September 17, 2014

In the Name of Hand Crafted

In response to last weeks “The Big Guys” blog, my friend and beer brother, Tyson Arp, Brewmaster at Nebraska Brewing Company posed a question,  “Why do we set the bar so low for craft brewers and accept unexpected outcomes and off flavors in the name of hand crafted?” I feel this is a question many professional brewers have been asking a lot.

Over the last several years, craft breweries have boomed and there are now more than 3,000 craft breweries in the United States. This pays a huge compliment to the craft brewers who have been around for decades. The original craft breweries have paved the way for startup breweries by producing high quality, consistent beers. Paul Gatza, Executive Director of the Brewers Association addressed this concern at the 2014 Craft Brewers Conference saying, “While top end of quality continues to improve, there are some cracks with new brewers.”

It would be great for the industry if these startup breweries were cranking out beers that are of high quality, but unfortunately there has been a resurgence of breweries opening because it is “cool” to open a brewery. Yes, it certainly is cool to open a brewery, but the first thought when opening a brewery is, “Can I brew  high quality beer consistently?” and, “What should I implement into my business plan to ensure that the beer is good?”

Brewers need to have quality brewing equipment who aren't afraid to utilize science in a lab. Don’t cut corners! Buy a good quality brewhouse, glycol jacketed fermenters, a microscope, thermometer, pH meter, and hydrometer. These are the basic tools required to successfully brew great beer. "Sending beer samples to a lab, or counting bacteria in beer… these are the things new brewers are just not doing. We need to get more science behind the art."-Paul Gatza, Executive Director, Brewers Association

Employ brewers who know what they are doing, who have previous professional brewing experience or those who have a brewing or science degree. Choose only brewers who are committed to quality and cleanliness of their facility.

Don’t overwhelm your business plan by trying to do too many things. Map out a plan to brew beer to sample in a small tasting room and leave it at that for a while. Make sure the tap room is open the majority of the week for guests to sample your beer and gain more exposure.

Owning a brewery is your only job! This can’t be a part-time venture. A brewery needs to be nurtured on a full-time basis. Pay attention to what is being produced in your brewery! Over hopping, poor mashing, overuse of spices, and lack of fermentation monitoring result in undesirable flavors. If the finished beer has any overwhelming undesirable characteristics, be prepared to dump it. Commitment to quality is your number one goal and if the beer is of poor quality, DO NOT serve it. Don’t try to put it in a barrel or add fruit or spice to save the beer. There is nothing magical that’s going to happen to convert bad beer into good beer.

Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Limit yourself to four to five popular beer styles and do those well. Brew a great pale ale, wheat beer or lager. Stay away from trying to invent new beer styles. Small breweries do have the opportunity to experiment with beer, but establish a good solid beer foundation prior to expanding your beer portfolio. Chocolate Coconut Mint Berliner Weisse aged in bourbon barrels is just not a good idea.

Craft beer drinkers need to stop drinking bad beer! Beer shouldn’t smell or taste like a dirty drain, plastic or rubber cement, or rotten vegetables and baby puke. Beer should taste like beer and be recognizable as beer. Drinking bad beer sends the wrong message to breweries that are producing bad beer. The message beer drinkers are sending is that you are willing to pay a premium price for a poor product. As a consumer, it is okay to say what you are drinking isn’t good.  If everyone stopped drinking bad beer, the breweries that are producing these beers would need to change their operation or risk going out of business.

Finally, to follow up with Tyson’s question, we should never ever lower the quality bar in the name of hand crafted. New breweries need to be committed to doing things the right way and if you cannot commit to good quality, wait. Wait until you are mentally and financially able to brew high quality beer.

-Randyl Danner, Director of Beer, BeerKC


September 07, 2014

The Big Guys

Craft beer bars and craft beer drinkers around the country are notorious for dismissing the Big Guys. Who are the Big Guys you ask? Anheuser-Bush and Miller-Coors, and any other macro brewery in the US. The question is why are these breweries being dismissed? 

There is a perception within the craft beer community that the Big Guys brew beers that don’t have any flavor and are of low quality, but I’m here to say that this is a misguided perception. What is amazing about the Big Guys is that they brew beer that has the exact same outcome every time they release a beer. The Miller Lite you drink today will taste the exact same a week, month, year down the road. To brew a beer a light beer, in the quantities they brew, and make it the same every time is not easy. Brewing relies on agricultural materials that change every harvest. The Big Guys are great at analyzing the raw materials they receive and tweaking every single recipe so that every Miller Lite you drink is the same every single time. 

Another perception is that Pilsners and light beers are not high quality because they are light in color and flavor. Pilsners were one of the first beer styles brewed in Bohemia and Germany. This style was perfect for the Pilzen, Bohemia (now Czech Republic) climate and materials and ingredients available. Pilsners are brewed using light pale or pilsner malts, noble German hop varieties, and slow fermenting lager yeast. Pilsners showcase crisp, sweet, cereal malt flavors and spicy hops without residual yeast fermentation flavors that ale yeast would produce.

Due to new technology in the early 1840’s, malt kilning was improved which allowed for lightly kilned malt and not the dark, roasted, smoky malt that brewers previously were forced to use for their beer. The proximity of Bohemia to Germany allowed for Pilzn brewers to use the German noble Saaz hops in their brews, and the mountain region provided caves perfect for that close to 50 degree temperature that lager yeast loves for fermentation. Once fermentation was complete, brewers would move the light beer further into the caves and pack it with ice to cold store. During this process, the beer would sit on the yeast and allow the yeast to absorb intermediary fermentation character produced during fermentation. Once conditioning was complete, the finished beer was a crystal clear, straw colored easy drinking beer. Thanks to new crystal glassware, beer drinkers could see through this brilliantly light colored beer and appreciate its crisp, clean flavor and drinkability. This beer style quickly became the most brewed style in all of Europe and to this day is the number one brewed style. 

The light ingredients used in this style of beer don’t allow any room for error. If the beer is flawed, it is very noticeable. For example, the popular American style IPA is loaded with bitter, pungent, resinous, floral, citrus, piney hops which help to cover any undesirable fermentation off flavors. Pilsners don’t have that intense hopping or darker roasted malts to cover up fermentation flaws. Brewers of Pilsners have to ensure that the beer is brewed perfectly from start to finish. If not, undesirable flavors in the beer will be obvious. 

As craft beer bars or craft beer drinkers, we don’t have to always like to drink what the Big Guys brew, but we have to acknowledge what they do and how they’ve paved the way for craft breweries. Without the Big Guys, there wouldn’t be the large numbers of beer drinkers who may decide that they want to venture out to try new beers, at which point they realize that there are other beers available than light beer. 

There is a place for every beer. It may not be in the craft beer bar, but there is a place. Many craft breweries are starting to brew Pilsners and light lagers. Sierra Nevada has been brewing Summerfest for years, Pilsners and other craft lagers are the next thing in craft brewing and we have the Big Guys to thank. 

-Randyl Danner, Director of Beer, Beer KC