What Makes a Beer Good?
By Doug Marrin, STN Reporter
What makes good beer?
I posed the question to Brian Schroeder, owner of Erratic Ale in Dexter.
“The answer to your question of what makes a good beer comes down to whether you like it or not,” says Brian. “If you like it, it’s good.”
His answer surprised me, and I told him so. I anticipated Brian telling me micro and nano brewed beer is better than the large, industrial beers, counting off the reasons why.
“People do like those macro pale lagers that everybody makes,” he replied. “The large beer companies sell far more than all of the craft beer industry combined. It’s no accident. Those big beer companies brew those light lagers for a broad appeal and are quite difficult to brew. The light flavor profile doesn't give the brewer any place to hide mistakes.”
“Macro lager” is Brian’s term for the big beer companies such as Coors, Budweiser, etc.
“The craft beer movement took hold in the 1980s as a reaction to the fact that there really was only one style of beer out there,” explains Brian. “It was a search for something different that began in England. American brewers created American interpretations of those old styles of beer.”
The term “craft beer” implies a very hands-on approach. But Brian says not necessarily. Craft beers can be fully automated, as many companies have shown.
“Craft beer is any beer outside of the standard American pale lager typical to the big beer companies,” says Brian. “Craft beer has more unique characteristics and intense flavors. Craft beer is not necessarily better beer. Those mass-produced lagers are really well done.”
“Those large-scale macro lagers are intentionally designed to be the way they are— light and refreshing with a low level of hop and malt character. It’s intentionally designed to be that way for broad appeal.
“All brewers use the same basic ingredients—barley, malt, water, hops, and yeast,” continues Brian. “All beers are variations on those ingredients. The way you treat those ingredients or the specific ones you use influences the beer and the ability to achieve different historical styles.’
And there are a lot of variations. The Beer Judge Certification Program describes 86 different historical beer categories in its 2021 guidelines with the disclaimer that not all beers can be defined. In other words, in the world of craft beer, the possibilities are endless.
Craft beers may be a small part of the market, but the number of craft breweries has exploded over the last decade. An April 6, 2021 article in Forbes describes the growth as “blazing hot,” going from 1,758 breweries in 2010 to 8,391 in 2019.
Brian believes that the appeal of craft beer goes beyond the distinct characteristics of the potent potables. People are drawn to the atmosphere of the brewery/pub itself.
“A lot of folks are looking for someplace that feels comfortable,” says Brian. “If you’re traveling, you might want someplace out of the ordinary with a unique atmosphere as distinct as the beer they serve.”
“And sometimes you can only get that beer at the source,” adds Brian. “We don’t distribute anywhere, and there are a lot of little breweries like our doing the same hyper-local thing.”
Erratic Ale has its own approach to providing a broad appeal by keeping twelve of its unique beers on tap, standards, along with rotating selections. “We do this so that anybody that comes in can find something they like,” says Brian. He describes Erratic Ale beers as “very approachable.”
Brewing beers are just one element of the craft beer experience at Erratic Ale. The sense of community such places uniquely provide is at the heart of the nanobrewery overlooking Mill Creek Park. “Yes, we do the beers as best as we can, but it’s also about the place, the community,” says Brian. “Craft beer is not just the beer but also the place you’re enjoying the beer.”
Photos courtesy of Mandy Hetfield