Quality Control Manager
For years Grand Teton Brewing Company’s “quality control program” was pretty much like every small brewery’s: write good recipes, follow standard procedures, and hope for the best. Occasionally someone would complain about a particular beer, so we’d have to recall it—a costly process that meant searching for bottles on store shelves, buying them back from retailers or distributors and destroying them.
A particularly costly episode two years ago caused us to rethink our quality program. Now, instead of shipping beer and crossing our fingers, we’ve turned the process around. We test every one of our beers at every step in the process. We test wort on its way to the fermenters. We test beer in fermenters before we harvest yeast from that tank and before we move the beer to the packaging tank. We test the beer in the packaging tank and in the bottle. A bad result from any test means we cannot move the beer on to the next step in the process. We hold the packaged beer at the brewery until all the tests are passed. In this way we avoid shipping beer with problems and avoid costly product recalls.
We have developed a “tag” system for tanks as a visual representation of where the beer is from a quality perspective. We have three different colored tags: red, yellow and green. A red tag means “stop, do not transfer, package, or harvest from this tank, there may be a quality issue. “ Yellow tags mean “quality results are pending, these beers are also not to be transferred, harvested or packaged until cleared.” Green tags mean “all microbiology tests have cleared, and the beer is good to go onto the next tank or to be packaged.” All fermenters should have a tag on them at all times unless empty. This tag system is a great tool. It makes things very easy for the brewers and cellar men to see what is going on with each beer.
We check every batch of beer several times along the way. When the wort is transferred from the brew house into the fermenter, we take a sterile sample and place it in an incubator. This is analyzed within 2-5 days. We also place a yellow tag on the destination fermenter. Once all the beer is in the tank, we obtain a sterile sample from the fermenter. We plate this sample on three different media that select for different “bugs.” We are looking for aerobic bacteria, wild yeast and anaerobic bacteria.
In beer there are no pathogens that will make humans sick, but these bugs can affect the flavor of beer. We wait 3-7 days for results on the plates. At this point we can apply a green tag if all tests passed or a red tag if there is an issue. Once green tagged, we can move the beer to a packaging tank or we can harvest the yeast to start another batch of beer. We also smell and taste the beer along the way since our noses and taste buds are great tools for detecting problems. Each time the beer is transferred we taste before we move it. Before we bottle or fill kegs, the packager has to sign off that a sterile sample was taken, a taste sample was taken and the carbonation level is correct.
We use a similar system in the warehouse. We don’t use actual tags on the pallets of beer in the warehouse, but we have a white board which we update daily. There are three sections on the board: “hold,” “micro clear but still conditioning,” and “ready to ship.” We put all packaged beer into the hold category first. We treat bottled beer and kegs the same way: we collect a sterile sample from the tank before packaging and we plate it within a couple of days. We also plate bottles, but not kegs because of the difficulty of obtaining a sterile sample from a keg. Unlike bottles, kegs are almost always stored cold, and the chances of problems developing after filling are greatly diminished.
We plate both the tank and bottles so we can see where the problem started if one should come up. The beer stays in the hold category until all the microbiology tests have cleared. The next category is for the bottled beer that gets “primed” or bottle conditioned. This process takes at least a week so we can sometimes clear the microbiology before the beer is done conditioning. Having this category on the white board helps remind the warehouse staff that even though the beer has been cleared through the lab, it is not ready to leave the building yet. Finally, the last category is ready to ship. Packaged beer that has passed all the tests and finished conditioning is entered into this section and shipped as needed.
So, what do we do if we find a problem? If we do encounter beer that doesn’t meet our expectations, we immediately place a red tag on the tank or highlight the beer on the board in the hold category. We repeat all tests to make sure there wasn’t a sampling or testing error, we taste the beer, and then make a judgment call based on the new findings. We always want to double or triple check test results to make sure they are repeatable. The idea behind this system is that we stop the problem before it spreads or we stop any out of spec beer from getting into our customers’ hands. This is our quality assurance to you.
No system is perfect, and we know that quality issues sometimes surface after our beer has left the brewery. Should you come across one of our beers that doesn’t meet your expectations, please let us know by emailing email@example.com. If you can include the bottling date, the purchase date, and the location of the purchase, that will help us track down the source of the problem. We will be grateful to you for becoming a member of our quality team.
Come visit us at the brewery!
430 Old Jackson Hwy
Victor, ID 83455