The Changeability Of Beer

Tasting different beers recently, a thought came to me that has recurred periodically: beer, I mean the same brand, can be quite changeable from glass to glass.

Generally, one thinks of craft beer in this connection, but industrial beers are liable to changeability too. I prefer to call it changeability rather than inconsistency since the latter implies a value judgement, that is a perfect standard, when in fact this is not possible or desirable.

A bottle of Stella Artois last night at a reception in a downtown hotel surprised by its creamy freshness and beery quality: malty, hoppy, what beer should be. I’ve had it other times when it seems skunky or with too much grain (or other) adjunct.  Same thing for many other beers, mass market but especially craft. Heineken seems similarly better to me lately, but whether it is faster shipment, evolving or better production processes, or luck of the draw is hard to say. Sometimes you can put your finger on it, a can of German dunkel that was particularly good made me check the website. It turns out the beer is flash-pasteurized only, not tunnel-pasteurized which is a more lengthy, and intensive, heat sterilization of beer. I doubt the same brand was treated this way (for export anyway) ten years ago.

In the craft area, the situation is more acute since breweries cannot always get the same hops or other materials for their brands, they have much less buying and stocking power than large concerns. Second, service methods at point of dispense vary, e.g., some bars are more particular about cleaning lines than others. The beer may be stored before service in a variety of temperatures, depending again where you drink it, or the season. And if a keg has sat one month somewhere vs. two or three elsewhere, or ditto in the same place between the first and second times you try it, the beer is likely to be better when younger. Add to this the fact that contract breweries often change suppliers, which introduces another variable.

Many breweries, and not just craft, tend too either to get better over time or worse. Even when the beer is consumed at its optimum condition and quality, a yeast change, say, or different cold storing regimen, may affect the palate. An Ontario craft beer I like a lot now in the past had a noticeable “boiled veg” taste I believe resulted from DMS, or dimethyl sulphide, a by-product of certain certain yeasts when used in association with very pale malts. This is a typical Central European lager flavour, one that has few gastronomic merits in my view except perhaps when consumed with food (which may explain or in part the continuance of this flavour profile). In recent months, the beer seems much cleaner and the taste I found objectionable in the past, completely absent. I believe this was intentional on the part of the brewery and a good move. The malt and hop qualities are more to the fore and the yeast background is subtle and non-obtrusive.

A factor particular to craft breweries is, sometimes the same beer comes cloudy, which can affect the palate, and sometimes not, or less so. You really don’t know until the pint is poured.

Even though the average beer fan may not, or always, be able to articulate what he or she doesn’t like in a beer, I’ve always felt small differences matter. They won’t likely order something again which hits them wrong. The challenge for brewers is to come up with a flavourful potion of malt and hops – a good formula to begin with, and then to try to make it and ensure pubs serve it as consistently as possible. A tall order to be sure, but those who are good at this stand the best chance of success.

When one adds this reality to the profusion of brands and styles available in the market today, it really means – for one who focuses carefully on palate – each drinking experience is different. Predictions based on the beer today are not always reliable, even, again, for mass market products.

It’s good to keep trying a range of beers if only because you may be surprised at some beers which under-performed in the past, and conversely, firm favourites may for a variety of reasons decline in quality.