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The Culture of Craft Quality

Reprinted with permission from The New Brewer, the journal of the Brewers Association.

Why does quality matter to craft brewers? Why is it one of the ideals that our community holds most dear? It all comes down to expectations about who we are and how we interact. It is both an aspiration and a goal that guides how we make beer and forge relationships. Pursuing quality beer is a journey without end—but one that is fulfilling in its own right. As brewers, we are all drawn to the feeling of satisfaction that comes from successfully sharing the fruits of our labor. The passion we embody wouldn’t exist if we didn’t inherently believe we are making something better, something that truly resonates with the fans who enjoy our beer. Looking across the bar and seeing a joyful response to that shared experience feeds something deep within us.

Cultivating those moments requires a focus on quality that is comprised of numerous small elements. It is built on the attention to detail that epitomizes our ideal of a craftsperson’s method. Those subtle, individual elements are likely not evident to those who experience it—but isn’t that the case with all art?

The manner in which we assess quality is ultimately a blend of art and science. Determining how to convey expectations to those around us requires creativity and intent. Like most, I don’t think objectively about this on a regular basis—but the daily practice of work in the brewery is where the rubber meets the road. Without expectations, there are no quality problems. When experience and expectation align, quality is manifest.

Can someone taste the difference that results from a careful selection of the fundamental elements that go into a beer? As we choose malt, hops, people, and practices, we are making decisions along with our beer. These decisions will hopefully result in experiences for our fans (and ourselves) that will meet the expectations implicit in our brands. Ultimately we are creating more than a simple liquid that provides flavor, nutrition, and alcohol. Conveying the creativity, community, and individuality that go into the mix is part of what we do daily. Quite simply, our interaction with the community that supports us—suppliers and customers, farmers and beer drinkers—is the essence of who we are as craft brewers.

Our collective history began when the macro-industrial light beer dinosaurs ruled the beer aisle with a product that was rapidly evolving on a path to carbonated water. It began with our quest to make beer that tasted like something more. Sometimes that reflected brewing traditions that had disappeared from the U.S. Other times it embodied the unique flavor of our raw brewing materials, or a straight-out-of-left-field creative urge unburdened from what had come before. We communicated this sense of “more” throughout our circles of influence until those ideas took hold and became relevant. Now when folks think of craft, they do more than just think about flavor and community—they fully expect both.

As a nascent brewer many years ago, I focused on trying to get my tongue on as many different beers as I could. With friends, I diligently scoured the shelves of Boston area package stores in search of the obscure. At the kitchen table, we produced meticulously descriptive notes of the beers’ individual attributes. It was not until I underwent formal flavor training at Siebel years later that I learned that the “German lager flavor” was known to trained assessors as “severe oxidation.” For us at that time, it was just different. The simple qualities of a beer (dark, hoppy, hazy, etc.) were sufficient to produce differentiation.

Today, beer caves are filled with an amazing range of multi-hued beers and shoppers are knowledgeable. Sure, our beers are more expensive than the faceless, generic industrial light lager offerings—but those around us have higher expectations of what our beer is on multiple levels.

Our fans and customers have expectations about who we are as brewers, and how we go about the business of producing beers of superior quality. Our success, both individually and collectively, will continue to be dependent on our ability to live up to those expectations.

 

This piece was written by John Mallett who is our director of operations and a member of the Brewers Association’s Quality Subcommittee.

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