Not too long ago drinkers in this country had three main choices: Budweiser, Miller or Coors. These days, there are more breweries operating in the United States than any other time in our history — nearly 7,000. In Los Angeles alone there are 83. These indie breweries are turning out thousands of beers across more than 100 styles. As a journalist covering the beer industry, my apartment is stacked with offerings including experimental stouts and classic saisons.
For many people, what’s known as “craft brewing” is synonymous with quality, and the big three with its opposite. A popular T-shirt on the beer festival circuit captures that sentiment concisely: “Drink Craft, Not Crap.”
But craft accounts for only about 13% of all beer consumed by volume in this country. And despite all the excitement about craft beer, this sector of the industry is still in its infancy, and it’s still making rookie mistakes.
A few weeks back, a can of New England-style IPA exploded in my dining room. The sound — kind of like a Mylar balloon popping — startled my toddler daughter and sent the dog into a tizzy. I hustled to get a towel, thinking to myself that this never should have happened.
There’s a lot that smaller breweries can learn from the behemoths: first and foremost, quality control and consistency.
Probably, the brewer had allowed for secondary fermentation to take place, causing too much pressure on the can. Or maybe the beer had become infected with bacteria somewhere in the packaging process.
I often come across less dramatic problems as well, like a skunky aroma indicating that the beer was hit with sunlight, causing the hops to stink; or a slick, movie theater-popcorn smell, indicating the presence of diacetyl, a natural chemical byproduct of an imperfect fermentation process.
I’ve had other cans of beer (and one bottle) burst. I’ve seen breweries serve their beer out of dirty glassware and generally poor cleaning practices including, on occasion, signs of rodents during my visits to more than 1,300 breweries.
When I mention problems like these in the beer world, I’m sometimes treated like a spoilsport. “Don’t worry about it,” I hear again and again. We need to “support craft brewing.” I disagree. We need to support good brewing. By upping their game across the board can small, local breweries become better competitors against the large, multinational brewers?
And guess what? There’s a lot that smaller breweries can learn from the behemoths: first and foremost, quality control and consistency. At Anheuser-Busch’s St. Louis brewery, trained professionals sample the Budweiser brewed at each of the company’s 12 U.S. locations, making sure that the liquid tastes exactly the same. Customers shouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the Bud brewed in Newark, N.J., versus the one in Fort Collins, Colo., or Fairfield, Calif.
That commitment to a unified consumer experience is one reason why Miller Lite and similar brands have succeeded across generations, sewing themselves into the fabric of American life. (OK, huge marketing budgets help, too.)
It’s true that beers produced by large companies can fall on the generic side in terms of flavor. But we shouldn’t diminish the skill that goes into making tens of millions of barrels of the same beer each year, at multiple locations, each and every one without defect. These beers are pitch perfect at what they aim to be: simple, clean, inoffensive lagers.
Some craft brewers seem to think that their independence means consumers will give them a pass if they encounter problems. But that’s only true of a small segment of the drinking population with an aversion to mass-produced beer — the fervid craft fans. Lots of people who grew up drinking Coors won’t be so forgiving if they have a bad craft experience.
A director of a local brewers guild told me recently that selling even one bad pint of craft to a regular consumer can do more harm to the cause than all the dollars the big breweries spend on ads that mock craft as somehow effete or elite. If that’s a stretch, the sentiment’s still right.
If the indie sector wants to move beyond its 13% market share, if it wants to fully compete against the Goliaths, first brewers must ensure that their craft isn’t crap.
John Holl is the author of the forthcoming book “Drink Beer, Think Beer: Getting to the Bottom of Every Pint,” from which this essay was adapted.