We have to remember that my informant has worked in the brewing industry for many years. He not only knows what good beer is he also knows some inside information from major breweries as to how the actual recipe has changed over the years. Indeed, most brewers would agree that to make consistent beer you don't simply use x amount of this malt and y amount of that hop; the yealds vary from season to season and also the time elapsed since the ingredient was cropped has to be taken into account. Furthermore, sometimes a particular hop just can't be sourced in certain years due to poor crops or simply due to the inablilty of the hop farmers to accurately judge future variety demand.
The job of the brewer is to choose his ingredients and make a beer that is as close to the brand ideal as he can and within cost constraints determined by his paymasters. How well the final beer matches the desired flavour profile might be tightly controlled by tasting panels, or simply by the head brewers palate.
As brands develop, are sold, reach maturity and then are milked for all they have, the owning businesses often change the dependence on flavour profile as a trade off against cost of production. The two brands that remain anonymous in my opening paragraph are examples, I am assured by my industry insider confidant, of such treatment of beer brands.
There is of course nothing we can do about this. Indeed, why should we worry? Buying the brand name only permits the company to sell something that is called by that name. It might also give it the rights to previous production records and possibly the plant and equipment that made it. However, the recipes and plant are not what make the brand; after all, quite a lot of the Fosters made in this country is brewed by those nice people at Molson Coors in Burton-upon-Trent. I'd hazard a guess that the flavour profile and cost implications of brewing Fosters is far more important to the brand owner than the detail of the exact ingredients. Coors, as the contract brewer, will probably be permitted certain scope for variation of the recipe to ensure the final product meets the specification.
When I hear complaints about beer brands being ruined by the owners I become a little bemused. I understand why lovers of the brands are upset, and indeed a true beer aficionado should be able to tell that a particular beer is not as good, or perhaps has improved, over what he remembers. But if a brand fails to satisfy then why not just move on? there are plenty more beers out there.
This post was partly inspired by Cooking Lager's suggestion that some old lager brands should be resurrected, just so he could taste what lout used to be like. It makes me wonder how we can truly resurrect any old brand that has fallen by the wayside. Malting techniques have changed, hop varieties will have undoubtedly undergone genetic drift and I seriously doubt yeast strains can be kept stable for decades at a time.
My palate has changed in the 30ish years I've been drinking beer. I think I remember what I thought of various brands all that time ago, but I can't be sure. If I think it's not as good, is it me, or is it the beer? I suspect in many cases it is something of both.
I know there are many breweries that cherish the quality of their beers. Some breweries even work at improving their products rather than sticking to some recipe that works. What it results in, and not necessarily in a bad way, is the flavours of beer changing over the years. So, it remains for me to ask, what is important about a beer brand?