By Dana Garves
Many brewpubs are eager to implement quality control, but are hesitant for a number of reasons. The main concern is that quality control (QC) is too expensive for a brewpub budget. This is a common misconception; in the technological age, scientific equipment is available at affordable prices. Some believe QC is an overwhelming program to establish, despite manageable execution. My aim is to demonstrate that quality control a) is affordable, b) allows brewers to brew better, more consistent beer, and c) ultimately saves money. Here is a practical guide to building the foundation of an affordable quality control program.
Record and Keep all Brewing Data
First, assign each brew with a unique identification. It’s important to have one marker that follows the beer from mash in to package out, and to record key metrics throughout the brewing and fermentation process. The Brewers Association provides a number of good date lot code options.
A simple grain and hop bill is not a recipe. Instead, look into a digital record-keeping program. Free software such as BrewCipher or BeerTarget is great for starting out, or you can investigate low-cost favorites such as BeerSmith, BeerTools Pro, or StrangeBrew. One of the most important metrics brewpubs should be recording is gravity using a hydrometer. Once brewing data is being recorded, stored, and monitored, beer will begin to hit target gravities more reliably, ABV and IBU estimations will improve, and records will reveal the cause of any fluctuations in consistency. The more information logged, the easier it will be to track sources of error should a brew go wrong.
(MORE: Quality Priority Pyramid)
Start Sensory. Today.
Sensory provides a structured introduction to the final product and is the last line of defense against a flawed beer. Luckily, it’s one of the easiest and most fun ways to keep beer in check. Begin with weekly tastings with a small group of committed employees who want to improve the quality of beer. Once a week, taste through the beers queued for packaging. Ask the following questions and discuss expectations and standards:
- “Does this taste like the style?”
- “Is this the expected color, hoppiness, alcohol, cloudiness?”
- “Are any unwanted flavors present?”
Once a month, provide a one-hour class discussing each beer ingredient’s impact on flavor and aroma. For instance, in a hop class, taste through beers that provide obvious examples of hop flavor and aroma, and others with little or no hop character. Explore the differences in smelling raw hops in both pellet and flower form. Discuss how hops grow and what notes they impart on the beer. Providing training for each ingredient or style lays the groundwork for identifying the associated flavors in the future. Focusing on beer ingredients and beer styles, a sensory program can suffice until a budget allows for purchasing off-flavors, bringing in outside training, or building a panel.
Build a Laboratory
An entire yeast counting laboratory can be purchased online for $500 or less. Set aside a small space with a counter and sink as “The Laboratory.” A resourceful brewer could purchase the following items online today and have a yeast lab set up by the end of the week.
OMAX is a recommended brand of microscopes that costs between $100 and $300. Purchase a compound model with at least 40x magnification for yeast, and 100x for bacteria. Decide if two eyepieces or one are needed. A popular upgrade includes a digital camera that hooks up to the eyepiece, allowing for photo documentation of yeast counts.
Benchtop pH meters are more accurate and reliable than handheld, as well as easier to maintain. Avoid purchasing one costing less than $65 due to the loss of accuracy and precision with less expensive models. Make sure to calibrate the meter daily and guarantee accurate results with 20°C samples.
Basic hemocytometers don’t offer much in the way of options, but avoid anything below $50, as grid etchings on models at that price level have a tendency to be very light and difficult to use for accurate counting. Methylene blue can be purchased online for $15. This 36-piece chemistry set is $125 and will not only provide all necessary glassware for yeast counting and viability, but a foundation for library and propagation programs when a budget allows.
Join the ASBC
A quality control program is not complete without a membership to the American Society of Brewing Chemists (ASBC), which provides the approved methods of analysis discussed below.
Yeast Cell Counting [ASBC Method Yeast-4]
Ensure that yeast is healthy before each pitch by determining the number of cells in 1mL of yeast slurry (count) and knowing the percentage that are alive (viability). Tracking these values through each generation will predetermine when yeast should be pitched and when it should be dumped. Following this process for each purchased strain will dial in the ideal number of pitches for that strain. This technique prevents low viability yeast from reentering the pitching schedule, and allows reaction time for high or low counts by adjusting the volume of the pitch.
pH Tracking [ASBC Methods Beer-9 and Wort-8]
pH is an easy and effective way to monitor the progress of fermentation. When used correctly, pH can indicate off-flavors, an excess of sanitizer, or even the presence of an infection. Or, if an infected beer is the target, pH can track the progress of the bacteria’s fermentation. The key is to test the pH of each brew at the same point throughout its life. Eventually a standard value will be expected at each point. Any deviation from the expected value can indicate potential problems and help determine the source.
Budget for Quality
The key to a great quality program is continual enhancements. The above suggestions are simply a foundation. As the brewery continues to grow, so should the quality. Add space in the budget for laboratory development of more expensive instruments. Upgrading from a typical hydrometer to a digital density meter removes reading and user errors, gives more precise data, and requires smaller volumes of product. Purchasing a spectrophotometer allows for testing SRM Color [ASBC Beer-10a] and Tristimulus Color [ASBC Beer-10b], IBUs [ASBC Beer-23b], and Proteins [ASBC Beer-11c]. Investing in a CO2 meter or Zahm will vastly improve carbonation techniques for kegs, bottles, and cans [ASBC Beer-13].
Eventually, all breweries should be testing their beer from start to finish for microbiological infections. According to the Brewers Associations Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), breweries should have testing procedures to identify sanitation failures and make sure there is a plan in place to prevent spoilage and contamination of beer during periods of mechanical failure. You can learn more and find a full GMP check list at BrewersAssociation.org.
QC requires an investment in the lab, but brewpubs will reap the benefits of beer consistency and improvement. All QC processes will take time, practice, and patience. A good quality control program will help set you apart from the more than 4,800 other breweries currently operating today. It could mean the difference between a brewpub that will be thriving in five years and one that will be floundering in five years.
Dana Garves is the founder of Oregon BrewLab, a laboratory facility that provides affordable, fast, and local testing services for the fermentation industry. BrewLab offers precise and accurate alcohol analysis of beer, cider, mead, and kombucha to homebrewers, startups, and established facilities. Dana received her BS in Chemistry at the University of Oregon. She joined the beer industry by building Ninkasi Brewing Company’s laboratory and sensory programs, and later collaborated with the scientists who sent beer yeast into space. She has worked with more than 100 breweries nationwide to maintain and improve their beer quality. Photo credit: Stevi Sayler Photography