Barley Mowat 

Brewers Quality Alliance

with 19 comments

Wanna start a beer nerd fight? Walk into a small pub, preferably somewhere largely populated by bearded men wearing toques, and start asking random people what they consider “craft beer” to be. Approach a few, the drunker the better, and get them to define “craft beer” in strict terms, not just vague generalizations like “it’s good” or the outrageously pompous yet perfectly useless “I know it when I drink it.”

After you have around five or six definitions, get those folks together in a group and loudly proclaim that Beer X is not technically Craft Beer according to Person Y’s rules, but Person Z declares that to be bunk. Also, Y’s mom is a whoor. Liberally spread some knives around, and make a quick exit. When the screaming subsides, come back in and take all their smartphones (craft beer geeks always have one–how else can you check into Untappd obsessively?).

What’s all this about? Well, I’m just illustrating a point: there is no actual definition of the term “Craft Beer” (in Canada; US folks, I’ll get to you in a second). The term is so vague, in fact, that if you ask five people you’ll get five different answers. For instance, the purists will talk about the Reinheitsgebot, but any non-barley adjuncts will violate that. More flexible folk will allow some fruit in their sours, but make something out of rice and you’re in trouble.

Others draw the line at a production limit, arguing that small equals craft. Still more will talk about who owns the brewery, meaning that the crappiest lager ever produced by Pacific Western has more claim to being craft than Vern Lambourne’s latest and greatest, simply because Molson pays his barley bills.

Now back to our US friends. Their Brewers Association has helpfully stepped in and created a definitive definition for our sacred drink, ending debate once and for all. Craft Beer is Small, Independent, and Traditional. Bam. We’re done here. They solved the problem. Short article, I guess.


Yeah… no. This party’s just getting started!

The main problem with their definition is that is keeps bloody changing. “Small” has crept up over the years as craft brewers have met with surprising success: the current limit is 6,000,000 barrels, or about SEVEN MILLION HECTOLITRES by Canuck-measurments. That’s a fucktonne of beer for those bad at math (metric fucktonne, if you’re curious). For comparison, in BC we consider a brewery to be truly colossal when they make more than 160 thousand hL, or 1/44th the size of that US definition of “Small.”

“Traditional” was the criteria tasked with keeping Macro swill corn lagers out of the party, by requiring that Craft Brewer’s flagship beer be all barley malt. A recent update to the BA’s definition, though, took all the teeth away from this restriction and now only requires the use of “traditional or innovative brewing ingredients.” We could save some pamphlet space and logically reduce that statement to just “ingredients.” So yeah, as long as your beer is made by rearranging matter, you’re good. Conjure it out of thin air like some sort of alcoholic Harry Potter, though, and you can’t have that craft beer label.

In fact, the only real purpose of the Traditional criteria now appears to be to exclude “Flavoured Malt Beverages”, which they do explicitly. FMBs in turn, lack a precise definition, but basically this rule has gone from “brewed from barley malt via time-honoured processes” to “not Palm Bay.” Way to hold the bar high and not degrade your brand slowly over time because of market pressure, guys.


Different problem, same result.

“Independent” has gone through a few iterations but has largely stayed the same with a definition of “no more than 25% owned by a macro, or a company that itself is more than 25% owned by a macro.” I’m unsure if it’s turtles all the way down, though.

Confused yet? I am. The trick here is that there’s no attention given to how good a beer is. Politics and advertising concerns have been involved for far too long for the quality of the actual beer produced to be a main concern. A brewery that meets these ever-changing definitions can just as easily produce a Bud Lite clone as can a non-compliant brewery produce the best barrel-aged RIS you’ve ever had. (see “Goose Island”)

However, all this is moot since the BA has no authority in Canada. Despite that magic border, though, the discussion is still relevant since one of the key recommendations from the recent BC Liquor Policy Review was to establish a “VQA for beer.”

VQA means “Vintners Quality Alliance” for you non-Canuck folk out there, and it’s a stamp of approval on Canadian wine that means… well, it just basically means that the wine in the bottle matches what the label says. If the label says “Okanagan Merlot” then there’s Merlot grapes grown in the Okanagan Valley in there. No word on if it’s any good, though. That’s not their mandate.

Now you see where I’m going with this. We’ve come full circle. What job does a “VQA for beer” (BQA?) need to do? Ensure that the beer is made with barley? What about rice beers? Or cheeky corn lagers? Do we factor in ownership? How do we make sure that Molson Canadian doesn’t count? Is that even the point? Do we just ensure the label reflects what’s in the bottle?


Proper labelling of containers is important
for reducing confusion and drama.

I wish I had an answer to these questions, but I don’t. I fear building a “Craft Beer Only” club might seem tempting at first, but eventually we’ll wind up walking the path of the BA above, relying upon increasingly convoluted definitions to keep certain beers in the box while excluding others, all according to criteria that even we can’t articulate.

Keeping the macros outside the club by definition allows them to craftily tempt consumers in any of a myriad of ways so long as they don’t say “BQA” anywhere on the can. Perhaps a better approach might be to define and enforce styles for all beers, requiring the dread macro lagers to proclaim itself as such in bold text (there is even an actual style for it: “Standard American Lager“).

All I know is that this discussion that needs to happen, and getting folks talking about it earlier as opposed to later can only be good. Of course, we could just declare me to be the sole gating criteria for this nascent BQA, because when it comes to good beer I know it when I drink it.

Written by chuck

March 27th, 2014 at 2:35 pm

Posted in Beer and You

19 Responses to 'Brewers Quality Alliance'

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  1. Great topic. I try to avoid using the term, although it inevitably happens. I’m a simple guy, with simple categorization. I tend to think of it as “good beer,”bad beer” and “probably shouldn’t pretend this is beer.”

    Or, sometimes, “Beer I like” and “Beer I don’t like.”

    Matt

    27 Mar 14 at 16:19

  2. Well said. I think recognizing styles is huge — having macro lagers preset themselves as “Standard American Lager” or even “American Adjunct Lager” is critical. In a way, it helps place that style of beer amongst the craft beer spectrum, and we can start to call all beer simply “beer” and do away with “craft” and “macro” labels.

    CoachBlanket

    27 Mar 14 at 17:07

  3. Always a good discussion. It will be interesting how our opinions of “craft beer” continue to change as larger “established” breweries like Big Rock come into town and declare themselves craft.

    Darren

    28 Mar 14 at 10:30

  4. Great idea to open this debate up, Chuck.

    I think the goal would be to come up with something that is practical and workable for BC liquor stores, both private and public, to use. Let’s not worry about other jurisdictions because different factors will affect what makes sense elsewhere. Here in BC, we could use the size limits that the government uses in its LDB reports (<160,000 HL/year production).

    In terms of being independent, I'd say the brewery must be wholly owned within BC. Does that affect anyone that we currently consider craft? I'm not sure. Russell has interests outside BC (Fort Garry in Winnipeg and aren't they doing something in China?). It wouldn't allow Big Rock to be considered BQA here (or maybe Big Rock is too big anyway?).

    Quality is a tough one, and using the wine industry's method of defining it as where the ingredients come from doesn't make sense here (look at the schism that was created in the BC distilling industry by the government's definition of craft distilling). I don't think it's productive to restrict ingredients in any way because there are many experimental beers out there that use the same adjuncts big breweries use to make their beer more cheaply (rice, sugar, etc.) but in a "crafty" way — I'm thinking of the rice in P49's Snap, Crackle Hop for instance or all the various sugars that are used in strong Belgian styles. And what about a Gruit that doesn't contain any hops? Or a gluten-free beer (if any BC brewery ever gets around to brewing one…) that doesn't use any barley or wheat?

    One other consideration that's important, I think, is that craft-y beers are NOT included. I do not want to see Prohibition or Hops & Robbers or Scandal getting a BQA designation. Craft beer brewed under contract could be OK, I guess, but it hasn't really happened much here in BC yet, except in cases where an existing brewery that doesn't have enough capacity contract brews some of its product at another craft brewery (as Steamworks did at Dead Frog until their new brewery opened).

    These are some of my thoughts.

    Thirsty Joe

    28 Mar 14 at 11:00

  5. I’ve given this quite a bit of thought over the past few days after I wrote the first draft of this post. In the end, I’ve decided that any BQA-esque designation should get out of the game of craft vs not craft entirely.

    My reasoning is that it becomes a difficult boon-doggle that quickly moves away from our main concern: what’s in the bottle. Just look at what the BA has become. Thus I’m leaning heavily towards BQA becoming a labelling compliance model. A BQA stamp means that the beer complies with the labelling standards, and that all facts asserted on the label are true. These facts should include:

    * Where the beer was brewed, and by what company (and where it was packaged if different)
    * Basic stats: ABV, IBU
    * Style (either BCJP styles or another list, managed by BQA)
    * Brewing ingredients: Malt types, in order of use. Hops types, in order of use (optional to break out bittering, aroma and dry hops)
    * COMPLETE list of other ingredients: adjuncts, flavours, preservatives, etc
    * Whether or not the beer is filtered, pasteurized or bottle conditioned
    * Bottled on date
    * Tasting notes
    * Best by or best after date, if the brewer feels it’s applicable

    And that’s it. If your label has all that info, and the info is accurate, slap a BQA on it. This means that crafty brands are allowed, macros are allowed, and tiny nano brewers are allowed. If Molson makes a great RIS and calls it “Uncle Bob’s Family Beer” but meets all the above restrictions, BQA away. Likewise, if they cram all that info on a can of Canadian it’s also BQA. BQA, like VQA, shouldn’t be about enforcing quality, but about making sure the consumer has all the information they need to make an informed purchasing decision.

    And, like VQA, BQA would be optional. There’s no requirement for a brewery to subject themselves to such oversight, but if they want to be displayed in the special LDB BQA section, they have to. Hopefully competitive pressure will encourage participation, as it could yield a higher average selling price in exchange for perceived value.

    If we want to focus on locality of beer, then another “Brewed in BC” designation should be adopted for BC Breweries, and a further “Brewed from BC Ingredients” or “Estate Beer” designation for ultra-local products.

    chuck

    28 Mar 14 at 11:16

  6. Good list for what should be on a beer label. I vote to add to it whether the beer is organic (or which ingredients are) and/or whether it is vegan.

    LJCaro

    28 Mar 14 at 13:26

  7. Chuck, that information includes stuff that most small breweries don’t even know about their own beer. I don’t have a lab with a spectrophotometer to measure IBUs, my alcohol content is an educated guess and a hot ink stamp to print a bottled on date will cost me about $4000 I don’t really have. Parallel 49 has all that stuff, but no smaller brewery does.

    BJCP styles are narrow enough to destroy creativity, and narrow enough that they don’t actually match the parameters of many of the beers that the BJCP notes as being good examples of the style.

    Tasting notes aren’t facts, they’re opinions. It’s not like having accurate tasting notes is something you can regulate, and if they’re not accurate, what’s the point of mandating them?

    Often, brewers have to substitute hops when there’s a shortage. When that happens, does the brewery have to throw away all the labels and cans that have already been printed? And besides, I’d argue that what malts, hops, sugars and spices have been used can constitute a trade secret, and it should be up to the brewery whether they have to be disclosed. You’ll notice that no other food product has to disclose exactly which spices or artificial flavours or whatever else.

    I’m with you on general categories of ingredients, though. It’s absurd that beer is one of the only products you can buy without having any idea of what is in it. I think that “malted barley” and “hops” is specific enough, though. And I’d definitely like to know whether a beer contains artificial preservatives.

    Ben Coli

    28 Mar 14 at 16:41

  8. @Ben – As usual, you have great points. I thought through some of these, tho 🙂

    Re: BCJP styles – Yup, they’re hard to test. Also, how DO you handle unusual styles? It’s not easy, but my thoughts were that if a brewer claimed to be Style X at least an independent body could determine if this was a legitimate attempt at X. Styles do provide some wiggle room for unusual entrants, usually via the “other” category, so there’s always that.

    I don’t agree that they’re hyper-specific, though, as any given beer can easily qualify for multiple styles. The BCJP focuses on evaluating quality, but once you remove quality from the equation basically anything but the worst possible beers would likely be admitted to being in the category they aspire to.

    Re: Date stamps: Great point. Consider this one withdrawn. I can’t think of any way to do this without forcing horrible expenses on small producers.

    Re: IBU/ABV – These are stats you should really have at least a good guess for. ABV because it’s already required and IBU because it’s a key metric for a beer you’re brewing. There should be an allowable bandwidth for errors to let the little guys play along, but if you honestly can’t tell us if your beer is 20IBU or 80IBU you shouldn’t be brewing beer. It’s not a matter of 100% accuracy but more a matter of giving the consumer some idea of what they’re drinking. 20 vs 35IBU? I likely won’t notice. 40 vs 95? Yeah, that’s different.

    Re: Tasting notes. 100% Agreed, and I almost didn’t include them in my short list because they aren’t facts. However, inclusion provides at least some evidence that a brewer is thinking about their beer past the label. Macros will focus on terms like “refreshing” and “patriotic” which will actually only separate them further.

    Re: Hop Shortages. I honestly hadn’t considered this. It’s problematic, but you’re right. Despite that, requiring the label to be the recipe as envisioned doesn’t pose a huge issue. By the time we got to arguing about hop varietals we’re well past the good vs bad beer line. Perhaps you’re right and we should only include hops as a general ingredient with specific varietals being an optional detail.

    Re: Trade secrets. I would disagree that disclosure of malt varieties constitute a trade secret. Maybe if we dictated specific weight/ratios, but simply saying this beer contains Cara malt, but slightly more pale malt, shouldn’t be controversial. Spices are more specific, but as you point out other foodstuffs allow for a generic “spices” on their ingredients list.

    chuck

    28 Mar 14 at 17:59

  9. Chuck, I’ve been thinking through this stuff, obviously, because not long ago I had to decide what to put on my labels. I can tell you where I landed:

    Yes to where the beer is brewed. It’s a legal requirement to put the company address on the bottle, and in my case, that’s where it’s brewed.

    Yes to alcohol. It’s the law. But it’s hard to guarantee accuracy. I can measure the drop in gravity, but I can’t actually measure alcohol.

    No to IBUs. They’re Belgian-style beers, so it’s not really that relevant. The important thing is, they’re balanced. If anyone wants to know, I can tell them I think they’re around 25 and 30, but that’s based on a super inaccurate equation, not on actual measurement. Most brewers use one of those equations, which are useful for comparing recipes, but pretty bad at actually figuring out IBUs, especially when you get over 50 or 60.

    Yes to ingredients – sort of. I don’t specify the malts, the hops, or the type of sugar, and I didn’t include brewing salts. Brewing salts are just minerals, but they don’t sound that nice. Calcium and chloride are both minerals found in normal tapwater, including Vancouver’s (but I find our tapwater has not quite enough calcium for yeast health, and not quite enough chloride for mouthfeel). Calcium chloride is a salt used in canning food, and it’s not that different from table salt (sodium chloride). But if you say “calcium chloride” on a label, it sounds like you’re using some kind of horrible chemical poison in a beer that is actually quite naturally and traditionally made.

    Looking back on my decision, I’d be willing to include “brewing salts” as an ingredient, but I’d be reluctant to specify which ones. I should emphasize that all salts used by brewers are totally innocuous (less harmful than table salt) and used in minute quantities to change mineral levels by a few dozen parts per million.

    No to BJCP styles, because my two beers are both technically off-style (not by much) and I don’t want the BJCP telling me how to brew, and I definitely don’t want to have to put “16E Belgian Specialty Ale” on the beer because that would be both confusing and nearly meaningless to consumers.

    Not really to filtered/pasteurized/bottle conditioned, but now that you mention it, I should have. One beer is bottle conditioned and it does say so. Both are unfiltered and unpasteurized and now I wish my labels said so.

    No to date stamp. I really wish I could, but I lack the technical capacity.

    Yes to tasting notes, but that’s a marketing decision, not for disclosure.

    No to best before date, for the same reason as the date stamp.

    I agree that the consumer has the right to know what they’re putting into their body, but a lot of what you’re talking about has to do with flavour, which is subjective. I think that compliance with your scheme can be voluntary. A brewer who is willing to disclose all of that info is showing he has nothing to hide, and he’s probably making a quality beer.

    Ben Coli

    29 Mar 14 at 09:05

  10. What about Granville Island though ? According to the BC Craft Brewers Guild, it’s not considered a Craft Brewery since it’s 100% owned by Molson-Coors. Yet, what about Vern’s Black Notebook Series that are brewed on the small brewery on GI itself ? Will they be excluded as Craft ? I sure hope not because I consider the Black Notebook Series, the Urban Legend IPA, Ginja Ninja, and even the Lions Winter Ale as craft. All great brews. The GI regular lineup is just an intro to Craft though. Even Wiebe’s book considered GI as Craft and PWB and OK Spring as not. Heck, Northam’s Whistler brand was listed as craft and Bowen Island wasn’t. I saw a six pack of Northam’s Bear brand in Chilliwack back in January. Are they back and where do they stand ? As was said, will PWB and their Scandal lineup be considered craft over GI ? Same with Prohibition and Hops & Robbers ? Well, GI, esp. Black Notebook is more craft that PWB/Scandal, Prohibition and Hops & Robbers. And where does this leave Russell ? They are craft for sure…. Heck, Brassneck brewed a pre-prohibition corn lager back in Nov. The future is uncertain…yet it can be exciting…

    ADawg

    29 Mar 14 at 19:21

  11. One more thing, I hate it that OK Spring comes out with a so called “Craft Pack” and that Alexander Keith’s considers their Hops series as Craft. Even Rickards claims to be Craft… And watch out, AB-In Bev’s Shock Top “craft beer” is on tap in Vancouver. Not a good sign…

    ADawg

    29 Mar 14 at 19:23

  12. But of course, we know that Keith’s is owned by AB-InBev…

    ADawg

    29 Mar 14 at 19:24

  13. About the brewed in BC label, that means that Molson will get labeled as such… Craziness… I think that a BC Owned label will be better… Yet, GI would be a fine line when it comes to that.

    ADawg

    29 Mar 14 at 19:27

  14. I really like the labeling idea although I believe you must have a definition of CRAFT in there in order to drive the tourism and message. I think in order to achieve BC BQA certification it needs to be simpler, but must include these basics:

    1) Brewed, bottled and packaged in BC
    2) Basic stats: ABV, IBU (+/- 5)
    3) Brewing ingredients: Malt types and Hops
    4) Other ingredients: adjuncts, flavours, preservatives, etc
    5) Whether or not the beer is filtered, pasteurized or bottle conditioned
    6) Bottled on date – this is necessary, if you cannot afford a stamp then use a price label device.
    7) Consume within time frame labeling – kind of like best before, but this can be printed directly on a label stencil and matched with bottling date versus a best before.

    I think in order to hit that certification, a brewery needs to achieve those 7 things. If a small brewery cannot afford it, then they simple aren’t certified yet and that is ok. Certification should not be easy, but not impossible either. Bottling date is one of the most important things in my opinion, especially as a quality control mechanism.

    Terry

    2 Apr 14 at 12:24

  15. @BenColi – we disagree on the date stamp thing, however I have been burned a few times with stale brew, often stuff that shouldn’t be on the shelves and isn’t supposed to be (even the brewers were shocked). This is to protect consumers. Labeling guns are a cheap alternative and I think good enough to achieve certification.

    Looking forward to trying your beer regardless though!

    Terry

    2 Apr 14 at 12:29

  16. Forgot to add two more things:

    1) a brewery would need to be in business for at least a year before being eligible for certification, perhaps 6 months but I think a year is best. This gives them time and is a good quality control mechanism.

    2) shall be decided and governed by a consumer group, not a brewers guild or group. This eliminates conflicts of interest. Consultation and input from brewers is important and allowed, but should be a consumer based quality control.

    Terry

    2 Apr 14 at 13:16

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