Thursday, March 19, 2015

Why Macro Beers Suck So Much

So I've been thinking about this for a long time. At least for the last decade during my craft beer romance. Maybe even before that, if only subconsciously, when I was pounding cases of Natty and Keystone. Before I even knew that craft beer was a thing, I had a sneaking suspicion that the stuff I was drinking sucked. But since I wasn't a fully-formed beer drinker at that point, I couldn't quite figure out why.

So why exactly do I think macro beers suck so much now? Is it just because I'm an angry hipster beer snob? (Wait, can you still be considered a hipster if you're in your 30's? I might have aged out of that one.) Maybe I just don't like the flavor. While that might be true, it's also an invalid argument--flavor is completely subjective. Well, after the whole "Brewed the Hard Way" debacle from Budweiser, I thought this was the perfect time to expound all of this thinking about why macro beer sucks.

AB Inbev is the largest producer of shitty beer in the world.
Also, they have something to do with bronzed bald eagles.
Anheuser-Busch InBev is the largest brewer in the world with the deepest pockets. They employ some of the best brewers, best cellar masters, and best microbiologists in the industry. They equip these folks with the most expensive equipment and technology, and they probably have the best quality control of any food manufacturer in the world. (But don't be fooled into thinking that excellent quality control means excellent beer. A consist beer can be consistently bad.)

So with this wealth of money, talent, and technology, why can't they make fantastic beer? It seems pretty simple to me really--ABI (and SABMiller for that matter) is a publicly traded company whose business model depends on low-cost, high-volume sales. In a word, they need a cheap product that appeals to everyone. If they can't deliver profit on this product, then the executives face being fired by the public shareholders.

The real problem facing the macros now is that these high volume beer sales they depend on are drying up. Macro and import beer sales in America have been dropping for the last two decades, losing out to liquor, wine, and craft beer. Try as they might with advertisements and product gimmicks, they can't stem the tide.

Remember that time the TV convinced you that bitter
beer was awful and drinking it made you a loser?
In the face of a shrinking market the only way for the executives at ABI to keep up profits (and to keep their jobs) is to reduce costs. They can reduce cost in their production process or their operating overhead. The problem with the latter is that they've already done all they can with what they have. When InBev bought out AB, they've laid off 1,400 people, cut benefits, squeezed suppliers (which is much easier when you're a company the size of ABI), and dumped billions of dollars in assets that weren't providing high enough profits. But now there's nothing left to cut.

In order to further reduce the overhead costs, ABI has to continually acquire new breweries and start the "streamlining" process of layoffs and cuts all over again. This is why the macro breweries continue to gobble up any brewery they can put their hands on, even if it means staging hostile takeovers. But because of anti-trust regulations, big takeovers are becoming increasingly difficult. ABI had to sell off much of Grupo Modelo before the regulators would sign off on the takeover in 2012.

The only other method ABI and SABMiller have to keep profits up is to reduce their production costs. This is the core of why macro beer sucks. Every time they acquire a new brand or come out with a new product, they ruthlessly apply cost cutting measures to it. They need to maximize the profits no matter the cost to quality. Nearly everything that a brewer does to reduce production costs also reduces the quality of the beer. The techniques used in brewing quality beer haven't changed much in the last 100 years. The only things that have changed are the techniques used to reduce the cost and time required to make the beer.

Cost Cutting Techniques

What are those techniques, you may ask? Here's an exciting sample of cheap beer engineering! (By the way, if you're not into the technical aspects of brewing beer, you probably want to tune out about now and go drink a local craft brew...)

High Gravity Brewing
This is the most common and simplest of all the cost cutting techniques. Essentially, a strong beer is brewed (7%-10% ABV), and then watered down to the desired strength (4%-5% ABV) prior to packaging. This allows the brewery to use less fermenter space and brew fewer batches for the same amount of beer on the liquor store shelves. Using this technique can cut down the cost of making the beer by 25%-50%.

High gravity brewing leads to issues with more stubborn beer haze, lowered head retention, more fusel alcohols, and excess ester production. It also leads to an overall lower concentration of flavor and aroma compared to a beer of a similar alcohol content brewed the traditional way. Generally, high gravity brewing makes a weaker tasting and smelling beer with more off-flavors, and has a high potential for quality problems.

Accelerated Conditioning
Time is money, so they say, and lagers take a lot of time to make. However, there are shortcuts to the lagering process, and the macros take them. Traditional lagering typically is done for a minimum of 3 weeks and typically up to 8 weeks or more at 35-45 deg F. The macros usually lager for just 2 to 3 weeks in the 45-55 deg F range.

A longer, colder lagering results in a more complete settling out of all that stuff that negatively effect the beer. The longer time period also gives the yeast time to digest fermentation by-products like acetaldehyde. Ever wonder why Budweiser smells like hard apple cider? (Don't take my word for it, check out the BJCP style description: "Low levels of yeast character (green apples, DMS, or fruitiness) are optional but acceptable." You won't see that in any of the traditional lager categories!)

Ales generally ferment much quicker than lagers, only 2-3 weeks for the traditional brewer. But again, the macros can speed that up to be less than a week from brewing to packaging.

Fining & Filtration
Fining and filtration are nothing new, and are widely used by macro brewers, craft brewers, and homebrewers alike. Fining refers to adding something to a beer that causes molecules like tannins and proteins to stick together and settle out. This process can be accelerated if the fined beer is passed through a filter that will catch the clumps of stuff. Most brewers only utilize natural fining agents and a relatively coarse filter for clarification. This has very little impact on the character of the beer.

The macro brewers take fining and filtration to the extreme, though, partly because of the issues resulting from high gravity brewing and accelerated conditioning. They use diatomaceous earth (a carcinogen that increases levels of arsenic in beer), PVPP, and silica gels among others. These are much more effective at removing particles from beer, and can negatively impact the beer if not used judiciously. Macro brewers then use super fine filters to remove everything down to individual yeast and bacteria cells. This fine filtration also filters out many other compounds that give the beer flavor, aroma, body, and head.

Beer Additives
Because of the techniques used above, especially the super fine filtration, additives are sometimes necessary to keep the beer tasting and looking like beer. The fine filtration process strips out iso-alpha acids from hops and proteins that contribute to bitterness and head retention, and also strips out melanoidins that color the beer. Because of this, the most common additives are foam stabilizers, hop extracts, and colorants.

Propylene glycol alginate seems to be the additive of choice for improving head retention these days. Probably because of that little issue of people dying in the '60s after macros started using cobalt sulfate to improve head retention. Hop resin and oil extracts are added to the beer at bottling time to give the beer it's bitterness and hop aroma back, but they will never have the same quality of utilizing whole hops. Caramel coloring can similarly be added at bottling time to make the beer look like beer again.

Remember Miller Clear? All the burp, without the bloat!! Right....

For more light reading on the topic of making cheap beer, check these out:
Brewing Science and Practice
Handbook of Brewing
Energy Efficiency Improvement and Cost Saving Opportunities for Breweries - An ENERGY STAR Guide for Energy and Plant Managers

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