Many new entrants to the industry don’t know what they don’t know. In fact, the problem is not confined to those who are new to the industry. There are many people who’ve been around for quite a while who know what they need to know to make good beer, but don’t know much about how things work, or what to do when things go wrong.

One of the great features about modern brewing, and particularly craft brewing, is that people are prepared to try new things. They are risk takers by nature. Taking a risk when you know what’s at stake is one thing. Taking a risk when you have no idea what the outcome might be is something entirely different. It seems to me that some people in the industry are playing a game of Russian roulette right now; the problem is, they don’t know it.

Let’s take a hypothetical case. Beer is inherently a “safe`’ drink. In fact, from the perspective of the risk of getting sick, it’s safer than water. Tap water in the UK is safe due to the use of chlorine as a biocide. But drinking tap water in many other countries carries a risk of gastrointestinal upsets and worse. Beer generally doesn’t allow disease-causing microorganism to grow within it, and survival of such microorganisms in beer is poor compared water. In addition, the risk of consuming toxins from beer, mould-derived “mycotoxins” for example, is really low.

As a result, the chances of getting sick from drinking beer is vanishingly small.

And there’s a reason for that. Beer has certain chemical and physical characteristics which make it safe. These include: low pH value, moderate alcohol content, presence of antibacterial compounds derived from hops, low nutrient levels (sugars, amino acids, trace metals etc), the absence of dissolved oxygen, and the presence of quite high concentrations of carbon dioxide. On top of that, it’s made from varieties of cereals (usually barley) that have a long history of safe use. Barley is converted into malt using a process that’s been around for centuries. And beer is fermented with strains of Saccharomyces yeasts that don’t present a risk to human health.

Innovation and the safety advantage

But “innovation” presents an opportunity to overturn the safety advantage which beer has long enjoyed compared to water. For example, there’s an emerging trend for brewers to “forage” for new yeast strains, Rather than use species and strains which have a long history of safe use, they’re hunting around in the environment for anything they can find that might produce “interesting” or “novel” beers. Almost all of those “new” yeast strains are going to be safe. But what about the one that’s not? What about the one that produces a toxin that damages people’s kidneys or raises their blood pressure to dangerous levels.

That’s going to be bad – potentially really bad – for the people who’re drinking that beer. But it’s also going to impact the people making and selling that beer, as well as the industry at large. For those who think things like that never happen – “no-one’s ever died from drinking beer”, try Googling “arsenic incident beer”. Several thousand people in England poisoned from drinking beer, with more than 100 dead. The victims of “innovation”.

Beer’s reputation as a “safe” beverage spans thousands of years. But it could so easily be undone by one “innovative” brewer, trying something new. Someone who doesn’t know what they don’t know.

Established breweries have systems in place to prevent such problems. Their main tool is HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points), a risk analysis and control system originally developed to prevent astronauts from getting food poisoning in outer space (the consequences of diarrhoea in a zero-gravity environment don’t bear thinking about!). But application of HACCP requires specialist knowledge and skills. And time to implement it. Those three elements aren’t available to all breweries.

That’s the elephant in the room. But what about the more obvious aspects of beer quality? I think the issue is not that UK breweries aren’t paying enough attention to QA, I think it’s more that they’re not always focussing where they need to. Most people will start out making sure they can estimate the alcohol content of their beer in some way. And there are many quite reliable, inexpensive ways to do that. But I’ve seen many small breweries which, as they grow, have invested in pretty sophisticated (and expensive) analytical instruments to measure alcohol, original gravity, calories etc. Meanwhile, they have very rudimentary micro testing practices, and no trained beer tasters.

Another area is “measurement” of bitterness. There’s only one way to measure bitterness, and it’s not what most brewers think. Many brewers are rather fixated upon the “IBU” measurement. IBU is an abbreviation for “International Bitterness Unit”. The “bitterness” of beer can be expressed in terms of its IBU, determined by means of a wet chemistry procedure. So much reliance is placed upon this metric that many craft brewers actually display the value on their beer labels and draught beer taps as a piece of key information for the consumer.

Typically light lagers might have IBU values in the range 5 – 15, “standard” ales, 15 – 25 IBU, with IPAs lying somewhere between 40 and 70 IBU. Unfortunately, “bitterness” values derived by the IBU procedure do not always correlate with the true” bitterness determined by tasting the beer under tightly-controlled conditions. The issue relates to all beers, but it’s particularly important in the case of dry hopped beers.

Depending on the amount of hops used in dry hopping, the sensory bitterness and analytical IBU measurement can agree, or can be far apart. Given this scenario, why then do craft brewers invest in the equipment, consumables and time needed to determine the bitterness of their beer by this method? Why not determine the true bitterness of the beer by tasting? Like most things, it’s because they don’t know how. And, worse still, they don’t know that they don’t know.

So what’s the solution. In my view, when choosing a QA strategy for their beers, brewers should be less influenced by the advice of visiting equipment suppliers, and more reliant on independent advice from experts in the field. They should ask themselves, “what parameters are really critical to the quality of my beer”, both from the perspective of legal compliance, and from the perspective of the consumer? They should then focus on measuring and controlling those aspects, in the simplest, most reliable way. Doing what the bigger brewery down the road does is not necessarily the answer. There’s a chance that they don’t know what they don’t know too.

Helping brewers make great beer

Our primary focus is on helping brewers avoid problems. With the right product and process design, and a well-designed QA program, the incidence of problems can be reduced significantly compared to what many breweries typically experience. To help brewers lead problem-free lives we: (i) Supply them with certified yeast cultures produced in our pharma-GMP-compliant clean room production facility in Leatherhead; (ii) Supply them with AROXA Certified Flavour Standards to train their tasters (also produced in our pharma-GMP-compliant clean room production facility); and (iii) Deliver a variety of training courses, including beer taster training courses, in-process tasting courses, beer production technology courses, yeast technology and fermentation courses, and brewing microbiology courses.

We also provide a range of specialist laboratory services. One service which is particularly topical at the moment is our challenge test service. The microbiological stability of beer depends on three things: (i) The type of contaminant microorganism (ie the specific strain of yeast or bacteria) and its inherent ability to spoil beer; (ii) The numbers of live microorganisms present; and (iii) The susceptibility of the beer to microbiological spoilage. The challenge test measures the susceptibility of the beer to microbiological spoilage.

The test is done by inoculating a range of different beer spoilage microorganisms into the test product, both individually and in combination. We then assess the effects of those organisms on the beer during storage. Growth of microorganisms in beer can lead to changes in appearance, development of flavour defects, and can even increase the hangover potential of the beer.

But the most dangerous of spoilage risks is excessive production of carbon dioxide. Bottles, cans and kegs have a maximum pressure they can withstand before they break. Formation of carbon dioxide in some beers can cause that threshold to be exceeded resulting in exploding bottles, cans and kegs. The safety implications are immense. And the damage to to a brewer’s reputation caused by such problems can take years to put right.

Preventing such problems is pretty straightforward, once you know what you’re doing.

The problem is that some brewers don’t know what they don’t know.

Dr Bill Simpson, executive director at Cara Technology speaks at the Brewers Congress in London next month. Get your tickets here.