I once had what I thought was a polite conversation with a pro brewer about the state of his beer. You see - it sucked. It was contaminated. I and my compatriots (being brewers ourselves) even had a pretty good theory about what the issue was, since it seemed that the longer the beer was on tap, the more sour and funked it got, leading us to suspect that there was a persistent contamination (possibly pediococcus, based on the tart, grape-y flavors and ropy texture) somewhere in the bright tanks or serving lines/taps.
So one day, I privately and politely mentioned to the brewer that we'd noticed that there was an issue. This was literally in a back room, away from any patrons, and delivered in gentle and mostly complimentary terms ("We love your beer, and when it's fresh it's awesome, but it seems like there's an issue when a few weeks have passed, and it's really coming out as x, y, and z.").
You'd have thought I pissed on his shoes while calling his children ugly and suggesting he had an atypical sexual relationship with his mother. The response was immediate and hostile, and I was told that if I didn't like it then I could, in his words, "stop f**king drinking it."
Needless to say, I found that response quite out of proportion to my comment, which was geared towards helping him out. The brewery in question closed within the year. Guess I wasn't the only one who noticed...
Look, I get it: brewing is often thankless work. It's a lot of cleaning, and hauling grain sacks, and administration, and marketing, and dealing with customers like our friends the Aleholes. It's got to be infuriating, reading reviews on Ratebeer or Untappd that slam your beer for no reason, or for inane reasons (a recent one from a beer based on one of my recipes: "...hoppy - not at all what I was expecting." It's an American Brown Ale, bro. It's certainly possible that it has hops. Expect different.).
I also realize that one of two phenomena are at work here (or maybe even both). First, you may already know there's a problem - and you just can't fix it. Which probably drives you insane. So someone rolling up on you and telling you what you already know must be awful, especially when failing to address it could mean the financial ruin of you and your family and being forced to return to your job as an actuarial accountant.
Second, you may have some serious blinders on and think your beer is awesome. You repeat to yourself the mantra that it's the great reviews that are spot-on and well-informed, and that anyone who slams your beer is an idiot who doesn't know what he/she is talking about. [NB: I see this phenomenon in homebrewers at competitions all the time. "I entered this beer a month ago and it scored a 42 - today it got a 22. What bullshit." Hey guy - what makes you assume the high score was the right one?]
And I realize that, very often, the criticism you get is phrased poorly. It may be overstating a subtle problem. It may not use language that accurately reflects the problem. It may be offered in a tone of smug superiority. But you know what? You should still listen to it.
To quote a popular comedian: "Maybe I'm right AND an asshole."
The False Hope and Hidden Danger of the Marketplace
The most common response I get when I raise this with pro brewers is this: "OK, maybe there's an issue, but people buy it, so I'm not going to tinker." Fair enough. The whole Rolling Rock thing (people who love them some DMS) certainly makes a powerful case for leaving well enough alone if it's paying the bills. But here's why that's probably a dangerous precedent to follow in the craft beer world.
First, especially if you're a new or new-ish brewery, your sales and growth may be the result of a healthy and active craft beer lover segment giving you a test-run. I do that. No matter what horrible things I've heard about a brewery, I always give them at least three or four shots. Some places start out a little rough and rapidly fix their issues to become industry leaders. Sometimes a brewery has a weak spot on a certain style, but the rest of their portfolio is awesome. Sometimes I'm just having a bad palate day and can't taste for shit. For all of those reasons and more, I'll give them multiple chances. But once I do, if I'm not happy, I'm moving on, probably permanently. As human beings, once we get a big dose of informational ballast in our heads, it takes a LOT to change our minds. Things may look rosy for the first six months or year, but you may see a big drop-off if you're not rigorously trying to self-improve.
Second, you may be coasting by on being one of only a very small number of "local" options. Hell, you may be the ONLY local option. The calculus of how craft beer geeks decide what to drink is a topic for another day (probably two weeks from now - put it on your calendars!), but there's no doubt that many value a brewery's location and ownership more than the quality of the beer. And while this means that the Darwinian process of weeding out bad breweries may pass you by for now, you're safe only for as long as it takes for a better competitor to open up a little ways down the road - and your weakness might even contribute to that happening.
Last, ask yourself this: wouldn't you rather be selling even more beer? Maybe you're doing OK right now with your OK-but-still-not-great-and-maybe-bad-but-I'm-being-propped-up-by-people-who-hate-AB/Inbev beer, but isn't it still a good idea to fix a faulty beer? It's pretty rare for a beer drinker to buy a beer because of its faults - far more often, we're drinking a beer despite them (or we don't detect any - great job!). As Winston said, "To improve is to change - to perfect is to change often." And that guy really knew his way around an alcoholic beverage.
You Asked For It
Ultimately, I think that it comes down to this: you asked for it. You created a product for public consumption (literally). You put yourself out there to be judged. Hell, the thing you sell even has as a central component that makes people less-inhibited and more-talkative. Of course you're going to hear from your customers when they think you're not getting it quite right, or very wrong.
Sometimes it will be from me, and I like to think that most of the time I'm being constructive and polite about it. But even if I'm not, and even if you're getting an earful from someone who is clearly being an alehole, I still believe that you're going to benefit from hearing them (us?) out.
I sincerely believe that most craft beer drinkers like the feeling that we're all sort of in this together. They like being part of the process. They're like sports fans who get to provide input directly to the coach of the team. And this much I'm sure of: dismissing their input (especially in the less-than-polite terms I experienced at the top of this post) is dangerous. And no matter how good your beer is now or how good it gets in the future, you're probably being written off for good.
Speaking for myself? I love the feedback, no matter how on- or off-target, no matter how sophisticated or unsophisticated, no matter how unreasonable. At a minimum it shows that people care, and at its best it's an invaluable tool to make my beer better.
We all hear our beer sucks from time to time. And we should want to. And if you can't handle it, then maybe you don't deserve to hear that your beer is great.
Keep it simple.
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