Some time ago I read a couple of posts by Zak Avery regarding beers that are distributed by brewers despite them not being up to scratch. It has to be a tricky one for any brewer. Beer will vary from batch to batch. The precise flavour profile will be subject to variation. Large breweries making many thousands of barrels of beer a year can reduce this variation by using an arsenal of quality assurance weapons, consistent beer is the result. The smaller brewer's beer is likely to have greater variation due to the combination of consistency being traded for interest and the practical inability to apply all the techniques bigger breweries can employ.
A key activity undertaken by some of the bigger brewers, to avoid destroying beer that is out of specification, is to blend with other gyles. Clearly there is a limit to this, if a beer is so truly awful then no amount of dilution with good beer will save it, except perhaps at homeopathic rates. But still, many of the so called "off" flavours are present in all beers. Phenols, diacetyl, DMS, esters, lactic and acetic acids are probably all present in a well balanced beer. Most of the time they are below detection levels for most palates or counteracted by other compounds to simply augment the overall flavour profile. Of course in some beers these compounds are deliberately accentuated as part of the appeal of that particular beer. It is much easier for a large brewer to keep consistency and balance within limits.
Zak asks why brewers release beers that are not quite right, that fall outside what the drinker considers acceptable. I very nearly commented on his posts, as a brewer, but felt that the reply to this simple question is quite complicated. Much more complicated than I could attempt to answer with a simple blog comment. It doesn't help me in answering the question as the beer Zak cites is unknown to me. I'd love to have tried this particular beer so I could draw my own conclusions. However, I know there are many beers I love that other people just don't like, for whatever reason. Against this background I want to try and answer Zak's question from a brewers perspective.
I think I have distilled my own answer into two basic components. One is to do with the acceptability of the damaging flavour compounds and the other is a very simple financial consideration.
Firstly, the perception of flavour is very much a personal thing. Many people just don't get lambics or gueuze for instance, they would consider such beer more suitable for putting on their chips. Indeed, anyone who believes that a true lambic or wood aged beer does not contain any acetic acid1 is somewhat deluded, acetobacter is everywhere and balanced with other compounds, specifically lactic acid, gives these beers their distinctive flavour. Some people cannot cope with the levels of phenols found in some stouts2, I love them as it so happens. I'm also quite keen on tannins, which although generally considered a bad thing in beer does have some provable benefits when drinking with food and are present in many wines. I know people who adore diacetyl, which is a compound I'm reasonably sensitive to, and find objectionable in higher quantities, and Jeff Pickthall can detect it two blocks away and finds nearly any level unacceptable. It is interesting to me that many traditional British cask beers have levels of diacetyl which make them unpleasant to me.
It is apparent to me, that across the spectrum of beers available in the UK, the opinion of what is good and what is not is open to personal preference. An example of this is that I've been working hard to reduce the levels of tannins extracted from the grain husks during mashing and sparging. Although I'm convinced the effort is resulting in me producing more widely palatable beer there are at least two of my staunchest fans have commented that they are not as happy with the results.
Returning to Zak's question of why brewers release beers that are, in his view, unfit for sale. I think it comes down to a commercial judgement. Even a relatively small batch of beer can represent a significant investment, to simply destroy that beer can represent several weeks worth of bottom line profit to be lost. If, in the brewers view, the product passes his acceptability criterion for palatable beer then it will be released for sale. It might not be perfect beer and indeed I doubt many good brewers regularly brew beer that they don't feel could be improved.
There is the grey area where the beer might well be on the border line between acceptable and unacceptable. Especially in these difficult financial times the need to destroy a gyle of beer might well tip the balance between being able to continue trading or the brewery failing. The long term effect of the good name of the brewery being spoilt becomes academic if the business becomes insolvent.
It becomes more complicated with experimental beers; If a large amount of time and resources are poured into the production of a particular beer and the result is somewhat interesting, to the point that it divides opinion, then perhaps it is not wrong to release a beer for wider consideration and take any criticism as part of product development. The difficulty is knowing if the brewer, and perhaps his immediately available tasters, have called it correctly before release. Additionally there might be problems in knowing how the beer might develop in bottle before it is consumed, an almost impossible task for one off and experimental beers unless sterile chill filtering is employed.
It is important for brewers to receive feedback on their beers. This is even more important for experimental beers and I think Zak's posts and subsequent comments represents a little bit of a stand-off between discerning beer drinkers and craft brewers. It seems that beer drinkers aren't quite sure how to approach brewers and the brewers in turn are perhaps unable to field this feedback to their best advantage. Brewers are, after all, brewers and not communicators. I'm sure there will be a time when I make a beer that attracts negative reviews, indeed there are several beer enthusiasts who regularly give me constructive views for which I am very grateful and all goes into making changes to what I do.
This whole issue has been brought home to me very clearly recently when a bad batch of yeast generated impossible levels of diacetyl in two gyles of beer. Towards the end of fermentation there was a somewhat strange smell. The temperature in the brewery was quite hot at the time and although the fermenting vessels have a good temperature control I convinced myself that the yeast tide mark was drying out, warming and going off in the glorious weather we were having.
During racking I was still very unhappy with the smell of the bulk of the beer. I started to think that something had gone badly wrong. I continued to put the beer into cask, a total of around £1500 worth of beer. I put some into bottle for later considered tasting and quarantined the offending casks. A few days later I cracked open one of the bottles. Condition and clarity were very good, but sadly the butterscotch aroma was way over the top. Flavour wise I find diacetyl most unpleasant in any significant levels, the beer simply got tipped down the drain after the first sip.
This is the very first time I have ever had to consider destroying complete batches of beer, but there really was no option. £1500 of lost revenue is tough to cope with, especially as the brewing industry operates on quite tight margins. The cost of the malt, hops, energy and the notional value of my time has all come out of my cash flow and represents a set back to the engineering improvements that I really need to make to my brew kit. The beer was way out of specification and there was just no option.
On the plus side the mistake has also been quite liberating. There is a sort of self-satisfaction at preventing unacceptable beer being made available for sale. It has also taught me some important lessons for yeast handling and stock control, or rather, I should say re-reminded me.
I hope this post goes someway towards explaining the difficult decisions facing the smaller brewer when trying to get his product both profitably produced and to a standard that will protect the good name of his business. I'm not trying to make excuses, although there are many opinions as to what makes good beer and at this end of the industry I think many brewers find it difficult to sort out the many often contradictory comments. This can result in a head in the sand approach. When does balance become bland and when do extreme flavours become off flavours?
There is no doubt in my mind that the brewers that can engage in active communication in this way can look forward to improving their beers. We cannot afford to have official tasting panels, although my own small band of enthusiastic volunteer tasters are invaluable. After that I depend on feedback from further afield. It's a pleasure to hear positive comments. Equally I enjoy the nicely and tactfully put constructive points for improvement. Often I even find myself agreeing, no really, I do agree with people sometimes.
1Check out this link on acids in wine. It seems that wine buffs understand the process of fermentation a bit better than beer buffs. OK, it is true that grape juice contains significant acids not found in grain, but even so the PH of correctly brewed beer is surprisingly low.
Further indications of the acceptability of acetic acid is the fact that peracetic acid is used by many good brewers as a "terminal sterilant" as it requires no rinsing, at levels just above detection I've known experienced beer tasters to confuse this with a "Belgie" characteristic.
2I am finding the subject of the generation of such compounds intensely interesting. I originally thought that phenols were completely generated by the fermentation process. Looking at this article it would seem that they might well originate in the grain, which explains why stouts and other drinks with heavy use of darker grist are naturally more prone to having this compound in them. However, I have from time to time found it in lighter beers where in my view it doesn't belong.
It is interesting that wine making features more in the description of these flavour compounds on Wikipeadia than brewing. Further evidence that more understanding of how we can tame these various compounds is required in craft brewing. I'm trying to increase my understanding and will never profess to be an expert.