When good beer goes bad

If you’re a dedicated drinker of speciality beers from small brewers, then the chances are you will have experienced “gushing” – and not just from overeffusive beer writers heaping eloquent praise on their latest discovery.

With great excitement and anticipation, you prise open the cap of the quaintly-named obscurity you pounced on delightedly at the farmers’ market or beer shop, but instead of a reassuringly gentle hiss you get an exploding facial yeast pack and a very sticky floor.

Determined to salvage what’s left of your prize, you hazard a taste of what’s left in the bottle, only to find a thin, sour liquid you wouldn’t even want to sprinkle on your chips.

Experiences like these are, sadly, not yet rare enough, and with the rapid increase in brewers bottle conditioning their beers (particularly in Britain), they are arguably more frequent than before. Beer quality is understandably a sensitive issue in the industry: I heard more “don’t quote me”s and “off the record”s in researching this piece than in the average interview with a senior civil servant.

You might even shrug and say that, since beer is a living, natural product, the occasional mishap goes with the territory. But for those promoting the virtues of distinctive and characterful brews in a market dominated by bland industrial product, off beers are at best an embarrassment, at worst a major setback – particularly when trying to persuade major retailers to give more shelf space to small brewers’ products.

Filtering and pasteurisation may solve some of the conditioning and contamination problems encountered with bottled beers – one of the reasons why brewers were once so keen to embrace these techniques. But they also require skill and care, and can leave their own undesirable mark on a beer without the distinctive freshness of a ‘real’ version.

In the world of cask beer, where hygiene issues don’t stop at the brewery gate, the industry has learnt lessons. ‘Real ale’ consumer champion CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) and industry initiative Cask Marque have been successful in raising awareness among brewers, distributors, landlords and drinkers. “Thirty years ago people started up in brewing with limited knowledge of microbiology,” says Keith Thomas, director of brewing institute Brewlab in Sunderland. “Today there’s more training and education, better understanding, better techniques, more specialisation among brewery staff even at small breweries, and higher aspirations to consistency.” But he admits many brewers are still several years behind with bottled beers.

This might be because traditionally bottled beers were the poor relation, often little more than a way of using up your surplus cask production. But with the rise in home drinking, the bottled sector is growing, and small brewers need to raise their game. Many are still bottling by gravity and by hand, offering a way in for oxygen and unwanted microorganisms.

“Brewers who want consistently good and uncontaminated bottle conditioned beer need to invest in pressurised bottling machines, which can be expensive,” says Keith, “or go to a contract bottler that knows what they’re doing.”

This Article is from Beers of the World Issue 19, and the rest can be found here. 

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