How do you reconcile a consistent message portraying beer quality? It’s difficult. Maybe you’re a beer drinker, perhaps your a beer or brewing professional or somehow you’ve attached yourself to a love of beer more so than the average light lager drinker. Maybe you have been preached and written to, enlightened by the professors and the sages of beer and brewing. What is quality? Can we really define it? I don’t think we do so enough. Let me qualify where I’m going with this before too many beer enthusiasts boil over.
There are standards in the brewing community. They measure against those standards. And then they attempt to confine most beers within these standards. But look at the real world of the beer drinker. You – the hundreds of millions of people that buy beer. What is quality to you? Is it what’s on the label? Is it what the advertising claims it to be? Or is it really what’s in the beer? I’ve seen so many beers I’d consider top quality brews, turned down by beer drinkers. And then I’ve seen so many beers, that by many beer standards would be considered totally flawed; oxidized, stale, headless, light-struck, diacetyl laden – that despites their “faults,” connect positively with beer drinkers. These aren’t recipe variations; these are fermentation, packaging, distribution anomalies that would be considered faulty.
The beer drinkers’ idea of what quality is varies not only throughout the world, but from one region to the next, from one generation to the other. Beer consumers are human. They adapt. Maybe let’s consider for a moment that there is no holy grail of quality. Especially when you consider what sells. If they buy it they will brew it.
Loyalty? Consumer confidence? Sensory perceptions? The beer drinker drinks beer with their eyes, ears, nose, tongue, memory and mind and they develop prejudices; you might call them preferences. Preference is an acquired taste, it changes, it drifts and can be as different as black is to white, depending on what time of your day it is and what part of the world you encounter a beer.
Is there a dilemma here? Are beer drinkers redefining quality? Do they determine what quality is? Light struck beers, excessive diacetyl, stale, winey and oxidized brews, beers gone sour. Who or what is their guide?
Let me propose that all of the above “flaws” (maybe we should call them beer anomalies) indeed do have merits with certain types of beers and are accepted in some beer cultures with cash at check out. Take for example “light-struck” character, that skunky aroma and flavor caused by light reacting with hop compounds. There is little doubt that this is indeed a positive selling quality for some popular imported beers, enjoyed by significant number of beer drinkers. You can’t help but concede, who is to deny beer drinkers’ their mind’s eye?
A bit of beer guidance for beer culture
The evolution of beer quality and beer styles is the foundation of beer culture. Diversity manifests itself as competition for the beer drinkers’ palate and dollars. But it’s all expressed through beer culture. And without beer culture the world of beer becomes excessively random and commoditized. The virtue of quality becomes endangered.
This week the World Beer Cup 2016 will be judged and recognition awarded to winners in 90 categories of beer. It is the “Olympics of beer competitions.” Nearly 6,900 beers from 62 countries will be judged. In October the 35th annual Great American Beer Festival will also judge thousands of beers from American breweries For some these competitions are only a rush for gold, silver and bronze, but the missions of these competitions is far more important than any individual brewery’s honorable awards.
To me these competitions are not only an expression of beer culture but a manner in which the brewing community connects with beer drinkers and affirms or reestablish the roots of beer culture. These competitions offer a manner in which hundreds of trained industry experts evaluate and assess beers based on cultural and stylistic integrity. Culture is about maintaining respect for time honored traditions and also helps introduce consumers to new and innovative beers.
The missions of the World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival are to help educate beer drinkers everywhere about the quality and diversity in the world of beer. They are dedicated to recognizing the traditions and innovations shared by the entire brewing community as well as those customs unique to specific countries and regions.
As beer drinkers’ choices expand and knowledge increases the idea of “Quality” will become more legitimate, while remaining personal. Ultimately, these types of beer competitions educate beer drinkers about different beer styles and quality while promoting the idea of quality, beer culture and brewing excellence.