer drinker’s expectations.
The key part is the final clause: [Beer that] exhibits flavor characteristics that are consistently aligned with both the brewer’s and beer drinker’s expectations. In other words, when you order a beer in a bar it tastes like you expect it should and how the person who made it thinks it should. Depending on your familiarity with the brewing process, the beer supply chain and beer dispensation at retail, you may be surprised at how often this is NOT the case.
I worked for eight years for the makers of Guinness, and for as long as anyone can remember (since at least 1929), the internal slogan most commonly associated with the brand is “Quality is the #1 sales driver for Guinness”. Everyone in senior management at Guinness & Co. and later Diageo believes that brewing consistently great beer and working hard with trade and retail partners to ensure it tastes as it should in the glass will do more to sell Guinness than any award-winning TV commercial, sports sponsorship or fancy glassware.
And they’re right. When Guinness is good it tastes amazing, when it’s bad (too old, dispensed on the wrong gas, poured through dirty lines or poured into a dirty glass, for example) it can taste terrible. And the same is true of all the malt-based, rich, aromatic beers being made in the US today. NO brewer wants someone’s first taste of their beer to be different to how they wanted it to taste. (Because they’re unlikely to drink it again!)
How can craft breweries ensure Quality?
Employ the best brewers you can!
Might sound simple, but we’re at a stage now where the market for brewers is full of guys and girls who really know what they’re doing and who have plenty of experience. Don’t just hire your buddy who does homebrewing because he’s fun to drink with and plays good music while he works – make sure your brewing team is top-notch.
Entrench rigid Quality Assurance processes
This should also be a no-brainer, but many brewing companies feel they can’t afford QA until they reach a certain scale. Nope – make sure it’s best practice from the get-go. You need experts making sure every batch is up to scratch before it leaves the brewery, and have the discipline to believe that bad beer in the market will cost you more in the long-run than pouring it down the drain for a short-term hit.
Be proactive in overseeing how distributors manage their supply chain
It’s the distributor’s accountability to make sure your beer is as fresh as it can be when it hits retail, right? Right, but that doesn’t mean it always happens. Breweries of every size should over-manage distributors to make sure they’re getting beer to retail as quickly as is efficiently possible. And storing it correctly. And again, if beer gets to be too old to taste like it should, someone needs to take the hit and dispose of it.
Be expert about the beer dispensation process, and be tireless in helping retailers serve great beer
Probably the two most useful days in my Guinness career were spent at MicroMatic’s training facility in Allentown PA, learning how beer dispensation works, how to identify faults and how to fix them. And I worked in marketing at the time. Guinness is deadly serious about making sure every retailer serves Guinness so that it looks, smells and tastes like it should. (Here’s a fun ad from Ireland back in the day.)
This should be the same for every brewer. From the finance guy to the warehouse guy and especially the sales guy, everyone NEEDS to understand how beer is brewed and how it’s served, and if possible how to identify and solve problems. Believe me, you don’t want to be in a bar, have everyone know you work for a brewery, and then not be able to help the bar manager pour great pints if asked.
Read the BA’s Draught Quality Manual
Which is here.
Apologies if this post is a bit technical for any readers, but beer quality is a real passion point for me, and I applaud loudly the BA’s focus on it. May it yield great results.
And apologies also to the BA for bastardizing their logo above. ‘Sposed to illustrate the BA coming to life. I’ll take it down if anyone complains.