Feedback is good. Feedback in the beer world is particularly good, since brewers are making a consumable product that they want you to like and keep buying.
But beer feedback can be...not great. Some is mean-spirited. Some is oddly global, blaming the brewer for things like carbonation level or serving temperature at a bar. And a lot of it is simply, empirically, and even aggressively wrong. Did you know that brown ales shouldn't have coffee flavor? That all sour beers have fruit in them? That all lagers are under 6% ABV? Yeah - me neither.
So as we return to the "What Brewers Wish You Knew" series, I thought a good topic might be built around the feedback we give to brewers and breweries. What's helpful to them? What isn't? To what extent (and how) does our feedback inform their future brewing behaviors and choices? I went back to my ramshackle panel of brewers, meadmakers, cider.....what the hell do you call someone who makes cider? A ciderer? Anyway, I went back to my network of brewing friends and acquaintances to see what would make our feedback more useful, because if we're going to give feedback (and we should), then it's not a bad idea to give brewers what they want and can use.
Vague Isn't Bad
"Honestly, just tell me if you like it or not."
This was probably the most common response. A rough understanding of whether you like a beer enough to buy another one was deemed the most valuable kind of feedback out there. In fact, going further than that can end up undermining the input.
One brewer notes that when a customer explains why they do/don't like a beer, they can show a relative lack of technical knowledge that (the brewer admitted) could lead him/her to dismiss the feedback entirely. This brewer, though, knows that that's a poor reason to do so: "If you're telling me you don't like it, but for a reason that doesn't make any sense, you still don't like it. WTF do I care what the reason is? You're not going to buy it. That's what I should care about."
This is a pretty introspective panel, in case you couldn't tell.
But at the end of the day, a quick note to the brewer of the thumbs up/down variety is a pretty good tool. Keep it simple (right?).
The Power of Aggregation
A brewer probably isn't going to give too much weight to your one opinion - but you should still give it, because if they hear similar things from enough customers, they might begin to take note of it.
"If you're not someone we 'know' [as in, a very regular customer and/or someone with a demonstrated level of beer expertise] then I'm not going to change anything because of something you think is a problem. I still want to know what you think the problems are, though."
This seeming contradiction exists in part because of something that we in the political communications world refer to as the Receive-Accept phenomenon. Not every message you receive (hear/read) is actually incorporated into your considerations. We're much more likely to accept messages that are consistent with our pre-existing beliefs, which creates something called informational ballast. Just like ballast on a ship, it makes us resistant to flipping, and we usually reject contrary messages. But if enough contrary messages reach us, it can overcome that ballast and we'll change (or at least moderate) our positions. So if I'm a brewer and I hear from one person that a beer is too bitter, I'll probably dismiss it. But if I hear it from five people in a week, I'll start thinking about recipe adjustments. [BTW, keep this in mind the next time you talk politics on social media: even if that person refuses to accept new information, hit them with it anyway. If enough people do, then the recipient will likely start to shift! PSA over.]
Tell Me About Your Problems...
"I want to hear about every problem you have, and I tell the staff to listen to every criticism respectfully."
Brewers seemed (despite isolated personal experiences to the contrary) to be generally-to-enthusiastically open to hearing critiques. This has limits, though.
"I probably drink more of our beer than anyone on the planet, so I've got a good idea of whether it's hitting what I want it to hit." Artists. Am I right?
Seriously, though, it's not surprising that many brewers are committed to their vision for their beer. But I was also told by several that even though they "make the beer they want, not the beer the public says they want," they still want to know what you think of it, especially if it's not related to the flavor profile of the beer.
Which brings us to...
I Can't Fix It, But I Still Care
If you tell a brewer to switch to NZ hops rather than Australian hops, you're probably not going to make much of a dent.
But if you get a massively dented can that has leaked out all of its beer, they do want to know about it.
Feedback on how beer was served, an empty can in a six pack, or an overly-aged beer might tell the brewer something about the people they're doing business with. "We do our best to find the best distributors and retailers we can so the beer tastes like it does when it leaves the brewery, but it's not perfect." If a particular problem keeps cropping up, then a brewery might learn of a problem with how their beer is being handled. So let them know.
But maybe stop short of "blaming" them for it. "A customer bought a case and one of the cans was empty. We explained to him that a pin hole had probably opened up sometime after it left the brewery, since we can't seam an empty can." Apparently the customer was highly impressed by this bit of knowledge, and immediately turned right around on blaming the brewery - which is a good thing. If breweries can help you, they generally (seem to) want to - and when they can't, they want to make sure you understand how it might have happened.
And many make good on it anyway. More than one brewer said that if you bring them a legitimate complaint, they're more than happy to square it with you. One gives standing orders to the bar staff that if anyone stops by with a concern to "buy them a beer and talk about it, and come get me if I'm around. I'll spill that much beer in two minutes anyway, and this way we build some trust and goodwill with our community. If they're there in person, they obviously care."
Stick to Simple Descriptions
When I asked about the most useful feedback breweries get, a majority answered that they want more "relative" advice. "Tell me you want more hop flavor, or less alcohol, or more banana, or the same bitterness." That kind of advice can tell a brewer about what you like to drink, and maybe it won't change this beer/recipe, but it does "give me ideas about what to brew next if a few people ask for it."
The worst advice? "Telling me about how a beer doesn't do what you think it should." This can apply to people who say that a beer is "too [whatever] for this style." When a lot of brewers hear that (or compare it to a previous year or another beer in the market), they seem to be immediately suspicious. "I love it when I hear that someone thinks 'this year's [name redacted] is worse than last year's' - especially since we don't brew that beer once a year, we brew it all the time. It just tells me that they're acting like an expert, and they don't really know our beer at all."
Another said something similar: "I really doubt you remember what our beer tasted like last year."
And please, please, please - don't lecture brewers. "Short and sweet. That's what I want. What you liked and didn't like." If you have deeper opinions, "go start a blog!" [I really hope that wasn't a dig on me...]
The biggest roadblock, it seems, is a relatively low beer-knowledge base in the marketplace. That's not terribly surprising, given that most aren't the kind of beer super-nerds that I routinely associate with. What is surprising is that it isn't getting better. Craft beer isn't new anymore. It's everywhere. It's on airplanes, in stadiums, and in corner dive bars. So is the level of knowledge increasing?
"If anything, it's getting worse." The panel seemed to agree that given the growth of the craft beer market, new consumers are flooding in faster than they used to, which is great for sales but also means a huge glut of relative neophytes that (unfortunately) are also prone to parroting conventional wisdom or half-baked notions of what beers are or should be.
And while most said "it's our job to make sure people know what our beer should be," they also said that they wished people would just stick to what they know, not what's fashionable to say. "I really do want to know what you think, but more about what you liked/didn't like, not what I should do about it."
Rules of Thumb
So when you're giving feedback, here's the short version to make a bigger impact:
1. Start with a simple yes/no proposition - would you buy it again?
2. Don't hold back just because you're one voice, because you don't know what else that brewer is hearing!
3. Tell them everything so they know where the trouble spots are, but recognize that it might not be their fault or responsibility.
4. Stay within your realm of expertise and say what you want more/less of rather than critiquing the beer: "Too bitter for me" is great, while "your IBUs are too high" is potentially alehole-ish.
This should be a decent feedback strategy and should also reduce the likelihood of surly reactions from bartenders/brewers!
Keep it simple.
[NB: Quotes may have been altered for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to grammatical adjustment, elaboration of acronyms, removal of profanity, and use of overly-jargonistic language. In some places I also use language that is a composite or approximation of what multiple brewers wrote/told me. The gist is theirs, but the tone and specific words may be mine, so feel free to blame me for anything written here! The positions noted represent the views of a small sample of 30-35 brewers and owners, with a moderate Mid-Atlantic or Northeastern bias, though the sample includes brewers from all over the US and one Canadian.]