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.