Saturday, January 30, 2010

Caveat Emptor and the Craft Beer Consumer

I recently picked up a bottle of BrewDog’s Dogma, a new imported beer from a Scottish craft brewer previously unrepresented in this area. My intent was to evaluate and properly review the beer contained within for a future article but a few tell-tale signs lead me to abandon such an attempt. As happens on occasion in the craft beer world, especially with the new and imported, I was in possession of a bad bottle.

BrewDog Ltd. is a very experimental, “American-style” microbrewery located in Fraserburgh, Scotland, with beers only newly arrived in the North Texas market. I use the term “American-style” because BrewDog differs from the standard European brewing industry—steeped in tradition and loyal to regional styles—and instead is daring and boundlessly nontraditional with their products. Only a couple of months ago, BrewDog made international news with the “world's strongest beer” at 32% ABV.

Dogma is an herb/spiced beer brewed with additions of guarana, poppy seeds, kola nut and Scottish heather honey. Sometimes one can form an expectation of the flavor of a beer before sampling, but this unique combination of ingredients proved a challenge. Based on the description, some sort of lightly spiced, nutty, slightly honey-sweet beverage should have been forthcoming.

Instead, the beer that poured from this bottle was flat and lifeless with a taste to match, somewhat of an ripe, tangy flavor and a slightly not-so-unpleasant element that just was not quite right. It did not exhibit any of the typical characteristics of an infected beer (such as obvious sourness or a green apple flavor) or of oxidation (such as a stale or cardboardy element) but something in the profile just did not add up.

Suspicious, I referenced a few online reviews of this same beer and found almost no correlation between other drinkers’ descriptions and the beverage before me. My guess is that I purchased an old or mistreated bottle—which will happen occasionally in each beer drinker’s career. Especially vulnerable are imports newly arrived on the Texas market, beers of unknown provenance that not only cross the oceans under dubious storage conditions but may also sit in state-side warehouses for months on end awaiting regulatory approval.

Texas is especially guilty of this problem. Commercial approval of new beers for sale in our state’s markets can be tediously lengthy and expensive, with delays ranging from disputes over alcoholic strength to stylistic classifications to minor elements included on the labels. During this time, beers will sit—and where they sit and the environment in which they are kept is an unknown quantity.

Naturally, heat is an enemy of fresh beer and it is doubtful products are stored in the same sort of stifling warehouses as furniture, clothing or other environmentally durable goods. But imports (as well as many domestic brands) can suffer during transport periods without cooling controls, and even some areas of storage under air-conditioned units can be much warmer than intended, such as shelves stacked high off the ground.

One obvious sign of mishandling is a thick layer of sediment caked at the bottom of a bottle. Upon disturbing the beer, the detritus floats in suspension and can leave an otherwise delicious beer rather unappetizing, almost like a glass full of dietary fiber supplement. This is a positive indication that the beer has been through relatively rough temperature ranges, causing solids and proteins to fall out of their normal suspension.

The lesson here is that there is an unwritten element to evaluating craft beers, and that is to always consider the possibility of a mishandled or old bottle. Rare circumstances such as this should not reflect negatively on a brewer, and are most often remedied once distribution channels are established and refreshed regularly. Bringing such matters to the attention of your retailer is also a good idea, as they should also benefit from as much feedback as you can provide.

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