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.