“don’t f*ck it up”

Malibu Hamish, farming a bowl cut

It’s been a long spring full of travel and new beers in distant places, but it seems like just a couple weeks ago I was in an auditorium at the CBC listening to Brewers Association director Paul Gatza address thousands of craft brewers:

After retelling the story of visiting a beer fest and sampling a number of subpar offerings, Gatza fired a warning shot at new craft brewers paying less attention to quality.

“Don’t f*ck it up,” he exclaimed, a rallying cry that was met with cheers and applause from the entire audience.

And those new beers he sampled at the above-mentioned fest?

“They thought they were doing an awesome job but, the truth is, they are not,” he said.

Does craft brewing have a quality problem? was a question the beer media asked.

At a news conference that followed the opening conference session, Gatza said quality problems include off flavors, oxidation and the presence of dimethyl sulfide …

Diacetyl is a major boogeyman omitted from that list, IMO, but in any case it’s hard to argue – with 2500 breweries operating in the US and another 1900 in planning, the output can’t all be uniformly sublime; and subpar beer is subpar beer, no matter what size or category of brewery it came from.

I wandered away from that opening convocation thinking a little closer to home. The basement, specifically. The takeaway message there could be much the same for the one million-plus homebrewers now saving bottles and cleaning carboys in America.

A few months back, I wrote that “Homebrewing in America has always been a refuge for and the domain of the weird, the commercially unviable, and the personal narrative in liquid form, and I hope it always will be.” That is as it should be – but it’s no excuse for bad beer. Whether one gallon or twenty gallons, extract or all-grain, if you’re going to step up and brew a garlic-and-basil pesto beer (or bacon beer, or gruit infused with raccoon penile bones, or what have you) then make the best damn, most accomplished, technically proficient garlic-and-basil pesto beer you can.

A thirsty nation is watching.

24 thoughts on ““don’t f*ck it up”

  1. Don’t F it up Phoenix! I’m so glad to finally hear someone speaking about this topic. There are lots of new craft breweries sprouting up in PHX and those crappy $8 pours are on notice!

  2. I agree. I taste a lot of f-ups out there. My wife has been saying lately I only seem to like my own beer. Not totally true, but now that I know more I’ve become more picky. Great another OCD trait.
    I also have a gripe about bars selling craft beer that don’t clean their lines. For example, the neighborhood dive now sells craft beer, the golf course sells craft beer, etc. Then the bar doesn’t clean their lines enough. Ugh.
    OCD in PA

    • 100% agree on tapline cleanliness, JD. All the brewhouse QC in the world won’t protect vs. a scuzzy faucet and crusty tubing, or a firkin wrestled up onto a stillage seconds before it’s tapped (another one of my personal boogeymen – OCD in MN).

  3. Equally frustrating is that startups don’t appreciate the importance of a lab. It seems like most folks don’t budget for quality/sensory, and even the current literature has relegated lab services to established, mid-to-large regional breweries. But whatevs; the bubble will pop, doors will close and the strong will survive. And hopefully the days of the $8 pint will draw to close.

      • I’m torn. I re-read what I wrote here and I fear that I’m turning into the guy that I’ve never wanted to become: the snarky beer snob. I’ll play angel’s advocate and say I DO understand why folks are striking out on their own, regardless of the quality of their initial offerings. I will also give them the benefit of the doubt as they move towards the asymptote of their respective learning curves. Likewise, I too fantasize daily about entering the beer business, but more from the QC/lab side of things. Most of my frustration with craft beer is the steep price points (I guess I ain’t budging there).

  4. Good Day Mr. Dawson:

    A bit off topic, but this is something I have wondered about for quite some time. After finishing a beer, I often smell the inside of the empty glass. It always smells very different from the beer that just occupied that glass.

    I always thought it was the yeast that you were smelling. My BJCP buddy of mine says that you are smelling the malt.

    An interesting aside, I recently had Freigeist Abraxxxas – a smoked Berliner Weiss. The aroma of the beer reminded me of provolone cheese, and was very distinct. The empty glass had no smoky aroma whatsoever, and had no resemblance to the beer at all.

    What do you think you are smelling in the empty glass?



    • Hi Tom,

      I think I agree with your BJCP buddy. A lot of the volatile aromatics of a beer rely on CO2 for delivery, so once the glass is empty (and the dregs in the glass warmed) it’ll be the less-volatile compounds that stand out: malt and maybe some of the stronger fermentation characters. Depending on how long the glass has been sitting, it’s possible there could also be some effects of oxidation, skunking, or acetification too …

    • To some degree…but I (and most others I’d surmise) would rather drink a well executed aforementioned pale than some poorly brewed disaster with an asinine amount of adjunct ingredients just to avoid being boring. Almost every time I go to a beer festival I leave talking (and thinking) about the perfectly executed alt, pils, or porter…not the triple decocted ancho chili lime imperial Berliner dry hopped with saffron and aged in bourbon barrels. But maybe that’s just me.

      • I agree. The problem is compounded by “beer reviewers” that are only interested in the unique (crazy) beers and rate beers higher than they should be because they’re different.

  5. I was very happy about this speech when I first heard about it. I’m happy that there are so many people out there making craft beer- but I’ve been pretty disturbed by the number of new beers I’ve tried in the last few years that have pronounced off flavors, oxidation issues, etc… I’m also always annoyed when a beer is labelled a particular style by the brewery- but has little or nothing in common with the proclaimed style. For example I had what was supposed to be an ESB (one of my favorite styles to drink and brew) the other day that was much closer in flavor profile and style to a scotch ale- except that the high rate of Citrusy American hops kind if ruined that. It’s just maddening. Do they spend no time developing recipes? No time tasting? No time actually figuring out what it is that they are trying to make? The worst part is that that awful beer is probably siting on the shelf at the local bottle shop for 12 buck for a 4 pack, or 10 for a 22oz bottle- ad people new to beer don’t even seem to realize that it’s bad- out of style, or poorly brewed. I love all the innovation, but something’s got to give.

  6. I’ve read about this speech and few times, but wasn’t there to hear it. It got people’s attention for sure. I think what is also needed is developing a culture where brewers (or anyone if you want to extend this logic) are open to criticism and can be okay with hearing what might be unwelcome news. How the news is delivered is just as important is the news itself. The posts I’ve read about this speech makes it sound as though new brewers are being openly criticized or “outed” as offering sub-par product. If so, there might be more subtle approaches to solving the problems.

    • Good points – I think it’s also easy to read in (rightly or wrongly) a bit of “this is my sandbox” when the critiques are coming from established entities within the craft beer world. And to be fair, it’s not like QC issues are suddenly a new thing for small breweries … I remember a fair share of gushing bottles and contaminated beer that passed muster for release during the 1990s boom cycle. But, as pointed out elsewhere in this comment thread, people are snapping it up like crazy, lines are out the door for taproom openings and special releases, and every other dive bar and golf course clubhouse has craft taps. As long as “craft beer” remains so trendy, it makes a clear, honest consumer-to-brewer dialog kinda tough.

  7. Another thought about criticism in general- Who decides what is good/bad/out-of-style/flawed/etc? I’m a BJCP certified judge so I qualify as an educated beer consumer and critic of beer I suppose. But I can’t take beer off of shelves for being bad. Nor can the person new to craft beer who may “know” less. The same argument can be made for music, art, food… whatever. The only way this gets sorted is via the marketplace and dollars spent, right?

  8. I agree that homebrewing is the front line of innovation, experimentation and pushing the limits of what beer can be. I think one of the reasons you see so much mediocre beer is that many homebrewers think that they can upgrade a few kettles, make a facebook page and, after some licensing, they’re now professionals. They are taking a very homebrew approach to commercial beer.

    I’ve seen several of these homebrewer-to-pro transitions that are an absolute nightmare, especially within the relatively inexpensive nano brewing concept that is sweeping the nation. Let us not forget the rather explosive cans we all received at NHC in Philly. If I have to read one more “about us” page where, “three buddies started in their garage after Tim’s wife got him a beer kit for Christmas…and the rest is history”, I’m gonna F’in puke! The individuals involved have zero commercial beer experience; no sales, no marketing, no production, no cellar, etc. They haven’t taken any time to involve themselves in the local beer market, nor learn about it, but hey, they have a Kickstarter page and are gonna be pouring their beer at a local festival.

    It may be difficult, but I think we, as a community, need to start calling these brewers out. It can be awkward, but a brewer worth his craft is going to want to hear constructive criticism.

  9. Decent QC isnt a guarantee of good beer though. A brewery near me is strict on QC and only hires brewers with formal education, but their beers are all bland and boring. Risk is the X factor in a brewery and I think one would be wrong to sacrifice creativity to appease the style junkies (I mean come on, alot of good english ales are riddled with diacetyl). But that goes back to what you said, if you’re gonna brew a diacetyl riddled ale then brew the best diacetyl riddled ale you can.

  10. I couldn’t agree more but really have nothing to add that hasn’t already been said in the many thoughful comments on this post. I would however like to know if you really have heard of a home brew using Raccoon baculum 😉

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