Article

Vetting Your Brew: Starting a quality control program

Photos by Amy Todd

How many of you want to start a lab, but have no idea where to start? You begin to look into it, but there are so many different aspects of a lab you get overwhelmed and put the project on the back burner. Starting a quality control program may feel like a very daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. I’ll walk you through the initial steps to get you started.

This article is not going to cover specific equipment needed, or how to run tests, but it will walk you through what you need to think about to start planning your quality control program. Every brewery is different and for some breweries this may include a designated lab, for others it might not. Regardless of experience or budget, everyone can, and should, implement a quality program in their brewery.

By the end of this article I want everyone to feel empowered to take the next steps in starting their own lab or quality program. It’s perfectly okay to start small, in fact, that’s one of the best ways to start. I’ll even cover what to do with no budget.

Here’s a little recap on why you should start a quality control program. First off, having a good quality program is going to help you ensure the consistency of your product, you’ll be able to identify inefficiencies, improve your process control, and it’s going to reduce wasted product and wasted time. It’s also going to instill a sense of pride and ownership in you and your employees. The hardest part of starting a quality program is just starting in the first place.

Planning Stage

Your very first task should be to plan out the logistics of your quality program. To help break it down into manageable chunks, I like to start by thinking about who, what, when, where, and why. These are all going to ultimately determine what your quality program will look like and where you’re going to start. As you work through this you’ll see that most of these are interconnected. Every brewery is different and everyone will start out at whatever point is best for their brewery.

Why — I like to start with why. Why do you want a quality program in the first place? Do you already have an issue you want to address? Maybe you’re looking to avoid off-flavors, or maybe improve your brewhouse efficiency, or the consistency of your product. Maybe then you want to focus on packaging and micro as you enter new markets. Having a solid why is going to help you focus and find the best place to start for your brewery.

Who — Who is going to run the lab? Just you? Your brewer? Are you hiring someone just to do quality? Will that be full-time, part-time? If you only need a few hours a week, maybe it’s best to outsource some testing to start. Don’t forget to think about time commitments and associated labor costs.

What — This is a two-part section. What is your budget? And what is going to go in your lab? This is a really big one. Ultimately your budget will determine what’s in your lab. You’ll want an initial budget, a yearly budget for new equipment, as well as a monthly budget for consumable lab supplies and chemicals. This will help determine what’s in your lab and what you’re testing for.

Don’t forget labor costs when you decide what you’re testing for. Again, you might want to outsource some tests if you can’t afford equipment or additional employees right now. $30–$40 added to the cost of a batch of beer might make a lot more sense than thousands of dollars in lab equipment at this time. Your why will help determine what’s in your lab as well.

When — I say start your program right away! It’s easier to slowly add tasks as you grow than to play catch up if you start growing too fast. Even something small, like starting with cell counts, is way better than nothing. You don’t want to put this on the back burner and never get to it. Start planning for your future too. When are you going to start testing IBUs or dissolved oxygen (DO)? Just as you plan for your brewery’s growth, plan out the lab’s growth.

When are you going to have time to work in the lab? This will affect what tests you are able to do. If you don’t have time personally, do you need to hire someone?

Where — Where is your lab going to be? When you’re first starting out, a countertop with room for cell counting, pH and gravity readings, and some storage space is all you really need to get started. Make sure you keep future growth in mind. 10–15,000 barrels (bbls) and you’ll want a separate space. Maybe a 10 x 12 ft. space. At 30,000 bbls you might want double that. Don’t forget space for employees, computer stations, sinks, hoods, eye wash stations, and lots and lots of outlets. The bigger you get, the bigger the lab you’ll need.

Once you answer these questions you can look into some specific tests and areas of focus for a quality program.

Quality Control Categories

Next I like to break a quality control plan down into four basic categories — sensory, chemistry, micro, and packaging. I want to mention safety here too as you should always be thinking about safety in your brewery. Each of these categories are going to have their own safety concern, some of which will come with added expense.

You may want to start by focusing on only one of these categories, like sensory, then as you expand your quality program you can add another category. Some may decide to do a little of each.

Sensory — A sensory panel will help you identify off-flavors or troubleshoot problems in the brewhouse. Making sure your beers are true to brand and taste how they are supposed to taste is another key part of a sensory panel. A beer may hit all its desired specifications but still not taste how you want it to.

Chemistry — Tracking values such as gravity, pH, IBUs, color, FAN (free amino nitrogen), alcohol, haze, etc. can help us ensure everything is going according to plan. Tracking this data can also alert you when something isn’t going according to plan. The quicker you notice something isn’t right, or trending towards out of spec, the quicker you can look into the root cause and fix the problem before too many other batches are affected.

Micro — We like to think we’re in control of the brewing process, but ultimately it’s all those little yeast cells, (and bacteria in some cases, whether intentional or not) that are making the final beer. We want to do everything we can to make sure our yeast are happy and healthy. We also need to make sure there are no unwanted wild yeast or bacteria lurking around our brewery trying to take over.

Packaging — You spend all this time making the perfect beer and it can be instantly ruined if not packaged properly. Dissolved oxygen and CO2 testing are critical measurements here. Checklists are a great way to assure date codes are legible and correct, labels are straight, and boxes are sealed.

Major Hurdles

As you start planning out your quality program, you’re most likely going to face some hurdles. You can easily overcome these with a little patience and planning.

Time — One of the biggest hurdles to overcome when setting up your quality program is time. Most of us are already trying to cram too many things into one day, and adding something new may sound impossible. Everyone is going to handle this differently but some suggestions are to start by taking 10–15 minutes each day to start planning out your quality program. If you work better by having a solid chunk of time, schedule two hours one week to work on it. Schedule it as a meeting, even if it’s just you, and commit to it. Go through your who, what, why one category at a time.Once you start, you might find yourself making time to work on this. If you can’t make time for quality, how are you going to ensure you keep making great tasting, high-quality beers?

Money — Money is another big hurdle for most breweries, especially small ones and start-ups. A quality program can save money indirectly, and some of the biggest savings are when you prevent bad beer from going out in the marketplace. It can be very hard to calculate these theoretical savings and it may feel like you’re just spending money and not getting anything in return. How do you measure increased quality and consistency to sales? It can be hard to show the correlation. Think about how much will it cost you to dump a batch of beer? This is a cost you are potentially avoiding by implementing a quality control program. How much will bad reviews cost you?

A quality program can save money indirectly, and some of the biggest savings are when you prevent bad beer from going out in the market place.

Time is money and being able to react quickly, or having the peace of mind that everything is performing as intended, can save you a lot of hassle and headaches. Yes, actually making the beer is important, but if you’re constantly rushing and aren’t taking the time to be proactive about quality, you’ll find yourself reacting to something later on that will take even more time to handle.

Failure to Plan — The best way to implement your quality control plan is to draft it out and actually plan it. Go slow and add things as you grow, do what works for you. Go back to your business plan, or if you haven’t started a brewery yet, make sure you have a section on quality control and how and when you’re going to grow your lab. What will your lab look like at 5,000, 15,000, 50,000 BBL? But even if you don’t plan to grow capacity-wise, what would your lab look like in 1 year or 3 years as your brewery matures?

When you have a plan in place it’s much easier to focus on it and work towards that goal. You may be tempted to invest in growth and more space or brewing equipment, but always keep quality in mind and you’ll last longer than your competitors who grow too quickly but can’t keep up with quality.

Check out the American Society of Brewing Chemists (ASBC) guide to starting lab. This is a great resource with information on what type of lab equipment you should have at different stages of growth.

Fear — Some people are scared of what they might find. Ignorance is bliss, right? The thing is, you want to find issues, because then you have the opportunity to fix them and make better beer! Some people are also hesitant to start a lab or quality program because they don’t have a science background. Yes, it’s helpful, but it’s not necessary. Anything can be learned and you don’t need a science background to start a lab. Remember, there was once a day when you didn’t know how to brew either.

Budget — What if you have no budget? Just because you don’t have a budget for quality improvements now, doesn’t mean you can’t get started. You should still go through the process of thinking about why, who, what, when, and where to come up with a list of things you want to start implementing in your quality program. Without any expenses, you can make sure your hydrometers are calibrated. Check out the ASBC video on how to do this. Plot out your daily gravity readings during fermentation. Different batches of the same beer should follow a consistent curve. Any improvements you can make there? Plot out pH as well and make sure you’re recording final pH values on all your beers.

Start a sensory program. Start by tasting your beers and ingredients. Come up with descriptions and expected intensity levels for hop aroma, malt sweetness, body, etc. Use Googleforms to keep track. Once you have a bigger budget to work with, purchase some off-flavor training kits. Here are my Top 5 Ways for a Nano Brewer to Get Started in Quality Control.

Write out Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) to make sure all your brewing steps are being performed the same way every time. Make sure you’re collecting useful and actionable information when you’re brewing. Implement checklists so you don’t forget anything.

While you’re making all the free improvements, start saving! Come up with an exact budget of what you want to have in your lab. Utilize the acronym SMART for your goals: Specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based. You’re much more likely to follow through with a goal of: “Save $500 in the next six months to spend on a microscope, hemocytometer, scale, glassware, and pipettes so I can perform cell counts and produce cleaner, more consistent beers” than if you had a vague goal of “save some money for a lab this year.” If your budget is too small to afford any testing equipment right now but you have a long list of data points you want to collect, use a 3rd-party lab to supplement your own in-house quality program.

If you want repeat customers and continuous growth, you need a quality program in place. Be proactive about your quality, not reactive. With over 7,000 breweries in the US, craft-beer consumers can choose to be very picky. If the beers they purchase from your brewery are inconsistent, they can go elsewhere. Don’t just tell your customers you care about quality, show them. Want to set up your own quality program? I’ve provided a planning & starting worksheet at www.byo.com/articles/quality-control-worksheet.