The No. 1 reason consumers gravitate toward craft beer is because it is local and independent, but a big part of a local good’s appeal is the inherent attribute of quality. No one buys local expecting a shoddily created generic commercial product. Hitting that high-quality bar requires an organizational culture that focuses on it.
Or so says a panel of brewery quality assurance brainiacs from the stage of the 2017 Craft Brewers Conference in Washington, D.C.
First: Understand “quality”
I consider myself a beer enthusiast — a term, to me, that simply defines my emotional connection to the beer and nothing denoting authority. This is great! I say enthusiastically when I taste the tastes that I like. I have no certifications. I’d likely fail an off-note taste test.
This is why the quality conversation for the panelists on stage literally and figuratively starts with defining the term “quality.” Simply pleasing a dummy like me is nice, but it doesn’t mean you’ve brewed a quality beer.
John Mallett, director of operations at Bell’s Brewery, cautioned brewers to not confuse a beer’s subjective qualities (what a great hop flavor!) for its underlying objective quality.
“I know when I started out I was making over-hopped malt bombs. They had good qualities for what drinkers were looking for but not sure I was making something that was high quality,” he said.
An example being that beer’s first impression: “Foam tells visually that the brewery has used enough high-quality ingredients to make a good foam.”
Two factors by which to define quality:
- Fitness for intended use — speaks to expectations of the consumer.
- The absence of defects. And how you get there is not some mandate — it takes a lot to get there.
Next: Planning and communications
Quality is a struggle for all brewery sizes, and breweries of all sizes are able to win this struggle with the same tool: planning.
Mary Pellettieri, quality instructor for BA, said what makes a solid quality assurance program is exactly the same as what makes good business. Communicate as an entire staff about quality as you would every other important duty of the day or week. Discuss it in all team meetings. Basically, if your quality assurance program is just one person tasked to look at data and test and monitor, your quality program is already lacking. Quality is a team effort.
“Creativity comes through problem solving, and when you are in a box trying to solve something that happened, the more people bringing their skills to that discussion usually solves the problem,” Pellettieri said. “The quality team becomes the training team, and that was something I struggled with at the the big brewery I was at. It was hard to transition from the team that was just measuring and marking down and slapping hands to the team that was training the rest of the operation to solve the problems at hand.”
Think of it as moving quality from the role of “cop” in the process to “teacher.” Doing so will lead to less waste and greater efficiency overall.
Pellettieri advises that at least 10 percent of your time has to be instilling your vision of quality and instilling those qualities. If you spend that much time on quality, then everyone else will to and you can expect it of everyone and evolve their sense of what quality is.
Breweries do not lack for data from which to judge their operations. Hell, there is too much data to consider, so understand what to look for and what to prioritize at which stage of the process.
To help set basic guidelines for growing your quality assurance program and prioritize your focus, the Brewers Association’s quality subcommittee created the Quality Pyramid. The base levels are: 1) good manufacturing practices (GMPs); 2) hazard analysis and critical control points, followed by; 3) standards; 4) process control and analysis; 5) shelf life and stability and then the tippy top level of; 6) preventive maintenance and special projects.
The point of the pyramid is to emphasize that if you haven’t yet established GMPs, focusing on shelf life isn’t worthwhile.
In summation, an anecdote
Infusing a quality-first mindset into every employee and laying out the priorities and standards for each step of the way will not prevent problems. Batches will still be dumped. But having that solid foundation will minimize the extent of those problems and the costs to your brewery in terms of wasted product , downtime or tarnished reputation.
This story from Larry Horwitz, brewmaster at Four String Brewery, says it all.
“I’ve got a production worker — works really hard and cares about quality. One day he’s jammed up and running the filter, and the DOB wasn’t calibrated. And he said ‘I didn’t have time to halt production because we had to go out to the distributor.’ So, at the end of the day, someone from the lab sees the brite tank was [unintelligible part of my recording] … it was outrageously high. … So when we talk about dedicating resources to quality, here’s a line level example of where someone could make a positive impact to the bottom line of the brewery. I appreciate you were trying to get things finished and done on time, but the 120 bbls beer that we expect to have a shelf life of 90 days went to probably weeks. So we can’t ship this beer, and the 120 bbls of beer we’re sitting on is now the cost of the calibration of that beer.
“It’s hard to get people who are really focused on doing their jobs well, quickly and efficiently to really see that larger picture. That’s about education. He needs to see the significance of that really high level of dissolved oxygen. So when you see that number way out of spec, let’s talk about it and figure out why. Do we have a process problem? Is it the equipment?”
Not stopping the process as early as possible to diagnose a quality issue is going to cost much longer in the long run. And to Pellettieri, more than any extra money a larger brewery can throw at their quality assurance process, these governance issues are often the biggest quality hurdles in the way of smaller breweries.
“The challenge of a small brewery is not understanding the policy set and then managing that policy,” Pellettieri says. “If it’s too gray, you might make decisions that aren’t the best. You have to set those hard lines early on — if it’s over this line, we dump it — because you don’t want to push a third shift operator to make a tough call. Make them comfortable on when to stop that line.”