Consistency, Quality, Conspiracy

Vintage illustration (1869) of a man peering into a microscope.

At the end of 2015 American consumers began to complain that bottles of Goose Island Bourbon County Coffee Stout and Bourbon County Barleywine didn’t taste right, and were ‘gushing’ — that is, exploding out of the bottle on opening.

The brewery recalled the lot and began an investigation. Now, six months on, the brewery has revealed its findings: there was an infection of Lactobacillus acetotolerans.

We hadn’t been following this story particularly but when Tom Cizauskas Tweeted about it, it caught our attention. First, it prompted us to think, ‘Huh… Isn’t the idea that when breweries get taken over by AB-InBev their quality control is meant to get better, their beer more consistent?’ (It’s a standard component of the ‘I’m glad about this take-over’ stance.)

In a sense, that is true: listening to the Good Beer Hunting podcast where Goose Island revealed their findings (this is kind of an advertorial but still informative and nicely done) it’s obvious that there is more money for laboratory work now than there might have been pre-takeover.

Goose Island IPA at the Windjammer, Dartmouth.

And it’s not as if these issues started with the AB-InBev takeover in 2011 — there were problems in 2010, too — but, still, it seems weird that this problem, and our own little run in with (pleasingly) infected Goose Island IPA, should have happened in the last couple of years, when everything ought to be running like a machine.

(BTW, we later heard from a pub manager in the UK who said he had an entire case of Brett-y Goose Island IPA and arranged, via a contact supplied by Michael Kiser at Good Beer Hunting, for him to despatch a bottle to the US for testing, but it never got sent. So you’ve only got our word on this one and we might be wrong.)

The discussion on Twitter prompted this suggestion from Sam Tierney, who is a brewer at Firestone Walker:

(‘BA’ means barrel-aged in this context.)

There’s the seed of a conspiracy theory for those inclined to think that way: ‘False flag, man! Blame the bugs and bacteria to justify The New World Order! Wake up and smell the mind control drugs!’ (To be clear, we’re definitely not ascribing that view to always rational Mr Tierney.) Introduce a pragmatic solution to one problem and, before you know it, everything is pasteurised and filtered and thus, some would argue, neutered. That is, after all, basically what happened with British keg bitter from the 1950s to the 1970s, isn’t it?

Then, while we’re on conspiracy theories, another thought occurred to us: if you were a disgruntled brewery employee wouldn’t it be really easy to introduce bugs, bacteria and wild yeast to the process at various stages? How do you search a brewer for concealed bacteria on their way on and off the premises? Sniffer dogs? Decontamination chambers? And, as with the classic prawns in the radiator revenge, you could be long gone before your tampering ever became evident.

(One final bracketed disclaimer in a post that is mostly just bracketed disclaimers: we’re obviously not suggesting this has ever actually happened, and definitely not that we think it happened in this specific case, about which we have absolutely no knowledge beyond what we’ve read and heard in the pieces linked above.)

3 thoughts on “Consistency, Quality, Conspiracy”

  1. Big breweries certainly get problems too, including infection. They’re going to be better at preventing them, and sorting them out, than smaller breweries with less expertise and resources though.

  2. ‘course, the bigness of the concern was no special help to them. They still had to rely on the “assistance of a third-party laboratory”. You knows, just like anyone sends stuff out for testing.

    And also Mudgie’s right. The more barrels you got, the bigger the chance that one is infected. You blend them for bottling and it’s all infected. The “craft” process doesn’t scale well.

    Pasteurizing? Why not use flavourings instead of the troublesome barrel aging step?

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