Hell Is Other Brewers: Loving and Ignoring Beer Feedback

Our previous image was apparently offensive to at least one reader who took issue with the use of the face of Che Guevara.  Instead, please enjoy these creepy meerkats staring at you, which work pretty well, too...

Our previous image was apparently offensive to at least one reader who took issue with the use of the face of Che Guevara.  Instead, please enjoy these creepy meerkats staring at you, which work pretty well, too...

There's a certain vulnerability in homebrewing that we don't often discuss: homebrewing invites judgment.  I don't know a single homebrewer that drinks everything they brew.  Such a person could be only a sporadic brewer or an alcoholic (or both).  That means that, for most of us, we're offering up what we've brewed to other people, and when we do, they're going to judge us.

Hell is Other Brewers

In reflecting on that last week, I was reminded of a famous line from Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit: "Hell is other people."  An oft-misinterpreted sentiment, Sartre isn't saying that other people are annoying (though they can be, of course).  He's saying that there's anxiety and pain caused by a near-unavoidable human trait of seeing ourselves not as innately free and independent entities, but as an object that is regarded externally by others, and that we are as others perceive us to be.

If you are as others perceive you, you're a slave to their perceptions even if your innate qualities are completely adequate to your needs and wants.  If they think you're stupid, or vain, or untrustworthy, then you are (or might as well be), and your inability to be free of that judgment can be torturous.  Hence, "hell is other people."

This is deep for homebrewing, I realize, but in many ways it applies to the kinds of judgments we get from people who drink our beer - especially other brewers.  Your friends and family probably won't be totally honest with you, even if they're journeymen beer aficionados with some sensory training and a good beer evaluation vocabulary.  But other brewers...they'll probably be honest.  Maybe painfully so.

And here's the thing: you should both want that painful feedback and try to remain independent from it.

No Exit

For a variety of reasons that we've already delved into, you should be seeking good feedback for your beer - and "good" shouldn't mean "polite."  It probably shouldn't be hurtful and demeaning, but even in those cases such feedback (if warranted) can be a good wake-up call for a brewer who is, perhaps, a little too optimistic in their assessments and filters everything through the lens of "clearly I'm a great brewer and I love my beer and that's all that matters."

I'm 100% guilty of giving unvarnished, direct feedback, to the point where I'm also pretty sure that, taken out of context, it'd be considered cruel (I'm working on being nicer about it, I swear).  Intent and context matter here, though.  If someone is just ripping on your beer to belittle your efforts and mock you, then that's clearly wrong - don't confuse that with someone who is just being pointed to the point of cringe-inducement to prevent any rose-colored-glasses misunderstandings.

Because that feedback is just what you need.  There's degrees of "wrong" in brewing, as we all know.  Slight ester in a lager?  No big deal.  Vegetal aroma plus sulfur that smells like a head of cabbage lit a bucket of s**t on fire?  Big deal.  You need to know the magnitude of the problem, and politeness will strip away that important feature of the feedback.

Hell, I don't even mind when someone is just being mean - there's probably some truth in there, and I think we can and should find value in even ill-intentioned feedback.

That doesn't mean you should be a slave to it, though.

Freedom

Sartre, like many others, was philosophically guided and preoccupied by notions of human freedom.  Those lessons apply here, too.  Feedback is valuable.  Feedback, however, should not be deterministic as it pertains to your brewing choices.

Creativity is something that draws lots of people into homebrewing.  Creativity and artistry are not things that are universally understood, and in many cases the very best of art is perceived as deeply flawed by the majority.  Maybe you've hit on something truly brilliant in your brewing; even if you have (hell, especially if you have) it's very likely that the feedback you receive about it will be negative and maybe hostile.

If you believe in what you're brewing, then don't let others change your mind for you.  This isn't a blanket denigration of feedback, but it is a reminder that what you're doing, even if you share it around, is still fundamentally for you.  If you believe you're making the beer you want to make, then keep making it.

Be willing to reject specific points of feedback, no matter how intense or how universal.  But if you do, do so for a reason.  Rejecting feedback because you don't like feedback is arrogant and self-defeating.  Rejecting feedback because you have a specific claim or goal can be both principled and correct.

Brewing and Nothingness

Zymurgic-existentialist meanderings aside, the right path here, as I see it, is to embrace the feedback you get.  Beer is inherently social, and making/sharing it even more so.  If we didn't have that feedback, it wouldn't be beer.  In Being and Nothingness Sartre notes that nothingness is a real thing, not simply the absence of something.  

If you walk into a bar and your barfly friend who stops by every afternoon for a pint on the way home isn't there, then his or her absence "haunts" the bar and your experience of it.  It is not simply a state or condition; saying "Chris isn't here" is different than saying "a horse isn't here," because no one expects a horse in a bar.  Chris, though, should be here, and isn't.

In the same way, if we have beer but don't have the social, group mechanism of feedback then the lack of it "haunts" the entire exchange.  It creates a form of isolation that isn't healthy and is certainly not enjoyable.  

So love that feedback, whatever its character or content.  Ignore it if you have a reasonable justification for it, but love it all the same, like a relative with strange political beliefs.

Keep it simple.

JJW

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