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Quality: The Indefinable X-Factor

It’s not enough to make decent beer these days. Seek that special something that differentiates your brand from the rest.

Tom Wilmes May 25, 2016 - 11 min read

 Quality: The Indefinable X-Factor Primary Image

With more than 5,500 craft breweries and counting operating nationwide, it’s obvious that mediocre—or even worse, flawed—beer will not cut it. Many breweries are adept at producing flavorful, technically proficient beers, so how can a brand differentiate itself in an increasingly competitive marketplace, with limited shelf space and tap handles? Not to mention among craft-beer consumers who are increasingly experimental and less brand loyal?

We asked several industry leaders to share their experiences.

Make quality investments

Doug Dayhoff purchased Upland Brewing, one of Indiana’s earliest brewpubs, from its original owners in 2006. An astute businessman, he sought to grow the operation from a small brewpub producing roughly 2,500 barrels a year into a regional player with wholesale packaging and off-premise distribution. Rather than push for growth for growth’s sake, however, he weighs every decision against how it will impact the quality and integrity of Upland’s brand and its employees.

“We have a rule-of-thumb that every year we invest about the same amount in quality projects as we would in capacity projects,” Dayhoff says.

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When construction began on Upland’s 40,000-square-foot production facility, completed in 2012, Dayhoff chose to include features designed to improve the quality of the beers and the workplace, including a high-efficiency HVAC and air-filtering system as well as specialized floor and wall treatments.

“We basically wanted to create an environment where it’s easier to maintain sanitation, and those decisions easily amounted to at least $1 million in extra capital that was really quality oriented and not capacity oriented,” Dayhoff says. “But if you make those kinds of investments up front, then you’re fighting fewer quality issues over time—having to dump less beer and those sorts of things—and it sets you up to succeed over the medium to long term.”

Quality-driven investments also set a tone of professionalism and excellence for your team, Dayhoff says, and help create a safer and more pleasant work environment.

“It’s an impossible return-on-investment equation to describe,” he says. “You have to make the decision based on instinct, because there’s no financial way of modeling what the return on all that extra capital is going to be. It’s purely instinctual.”

Correct course rapidly and efficiently

Patrick Rue, founder of The Bruery, had modest expectations for his fledging brewery when he opened up shop in 2008.

“I wanted it to be a place where I could do a lot of the brewing and be involved on the production side. I loved homebrewing, but I didn’t know if I’d love running a business,” he says. “The biggest I could ever see getting was maybe about half the size that we are now—about 5,000 barrels.”

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His beers were a hit and, as the business grew, Rue, like many brewery owners, found himself constantly calculating a shifting equation of how and where to implement measured growth to better meet increasing demand. That balancing act resulted in several points of friction that required immediate attention.

“Once we reached certain milestones in size, I found that we lacked certain resources to have the quality be where we wanted it to be, whether it was the bottling line or the brewhouse or the lab,” Rue says.

He hit a critical juncture around year four of the business, he says, when an extremely aggressive strain of Lactobacillus caused some cross-contamination between his sour-beer program and the high-gravity beers in his barrel-aging program. He immediately suspended the sour-beer program and installed a steamer and an ozone generator to help disinfect his barrels. He also invested in a pasteurizer, which is used as needed.

“We microbe-test [beer from] every oak barrel that goes into a brite tank, but that doesn’t always catch everything,” Rue says.

More recently, The Bruery’s highly regarded wild- and sour-ale program was rebranded as Bruery Terreux, housed in a dedicated facility in Orange County, California. While the separation was originally for infection reasons, Rue’s quick and decisive course of action also allowed him to bring added focus and distinction among a growing portfolio of brands.

“We wanted to make it instantly recognizable that we want Bruery Terreux to be a leader in sour- and wild-beer production,” he says. “While on the other side, The Bruery is a leader in Belgian styles and bourbon-barrel aged beers.”

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Insist on quality every step of the way

Quality doesn’t stem from any one thing but rather arises from the sum total of every aspect that goes into making your product. Most brewers and brewery owners strive for the highest standards throughout their process—from raw ingredients to brewing, maturation, and packaging—but once beer ships from the brewery it’s, by and large, in the hands of the distributors, retailers, and—ultimately—the consumers. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a say.

New Belgium Brewing, for example, trains a group of sales people as field-quality specialists. They visit distributors and accounts to ensure that New Belgium’s shelf-life regulations and quality standards are being enforced.

“We make sure our beer is cold, that it’s fresh, and that it’s being pulled when it needs to be pulled,” says Lindsay Barr, sensory specialist with New Belgium. “We work closely with our distributors, too, to make sure that the tap lines from which our beers are poured are clean and are cleaned on a regular basis. Their sole purpose is making sure that our quality standards are being upheld in the field.”

Of course not every brewery has the resources to create a formal field-quality program, but spot checks to accounts and communicating those standards to distributors and retailers can go a long way toward ensuring a high-quality environment for your beer.

Foster a culture of ownership

David Walker famously cofounded Firestone Walker Brewing Co. with brother-in-law Adam Firestone on the Firestone family’s vineyard near Santa Barbara, California. The pair has shepherded the company through multiple periods of rapid growth, all the while building a brewery that’s distinguished by the quality of its beers and consumers’ affinity for the brand.

When a partnership with and investment from Duvel Moortgat USA was announced in 2015, some industry watchers began speculating how Firestone Walker, already the sixteenth largest craft brewery in the country, would maintain its sharply defined identity and focus as it continued to grow its operations and reach.

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The answer, according to Walker, should be obvious to anyone familiar with how the brewery operates and its ongoing dedication to quality and culture.

“With every expansion that we’ve made, the quality and consistency of our beer gets better,” Walker says. “We’re still brewing only about 300,000 barrels of beer, and even if we double our capacity we can still be very artisanal at that scale.

“It’s incredibly simplistic to say that ‘big equals bland,’” he says. “It’s not about size; it’s more about culture and how you create it.

“We have 250 people who work with us, and they’re as involved in this odyssey as I am. That’s one of the great things about the craft-beer revolution,” he says. “You don’t have to ‘own’ something to own it. There’s a lot of loyalty within what’s happening in beer, and that creates a huge amount of culture.”

That participatory culture, where everyone is a stakeholder and feels ownership in helping the brand succeed, is key to any company’s success, large or small.

“Don’t misunderstand, it’s easier to control quality and culture at a smaller size, but smart people have figured out how you can migrate quality and culture and grow—I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive,” he says. “Culture starts disappearing when people don’t care, and we very much care.”

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Pursue your singular expression

Greg Engert has a unique vantage point in the beer world. As beer director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, Engert sources the best beers from around the world for destination craft-beer bars and restaurants such as Churchkey and Birch & Barley in Washington, D.C. And as beer director for Bluejacket, a unique bar, restaurant, and brewery in D.C.’s Navy Yard district, Engert oversees a brewing operation that seeks to explore a virtually limitless spectrum of brewing techniques and beers.

If there’s one thing that unites both his beer buying and beer making, it’s a relentless search for quality and singularity.

“It’s one thing to make a sound, well-made beer, and it’s another to make a sound, well-made beer that’s striking, singular, and enticing,” he says. “I think that’s what’s getting tough now. There are countless beers that I’m tasted on by reps and brewers trying to get me to buy their beer that, while there’s nothing wrong with them, just aren’t that exciting.

“I’m looking for something that’s more singular and striking, and that’s a conversation that people need to start having.

“Where there are a lot of well-made, sound beers, why do you choose one [brewery] over another?” Engert asks. “Just because you like local? Or maybe it’s because you like their marketing? Or maybe it’s because you are friends with them or friends with their distributor?”

Just as an exceptional musician is immediately identifiable in just a few notes, an exceptional beer should distinguish itself in those first few sips. It’s that distinctive voice, flavor, and character that elevate good to great and make the choice easy.

“With the proliferation of beers being brewed, if you’re looking to get shelf space, your best bet is not just to make good beer that’s not infected,” says Engert. “Your best bet is to do everything in your power and keep trying as hard as you can to make beers that are not just good, but that people will line up to get.”

PHOTO: CAMBRIA GRIFFITH, COURTESY THE BRUERY & BRUERY TERREUX

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