The other day I was somewhere I’d not been before, trying a beer from a relatively new Scottish producer. It’s one of the best things about drinking beer, I think – certainly one of the best things about writing about beer; searching out and evaluating all these recent arrivals onto the scene. The way the number of beermakers is still increasing in Scotland, this occurrence is something that still happens with regularity. We are now (according to my clunky Excel spreadsheet)* at 103 breweries north of the border – ninety-one production and a further twelve that contract out elsewhere to get their beer to market. I tend to include both in the overall total, but you may not – which is fair enough.
*Yes, I do actually have one
Anyway, the 103rd and latest entrant on that list is Aberdeen’s Fierce Beer Co – and with any one of a number of others set to cause me to add another row underneath, it ensures there is always something new to try on the horizon. I don’t see that slowing down any time soon, either. Whilst the number of breweries opening has reduced a bit since the surge of 2012/13, the number of smaller, ‘garage brewers’ or those gypsying their craft elsewhere has increased dramatically over recent times. It’s now easier than ever to get your beer up to speed at home and then get it out there relatively soon afterwards. The prevalance of key-kegs, home bottling equipment, and mid-sized breweries with tank space has been joined by the most recent trend of all – brew it yourself stations that encourage people to turn up with their own recipes and let their imaginations loose on rented equipment.
And it’s great. It means the variety and choice of Scottish beer has never been greater in living memory. We’re not ever going to get back to the forty breweries in a city era – or actually, if we do, it will be forty bedroom breweries; people producing small-batch brews from every district. Anyway, with all of that said, every time I go into a bottle shop or a pub I’ve not ventured into for a while, there’ll be a raft of things I’ve never really heard of. And that usually results in me buying them, to see what they are like. And that’s where the problems sometimes begin.
On Twitter the other day I saw a discussion about concerns over beer quality of new micro (or craft as we call them now) breweries. This is a cyclical debate, appearing every so often – and it has many potential factors that play into it, to affect the quality of a new beer on offer, but the one that I always return to is closer to home. And it is this: as a customer, how forgiving are you? When the possible issues of brewing skill and technical ability, cellarship and storage, and even – for it has to come into it – your own ability to discern off-flavours or faults are all combined, you are left with a single question to answer.
How much leeway should we give new breweries?
It’s something I’ve often wondered. As people rate first-time releases from new brewers and give them lower scores, or wrinkle up the face when indulging a first sip from a recent entrant to the market – how much of a grace period should you allow? That last scenario was exactly what happened to me the other day. From a single gulp of the beer, it tasted like grainy, overly dry-hopped homebrew. It wasn’t bad as much as it was fairly disappointing (if it were genuinely bad, I would have taken it back). In these situations, I always wonder if the brewer themselves was happy with it. If they were sitting across from me, would they have had the same reaction?
Great brewers are never really happy with their wares though, there’s always something they feel they can improve on. This is a facet of people who create things, maybe – I remember reading once that the reason restaurants employ waiting staff is so that the chefs don’t have to serve the food and apologise for every little thing they haven’t got perfectly right. But even with all this on board, should we expect new breweries to be totally up to speed straight away, right from the gate? There are several in Scotland who now make amazing beer that is very different from their early releases.
This is natural – if you’ve ever read some of the stuff I wrote when I started out, you’ll know exactly what I mean. And maybe that’s the parallel here. Some people blaze onto the scene as soon as they arrive, but the majority of us are a work in progress. We take time to learn our trade, the quirks of the equipment, how to optimise every stage of the process. And every moment I spend in breweries brings home just how complicated a process it is. So; celebrate those who are barnstorming from the off. But the next time you try a new brewery that isn’t quite there yet – give it time. Because chances are, they’ll get there eventually. Give them some leeway.