Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bad Beer: Shopping Tips from the Quality Control Department

What is wrong with this picture?
We here are not into the philosophy of “naming and shaming”. I get no pleasure in publicly ripping on people or companies unless they have done something truly terrible. Even then, what would we be but common muckrakers? We will leave that to those who like their rakes muddy. The perpetrators of the crimes I will speak of will not be named but they will be used as examples. For the record, I quite like the beer pictured above. It was just too bad of a mistake not to share with you. I can't believe I didn't notice a sealed bottle was half full.
Here are some tips on quality beer and some warning signs to look out for. These are some things that set my radar off and make me apprehensive when buying beer. 

They aren’t necessarily surefire signs something is wrong. They aren’t even surefire signs something is right, either. One thing you need to understand is the precise definition of “quality” in the context of manufacturing and Quality Control (QC). Quality means hitting your specifications and nothing more. Because this is what defines quality you really can't argue that a company makes a poor quality product when what you really want to say is that the product isn't suiting your needs. 

Those imitation Q-Tips can't clean my ears very well but they are all the same length, fluffiness and weight defined by the ear cleaning scientists who designed them. They make a quality product.

Keep that in mind when you hear about a company boasting about their quality. All this means is the factory isn’t shipping lemons very often. You are the one who has to figure out if what is on the shelf actually suits your needs. Quality and Value to the end user aren't the same thing.

Big beer companies think they make ‘better’ beer because they spend so much on quality control and in-line sensors. The big guys do a great job at making the beer taste the same every time and giving it a long shelf life. They are really, really good at hitting their spec. 

Here's the problem: they choose to make beers with rather bland specs. If you are looking for bitter, flavourful beer then you need to find a company that is manufacturing to a different specification. Here are some things to watch out for in your search:

1)      Too many Beers

If you have a beer in every major style, experimental styles, and seasonals too then you might not be hitting it out of the park with all of them. It is probably fair to say that you are gambling a bit when you have to pick 1-2 beers out of a large lineup. Some of the might be great but you might pick the two stinkers. Did they put more effort into their core products or into their one-offs? Can you even identify the core lineup?

Here we can see the appeal of the Steamwhistle philosophy of focusing on one product. I don’t believe that you are fundamentally distracted by having two beers available, but the lesson can be summed up as simply not spreading yourself too thin.

2)      Zany Recipes

Green beer will be good when snakes return to Ireland
I am all for experimentation. I am drawn to new flavours, ideas and interpretations. But just because it “hasn’t been done before” doesn’t mean it is a good idea. Sometimes the you can be blinded by the strange heliotropism of a bright idea as it flashes before you. I well know that ideas, inspirations and the fever of the creative mind are compelling forces.

Unfortunately, your guiding light might just be a flash in the pan. The goal of experimentation is not unqualified novelty or experimentation for its own sake. Nor should it be intrigue. You must deliver on a grand scale if you are going to make your customer curious. Expectations and imagination are also powerful. Don’t let them down.

Greatness is the goal and glory must guide you. Don’t bottle your experiment because it is an experiment. Chalk it up to experience and pour it down the drain if your science project just doesn’t pan out. Steve Jobs was right when he expressed pride in the things he hadn’t chosen to foist on consumers.*

3)      Fill Height

You might be thinking I am being picky here but this is a small detail that speaks volumes about how a brewery is run and how effective management has been in getting employees to care as much as they do.  Whenever you delegate work to someone and your name is on the label your need to watch your ass. You can be damn sure I won't be delegating my good name to a zit-faced stoner because he is a source of cheap labour.

The height of the beer in bottles is a clue to a number of things.

  • The more headspace is in there the more chance the beer has to oxidize and the faster oxidization can happen. There is a reason big brewers measure dissolved oxygen in parts per billion. Oxygen pickup is bad. Underfills mean more surface area and more oxygen.
  • Overfilling is also a clue about where your beer comes from. You might be happy about that extra sip of beer, but you should be concerned about a place that doesn’t care or notice about the quality of its presentation and packaging. It might be an honest mistake or you might be buying beer from lazy people. When I see bottles on the shelf that are both over and underfilled I feel the same was as if the labels weren't straight.
  • You also might want to fill the bottles properly to comply with packaging regulations and consumer reports on the local news.

 I want to reiterate that this isn't about being picky. I understand that a milliliter here and there can be written off as irrelevant. Odds are most consumers won’t notice. But that doesn't mean that from a quality standpoint you can write fill height off entirely. Proper fill height is an important trade issue. Shrugging and saying “who’s gonna notice?” is a slippery slope.** Go back and look at the picture at the top of the article. 

I can tell you from personal experience working on a bottling line that fill height can be a big deal. This is especially true if you have a machine that fills inconsistently and if you aren’t using state of the art equipment with laser beams and whatnot to check fill heights for you. You will have to look at every bottle like a hawk and eight hours of this will push your ability to give a damn to new dimensions. I was very proud to work there and I took giving a damn about fill height quite seriously. 

Apparently, I still do.

4)      Bad Batches

The cost of pouring away a batch that is messed up, whatever the reason, will be much smaller than the money you will lose later when people lose trust in your brand. This is obvious and is often said in many contexts. I have had beers that I did not like or that went bad for reasons beyond the brewers control. I did not truly know the meaning of this nugget of wisdom and take it to heart until I had a beer that was flat out terrible because it was poorly brewed. I am bad at picking favourites, but this was undoubtedly the worst.

I cannot walk past this brand without remembering that disappointment. I really liked one of their other products but I am extremely apprehensive about trying it again. They messed up the stout and the smoked stout. What if they mess up that nice blonde they make too? Frankly, finding out is a risk.

This isn’t about inconsistency. Its about integrity and trust. I could honestly care less if a beer isn’t precisely identical every time and proven to be so in a peer reviewed journal. I will settle for damn close, still tasty and not drifting over the years. But don’t ship me a beer that is not drinkable.

Conclusions: watch out for little details. They mean something. Don't forget the big details either. Most importantly, does the product hit your spec?

*Steve Jobs would have made a fantastically egomaniacal beer baron.
** Most people don’t know how the sausage is made, so to speak, and companies can get away with shenanigans like this.

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