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Oakes Weekly - August 25, 2005

Stop Bottle-Conditioning Light Beers!
Oakes Weekly August 25, 2005      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

I figured it’s been a while since I wrote a column that made some good quality enemies. I hope that it doesn’t in this case either, but I can see some folks getting choked up when I say that there are a lot of small brewers who should stop bottle-conditioning their beers.

Here’s what I’m getting at. The other day I bought a bomber of a local micro’s IPA. It’s a pretty good IPA for the most part, and I hadn’t really spent enough quality time with it. In short, I was pleased as punch with my purchase and enthusiastic about cracking it open. The bottle had a “born on” date – late June. So nothing too freaky in terms of age. The beer, however, was infected.

This has happened god knows how many times and I’ve noticed a distinct pattern emerge. It’s not with abbey ales or imperial stouts that things go wrong with bottle-conditioning, it’s with the lighter styles.

When English bottle-conditioned ales were just coming to America, I started trying a few of them out. I then went an extra step and mail ordered a bunch from England. This was the early 00’s. A good 20% of these had gone off. With price tags in the five dollar range, I felt that was too high a risk, and since then haven’t had very many of these beers.

It comes up a lot with small micros as well. Bottle-conditioning is natural, and as such is generally considered a desirable trait amongst the target audience of many small brewers – knowledgeable beer lovers. After all, craft brewing has carved out its niche by trumpeting all the things it’s not – pasteurized, filtered, or otherwise adulterated. Thanks to the grassroots marketing efforts of countless craft brewers, and of consumer groups like CAMRA, bottle-conditioning has attained a certain cachet in the beer world. The result is that brewers who aren’t good enough to execute it properly are trying it, and they’re doing so with fragile styles that show flaws very quickly.

I liken it to the can question. The use of cans by macrobrewers has really given cans a negative image. But when it comes to European pilsners, cans are vastly superior to bottle – even brown ones – because they afford perfect UV protection. So while bottles of Pilsner Urquell or Bitburger are subject to skunking at one point or another between the brewery and your fridge, cans of those same beers are skunk-free. Pilsner fans have long ignored the anti-can bias in favour of more practical concerns.

This is pretty much where I stand with regards to filtering beers of moderate or low strength. So really anywhere less than 6%, although the line is certainly arbitrary. This excludes, of course, brewers like Sierra Nevada or Unibroue that have been doing it without problem for years. Filtering has a bad rap because some really horrid beers have been filtered. And when a bottle-conditioned beer is at the top of its game, it is a beautiful thing. But on a percentage basis, how often does that happen? Ten, twenty percent maybe in my experience. The majority of merely so-so, and then that big percentage that are spoiled.

There are those who will argue that variability is a fact of life in live beer, that the risks of getting a bad bottle are outweighed by the difference in quality between live and filtered and/or pasteurized product. This difference in quality can be especially high in styles that have proven most expressive in cask form – bitter, mild and golden ale. But whether or not the rewards outweigh the risks is entirely subjective. And for me, they don’t. I have more or less stopped buying low gravity bottle-conditioned beers because I find I’ve had too many bad bottles.

And that’s the real problem. This isn’t really a matter of “Josh got a bad bottle boo hoo hoo”. Everyone knows that I know a bad bottle when I taste it and could if I was feeling energetic have my money refunded or a fresh bottle handed over. That would be cause for me to gripe, of course, since it’s my column and I can gripe about whatever I want. But that’s not cause for me to call upon small brewers to stop bottle-conditioning session styles.

The reason I do that is precisely what I alluded to. People will stop buying craft beer if what they get is bad. If the consumer in question is savvy, they’ll know exactly what the problem is, and may choose to do as I and avoid certain types of products. However, if they don’t know a whole lot about beer, they may not differentiate between a spoiled bottle of something that should never have been bottle-conditioned in the first place and craft beer in general. They may feel that what they purchased was not an aberration at all, but was reflective of the entire category. It’s not a big reach – craft beer is supposed to have crazy flavours. A spoiled beer is to the neophyte palate no bigger a shock than a tonguescrapingly bitter one. If the consumer doesn’t know any better, they will return to their macrobrew and be lost forever. It hurts the industry to have bad beer out there.

If this were a matter of a few bottles here or there, or a handful of ill-reputed brewers, that would be one thing. Brewers who can’t keep their beer from spoiling don’t last too long, so individual culprits don’t really have the chance to do mass damage. But the problem is widespread, and involves some pretty good breweries too. It happens too often for my liking, and it’s bad for the craft beer business in general. The late 90’s flushed out a lot of incapable brewers, only for recent boomtimes to see more of their ilk emerge from the woodwork.
Worse yet, a lot of brewers with spoilage problems are making what is otherwise pretty tasty beer. I don’t want to see them go out of business.

There is another way to dealing with the problem of beer spoilage. None of these problems – the sourness, the phenols – comes from outside. This all happens at the brewery, during brewing or bottling. The bugs grow and in a lighter beer make their presence felt as quickly as a few weeks. Keeping the bugs out of the beer in the first place seems like a pretty obvious solution. So why not just plead for brewers to do that, rather than scrap the notion of bottle-conditioning light beers altogether? Because keeping the beer and bottles clean is a fundamental part of the brewer’s job. They should be doing that even if they do nothing else right. It’s the sort of thing that is so crucial to their business that if they don’t do that now, I have my doubts that they ever will. And if you aren’t going to play the game well, then please, play an easier game and stop putting your business and the craft beer industry at risk.

This column may or may not reach the eyeballs of the brewers in question. But their fans will see it. If you’re getting spoiled bottles, speak up. A good brewer will listen and investigate. A bad brewer will throw a hissy fit. One brewer in Ontario called me at home to berate me and question my tasting ability and all the rest of that. He continued to brew sour beer. He is now, thankfully, out of business. As a lover of great beer, don’t let that happen to any brewery you like. Tell them if you get a spoiled bottle. And if they can’t fix the problem, send them my way and I’ll tell them to start filtering.



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