Monday, 14 May 2012

The Relationship Between Consistency and Quality (or, Lager Is Like House Music)

I was in a pub in the Lake District this weekend, drinking a blonde beer from a brewery I'd never heard of. It was unpleasant, slightly tart, with a plasticky phenolic finish. I'm all for returning pints to the bar if you're not happy, but I just wasn't in the mood for it that night. There were a few of us chatting over dinner, and so I laboured through it, hoping for something better next. One of my companions asked me what the beer was like: "Bloody awful" I replied. He tried it: "Jesus, that IS awful. I thought you were just being a beer snob, but that isn't right, is it?". We have a brief discussion about how although it's tempting to write off a brewery based on a bad pint, it might just be a bad batch, or a bad cask, or even a cellaring or dispense issue.

I scan the bar, and decide the lesser of the four evils presented to me was probably Theakston's Best. It was the most likely to be consistent with what I was expecting, by virtue of having come from a large and successful brewery. But that was odd too, also slightly phenolic, so perhaps rather than the beer being poor in itself, the pub does have a  hygeine issue. Maybe the lines haven't been properly rinsed after cleaning. Still, the tally of bad pints is two for two, and I think about switching again. Stuff it, I'll have a whisky - Glenrothes 10, very nice. Although the Tirril Lager font that I've ignored sets me thinking.....

A couple of days ago, I was in another pub, catching up with another friend over some food and beer. He was drinking Staropramen, I was drinking Kozel. I don't normally drink lager, but I just wanted something cold and clean to go with the pigs cheek scotch egg (thank you Town Hall Tavern in Leeds). It was a revelation, not in reference to any undiscovered flavours, but for its clean, consistent, cool bittersweetness. It's like the moment when, stuck in a monumental traffic jam on the A303 one night, I finally "got" house music - it's just there, that beat, always solid, always loud, providing a rhythm for you to exist within. Lager is like house music - eternal, omnipresent, and in varying levels of quality. After three pints of Kozel, a pint of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was a crazy flavour bomb, all toffee malt and pithy hops. Sensational.

These experiences got me thinking. Am I just being seduced by big-brewery quality control into thinking that their beers are better, because they are more reliable? My Kozel experience has left me positively disposed towards drinking more of it, whereas my local beer experience literally left a bad taste in my mouth.

Put simply, is consistency a factor in quality? And if the answer is yes (and I think it is), then how big a factor is it?

21 comments:

  1. Consistency at point of dispense is harder to control than consistency when it leaves the brewery. Keg is always going to be more likely to be consistent than cask because it doesn't rely on as many people to be served correctly.

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    1. But Steve, how important is consistency to you?

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  2. Aren't consistency and quality two of those circle things Boak & Bailey do? Overlapping quite a bit, but not totally?

    The brewers/breweries I admire are those who aren't afraid to send a product out the door that doesn't taste just like the last batch, but is instead "good" in a different way. Perhaps a little more apple and pear rather than lemon and tangerine.

    What's consistent is their quality control, not necessarily the aroma/flavor/taste.

    I'm 100% against selling flawed beers - for instance, here in the states, seem to be a lot of people who don't understand the difference between properly sour and infected - and 100% for lack of consistency. Which did not answer your question.

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    1. So for you, consistency isn't necessarily linked to quality, but quality control (QC) is paramount. I understand what you're saying, but when I condense it like that, it makes no sense!

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  3. I liked the music analogy.

    Anyway, to your question. It is very important to me, buying a beer shouldn't be like a lottery. Yes, smaller breweries will have differences between batches and that's alright within certain parameters and flawed beer should not leave the brewery. Problem is that many of the smaller breweries don't seem to get what "quality control" is about...

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    1. Yes and very!

      If I want to drink something new and different I'll choose something well, new and different. If I'm parting with cash for something I know, like and recognise I want it to deliver on that.

      The brewmasters at Grolsch say the only reason for the second beer is the quality of the first. I'd say the only reason for the third, fourth, fifth....is the consistency of the second.

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    2. I agree with that, but is quality synonymous for being 'in spec'? Which leads me nicely on to my supplementary question - does having tight QC make for a better brewery, and conversely, does good beer ever come from breweries with little or no QC?

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    3. I think QC is important to prevent a future flawed beer and to somehow set the basis right for a future great beer. If there isn't QC the brewers wouldn't know what to improve (there is always something to improve) or if something isn't working particularly right in the process.

      Of course, good beer can come from breweries with little, if any, QC, but I see it more as a matter of luck than design.

      Either way, if a brewer expects any of us to give them our money, they should treat us, the consumers, with respect. Doing their best to keep a consistent quality is part of that.

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  4. Consistency should be what a brewer aims for, that's why the big boys have internal tasting panels, to ensure that this weeks Best Bitter is the same as last weeks and last years. The Master Brewer understands the variations in Malt and Hops and adjusts accordingly.
    For the smaller brewer it is more problematic as the resources aren't there, but they still must strive to get that consistency, it's surely about reputation.
    And as for those who fail to get it right there are options;
    bang it out as a 'special',
    hope nobody notices,
    say it's the first of a series of 'variation'.
    And I'm sure there are other excuses as well.

    But if the failure to meet consistency means they're putting out a substandard, or even infected, beer then they will deserve any brickbats coming their way.

    Drinking a beer regularly because you like it is directly linked to consistency, if it isn't what you expect then you stop drinking it. There are beers I no longer drink because I've been disappointed with recent examples, I'll give them a second chance and maybe even go back months later, but if it's lost that consistency I understood then it's not something I'm going to drink again.

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    1. True again, although I know of a few brewers who will deliberately tinker with the dry-hop schedule of their beer to make something slightly different each time. They claim that 'it's part of the conversation with the drinker'. I like that idea, but I wonder how that relates to quality and consistency?

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  5. My take is that I don't really mind slight variations from batch to batch from small breweries, but that I expect better from big ones, simply because most of the time they have the ability to ensure that isn't so. By saying better, I mean less variation, or if you like, greater consistency. I was just thinking of the consistency thing yesterday with regard to my morning tea. I always drink Yorkshire tea, always use the same teapot and the same amount of water in the pot, but there are sometimes slight variations in the taste from different batches of tea bags, therefore in the consistency. But never in the actual drinkability. It is still a recognisable quality product.

    So I agree with you. It is a factor in quality and a very big one. Bad beer, off beer, poor tasting beer, is not the same as slight ups and downs in consistency, as long as the taste is still within parameters that you are happy with. Now is reliability another aspect of consistency? Yes. Are you being seduced by big brewers? Yes - but in a good way.

    Oh and your music analogy don't work for me. House music is like someone drilling through your head. That isn't a joy. Good lager most certainly is. So lager is not like house music, but you are on the money otherwise. :-)

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    1. Tanders - I think that you're right on all counts, except you've clearly never had a night in a good club, with your shirt off, dancing all night in selfish pursuit of the groove.

      I'm not sure that I'm getting seduced by big brewers, but more that I'm becoming more intolerant of shite beer from smaller producers. A bit of flavour variation, a few IBUs here and there, no biggy. Rebadged garbage? Well, stick it, frankly. I wonder if I would rather settle for predictable mediocrity than odd flashes of brilliance with a lot of rubbish thrown in?

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  6. For me consistency is hand in hand with quality. All beers should have specifications, if the beer is outside those specs then the beer should not leave the Brewery.But then there is a difference between quality and what makes a tasty pint. for example Budweiser's QC is top notch and it is a consistent quality pint, but is it a tasty pint ?
    So you need consistency, quality and that other thing that makes for an enjoyable tasty pint

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    1. That's an interesting take - what if it was out of spec, but technically free of flaws - essentially a different beer, albeit a good one? Just think up a new name, or call it "Extra"?

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    2. That's difficult, any beers out of spec are normally destroyed. If they go out of spec they invariably become unbalanced and so are not free of flaws. Never had a beer out of spec that I would risk the beers reputation by sending it out to trade even calling it something else

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  7. Jenni Nicholls, of the lamented Northcote Brewery, and Mike McGuigan were discussing this on Twitter the other day and came up with a nice summary: breweries should aim to brew consistently good beer but not necessarily to spec.

    Then there's John Keeling's haircut analogy.

    Boak and I are both delighted when a beer we think we know well surprises us.

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    1. Perhaps I'm setting my sights a bit low, then. A lot of the time, I'd be happy if it was just free of obvious flaws.

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  8. I think consistency is important, but different from being unspoiled. I wouldn't mind much having a pint that I thought I knew, and it turned out to be a little different. The ingredients in beer are complex and variable enough that I accept there will sometimes be differences. Particularly for smaller brewers, it's expected.

    Last year, one of my favorite local beers (Big Nose from Swamp Head in Gainesville, Florida), had a pretty big change in recipe because of hop shortages. The new beer was pretty similar to the old one, but I was surprised the first time I had it after the recipe change. It wasn't bad, just a little different. And when I heard about the hop shortages that led to the recipe change, I was fine with the change.

    At some point, though, differences can be big enough that it verges on spoilage. The aftertastes you mention strike me as spoilage, not just inconsistency. I've only had a few spoiled bottles, and it's very sad to be expecting a certain beer and get something completely different.

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  9. 'Buying a beer shouldn't be a lottery' - I like that. For me, of course. Consistency is something that I want to see (taste) each time I buy a beer from someone, but as Steve points out there's a lot that happens from casking/kegging to dispense. My problem is; if so many do it right - ie brew consistently tasty beer that seems to be that no matter where you drink it - why can't others? That shifts the 'blame' more onto the shoulders of the brewers than landlords.

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