Brewing: Consistency and Quality 23/08/2011
A few months ago I tried a beer from a local micro-brewery. I mentioned I had tried it and that I liked it and I received a comment that "yeah sure, their beers are OK, but not consistent". I accepted this appraisal without really questioning it and moved on to my next beer. I got to thinking about this again last night as I was agonising over my 'virtual' brewery and could I possibly a) make a unique beer(s) and make a name for myself in a very competitive market and b) if I manage to fluke a good beer, would I be able to make it again?
Having decided to elaborate on this a little for my own benefit, I find that it is quite a complex debate. Looking at this from a scientific, facts based angle, we know that specifications (i.e. original gravity, colour, bitterness etc) and brewing processes are key factors in the production of beer. There is variation in both of these factors, but they can be controlled, honed and mastered. There are many fine examples of this on every supermarket shelf. Alternatively, you can look at consistency in terms of quality, which then breaks this debate down further. Quality can mean different things to different people, and as I'm wanting to stay away from any organisational or institutional definitions, I prefer to determine types of quality as a) is the product the same every time that I drink it? or b). do I like/dislike this beer? I think this is where peoples opinions of beer can become blurred, as it is important to remember that terrible beer can be produced consistently. You may not like the beer, but it is the same every time you drink it, therefore consistent and quality led. Then there is the subjective approach of thinking that a beer is quality i.e. a personal bias or affinity to a particular product, personal taste if you will. I happen to believe that this is not something that a brewer can or should solely rely on when evaluating consistency in their brewing plant, but customer feedback and the importance of word-of-mouth marketing should be also be embraced.
To summarise, liking or disliking a beer has nothing to do with its quality. Badly made beer within a quality controlled process can still just be consistently bad.
As a homebrewer looking to take the step into professional brewing in the coming years, I am realistic enough to acknowledge that my kit (or what will be my brewing plant), will be basic when I start. I therefore know that my brewing plant will have its limitations. Leading on from this, I feel that I would also be naive to think that I could produce consistent beer in terms of creating a firm familiarity or 'brand' recognisable to the consumer. Rather I think I would be best to focus on a brand of freshness and craftsmanship. There is nothing to say that you have to brew the same beer over and again, and while I would strive for integrity in my product, my main goal would be to focus on individuality and variety as my unique selling point. Just to add here, I'm aware that this approach could not possibly work for a multi-national brewery. Customers of these companies expect to taste the same drink they tasted last week, month and year. Economies of scale are based on consistency and these companies live and die by their market share. Alienate or dissatisfy your customer-base at your peril! Whereas in the world of 'craft/project/artisnal' brewing, you can find solace in a customer-group that embrace innovation and accept the rough with the smooth (no widget reference here).
So I can talk about product consistency and quality until I am blue in the face, but if I want to make a living out of my 'hobby', then sales are king and the all important production costs must be respected. So, my current thinking is, learn a lot more about brewing ingredients, identify and understand my brewing limitations (experience & kit), be studious with my record keeping, choose a target market (and this isn't allowed to be family and friends!) and tailor my product to suit....Oh and find a suitcase full of unmarked £50's.
Thanks for reading.
David Bishop, 33 year old Bradfordian, born in East Yorkshire. Garage brewer and novice blogger with grand designs to own a micro-brewery. It's early days!