Unqualified Success: Brewer Knowledge, Ignorance, and Quality

It can be alarming, the things we don't know.  

When I get a story idea for Beer Simple, I usually whip out my phone and make a note.  Sometimes this happens in the middle of talking to someone (sorry).  Sometimes it happens because the someone I'm talking to is a brewer.  And sometimes it happens because the someone I'm talking to is a brewer that doesn't seem to know that much about brewing.

Let me explain.  One of the running notes on my phone is titled, "Things brewers don't know."  I've been keeping it for about six months now, and in that time I've been noting responses to homebrew club meeting Q&As, casual conversations, and interviews with pro brewers...and it's made me a bit concerned.  

Ignorance is bliss, right?  Wrong.  Ignorance costs.  It costs us because we might not know what that brewer doesn't know, and we get flawed beer.  It costs them because they don't know how to make it better.  It costs craft beer because every time someone drinks a not-great craft beer they might just decide it's a fad that doesn't justify its reputation for quality.  

And the problem is probably going to get worse before it gets better.

A Short List of Things (Some) Brewers Don't Know

Below is a brief list of things that I've personally heard/read professional brewers get wrong.  Those who brew will spot some of the flaws right away - and many of you, even those that don't brew, would still know the answers to these questions.

  • The volume of a barrel of beer
  • What Alpha Acid Percentage refers to
  • What esters and phenols taste like (and assuming they're the same, like people who don't know what gluten is but are deeply concerned about it)
  • What clarifying agents are, and/or how they work
  • What IBU, or SRM, or OG stand for
  • And, perhaps my favorite, what beer they're brewing right then.  I swear, I wish I was making that one up.

Let me state right out of the gate that you don't necessarily need to know the answers to these questions to be a great brewer.  At least one of these fairly-intro-level errors was made by someone whose brewery I consider to be above-average.  But that's the exception, not the rule.  

Most of the contributors to my (not so) little list are making thoroughly nondescript or bad beer.  Now, I know that many of you will react with the standard line of, "Well, people just won't buy it then, and they'll go out of business!"  For reasons I've outlined before, I don't buy that.  And even if it's true, it may not address what is likely a big part of the root problem.

The Thinning of the Brewer Herd

There are too many breweries out there, and not enough qualified brewers to service them.

The growth in the number of breweries in the US is well-documented, and even if it's due to level off (as may be true with the number of homebrewers in the US, according to at least one measure), the number of breweries quadrupled in the last decade.  Each one needs at least one brewer, and most use more than one.  

When I talk to brewery owners/operators about challenges they face, one of the most common is finding qualified brewers.  I live just across the river from a place called Phoenixville, Pennsylvania - population, about 16,000.  It is also home to four breweries either currently operating or soon to open, with two others rumored to be considering an expansion into the town.  That works out to more than one brewery per 3,000 residents.  

Now, let's pretend for a second that those new brewery owners/operators are qualified and competent: the fact that they're working at new (rather than existing) breweries still means that there's strain on the talent pool.  

The success and growth of craft beer might end up being a major challenge to itself.  Even an increase in output might create problems, but we're seeing an increase not only in depth, but in breadth.  More breweries, and expanding breweries.  

Forget selling it.  This isn't about market saturation, per se.  Who's going to brew all of this beer?

Book Learnin' and OJT

At the risk of sounding elitist (which I know many of you are more than happy to point out to me), the best option is probably to encourage every person who tells you they're considering opening a brewery to attend a formal course of instruction.  Or, if you're the one who dreams of making a living making beer, then take yourself out for a beer and talk about it with yourself.

There are a number of long-standing programs (run out of places like Siebel and the American Brewers Guild), and an increasing number of newer college-based programs.  I have no idea what their enrollment is like - I tried, but they don't seem to publish annual enrollment data! - but I'm concerned, based on anecdotal evidence, that it's not nearly high enough.  

And more to the point, the breweries that I (and others) think most highly of are usually employing well-credentialed brewers and technical staff; I'm talking people with degrees from Ivy League universities and multi-year fermentation science programs.  And my list of "Holy Mother of God that's terrible" breweries includes not a one run by someone with good brewing education credentials: all seem to be "self-taught" and proud of it.  Education certainly seems to be a good predictor of quality.

Practical knowledge matters, too, of course, and starting at the bottom in a brewery is a good way to learn.  It's problematic, though, that some are just jumping right into opening a brewery because they're effectively cheating themselves out of a proper apprenticeship.  OJT (On the Job Training) can be costly when you're running your own show, and you may not have the time to learn.  Worse still is when you're selling your mistakes.

One local brewpub recently closed its doors in part because it was selling sub-par beer, produced by a system they couldn't properly control yet (though interestingly enough, the consensus among the owners was that the real problem was that they lacked parking and couldn't get enough purely-local foot traffic - I repeat, we may be keeping sub-standard breweries alive through sentimentality).  That's no way to learn - that's just a way to lose money and build a sullied reputation.

Why It Matters

Craft beer as a whole won't compete effectively with wine, cocktails, and big beer if it has spotty quality.  It will just be able to fake it for a while.  Once conventional wisdom turns, though, and the public collectively determines that craft breweries aren't meeting their own standards, then it will be virtually impossible to get that reputation back, and all craft breweries will suffer.

Instead of thinking "quality," they'll think "mediocrity."

Instead of thinking "valuable," they'll think "expensive."

Instead of thinking "caring," they'll think "sloppy."

Instead of thinking "artisanal," they'll think "pretentious."

That's a turn I don't want to see.  I worry it's already happening.  And think of how much faster it will occur when the "craft" breweries acquired by the big brewers are producing beer that's consistently better than some significant percentage of actual craft breweries - buying decisions by consumers are heavily influenced by the predictable quality of what they're buying, and if there's one thing that the big brewers understand, it's consistency.

We don't want to lose that fight.

Encourage your brewing friends to be experts, not just practitioners.  The beer you save might be your own.

Keep it simple.


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