The recent recall of Black Hops’ Extra Eggnog shows smaller brewers have taken on board the need for recall procedures but also highlights the pressures faced by small brewers in the endless quest for novelty.
Black Hops last week staged a textbook recall of its Extra Eggnog cans brewed specially for the Beer Cartel 2019 Advent Calendar.
The Gold Coast brewer immediately made an announcement upon finding out about an unintended refermentation issues with the 375ml cans.
The industry heralded the brewery for the timely and honest announcement, based around its recall plan, a process which is recommended for every brewer by the IBA.
However the recall also raised wider issues in the industry with regards to the limitations and challenges smaller brewers have experienced when it comes to quality control, upscaling and moving into wholesale.
Black Hops co-founder Dan Norris said that upon launching its second venue Black Hops II, Norris and the team brought in quality system consultants, but this work was not yet completed when the Eggnog beer was launched.
“It’s a very difficult challenge, we have never been in a place where we had a lot of money to invest in anything that’s not an immediate priority, so building out our quality program has been challenging,” Norris told Brews News.
“We thought we were doing pretty well within our constraints of being a small, fast growing, non profitable company. But we obviously haven’t done enough.”
He said that quality is and should always be a big part of brewing, but the faster a brewery grows and the more it invests in wholesale, the more difficult it can be to ensure this throughout the supply chain, from the brewery to the bottle shop.
“I would say it takes on a lot more importance once you are wholesaling your beer, particularly in pack and particularly if it’s interstate or via warm storage,” he said.
“Tiny problems get amplified in those situations. As soon as you are planning on doing that, I think you need to be thinking about a whole new range of issues like setting up a sensory program, lab testing (in-house or external), having a recall plan, having a quality-focused culture, having bulletproof procedures for staff to follow, a good system and plan for data collection, a retention library, the list goes on.”
He said that good systems and documentation were “critical” especially when it came to wholesaling.
“We have been working with Beer30 on building some of these features into their software, but again we are only partly there, and still rely on spreadsheets and other data sources more than we probably should,” he said.
“As soon as you have a bad beer out in the marketplace, it could potentially be extremely difficult to locate if you don’t have good systems.
“If you do get in this situation, the only advice I could give is just deal with it as quickly as you can, be as honest as you can, follow the right procedures and put safety first.
“It’s tempting to not take on the responsibility of the mistake, but if there are situations like too much pressure in cans, or unsafe liquid in cans, the safety issue always has to be dealt with first.”
The battle for bizarre
Kerrie Lyons of Totem Marketing said that while a situation like a recall was not ideal, it was not something that she would expect to have a huge reputational impact.
“If it happened again then I’d be questioning a bit more seriously, but hopefully it’s just a one off and it’s a small run, that they’re able to contain the impact a little bit,” she said.
“I think that the [Black Hops] response was appropriate for the scale it would have – we’re not talking about the airbags on a motor vehicle where a strong message would be conveyed through all forms of media, radio, television – all broadcast outlets basically.
“I think it would be a completely different scenario if it was one of their core range products. This was a very specific product for a particular purpose.”
Recent recalls by Aether Brewing for its Ginger Beer’d and Moon Dog Craft Brewery’s Son of a Plum Peach n Plum Sour Ale were also related to more difficult, technically challenging beers which may have a higher likelihood of unintended refermentation or other issues.
However it is this reaching for the more unusual beer styles that may be the root of issues with quality across the industry, said Lyons.
“I’m just a little concerned about the need for brewers to consistently come up with new things,” she said.
“I know there are different levers pulling and pushing different styles of beer that are being released, but there is almost the feeling that people need to produce something weird, wacky and completely off the wall to get attention.
“They’re hoping they’ll create something extraordinary in the brewery that everyone is going to buy, and I’m a bit concerned about that approach.
“The more you’re trying to push the boundaries on what’s flavourful and in fashion, [the more it can] can open you up to potentially not being consistent in your technical approach.
“These are the things people need to get right first before coming up with these experimental beers.”
However despite the occasional incident, Lyons said the industry as a whole was doing well.
“There’s not as many [recalls] as I may have anticipated just because of how many weird and wonderful beers there are out there,” she said.
“In relative terms the industry is pretty good, but I do warn about making sure when people are producing this short run limited experimental batches, the same discipline around quality control is in place.”
She said the pressure on brewers to create bigger and more bizarre beers could cause issues on multiple levels, not just making it difficult to maintain quality.
“Every brewer is completely different but the turnaround time to get something new to market, which some from my observations [means people] are just pushing out new things all the time, what does that mean, are you following procedure properly?
“It seems to be a lot of the pressure comes from each other, it’s an industry pressure – have you seen what so-and-so has released? How can we do something like that?
“My advice would be to continue to bring it back to the brand and the core consumer, and making sure that what you do is consistently good, your consumer can rely on it, that people understand you and your beer styles in a way that’s specific to you.
“So you’re not always creating weird and wonderful things, but more concentrating on what fits with you and your brand.”
To pasteurise or not to pasteurise?
One element of the quality issue for brewers to decide on is whether to pasteurise or not – a point of contention for many independent brewers who associate pasteurisation with bigger, mainstream brewers.
Norris told Brews News that despite the issue with the small-batch, limited edition beer, the brewery was committed to unpasteurised beer.
“It’s something we discuss from time to time,” he explained.
“Up until a few months ago, we really didn’t have large enough production volumes or distribution to be thinking about things like pasteurisation.”
Norris said that Black Hops stores its beers cold and 90 per cent is distributed in Queensland, with only a few customers that store the beer warm and consumers have not had issues before, with this being the first time the brewer had experienced a recall.
“Pasteurising our beer based on one mistake wouldn’t be something we would do either,” he said.
“Having said that, I don’t think we would rule it out as an option, especially as the distribution grows interstate and we have more customers who store beer warm.
“We would like to think however we could achieve shelf stability without pasteurising our beers.”
By and large the brewer, and hundreds of others across Australia, have made safe beers without pasteurisaton, though we may be seeing more of it as technology, available capital, and the focus on quality, safe beer throughout expanding supply chains continues.
“I’ll bring it back to the message about getting all your fundamentals right,” said Kerrie Lyons.
“You’re delivering a beer that can be consistently good, and that people once know the beer they rely on you to deliver it, again and again, at the same quality, that you’re delivering value for money and that it’s safe to drink.”