I’ve been meaning to get around to writing this post for weeks. Probably even months. There’s so much to be said, it’s tough to know where to start, so I’m just going to ramble on and ask you to join in. Grab yourself a cold one, for you could be here for a while. Here’s the basic problem – there are a lot of bad bottles of beer in South Africa. This is not to say that they’re bad beers before they get into the bottle – though some undoubtedly are. It just seems that there is a huge bottling issue in the country’s craft beer scene and if brewers don’t address it, it could be the undoing of the industry. When I go to Roeland Liquors, it’s no coincidence that I tend to leave with more imported beers than local brews. I would love to buy all South African beer. I love supporting the local guy, but do you know what I don’t love? Spending 20, 25 or 30 bucks on a bottle of beer that turns out to be undrinkable. On tap I’m willing to risk it, largely because if there’s something wrong, I can easily send it back. But schlepping back to the bottle store with a bottle of beer that’s been open and in the fridge for three days while I was trying to find time to return it is kind of awkward.
So just what is the problem with bottled beers in SA? It just seems so hit and miss. Often, the beer is just fine. Sometimes it’s OK, but doesn’t taste like it does on tap. And sometimes it’s plain undrinkable. Sure you get the occasional flat beer where capping has gone awry, or one or two infected bottles that perhaps didn’t get cleaned quite right (I’ve heard about brewers who assume their bottles arrive ready sanitised, though wisdom suggests all new bottles need a good clean before they’re filled). But undoubtedly the biggest problem when it comes to bottling is this insistence on bottle conditioning.
What is bottle conditioning?
Before we get too deeply into this, let’s quickly define what bottle conditioned beer is. You could think of it as the champagne of beer. Rather than CO2 being pumped into the beer to carbonate is artificially, a bottle-conditioned (BC) beer undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Sugar and yeast are added to the bottled beer and since the beer is capped, the CO2 cannot escape as it would during ‘normal’ fermentation. Instead it stays in the bottle, creating a “natural bubble”.
What’s good about it?
There’s a lot to be said for bottle conditioning – it’s basically as “real” as a beer can be – unfiltered (usually), unpasteurised and full of flavour. Start-up brewery Gallows Hill currently bottle condition all of their beers and brewer Schalk Marais explains the pros: “Bottle conditioning, when done properly, can result in beer with a finer and silky carbonation, much better head retention, more complex flavours, longer shelf life, and better aging ability than force-carbonated beers.” Granted, bottle-conditioning, when done right, can give character, flavour and refinement to a brew. We’re talking the champagne of beers here. But it has to be done right. “Is Duvel bottle-conditioned?” a beer geek friend asked, wide-eyed and incredulous while we were chatting about the topic recently. He was probably picturing the fluffy head, the fine bubbles and the brilliant, gold appearance with just a hint of haze. He was probably comparing this to some of the bottle-conditioned beers he’s more familiar with – cloudy brews with chunks of yeast and a veritable Russian Roulette of off flavours. But Duvel, or frankly most beers that originate in Belgium, is the pinnacle of bottle-conditioning. These beers demonstrate exactly what is good about secondary fermentation in the bottle.
So what’s the problem?
On the flip side, a badly-done BC beer can be truly hideous. At best, it’ll be tasty but flat. At worst it will contain a yeast cake in its base and a range of off flavours from the yeast that range from sour to phenolic. It really all comes down to the yeast and as any homebrewer will know, yeast is the one ingredient in beer where you don’t want to mess around.
And what’s specifically going wrong in the SA scene?
Well, it is all about the yeast and I suspect that many brewers just aren’t following the correct yeast management procedures when it comes to bottle conditioning. Yeast are tricky little buggers and much like the glasses you pour your beer into, they need a good clean before they’re re-used. I know of brewers who re-pitch their yeast dozens of times without correctly cleaning it and if this yeast is used to bottle condition, as apparently it often is, then it’s a nasty beer waiting to happen. Many of the bigger brewers use a completely different yeast for bottle-conditioning, which eliminates much of the risk.
And the brewer’s responsibility doesn’t end with using the correct yeast. In a country with a long history of lager-drinking, the idea of a ‘live beer’ is a new one and consumers need a bit of info if they’re going to enjoy the beer as it was meant to be enjoyed. Do they swirl and add the yeast? Do they pour gently and leave the last half-centimetre in the bottle? And while we’re at it, should it be kept upright or will the bottle be OK on its side? Speaking of storage, I’ve heard everything from “bottle conditioned beers last longer, you can store them on a shelf for months” to “they need to be treated like a carton of fresh milk” and I can’t find a definitive answer when it comes to how BC beer should be stored. I’ve also heard the “it wasn’t treated correctly in transit/it didn’t travel well” excuse, which I find to be a huge cop out.
I recently enjoyed a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale on the beach in Mauritius. No, I’m not just bragging about my holiday – I do have a point here. This beer was shipped from the West Coast of the States to the UK and then from the UK to Mauritius. We found it at Lambic, an awesome little bar I’ll be blogging about soon. It was sitting on a shelf – not in a fridge, on a shelf – and when we opened it, it was as wonderful as every other Sierra Nevada Pale Ale I’ve ever enjoyed, which is to say it was pretty damn wonderful. Oh, and it’s bottle conditioned, by the way. Kind of blows the ‘it wasn’t treated correctly in transit’ excuse out of the water, but if you’re going to insist that transportation or incorrect temperatures will damage your beer, then you need to tell consumers this on the label.
And if ‘user error’ is eliminated but the beer is still bad? Well, perhaps it was bad when it was bottled. And when I say bad I mean infected, somehow. A bottle conditioned beer is a live beer. It will change and mature in the bottle. It also contains the one thing that causes most off flavours in a beer, and just how the carbonation increases in the bottle, so too can a hint of infection. Leave that slightly infected bottle on a shelf, or even in a fridge for a while and when you open it you’re in for an intro class on beer nasties.
And why are people insisting on bottle conditioning their beers?
“It can’t be called a craft beer if it’s not bottle conditioned”, a Twitter follower remarked when I brought this subject up a few months back. When I asked brewers their opinion on this statement, answers tended to involve the word “crap”, with adverbs including “utter”, “absolute” and “total”. I agree. If you can’t call it craft unless it’s bottle conditioned, then most of DogFish Head’s brews aren’t craft beer. Pliny the Elder isn’t a craft beer. BrewDog isn’t a craft brewery or closer to home, neither is Devil’s Peak, CBC or Lakeside, to name but a few. But of course, they are, so like the brewers I asked, I have to say that the ‘craft beer must be bottle-conditioned’ theory is indeed, complete crap.
Some brewers I’m sure keep doing it because, like my Twitter pal, they think it’s the right thing to do, that it’s a hands-on procedure ans therefore the only way to bottle a craft beer that fits with the whole artisanal ethos. Some do it because it seems like the easy option – though if bottle conditioning is being done right, it should be a far more difficult process than simply force carbonating. As JC Steyn from Devil’s Peak says: “It’s not an easy science by any means”. Some probably do it because they haven’t encountered an alternative – most home brewers bottle-condition their beers and as they graduate to become commercial microbrewers, they carry on the practice. And undoubtedly, some do it because it’s cheap. It means not having to invest in a bottle filler, though in the long run, when consumers get savvy and either return or refuse to buy untrustworthy beers as I am prone to do, it won’t be a cheap option. In fact, it could well end in the downfall of a brewery or two.
So is it always wrong?
Hell no! A bottle conditioned beer, when done properly, is wonderful. It certainly suits some styles better than others – a wit or a weiss should always be bottle conditioned; most Belgian ales also. Lagers, due to their delicate flavours, tend not to be and it takes true talent to get that particular style right. It’s a fine procedure to practice in your brewery, but only if you’re going to spend some time reading up on how it’s done, some time working out your brewery’s quality control practices and invest more time and a little money in proper yeast-treatment practices (and that’s a whole different blog post).
Right, we get it – where do we go from here?
Well, I’ve said my bit. Basically, if you can’t guarantee that your bottle conditioned beer will be a fine tasting brew that I don’t have to sieve through my teeth, I’d infinitely prefer that you force carbonate. I’m sick of hearing the sound of off beer glugging down my sink.
What do you think?
Is craft only craft if it’s bottle-conditioned? Are you in love with the natural bubble? Are you fed up of flat or sour beers? Or am I alone in finding that many South African bottled beers are disappointing at best and undrinkable at worst? Let’s get a conversation going in the comments section below:
Please also see a brief follow-on from this extremely long post here.