A word about beer quality

One of the discussions I tend to get into a lot involves how “quality” is perceived with regards to beer. Invariably, these discussions start with comments about how terrible Budweiser is or with comparisons of certain macro-beers with fornicating in an aquatic environment (old joke is old). Most of the time the people who say this are self-professed “beer geeks”; people who like craft beer, microbrews, homebrews, and flavorful beer in general. Probing them further reveals that their bias against these beers is founded on the lack of flavor in these beers relative to the beers they like. What probably won’t be revealed is the possibility that they don’t like these beers because it’s cool to not like them; as if their “beer cred” will be diminished if they admit they like American lagers. One thing we need to be aware of is the tendency to inject our own preferences into our concept of the term “quality”. It should be an entirely separate concept: we should be able to identify a high quality beer, even if it is one we do not like (although it is certainly acceptable to dislike things that make a beer low-quality).

A simple and accepted definition of a “quality product” that we can use here is: “a product which is made from high quality raw materials, does not contain noticeable flavor defects, maintains a consistent flavor profile, and does not deviate from accepted specifications”. From this definition it becomes apparent that beers like Budweiser, Miller Genuine Draft, and Coors Light are actually very high quality beers, and they have to be, for the same reason that beer-geeks deride them: they have no flavor. Having such low color, bitterness, and overall flavor levels means that production specifications need to be much narrower than they can be in craft beers. A craft beer with a target bitterness specification of 40BU’s can probably be fine with a variation of +/- 10% (+/- 4 BU’s ; 36 – 44), which is a pretty easy specification to maintain. However, a pale lager (about 10BU’s) could not handle a +/- 4BU variation in production without being noticeably different. A +/-10% specification window on a 10BU beer is much harder to hit. Fortunately for the big brewers, their production volume and brand portfolio allows for some blending options when things get off the rails.

Similarly, if both of these beers have about 40ppb diacetyl, then which beer’s flavor will be more impacted? The craft ale will have many more flavors helping to mask the buttery flavor than the lager does. If both beers are 30% too dark in color, which one could be able to be packaged as-is, and which one will need to be blended because it’s obviously out of spec? The craft ale can hide out-of spec color much easier than the pale lager.

These are just a few examples of how craft beer is much more forgiving during production than American lagers. The color and the flavor of the lagers are so light and mild that there is very little room for error. Each batch has to be nearly perfect, or else the defects will stick out like a sore thumb.

On top of that, A/B brews their beer in a dozen different locations across the US (and more elsewhere) and they must go to extraordinary lengths to make sure a beer from Fairfield tastes the same as one from St. Louis. So next time you here someone bemoan the quality of Budweiser or its ilk, make it known to them that they are likely commenting on their preference rather than the quality of the beer itself.

I’d love to start a discussion with any of your thoughts about beer quality, so if you have anything you think ought to be mentioned, please feel free to leave it below.

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14 responses to “A word about beer quality

  1. beer quality is 3 things. 1- the standard by which a brewer works to. keeping their product consistent to their preferences. 2- accordance with higher standards (no diacetyl where it shouldn’t be [everywhere], no unwanted infection, proper bottling standards for adequate shelf life, oxidation, etc). 3- wild card. customers will like anything that is marketed to them or maybe their taste is just fucked (some major breweries with huge followings make shitty beer by standards of point #2). there is probably a lot more, but i just got up.

  2. I just want to say thanks for this great blog. I have only recently discovered your blog, but I have already enjoyed many postings. I found it via reddit/r/beer. I also want to applaud this very common topic – and the way you have explained it. The last thing I would want for the the beer community (as a whole) would be a turn towards wine snobbery. We should never be snobs. Many beer writers try to uphold this ideal – there’s a right beer for the right time, never judge another persons preference, etc. And while it is nearly impossible to get or give some respect to anyone who truly thinks Bud Light is how a beer should taste, whatever, it’s their own pallet that pleases them and not ours. Let’s move along. Please keep up the good work.

  3. Very good article. Yes, I agree that most people do not know that they do not like the particular style of beer made by Macro-brews, but in all reality American Lagers made by micro-brews are much better. This maybe just my opinion though. If put in a side-by-side taste test, it could be told which one is Budweiser and which one would be a Micro-brew (i.e., Bell’s Lager, Livery’s Silver Queen, etc.)

    One thing that I find wrong with your description of the “quality product” of Macro-brews (like Budweiser, Miller Genuine Draft, and Coors Light) is Macro-brews are products “which is made from high quality raw materials.” I feel that this is not true for macro-brews. Macro-brews are made of barley that is much less quality (6-row) than micro brews (2-row). “Two-row barley has a lower protein content than six-row barley and thus more fermentable sugar content. High protein barley is best suited for animal feed. Malting barley is usually lower protein (‘low grain nitrogen’, usually produced without a late fertilizer application) which shows more uniform germination, needs shorter steeping, and has less protein in the extract that can make beer cloudy.” (sorry I had to steal from wikipedia) Also Macro-brew substitute corn and rice in there beer to save money on raw material. I would like to hear your thoughts on this.

    • First of all, macros don’t use adjunct to save money, they do it for a variety of reasons: lighter body, crisper/cleaner flavor, longer shelf-life, and because that’s what their consumers expect.

      And I hate to say it, but that Wikipedia information is misleading at best.

      When they use adjuncts, they are adding essentially only starch (carbohydrates). This has the effect of diluting the effect of the malt proteins, which includes the effectiveness of the amylase enzymes in the mash (these beers are very low in residual carbohydrates, so they need adequate enzyme activity to fully break down the added carbohydrates). This protein dilution by adjunct addition also has the effect of reducing the free-amino nitrogen levels (FAN) which are required for yeast nutrition. For this reason, 6-row barley is used because it has a higher protein-carbohydrate ratio than two-row. Brewers actually search for high-protein malt, because this is closely associated with higher diastatic power (amylase activity), higher FAN (yeast nutrients), and better head retention (protein helps support the bubbles).

      There are two different categorizations of barley varieties, and they’ve been selected and bred for totally different purposes. Malting barley (2 or 6-row) has been bred for high enzyme levels, high plumpness, high germinative capacity, and high extract. Lots of time and effort has gone into selecting barley varieties that would give the brewers what they need. In fact, if it wasn’t for the big brewers pumping tons of money into this breeding and research, we wouldn’t even have malting barleys. Feed barley, on the other hand, has been bred pretty much only for yield (and maybe Fusarium or Aspergillus resistance). If it was malted and used in beer, germination would be low, there would be more beta glucan in the beer, more haze, lower extract, and higher tannins.

      Besides, these big brewers (especially A/B) have such tight control and specifications over their sources of raw material, it would be ludicrous to think it’s in any way “low quality”.

      Thanks for your feedback.

  4. Thomas Barnes

    There’s no disputing that macro lagers are some of the most brilliantly designed beverages on the planet. For process control, brewhouse efficiency and a lot of other factors, they’re the envy of brewers everywhere. For classes I teach, I describe the light American lagers as being the “Rodney Dangerfield of beers” – they get no respect from craft brew drinkers. I also call them the “string bikini of beers” because, a) there’s almost nothing there, and, b) they show every defect that’s there, c) most people can’t do it and look good.

    If you’re a homebrewer, it’s quite a coup to be able to brew a “Lite American Lager” or “Standard American Lager” that matches up to commercial products. It’s even more of a coup to brew it consistently from batch to batch.

    That said, don’t forget fear as a reason why craft brew drinkers dislike macro lagers. The big multinational brewers are very, very big, and despite industry contractions, still have a lot of money to throw around. If they really wanted to, they could squash the American craft brew movement like runaway freight train hitting a wayward opossum. Historically, the macros have a reputation for buying up craft breweries and then dumbing down their products or shutting down the entire brewery, viz. Pierre Celis, Pete’s Wicked.

    • Good comments, on the mark. I like the string-bikini comparison. As for your last thought: it’ll be interesting to see what happens with Goose Island.

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  7. Well, this is all about what I call the two qualities of beer (and any other consumer product, that is). Quality no. 1 is basically what you describe, it is by and large objective and determined by the intention of the brewer; if a beer reflects what the brewer expected, and they can replicate that in later batches (always with some +/-, of course), it is a well made beer, end of the discussion. Quality no. 2 is the one consumer perceives and, I’d argue, is the most important one. A consumer that enjoys a beer will say that the beer is “good”, if they don’t enjoy it (for whatever reason, is irrelevant), they will say it’s not good.
    A truly successful brewery, therefore, isn’t the one that collects all the gold medals at competitions (which for the most part, evaluate Quality no. 1), but the one that is able to reach a more than sufficient number of people who will perceive Quality no. 2 to be good enough to be willing to pay for the product more than once. (or at least convince them of that)

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