Your beer sucks
I’m sorry – but it does. It’s horrible. It’s so oxidized I feel like I’m swallowing liquid cardboard. It’s hotter than Satan’s urine. It bears NO resemblance to whatever you told me it was (Pilsner? Really? Why is it jet black then?). There’s more bacteria than yeast in it, and it smells like wet goat ass. When I sniffed it, I was reminded of huffing glue as a teenager (well, not really because I didn’t do that, but you get the idea). I'm horrified thinking of what this is going to do to my urethra later.
This is the kind of feedback you won’t normally get, even if your beer deserves it. Outside of a few borderline-cruel and overly-honest people, most of us have a native reluctance to completely blow up your beer in front of your very eyes. But here’s the thing: a lot of brewers (and I’m not excluding myself) need that from time to time if we’re going to get better and not leave people with the impression that homebrew sucks.
Let’s start with where you don’t get good feedback.
Your non-craft-beer-drinking friends
That friend of yours that just won’t let go of his/her Rolling Rock doesn’t have much to offer to you in terms of feedback. One of two things usually happens. One – you get a nondescript, “that’s really good, thanks!” response that carries no real weight because you might just be getting a polite, “leave me alone” answer. Two – you get negative feedback, but you immediately dismiss it because he/she isn’t a craft beer person. This is beer snobbery/alehole-ishness, but it’s also kind of a fair response. In any case, you’re not getting what you need.
Your craft-beer-drinking friends
I know – this one makes a little less sense, but I’m standing by it anyway. The craft beer enthusiasts in your circle of friends may have a little more breadth and depth in terms of their palates and their experience, but they still don’t necessarily want to tell you that your beer sucks. You might hear this: “That’s not really my style of beer.” Or, “that’s really good, but it’s a little too bitter for me.” These are the beer evaluation equivalents of “It’s not you, it’s me,” and they’re equally as meaningless as that trite phrase is to someone who just got dumped. And, as above, if they tell you your beer is good, they might just be trying to spare your feelings (and don’t ignore the possibility that they might not know what they’re talking about even if they are sincere).
You may, at some point, have the opportunity to pour your beer for the beer festival crowd. Here, at least, are people that don’t know you and can give you a truly unvarnished opinion! Well, maybe, but keep in mind these people have tasted 32 beers before yours, including a Triple IPA, a barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout with cinnamon basil, thirteen Goses and nine pumpkin spice beers. Your Munich Dunkel might as well be dyed water. Palate fatigue aside, they’re not likely to straighten you out, because it’s easier to move on to the next table after giving you a cursory, “that’s interesting…” And, most patronizingly of all, they may think that you deserve some kind of handicap because you’re not a professional brewer (unfair though that idea might be).
So who’s left? There actually are some places where you can count on solid feedback.
If you brew beer and don’t belong to a homebrew club, find one near you NOW. Do not pass go, do not collect $200: go to the AHA’s searchable listing of clubs and contact a club near you. Homebrew clubs almost always allow for members to bring in beer for feedback, and the best of them provide open and detailed discussion of your beer, whether it’s enjoyable, whether it fits what you were aiming for, how to make it better, and how it compares to others they’ve had. Some clubs, regrettably, are clique-ish and snobby, but they’re in the minority (though you frequently find this in large clubs, where smaller sub-groups tend to form). Look for a club that has structured tasting, even if that means you might not get to bring a beer to every meeting.
Don’t enter competitions to win (though it’s fun, and the prizes are a good way to subsidize your brewing habit!) – enter because you’ll get trained, subjective feedback from two or three beer judges that had no idea who brewed what was on the table. You’ll also get feedback on how to fix any perceived faults. Get into the habit: I enter EVERY beer I brew into at least three (and usually four) competitions to get a good variety of opinions - you can find upcoming competitions here. It has two added benefits. First, it guards against the reality that some judges – just like some beers – suck and don't know what they're doing, but if you enter multiple times you’ll find a consensus emerging as to whether or not you brewed a good beer. And second, it lets you see how your beers change over time; some will get better after a short rest, others will peak early and fade steadily, while still others may be rock steady until six months out and then drop off a cliff. Knowledge is power, and once you get into the routine of entering, you’ll have a more-complete sense of your beers’ quality and limitations.
Competitions aren’t vanity exercises, and I wouldn’t recommend you “brew to win,” but there’s no denying that it also makes brewing a little more interesting, in addition to connecting you with other homebrewers!
Learn what “good” beer is, and hold yourself to a high standard. So what’s good beer? Well, some say, “I like it, and that’s what makes it good.” I hate that view. You may prefer it, but that doesn’t make it good, which is a different thing altogether. Good suggests that not only do I like it, other people will as well, and while someone might share your love of beers-that-taste-like-permanent-markers, it’s unlikely. My sister-in-law likes her tuna cooked so thoroughly it resembles cat food – and no chef in the world would say that her preparation results in “good” tuna.
How do you become a better critic of your own beer? Brewing clone beers is a place you might start – try making a perfect match for a beer that’s already well-reviewed. If you hit it, you’ve got your recipe for the future and you know your process is solid! If you don’t, you can start dialing things in. Another great way is by studying for and taking the Beer Judge Certification Program exams and becoming a certified beer judge. The preparation itself (especially when you take a formal course) is the best education a homebrewer can get, and judging beer in competitions exposes you to a wide range of beers, interpretations, and faults/virtues that make you sensitive to the quality of your own beer.
The short version? Get your beer out there, and get it to people who have an incentive to give you the truth, and a high-quality version of it. You can sit in your bedroom, in the dark, under the covers, and drink your beer free from all judgment and input, but you’re probably going to be robbing yourself of the chance to make something better that you’ll enjoy even more.
“But I like it…isn’t that enough?”
Frankly, no. Not if you’re ever offering it to anyone else. What you do as a brewer affects me as a brewer, and I want people to think of homebrewed beer as being better than the stuff they buy at their corner bar. I want them excited about the hobby. I want them to ask you how to make it themselves. And they’ll never do that as long as you’re peddling Wet Goat Ass Belgian Dubbel.
Keep it simple.
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 Pro brewers take note – you need to hear this too. Just because it’s on Untappd it doesn’t mean the review isn’t accurate – maybe they’re right and an asshole.