Drinks writer and retailer Jules van Costello gives his take on the beer quality debate
Of late there has been a lot of discussion around beer quality, which was brought to light in Geoff Griggs' piece in his regular Stuff column addressing the fact there is a metaphorical lake of faulted beer on the NZ market. This arose from a post on Beertown about the growing number of breweries in the market. I am writing this because, although I respect Geoff greatly, I disagree with him here.
My day job is running a business specialising in natural wine. Natural wine is in the same phase craft beer was in 8 to 10 years ago. It’s cool, it's different and there are a handful of producers, a few of whom have been quietly making product like this for quite some time. But it is also starting to attract the attention of the big boys. The result: admiration and ire in equal measure, lots of businesses jumping on the bandwagon, and hugely variable quality.
Today the landscape of craft beer is quite different. By my last count, New Zealand has 192 brewing businesses operating which is staggering. It is no longer a niche market that may or may not ‘take off’. It is big business.
In the last year I tasted about 1000 New Zealand beers for my upcoming book Brewed: A Guide to New Zealand Beer (Second Edition). The focus of the book is mostly packaged and regularly available beer (including annual releases), rather than one-off and festival beers.
By and large I found the overall quality of these beers to be better than it was two years ago when I wrote the first edition, and considerably better than the average beer 8 to 10 years ago. This is true on a macro level too – as quality has risen, great brewers such as Epic have had to get better and more consistent to compete.
Yes, there is faulted beer on the market, from new, inexperienced players and from breweries who should know better.
However the onus does not fall 100% on the breweries. More should fall on bars, restaurants, retailers and the people who own them.
One of the things I think beer has over wine (in a professional sense) is that through the beer judging program there is a more analytical approach to quality. Where it fails, however, is that the vast majority of people buying and selling beer are not taught what quality looks like and how to maintain it.
It requires considerable training and education to teach people how to navigate between amazing and poor beer. Too often people in wine/beer/food equate I LIKE with IT’S GOOD, and this attitude is not good enough.
Faulty beer isn’t the problem: lack of education is. It is up to the industry to help educate and encourage professionalism in beer – especially when it comes to sales, service and storage. I regularly see stock of sensitive beers such as hoppy IPA’s or low-ish strength beer sitting unchilled.
Likewise, because a segment of consumers are endlessly craving for new product, many bars will stock new/out-there beers because they sell, regardless of quality. It is much harder to sell something a second time, or so the saying goes.
So, it’s up to professionals to be gatekeepers and it's up to the industry to teach them how to do this. This would undoubtedly solve the question of quality. To a degree, this already happens: market forces work wonders. People may buy a beer once, but if it’s pants, they will not buy it again. If the brewery does not improve, it fails. Which is sad and shit and costs a lot of people a lot of money, but it's the reality.
Two more things.
One, I don’t think it is fair to judge the quality of beer from a festival like an IPA Challenge. Brewers use these events to test new things and make outrageous beers that would not otherwise be commercial. I know that Geoff was using it as an example of what is going on in the greater industry, but unlike beers that will be honed from batch to batch, these are often beta versions, and this is why many of us love these events.
Finally, Geoff ends his piece with the comment that breweries should get “the beer right – every time.” This is simply not a sentiment I can endorse. We need brewers (and winemakers, and chefs) who push the boundaries, which means not every attempt pays off or works.
In a perfect world this means beer gets dumped but this world isn’t perfect. If it's the difference between keeping the lights on another day or dumping a batch of beer (and it does eventually come down to one or the other) I know what I would do. Likewise I’m happy to support breweries whose spirit of innovation pushes the whole industry forward, even if that means once in a while I pay for a bad beer I don’t end up drinking.