Barley Mowat 

Seasonal Variation

with 9 comments

Consistency in general is hard. Consistency in brewing beer is even harder. This is why seasonal releases often have separate entries for each vintage on review sites. Sure, the brewers sometimes tweak the recipe a bit year to year, but even those that don’t can run afoul of a million different variables that influence the end result beyond recipe.

Sometimes the reason is simple (brew something enough times and you’ll screw up eventually), but often it’s nuanced, complex, and far beyond the brewer’s control. Here are just some things that can make the 2013 version of that 2012 beer a completely different animal.

Weather affects the quality of barley and hops

This affects single malt or single hopped beers the most, since there’s no blending going on to hide crops that are not as great. Sure, malting companies often produce a blended product made of many different types of barley to try and get around this, but even this approach lets subtle changes through. Additionally, brewers are increasingly ordering single varietal malts and choosing to blend themselves (or doing a simple grain bill and letting the barley speak for itself).

Changing production volumes changes how you brew the beer

It’s hard to make the jump from homebrewing to commercial brewing because, quite simply, brewing 5 gallons on your stove at home is not in the same league as running 10 hectolitres through a commercial system. Heck, it’s not even the same sport. Likewise, scaling up from 10 hL to 25 hL or more because your brewery expanded is also difficult. Also, simply brewing two batches on your 10 hL system instead of one means more chances for something to go wrong.

Similar to how scaling up your macro lager production
requires a whole lot more goats.

Differences in brewery time tables means a longer/short time for cellaring

Brewing beer is more like a factory production line than you’d like to think. Beer doesn’t just get sprinkled with yeast and then moved straight off to the bottle. Rather, it makes its way through a series of specialized containers in the brewery, the last of these being conditioning tanks in the cellar for ageing. If a brewery is brewing up a storm, odds are there is another beer coming down the pipeline that needs to be in that conditioning tank, and schedule pressure might push a beer out into bottles sooner than last year (not before it’s ready, mind you, just sooner). The result is a different product.

Brewery equipment changes year to year, and can affect the quality

Sounds similar to the volume argument doesn’t it? Well, this is slightly different. Bottling last year and canning this year? That means the beer is now going through the canning line instead. Maybe last year you only sold 50 cases and bottled by hand while this year you’re producing 500 cases and have an automated bottling line. Each bit of kit that touches the beer along the way to retail has its own, small impact on the final product.

Some recent studies even suggest that showering immediately
before swimming in the wort will affect the final product.

Weather affects how the beer brews

What? Rain isn’t just content fucking with my hops, but how it wants to get after my yeast? I built a roof over my brewery for a reason, damnit! Well, that’s the trick, some breweries use open fermenters which allows minor variables like humidity and pressure affect how the yeast lives, breathes and carbonates the beer. Open fermenters also allow outside yeast to interact with the beer, and that produces another layer of variability. The more common closed fermenters dramatically reduce these issues, but this sort of interesting variability is precisely why brewers use open fermenters in the first place.


Okay, so now I’m done talking about the whys and hows of a beer being different from year to year. How about some examples? Sure, I’ll give you one example each of a beer that is a) Much worse than last year b) Slightly worse than last year c) Slightly better than last year and d) Much better than last year. I wasn’t there when these beers were brewed, so I don’t know for sure why they’re different, just that they are.

There will be some surprises and potentially controversy here, so let’s start with the best.

Much Better than Last Year: Hoyne Wolf Vine.
Sean dialled this one in for 2013, and the result is a much smoother, rounder, all-around better product. The core ingredient (fresh hops) is also slightly better. (My best guess as to what changed: recipe + ingredients + time table)

Slightly Better than Last Year: Driftwood Sartori.
I think this is all about the hops, personally. The beer is largely the same as last year, but the freshness and quality of the hops has improved just that little bit extra. (My best guess as to what changed: ingredients)

Slight Worse than Last Year: Lighthouse Siren.
Last year, this beer was balls-out freaking awesome. I raved and raved about it. This year, in the new packaging, it’s merely a very good imperial red ale. I have no idea what changed, and please don’t start about cans tinting the flavour of the beer. (My best guess as to what changed: ingredients (see LH Brewmaster Dean’s comment below))

Much Worse than Last Year: Howe Sound Pumpkineater.
Yup, I’ll say it. This beer has been my favourite BC pumpkin ale for about six years running, but this time around it just tastes like strong pumpkin-flavoured chemicals. I tried it from two separate tap sources and in a bottle, and it isn’t merely not great, it’s downright bad. (My best guess as to what changed: recipe + ingredients)

Written by chuck

October 8th, 2013 at 3:49 pm

Posted in Beer and You

9 Responses to 'Seasonal Variation'

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  1. Howe Sound changed out their brewing equipment last winter. I’m not sure when they started using their new equipment, but their old kit was listed for sale in November or December 2012. It’s possible that last year’s Pumpkineater was one of the last beers brewed on their old 10 hl system. I’ve noticed a lot of changes in their beers.

    Ben Coli

    8 Oct 13 at 16:28

  2. Not sure about that Hoyne Fresh Hop… I had one tonight, and well it tasted drinkable, but not the taste that will make me rush out tomorrow for another. just an opinion, but I did not think this was a good beer at all.

    felix mcgrawth

    8 Oct 13 at 22:28

  3. @felix — My biased beer opinions are just that 🙂 I liked the hoyne beer and found it to be a fantastic pale. However, not everyone would agree with me, and I’m okay with that.


    9 Oct 13 at 08:57

  4. I liked the Hoyne also. Very late addition with tonnes of aroma. Yum


    9 Oct 13 at 09:29

  5. I still love the Siren! Wolf vine and Sartori didn’t excite me though. Different strokes for different folks.


    9 Oct 13 at 15:14

  6. Missed the Satori, but very happy with the Vine.


    9 Oct 13 at 22:24

  7. Siren does taste a bit different. Same recipe, same yeast, same gear. But, each little tank uses 55lb of whole leaf Centennial, the first time we had a small parcel of amazing hops, however for subsequent brews we’ve had to dip into our HopUnion reserves that would have otherwise gone into Switchback. We have secured a big schwack of new-season good stuff, it’s in transit, and future Siren brews should be a little closer to the original.


    14 Oct 13 at 21:53

  8. Yes, so the difference comes down to just one ingredient sourced from a different farm. Therein lies the challenge we face in producing consistently outstanding and true-to-type beers year in, year out.


    14 Oct 13 at 22:08

  9. @Dean – Thanks for the info. Looking forward to batch 2!


    15 Oct 13 at 12:55

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