In the craft beer world, quality equates to consistency.
Tools of the craft beer trade: digital refractometer and density meter.
Quality. That elusive term that those in the beer industry use to describe how “good” their beer is, but what exactly defines quality? Merriam Webster defines quality simply as “how good or bad something is or a high level of value or excellence." In the world of beer quality, the tangibles really boil down to one critical thing: consistency. While consistency in itself can encompass a broad range of aspects around the entire brewing process from raw materials, mash schedules, equipment design, fermentation to conditioning, every brewer wants to maintain consistency of flavor. It is this very attribute that has brought us the concepts around quality control: to control and maintain the quality and consistency of beer. Because quality control can be such a broad topic, here are my top three essential quality control measures needed for every brewery.
1. High quality basic instrumentation to monitor the brewing process.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it all starts at the beginning. Have you ever had a temperature probe work incorrectly because it wasn’t calibrated regularly? What about a broken hydrometer? Or pH meter? Although all of these tools are quite simple, they are essential. Having one that is poor quality or does not work properly will end badly.
Of these, looking at wort and beer gravity are critical and using instrumentation that is accurate is absolute. Most brewers use simple hydrometers, because they are fast and easy. I would recommend taking it a step further and opting for a handheld digital density meter. These are far more accurate, and can correct for temperature and alcohol present in the sample. Density meters take a little more work to maintain, but they will provide you with more precision when it comes to monitoring gravity during fermentation.
These days, nearly every brewery lab is also using spectrophotometry to analyze various steps in the process. Most spectrophotometers are quite inexpensive and can allow a brewer to perform basic analysis such as wort color and bitterness units to more complex analysis like free amino nitrogen. When shopping for a spectrophotometer, you will likely find the most use from a benchtop UV/Vis as it combines flexibility of performing a wide variety of methods with affordability (it does not have all of the bells and whistles, but those are not needed in most cases). You also want to look for one that gives you reliable and repeatable data. Some older or cheaper instruments will cause your readings to jump around, resulting in results you cannot trust. There are also new models that come with integrated software, which I would only consider if you plan to use the spec on an every day basis.
2. Good sensory program
A good sensory program does not necessarily rely on specific equipment, but it is very important to evaluate your beer in order to identify any quality issues prior to releasing. Here, the focus should be on good and clean glassware, a dedicated room to perform the sensory, and a well-trained team to evaluate your samples.
There are several software programs and even phone apps now, that help you track and trend your sensory results. These are amazing tools that will enable you to visually analyze any flavor or aroma deviations. One that we use regularly is Gastrograph, and its free!
Evaluating your beer identifies any quality issues prior to releasing.
3. Proper methods
With anything that is done in the brewery, you can have the highest end equipment but never achieve good results without proper methods. Standard methods are the backbone of quality control and luckily for us, there are standards out there. The most widely used industry methods come from the American Society of Brewing Chemists (ASBC) and the European Brewing Convention. These are both great resources in instrument usage and standard methods. ASBC also offers a check sample program, which allows breweries to perform analysis of varying methods using sample kits sent to multiple breweries performing the same analysis. It verifys the consistency of the procedure as well as technical proficiency by the individual brewery. This is a valuable opportunity for any brewery to evaluate their interpretation and performance of the standard method.
Quality is an immense topic that could fill the pages of a book, and others have. Beer quality itself is sometimes intangible, that je ne sais quoi, which makes beer so complex and interesting. But in this universe, there are some things we can and should control and as brewers, that is exactly what should be done.
If you liked reading this article, you may also like: Building Your First Craft Brewery Quality Control Lab.