In addition, the major brewers have multiple production sites throughout the country—MillerCoors has nine, Anheuser-Busch a dozen—so there are challenges with flavor matching from one facility to another, with different water sources and different equipment.
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“But in total, the things that affect light lagers affect craft beers as well,” Kuhr says.
Keeping it Fresh
Perhaps the most important factor for maintaining quality in craft brewing is making sure the product in the field is consumed when it is fresh. One difficulty in this respect is that control over freshness decreases as length of the supply chain increases, from brewer to distributor to retailer.
“Beer is better fresh, almost universally,” Kuhr says. “As a brewer hands over control of their product when it hits the distribution channel, that’s one of the challenging aspects of trying to deliver that product to your consumer, that flavor you’re looking for. All brewers struggle with that, big and small.”
Working with a reliable distributor is essential for monitoring the quality of the product as much as possible. “We do everything we can to work with distributors who know how to take care of beer,” Kuhr continues. “You want to work with a distributor that’s successful in their whole portfolio of brands.”
Harpoon, which sells more than half its product in Massachusetts but distributes as far as Texas, uses a combination of distributors and employees to monitor its stock.
“We select distributors who are diligent about keeping appropriate stock levels, having their reps visit the retail locations far more often than we can visit them, having appropriate stock levels in a given location, and pulling stock when it’s getting long in the tooth,” Schier says. “In every area where we distribute, we have a brewery representative, a Harpoon employee who liaises with the distributor and does brand-building and promotional work, visiting retail accounts. Those guys do as much as they can to keep an eye [on] the freshness of the beer.”
Sierra Nevada has field sales quality managers who help to ensure that products are cold and there is good rotation, Fraser says.
“We have national and international distribution, so our number one problem is making sure our beer is kept cold,” he says. “We don’t want our bottles or cans to be stored at any greater than 49 degrees Fahrenheit, and we prefer it be stored between 33 and 49 degrees Fahrenheit. Our draft should be between 33 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit. All the distributors have been told that we want our beers to be kept cold.”
Beyond the distributor, at the retail level, “that’s one part of the beer culture where we haven’t made much progress yet in the U.S.,” says Schier. “If it was up to the retailer they would never pull anything from their shelf.”
The industry has taken steps to try to educate retailers about caring for craft beer products, for example with the Draft Beer Quality Manual available from the Brewers Association.
In retail stores, beer can be kept warm or even hot on the floor, frustrating the efforts of quality managers.
“Our rule of thumb is that every increase of 18 degrees Fahrenheit doubles the rate of staling of the beer, so if it’s stored at 68 degrees Fahrenheit the shelf life will be roughly cut in half,” says Sierra Nevada’s Fraser. “It’s nearly impossible to address [the variations at the retail level], so we focus on producing a beer with as long a flavor stability and product stability as we can get. We focus here on making sure our flavor profiles are consistent and stable over that shelf life.”