Friday, May 15, 2009

Beeronomics: Ingredients and Quality

I had a fascinating conversation with a brewer recently about beer ingredients. It started with a talk about a possible impending shortage. This time in malted barley as, he claims, the ethanol market and subsidization is making more and more acreage go to corn. Plus, he said, growing barley for malting is risky because if the quality is not there, it is no good for malting and the price of non-malting barley is very low. There is also continuing concern about hops as well as the acreage of hops apparently continues to shrink. All this suggests that we may be paying even more for beer in the future.

But what really interested me was the claim that we should also expect the average quality of ingredients to suffer. Makes sense: with smaller amounts of barley and hops, even marginal crops will make their way into beers that they might not have before. Apparently there is also a pecking order for ingredients whereby bigger brewers get the best stuff and smaller brewers get ingredients of lesser quality. [That means home brewers are getting the real crappy stuff, I said, and he concurred] I have never noticed quality differences from smaller breweries, so does this means that they are especially good at overcoming poor quality ingredients to produce great beer?? Any brewers out there like to refute this assertion or concur with it?

Switching gears, because it is Friday and because where else would you turn for beer reviews than an economist, Beervana? Ha! I don't know where Full Sail is in the pecking order (probably pretty high) but either way, John Harris continues to produce remarkable beers. His latest, Keelhauler, is a Scottish ale meaning a malt-forward beer. I don't tend to like these very much as I am a bit of an incorrigible hop-head, but John's is, predictably, magnificent. It retains the traditional rich malty body but is nicely rounded with hops giving it a delightful scent and making it a more flavorful beer than most. Kudos. The spring season also brings out my favorite of the seasonals: Full-Sail's Prodigal Sun, new faves Ninkasi's Spring Reign and Deschutes' Red Chair. All three are worth the price of admission a few times over. Get ye some.

Making the pub rounds: Deschutes Bitter (on cask at the PDX pub), Fish Organic IPA (on cask at Belmont Station), Ninkasi Tricerahops (on cask at Bailey's Taproom) and how about an old classic served Real Ale style: Deschutes Mirror Pond (on cask at Horse Brass). Do you see a pattern? Yes, Portland needs more casks...please!


Jeff Alworth said...

Keelhauler is also hoppier than a standard Scottish. Because he knows amateurs like you won't appreciate style fidelity--youse all just want your hops.

On your central thesis, I have no answers, but I can throw another variable into the question: organic malts. Many smaller breweries have turned to these where available, even when they're not doing an all-organic beer. Since the very big brewers (the A-Bs and MillerCoors) haven't invested heavily in organic, perhaps there's an opportunity for smaller brewers to get a quality malt? Be interesting to hear.

Okay, one more. I was talking to Charlie Devereaux from Double Mountain. He said that he hand-selects his own hops on regular trips to Yakima. He travels around the various growers and buys lots based on quality. Double Mountain is, by any definition, a small player, but apparently Charlie can be choosy about his hops.

sdoniach said...

The issue of quality ingredients is less a factor of the size of the brewery than whether the brewer is contracting for his ingredients or buying on the spot market. As a general rule, the big brewers all contract their ingredients at least 2 or 3 years in advance, while smaller breweries are more likely to risk buying yearly on the spot market. As far as hops go, most years there is no shortage and the quality of the hops found on the spot market is just as good as contracted hops, and also cheaper! It is those years of shortage, like 2007, when small breweries that don't write hop contracts in advance suffer both in terms of quality and price. Malt is becoming another story, however. Historically, of barley grown for malting in the U.S. and Canada, only the best 25% was selected for malting, and so all malt was made from that high quality barley. The problem now is that because the total acreage of barley planted is declining, maltsters can't just pick the best 25%, they have to take whatever barley is available for malting. Also, the quality of the barley crop will heavily depend on luck for good weather at harvest, no pests, diseases, etc. with no backup plan if things go sour. This means that overall malt quality is going to suffer. It also means that there won't be that slightly lower-quality 75% surplus of barley to be made into malt if demand is high (and to be used for feed if demand is low). In other words, breweries that don't feel like writing malt contracts (or small breweries which can't write contracts because they are living paycheck-to-paycheck) might not just be getting slightly lower quality surplus malted barley, they might not be able to get any malt at all!

sdoniach said...

It should also be noted that lower quality ingredients don't necessarily mean lower quality beer. They usually just mean higher raw ingredient costs for the brewer, and more challenges in making a good beer. However, smaller breweries are usually better able to adapt to challenges than larger breweries because their processes aren't as automated. Smaller breweries are also usually not worried as much about consistency as the larger breweries are, and don't care if their beers change slightly because of inconsistent raw ingredients.

I'll try not to get too technical...

For example, lower quality barley that is being used for malt probably has less extract potential, meaning more malt has to be used by the brewery to achieve the same wort gravity. The malt will also probably have higher levels of beta-glucans, which means problems for the brewer in the run-off from the lauter tun to the kettle (higher beta-glucans equals higher wort viscosity, and therefore slower rate of filtration through the grain bed). Higher protein levels in lower-grade malt could cause problems with hazy beer, though for a lot of breweries that is not a concern. A bigger concern with high protein levels in the malt is the correspondingly high levels of free amino nitrogen in the wort, which increases the chances of contamination by microorganisms such as wild yeasts and bacteria.

The effect on beer from lower-quality hops is greater than from malt. Lower-quality hops might be lower alpha-acid, which means that it will cost a lot to make a high IBU beer. Using a lot of low-alpha hops to make a high IBU beer also means adding a lot of polyphenols from the hop material to the wort, which means the brewer has to worry a great deal about haze problems. Hops are much more subjectively graded than malt, and a brewer scavenging for hops on the spot market might have to settle for hops with some less-than-desirable aromas and bitterness qualities.