I’d hope that virtually all professional brewers understand the basics: sanitation, hitting target gravity, pitching rates, fermenting temperature, taking detailed notes etc. Then what is it that separates the breweries that consistently release delicious beers, from those that are reliably mediocre? Is it simply recipe design? Equipment? There is no single path, but talking with brewers I respect over the last few years, some commonalities emerge.
Great brewers tend to:
1. Develop their palates. They drink great beers in the best possible condition, ideally at breweries and brewpubs. They drink with other talented brewers frequently, but in moderation (blow-out tastings and festivals are fun, but what are you really learning from an ounce of beer #15?).
2. Find flavor combinations in beers, beverages, foods, history, and other experiences. They don’t mimic, but rather find inspiration from others’ beers. Few great beers are “clones,” but many do start as reinterpretations or riffs. Great brewers dissect the beers they enjoy. Some talk to the brewer to gain specific process information, others take their own approach.
3. Focus on a subset of beer styles. It is challenging enough to brew even one world-class beer, it is nearly impossible to do it for multiple disparate styles. They pick a stylistic area and try to master it: English ales, hoppy American beers, strong/dark beers, sour fruit beers etc. How many great breweries make a top-tier American IPA, Munich Helles, and ESB? Compare that to the number that many make a wonderful American pale ale, IPA, and DIPA (or delicious hefeweizen, dunkleweizen, and Weizenbock).
4. Think that results are more important than how natural or local the ingredients are. It is fun to use locally foraged oats or hops picked by monks, but if the flavor isn’t as good as those from a larger or more remote producer, then what is the point? Hop extract is used for bittering many of the best IPAs. I love adding local fruit to my sour beers, but East Coast hops have repeatedly let me down.
5. Critically evaluate ingredient quality. Tasting grains, smelling hops, and inspecting barrels. Realize that not all crystal 60, Simcoe, or bourbon barrels are equal. This level of care can be difficult to maintain as the production scale increases, but size does come with advantages. Micro-brewers can go to Yakima or Hallertau to select hop lots, while bigger breweries work directly with producers to have them grow and process the way they want. If you open a bag of hops or malt that doesn’t smell terrific, don’t use it!
6. Understand how to work with pH. The amount of acidity in the mash, wort, and beer can have a profound influence on the expression of flavors in the finished beer. The more measurements you take and the more often you rebrew a recipe the quicker you will learn what produces the best results.
8. Maintain a house culture. Many great brewers have their own microbes either they maintain or at a lab. These strains add a unique flavor, especially once you learn how to coax a particular flavor profile. If you get your hands on a strain you love, bank it. Even if you don’t have a unique house strain, treat your favorite commercial strain like one. After assessing all of the options, use the best one until you really understand how it reacts to various conditions.
9. Adjust “finished” beers based on flavor. Whether it is acidity, water salts, dry hop amount/time, blending batches, flavor concentrates/extracts, unfermentable sugars etc. Realize that brew day isn’t where the choices end. As a homebrewer you actually have more options than commercial brewers because you are allowed to blend in spirits and other fermented beverages.
10. Go to great lengths to prevent oxidation. While most brewers purge bright tanks and kegs with CO2, some go much further for hoppy beers especially. For example, Societe Brewing Company pushes their fermented beers with CO2, rather than pumping.
11. Serve beer at its flavor peak. Hoppy beers and wheat beers go downhill especially quickly (starting within weeks). Limited production helps setup a positive feedback loop where the beer is fresher and thus tastes great, helping it to fly off the shelf, which in turn means that it is generally fresher... Conversely beers that are strong, dark, or sour age well; the more of that aging a brewery can do before selling these beers, the better. In general learning when your beer will be at its best, and assuming it is drank as near to that as possible.
12. Market their beers well. As much as it pains me to say it, having a unique bottle, gorgeous label, stellar reputation, or great story really do make a beer taste better. Set the correct expectations for the beer drinker, and exceed them with the beer. Blind tastings help to avoid undue influence when judging, but miss how beers are experienced in the wild.
Hopefully this (incomplete) list gives perspective on where to focus if you aren’t satisfied with the beers you brew. To borrow a phrase, you taste great breweries' highlight reels, don't judge your average batch against that. While homebrewers have several disadvantages compared to commercial breweries, we have some advantages as well. Get the basics down first, but don’t narrow your focus on styles or ingredients too early while you work to master the first couple stages of homebrewing.