Does American craft brewing have a quality problem?

In an auditorium filled with thousands of brewers Wednesday, Paul Gatza told a story about visiting a beer festival this year.

He went out of his way to check out breweries he had never tried before, he said. Most had opened in the past two years.

Gatza, president director of the Brewers Association, the Boulder-based trade association for small and independent American craft brewers, said seven or eight of the 10 breweries needed improvement. The brewers didn’t think so, he said. They thought their beers were awesome.

“The truth is, they’re not – and we need to improve it,” Gatza said. He then offered a blunt assessment of the importance of maintaining quality in an industry that is growing crazy fast: “Don’t f*** it up.”

So emerged one of the more compelling themes at the onset of the 31st annual Craft Brewers Conference, which has drawn more than 7,000 brewing industry people to Denver this week. The conference began Tuesday and runs through Friday.

Gatza was taking cues from established brewers – BA members who have become increasingly vocal with concerns that some new start-up brewers lacking experience are creating inferior product and not investing sufficient resources into the testing and troubleshooting necessary to keep beer good and drinkers happy.

Gatza said beer quality is at all an all-time high, especially at the top end of the industry. However, he said, “With so many brewery openings, the potential is there for things to start to degrade on the quality side, and we wouldn’t want that to color the willingness of the beer drinker to try new brands. If a beer drinker has a bad experience, they are just going to go back to companies they know and trust.”

If there was any doubt this was an issue weighing on brewers’ minds, Mitch Steele of Stone Brewing Co. laid that to rest, affirming Gatza’s comments while picking up an award for innovation in craft brewing.

“If you are starting a brewery,” Steele said, “please, for God’s sake, hire someone who knows what they’re doing.”

Craft brewing also experienced a boom period in the 1990s, when many new players entered the field not out of passion for hops and malt but out of a desire to make a buck. This latest wave is different. Many new breweries are being founded by homebrewers with no previous professional brewing background. The passion is there but the experience is not.

Veteran brewer John Harris said in an interview Wednesday that at a time when beer education classes are tough to get into, many homebrewers who have little to go on but the rave reviews of friends just open their doors and say, “Here we are.”

He said new breweries should spend as much money on their quality control program as the brewing equipment.

“If you are having problems with beer, ask others for help,” said Harris, who brewed at Deschutes Brewing and Full Sail Brewing and last fall opened Ecliptic Brewing in Portland. “Don’t be too proud. We can help each other make our beer better.”

At a news conference that followed the opening conference session, Gatza said quality problems include off flavors, oxidation and the presence of dimethyl sulfide, a sulfur compound produced during fermentation that gives an unpleasant whiff of corn. He said many new breweries are not sending beer to labs for testing as they should.

Bob Pease, the Brewers Association’s chief operating officer, emphasized the nonprofit trade group does develop materials for members on quality issue, many of which are low cost or free (including a best practices guide mailed to all BA members).

Former Future Brewing opened in Denver this year. The head brewer, James Howat, is a microbiologist whose previous brewing experience involved homebrewing for seven years. His wife and the brewery co-owner, Sarah Howat, said the brewery has every employee taste the beer on a daily basis and is doing testing in-house on a very small lab system.

Howat said Former Future has learned lessons. A beer it served in December at a festival before even opening, she said, had an off-flavor and “was not the best we brewed.”

Although established brewers say they stand ready to help on quality issues, it’s notable people are going public with concerns about homebrewer-led breweries.

Howat expressed disappointment in the tone of the recent criticism of new brewers.

“I think people have a perception that because you are new you are not going to be good, which is disheartening,” she said. “For James never having brewed on large-scale system, I think we are knocking out some pretty good beer.”

Gatza name-checked several newer breweries that are doing very well, including Sun King Brewing in Indianapolis, Surly Brewing in Minneapolis and Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, Florida, all of which have quickly gained national reputations for not just quality but innovation. Gatza said the Brewers Association board wants to keep barriers to entry into the brewing world low.

“This isn’t just a club where you got in early enough and you can reap the rewards and keep everyone else out,” Gatza said. “Some of the new brewers are going to have a lot to add.”

And there will be many new brewers. With more than 1,700 nearly 1,900 breweries in planning, according to the BA, it is not surprising the quality is a greater emphasis of the trade association.

Back to Gatza’s story about visiting that beer festival … During the news conference Wednesday, he noted that not every beer at that festival let him down. One brewer, he said, “knocked my socks off” with an imperial stout.

I asked Gatza afterward who brewed that beer, and he said it was Elevation Beer Co. of Poncha Springs.

Xandy Bustamante, one of the mountain brewery’s co-founders, was understandably happy to hear it. (The beer in question was Oil Man, an 11 percent alcohol by volume imperial stout aged in Breckenridge Distillery bourbon barrels).

Bustamante said the brewery benefited from experience and “taking our time.” The head brewer, Christian Koch, had a couple of years’ worth of production brewing experience on his resume working at Tommyknocker Brewing in Idaho Springs.

Elevation ships beer to an independent lab for testing now but is getting ready to install its own lab and hire a lab tech, he said. To get a sense of just how costly these things can get, Bustamante said one vendor at the Craft Brewers Conference expo hall was pitching a $40,000 testing machine. He said the brewery is more likely to spend $5,000 to $10,000 to test for yeast cell counts, cleanliness, diacetyl and gravity, basic stuff he admits “the guys at Coors would probably laugh about.”

“You have to put your money where your mouth is with quality,” Bustamante said. “We have dumped batches, which is hard to do with a new brewery when you are trying to pay your bills.”

Bustamante said Elevation also has sought out quality control advice from more established brewers including Avery Brewing in Boulder, Ska Brewing in Durango and Upslope Brewing in Boulder.

He considers the comments from Gatza and others about quality “a good warning for everybody. Everyone wants to help each other make great beer. It only takes one bad beer to take people off craft beer.”