Top Menu

New Beer Rule #4: Variation is not a flaw

Looks good to meNEW BEER RULE #4: The god of beer is not consistency.

Full credit for this rule goes to Mark Dorber, the venerable British publican who uttered these words in 1996 at the first Real Ale Festival in Chicago.

He was speaking specifically about cask-conditioned ale, but the rule applies fairly to most small-batch beers.

This doesn’t mean that a beer needn’t be consistently good; only that it doesn’t have to taste the same every batch. Or in the case of cask beer, the same the second day it is on dispense as the first. Or in the case of a beer that you might cellar for a few years the same two years into the process as five years in.

Look, same is OK. It’s what most people seem to want. That’s why Anheuser-Busch goes to incredible lengths to make sure beers such as Budweiser – brewed in 12 different plants in the United States and other around the world – taste the same no matter where they come from. They don’t want us commenting on the nuances of Newark (New Jersey) Bud versus those of Fort Collins (Colorado) Bud.

Small batches lend themselves to greater variability. Hop varieties taste different not only from year to year, but from lot to lot – depending, for instance, if they are grow high on a hill or in the lowlands of a rolling hop district. The same may true for barley that will be turned into malt. (And then there are process differences, etc., but let’s keep this short).

Large breweries may blend to minimize differences. Not so small-batch brewers. “We’re going to have variability from batch to batch,” said Great Divide Brewing founder Brian Dunn. “I think the flavor profile doesn’t change enormously, not enough that drinkers necessarily notice.”

This is why it is silly for Consumer Reports to rate beers (see what Ron at Hop Talk has to write about that), and just another reason that assigning a number to a beer doesn’t work for me.

Back in the 1980s, Michael Jackson discussed consistency with Roger Schoonjans, then brewing director at Belgium’s famed Brasserie d’Orval. “People should not want our beer to taste exactly the same every time,” he said. “They want the gout d’Orval (flavor of Orval), for sure, but they want to be able to chat about it: ‘I think this one is a little more hoppy — yesterday’s was rounder . . . .’ In that respect, they treat it like wine.”

You don’t have treat your beer like wine to appreciate that worshiping at the foot of consistency means that you’d be giving up something you should not want to.


12 Responses to New Beer Rule #4: Variation is not a flaw

  1. Stephen Beaumont June 13, 2007 at 5:37 am #

    Another fine rule, Stan. I’ve long held that, particularly with respect to everything brewed in brewpubs and the seasonal offerings of larger craft breweries, variation is part of the pleasure. And where cask-conditioned ale is concerned, well, one of the great joys of discerning beer drinking is the discovery of that single, perfect cask.

  2. Sage June 13, 2007 at 11:29 am #

    Truth, written.

    Coincidentally, we sat in Tomme’s brewery discussing this very subject last night (and sampling Bourbon instead of beer). He mentioned that he had a new issue of his Hop 15 releasing on Friday and I asked if it would be as good the last. He shrugged and said “It will be good, but I don’t know if it will be the same. That’s what makes it exciting.”

    Sums it up pretty well if you ask me.

  3. Alan June 13, 2007 at 11:37 am #

    We may have forgotten that bottle variation is a subset of reality. I had a pal in undergrad who one winter Saturday sat down in the cafeteria across from me and said: I friggin hate “winter milk”. To him, a farmer’s kid, milk had a quality that expressed the season depending on the feed the cows ate. Cheese grows mold, bread goes stale and beer does change batch to batch as well as month to month as it sits and ages in the stash.

  4. Jeff Alworth June 14, 2007 at 9:38 am #

    Consistancy is the hobgoblin of … little beers.

    When the McMenamins first started brewing, they touted variation as a hallmark of handcrafted, artisinal small-batch beer. Early McBeer was of varied quality, so this might have been slightly self-serving, but I think their intention was true: variation is natural and wholesome. Who wants a bush that produces identical roses?

    I believe the McBrothers still allow their brewers to adapt recipes to their own proclivities. Terminator tastes different in every pub. If it’s a really good batch, I ask about the brewer’s name and keep an eye on him. In Oregon, the McMenamins is an amazing farm club for brewers. Actually, I shouldn’t limit it to Oregon–with so few opportunities here, I think the folks who cut their teeth on batches of Termie end up all over the country.

    Viva la difference–

  5. Bailey June 14, 2007 at 12:12 pm #

    Great post. There are so many British beers which have been around for years on end which must surely be entirely different creatures now than they were when the first batch was made. Some beers evolve to suit consumer tastes; others change because, say, it’s a bad year for East Kent Goldings; and it does add to the variety.

  6. The Beer Nut June 15, 2007 at 8:56 am #

    Totally agree with this. My local brewpub have a weiss which used to be a completely different beer with every batch: some great, some poor. Sadly, it’s now always the same, and mediocre. I’d much rather have the thrill of the gamble than get the same beer every single time.

  7. Loren June 15, 2007 at 9:43 am #

    You should amend this to include “Variation, within a theme as well,” which should help to squelch all the constant arguing and bickering of NEW styles, substyles and subsubstyles. No?


    Great rule though…as it SHOULD kill all the “Celebration SUCKS this year!” opinions.

  8. Stonch June 20, 2007 at 7:25 am #

    I’m on board with this too.

    Consistency is difficult and a brewer who acheives it is probably very skillful. But some of the most consistent beers are also the most mass produced and unappealing.

  9. Stan Hieronymus June 20, 2007 at 3:12 pm #

    Stonch – My taste buds happily remember walking into the Dove in 1994.

    Daria had first choice and decided on Fullers ESB, so I walked around to the public side where there were regulars sitting at the bar. While the barman drew an ESB one of the guys at the bar ordered another London Pride.

    “From that tap,” he said pointing to the left.

    “I’ll have a Pride,” I told the barman, and when he started to pull one from the right I told him I’d wait for one from the left as well.

    “Yesterday the one on the right was better,” he regular said.

    When I took the beers outside Daria tried hers and smiled. Then she had mine and said, “Wow! What’s that?”

    The lessons:

    – That kegged London Pride in the States had little in common with cask.
    – That some people spend a lot of time at the bar. This was early afternoon and the regular obviously had sampled at least two pints and was on his third. Of course this is 4% abv beer.

  10. Bob Sylvester July 12, 2010 at 10:16 pm #

    All hail rule #4!
    Or else I’m out of business.

  11. Ilya Feynberg July 28, 2010 at 7:09 pm #

    F***** AWESOME!!

    LOVE this rule! If there is no change in the taste, color, consistency, aroma and so on in the beer from batch to batch, or season to season…than you’re doing something wrong. You might as well call yourself “Miller “Brewing”” Company! :/

    I’m not even going to start and list the reason behind why there would be some change between batches or seasons.

    But I think most folks here understand 😉



  1. Beer Links for June 13th » Hail the Ale! Beer Blog - June 13, 2007

    […] Appellation Beer: Beer From a Good Home » Blog Archive » New Beer Rule #4:… – Why variation in beer is good. […]

Powered by WordPress