For my last column of the year I usually take the opportunity to look back and reflect on some of the beery highs and lows of the previous 12 months. This year, however, I'm going to do things a little differently.
As craft beer - or whatever term you choose to describe the type of beer that's brewed to emphasise quality, flavour and enjoyment as opposed to the beer world's equivalent of sliced white bread - becomes ever more popular and more widely available, I see a few major issues which the brewing and hospitality industries will need to address.
At the risk of being a grinch and alienating some brewers, publicans, beer retailers, writers and others in associated industries, I'm going to use my final column of 2013 to fire a few warning shots. As usual I intend to call it just as I see it, warts and all.
My main concern is with the liquid itself.
The growing popularity of locally brewed craft beer and its increasing availability in supermarkets, bars and restaurant drinks lists (at last) means Kiwi consumers have never enjoyed so much choice. On the face of it that's good news, but there are some dark clouds gathering.
There's far too much faulted, inconsistent and aged beer being sold.
While our best craft brewers have robust quality control systems and can be relied upon to supply high quality fresh beer, others are guilty of releasing products that are just not up to scratch. A few produce consistently faulted beer and shouldn't be in business.
The bottom line is there's too much dodgy beer finding its way on to the market. Beer that's either oxidised (aged), varies enormously from batch to batch, or exhibits other technical faults. That's not good enough; such beer brings the entire industry into disrepute.
When someone takes the decision to try a craft beer for the first time, they're offering the industry an opportunity which should be seized with both hands. If that person has a positive experience then the industry may have won a new regular customer who may also go on to be an ambassador for craft beer.
If, however, their experience is a negative one, the opportunity may not be repeated, and the image of craft beer could be permanently tarnished.
The most common issue I come across is lack of freshness.
As a beer writer I'm lucky to receive samples from a great number of breweries and I'm amazed at the number of these which arrive already spoiled by oxidisation. Given most have been couriered direct from the brewery, they've either been sent out in that state or been damaged in transit. In either scenario I'd ask the question, what chance does the general public stand of buying fresh beer if it's oxidised within a couple of days of leaving the brewery?
Brewers, distributors and retailers all need to be aware that beer - and craft beer in particular, much of which is unpasteurised and may be bottle conditioned (packaged with live yeast) - is extremely susceptible to damage by light, temperature change, vibration and duration in storage. It should be handled and stored accordingly.
Although freshness is the main concern, sometimes problems can be traced back to the brewhouse. While I understand that brewers, like chefs and anyone dealing with fresh ingredients that change according to the season, have to tweak their recipes from time to time to maintain consistency, some brewers change their beers out of all recognition - and not always for the better.
While I'm forever telling people to think about craft beer more like wine, and to expect, excuse and even embrace slight variations between batches, there's something seriously wrong when the beer varies dramatically from batch to batch with no explanation.
Brewers need to understand that while educated craft beer consumers generally appreciate and welcome innovation, when it comes to a favourite brew they're still looking for consistency between pints. The big brewers know this only too well and go to great lengths to ensure minimal variation between batches.
As a consumer I resent spending $8 or $9 on a beer only to find that it has changed beyond recognition since the last time I tried it - especially when the change is for the worse. And in their rush to launch new products, too many brewers seem to be releasing beers that are clearly a work in progress. I wish they'd hone the recipe before sending them out to the public.
But it's not just the brewers who are responsible for ensuring customers enjoy the best possible beer experience. The growing popularity of craft beer has seen a huge increase in the number of bars and restaurants stocking the "good stuff".
While I'm delighted it's happening and always try to go out of my way to support these new outlets, I've had some dreadful experiences along the way.
Here in Marlborough, a restaurant installed craft beer on tap a year or so ago but the quality of the beer steadily worsened. A few words with the supplying brewery revealed that restaurant's cleaning regime for its beer lines wasn't up to scratch.
While it's a black mark for the restaurant, experiences like this reflect even worse on the brewery's reputation and ultimately on craft beer in general.
Product knowledge is another key area.
As is the case in most retail situations, there's little point in a bar or restaurant stocking a new craft beer if the staff have no knowledge of what they're selling. Informed help from trained staff, be it in the form of a description of a beer's aromas and flavours or a recommendation to be matched with food, can make all the difference to an inexperienced customer.
Run regionally throughout the country, the Certificate in the Craft of Beer is a one-day course run by the Brewers Guild of New Zealand to provide precisely such information, and should be regarded as mandatory for anyone in frontline liquor retail and hospitality.
My wish for 2014 is that as Kiwis continue to embrace craft beer; the beer we're being offered is of consistently high quality.
And happy new year.
- The Marlborough Express