What's up with some brewers' bad attitude?
I'm sure by now many of you have read this story, about Scofflaw Brewing Co. in Atlanta. If you haven't, the short version is that, in response to what seems like completely normal feedback/questions about their beer ("Why are beers in the same six-pack so different?"), they responded with "BUY SOMETHING ELSE" and a picture of the brewery staff giving the middle finger to the camera.
Their rationale seems to be that "we're a small brewery with limited resources and therefore you have to deal with some inconsistency." Setting that aside for the moment (but I'll come back to it), someone needs to explain to me why a business that sells to the public and seems to put such a premium on cooperation, togetherness, and camaraderie also seems to be home to a not-pervasive but strangely-persistent strain of touchiness and attitude.
This Scofflaw case is the most recent, but it definitely isn't unique or new.
At a certain brewpub I used to visit a couple of times a year there was a disclaimer on the beer menu that went something like this: "If you have any questions about a beer, ask your server, because we don't accept any returns if you don't like it."
I understand the impulse. The place served some unconventional beers, though not so many nor so far outside the norm that this seemed necessary (I saw no such warning on the menu at the Dogfish Head Brewpub in Rehoboth, and it's way more outlandish). When you get your third sour beer returned in an hour I'm sure that, as a brewer or bar owner, you want to say "you ordered it, you're paying for it."
I still think it's a stupid thing to do. First, what's it costing you, really? Cost per ounce, especially at a brewpub, is pretty low, out the door. More importantly, though, by getting your $6 on that pint you won't take back you're probably costing yourself business, too. Enjoy it - you just lost the $300 that person will now spend down the street over the next year.
And isn't it possible that at least one of those people is right, and there's something wrong with that beer? Dirty line? Contaminated keg? It just seems unreasonable and counterproductive to claim, in writing, that every beer is exactly as it should be and we're just not interested in whether you like it or not or for what reason - you're paying for it.
Some breweries seem to think that sanitation, consistency, temperature control, or other standard brewing practices are somehow too "square" for them. This seems to be the line taken by Scofflaw. "Fingers for the people who want us to march to the drum." What?
There's a difference between "technically, biologically, and chemically sound beer" and "corporate beer." If the complaint about Scofflaw was that they make something other than lite lager, then their response makes sense. That's not the complaint. The complaint is that you're making inconsistent (and maybe bad) beer.
It's like saying, "look, Bob, I like you as a roommate, but can you please be a little more conscientious when murdering hobos on the back porch? The blood attracts coyotes. At least clean up after yourself," and Bob responding, "OH! FINE! I GUESS YOU JUST WANT SOME STRAIT-LACED BANKER TYPE FOR A ROOMMATE!" Bob has overreacted. As has the brewery I saw that bragged about its lagers while fermenting in a hot warehouse with no temperature control - guys, that's not "doing it your way," that's "doing it in a way that guarantees you're screwing up the thing you say you're good at."
And make up your mind. Which is it? Is it that you don't value/need those things, or that you just can't afford them so your customers have to live with it to drink your beer? Because it's one thing to say, as Scofflaw did, "This is a small batch brewery. The amount of time a beer spends in a tank, sometimes due to limited human resources, variances in ingredients, and other shit like this affects the beer," and another to present me with a hand gesture suggesting I should go have intercourse with myself. It's kind of like when I'm driving and the person in front of me isn't turning right at a red light when there's no cross-traffic. I tap my horn. You can go, or you can give me the finger - but it makes no sense to do both. If I'm wrong, why are you going? If I'm right, why are you flipping me off?
If it's the latter, though, fine - they're right. If customers want consistency, they'll need to go elsewhere. But why do you have to give me the finger along with it?
In many cases, we're not even talking about harsh feedback. We were just discussing this recently - not all feedback is friendly, or well-intentioned, or polite. But it seems like a certain group of brewers aren't open to any feedback, no matter how constructive or polite.
That's weird. But, again, not uncommon. The first professional brewer I ever spoke to about beer reacted...badly.
It's weird because you're offering a product to the public. You're not an artist - you're a manufacturer. Is there artistry in beer? Of course. Just like there's artistry in cooking, and automobile design, and landscaping, and a bunch of other fields. Still, it seems more common in brewing than in other fields for producers to tell consumers to go pound sand without even a veneer of "thank you for your feedback" to soften the blow.
By the way, not only is it not all brewers, it's not even a sizable minority - but they seem to be spread evenly throughout the beer world, like a ripple of rancid beans in an otherwise great seven-layer dip. Maybe these brewers, though, have convinced themselves that the people who want their beer have no other choice.
"Fine - you don't like it? We don't even want you as a consumer. Our real fans get it."
Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe you're falling victim to a logical fallacy. Maybe your brewery has a fad following. Maybe your rebellious attitude (to put as positive a spin on it as we can) is actually winning you drinkers and loyalty.
I'll say this, though: are you willing to gamble your entire business and livelihood on that? Because the craft beer map is filling out. There aren't nearly as many places left where I can't get good and creative and consistent and slightly-counterculture beer. Sure, you can't keep up with demand now - but what about when four breweries open within 20 miles, produce even something that's just close to as good as yours, and don't patronize their patrons?
So maybe tone done the attitude a bit. I don't see how it helps you, to be honest. What's the reason for it?
The best brewers I know, uniformly, don't act this way, even when given a good reason to. It isn't like I'm ignorant of the unreasonable-to-stupid feedback and comments breweries have to field, probably every day. But you don't return fire - because there's no reason to.
Manners cost nothing. Politeness rarely hurts and often helps. "All returns accepted, no questions asked" is a reason I shop at a lot of the places I shop at - hell, I once returned cut lumber to a certain hardware big-box store, which is why I dropped $700 there in the past three days (Barbara is out of town, and I gotta fill the time with something...). Pick your MBA, politeness, or "golden rule" cliche and run with it.
Because I don't see how this attitude survives in a crowded marketplace.
Keep it simple.