The Art Behind Quality Craft Beer

The craft brewing industry in the U.S. is booming. The number of U.S. craft breweries increased 15.3 percent in a single year, up from 2,401 in 2012 to 2,768 in 2013, according to the Denver-based Brewers Association. Sales of craft beer (measured in barrels, or bbl) increased by 17.2 percent in 2013, despite a decrease of 1.9 percent in the overall national beer market. Craft brewers, defined by the Brewers Association as brewers that produce 6 million barrels of beer or less annually, are a relatively small part of a large market. In 2013, craft brewing held a 7.8 percent market share of the $100 billion overall U.S. beer market. Craft beer sales were $14.3 billion in 2013, representing a 20 percent growth in dollar sales over the previous year, according to the Brewers Association.

Ask craft brewers what role quality plays in the maintenance and growth of this rapidly expanding niche market, and they will tell you that quality is an essential ingredient, as important as the hops, malt, and yeast that are responsible for the character of their beer.

“Our goal is first quality,” says Rich Michaels, quality and innovation manager for F.X. Matt Brewing Co. in Utica, N.Y, creator of the Saranac line of beers. “Our goal is that when you purchase a beer out in the trade, it tastes just as fresh as it tastes here at the brewery.”

Consumers pay a premium for beer brewed in relatively small batches compared with those produced by the large breweries—those that produce more than 6 million bbl annually, such as MillerCoors of Chicago or Anheuser-Busch of St. Louis. In return, they expect consistency and quality, and this can be a matter of life and death for small startups venturing into the craft beer realm.

“If you allow inconsistencies, it’s really going to hurt you in the marketplace,” Michaels says. “As craft becomes a bigger part of the beer segment, quality is going to be the difference between being in business five years from now and not.”

What constitutes quality and consistency in craft beer production? The issues are the same as for many other segments of the food and beverage industry: careful production, exacting sanitation, reliable distribution, and appropriate equipment, according to the craft beer quality experts interviewed for this article. The ways these elements are applied and come together in the form of delicate and delicious beverages are explored below.

No Difference in Issues

In its 2013 annual report, Anheuser-Busch reported global production of more than 360 million bbl of beer in 2013. With total U.S. craft beer production at 15.6 million bbl in 2013, that means “it takes Anheuser-Busch about two weeks to produce what U.S. craft does in a year,” notes Bart Watson, PhD, chief economist for the Brewers Association.

Nonetheless, the quality issues for giants like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors are the same as those for craft brewers, quality managers say.

“From a quality perspective, all the concerns are the same,” says Jim Kuhr, director of brewery operations and brewmaster for F.X. Matt. “Whether it’s a light American lager or a big heavy craft beer, the same issues affect it.”

“Budweiser is just a different flavor profile, and, believe me, I worked with Anheuser-Busch for 15 years, and they make high-quality beer,” says Rob Fraser, quality manager for Sierra Nevada’s brewery in Chico, Calif. “It’s just different.”

In fact, while the large brewers have some advantages over smaller companies because of their greater resources, they face challenges that many craft brewers do not.

“The challenge [is] that American light lager is one of the most difficult beer styles to execute well. It’s very delicate, really nothing to hide behind, so if you make a mistake it will be much more readily apparent to the consumer,” says Jaime Schier, director of quality at Harpoon Brewery, based in Boston. “In craft brewing, we have a lot of alcohol, hops, and malt flavor that can cover up some of the minor sins you can commit as a brewer.”

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