As a brewer very occasionally you are faced with having to defend the job you do against a customer who has had just this experience. The main problem with all things taste-related is that all the information is processed by the most fallible piece of equipment in existence, the human brain. Take for example the statement “I remember it as being hoppier than it is now.”. Hoppy being a qualitative thing is subject to change due to changes in the frame of reference. Hoppy in 2009 is a golden ale made with American high-oil hops with an overwhelming citrus character. Hoppy in 1999 was a late hopped session bitter with resinous hop notes.
From time to time customers have even alleged that my beers are darker or lighter than they used to be. Of all beer attributes, colour is the one that any brewer can measure and control so colour will only change if change is desired.
Another source of distortion in the chain of information between tastebuds and memory is the halo effect. When you discover a gem of a beer which no one else knows about in a small country pub on holiday this beer can be close to god. If you try the same beer, probably faithfully reproduced by the brewer in a packed ‘spoons at 7PM on a rainy Wednesday, after a pint of 300EBU Faceache Stout it is unlikely to rate as highly in your estimation. Halo well and truly removed.
Another common de-haloing factor is popularity. The beer can’t be that good if it’s popular because it’s ‘mass produced’. This is of course complete bullshit. Knocking well-balanced, well-brewed beers just because lots of people like them is not uncommon amongst some self-appointed beer experts. If someone tells you something is wrong with your pint you are unlikely to like it as much.
I’ve brewed some brands in previous roles where significant changes have been made to the process for one reason or another and there has been a change in the product. I know of a few of my favourites which have been subject to change and are lesser products for it. I am fortunate enough to be completely in charge of how Sharp’s make beer so no changes are made other than those needed to maintain consistency.
Maintaining consistency without reducing appeal is the true test of a brewer’s capability. All the inputs to the brewing process are in a state of continual change so brewers must use all the art and science at their disposal to maintain consistency.
Below is a list of changes which have fairly profound effects on the character of a beer.
· Malt – variety change, change of maltster, seasonal shifts
· Hops - variety change, change from whole hops, bad year for key variety
· Yeast - strain change, strain shift, Saccharomyces contamination
· Milling and mashing - new plant, plant optimisation
· Boil - new copper, new calandria, change in regime
· Fermentation – new vessels, FV shape change, temperature optimisation
· Conditioning – throughput optimisation
· Other - centrifuge, processing aids
Brewing is a complicated thing even for a brewer! I always drink with an open mind