Talking with Ray Daniels


16/05/2013 di movimentobirra

click to enlargeAs MoBI is publishing the italian version of “Designing Great Beers”, we thought it was a good idea having a brief interview with the author, Ray Daniels.

1) In Italy the big beer industry is turning its head towards the craft beer market, trying to introduce products with a craft label and an industrial heart. Since we feel that the typical consumer is quite vulnerable to these efforts, a great debate has started about the definition of a true craft beer. From your point of view, what is craft beer?

I think that craft brewers project an authentic personality–usually that of the brewery founder or head brewer.  If you want to know something about one of the beers–why a particular ingredient was used, what inspired the name or who decided to put a particular image on the label–you go to that founder or head brewer and they will tell you what inspired them or what they were thinking about.  At non-craft brewers, brand images are created by marketing departments based upon focus groups, market research, consumer demographics and profit ratios. Names are scientifically selected, labels are test marketed for customer acceptance and price points set to match established consumer behaviors.  Craft brewers don’t care about that stuff.  They make beers that they like and market them with brand images that they like.

2) What is the connection between craft beer and beer culture?

I think brewers should contribute to beer culture whereas many take it as a fixed, unchangeable concept that they cannot affect. A few years ago I visited China on behalf of American hop growers. To demonstrate the flavors of US hops, we tasted some American craft beers. One representative of a large Chinese brewery summarized their view by saying, “These beers are very good, but our consumers would never buy beer that tastes like this.”  With that attitude, the established traditions decide what beer should taste like–and it never changes! Great beer culture evolves and expands when brewers step beyond expected flavors and established traditions to create new beers, new traditions and, ultimately, new culture. The US craft beer movement was started by people who didn’t just make beer the way it had always been made.  They made new beers–beers that they loved–and then they went out to consumers with passion and enthusiasm and said “Hey, try this–it’s really great!”  That type of fearless innovation has created the American beer culture that we have today. From the glimpses of Italian craft brewing that I’ve seen, the same sorts of innovation and passion are present.

3) What should be the mission for a beer association?

I think that in the early years of a craft beer movement, a beer association can serve everyone: consumers, homebrewers and craft brewers alike.  When craft beer is developing in a culture, the goals of these groups either coincide or they lead to activities that help everyone at the same time. No one group needs the full attention of the organizers all the time. In the early years, no one of those groups can support their own free-standing publication, events, staff, etc.  Later, as we are beginning to see in the US, the range of activities and interests of each group becomes so varied that you need specialized organizations just to manage all the activities and interests of consumers or brewers.

But more broadly, a beer association should promote all aspects of good beer: enjoying it, making it, recognizing it, evaluating it, improving it and praising it. The board that guides the organization should be composed of representatives from all the constituencies that are being served – although I’m not necessarily a believer in elections as the best way to select board members.

4) Homebrewing: technical ability or creative art?

Technical knowledge and skill are essential to the making of good quality beer. But if all you do is make the same beers that others have already made, using the techniques that everyone else has always used, then you are unlikely to build a following for your beers. As with any art, one must master the essential tools and skills before casting them aside to experiment.  In that regard, I think that Designing Great Beers is a useful tool, a sort of gateway between the place where brewers simply mimic what has been successful in the past and that place where they cast aside traditions to create completely unique beers. Designing Great Beers allows you to brew classic beers and to understand what gives them their classic taste, but is also reveals some of the variations that are possible and that tends to open the doors to new thoughts and ideas. I hope that it will be a useful tool for the development of new beers in Italy!

5) What was the idea behind your book (Designing Great Beers)?

While many know me as a writer, I actually studied biochemistry and business in school. So I am naturally analytical. Early on in my brewing, when I wanted to brew a new type of beer–say an English Bitter–then I would find all the recipes I could find for that style and compare them and analyze them to see what was common, where the variations occurred and how much of each ingredient was used. At one point I did a presentation for my homebrew club on Bock beer that included this sort of analysis as well as some history, a list of commercial examples–and well, basically, it was a sample chapter for Designing Great Beers. So ultimately, the book is the resource that I always wished I had for beer recipe formulation. It doesn’t make the decisions for you, but it gives you all the information you need to make the decisions for yourself and still produce a great beer.

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