How a Quality Program Can Lead to Brewery Customer Retention

June 5th, 2023 • by Amy Todd
Amy Todd

Amy Todd

Amy Todd has spent over a decade in the craft beer world holding laboratory positions at Zero Gravity Craft Brewery and Magic Hat Brewing. She is a BJCP certified beer judge, Certified Cicerone ®, lab instructor at the American Brewers Guild and co-host of the podcast Check your Beer. She is the founder of Zymology Labs, a TTB certified beer testing lab, now owned by Bia Diagnostics where she is a laboratory scientist.

With 530+ licensed brewers in NY there are more and more appealing craft beer options on store shelves. Most consumers purchase from a brewery they can count on to produce a well-made beer rather than try new breweries.

(Consider that “well-made beer” is defined as one that’s free from defects and meets or exceeds needs and expectations.)

If you have off flavors in your beer, you’re not meeting your customers’ needs and expectations. If your beer is inconsistent, if you have exploding cans, crooked labels, boxes that break, you’re not meeting your customers’ needs and expectations. With over 9k breweries in the US, if you’re not meeting your customers’ needs and expectations, they will find someone else who can.

Often these breweries tend to be ones who take quality control seriously.

That doesn’t mean they spend thousands of dollars setting up a lab, in fact some don’t even have a lab in the traditional sense and some use 3rd party labs to bridge the gap between what they are able to test for in house and what they want to be able to test for. They incorporate quality and attention to detail in everything they do with a quality program.

A quality program is a set of rules or guidelines and procedures to follow to increase your chances of consistently providing a quality beer your customers can rely on.

When you make quality a priority, you can be more in control of the brewing process and outcome.  We like to think we’re in control of the brewing process, and to a certain degree we are, we choose the recipe, use the best ingredients, and learn different brewing techniques, but ultimately, brewers make wort and yeast make beer.

Our yeast doesn’t always behave how we want them to, sometimes glycol lines freeze or leak, or we forget to set the temperature, a supplier might mess up an order or give an inferior product. We deal with agricultural ingredients that aren’t always consistent but despite all of that, our customers still expect us to give them a consistent product!

Setting Up a Quality Program

Starting your quality program is the hardest step. Every brewery is different, and every quality program or lab is going to look different. To help you focus your attention, start by writing down why you want to start a quality program.

You might currently have a quality concern you’re dealing with or recently dealt with, such as an off flavor. Maybe you’re entering new markets and you want to make sure you have a shelf-stable package. You might be upgrading equipment and want to ensure flavor consistency.

Why is quality important to you right now?  Your program will grow and evolve with your brewery. You don’t have to have all the answers and all the testing equipment right now. Turn this why into 2-3 quality focused goals to work towards. Break them down into long term and short-term goals.

To help you decide what to include in your quality program, make a list of what you’re already doing. Most brewers are already measuring pH and gravity throughout the brewing and fermentation process. Review your record keeping practices. Is there anything you can improve on? Are you including lot numbers on your brew logs, notes when something doesn’t go according to plan, recipe change logs? Do you handwrite this, or can you do it electronically? Can you pull some of this data into a spreadsheet or chart to get a more visual representation about how your beer is fermenting?

Use data to find potential areas of improvement instead of guessing. Maybe there’s an inconsistency in starting gravities, or maybe it’s the length of time until terminal is reached that’s not very consistent – one of those is probably an issue with wort production, and another with yeast health. You now have a better idea of where to focus attention to try and improve consistency.

Do you have specifications or control limits set for pH, ABV, starting and final gravity, IBUs, color, RDF? Check out the American Society of Brewing Chemists guide to control charting or Quality Management Essential Planning for Breweries by Mary Pellettieri for more information on setting specification and control limits. If you don’t have previous data to compare new values to, you won’t know if an “improvement” you made actually made a difference or not.

If you never check the pH of your final beer, you don’t know if a one time reading of 4.2 is good or if that indicates you have an infection. If you never check the viability of your yeast, you don’t know if you’re using healthy yeast or not, and you don’t know if that’s going to negatively impact your beer or not. 

By tracking fermentation trends you’ll know much quicker when something is starting to drift out of spec. The sooner you notice, the sooner you can take action.

Once you have a good handle on the data you’re already collecting and you’ve done a review of your document control policies, go back to the quality goals you set and make a list of data points you need to collect to achieve those goals. What do you need in terms of equipment, labor, or budget to implement those tests? As you build out your quality program, a 3rd party lab can provide testing you’re not able to do yourself or tests that require expensive equipment you won’t use often enough to justify the cost.

Consider the time required for additional testing and how it fits into your schedule. You might start out with weekly or monthly testing and as you become more familiar with the process increase frequency. Split up tasks among team members in the brewery. Remember that quality is everyone’s responsibility in the brewery, not just those in management or in a quality position.

When you’re ready to hire someone to work in your lab or quality department a science background is helpful but someone who is interested in problem solving, pays attention to detail, and can communicate when something needs attention is key.

Quality is essential to the long-term success of any brewery. Starting a quality program doesn’t have to be expensive or time consuming. Take it one step at a time and build up your program as you go. Imagine making more proactive decisions instead of always putting out fires or making reactive decisions.

Check out more content from Bia Diagnostics on YouTube here.