I speak to a lot of new breweries; even now as I’m finding less time to blog because of the day job, I am contacted by upcoming producers almost on a weekly basis. And it’s great; it shows that more and more people are wanting to get into the brewing industry, and for us as consumers we will gain evermore beers to try, wider interpretations of styles and more variety in dispense methods. Being a ‘pint is half full’ kind of person I usually focus on the aspects of breweries that I feel are working well – or breweries themselves that I’m really appreciating. After all, my interest in beer drives this blog so I’m not likely to plough through dozens of beers from a producer until I find one I like, just so I can write about it. But then neither am I going to rip into a beermaker unless they have done something entirely heinous to deserve it.
But this tweet I saw yesterday made me step back a bit and think whether or not I agreed with it.
Getting real tired of the myth that microbrewery beer is somehow automatically 'better' There are more bad breweries in Scotland than good.
— Couper (@IainCouper) November 11, 2015
The first thing to say is that, of course, this is all subjective. Well – up to a point. You can define ‘bad’ however you like in a wider context, but an important distinction to make here is than Iain is a brewer, and his comment relates to the technical skill of the breweries themselves. There are a handful of breweries whose beer I really do not like, but I wouldn’t classify them as a bad brewery. That’s simply personal preference. Likewise, you can’t equate ‘bad’ with ‘new’; people are learning the ropes and have to be given some degree of slack. Now I know this is an entirely separate argument – either you believe this like I do or you think someone professionally creating a product should get it right first time or not let the public near their product otherwise, but often it’s not as black or white as that.
There’s one extremely up to the minute Scottish brewery who I really didn’t like their early beers. At all. Would I say they were ‘bad’ in the sense Iain tweeted? Yes, I probably would. Now though, they are one of the favoured beermakers of the moment in the country. It’s a natural progression. But we’re not assuming here that the pigeon-holing is static – breweries classed as ‘bad’ can get better. Indeed they have to, otherwise they are going to lose money and disappear very quickly. At least, so you would think. Anyway, so if ‘bad’ can’t be seen to be an equivalent of ‘new’ or ‘what I like’ – how can we quantify it? How bad does a bad brewery have to be? One duff pint? Three consecutive bad releases? Massive inherent bacterial spoilage of all tanks?
Well, let’s have a go. Iain went on in another tweet to say there are ‘maybe 10 good breweries in Scotland’ – let’s crunch the numbers and see if I agree…
According to my magic spreadsheet, there are currently 109 breweries in the country (a figure that includes production facilities, brewpubs and contract breweries). A scan of the list reveals 42 of those breweries from whom I have never tried a beer – or if I have, it was just the one and so long ago I can’t judge their standard. That’s a fairly amazing number, way way higher than I would have thought. And many of those are the smaller, newer microbreweries that Iain was probably referring to in his tweet. Almost 40% of Scottish breweries have not passed my lips – a number symbolic of both the recent boom in the industry here, and also the reducing amount of time I have to partake of their products!
So if we filter the remaining 67 breweries into four different categories, let’s see how they fall. Firstly, we have GOOD breweries. These are those from whom I have never had a bad pint, or since their grace period have grown into standout producers in Scotland. And that number for me is higher than 10, at 32. From new trusted small micros to industrial giants, these are the ones I feel truly confident in. Just under half of the total of breweries I am familiar with, then – but maybe I do grade above the mean, who’s to say? Next up are what I’ve classed (for want of a better phrase) as DULL – largely the long-established, mid-size producers who brew well, but don’t excite me. There are 10 of these.
Then there are the 15 breweries who sit on the fence. As PASSABLE beermakers they haven’t won me over yet – either they are in that new period where I’m still waiting for a true standout, or over the years I’ve had the odd beer that just didn’t work. Either way, these are pump clips or bottles that I approach with caution. And so, right at the end, that leaves those who I believe to be BAD. Breweries who are consistently poor (in my eyes) and make beer that is just unpleasant to drink. And that number is 10. So 15% of the breweries I am familiar with, and 9% of Scottish breweries as a whole, in this far-from-scientific study. And to counter Iain’s point that there are more bad breweries in Scotland than good (we will have to compare lists sometime); I would say there are three times as many good breweries as bad…
It’s an interesting exercise- but one in which you need to be reasonably careful – even with all the rough working and subjective descriptions of terms in inverted commas. If you have a few beers that are objectively bad from a brewery – i.e. infected, or overly brewed and imbalanced, or not befitting the style then that’s an easier way to put those breweries on the ‘bad’ pile. But for that you’d have to drink as many releases as you could from each – and persevere with a brewery that falls down, repeatedly. But then what about the variation introduced by storage, contract bottling, micro-canning and the biggest of all – cellarship? Can you quantify this with so many variables? Well, no, not really. But it at least results in a list of breweries to veer towards, and a list to veer away from…