Bad Water Brewing and Craft Beer's Real Quality Problem
Beers: Saison and IPA Brewery: Bad Water Brewing Style: Saison, IPA ABV: 6 percent, 5.5 percent
Imagine, for a minute, that you've traveled back to the first time you tried craft beer. You've spent most of your legal drinking age years (and maybe a few before) throwing back cans of mass-produced lager created to ferment as quickly as possible with as little flavor as possible, but your friend convinced you to try out this new local brewery down the road. Reluctantly, you tag along, fork over what seems to you an outrageous price for a glass of beer, and take a sip. It's thin, overcarbonated, maybe a little metallic. Not bad, per se, but not very different from what you normally drink, and way more expensive. Back to the mass-produced stuff you go.
During his remarks at the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Craft Brewers Conference on April 8, Brewers Association president Paul Gatza voiced concerns that, with many new brewers entering the market with little experience and inferior product, the scenario above could become common.
"With so many brewery openings, the potential is there for things to start to degrade on the quality side, and we wouldn't want that to color the willingness of the beer drinker to try new brands," Gatza says. "If a beer drinker has a bad experience, they are just going to go back to companies they know and trust."
Now, Gatza was talking about quality in the "clean and free of off-flavors or infection" sense. In his eyes, many of the breweries now opening their doors are helmed by homebrewers whose friends told them their beers were good, rather than by experienced brewmasters, and this is a problem. The new brewers, he says, aren't investing sufficient resources into the testing and troubleshooting necessary to keep their beers good. They have the passion, but lack the knowledge to maintain cleanliness and quality in a thousand-square-foot brewhouse.
"People who really know about beer are finding that these small brewers are putting out beers that don't reflect well on the craft community," Gatza says.
He's right; I've been let down by most new breweries and their beers -- but not due to off-flavors. While there are certainly breweries out there with major QC issues, craft beer's real quality problem doesn't lie in the prevention of flavor defects. It lies in predictability.
According to the Brewers Association, 413 new breweries opened last year. Can you name them? Can you name ten? It's difficult because, despite the impressive number of new brewers, many of their products aren't worth remembering. They're dull, lifeless. Boring.
That's not to say it's all bad. Some of them are pouring some outstanding, unique product. In fact, one of our own -- Arizona Wilderness -- was named Best New Brewery in the World by ratebeer.com. But for every Wilderness, there are a dozen Bad Waters.
Bad Water Brewing LLC is based in Scottsdale. The brewery has but two products: an IPA and a saison. The former is new, having just arrived on tap in February. The latter has been around a bit longer and is available in both kegs and bottles. Many of those bottles are overcarbonated -- a sign of quality issues. Some display metallic flavors, or floating particles of coagulated protein and dead yeast. But more than that, Bad Water's beers are insipid. The flavors are weak; the bodies are thin. They bring nothing to the table, add nothing to the conversation. They are uninteresting, mundane, and sterile.
Craft beer is not mundane. Craft beer is exciting and surprising and weird. It pushes boundaries, challenges our perceptions, asks us to think about what we drink and maybe pay a bit more for the privilege.
According to the Brewers Association, 1,744 breweries were "in planning" as of December 31. As a lover of craft beer and someone who wishes to see craft continue to gain a larger share of the overall beer market, I'd like to offer those aspiring brewers this prime directive: Be not boring. Picasso didn't become famous by emulating Rembrandt. The onslaught of people joining the beer industry can create a lower standard of overall craft beer quality -- if they're all producing the same, passable product.
Be not boring, and your beers will have the quality of uniqueness -- which can be just as important as the quality of your brewhouse.
Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone. He works at World of Beer in Tempe.
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