What Brewers Wish You Knew: Giving Them Feedback

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...]

Don't Overreach

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.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).

[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.]

 


What's In a Name: Pitfalls and Opportunities in Beer Naming

"What's in a name?," Shakespeare asked.  "That which we call a rose - By any other name would smell as sweet."  Good point, Will.  But that's a pretty narrow view of the effect and import of names, and lately beer has been struggling with multiple identity crises.  

A rose by any other name might smell as sweet: but what happens when people start referring to a dead rat as a "rose rat"?  Or when strawberries become "rose berries" because they share a common color, resulting in the death of a number of people with strawberry allergies?

Names matter.  And in many ways, when it comes to beer, we suck at it.  The issue of sexism in beer names has been well documented, and that's not what I'm talking about.  I'm talking about how marketing has resulted in an odd winnowing of the names we use to describe beer, and how that's hurting craft beer in ways that buyers and brewers alike should be concerned about.

Beer naming allows consumers (us) to get a preview of what's in the bottle, can, or keg.  It increases the utility of our selection process and makes it more likely that we get what we're looking for.  But more and more we're seeing names that are potentially working against us and making it harder to predict what's in the glass, and it's baffling to me that brewers don't see the downside of that.  

Once upon a time, I lived in Texas and worked as a waiter.  One of my first shifts educated me on a genuinely odd and unproductive reality of many Texans: all soda was referred to as "Coke."  

"What can I get you, sir?"

"I'd love a Coke, thanks!"

I bring him a Coke.

"I wanted a Sprite."

"But you ordered a Coke..."

"Right - but a Sprite."

Without a bit more care in how we name these things - and we consumers have a part to play and a share of the blame - we're at risk of shooting ourselves in the palate and, as a kicker, constricting the beer world in which we claim to value diversity above most other things.  

A World of IPE

I'm talking about India Pale EVERYTHING.  

It's an easy and obvious target, but good Lord, it HAS to be said: is there anything that brewers won't call an "IPA" these days?  The multitude of color variations is one thing (apparently IPA now comes in White, Red, Brown, Black and even Blue - true story), and while I agree there is potentially a difference between some of these and other base styles, the distinction isn't all that apparent when you get down to the actual beers.  Any number of Brown/Black IPAs are really just American Brown Ales or Porters or Stouts.  Those names already existed, and they already included the potential for significant hop character.  Why not use them?  "Josh, this way consumers KNOW they're going to get PRONOUNCED hops!"  Do they, though?  My last three in the Brown/Black IPA (or Cascadian Dark if you roll that way) category were pretty conventional/limited in their hopping, and in fact came in dragging in terms of bittering/hop flavor compared to many current examples of other already-there styles (fittingly enough, Rogue's Shakespeare Stout is rocking about 70 IBUs and a healthy dose of flavor hops - is it a stout or a Black IPA?).  I was judging a Best of Show panel for a homebrew competition about six months ago and the BOS winner was a "Red IPA" that was far less hop-driven than many of the American Amber ales in competition.  

Then there's the Farmhouse IPAs.  The Belgian IPAs.  Rye IPAs.  New England IPAs.  Fruit, Spice, Herb IPAs. Coffee IPAs.  SESSION IPAs, for crying out loud.  IPLs.  I could go on, possibly forever.  

Brewers, not everything with hop flavor needs to be an IPA.  And by tagging EVERY hop-flavor-having beer you make with that name, you're diluting the utility of it.  I know it's a useful marketing tool that feels good, but it's bad for you in the long run, like heroin, or Sons of Anarchy after season two.

A Fine Pilsner Beer

And what the hell is happening with Pilsners?  They don't get quite as much attention, but have you noticed what's developing here?  It would seem that "Pilsner" is being used to describe basically anything that's pale in color and uses a lager yeast.  And it isn't like we don't have a good historical basis for knowing what to expect out of a Pils.

I could rip on a certain macro lager that claims to be a "Fine Pilsner Beer," but I won't - for one thing, I kind of like it as a neutral option when I'm in macro-land and the closest thing to craft is Shock Top.  But for another thing, there's far less risk of a Danny Thomas-style spit take with that.  Maybe just a shrug that it doesn't seem to be as roundly malty as a classic Czech Pils or as flinty and spare as a classic German Pils.  

No, I'm talking about Pilsners (seriously - Pilsners) that are 8% ABV.  Or barrel-aged (no kidding).  Or dry hopped (which I can get behind, but is still a little surprising).  Or black - seriously, a Black Pilsner (which was also heavily hopped, btw); what, was "Black IPL" just a bridge too far for you?

Much as most hoppy beers are now just called some-kind-of-IPA, it seems that an increasing number of lagers are just called "Pilsners," regardless of whether the name actually applies.

And don't even get me started on...

'Tis the Saison

Yeah, one of the buzziest terms now is "farmhouse" or "Saison."  Cloudy, wheaty, spicy, hoppy, all or none of the above?  SAISON!  FARMHOUSE!  RUSTIC!  I can almost understand this one, since Saisons were originally very much a local-driven beer, made with whatever was on hand, and so there was a lot of variation.  But this isn't that - this is just laziness.  It's an appeal to an image, not a reflection of brewing history.

Spicing a Saison was actually not all that common.  Farmhouse beers weren't simply rustic, they were usually wild-fermented.  And they sure as hell weren't sold as being "smooth" as a Saison from a particular wildly popular brewery is.

No, this seems much more like Golden Age thinking and nostalgia run amok, picturing the quaint brewers of rural France and Belgium - not an homage to the authentic seasonal styles of Northern Europe.

And then we have...

Sour is Sweet

Some recent writing on Sour beers has suggested that calling beers "Sours" is applying too-generic a moniker to a very diverse set of beers.  I see their point (it's in many ways the point I'm making here - too-broad a name reduces utility), but this is one area where I ultimately disagree with it.

Justin Grant, writing in the Tampa Bay Times, notes: "'Sour' is about as meaningful as 'dark.' Both terms are woefully lacking in information, and they unfairly lump dissimilar beers together, simply because they share a single, arbitrary attribute."

I think that's significantly overstating the case.  Sour isn't an "arbitrary attribute" - it's a defining feature that provides a substantial indicator of what's in the bottle. The examples of how different and diverse Sours can be are accurate, but ignore the fact that if you had to describe Berliner Weisse, Lambic, and Flanders Red the first word nearly anyone would use is "sour" or "acidic." 

Moreover if you picked up beers that aren't called Sours and tasted acid, you'd probably be very surprised, right?  And maybe a little concerned/pissed?

"Dark" as a descriptor has almost no utility. "Sour" by comparison does add utility in that it identifies a defining (and often divisive in terms of the drinkers' impressions) attribute.

Nor is "sour" in any way necessarily pejorative as some have claimed.  Sour Cream.  Sour Candy.  Sweet and Sour Chicken.  We make use of the term all over the place, because acid is one of those things that makes us sit up and take notice - potentially as a sign of contamination or spoilage.  If it's going to be there, you should probably let people know it's there on purpose.

Let's Leave My Anus Out of This

Some (including some of you) have accused me of being a bit too anally retentive when I suggest that we should be conscious of and actively use the beer-nomenclature history and tools with which we are already endowed.  To that, I say, let's leave my ass-tightness out of this.  It's not about me being a stickler - it's about how branding and naming impact craft beer as a segment.

When making ordering decisions, individuals rely on the names of the products on offer to guide their choice.  They use them to increase the probability that what they order will make them happy.  When we over-use (and even mis-use) category or style names, we undermine consumers' ability to get what they want, and as that probability function starts to yield fewer happy customers, we start to lose them.  That's bad for beer.

It's also bad because it makes it harder for bar owners and managers to put a diverse selection of taps on.  First, you're making it harder for them to know what they're getting (much like you're making it harder on consumers).  "But the reps know what the beers are and can help them!"  Yeah - sure.  We'll deal with that one another day.  Second, though, by encouraging consumers to too-broadly categorize beers you're creating "demand" for only a few things (IPAs, Saisons, Pilsners, for example) which can result in tap lists that are overcommitted to just a few flavor profiles.  Yes, there's great variety within them since EVERYTHING is getting over-grouped into these macro-categories, but now we're relying on the bar to know the differences within the macro-category to effectively put on a variety of beers, and that's an iffy proposition.

Finally, it's bad because it makes craft beer look like what it's trying to replace.  When consumers see this macro-grouping going on, and see tap lists at "craft" beer bars that are 80% IPAs, they start to think we're just like THEM (the macro breweries).  "Macro" becomes "pale lager," while "Craft" becomes "IPA."  That's not a fair assessment on either side, but I've literally heard this very statement out of the mouth of a number of friends, relatives, and neighbors.  And we're feeding it, to our own detriment.  A tap list of nearly-all IPAs isn't all that different from a tap list of all-macro-lagers.  It just makes us seem uncreative, and as though we've become what we despised - boring and repetitive.

So let's make an effort to call beers what they are.  Why throw away the diversity and variety that fueled the rise of craft beer in the first place?  When you get a brown Pilsner, or a not-at-all-bitter IPA, or a smooth "farmhouse" beer, let the brewery know that they're misrepresenting their beers.  This is a tide that can be turned, but won't unless we reward a brewery for calling an American Amber an American Amber and not a Red IPA.  

And lest anyone accuse me of hypocrisy (how does "Beer Simple" oppose general names for beer?), I'd simply note that a synonym of "simple" is "obvious" or "clear."  Overgeneralization is the enemy of clarity.  

Keep it Simple.

JJW 

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).


IPA: The "Dan Brown" of Craft Beer

It's easy fodder for beer writers to run down IPAs.  That's not what this is.  I love IPAs.

Yes, many find them overplayed, like a "song of the summer" by October.  IPAs are everywhere.  Nearly every brewery brews one, even those that swear at their inception that they're not going to brew one just because people want it (and then do anyway).  Yes, even things that aren't IPAs are called IPAs (Brown IPA, Black IPA, Red IPA, Belgian IPA, White IPA) and that's before we even get to IPLs and DIPAs.  

But I still love IPAs because they act as a great post-gateway beer.  Much like a Dan Brown novel, they seem really interesting and complex at first, even if after a while you start to think of them as kind of obvious and not nearly as profound as you thought initially.  

If that's what gets you reading, then by all means, grab yourself a copy of The Da Vinci Code.  If that's what keeps you drinking craft beer, then by all means, order yourself the latest IPA.

And before the IPA-o-philes jump all over me, yes, I know that IPAs aren't easy to make.  I know that they're not all bitter hop bombs and that they can be as complex as any other beer in the market.  I even know that some of the best beers in the world are IPAs.

But that doesn't make me wrong on this.

The Post-Gateway Beer

Much is written in craft beer circles about "gateway beers."  You know, the pale ale, Kolsch, Vienna lager, or some such beer that gets the macro-lager drinker headed down the path towards beer nerd-dom.  They order that first craft beer, and they like what they taste.

But what about their next beer?

It's my argument that one reason for the continuing and growing popularity of IPAs (about 1 in 4 craft beers is an IPA, approaching 1 in 3) is that they are the second (and sometimes final) step for people when they get into craft beer.  They've nibbled around the edges at the more-approachable styles, and then they walk into a beer bar with a dozen IPAs of various varieties on tap.  They order one.  Then another.  Then another.

Why?

Positive Reinforcement Training: It's Not Just for Dogs

People love IPAs because their flavors are usually pretty obvious.  You're going to smell hops.  You're going to taste hops.  You're going to experience bitterness.  In a great many cases, you're also going to get an obvious hit of alcohol.  You expect these things, and when you find them, you give yourself a nice little pat on the back, mentally.  "Yes!," you think, "I, too, have a good beer palate!"  And not only can you identify these flavors for what they are, you have a ready-made vocabulary to discuss them with others.  After all, most IPAs are pitching flavor profiles that fall squarely into the fruity character, and usually a citrus or tropical fruit character, which makes them easy to describe.  "Wow, check out the pineapple notes on that one..."  And even if your companions disagree ("Seems more like grapefruit to me," "I'm getting mango," etc.) you can all agree that there might be lots of different hops in there so you're ALL right!

They even let you criticize them easily.  "Bitterness is a little too harsh."  "I don't know if pine works in this beer."  You get to have those deep beer conversations with little risk of being contradicted.

That's a tougher challenge with, for example, a Munich Dunkel.  Or an Irish Red.  Or a German Altbier.  

And, let's face it, IPAs generally taste pretty good.  Strong fruit flavors are popular, and with the fun new hops hitting the market so regularly, there's an increasing variety of flavors and (thanks to lower-cohumulone hops and all-late-hopping tendencies) softer bittering.  

The Persistence of IPAs

Some of this increase is undoubtedly the result of more people "discovering" craft beer - but that alone wouldn't explain it because they'd also be experimenting with other styles.  Some is also undoubtedly the result of the availability of IPAs in the marketplace - but that alone doesn't explain it because bars tend to stock what sells, and while selection can dictate popularity within a market it wouldn't do so for long unless IPAs sold better than the other options available.  

No, I think that the simple reason is that IPAs give people pleasant and obvious flavors in a way that offers just enough variety (thank you, hop farmers!) to keep them interested.  Just like a Dan Brown novel, they keep you turning the pages, and even if the ending isn't great, you were entertained.  

IPAs get the job done.  They're a relatively safe bet in an increasingly complicated craft beer world.  

And if that's what keeps you buying craft beer, then I love them for it.

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).