Lately, there’s been a shift in the beer conversation. Or, more accurately, the volume has been turned up. If a brewery is not striving for quality, defect-free and clean beer for each and every batch, it should either correct this problem immediately or pack up and move on. There are many fronts in the fight for quality beer.
The poor-quality problem has likely hit us all at some point in our drinking lives. I remember 20 years ago visiting California on a family trip, stocking up on beers that weren’t available for us at home in North Carolina and being supremely disappointed as each and every one was infected or tasted like wet cardboard and was resigned to the drain. Thank goodness we had a supply of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, a beer from a brewery that has always put quality first.
As the number of breweries continues to grow and they turn out new styles and flavors, defining what quality means is hard to put a finger on. Is a lager in a frozen glass poor-quality? What about beers that sit on grocery shelves, not in the cooler, but on the warm shelf? Does it work for some but not others? I don’t know if consumers ask those questions—and more—frequently, but I know ultimately they decide with their wallets in the long run.
The quality conversation usually leads to other questions. How can so many operating breweries be successful? How many will make it? The answers usually come right with the question, as someone in the conversation tells me why they really like a certain beer or brewery, while omitting other ones.
Jeff Alworth’s recent article on allaboutbeer.com discussed how some off-flavors, readily identifiable in certain beers, created the unique flavor profiles that fans and consumers find very pleasing. In the article, Alworth challenges the notion that an off-flavor in a beer inherently makes it lower-quality. Most notably he mentions Pilsner Urquell and its high diacetyl levels as well as the recent pursuit of light-struck flavor via the green bottles used by Jester King of Austin, Texas, in its Le Petit Prince (you can read more on these beers in this issue’s Taste and Explore sections on Pages 60 and 80). I’ll say it: Neither of those efforts is low-quality.
It is an amazing time to enjoy beer and the pursuits of what beer can be. That said, beers that taste like wet cardboard (or other off-flavors) have the potential to turn people away from certain beers. I’m certainly not picking up a warm IPA at a store without a date on it that tells me when it was made or when it was shipped from the brewery. If you come across beer that is past its prime but still on shelves, call the brewers and let them know. They’ll appreciate the gesture.
When we have good experiences with a brewery, it’s not uncommon to share those with friends. And for those times when the quality is off the mark, we’ll share that news with equal zeal. Education and style knowledge are just two ways that can help you identify a quality beer. The more we all strive for perfection, the closer we will come.