Craft beer: Clouds on the horizon

The popularity of craft beer could be hit by poor-quality products and a lack of consistency in the finished article. Producers must take urgent action before the sector gets a bad name, says Martyn Cornell.

Craft beer, however you want to define it – and that’s another article entirely – is booming, not just in Britain and the US, but around the world, with new small breweries opening up practically daily from Russia to Argentina.

There has never been a wider choice of different styles of beer, from the ubiquitous, such as IPA, to the deeply obscure, like Grodziskie, a smoked wheat beer from Poland that died out in the 20 th century, and was revived commercially only three years ago.

But a spectre is haunting the world of craft beer, and if not checked it could dampen down the entire world-wide boom.

That spectre is quality: too many new small brewers, experienced observers say, are producing poor-quality beer, and when the consumer complains, excusing it with the claim: “It’s craft beer – it’s meant to taste/look like that.” The problem has even led to the ‘invention’ of a jokey new beer style – “London murky”.

But if the consumer has too many bad craft beer experiences, then inevitably he or she (and craft beer is a sector where female consumers are increasingly important) will give up and turn to the mainstream producers who, whatever their failings, have made a fetish of reliability.

The problems facing the brewer in delivering a quality product to the consumer are myriad. Mistakes in brewing techniques can result in a host of faults, from too much diacetyl to beers that are over-estery or phenolic. Poor handling can lead to skunky or oxidised beers.

And with draught beers, the brewer is at the mercy of bar personnel who can be guilty of all sorts of crimes, from not cleaning their beer lines, which will lead to even the most carefully brewed beer becoming infected and foultasting, to poor stock rotation, meaning slow-moving beers become stale.

The situation was summed up by Rob Lovatt, head brewer and production director at Thornbridge in Derbyshire, one of the half dozen or so most admired new breweries in the UK, who said: “Despite being extremely proud of the craft beer revolution in the UK, I often shy away from ordering a new craft beer unless I’m damn sure it’s going to be a good pint. I’d rather opt for a safer bet at the bar or bottle shop and go for an established craft beer or German beer.

“Often craft beer can be not just hazy but actively soupy, flat and/or oxidised, and people are expected to pay a premium for these beers. In addition, some newer craft breweries are concentrating heavily on marketing without paying the same attention to the quality of their beer, something they could probably learn from the big boys.”

Feature findings

> The craft beer sector is booming but too many small brewers are making poor-quality beer.
> Even the most fastidious brewer is at the mercy of bar personnel who might fail to clean lines or carry out proper stock rotation.
> Rob Lovatt of Thornbridge Brewery says the buying-up of small brewers by international beer conglomerates is good for quality control.
> Meantime founder Alastair Hook says techniques learned from bigger brewers are essential to maintain flavour stability in craft beer.
> Small brewers that fail to provide consistently good-quality beer will fail to thrive

Lovatt suggested that the recent spate of purchases of craft brewers by international beer conglomerates, such as AB InBev’s snapping up of the Camden Town Brewery in London for £85 million or so late last year, “can only be good news for the customer”, with the giant brewers’ dedication to consistency meaning drinkers will get the craft beers that they like brewed to the standards they deserve.

His viewpoint was echoed by Alastair Hook, founder of Meantime Brewing in Greenwich, London, which itself was acquired by the international giant SAB Miller in 2015 (and has now been sold on to the Japanese brewer Asahi).

“Beer quality is the holy grail for any selfrespecting brewer,” Hook said. “What makes the modern craft beer revolution so exciting is that we are able to benefit from technologies that the global brewers have used for decades and apply them to beers with more inherent flavour qualities.

At Meantime we have been the first modern brewer to systematically use the raft of advanced but expensive techniques learnt from the big guys. The most significant of all was in-line oxygen monitoring, which we picked up from Greene King in 2001.

More recently ESR [Electron Spin Resonance] has helped us establish the flavour stability of our beer. You can add techniques involving ‘thermal load’ and sterile filtration, yeast propagation and centrifugation to all of these.

These methods are essential to get the quality of beer required to break the mould at retail level.”

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