Have you ever considered why it is that “craft” became the descriptor of choice for the beer we love so dearly? It’s not particularly sexy in and of itself. When I think of “craft” my first association is some slapdash assembly of popsicle sticks my kid made at camp that I’m obligated to fawn over. “My that picture frame is wonderful! I think right angles are overrated too!” The movement could have just as easily adopted “independent” or “micro“ or “expensive” as a prefix, but “craft” carried the day. Why?
Normally I’d just go with the simplest explanation: the usage of “craft” was mandated by the Lizard People’s all-powerful shadow government as part of their ongoing cultural manipulation campaign. However, consider what else rose to prominence in the early aughts when craft beer was merging into the zeitgeist. Farm-to-table dining was beginning to gain traction. We minted an entirely new population of celebrity chefs and cable networks to house them. The masses were not only craving flavor, but connection and thoughtfulness. The idea of beer that rejected corporate commoditization in favor of an artisanal touch dovetailed right into that sensibility. “Craft” reflected the outlook of a generation that was hungry for quality and meaning (our paradoxical embrace of Good Charlotte at the time notwithstanding).
Of course, craft beer is far more than artistic indulgence. Great beer certainly springs forth from passion, but the real heart of it is cold, hard science. Oxygen won’t leapfrog over your canning line because it’s so taken with your vision of making a pastry IPA. Lactobacillus couldn’t give a crap if your take on an ESB included sour notes or not. The core of what makes your favorite beer a reliable staple isn’t inspiration, but devotion to defined and repeatable processes. That’s where Morgan comes in.
Morgan Tenwick is the Quality Assurance (QA) Manager at Modern Times Beer. Before I unpack what that entails, allow me a moment to lament how disappointingly corporate her title is. I’ve come to expect more from a company that brought us tasting rooms called Fortress of Raditude and Flavordome. Why not “Biochem Sensei” or “Excoriator of the Haphazard”? It’s just a missed opportunity, is all.
Most people’s exposure to Quality Assurance is limited to the automated customer service declaration that your call is being recorded for the purposes of the same. In the world of zymology — the science of fermentation — it is a considerably larger enterprise. For a moment, don’t think of beer as an assembly of raw ingredients so much as a big ol’ bucket of variables. Even after you’ve eliminated everything that pertains to recipe formulation, you’re still left with a bounty of x-factors. Why is ABV varying from batch to batch? What are you doing to prevent contamination and how do you validate your efforts are working? These are the questions that keep someone like Tenwick up at night. “People take for granted slightly how difficult it is to maintain consistency,” she said. “I think that’s the number one goal of any QA program.”
It’s easiest to frame that idea in the context of one of the challenges of her early career. When Tenwick took her first QA job with Ballast Point Brewing Company in 2014, she was faced with maintaining beer quality while brewing operations grew from the Scripps Ranch location to their industrial behemoth in Miramar. The logistics for that sort of scaling are intimidating in all sorts of ways, but from her standpoint the real challenge was assuring the customer wouldn’t taste a difference. That requires asking some very fundamental questions. “You’re not just trying to make good beer — you have to be able to do that before you build another facility — but… you understand why that beer is good,” she said. “So what attributes are critical for this brand?”
Efforts to address QA questions like this can take on myriad forms, but much of it centers on yeast management. Yeast are quasi-renewable resources in the world of brewing, but the conditions of their usage (frequency of repitch, wort composition, fermentation temperature, harvesting methodology, etc.) can sway the degree to which they continue to perform. Exhausted and dying yeast will not only extend fermentation windows, but can taint the brew with chemical compounds that foul aroma and flavor. Tracking data on all of the above not only enables keeping those little divas happy, but eliminates many of the best vectors for a disgruntled consumer.
As much as the yeast enjoy Tenwick’s concierge service, her role as a QA manager extends well beyond that. Much of it revolves around coordinating health checks throughout the brewery ecosystem, whether her team is analyzing raw ingredients going into the brew, or testing for microbial presence in all segments pre- and post-fermentation. But at the end of the day, “quality” is still the name of the game. She believes it’s just as important to assure that folks at all levels of Modern Times Beer understand the products they’re bringing to bear. This includes everything from educating staff on the biochemical underpinnings of brewing processes to running sensory panels that build familiarity and inform palates. Suffice it to say, introverted lab scientists need not apply for this gig.
Ongoing education for those actually assuring quality is key as well. Despite the fact that humans have spent the last few thousand years attempting to wring booze from every conceivable substrate, it turns out many aspects of beer science are still curiously something of a black box. Tenwick’s affiliation with the American Society of Brewing Chemists (ASBC) not only informs her of the latest findings, but enables her to explore the newest questions as well. For example, in recent years it has been shown that just a shift of a few degrees Fahrenheit during dry hopping can trigger refermentation, changing the beer in previously unaccounted ways… but how? What’s in that hop? If it’s because of enzymatic activity from the hops, how effective is it? Do all hops behave in the same way and in the same temperature range? It may feel like an infinite regress into uncertainty for most, but it’s precisely the sort of thing that a self-described “curious nerd” like Tenwick lives for.
Brewery QA may still not seem as glitzy as brewing to our craft-centric outlook, but with any luck you’ll be able to recognize its value in your favorite beer the next time you drink it. And hopefully the two dozen times that follow that.