Friday, May 7, 2010

Consistency Is the Key

No, I'm not talking about myself. Yes, I understand that my posting has been less than ... shall we say ... consistent lately. But, it actually sort of fits into this discussion and what we mean when we say a brewery or its is "inconsistent."

There's a number of ways that a brewery, or beer, can be inconsistent. And, unfortunately, the word "inconsistent" has a distinctly negative connotation. So, what does "inconsistent" actually mean?

varying and unpredictable
containing conflicting or contradictory elements

Thus, when we say "inconsistent", as in such-and-so brewery is "inconsistent" or such-and-such beer is "inconsistent" we are keying on the "unpredictable" nature of the thing. In other cases, like traditional lager breweries deciding to brew ales, we're talking about "conflicting or contradictory elements."

None of these are inherently bad things. Taking the last item first, take a brewery like Capital or Stevens Point or Sprecher, traditional lager breweries that have recently dabbled in the ale-ish arts. All of these breweries are "old school" - they started brewing when lagers were what the market demanded. Today, the market demands ales. So, they step outside of their comfort zones and try to brew some ales. And doing so makes them "inconsistent" with prior practices - brewing really good lagers. In this case, "inconsistency" with past practice is not bad in and of itself. One of the great parts of craft brewing and craft breweries is the willingness to experiment, to step outside the box and show off the brewing skills a little bit.

Of course, this is where another version of inconsistency steps in. Which is to say, inconsistency in brewing quality. This should be differentiated from brewing defects and brewery quality. In this case, I'm looking at brewers or breweries where some beers are show great skill in recipe creation and beer concepts; yet, other beers from the same brewery fall flat not because of a brewery defect, but because the beer itself just isn't designed to be that interesting. This is a slightly harder position to defend, so I'll some of this play out in arguments in the comments, but I recognize and agree that not every beer needs to be an overly complex flavor monster. My point is, there are some breweries that make world class examples of one style, say a Dortmunder, then completely screw the pooch on another style, say a saison. This kind of inconsistency can be maddening particularly in two situations: one, the brewery is new and you, as a consumer, are trying to figure out if the brewery is one that you like; two, the brewery makes beer that is one the extremes of both good and bad so you never know if a new brand is going to be one or the other.

Finally, there is inconsistency in brewery quality. And this is perhaps most nefarious and hardest to talk about. Brewers never want to admit that their breweries just aren't up to quality or that their sanitary practices are something less than stellar. Yet, you can talk to any number of consumers, or brewers for that matter, who will gladly snicker and talk behind the back to lambast inconsistent brewery quality. There tend to be two primary issues related to brewery quality.

The first is the brewing equipment itself; it's either not maintained properly, being used for the wrong purposes, or simply too old to be of modern commercial use. A good example of this is bottling machines. Bottling machines are ridiculously expensive, so when a cheap one comes on the market, there's a strong desire to try to make due, but bottles end up getting oxidized, infected, or any other host of problems, when they get mis-capped.

The second issue in brewing quality is the brewer himself (or herself). Let's be honest, not every brewer is Dan Carey, or Greg Koch, or Nick Floyd. Even more insidiously, the scrutiny today is simply higher, and beer that might have been tolerated in the 80s or even early-90s is simply not good enough today. So, brewers that refuse to keep up with modern brewing techniques, even brewers that we once thought of as great, will get left behind.

Finally, one last thought. None of these inconsistencies are fatal. A new brand can't be held to the same standard as the same brand that is in its fifth year; recipes change, are perfected, and adapted over time. Brewers have off days and off batches. Brewing equipment gets upgraded. These are all relevant.

So, I make a suggestion for the breweries out there: try batch labeling in a way that is meaningful to the consumer. Because while batch numbering systems are great for brewers to figure out what went wrong when, they are also great for consumers to discuss what went right when. Wines have vintages. Beer should have batches. If the 2010 Batch 1 of Capital Imperial Doppelbock is epically good (it is), being able to recognize it later provides useful information for consumers that increases the value of the brand (not to mention the beer itself on "secondary", or frankly, primary, markets). If a batch is bad, or not as good, it makes it easier for distribution reps to remedy the situation so that you don't have a bad representative of your brewery sitting on a shelf (the beer, not the distribution rep).

And, I have a suggestion for consumers: relax, have a beer. Not every beer, even by the same brewery, or even the same brand from the same brewery, is going to knock your socks off. At the end of the day, it is a craft. It is an art. Yes, the big guys have the process down to a mechanical, boring, process. But there's a reason why we love craft beer - and it's because of the craft, the art, of brewing.

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