adventures in craft beer in Perth and beyond

Beer Interpretation #5: Oxidation // Part Two

Beer Interpretation is an irregular series of posts where I try to decipher the sometimes strange and always wonderful world of beer jargon, phrases and catch cries by drilling into the basics and interpreting the lingo. In short I’m going to try and translate the nerdy beer stuff …


Here we are at part two of this edition of Beer Interpretation looking at oxidation in beer.

You can check out part one here which covered what oxidation actually is, what it can taste like and what causes it. To help me make this post possible, I had the pleasure of chatting with the head brewer of Colonial Brewing Margaret River, Paul Wyman and Lion Co. Craft Beer Ambassador, Steve Blaine.

So let’s get back into it …

Paul at the Colonial Brewing Co. stand at this years GABS Festival, Melbourne

Paul at the Colonial Brewing Co. stand at this years GABS Festival, Melbourne

Steve Blaine at GABS Festival Sydney earlier this year. Photo Credit: The Beer Pilgrim

Steve Blaine at GABS Festival Sydney earlier this year. Photo Credit: The Beer Pilgrim

Where does OXIDATion happen?

“From a brewers point of view it’s [oxygen] is the hardest thing to eliminate,”

Paul Wyman, head brewer at Colonial Brewing Co.

At the brewery …

In the brewery there are any number of moments where oxygen can harm the beer. We talk so much about brewing being a craft that sometimes maybe we forget it’s a science as well. Too much or too little of anything can impact the finished product. “It’s crucial to get oxygen right at the start,” Paul says and whilst up until this point of the post you may have gotten the impression oxygen is always and forever bad there is one point it’s not and that’s when it comes to hungry yeast. The yeast needs oxygen to feed on in order to make booze and bubbles, two pretty critical things for beer. “The oxygen we are worried about is the oxygen post fermentation,” Paul clarifies, “a thimble of oxygen can ruin a beer over time.”

“Once yeast has eaten all the oxygen and it starts fermenting you do not want any oxygen to touch your beer,”

Paul Wyman, head brewer at Colonial Brewing Co.

There are multiple points in the brewing process where oxygen can get in where it’s not wanted but having said this Paul and Steve both agree that if oxidation happens at the brewery it’s most likely to occur at the packaging stage.

“You spend four weeks making a beer and if you don’t package it properly then you’ve basically wasted those four weeks,” Paul says, it’s fact he and his fellow brewers are well aware of when canning Colonial beers and take appropriate measures to prevent it.

Colonial Cans

Some breweries will take what is called “a library” where they take a beer from the start, middle and end of a packaging run. The beers are labelled to know which one is which and then stored for number of months before being compared to a fresh beer. This gives them a good idea of how their beer ages in the market because as much as we in the beer world would love to think that beer is being consumed within a few weeks or couple of months, the reality is sometimes longer.

Many larger craft breweries have a lab on site, something Steve and Paul agree is incredibly important to a brewery to produce not just great beer but consistency great beer.

“If you go to a brewery and they’ve got a lab you should feel a lot more comfortable about the beer,”

Steve Blaine, Certified Cicerone & Craft Beer Ambassador Lion Co.

 

Every place after it’s left the brewery …

Once the beer has left the brewery and it’s out of the brewers hands, it’s now up to a lot of different people to ensure drinkers are getting fresh beer, tasting as the brewer intended.

“I would argue that 99.9% of brewers do an excellent job of eliminated oxygen from the brewing process so if you have an oxidised beer I think that more comes down to the way it was stored and cared for and the beer drinker also has a huge role to play in that.”

Steve Blaine, Certified Cicerone & Craft Beer Ambassador Lion Co.

Operators, managers and staff at bars and bottle shops have a responsibility to handle beer correctly. No one would leave a box of seafood outside in the sun for three hours before putting it into the fridge; beer shouldn’t be any different. As a consumer we are also responsible for the beer we buy. Taking it home and storing it in the garage won’t do you any favours. Beer is a luxury, it’s something to be enjoyed so it makes sense to treat it nicely so that it is really enjoyable. Not treating your beer nicely is like going to the movies then sit facing the wall. I’m stretching my analogy somewhat but hopefully you get my drift.

This all comes full circle to those of us in the beer industry also being responsible for educating people on how to treat beer and why. It’s something the industry does in a number of ways, whether it’s master classes on beer, through marketing and even packaging.

Pirate Life (SA) cans - a great example of beer education which features on their website

Pirate Life (SA) cans – a great example of beer education featuring on packaging

How Can You Avoid Oxidised Beer?

Drink fresh, drink local …

“I think ‘fresh is best’ is the most rattled off line in craft beer and craft brewing but it’s the least understood,” says Steve. We say it but what does it really mean? He points to how often he speaks to beer lovers and they’re almost evangelical about hoppy American beers and whilst some are amazing with equally incredible reputations, it’s not always the case by the time they get to us in Australia. In many cases these beers aren’t very fresh at all. Imagine you just hopped off a non-stop flight from the US to Australia, now ask yourself how fresh would you feel?

In the article I recommended by Professor Beer in Part One of this post, article author George de Piro explains it’s not just heat but motion that can speed up oxidation, “that is why all imported at beers taste oxidised to some degree: the heat and motion experienced during shipping are brutal!”

This isn’t to say all imported beer is going to be oxidised but given what we know about oxidation and the impact time and temperature can have, the sheer physical distance between us and America is something to consider when selecting your next craft beer. There is a reason breweries like Two Beers (USA) and Sierra Nevada (USA) are insistent on their beer travelling cold and being stored cold and it doesn’t hurt to ask your bartender or retail assistant if they know how the beer was transported.

“If you want to drink American beers, visit America and drink it as the brewer in intended,” Steve suggests, “unless someone can guarantee they’ve kept it icy cold the whole trip.”

Both Steve and Paul say that the more they’ve learnt about beer and oxidation, the more their fridges are stocked with locally made beers rather an imports.

“If you’re buying something local, chances are it’s pretty fresh,”

Steve Blaine, Certified Cicerone & Craft Beer Ambassador Lion Co.

Given the amount of imported beers we, as drinkers, have drunk over the years Steve speculates that when it comes to big name imported beers they’ve probably always had a degree of oxidation. “Sometimes people have become so used to drinking beer that they don’t know what fresh beer tastes like,” says Steve. People will often comment that their big name imported beer tastes different when it’s brewed under license in Australia versus imported. Of course this could be for a number of reasons though one of them may be that the Australian brewed version is not, or is less, oxidised.

Ice, Ice, Baby …

“Buy your beer cold and keep it cold,”

Paul Wyman, Head Brewer Colonial Brewing Co Margaret River

There’s not a great deal to elaborate on here. If you want something perhaps a little catchier, Feral Brewing often say “treat like milk” which is basically the same message.

Take a closer look …

Don’t be afraid to look at the ‘best before’ and/or ‘packaged on’ dates on the beer in question. Also remember a ‘best before’ date isn’t a ‘use by’ date, take into account what style of beer it is and where the beer was brewed when looking at dates.

No harm ever came from reading a book …

“Educate yourself on the style of beer you’re drinking so you know what flavours should and shouldn’t be there,” Steve suggests. Certainly this is where the rabbit hole of craft beer can hook you in but if you don’t want to get too nerdy that’s fine. A quick Google search will bring up enough information on the style of beer so you know what it means when a beer calls itself an “American IPA” or “barley wine” just like you might already have an idea of how a shiraz differs from a pinot noir. Knowing this could mean the difference between a great and a not-so-great beer experience.

Final Words

For the craft beer industry it all comes down to education and that goes for everyone, whether you’re making the beer, selling it or drinking it. When it comes to oxidation it’s good to understand it can happen during the brewing process but also long after the beer has left the brewery.

As the craft beer industry grows hopefully education increases too and not only will drinkers know if they get a beer that’s stale but more bar and bottle shop managers be diligent with how they handle their beer just as they already do with food and other perishables.

Drink more beer, talk to more people about beer, read a little, trust your palate and what you taste, and above all enjoy what you drink!

 

 

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