Sending out bad beer is every brewery’s nightmare, but it can happen.
It happened to Sly Fox in 2010, when two batches of Pikeland Pils had to be recalled from shelves. Evil Genius has kept batches of beer from market because of “issues,” and Yards has stopped shipments and dumped beer because of over-carbonation. Even Victory has pulled a handful of cases from distributors because of quality concerns, most recently in 2014.
But nothing like this has ever happened in Philadelphia.
On Sunday, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. announced it was voluntarily issuing a recall for eight different beers produced at its Mills River, NC, facility and sold in 36 states across the US. The recall includes bottles of its flagship Pale Ale, one of the best-selling craft labels in the country.
The issue isn’t that the beer might have gone bad or gotten “infected” so it has an off taste. The issue is in the packaging, the bottles. According to a news release, the brewery discovered “a flaw that could cause a small piece of glass to break off and possibly fall into the bottle.”
Yeah, you definitely want beer in your glass, not glass in your beer. This is not a common occurrence, either, especially on this scale.
“Never broken glass-type packaging issues, and certainly nothing of that magnitude,” Jeremy Myers, co-founder and head brewer at Neshaminy Creek Brewing Co. said about his brewery.
Though Sierra Nevada’s flaw is thought to affect just one in every 10,000 bottles, the recall is much more extensive, covering all potentially affected batches.
The company didn’t specify exactly how much beer it was writing off, but the recall is for shipments of 12-oz. bottles from early December to mid-January. For a brewery that ranks as seventh-largest in the US (third-largest among craft houses, as defined by the national Brewers Association), that’s got to be a LOT of beer.
With 7,180 breweries now holding permits across the U.S. — the most by far in the country’s history — you’d think bad news for one outfit would equal good news for its competitors.
But despite the fact that the California-based brewery has been muscling in on local territory lately — its Mills River facility opened expressly to make East Coast distribution faster, fresher and easier — Philly-area brewers expressed nothing but empathy for Sierra Nevada.
“I feel for them!” said Marilyn Candeloro, co-owner of West Philly’s Dock Street Brewing Co.
The sentiment was echoed word for word by Victory president and co-founder Bill Covaleski. “They are acting responsibly,” he added, lauding the brewery’s decision to go public with the recall. “It really must be done.”
Sierra Nevada is taking an undeniably huge financial hit (though some of it may be shouldered by the bottle manufacturer, depending on the procurement contract). But the recall protects something the brewery depends on: A longstanding reputation for excellent quality.
“If you do not have a commitment to take beer back and a plan,” said Sly Fox brewmaster Brian O’Reilly, “you don’t really have a commitment to quality.”
Usually, quality control is all about keeping beer from getting old or going bad, or simply making sure that a specific brand beer tastes like it should. Even with a tried and true recipe, ingredients vary from batch to batch (grain, yeast and hops are all organic, after all), so making the beer taste the same from label to label is a big part of a brewer’s life.
Per a 2014 interview I did with Scott Jennings, the head brewer at Mills River, Sierra Nevada tests its beer at six or more checkpoints throughout the brewing process. Whether or not it had the same testing for packaging is unknown — but chances are that it surely will going forward.
Victory has that kind of testing, for just this very reason.
“We have had bottle inspection equipment on our bottling line since it was commissioned in 2002,” Covaleski said, “as flaws in manufactured bottles a brewer receives can cascade into serious issues. No recall history of note here.”