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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.”
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.
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 email@example.com.