Scoff if you must at mass domestic beers, but lessons learned from the makers of Budweiser and Miller Lite are helping to make sure your craft beer tastes the same from pint to pint.
Far from the small and scrappy crew of home brewers that started the movement, craft brewers increasingly are turning to employees of much larger shops like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors to tap their experience in creating beer with a consistent flavor and quality time after time on a large scale.
While it's hard to say exactly how many people have left the big boys to join the craft beer movement, it is clear breweries seeking to grow are placing a greater value on quality assurance as the industry gains market share. Sales of craft beer rose about 17 percent last year despite a nearly 2 percent drop in overall beer sales, according to the Brewers Association, a trade group for the majority of the nation's more than 3,000 breweries.
Craft beer drinkers have simply come to expect that every time they crack a can or bottle it will taste the same as the last. If that doesn't happen, breweries risk losing customers, says Julia Herz, the craft beer program director at the Colorado-based Brewers Association.
Less than a year ago, Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Richmond brought in a veteran from Anheuser-Busch to head its quality assurance program, a move that co-founder Patrick Murtaugh said serves as an "insurance policy" for a craft brewer to make sure things won't go wrong. And if they do? You've got someone with experience from a bigger brewery to know what to do to fix it.
"One of the major things that separate home brewers from professional brewers is being able to not only brew a great beer, but the exact same beer over and over again," Murtaugh said, who added that it's wrong to think that products such as Bud Light are lousy. "It's not. It's exactly what they intended to brew and to be able to brew it on that scale over and over and over again is an incredible feat."
Take it from Dan Westmoreland, the brewmaster at Anheuser-Busch's Williamsburg, Virginia, brewery. The facility — one of 12 in the U.S. — has about 500 full-time employees and about 150 weekend employees that produce roughly 2.5 billion 12-ounce beers a year. Its production in one week is about the amount being produced by a larger craft brewery in a full year.
"When you're making a beer that's this light, you've got to be on your game because it won't be consistent very easily," Westmoreland said. "You can't hide anything."
Kate Lee, who joined Hardywood after 12 years in various positions across the country with Anheuser-Busch, knows that firsthand. The biggest difference, she said, is the scope and method of making beer. Much of the process at Anheuser-Busch is monitored from a master control room with a bank of computer screens. At craft breweries, the more hands-on process makes consistency a challenge.
During a forum on the subject at a recent Craft Brewers Conference, industry leaders stressed to roughly 9,000 attendees that with so many breweries opening, a lack of consistency may mean a beer drinker won't try new brands and go only with ones they know and trust, or simply decide it isn't worth their paycheck.
And Tim Hawn, who became brewmaster at Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Delaware, in 2011 after working at MillerCoors agrees.
"People will put up with a little bit of variability, but it's not like it used to be," he said. "Obviously folks are willing to pay for the luxury of craft ... and for that luxury they expect to have that same experience every time they enjoy a beer."
Michael Felberbaum can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/MLFelberbaum .