If you’ve ever had a Samuel Adams Boston Lager, you’ve shared a beer with Jim Koch. Thirty-two years after Boston Beer’s founding, the guy who started it all still tastes every single batch of his flagship label.
SAM ADAMS, SIERRA NEVADA AND GREAT LAKES HARNESS HI-TECH TO ACHIEVE UNFAILINGLY DELICIOUS BEER, BUT NUMBERS NEVER TRUMP THE BREWER’S TASTE BUDS.
The reason isn’t so much because he loves beer, although that’s certainly the case (sipping through 20 to 25 beer samples before lunchtime takes passion). No, Koch does his morning tasting sessions to help ensure each bottle or keg, that his company ships, is as perfect as can be.
While those tasting panels have continued across the decades, other quality assurance processes have advanced immensely, but they’re still a critical part.
“Since day one, we’ve been obsessed with quality and freshness,” says Sam Adams head brewer Jennifer Glanville, “[but] technology has helped to make the beer better, in so much as it has helped to make it more consistent.”
Running two production facilities more than 2,000 miles apart puts extra pressure on Sierra Nevada, because their beer not only has to be fresh, it has to taste the same, no matter where it’s brewed. A Sierra Pale Ale should taste like a Sierra Pale Ale, whether it’s from California or North Carolina. And just like Boston Beer, live tasting is an important step in the process.
“For every beer that we brew, we have analytical specs from the brewhouse all the way through the finished beer in the bottle,” says Scott Jennings, head brewer at Sierra Nevada’s East Coast outpost in Mills River, NC. “But the follow up is the sensory match.”
Specs are pulled from dozens of checkpoints – the wort, the yeast chains, the water tank, the fermenters, the bright tanks – and run Great Lakes QA with brewer, Jon Scudamore through what Jennings calls “a lot of expensive instrumentation.” At the end of the line, a panel of sensory experts tastes the beer and submits a subjective opinion. If a beer doesn’t pass, it doesn’t leave the brewery.
“We do have an advantage with Pale Ale,” Jennings notes, “because we bottle condition, so we have it in house for at least 10 days after it goes into the bottle. If there’s a problem, it’s easy to catch.”
Quality control doesn’t stop when the beer leaves the brewery. Boston Beer pioneered putting freshness dates on beer labels, and sales reps spend a good portion of their time checking those dates out in the field.
“Whether it means checking freshness on kegs in a pub basement or checking the shelves at a grocery store, we’re constantly, almost obsessively, checking our beers to ensure they’re fresh,” says Glanville. “If something past expiration is found, we’ll buy it back and replenish it with fresh beer.”
To stay on top of both freshness and quality, Great Lakes Brewing Co. in Cleveland, OH, relies on a tracking system that lab manager Robert Hollerorth refers to as the beer’s “social security number.” After the lab team does tests on raw ingredients, the number is assigned to a batch and then used to monitor each step along the way. The mid-size brewery (producing 150,000 barrels annually) recently invested in a cell counter to help determine yeast health, and a gas chromatography mass spectrometer to analyze chemical composition of samples, with the goal of catching any issues early in the brewing process.
“We don’t have money like the big guys,” says GLCB spokesperson Adam Ritterspach, “but quality and consistency is really part of our brand.”
“Whether it means checking freshness on kegs in a pub basement or checking the shelves at a grocery store, we’re constantly, almost obsessively, checking our beers to ensure they’re fresh.”
New equipment helps that objective, but human opinion again plays a part. The brewery keeps sample bottles of each batch it ships, and then does comparative tests using both quantitative and qualitative methods.
“With Dortmunder Gold,” Ritterspach explains, “we’ll take a bottle just off the line, a bottle that’s a month old and a bottle that’s past its freshness date, collect data on them and correlate it with their ‘social security’ numbers. They’re also run through our daily tasting panel.”
The last step to maintaining high quality, once the ingredients, intermediary products and final beer is vetted, is the packaging. Great Lakes recently upgraded to wider bottle labels and higher walls for six-pack holders, with the goal of keeping out oxidizing light. At Boston Beer, the most recent advance was the launch of the “Sam Can.” The result of two years of ergonomic and sensory research, the new can “provides a drinking experience closer to the taste and comfort of drinking beer from a glass.”
But no matter what the lab results say, the final arbiters of whether a beer is great, are the people who drink it.