From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, August/September 2014

The Art Behind Quality Craft Beer

by Tim Donald

The craft brewing industry in the U.S. is booming. The number of U.S. craft breweries increased 15.3 percent in a single year, up from 2,401 in 2012 to 2,768 in 2013, according to the Denver-based Brewers Association. Sales of craft beer (measured in barrels, or bbl) increased by 17.2 percent in 2013, despite a decrease of 1.9 percent in the overall national beer market. Craft brewers, defined by the Brewers Association as brewers that produce 6 million barrels of beer or less annually, are a relatively small part of a large market. In 2013, craft brewing held a 7.8 percent market share of the $100 billion overall U.S. beer market. Craft beer sales were $14.3 billion in 2013, representing a 20 percent growth in dollar sales over the previous year, according to the Brewers Association.

Ask craft brewers what role quality plays in the maintenance and growth of this rapidly expanding niche market, and they will tell you that quality is an essential ingredient, as important as the hops, malt, and yeast that are responsible for the character of their beer.

“Our goal is first quality,” says Rich Michaels, quality and innovation manager for F.X. Matt Brewing Co. in Utica, N.Y, creator of the Saranac line of beers. “Our goal is that when you purchase a beer out in the trade, it tastes just as fresh as it tastes here at the brewery.”

Consumers pay a premium for beer brewed in relatively small batches compared with those produced by the large breweries—those that produce more than 6 million bbl annually, such as MillerCoors of Chicago or Anheuser-Busch of St. Louis. In return, they expect consistency and quality, and this can be a matter of life and death for small startups venturing into the craft beer realm.

“If you allow inconsistencies, it’s really going to hurt you in the marketplace,” Michaels says. “As craft becomes a bigger part of the beer segment, quality is going to be the difference between being in business five years from now and not.”

What constitutes quality and consistency in craft beer production? The issues are the same as for many other segments of the food and beverage industry: careful production, exacting sanitation, reliable distribution, and appropriate equipment, according to the craft beer quality experts interviewed for this article. The ways these elements are applied and come together in the form of delicate and delicious beverages are explored below.

No Difference in Issues

In its 2013 annual report, Anheuser-Busch reported global production of more than 360 million bbl of beer in 2013. With total U.S. craft beer production at 15.6 million bbl in 2013, that means “it takes Anheuser-Busch about two weeks to produce what U.S. craft does in a year,” notes Bart Watson, PhD, chief economist for the Brewers Association.

Nonetheless, the quality issues for giants like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors are the same as those for craft brewers, quality managers say.

“From a quality perspective, all the concerns are the same,” says Jim Kuhr, director of brewery operations and brewmaster for F.X. Matt. “Whether it’s a light American lager or a big heavy craft beer, the same issues affect it.”

“Budweiser is just a different flavor profile, and, believe me, I worked with Anheuser-Busch for 15 years, and they make high-quality beer,” says Rob Fraser, quality manager for Sierra Nevada’s brewery in Chico, Calif. “It’s just different.”

In fact, while the large brewers have some advantages over smaller companies because of their greater resources, they face challenges that many craft brewers do not.

“The challenge [is] that American light lager is one of the most difficult beer styles to execute well. It’s very delicate, really nothing to hide behind, so if you make a mistake it will be much more readily apparent to the consumer,” says Jaime Schier, director of quality at Harpoon Brewery, based in Boston. “In craft brewing, we have a lot of alcohol, hops, and malt flavor that can cover up some of the minor sins you can commit as a brewer.”

In addition, the major brewers have multiple production sites throughout the country—MillerCoors has nine, Anheuser-Busch a dozen—so there are challenges with flavor matching from one facility to another, with different water sources and different equipment.

“But in total, the things that affect light lagers affect craft beers as well,” Kuhr says.

Keeping it Fresh

Perhaps the most important factor for maintaining quality in craft brewing is making sure the product in the field is consumed when it is fresh. One difficulty in this respect is that control over freshness decreases as length of the supply chain increases, from brewer to distributor to retailer.

“Beer is better fresh, almost universally,” Kuhr says. “As a brewer hands over control of their product when it hits the distribution channel, that’s one of the challenging aspects of trying to deliver that product to your consumer, that flavor you’re looking for. All brewers struggle with that, big and small.”

Working with a reliable distributor is essential for monitoring the quality of the product as much as possible. “We do everything we can to work with distributors who know how to take care of beer,” Kuhr continues. “You want to work with a distributor that’s successful in their whole portfolio of brands.”

Harpoon, which sells more than half its product in Massachusetts but distributes as far as Texas, uses a combination of distributors and employees to monitor its stock.

“We select distributors who are diligent about keeping appropriate stock levels, having their reps visit the retail locations far more often than we can visit them, having appropriate stock levels in a given location, and pulling stock when it’s getting long in the tooth,” Schier says. “In every area where we distribute, we have a brewery representative, a Harpoon employee who liaises with the distributor and does brand-building and promotional work, visiting retail accounts. Those guys do as much as they can to keep an eye [on] the freshness of the beer.”

Sierra Nevada has field sales quality managers who help to ensure that products are cold and there is good rotation, Fraser says.

“We have national and international distribution, so our number one problem is making sure our beer is kept cold,” he says. “We don’t want our bottles or cans to be stored at any greater than 49 degrees Fahrenheit, and we prefer it be stored between 33 and 49 degrees Fahrenheit. Our draft should be between 33 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit. All the distributors have been told that we want our beers to be kept cold.”

Beyond the distributor, at the retail level, “that’s one part of the beer culture where we haven’t made much progress yet in the U.S.,” says Schier. “If it was up to the retailer they would never pull anything from their shelf.”

The industry has taken steps to try to educate retailers about caring for craft beer products, for example with the Draft Beer Quality Manual available from the Brewers Association.

In retail stores, beer can be kept warm or even hot on the floor, frustrating the efforts of quality managers.

“Our rule of thumb is that every increase of 18 degrees Fahrenheit doubles the rate of staling of the beer, so if it’s stored at 68 degrees Fahrenheit the shelf life will be roughly cut in half,” says Sierra Nevada’s Fraser. “It’s nearly impossible to address [the variations at the retail level], so we focus on producing a beer with as long a flavor stability and product stability as we can get. We focus here on making sure our flavor profiles are consistent and stable over that shelf life.”

The Harpoon Brewery in Boston, Mass.
The Harpoon Brewery in Boston, Mass.

Making the Yeast Happy

Quality beer starts with quality brewing, which proceeds through stages including malting, mashing, lautering, fermenting, conditioning, and filtering. Like any kind of cooking process, careful attention is required at each stage to ensure consistency and quality in the finished product.

The fermenting stage is one of the most important components, and, according to brewing quality consultant Alastair Pringle, of Pringle-Scott LLC in St. Louis, one that is often underemphasized.

“Some people don’t understand that yeast is a living organism that you need to treat right, just like you need to treat your tomato plant right if you expect it to grow,” he says.

The brewer must ensure that the wort—the liquid extracted from malt in the mashing process—has the nutritional qualities that the yeast wants, and that it has “the right balance of fermentable and nonfermentable carbohydrates to produce the right balance between alcohol and sweetness from unfermentable sugars,” Pringle explains. “Focus on the components of the wort, and then making sure that you treat the yeast right, that you pitch it at the right amount into the wort, and that you get the right amount of oxygen in there for growth. The single most important thing is to get the right amount of oxygen.”

When these elements are combined in the right quantities, he says, “the fermentation becomes predictable, and so does the quality of the beer, in that it tastes the same and analytically it’s the same.”

Once this stage is past, where oxygen is essential to yeast reproduction, further oxygen intake must be minimized.

“Zero would be the goal,” Harpoon’s Schier says. “Any exposure to oxygen after the beer has fermented will shorten its shelf life and remove the gustatory enjoyment of the beer, make it smell sweet and flat and flabby. Brewers work really hard to keep their oxygen exposure down, and a dissolved oxygen meter is an incredibly valuable piece of equipment to help with that.”

Keeping the living yeast healthy is vital for flavor production, Schier notes, as the yeast imparts a large percentage of the aroma and flavor present in the finished product. Producing the high-alcohol-content beers common in craft brewing can be stressful for yeast.

“In addition to ethanol, which is a form of alcohol, and carbon dioxide, which is the fizz in beer, yeast also produces a wide range of secondary metabolites, and they give to beer a big part of its flavor. Healthy yeast will produce those secondary metabolites in consistent and pleasant ratios. Yeast that is stressed out or unhappy will produce those metabolites in ratios that are inconsistent so that you don’t get the same beer time after time, or unpleasant combinations that just don’t work that well,” Schier says.

Sanitation is Key

The craft beer industry is fortunate, from a safety standpoint, that no pathogens can survive in beer with normal alcohol content, bitterness, carbonation, and pH. From a quality standpoint, however, brewers must be constantly on the lookout for what Kuhr, of F.X. Matt, calls spoilage organisms, “which would make beer not taste good but would not make it harmful. It doesn’t take much of a lapse of process to allow those sorts of bacteria to get a foothold, and then they will quickly have a negative impact on flavor.”

So essential is sanitation, he says, that “most brewers spend their first several months of their career just learning to clean, before they are ever trusted with brewing.”

Fraser concurs: “Craft brewers take sanitation and microbiology very seriously. There’s a lot of manual cleaning on the craft side, whereas the bigger breweries are more automated.”

Used kegs are washed when returned to the brewery, and are cleaned internally with a caustic, an acid, and steam before being rinsed and refilled with beer, Fraser says. Sierra Nevada also uses a keg line monitor system (Rotech, Swindon, England) to validate the cleaning process, and occasionally opens kegs to make sure they are being cleaned properly, he says.

Nick Matt, CEO, (at left) and Rich Michaels, quality and innovation manager, (at right) weighing hops at F.X. Matt’s annual Saranac Hop Harvest.
Nick Matt, CEO, (at left) and Rich Michaels, quality and innovation manager, (at right) weighing hops at F.X. Matt’s annual Saranac Hop Harvest.


As the craft brew industry is growing, so are the educational opportunities for those in or entering the field. The Master Brewers Association of the Americas (MBAA) has identified 32 colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada that plan to start, or have recently started, certificate or 2- or 4-year degree programs in brewing.

“We are working to assist these institutions in formulating their curricula so that what they teach and the credentials they offer are recognized by the brewing industry,” says Karl Ockert, technical director for the MBAA. These programs are in addition to a number of existing brewing schools and organizations.

People enter the craft brewing industry with a range of educational backgrounds, Schier says.

“We look for people to work in our quality department who have chemistry, microbiology, or food science degrees. To work in the brewery they are better off with a mechanical, electrical, or chemical engineering background. But at a brewery like ours, there are also plenty of ways to get into the industry as a novice trainee,” he says.

“Having a science background helps a lot with brewing because there’s a lot of biochemistry in mashing and microbiology in the actual fermentation,” says Pringle, who is also an examiner for the Institute of Brewing and Distilling in England, which provides internationally recognized qualifications in the brewing industry.

Integration is taking place between the brewing industry and the more general food industry, says Kuhr, at least partially as a result of greater awareness of food safety issues among brewers.

“The FSMA has shined a light on the fact that we share some of the same risks, and the brewing industry needs to integrate a lot of those practices,” he says. “I don’t know if this had been on the radar of a lot of brewers, especially startups who don’t have a food background. I have seen interest going both ways, with brewers recruiting people from the food industry, but also people with food safety experience seeking out opportunities in craft.”


This year’s Craft Brewers Conference, April 8 to 11, in Denver, drew 9,000 industry professionals, the largest attendance to date, according to the Brewers Association. A glance at the list of almost 500 exhibitors demonstrates that there is no lack of instrumentation available for the brewing industry.

One trend in the industry is toward miniaturization, automation, and making things simpler for brewers and equipment operators.

“For 30 years, every time you went to a meeting somebody had a bigger instrument that was more complicated and more expensive, and that’s really not what the craft industry needs,” says Pringle. “It needs simpler methods, smaller instruments. For instance, we used to measure haze in beer with a meter that cost $18,000. Now you can buy an LED turbidity meter for $600. This is the way the craft industry needs to go. Because these small brewers can’t afford the highly specialized technical people that the large breweries have, but with the newer equipment they can do just about the same.”

Kuhr agrees: “A lot of brewers are on brewhouse version two or three, stepping up from a fully manual operation to a pretty highly automated operation. The accuracy and robustness of a lot of the lab equipment has improved a great deal.”

Still, small brewers need to maintain a balance between using automation to improve consistency and sticking with traditional methods, Sierra Nevada’s Fraser says.

“Our big focus is to assure quality through process control, and you can achieve that through automation. We are a fairly large craft brewer, and some of the smaller brewers don’t have as much automation, so maintaining a consistent flavorful product can be more challenging. But often craft brewers prefer to retain more manual processes, and we still have a lot of those processes here because it maintains the art of the beer.”

Donald is a veteran journalist with extensive experience covering a variety of industries. Reach him at


From Bars to Baristas...

Specialty Coffee Adds Layers of Complexity to Obtaining Quality

Another field that has developed a large specialty niche in a parallel timeframe with the rise of craft beer is the coffee industry. Half the U.S. population drinks some type of specialty coffee beverage—cappuccinos, lattes, macchiatos, iced coffees—and 30 million Americans consume these types of drinks daily, according to E-Imports of Vancouver, Wash. Specialty coffee sales account for nearly 8 percent of the total U.S. coffee market—similar to the craft beer segment of the total U.S. beer market—and sales are growing by 20 percent per year.

And as with the craft beer industry, quality is paramount in providing the experience customers are looking for in specialty coffees.

“Throughout the farm-to-cup supply chain there is a lot of quality control that takes place through the normal transactional process, by exporters, importers, roasters, private label brands, and retailers,” says Spencer Turer, vice president of coffee operations for Coffee Analysts. His firm, based in Burlington, Vt., provides independent analysis of coffee and coffee products for all of the above stakeholders.

(A word about terminology: The Specialty Coffee Association of America defines “specialty coffee” in a specific way, referring to the quality of the beans and their preparation. For the purposes of this brief discussion, “specialty coffee” means espresso-based beverages such as lattes and cappuccinos.)

“Coffee is an exotic item,” Turer says, with green coffee coming predominantly from outside the U.S. “We talk about a global industry, but it’s not one industry. Definitions for terminology may be different from country to country, from one producing origin to another. Understanding the language of green coffee allows buyers and sellers to communicate more effectively, without ambiguity.”

Canned coffee in the grocery store is usually a blend of coffees designed to produce a specific flavor profile of taste and aroma. The quality emphasis for manufacturers is to make sure the coffee looks, smells, and tastes the same way every time, Turer says.

While the quality of the beans and their production is important, water quality is also a high priority. The standards for quality of brewed coffee established by the Coffee Brewing Institute in 1952 by Dr. E.E. Lockart, Food Science professor at MIT, still holds true today, Turer says.

“When you’re brewing coffee, you want to extract 18 to 22 percent of the materials from the ground coffee during the process. The final beverage should have 1.15 to 1.35 percent brew solids. The rest is water. So with such a high percentage of water in the beverage, it is important for the water to be the right vehicle,” he says. It is essential to establish a system that can maintain the level of dissolved solids, neutral pH, remove any impurities or aromas, and eliminate components such as sodium that can be harmful to the extraction process and affect the flavor of the final product.

Another level of complexity is added with espresso-based drinks, he says. “A single espresso has a much higher ratio of brew solids to water than a drip coffee. The process happens so quickly, with such small amounts of coffee and water, that any variation in any of the attributes of the grind-dose-tamp-extraction process get magnified dramatically in the beverage.” Add to this the variations introduced by the use of steamed or warmed milk and other ingredients, and “the amount of quality control for baristas making espresso drinks is much more detailed than with drip coffee,” Turer says. “It takes one skill set to be able to do it well, and another skill set to be able to do it consistently.”

Turer likens the barista to “a coffee chef or a highly skilled bartender.” The skills of baristas are part science and part art, and employee development is essential for the retailer. Many of the functions on the scientific side can be supplied by automation, however, and some retailers with multiple outlets lean in that direction.

“The fully automated machine grinds, doses, tamps, and extracts all by itself. All the science is taken care of by microprocessors. So now you’re spending more on equipment and less on employee training,” Turer says. “The issue is, when you automate, you eliminate the poor quality beverage, but you also lose the ability to control the production of grind-dose-tamp-extraction to create a truly specialty quality beverage, a high-quality drink.” That capability still depends on the barista’s art.—T.D.

Methods in Aroma Recovery for Enhanced Coffee Extract Quality

By Dr. Stephen Masters and Ulrich Niesse

In the production of instant (soluble) coffee powder, aroma recovery and off-flavor removal have significant impact on the quality of the end product. This discussion describes the processing steps required to produce premium aroma-rich instant coffee with reduced off-flavors without compromising on extraction yield.

After handling of the green coffee beans, the initial stage in producing coffee extract is roasting and grinding the coffee beans to the optimized particle size distribution for extraction. The size of the Roast and Ground (R&G) particles is the first consideration to achieve efficient aroma recovery. More finely ground R&G particles maximizes aroma extraction and yield, while specially designed percolators are required in order to handle the fine particles without having an unacceptable high pressure drop across the percolators and a high risk of filter blockage. To manage this process challenge, new percolators, such as from SPX, are wider and shorter than conventional percolator designs so that finer particles can be used while limiting the pressure drop. Specially designed top and bottom filters on SPX percolators further enable extended running times and minimize the risk of filter blockage.

To achieve the best extract quality from the extraction process, methods have to be used which can gather and preserve the premium aromas. Therefore prior to commencement of the extraction process, steam stripping of aromas from the roast and ground coffee recovers the most volatile and desirable aromas. The resulting aroma-rich steam is condensed and stored under chilled conditions to be added back into the extract prior to coffee extract standardization.

Once the most volatile aromas have been stripped using the steam, the coffee extract quality is further enhanced by using low-temperature, lenient extraction conditions. The primary, aroma-rich extract this produces is stored with the aromas recovered from the steam stripping.

A second high-temperature extraction stage takes place to obtain high yield, hydrolyzed extract. This stage of aroma extraction forms undesirable off-flavors which, are removed to maintain premium extract quality. The undesirable off-flavors are removed by flash separation in a vacuum vessel. The secondary hydrolyzed extract is then cleaned in a centrifuge to remove sediments and subsequently concentrated in an evaporator.

Steam stripping of aromas followed by the low-temperature and then high-temperature extraction conditions (known as dual-dual extraction) helps to ensure the primary aromas are preserved while still maintaining high extraction yield. Once the hydrolyzed extract has been concentrated, the premium aromas are added in-line to the concentrated extract to obtain the desired aroma quality in the extract. Due to the high viscosity of the concentrated coffee extract, using an in-line mixer at this stage can achieve good homogeneous mixing compared to mixing within the tank.

Dr. Masters is regional sales manager at SPX Flow Technology, Food and Beverage Division (coffee). Niesse is sales director at SPX Flow Technology, Food and Beverage Division (coffee), and can be reached at



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