Op-ed about craft beer quality and consistency

Beer quality vs consistencyIn John Holl‘s op-ed (non-anon I might add; so brave!), he lays out an argument that “craft” isn’t synonymous with good. Obvi. But–and I say this with love and admiration for John Holl* as well as others fly this flag–he seems to conflate “consistency” with “quality.”
“At Anheuser-Busch’s St. Louis brewery, trained professionals sample the Budweiser brewed at each of the company’s 12 U.S. locations, making sure that the liquid tastes exactly the same. Customers shouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the Bud brewed in Newark, N.J., versus the one in Fort Collins, Colo., or Fairfield, Calif.”
He continues:
“…we shouldn’t diminish the skill that goes into making tens of millions of barrels of the same beer each year, at multiple locations, each and every one without defect.”
OK, so here are my two main issues. Chiefly, I absolutely do not care if a beer is consistent in its flavor profile. What I mean by this is: I don’t need a beer to taste consistent because beers like Bud/Bud Light, Coors Banquet/Coors Light, or Heinie/Heinie Light are definitely identical, yet (IMHO) vapid. What I do need is for said beer to be consistently good!

 

Take Orval. This brewery, perhaps as the antithesis of these local guys across the US that pump out dozens of different beers a year and some are never to be replicated, defines the concept of craftsmanship. They make one thing and make it well. But sometimes the lemongrass profile rides higher than the sourdough. Sometimes I get more nectarine than white peach. But whoa-nelly, it’s always glorious. I do not believe I’ve ever enjoyed the same Orval twice and that’s even before considering splendidly cellared bottles. The hops that go into it are allowed to reflect seasonality of the crop. The yeast cells, like the beer, are alive! Granted, there are no fungible American craft breweries that fit this model or approach, but I can give concrete examples of beers from tiny players that bear the same brand name on the label though the liquid always varies (yet is always very good. Off the top of my head: Ale Apothecary Sahalie, Third Window Walkabout, New Belgium La Folie, Double Mountain Devil’s Cuvee Kriek, Craftsman Triple White Sage, Scratch Tonic, and, even among larger-produced beers, say, one you’d find in canned six-packs, Ft. George Vortex IPA seems to change with the weather but I’ve never had one less than deliciously stellar.

When a beer is made this way and allowed to be presented with unique character, it’s like seeing the Foo Fighters or Springsteen or Florence + The Machine. You never want your favorite band to put on a shitty show, but you also don’t want the setlist to sound exactly like the last time you saw them. Drinking Bud is like seeing Nickleback, but worse, because it’s seeing Nickleback lipsynching to a homogenous, immutable pre-recording.
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Please don’t ding me for infringement. Just illustrating a point on a blog.

Oh, and by the way, the last time I had a Coors Light (which wasn’t that long ago), I thought the bartender accidentally pulled a pint from the apple juice tap instead of the beer tap, and this was in Colorado. It was the result of acetaldehyde, which most likely meant the lager was rushed to market (because beer in lagering tanks means beer not being sold). So all that fancy, expensive lab equipment in Golden, Colo. (and Milwaukie and St. Louis, etc) is great for keeping the liquid widgets uniform in much the same way Hostess makes Twinkies uniform but that didn’t keep Hostess from running into trouble a few years back. This is the very nature of the problem of Big Beer: they view beer not as a canvas but as a commodity. I’m not saying all craft beer is art, but I am saying all macro beer is artless.

 

Please do not take this is a knock against John Holl (*or even John Hall. I mention this because my favorite comment posted on Holl’s op-ed reads, “he has drank a lot of beer, he is a professional! Didn’t you google him? He founded Goose Island Brewery in 1988 eventually selling it to AB InBev in 2011.” If only the commenter/Googler deduced his homonymous error). Nor is this intended to be an attack of the mega beer factories. If people enjoy the taste of those beers, that’s their prerogative. It’s also cheaper and I’m a bit cantankerous about the price creep we’re seeing in much of the craft beer segment. I certainly agree that there are some quality issues in the small-craft sector and that they can be damaging to the larger craft industry. But inconsistency in and of itself should not be viewed as a flaw like diacetyl or oxidation.