Last week, New Zealand’s doyen of beer journalism Geoff Griggs penned a piece on the state of beer quality in New Zealand. With the deliciously-bloody title ‘There’s too much faulted craft beer on the market’, the piece appeared on Fairfax’s Stuff website – and was quickly devoured by beer nerds and muggles alike.
The thrust of Geoff’s piece was consistent with the title: that there is far too much poor-quality beer being produced by small independent breweries in New Zealand. By way of evidence, Geoff cited his recent experience judging the Smiths Craft Beer House NZ IPA Challenge in Queenstown: he said that he and Epic Brewing’s Luke Nicholas both agreed that they would not have stumped-up actual money for 17 of the 22 beers that they judged for the competition. Geoff’s piece also went on to refer to Martin Craig’s Beertown piece on brewery start-ups, and made a point that beer quality appears to be the last priority for several new players.
The Stuff comments section ran red with anecdotes, mostly in-line with the sentiments of the piece; while on social media, Tweets and Facebook posts that shared the article gave the conversation a second life. The sheer volume of electronic head-nodding was astonishing – but because I seem to have penchant for being unpopular, I just didn’t buy it.
There were two key things about the article – actually, mainly the response that it earned from the majority – that frustrated me: so the purpose of my own horribly-long piece is to share those frustrations, and to continue the conversation that Geoff (and Martin) began.
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My first key frustration lies within the use of personal experience as evidence. An anecdote – particularly when delivered by someone in a position of authority – is a powerful means of convincing the reader of a certain supposed truth, by telling them a story to which they feel they can relate. In the art of persuasion, the anecdote is King; and the really neat thing about them is that they can never be wrong – they’re simply a description of a personal experience, set within the context of a bigger picture. However, a problem arises when anecdotes are mistaken for actual evidence, and used to draw sweeping conclusions that they cannot possibly support. While I have no doubt that Geoff’s and Luke’s palates are utterly-exceptional, there is simply not enough evidence to allow us to conclude that there is ‘too much’ faulted beer being produced by small independent breweries. The required well-controlled, robust research just hasn’t been done yet (but more on that later).
My second key frustration is related to the first – in that I do not believe we have anywhere near sufficient evidence to draw sweeping conclusions about the quality of beer from new start-ups. In the absence of such evidence, it is completely unfair to cast aspersions on the industry’s greenhorns, who are undoubtedly making immense personal sacrifices to make a fist of their bold (and risky) career choice. We must remember that Garage Project was once new, too; and that start-ups are fragile, and need friends. Stating that beer quality is the lowest priority for many new start-ups – a horseshit comment that doesn’t hold up to more than a breeze of scrutiny – on none-other than our nation’s most-visited news website is not helpful. It also ignores the fact that a substantial chunk of the newbies are, at least for now, contract brewers: which means that their beer is produced within existing breweries, many of whom have millions of litres of beer on the clock. So if the beer is shit, it actually isn’t entirely the fault of the greenhorn.
The morning after Geoff’s piece appeared on Stuff, I took to Twitter and shared the early echoes of the points I have raised above. I earnestly expected to find a large community of like-minded folk, who shared similar concerns about jumping on this particular bandwagon: I was wrong. As it turned out, my views were as popular as a sticky steamer in a swimming pool: and the essence of my point was lost in a stream of anecdotes – several from brewers around the country whom I respect and admire.
I get the sense that my reticence to jump on the bandwagon was mistaken for a belief that there’s nothing wrong: that our shelves aren’t filled with fault-ridden beer. I think some people view me as naïve – an uneducated bystander who hasn’t served his time around a judging table, and thus has no idea what the fuck he’s talking about. But let’s get something straight: I’m not suggesting that there isn’t a problem with beer quality in this county: I’m merely suggesting that we don’t have enough evidence to lob this particular grenade right now – and certainly don’t have enough evidence to direct it at the newest kids on the block.
So, in an effort to add positively to the debate – and address the gap in evidence that I’ve been hammering-on about – I’d like to suggest the following actions. They are all directed toward the Brewer’s Guild of New Zealand – whom I believe are best-placed to do something about this issue.
- We need to install a robust, national, independent system dedicated to beer fault detection. It has been argued that there has been a reduction in the number of medals (particularly gold medals) awarded at our national beer awards in recent years – and that, on top of all the anecdotes, this reduction is evidence of a drop in beer quality. However, the Brewer’s Guild of New Zealand awards are designed to attribute medals according to how well a beer fits within style guidelines set by the Beer Judge Certification Programme (BJCP) – and thus at best can only be used as an indirect (rather than truly direct) measure of the wider state of quality control. We need an independent and methodologically-robust system of detecting faults. In order to achieve independence, the system will require palates and personalities from overseas; in order to achieve robustness, the method for selecting beers would need to be random and unexpected. In practice, I would suggest an annual event where independent BJCP-certified beer judges are flown in from Australia, America and the U.K. (one from each would suffice), and an independent research company facilitates a random selection of beers from a random selection of outlets around the country. Each brewery would be represented by several beers, and would receive a confidential report regarding the quality of their beers, including detected faults. No awards would be given, no publicity sought. It would be an internal system aimed at giving independent critical feedback to the people actually making the beer. A summary report could be made available to the public, if it was decided that this would be useful.
- We need to facilitate an audit system regarding brewing, packaging and distribution models. If a brewery is having an issue with beer quality, then it’s feasible that this issue is caused by a systematic problem with the way they are brewing, packaging, and/or distributing their beer. There’s nothing like documenting each step of your process for identifying where things can be done better – and as such, the Brewer’s Guild need to facilitate an audit system that is easy to access and actually valuable from the perspective of the brewery. I would suggest that international, independent advisors could again be useful here – but it’s also possible that a national peer-review system could be effective too. It really depends on how much we truly believe in the collegiality of the brewing community.
- Following-on from the point above, the Brewer’s Guild need to produce one or more position papers on best-practice for key quality-control topics, including sanitation and packaging. These best-practice documents could be produced in conjunction with international advisors; but we could also make use of the technical expertise possessed by our Brewing Giant Overlords – who, after all, are exceptional at making the same faultless product over and over. And over.
- Finally, the Brewer’s Guild needs to lobby – if not fight – for an improvement in the quality of beer storage and distribution at point of sale. Walking into my local supermarket and seeing a wall of Parrot Dog and Three Boys sitting un-chilled in the middle of the wine aisle – while row-upon-row of Ranfurly cooly rests in an enormous walk-in chiller – makes me fizz with anger. Either these retailers don’t understand that good beer is fragile – and requires a cold chain from brewery to basket – or, even worse, they don’t give a shit. Either way, the Brewer’s Guild has a responsibility to understand why this is happening – and then to do something about it.
So there it is: a call for evidence-gathering and action-taking. It probably seems like a feeble, problematic, un-doable list: but we have to start somewhere – and this is by no means the final blueprint. I encourage others to pick it apart, and improve on it.
At the beginning of Geoff’s Stuff piece, he said that he hoped that raising the issue of beer quality in a public arena will go some way towards seeing it addressed. In this sense, I think his piece could prove to be highly-successful and useful. For my part, I believe that robust evidence is needed before action can be taken – since the former will tell us how best to approach the latter.