Variation in beer, from batch to batch and from bottle to bottle, is a fascinating concept. Listening to John Keeling, Director of Brewing at Fuller’s, inspired me to explore it further.
I’ve written before about consistency vs batch to batch variation. There’s a value in small-batch beer possessing a unique character each time you have it.
My thoughts on this have developed after listening to John Keeling.
The All Important Context: Imported Beer In Australia
The context here is important: an English brewer of very traditional British styles, speaking to an audience of devoted craft beer drinkers in Australia.
The discussion covered the affect that time, travel and temperature can have on beer. Australia is not only a long way from other beer producing nations, we also experience temperatures very different to the likes of Europe and North America.
It’s also relevant that this was discussed at Bucket Boys, where there are a large number of Fuller’s beers on sale. They all hold up well.
Flavour and Character
Keeling explained “flavour” as the sensory qualities a brewer chooses for their beer and “character” as the relationship between those qualities.
Consistency is still important in that the drinker should recognise the beer. However, the balance and interplay between flavours is where the interest is, where a beer shows it has character. That’s why mass-produced beers can become boring.The balance and interplay between flavours is where the interest is, where a beer shows it has character. Click To Tweet
Keeling spoke about the first three sips of London Pride communicating that it is London Pride. After that the pint in your hand might tell you it’s more hoppy today, or more fruity than the pub down the road. This is character.
There are beers produced in Sydney that I love for this. Wayward’s Sourpuss is one example.
I always recognise it as Sourpuss but sometimes it’s a little more tart, sometimes there’s a bit more wheat flavour, and sometimes the raspberry tastes fresher and sweeter. I love each of these variations but every time it’s a beer that’s familiar and enjoyable.
There are a range of things that affect how beer tastes over time, including temperature and exposure to light.
In bottle conditioned beers, yeast can cause it to evolve over an extended period of time. There’s also a continuation of the Maillard reaction which affects not only flavour but colour too.
Each bottle in a batch may vary as they’re exposed to different conditions. Each becomes an isolated environment and therefore unique.
Keeling explained it in terms of fluctuation between positive and negative effects.
The point at which the beer is best is when the positive line on a graph is the greatest distance above the negative line.
A beer is at its worst when the lines are closest together (or if it’s really bad, when the negative line is above the positive line).
It’s kind of hard to explain in words and Keeling, using a great deal of hand gestures, did a better job. Here’s a rough sketch of Keeling’s concept.Keeling’s explanation helped develop my own thoughts around variation by giving a precise definition for character in beer and by focusing on how an individual bottle can change over time.
The point is, with each bottle being its own universe, it’s very difficult to predict how a beer will develop and when it’ll be at its best.
A beer might have tasted good a month ago but taste average now. It might be exceptional in six months. Flavour and character fluctuate over time.
Proper Cellaring and Continuing Education
As consumers we can only look after the beers as well as possible using proper cellaring techniques.
Cellaring is still an educative process in Australia, and it’s of particular importance considering the extreme temperatures to which we’re exposed. Heat is one of the greatest dangers to beer developing well over time.
Brewers will often retain some stock, periodically checking how it tastes. Not only does this help them to understand the beer they make once it’s packaged, it also allows them to communicate to customers should a beer be tasting very good, or beneath what they consider acceptable.
Decades of experience allows John Keeling to put succinctly concepts that I’ve been grappling with for a while.
Hopefully exposure to expertise like his will allow the educative process of drinkers, including myself, to continue so we can cellar and enjoy beer to its fullest.