28 June 2012

Commentary/Conversation: Who's to Blame When Your Beer is Bad?

We were recently in a bar that was serving a popular rye beer from a well-known brewery, and there was obviously something very very wrong with it. A rye beer should not smell like feet. Gina brought the issue to the staff's attention, and they replaced her beer. But the proprietor also said something along the lines of "I don't think that's right, but I don't (drink/like, I forget which) that beer".

After taking a walk to the back to look at the keg(?) they continued to serve the beer.

On one hand I can understand that a bar can't just pull a beer because someone has a problem with it, but on the other hand I wonder if a bar has a responsibility to know what a beer is actually supposed to taste like. Where's the line?

And why were we the only folks to notice? All four folks in our party noticed immediately.

in my experience in talking with bars and liquor stores, they say that many distributors will not accept returns of their beer upon delivery. Even if it is bad, they won't take it back. So another curious question is "who pays for bad beer?" The brewery doesn't want it back and the distributors don't either. I really applaud Stone for their bad beer reporting feature on their website. That bar is going to serve that beer, and not take a $150 hit on the price tag.

My first thought (and I admit I have no experience to back this us) was "that line must be bad". I can see where the distributors are coming from - sort of. Whose responsibility is the line? I know that at least some of the local guys clean the lines they use..

It's a back and forth. "The keg you sold me was bad." "No, your lines are dirty." Where does it stop?

I guess the thing is that it doesn't do anyone any favors to keep that beer on - Except that people apparently are willing to drink it and either not notice or not complain.

It hurts better beer as a whole, and those brands. If someone new to better beer or new to that brewery had that beer, they are not coming back to it. They don't know what they don't know. They might think that is how it should taste. Most people don't say anything, and I am one of them. I just don't drink it, and the waiter asks and I will say the beer is off. We have a minority beer drinking population and an even smaller minority of people saying anything about it.

I wouldn't necessarily say the brewery doesn't want it back. Many breweries will buy back kegs that are out of date or found to be "bad." A lot of those breweries are fairly large, though, so they can afford to do that. The entire situation is certainly a difficult one.

The proprietor can choose not to sell the bad beer and take the price hit (or try to return or swap it). This is certainly the more admirable option, but also the more expensive one. In this case, it may very well have been a bad line, which is definitely the responsibility of the proprietor, but also more expensive than simply replacing a keg.

Of course if you're the only table that has registered a complaint, and others are still purchasing the beer, that makes the proprietor's job even harder. You might be soured on the transaction, but he/she is still making money off the beer. While every customer is important, you have to weigh the impact of telling all of the customers currently buying the beer that they could no longer purchase it because some other customer didn't like the way it tasted, right or wrong.

So what would I do? I would offer to replace your beer with a different one, and offer samples to people who order future pints to let them know that a customer earlier in the evening said they detected an issue with the beer. At the end of the night / the next day, I would contact the distributor and set up an appointment to clean/inspect the line and verify the beer. If the beer was bad, I would work that out with the distributor and stop serving it. If cleaning the line fixed the issue, I would put the beer back on. But I guess all of that is with the assumption that I could tell what was off about the beer in the first place. If you're clueless as a proprietor then it's going to be hard to fix a problem like this.


  1. Being an avid home brewer I have a kegerator. Being a home brew supply shop owner I can get draft dispensing equipment at a pretty nice price. But I will also attest that up until a few months ago, I ran my home kegerator system off of the same lines for about 6 years. And I didn't exactly practice the best cleaning procedures in the industry -- my draft system might have gotten cleaned twice a year...maybe. But I promise you that bad or off flavored beer was never the result of dirty lines. Not once.

    Now I didn't put lambics, sours and funky beers on my system all that often. I didn't put ginger beer through there (that stuff will stick around for a LOOOOONG time). But I have a really hard time believing that the more often than not cause of bad beer is the lines. That's all I have to say about that.

    As for the responsibility for bad beer? Well I firmly believe that a publican should replace any pint which a customer believes is truly BAD. While there might be a few -- remember the bell curve, folks -- most people aren't going to pull that card to get a change up because they don't like the taste of something. Heck, there's tasters for that. So you kind of just have to replace it when that happens.

    If Susie Swill comes in and orders an Upland Dragonfly, and claims foul...well, even if I'm the old Fountain Square Tavern's Appalachian waitress, I'm not so sure if I'm going to immediately pull the keg. But if it's somebody with credentials -- "Hey, I'm Matt from Hoosier Beer Geek, and I seriously do know what I'm talking about" or "Hey, I'm a certified BJCP beer judge, and I think I kind of know what off-flavors shouldn't be in this beer" -- well, now you have to give credibility to the claim. Furthermore, if you get more than three complains, I would think that would be sign enough as well. So that's step one.

    Step two is that the distributors, i.e. those making tons of money off not actually DOING much of anything but filling a legally required middle ground, should absolutely without a doubt exchange that beer for something else the next time they come around...of course given some conditions such as length of time on draft, temperature at which the beer was stored, etc...common sense accommodations I would think. Breweries should be accountable as well, as I would think they would want to be to ensure that their brand was as good as it could be in the marketplace (think Dogfish Head's philosophy on this from "Brewing Up a Business").

    I once bought a year-old-plus sixer of Great Divide from Parti Pak Liquors on the Southside. It was bad. Every bottle gushed when opened and tasted both metallic and twangy. Returning to Parti Pak I was told they won't take beer back; that I had to contact the distributor, World Class. Bob Mack of World Class, once contacted, said I should take it back to the liquor store, where they would be able to return and exchange. Can you guess what happened when I tried that again? They wouldn't take it back. And I won't be returning to Parti Pak (and I wouldn't recommend buying hoppy beers there unless you like them to be old and full of half the hop flavor you deserve).

    Oh, and how did I know it was more than a year old? I contacted Great Divide who, after asking what the logo looked like, told me their logo had changed the previous year! At least they offered me a complimentary pint for the next time I would be in Denver...which serendipitously was about 3 months later for GABF.

    Bottom line is that while bad beer might be a bit of a difficult thing to diagnose, there are people who can be trusted, and it shouldn't be difficult to maintain your consumer rights to a good product. So, speak up and tell someone until they listen and do what is right. Amen.

  2. JJ - I certainly appreciate your comments but I might point out that World Class is NOT the distributor for Great Divide. In my opinion, you did the right thing and I'm sorry you had a bad experience.

    Secondly, we can have a very large conversation about what distributors do, or do not do, but I would invite you to spend some time with a distributor before you condemn them. There are many, many craft brewers who would disagree with you about the role of distributors, including the one you mentioned in your post, Sam Calagione. Simply put, in the craft beer world, the vast majority of activity around the beer that takes place in the craft world, once the beer is packaged at the brewery, is handled by the distributor. That includes all transportation, most sales, draft line cleaning, product rotation (getting old beer out of stores), beer education, etc. Not to mention that the US consumer has the largest selection of beer available to them in the world.

    But thanks to HBG for this article. I encourage anyone to make an appropriate comment when they come across bad beer. Good brewers, distributors and retailers shouldn't worry about who to blame, but they should work together to fix the problem.

  3. One more comment, bad draft lines and/or draft system quality is a very common cause of bad beer in the general marketplace. Craft brewers are extremely concerned about it and are investing a lot of time and money into trying to fix it, as are distributors.

    Home systems are not taking the kind of usage, or even abuse that a commercial system is dealing with. For example, dozens or even hundreds of gallons of beer can flow through a commercial draft system in a single day. And commercial draft systems are exposed to a wide range of issues that might not exist with a home system such as storing food near or even on top of the kegs, improper pouring methods (i.e. submerging the faucet in a glass of beer while it is being poured) and many other elements that don't exist at home.

    At the end of the day commercial draft systems versus a home system is comparing apples to oranges. Having said that, pinpointing the actual cause of a bad beer is pretty simple, as the beer could easily be sampled directly from the keg to determine what it tastes like prior to going through the line. So there's never a need to unfairly blame the draft lines.