Monday, February 11, 2013

Has commercial beer been becoming better or worse?

Cases of beer in my basement.Better - 62%
Worse - 20%
About the same - 17%
(591 votes)

Obviously it is hard to generalize when there are so many breweries, and the selection of beers at the average liquor store or bar has been growing steadily. There are hundreds of new breweries, many of which are being experimental with their recipes and ingredients, while the senior craft brewers have become more established with money to devote to quality control.

Sometimes it seems like brewers aren’t making beer that is quite as good as it was when I started paying attention to craft beer (~2004). I suspect much of that is that feeling is that in the nine years since I’ve sampled so many hyped beers and those from well established brewers, that I usually find myself buying new releases from smaller breweries that may not have their process completely dialed in. Probably not the smartest thing, but I never turn down buying the first beer I see from a new local brewery. Although conversely, I almost never buy a beer from a new brewery on the West Coast (if I haven’t heard of you and you’re already shipping beer 3,000+ miles, there is something wrong).

You’d expect a brewery that stays in business brewing the same beer to do a better job of it as time goes on. Repetition allows brewers to dial in their equipment, process, ingredients to make the beer more delicious when fresh, more consistent, and more shelf stable. Although it seems that some breweries expands too quickly without gaining a hold of their process. Other times the care/process/ingredients that worked originally aren’t feasible on a larger scale.

Even if a brewery is brewing a beer that tastes exactly the same as it did eight years ago, my taste buds have changed. The additional years of drinking and brewing have honed my palate to recognize off-flavor that I was blissfully unaware of before. It could also be that what was a new and exciting flavor/aroma for my young palate has been topped again and again by the beers in the intervening years.

These are small issues compared to the amazing growth of breweries making fantastic beers. There are now dozens of breweries all over the country that are making terrific examples of pretty much every style imaginable, and yet there are always breweries coming up with stunning new flavor combinations. This is thanks to a supply chain that is increasingly catering to craft brewers, brewers pushing their craft, beer-rating websites raising the profiles of excellent breweries, and consumers voting with their money. Hopefully beer quality keeps improving, and we see brewers taking those amazing ideas and turning them into delicious realities.


zeus said...

as someone who has worked in both a production brewery and brew pub, i think the growing trend is that in order to keep up with demand, many craft production only facilities are cutting corners in order to pump more beer out. contrarily, brewpubs have been killing it the past few years. this is just my opinion, but smaller brewpubs killed it this past year at GABF. while GABF is not the be all end all of what good beer is, i think it's important to note this trend. sorry for the shitty punctuation and lack of format.

Ed said...

No doubt in my mind that the craft beer industry as a whole has raised its game substantially from where it was ten years ago... Maybe even five.

At the same time, craft beer drinkers have raised their expectations. Which is great to some extent; but some of us go overboard, knocking a quality beer because it isn't rare, made with zany ingredients, and "x-treme!".

Mega Dude said...

Yes, Craft beer has gotten better. The number of quality breweries has been constantly increasing. However, craft beer has also has an abundance of craft breweries making crap beers that were opened by one of the million people who have the money to throw at a brewery before they are even done with their first mr beer batch. We also have the trend of using out there ingredients and processes that usually sound a lot better than they are (spinach, cinnamon, dill pickle porter). Craft beer has been getting better if you know what to look for. As far as taking chances on new beers...I would rather save my money.

Derek said...

It's definitely both. There's a good-sized regional brewery in Tempe, Az, that a few years ago used to make beer that was quite good, but the batch-to-batch variation was pretty large and I'd bounce between choices based on how things tasted that day.

Now, their beer is even better and the consistency is vastly improved. You know what you're getting every time, even before they opened their shiny new brewhouse a few months ago.

On the other hand, I was in San Diego a couple months ago and while some of the bigger guys are better than ever, I went to a few of the new ones for tastings and couldn't believe how bad some of the beer was. Like, walk-away-after-half-a-sample-glass bad.

I also think this new trend of opening first, dialing in recipes second is odd. If everything you sell is good, but you're still playing around with options, fine. But if you're just throwing crap against the wall to see what sticks ...

I appreciate the way in which Modern Times is going open source but not charging everybody $5 a pint for the privilege of being a beta tester.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

It’s a very good observation that there may be different segments of the industry headed in different directions. I was amazed to read in For the Love of Hops that brewers evaluating the hop crop for a particular variety will sometimes pass on the “best” (most aromatic, complex etc.) lots if they don’t fit the character of the beer they are buying for. To me, that is where a big brewery loses its way; let the beer get more aromatic, or even buy that lot too and find another beer to use it in!

The push/hype for rare beer is often subconscious. That added anticipation and excitement of trying a beer you’ve heard about, over one you picked up without any knowledge of at the local liquor store. I think rare beers also tend to command higher ratings because the people who go out of their way for them tend to really like that style. Freshness is a big factor as well. Not many people are drinking four month old cans of Heady Topper, but that isn’t the case for many more common IPAs.

Cheers, and glad to know not everyone is San Diego is knocking it out of the park with every swing... Even if we dial all our recipes in perfectly on the small scale, converting the process to the big system will still take some trial and error.

Anonymous said...

I think commercial beer in general has been getting better, on balance.

There is an ever-growing number of small breweries all over the place these days. I think that some of them are more opportunistic than really driven by excellence, but overall I think the expansion in choice is good for beer drinkers everywhere. And anyway, most of the small breweries being started actually do seem to want to make good beer.

Where I think we can really see that beer is getting better, though, is in the offerings of the megabrewers. It's clear they are scared of the growing craft beer scene, and the proliferation of beers from the big boys that pretend to be craft beer shows that they know they have to get on board. I'm not saying that I reach for a Blue Moon or a Black Crown when I am thirsty - far from it - but only that it shows the movement in the industry is toward craft or craftlike beer, and that the industrial brewers are being slowly turned from their course of dispensing flavorless fizzywater and relying on their marketing campaigns to convince us it's "good beer." Yes, the marketing is still there, but at least there's some tiny deflection in their course.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Well said! Even when you look at an acquisition like Goose Island, they aren’t forcing them to cut the big/weird/funky stuff. It wasn’t to get a single big selling beer. They seem to realize that brewing really interesting beers helps fuel sales of the bigger sellers. Sure Dogfish head sells the crap out of 60 Minute, but the chicha and Chateau Jiahu are what get them TV shows and New Yorker articles. Hopefully it works out that the more biases against cloudy/dark/hoppy beers are actively broken down by the macros, the more consumers will find themselves will to try craft beers.