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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Brewing Consistency and Plausible Deniability

One of the great challenges in brewing is batch quality and consistency. I know this from personal homebrewing experience...although I have to admit my most serious issue along these lines is and always has been sanitation. But never mind.

Talk to Kurt and Rob Widmer about consistency. In the days when their brewing operation was tiny, they worked overtime to attain consistency across multiple batches. It wasn't easy. Batches that didn't measure up were tossed...no questions asked. Because they refused to damage their fledgling brand with rotten beer.

One of my labels from back in the infected day
That wasn't quite the case with the ill-fated Cartwright, Portland's first craft brewery back in 1980. Founder Charles Coury came from the wine industry and used those sanitation values. Fermentation often occurred in open containers. Thus, Cartwright's beer was inconsistent and sometimes infected. That didn't go over very well and the brewery closed in 1982. Little did Coury know he was 30 years ahead of his time...sour beers being wildly popular today.

Consistency and quality are less of an issue today. Brewers have figured out how to make consistent, quality beers. Large regional breweries that have plants in several locations around the country manage to produce beers that are essentially the same.

If you ask the Widmer boys about that, they like to bring up the macro brewers. The big boys, they say, have quality control dialed in to the point where different batches of Bud, for example, look and taste the same regardless of where they are brewed. Don't laugh. Differences in very light beers are more easily detected than similar differences in darker, fuller craft beers.

Yeah, that's infected
With consistency issues largely a thing of the past in competent breweries, it makes me especially curious when a well-known, popular beer undergoes a drastic change. I'm not talking about a brand AB InBev has gobbled up and is systematically destroying by cheaping out ingredients and production values in a factory brewery. Nope. I'm talking about an independent craft brand with full control of its quality and consistency.

Look, I realize brewers sometimes get pushed into a corner due to changing market conditions or altered ingredients. Or maybe a brewer decides a beer needs to change...the way Boneyard decided to dial down the ABV in RPM and Hop Venom over the last year. That change was totally above board. Tony Lawrence outlined what he was going to do and did it.

But what are we supposed to make of a situation where a beer with a great reputation suddenly undergoes a fairly dramatic change (according to numerous fans) and the brewer denies using different ingredients or doing anything different in the brewing process?

Listen, I honestly don't think there's a good explanation. Because it doesn't make sense. I'm mostly at a loss. What the hell do you think is going on?


  1. Is there a specific beer you're referring to?

  2. Well, the latest batch of Fred is dramatically different, but Alan has said he had to make a substitution from his usual candi sugar. (Plus HOTD has never had a reputation for consistency.) So, I'm curious if that's the beer in question or if there's something else I haven't run into.

  3. I haven't had any recent Fred, but I know HOTD beers can vary from batch to batch. That's part of the charm of the tiny brewing system he uses, I suppose.

    Anyway, I won't reveal the beer I'm talking about. I'm simply wondering what would cause any brewery to do something like this.

  4. Sorry for the delayed comment, but I just now came across this post. It brings two things to mind:
    One, Cartwright's was a scary brewery to visit. I recall an interesting comment he made something along the lines of how much easier and quicker it was to go bankrupt operating a brewery than a winery.
    Two, your Knucklehead label reminds me of a long unanswered question:
    "If Olympia knew it was the water, why didn't they do something about it?"


Keep it civil, please.