Even by "craft beer explosion" standards, there are a lot of new breweries near me. Forget the ones in the nearby major city: I just mean the ones in my own suburban backyard. As they open, local beer friends and I invariably stopped in and tried their beers, and as the social media posts began stacking up one of our homebrew club members asked: how do you evaluate a new brewery?
How, indeed? There's always just tasting the beer, but that's like evaluating the climate of a place by just visiting it on one day. Maybe that one day isn't typical, or symptomatic of what things are usually like and where they're headed. My wife, Barbara, and I spent exactly one day in Bergen, Norway. It was glorious: sun shining, cool breezes, drinking hyper-overpriced Pilsner while sitting on the Bryggen (the historic harbor district, now a retail area and UNESCO World Heritage site) after a wonderful walking tour of the city, including the "oldest street in Norway." To us, Bergen is sunshine and open-air dining. Turns out, we just got really lucky: it rains in Bergen 231 days a year, on average (that's worse than Seattle, by a pretty big margin).
So, long story short (too late): tasting is just one part of the process. Let's make the story longer, though.
The first thing you might consider is how many offerings a new brewery has available, and what they are. You can usually get this information from press releases, the brewery's website, or reviews that might have popped up from soft openings.
I don't like to see anything more than six beers on offer, to start - maybe eight at the outside. I know what it takes to start up a brewery (having seen it at close hand on a number of occasions), and a place with a dozen or more beers on in its first couple of months probably hasn't had the time to run them all through test batches, refine recipes and processes, and tune them up. While every brewery learns by doing, at least in part, jumping in too fast with too many beers is a potential warning sign that they're willing to sell mediocre (or even bad) beer, rather than building slowly and offering high-quality products.
I also like to see signs that you're thinking and/or that your brewery has a focus or personality. One sign of this not being in evidence was seen at a new brewery I visited a couple of years ago. They had four core beers (good start!), but they were a Pale Ale (OK), an IPA (a little redundant, but I get it), a coffee porter and a generic medium-strength stout. It's on those last two that I got my red flag: if you're only making four beers, why those? Who's going to buy your stout who wouldn't like that coffee porter, and vice versa?
Anyways, it isn't determinative in any way, but it's something I think about.
Nothing quite like that first taste, though. There's some luck-of-the-draw here: maybe their best beer is their Pilsner. If it is, I'll probably hit that before I try the DIPA (just for palate reasons), so I might get a good vibe right off the bat. If your brewery, though, phones it in on some kind of session Kolsch and it's just OK, then a drinker's first impression might be that you're a little too blah. Just something to think of for you brewery operators out there! Don't write off those "crowd pleaser," lighter, low-ABV beers.
As previously noted, I don't like tasters of a beer, and I'm kind of skeptical of flights, so I usually go with a half-pint or better of a couple of their beers in my first visit. That way I'm getting it as it's initially poured, a little decarbonated and a little warmer as I work my way down the ounces, and then one flat, warm-ish last sip. I just find it to be a more useful set of perceptions than even a 4-6 ounce short pour, and certainly more so than a one-ounce sip.
For me, this is just a baseline. Even my least favorite breweries get more than one visit if they're newly-opened. But baselines matter. Take mental notes of what they seem to do well and what needs work (a place I just went to this weekend turned out some great American pale ales but has something really odd going on with their Belgian yeasts/fermentations), and file it away for future reference.
Return of the Beer Geek
After a few weeks, I'll stop in again. This is primarily to provide a point of comparison: a data point isn't a trend, and two data points isn't something you should hang your analytical hat on, but it's something.
All I want to see is improvement. Even a little. Some of my favorite breweries stumbled out of the gate, but quickly started refining their processes and recipes and you could taste the difference almost immediately. Breweries that do that will usually, with time, produce killer beer. Why? Because those are the breweries that care about feedback and know how to act on it.
I also want to see if they're resolving their focus: is the brand developing in a way that makes sense? Are they still producing a phone-book-sized list of beers in jack-of-all-styles fashion?
This initial return trip is usually enough to get a bead on where the brewery's headed. But just in case...
Beer in the Wild
After this, I'll usually try to find a place's beers on tap somewhere other than the tap house and give them short trials "in the wild." Believe it or not, sometimes they get better with a little age and/or coming out of a different system. Just like you shouldn't judge any brewery based on how their beer tastes at any one bar (because that bar might be bad at serving beer), you shouldn't forget that the tap room itself is just one bar!
It also gives you additional data: are they getting better? Worse? What's being put on tap out in the market? Is this just going to be one more on the endless IPA list, or will their cedar-aged Altbier be out there, too?
Somewhere between six months and a year in operation, I'll give any place its last visit before writing it off (assuming it's not coming off well in these evaluations). Maybe it took a while to learn the system. Maybe they needed to bring in a lab guy/gal or hire a new brewer, and it took some time to get the new staff up to speed. Maybe they didn't know how to operate their glycol chilling system at first or a thermometer was mis-calibrated, which made their first beers hot, estery messes.
Whatever the case, when you're coming up on a year in business, you've had plenty of time to work out the kinks. I'll give you one last try, and we'll see where we are.
If there's evidence of improvement, OK, I'll try again in a few months. If not...
Glutton for Punishment
OK, I know I said that was the last stop, but it really isn't. Even the worst breweries in my area will get a test drive now and again, even after years of disappointment. Maybe I'm just an optimist, but I have to believe that bad breweries can't stay in business for years without doing something right.
In those cases, though, I've never been turned around. Maybe it's just accumulated bias/informational ballast. Maybe there's a house flavor I just can't get past, like how I love seafood but despise crab in any form.
Whatever it is, it isn't enough to stop me from giving them another shot. It's like Charlie Brown and the football. I just can't help thinking, "maybe this one will be great!"
So, to make a long story long, how do I evaluate a brewery? Endlessly.
Keep it simple.