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Generalisations about beer culture

The enigma of variation: how important is consistency in beer?

If you’ve ever spent any time with brewers at larger breweries, or reviewed archives, you’ll know that frequent tasting of the product to ensure quality and consistency is a key feature of the process.

For example, we know from talking to his daughter that a former head brewer at Guinness’s Park Royal brewery in London used to get through a crate of beer a week, not because he enjoyed it – he stopped drinking it when he left the firm – but to check the quality.

Then at the other end of the scale, we had an interesting insight into life at a more experimental, but regionally established craft brewery which we won’t name. We had occasion to hear the marketing manager talk to an audience of non-beer geeks about the challenges of fulfilling a then new supermarket contract:

“We now have to try to be consistent with this beer and hit the same flavour profile each time, whereas we know that when we’re selling to pubs, people just ask for our beers by brewery name – they don’t really care which one it is or how it tastes.”

We’ve been quite sneery about this attitude at times. It seems to confirm our prejudices about newer breweries not having the same technical skill or infrastructure as those which are better established.

But is that entirely fair?

If your market is craft beer bars, where people will tend to be trying lots of new things at once, does it matter if two brews under the same name have discernible differences in flavour over the course of weeks or months?

It gets more complicated again when you consider that even using the same recipe will give you essentially different beers over time.

Hop profiles change with each harvest, for example, even assuming you can get the same varieties of hop from year to year. We often think about Pete Elvin at the Star Inn getting seriously stressed about trying to recreate the hop character of Potion no 9 without access to Amarillo. Brewers have to tinker with their recipes constantly to maintain the sense of consistency –  it isn’t just a question of doing the same thing with the same ingredients each time.

Finally, there is the added dimension that putting a beer in a cask brings. We can all think of examples of beers that taste really different depending on where and how they’re served and, crucially, for how long they’ve been exposed to oxygen.

A key driver towards keg for craft beer pioneers like Alistair Hook was unwillingness to trust their beer to the cellarmanship of others.

For us, a little inconsistency introduced on the front line, in pubs, is part of the way we get to really appreciate a beer we love – not beer being served in poor condition here, just the difference say in drinking ESB that’s been on for one day as opposed to two, three or four.

It feels to us (classic fence sitting position coming up) that there is a happy medium between an industrial product that must always taste the same, and a wildly inconsistent beer. Or perhaps “medium” isn’t helpful here, as we’re much more aligned to the former end of the axis than the latter.

We want things to be consistent enough that we know what we’re going to get if we order the same thing twice, while still having scope to surprise us, just a little, in the subtle details.

3 replies on “The enigma of variation: how important is consistency in beer?”

I prefer a mainstream beer to be essentially the same each time (say +/- 5% if that makes any sense at all) although also like to try aging Belgian bottled darker beers – Chimay especially – knowing that there will be a change in flavour. Probably makes me sound like a rather timid drinker!

As you say you do need a certain level of technical skill and equipment to brew with consistency so I’m sceptical when breweries can’t achieve it. Without technical ability brewers won’t be able to work out what’s happened when something goes wrong or how to put it right, and though brewing is to some extent a forgiving process believe you me there are plenty of things that can go wrong. When I worked on the SIBA technical helping the most frequent calls we got were about haze problems. I’m sure a lot of smaller brewers won’t worry at all about making beer bright nowadays but I’m not convinced that means the flavour will always be improved as is often claimed, in fact some causes of haze certainly won’t. I’m also sceptical when brewers say they don’t want to make cask beer due to quality concerns, rather than say market share or sales price, but that’s another matter.

It’s not just hops that vary by vintage – the new barley harvest also brings challenges for matching to the “house” taste. And even then it’s hard to get right – my uncle says that when he was regularly drinking in a Fuller’s house, he could always tell when the new barley harvest came in, it made such a difference to the malt character.

There’s lots of things about microbreweries that baffle me sometimes, and the quote about pubs not caring about quality is one of them – or at least it shows how some businesses can get so wrapped in a bubble that they don’t see the opportunities that they are missing out on by having a bubble mindset. It’s maybe at the other end of the spectrum to the kind of brewery that’s so popular that their name alone can sell stuff, but I’ve experienced a brewery that could make a really nice beer – sometimes. But every cask was a lottery, some were great others were pretty poor – and a pub just won’t offer that to the public when you have other breweries that are maybe £2-3 more a firkin that are relentlessly consistent. I suspect part of it was the way they were storing them, some of it may have been poor cask washing – and I got the impression that they were taking rather less care of temperature and water chemistry than I do with my plastic-bucket homebrew, which would certainly account for gyle-to-gyle variation. Anyhows, they are no longer brewing….

In another case, a different brewery came up with a new beer that impressed over a couple of months, to the extent that we were on the verge of making it a house beer – and then it changed. I have a lingering suspicion that some of it may have been their beancounters trying to reduce hop costs a bit, but some of it appears to have been either a change in hop vintage or a change in hop source that left the beer almost unrecognisable. They did subsequently get back some of the old character but the moment had gone and we no longer felt we could rely on it, so the brewery lost out on £10k+/year of sales that they might have had if it had been a house beer.

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