A Matter of Time: Evaluating a New Brewery

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.

Structural Considerations

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.

First Impressions

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?

Last Stop

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.

JJW

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Is Craft Beer Demanding Too Much of Service Staff?

Maybe it's just bad luck, but I've run into some deeply challenged wait and bar staff lately:  overwhelmed, overconfident, overwrought and/or undereducated about the products they're serving.

I don't expect every front-of-house employee to be able to give me the rundown on how pH is a much less useful concept in evaluating the sourness of a beer than titratable acidity, but many are just running scared from one pint to the next.  I don't especially mind when folks just don't know something - worse is when they try to completely bullshit me.  Describing a Maibock as being "lagered instead of brewed with a bock yeast to lighten it up" is just nonsensical.  It's worse than a shrug, because it's clearly an attempt to sound competent despite the fact that what you've just said makes almost no sense.*

The Deep End

So, who's to blame here?  

You could blame the staff, but honestly, I can't do that.  For one thing, I used to be in that position, and I'm sure I misrepresented my fair share of information, too.  I'm also confident I did so in an attempt to appear knowledgeable about what I was serving, even if I didn't.  If their worst sin is image-protection, I think we can all understand that one.

No, I think you have to put most of this on bar owners and, to a lesser extent, on craft beer culture itself.  One created the deep end, and the other shoved us all into it.

Moving Targets

Let's say you're a well-meaning, beer-loving businessperson and you're opening a bar or restaurant.  As a beer lover (or, maybe, an opportunist who likes the idea of charging $6-7 a pint for beer), you want your bar to have a deep tap list that includes a wide range of craft beers.  You talk to some distributors and breweries, curate your list, and throw open the doors.  What kind of training do you give your staff?  

Answer: it doesn't really matter, even if you approach it seriously.

Let's say your staff learn, by rote, the details of each beer on the list (and let's further assume that that's even possible and you aren't pushing an absurd 60+ tap list).  Within a few short weeks, that list is changing.  Are they re-learning all of the new beers, or are they all just plugging along and trying to use the names of the beers to guide them (good luck with that)?

Your tap list represents a moving target.  And your staff - if you're like most service industry locations - is in a similar fluctuating state, with new people coming in all the time and institutional memory (such as it is) going out. 

A transient staff and a diverse and near-constantly shifting product selection.  What hope is there that you can get a reasonable answer to almost any question about what's on tap?

Nobody Expects It - But They Should

Then there's the Spanish Inquisition that often occurs when beer people hit the bar; nobody expects it, as the boys of Monty Python told us, but they really should.  I mean, first, when you offer a specialized product lineup you have to expect that beer neophytes might be intimidated by this and ask some questions - that's normal, and it's a problem that they might not be getting great answers.

Worse, though, are the beer geeks (and faux beer geeks) who turn the thing into 20 Questions.  A central feature of alehole behavior is the showing off of (real or imagined) esoteric knowledge of beer arcana, and this often lurks in the guise of asking questions of bar staff.  "So, which strain of Brett is in that pale ale?  Because Brett L can be a bit too piquant..."  

Yes, the very existence of craft beer culture creates the a scenario where a deep-dive/forced-drowning situation is virtually unavoidable, whether it be the newest or hippest people to walk up to the bar.

Information to The Rescue?

I know, I know, some of you are already yelling at the computer that we can all just whip out our smart phones and do our own research.  

And others are accusing me of creating a straw man because the tap list will have descriptions, too.

What I'd say to all of you is this: those have both, arguably, become unreliable narrators in the story of Craft Beer.  Ratings sites exist, but many don't offer descriptions of the beers in question - just reviews written by people who may be no more knowledgeable than you and subject to the same face-saving techno-babbly bias.  You can go right to the brewery's website, but the Maibock description above was also direct from the brewery, so that's certainly no guarantee of accuracy.

Then there's this: why should I have to?  

I've mounted this horse before, and I'm honestly not sure there's a clear answer, but if beer is going to be complicated, and style descriptions are going to be so broad as to be meaningless, and seasonal/one-off/collaboration/specialty beers are going to hit us (by popular demand) at a rapid rate, and bars are going to build out Hydra-like tap systems with a fecundity that rabbits would admire and then abdicate the responsibility to hire staff that know what's going on behind them, then...well, we might prepare for some pushback here.

I know that it's my simple-oriented bias showing itself here, but maybe - just maybe - we should start demanding quality over quantity, and not just in the beer, because the experience of drinking it matters, too.

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).

*So here's what's wrong: this sentence draws distinctions without a difference and doesn't make a whole lot of technical sense.  True, there are "traditional "bock yeasts, so you could reasonably say that "this Maibock is different because it's not brewed with a bock yeast."  I wouldn't put it that way, but OK.  To go on, though, and say it is "lagered instead" draws two different fouls.  First, "lagering" is just cold-storing and can apply to any beer, even one brewed with an ale yeast.  Second, if the implication is that a lager yeast was used instead of bock yeast, there's a problem because bock yeast is lager yeast.  Last, lagering doesn't "lighten up" a beer, in any sense of the word.  It wouldn't lighten the color - color would stay the same or even darken, because oxidation is inevitable and oxidation darkens a beer.  It wouldn't lighten the body through continued fermentation, because by that time fermentation is complete.  And it wouldn't lighten flavor because as beers age the malt tends to come more to the fore since other flavors literally drop out of the beer.  So, yeah, we've got problems there.