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What makes a great brewery?

Discussion in 'Beer Talk' started by koflaherty, Jan 15, 2013.

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  1. koflaherty

    koflaherty Initiate (194) Nov 11, 2009 New Jersey
    Beer Trader

    I was talking with a friend of mine who is on BA periodically and worked for a brewery at one time. Both of us have some homebrew experience but are not experts. We were sharing some good beer and started talking about what makes our favorite breweries better than others. Although the quality of a brewery like the quality of a beer is subjective, there are clearly some favored and not so favored breweries on this site. Before the site changeover someone calculated BA’s ‘best’ breweries based on review ratings and it seemed pretty consistent with the ones that are mentioned a lot.
    So I was wondering what folks thought made a well regarded brewery by BA standards brew better beer than a successful but less regarded brewery. I’m talking about standards on this site, not the overall population and I’m just focusing on beers that are not sour, barrel aged or otherwise might have some nuances in production.
    We decided that several factors are largely the same for any brewery:
    1. Ingredients – So far as I know breweries have the same access to quality ingredients. Yes, someone might be able to corner the market on unusual hops, or grow their own, but there is very little differentiation on ingredient access for a profitable decent sized brewery.
    2. Quality – Some breweries have had quality problems like documented infections, but it doesn’t seem like there are ‘low quality’ breweries that consistently make impure products and ‘high quality’ ones that don’t.
    3. Equipment – This varies a lot but equally good beer can be made on a variety of equipment and certain breweries don't get better equipment than others.
    4. Recipes – There are many exceptions but for most beers it’s not that hard to get the recipe or approximate it. There might be a lot of adjustment (see below) but base recipes are pretty easy to find.

    We decided that there were some factors that did make a difference between breweries
    5. Master brewer – We debated this a lot, but generally agreed that although the basics of producing any given beer might be straightforward, there are constant adjustments that have to be made to keep it to the same quality depending on equipment calibration, ingredients, and other factors. Are brewers ‘artisans’ and do the best breweries have the best brewers?
    6. Taste and style – Clearly bigger tends to be better on BA. Some breweries specifically position themselves as brewers of bigger, more flavorful beers. Is a lot of it that our favorite breweries specifically target our tastes and not more mainsteam folks?
    7. Freshness – Although many beers aren’t impacted much by freshness, it seems like hoppy beers made in smaller quantities that don’t sit on shelves benefit from being more likely to be fresh.
    8. Hype / reputation – There definitely is a role for expectations, ‘rareness’ and your impression of the brewery, setting and everything else beyond the taste experience of the beer. You might think this is really small or really big.

    I know that’s a lot of factors, but what do folks think? What do you think separates one from another?
  2. joeebbs

    joeebbs Initiate (0) Apr 29, 2009 Pennsylvania

    The way brewers get around saying they brew specifically for beer geek tastes is that they "make what they want to drink."
  3. SammyJaxxxx

    SammyJaxxxx Poo-Bah (1,788) Feb 23, 2012 New Jersey
    Beer Trader

    Simple: "Great Beer."
  4. checktherhyme

    checktherhyme Initiate (152) Apr 8, 2008 Washington

    Yeast profile is a big one for me. A lot of breweries have a house strain of yeasts that seperates their product from other breweries. I love Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas because of this. Rogue...not so much.
  5. brewbetter

    brewbetter Initiate (0) Jun 2, 2012 Nauru

    Beat me to it :stuck_out_tongue:
  6. LeRose

    LeRose Meyvn (1,179) Nov 24, 2011 Massachusetts
    Supporter Subscriber

    Besides make great beer, I think a lot hinges on Number 5 - Master Brewer. I think the master brewer has to have great vision aligned with the objectives of the brewery as a whole. Imagine with the backlog of people applied to Siebel and such there's a lot of them out there. Doesn't mean they can all cut it.

    Then microbiology is probably tied - seems the more unique you can make your yeast, the more you can insulate yourself from the competition. Everybody can get all the same ingredients, but if you are top notch at coming up with proprietary yeast strains, then you have a significant edge and a competitive advantage that can be protected.

    FWIW, the food engineer geek in me looks at things like sustainability, community involvement, business practices (ethics, etc), equipment and stuff like that too.
  7. azorie

    azorie Initiate (0) Mar 18, 2006 Florida

    Depends on who is asking the question, the customers or the brewer. Many brew first for them. The great ones brew for the masses, just my 2 cents. Still if there was ONE answer they be 1 brewery and we know that aint so.

    BTW they only answers that count are those of pro brewers imho. mainly you have to be in their shoes to understand it all... its more than making beer.
    LeRose likes this.
  8. zach60614

    zach60614 Aspirant (204) May 1, 2012 Illinois
    Beer Trader

    Jolly Pumpkin
  9. BearsOnAcid

    BearsOnAcid Savant (957) Mar 17, 2009 Washington
    Beer Trader

    You find Sierra Nevada unique? The chico strain is used by a lot of people and has a very neutral effect on flavor compared to other yeasts. There's nothing really special about it.
  10. hopfenunmaltz

    hopfenunmaltz Meyvn (1,307) Jun 8, 2005 Michigan

    Most all of their beers use a commercial Belgian strain for primary. The barrels have a good bunch of bugs and critters now.
  11. draheim

    draheim Poo-Bah (2,431) Sep 18, 2010 Washington
    Beer Trader

    I thought it was the other way around.
    coreyfmcdonald likes this.
  12. jasoncheb

    jasoncheb Initiate (177) Nov 23, 2012 Virginia

    To expand a little more on #1: there are different ingredients which can be found locally and brought to the brewery directly from the producer. For instance, depending on the beer being produced, things like ginger roots, local honey, etc. may not be available to some breweries. The use of these truly local ingredients in the hardywood GBS transforms the beer from average to exceptional. The same can be said with some of the hops found in Vermont and Northern California, which make beers like heady topper and Pliny exceptional. While all breweries can get their hands on these ingredients, these breweries, for example, are able to use the freshest local ingredients.

    While the ambience of the brewery makes up 30%, in my opinion, of what makes a brewery great, fresh ingredients creating exceptional beer is what brings people like all if us to the brewery.
  13. Schmoozer

    Schmoozer Initiate (163) Nov 15, 2008 Michigan
    Industry Beer Trader

    Great beer and a good atmosphere. Those are the only reasons people should goto a brewery. If you go for the food, its a restaraunt first, and brewery second. That's just my two cents, and I own a brewery.
    SammyJaxxxx likes this.
  14. katiethehooks

    katiethehooks Initiate (0) Dec 5, 2012 District of Columbia

    Attention to detail/QC, good marketing, and great customer service. That said, I think what will differentiate breweries in the long-run is their ability to effectively utilize a wide variety of yeast strains.
    Bitter_Echo likes this.
  15. ja1022

    ja1022 Initiate (163) Sep 27, 2009 Indiana

    I fall with the people that said "great beer". Simple enough. I'm not a brewer, just a drinker. If in the end, the beer is good, nothing else matters.
  16. ThirstyFace

    ThirstyFace Initiate (0) Jan 11, 2013 New York

    Great beer that can be experienced without feeling either taken/ripped off
    SammyJaxxxx likes this.
  17. hopfenunmaltz

    hopfenunmaltz Meyvn (1,307) Jun 8, 2005 Michigan

    Can you tell where these CA hops are coming from?
  18. tgchief

    tgchief Initiate (0) Nov 30, 2010 Iowa

    The breweries that stand out as great create excitement that is life enhancing and therapeutic to the very refreshment of our bodies and minds. Then they win over your heart and minds by providing you with uniqueness and consistency in creation worth shouting about and trading for!

    A little meticulous attention to details never hurts either.

  19. Providence

    Providence Initiate (0) Feb 24, 2010 Rhode Island

    Great beer and a commitment to the craft movement in general.
    SammyJaxxxx likes this.
  20. koflaherty

    koflaherty Initiate (194) Nov 11, 2009 New Jersey
    Beer Trader

    Actually, with a few exceptions I would think most breweries get their hops and barley from the same places. There are close to zero hops grown near Vermont and unless you know something I don't Alchemist doesn't source locally (this is changing in New England and folks are trying to source locally but I haven't noticed a better quality).
  21. koflaherty

    koflaherty Initiate (194) Nov 11, 2009 New Jersey
    Beer Trader

    While I appreciate the input that 'great breweries make great beer' I was hoping for a little more insight as to why Three Floyd's makes great beers and Long Trail does not, at least according to a majority of the folks here. Is it that FFF pays more attention to details, has a better master brewer, or some other factor?
  22. kzoobrew

    kzoobrew Initiate (0) May 8, 2006 Michigan

    Quality, consistency, variety. In that order.

    One should not discount integrity, ingenuity, accountability. These are also essential.
    LeRose likes this.
  23. UCLABrewN84

    UCLABrewN84 Poo-Bah (12,199) Mar 18, 2010 California

    Beer I want to drink.
  24. jasoncheb

    jasoncheb Initiate (177) Nov 23, 2012 Virginia

    Alchemist was probably a bad example, I don't know that they use locally harvested hops for their beer. To clarify my statement a little; the locally produced honey, ginger root, etc. used in their GBS is part of what makes the beer so exceptional. The hops and grain likely are not locally produced, however, the other ingredients are. Using local sources is also another positive when it comes to breweries. They support the local economy not only by attracting local patrons who would otherwise buy beer from non-local regions, but also by supporting the local farmers and other ingredient-producing businesses local to their region.
  25. hopfenunmaltz

    hopfenunmaltz Meyvn (1,307) Jun 8, 2005 Michigan

    Just so know, the only hops that RR would use from lo al sources might make 1 batch. Vinnie has talked about the WA growers he deals with.
  26. herrburgess

    herrburgess Meyvn (1,031) Nov 4, 2009 South Carolina
    Industry Beer Trader

    IMO, one of the biggest issues U.S. craft brewers face is that they use as a base malt the same American 2-row pale that has been cultivated basically according to the specifications of the macros, who purchase the lion's share of it. I haven't researched the issue academically in much depth at all, but I can't imagine that the industry-standard bar set by the macros here is too high. I have, however, "researched" the issue empirically (i.e. drinking), and have found that the use of 2-row malts in lighter beers -- and especially German styles that don't hide flaws well at all -- pretty clearly reveals the inferiority of American 2-row pale when compared to, say, Weyermann or Best Pilsner malts. In beers where the base malt character is muted or completely overwhelmed by massive hopping and/or an abundance of crystal/chocolate/roasted malts, the flaws are not as noticable. In that sense I'd disagree with your point #1 that ingredients are not a major determinant in what makes a great brewery.
    koflaherty and Pegli like this.
  27. Hanzo

    Hanzo Initiate (0) Feb 27, 2012 Virginia

    1. Great beer
    2. Fair Prices
    3. Varied Styles
    4. Quality Merchandise in their store
    5. Well organized and entertaining release parties
  28. LeRose

    LeRose Meyvn (1,179) Nov 24, 2011 Massachusetts
    Supporter Subscriber

    About a hundred acres on the entire eastern seaboard according to this. Nice little history too.

    jasoncheb likes this.
  29. mecummins

    mecummins Initiate (0) Nov 16, 2012 Illinois

    I equate the idea of a master brewer to an executive chef at a successful restaurant. Somebody needs to have a clear vision and commitment to executing this vision in order for a brewery to be great. There needs to be first a passion and second a follow through on this vision with attention to the details (where things like ingredients, recipes and customer service would fall.) I think that this passion is the heart that really separates craft from BMC, so a great brewery should be able to exploit this.
    LeRose likes this.
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