Everyone wants to make good beer. Everyone. Presumably, everyone also wants to drink good beer. It’s OK to be critical of the beers you drink, and it’s OK to not always be satisfied with everything you are drinking. Breweries that have just opened and are trying to carve out a place for themselves in the local market not only want your feedback, they need it. Sometimes, they crave it. If it is one of the first batches of IPAs that a brewer has scaled up from a trusted garage recipe, it’s probably going to have initial flaws. Most brewers aren’t so arrogant that they don’t understand that fact. It might be a recipe they’ve had for years and have won countless contests with, but that doesn’t mean it will immediately translate to a professional setting, and one where they are asking the consumer for six bucks when they order a glass. A good brewer will also understand that it’s not only themselves they need to satisfy. Brewers also have to get a grip on what their consumers are looking for and what they are tasting.
If you’re ever at a smaller brewery’s tasting room, there is a good chance that one of their brewers is there hanging out. Hell, that brewer might even be behind the bar, serving you the very product they helped produce. Remember, these small breweries are not initially large, revenue generating operations, and the brewers might need to bar-tend here and there to pay bills. They also are there so they can interact with craft beer consumers and get feedback. If they aren’t there, there’s a good chance that the person bartending had a minor say the production of that beer, a good idea of the recipe, concept, or at the very least: how it was made. These breweries aren’t a huge tap house moving hundreds of different rotating handles that they have to keep up on. Most likely they’ll have ten to twelve beers on tap, and have a pretty good knowledge of what it is they’re serving.
This gives the drinker, and the brewery employee a great chance to interact and really dissect what’s in the glass. You can also learn of any possible issues that they ran into when trying to produce the beer. Maybe it was an unforeseen hurdle that they just learned while brewing on their current system, like learning how to adjust the grain bill for a scaled-up batch. It’s an intimate interaction that would be hard to find at a large-scale craft beer bar, even with the most beer savvy staff. This also gives you a great opportunity to give, real, meaningful feedback on the product you’re drinking. Feedback concerning why you like or don’t like it, or something that might help clear up some questions pertaining to the style or flavor-profile of that beer. Both parties can learn from this process. Let’s talk about it.
Issues with style/concept vs. execution/quality.
First thing’s first: What kind of beer is in your glass and what concept was the brewer attempting to execute? This is important because sometimes a consumer will admonish a beer based on the style or the brewer’s concept, all while admitting (after the fact) that they simply aren’t a fan of that specific style. You don’t have to like every category of beer on the market. There are certain styles I absolutely abhor, and I try to reign in my judgment of those beers while keeping that fact in mind. If you don’t like black IPAs, there’s a really good chance that you won’t like even the best black IPA on the market. I had someone tell me that hated someone’s hefeweizen because it has that “stupid banana flavor”. Well, dude……I just think you might not like hefeweizens. That’s OK, but your critique has little to do with the actual quality of the beer, or the brewer’s ability to execute that product. I really dislike any sort of spice adjunct in my beer. I’ll often grab a sample of a spiced beer at a brewery, so I can say I at least gave it a shot. If I’m asked, I’ll give them my opinion, being careful to frame it as a style I’m not a fan of. The best I can usually muster with someone’s Christmas spiced Belgian abbey is: “this is pretty balanced” or jokingly say: “this doesn’t offend me.” I won’t tell them it’s dogshit because I know I’m diving into a style that I don’t like and want my feedback to relate that fact. If you are lucky enough to find a brewery that can change your opinion on a specific style, even better.
Now what if it is indeed an issue with execution, or quality of the product? This can include anything from a poorly thought out or executed recipe, or a glaring defect that came about from mistake in the brewing process. That shit happens, and it’s ok to let a brewer know that is what you are tasting. But you can tell them without being an asshole about it. Notice how I said “tell them” and not “run to social media to trash the brewery and get multiple likes, retweets, etc.” I’m not saying avoid rating websites, or tweeting at a brewery, but do it under the guise of wanting to give feedback to the brewery, and not for your personal attention. A brewer isn’t going to be super pumped to hear you tasted diacetyl, acetaldehyde, or perceived a bitterness that was not supposed to be in the finished product. But here’s the thing, they need to know, and often times want to know. They want to make good beer, they really do. Hell, they NEED to, because that’s how they make their money. If you taste something off, be specific. What exactly are you tasting? It could be a defect in the beer, or it could be a flavor that maybe you aren’t keen on, and then we might go back to the “maybe it’s just a style you aren’t a fan of” scenario. Politely tell them “hey, I’m getting a bit of X in the beer, do you taste that as well?” Nearly every brewer I’ve ever met is extremely anal and will usually immediately pour themselves a sample and sit down and analyze it with you. They will then proceed to agree or disagree.
Yes sometimes, they agree with you.
You’d be surprised at how often a brewer might agree with you. Sometimes they’ll admit to needing to tweak the hop/fermentation schedule, or mash temperature. Sometimes they’ll even admit that they might have picked up a specific off-flavor that they thought fell within an acceptable range and think it’s still a drinkable product. New breweries don’t have a ton of money, and they have to think really hard before they simply dump a batch of beer. They are learning, and the fact that you are also giving them that feedback can help them confirm their suspicions and understand that maybe they need to tweak the beer for the next batch. You’d be surprised how even an uneducated palate can give unique insight to a beer. Opinions from someone not invested in the success of a small brewer’s newest release is essential, as even the most honest brewer needs outside opinions to help them really evaluate their finished product. They put their heart and soul into their product and a non-invested perspective is often crucial. Not that long ago I was given a sample of a stout that a brewery had aged in bourbon barrels. It was a solid base beer, but I commented that it was a hair thin, and maybe even a bit boozy. The barrel was coming through as much, if not more than the actual beer. A few months later they revisited the same product and the brewer made it a point to give me a sample of the second go-around with the same beer and the same barrels. They tweaked the blend of fresh vs. barrel aged beer for the final product, and what came through was a big, full mouthfeel, and a great base beer enhanced by much more subtle notes from the barrel. The brewer then said, “Yeah, I remember you saying it was a bit thin, and I think I agree that this blend works a lot better.” I wasn’t a dick to the brewer the first go around, and didn’t go around trashing the product. I was honest. And the brewer agreed the product needed a tweak. The next batch was fantastic. I probably wasn’t the only person that had a similar critique.
At the end of the day, if a brewer can’t handle a bit of honest criticism, and won’t listen to their customers, then it’s on them. I’ve seen it happen before, and I’ve seen breweries struggle and even fail because of it. If you as a consumer are coming from the place of someone that wants to drink, and continue to drink great, local product, then that sentiment will come through in these interactions.