"Nothin' Wrong With the Good Ol' Missionary Position": An Examination of One Craft Beer Drinker's Motives

So I was talking to my wife about the blog, and we were discussing the rather complex craft beer world we live in today.  So many new breweries.  So many styles of beer.  So many specialty ingredients.  So many methods, tips, tricks, innovations, and permutations.  And then she hit me with this one: "You know - there's nothin' wrong with the good ol' missionary position."  I'm thinking she wasn't (necessarily) talking about our sex life, but rather that it's easy to lose focus on what I suspect drew most of us to craft beer/homebrewing in the first place: the search for beer that we like.  

But then it also occurred to me that a lot of craft beer drinkers (this one included) have, in our deliberations and discussions, overlooked that basic qualifier, at least based on the anecdotal evidence I have at hand.  Like most everything else around here at Beer Simple, I think that we're due for some "back to basics" thinking, especially in the midst of an industry-wide gut check on beer quality, extreme beer, and the proliferation of breweries.  

The Triumph and Tragedy of Attempted Objectivity

If the first comment out of our mouths when we try a new beer isn't something in the vein of "that's pretty good/not great," then we're probably putting the cart ahead of the horse from an evaluation standpoint.  I do this all the time.  The beer shows up, and after five minutes of sniffing and sipping and looking, I start talking about levels of bitterness, whether the oak is adding wood flavor or just tannic structure, if the alcohols are hot or just warm...but I don't always say whether I think it's any good.  Or if I do, I'm qualifying or conditioning it in some way (as in, "this would be great paired with a dessert").  What a jackass.

Some might think that the good/not good dynamic is one that is obvious or goes without saying, but like so many other things it's easy to overlook the obvious once you up your level of experience and/or expertise a bit.  It's a forest/trees thing.  

People often ask me to describe and evaluate beer, and once I get into that mindset, I'm trying to be as objective as possible.  I've discovered that it's now become a habit...no, that's too weak...an addiction that I have a hard time shaking.  Every sensory evaluation turns into an attempt to tie the description to some objective standard, whether it's the BJCP or BA style guidelines, my impression of what one finds in the marketplace, the flavor profile of the prevailing "classic" example of that beer style, or something else.  Why the hell don't I start with whether or not I like it?  The answer is probably that, as a beer judge, I'm constantly trying to minimize the subjective, fuzzy, and artistic qualities of beer evaluation, which is a natural outgrowth of defending the idea of judging beer in the first place.  

Plus - no one ever asks me if I like a beer or not.  But why does that stop me from starting there?  It shouldn't.  In fact, it should probably be the first thing I decide on and mention, if only to provide a preview of and context for what's about to follow.

Fault Hunting

Then there's the way a lot of us approach beer evaluation in the first place: we're looking for something to be wrong.  Now, maybe this is because we expect great things from craft brewers, especially when we're potentially paying over the odds for a special or unique beer.  It might also be because we're test-driving this beer or brewery, and trying to decide whether it goes onto our list of "good" breweries: we're kicking the tires, just like we would on the car lot.  It may even be because someday we're convinced that we're going to find that "perfect" beer (*cough* Rodenbach Grand Cru *cough*), and in case this one might be it, we want to be sure that we've considered all of the variables.  

But it's still probably a bad habit to get into.

Imagine if every time you met someone, you immediately started picking apart every small thing about their appearance, personality, depth, political views, moral ideals, and professional utility.  Wouldn't that make it kind of hard to make friends?  And what would you think of a person who approached people with that mindset?  You'd end up dismissing a lot of people that might turn out to be "worth" their foibles and faults.  As sloppy and inarticulate as it is, maybe the right move is to just ask whether you like their "vibe."  

Next time I open a beer or the bartender finishes pulling my draft, I'm just going to take a big sip, then another, and ask if I like it.  Not if it's perfect or not, or whether the brewery is new or old, big or small, in New England or in Belgium, or if the bittering level is appropriate for an English Mild or more like a Brown Porter - just whether I like it.  Maybe I'll eventually come to the conclusion that it's a little too hoppy/roasty/alcoholic/sour for my taste, but I really think I'm currently doing that too quickly.

Going Public

Then there's the use of the much-maligned online drinker rating sites.  Ask any professional about them, and I'm willing to bet that they're going to go with some variation of "they're awful, inaccurate, and populated by an unacceptable number of idiots/aleholes." 

I get that.  I recently had the joy of seeing a beer based on one of my recipes released by Noble Brewer, and it was fun seeing the reactions of real beer drinkers - but it was also a little frustrating.  Some of these people clearly just weren't getting it.  They were expecting something else.  They were criticizing it for what one might call less-than-learned reasons (my favorite: "Much more like a Cascadian Dark Ale than an American Brown.  Not very hoppy, though."  WHAT?).  You read enough of what you consider off-target reviews, and it's very easy to dismiss the notion of mass-market, user-generated review sites entirely. But you shouldn't - as a brewer, or as a drinker.  

Why not?  Because these sites are measuring a very simple variable: whatever the sophistication of the consumers that are populating them, you're getting a large sample of the reaction of beer drinkers to the very simple question of whether they liked a beer or not.  In fact, knowing my own shortcomings in this area (see the previous section), I think that the reactions of the uncertified, unCiceroned, unwashed beer masses might be a better barometer than my "Expert Reviews" of whether you're going to like a beer or not.  

And you may well say that a lot (even most) of those raters don't know what they're talking about, don't know how what they're drinking differs from the classics, don't have sensitive or trained palates - and you may well be right.  But that doesn't make them wrong.

I suspect a lot of the nonsensical exposition on why a beer isn't higher-rated comes from a lack of communicative ability, not a lack of accuracy.  Unless they're a homebrewer (and frequently even if they are), they're probably not all that clear on how beer is made and what might have made it turn out that way and what the style designation (if there was one) should connote/lead you to expect.  But it doesn't mean they're wrong when they criticize the beer.  The individual who critiqued my American Brown Ale may have given an asinine explanation for why s/he didn't like my beer, but the rating is still an accurate reflection of his/her enjoyment of it.  Let's not be so quick to dismiss the Public as a basic guide to what will probably taste good.

Just Drink It

Ultimately, I think I need to get back to just drinking and enjoying beer.  There's a lot of fun to be had in lining up a great selection of out-there and extreme beers - but there's also a lot of fun in just having a few bottles of a beer you enjoy (something I was reminded of recently when I was cleaning up the last of my annual Christmas case of Sierra Nevada Celebration).  I looked in the beer fridge the other day and saw that I had not a single can or bottle of a "normal" beer.  I had a Belgian IPA, an oak-aged Russian Imperial, two different sours, a Barrel-aged Rye Pumpkin, and a variety of strong ales.  To paraphrase Coleridge, "beer, beer, everywhere, nor any drop to drink."

I'm not disparaging the idea of being a connoisseur.  I'm not knocking the idea of sophisticated or objective evaluation.  I'm definitely not saying just open any old thing and pinch your nose and knock it back.  But I am saying that I need to get out of the habit of treating every beer like it's a sensory panel subject.  I need to just "enjoy" a little more.  I need to relax, not worry, and have a homebrew.  

Because you know what?  There's nothing wrong with the good ol' missionary position.

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).


Your Beer Sucks (Professional Edition)

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...

Thankless Work

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.

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).

 


10 Simple Beer & Brewing Goals for 2016

Happy New Year from Beer: Simple!  To start off this new brewing/beer year, here are some simple things I’m planning on doing in 2016 – and I think you should consider doing the same.  They’re all about getting more out of your beer and brewing life, and shouldn’t take too much of your time, effort, or money (well, except #9, but it’s totally worth it).

But before we get into the list, let’s address a long-standing epidemic that is the shame and bane of the beer world: beer-based puns.  In discussing this post with people, a disturbing number of people jokingly asked what the post title would be.  Among the rejected suggestions were the following: Hoppy New Year, Happy Brew Year, Happy New Beer, Malty Brew Year, Hoppy Brew Beer...

People.  People, people, people.  End the puns.  Never make one again.  Don’t wish me a “hoppy birthday.”  Every time I see that on Facebook it makes me want to punch my dog in the face (but then I look at her, and…well, she's just too damned cute). 

So just stop it.  Now, on to the list!  Things to do this year, Beer and Brewing Edition:

10. Buy a high-quality thermometer – or at least calibrate the one you already have.

I can’t tell you how happy I was to open my new Thermapen MK4 on Christmas morning!  It was the only thing I asked for, and for good reason: temperature is really at the heart of what we’re doing.  It affects mashing, boiling, fermentation, conditioning – even enjoyment when you finally open the bottle or pull the tap handle.  So do yourself a massive favor and get your hands of a good thermometer, or at least calibrate yours so you can make the appropriate adjustment for what it reads – if it’s consistently reading 2-3 degrees high or low, you’ve got an easy fix for a lot of likely issues in your brewery.

9. Make a point of attending either the Great American Beer Festival or National Homebrewers Conference.

Conveniently, this year NHC (June) is in Baltimore and GABF (October) is (as always) in Denver, so one or the other will be (relatively) close to home for nearly everyone.  Both are events that let you taste a LOT of beer, and both also offer myriad ways to expand your beer and brewing knowledge.  I’m a much greater proponent of NHC, but only because I’ve never been to GABF (the only downside to an academic life – no travel in the fall…).  But going to beer events of this size is a wonderful experience – stay hydrated (just drink your cup wash water), eat at every opportunity, and soak in as much as you can!

8. Find a new appreciation for a passé or overlooked beer style – I’m thinking Witbier.

We all have beer styles that we gloss right over on beer menus.  I’m not a huge fan of very many Belgian beers or breweries (some notable examples, though – Allagash and Ommegang are always on my list!), so this year I’m going to focus on a style that may deserve doubling-back on – probably Witbier.  For you, maybe it’s amber lagers.  For others, maybe you’re a hopophobe and it’s time to try out some IPAs again.  But try to avoid brewing or drinking ruts – these beers and styles evolve over time, as does your palate. 

7. Give up beer for Lent, even if you’re not Catholic.

Marcus Aurelius, in Meditations, notes eleven virtues that you should exhibit and which are “wholly within your power” – one of these is self-denial.  Every year, for 40 days, most Catholics you know give up something for their Lenten observance (you can usually tell – they get a little pissy whenever you order beer, chocolate, steak…).  This year, whether you’re Catholic or not, give up beer.  Marcus’ point about self-denial is that it shows that you’re in control of your impulses and desires – you’re not governed by them.  This also gives you the opportunity to spend some time on other beverages you might have neglected: revisit wine, give Scotch a try, delve into meads or ciders – or even “go dry” for 40 days.  It won’t kill you (and, in fact, has impressive health benefits), and your favorite beer will taste that much better come Easter!

6. Write a letter to a brewery that is making your favorite beer and thank them.

When we travel, my wife loves to write thank-you notes to the staff of the hotel or the crew of the cruise ship, while we’re still on it, to let them know that we appreciate their hard work.  She figures that most of what they hear, day-to-day, is complaining (much of it just whining, really) and she wants to change that.  It’s really quite sweet and something I would literally never think to do on my own (she’s a much nicer person than I am).  So this year, I’m going to write (actually write – with paper and pen and all!) a brewery I like, and thank them.  Brewing is hard, hard work, and breweries deserve a lot of credit for doing it, especially when they do it well.

5. Learn one scientific lesson that will improve your brewing.

Brewing is a science.  Just because we learned to do it by accident 5,000 years ago doesn’t mean that it hasn’t grown up!  So, I’m going to hit up one of the biologists, chemists, or physicians in my club and have them teach me the scientific root of a beer process, and then use that to simplify and improve some element of my brewing process.  To paraphrase the book The Martian, I want to science the shit out of something in my brewery.

4. Attend a homebrew club meeting – other than your own!

If you don’t belong to a club, you probably should, because remember – Your Beer Sucks, and they’ll tell you why and how to fix it.  But even if you belong to a club (I do), I think it’s a good idea to go to another one now and again.  For one thing, you’ll meet more homebrewers (fun), and you’ll get new feedback – and new kinds of feedback – on your beer (useful).  It’ll be worth driving an extra 20 minutes or so to get to that club’s meeting.

3. Teach a willing person to homebrew, and brew with them at least three times.

I’m sure a lot of people talk to a homebrewer and decide to brew.  Once.  Then they do it, feel frustrated, and never do it again.  I know this happens because I remember how irritated and frustrated I was brewing in the new house when we moved – I didn’t know where anything was, nothing worked as it usually did, and the beer was a pain in the ass to make (though it turned out well).  If that had been my first go, there’s at least a one in three chance I’d have given up.  The way we tell people to just “get your stuff and brew” is like sending a new skier down that Black Diamond trail called “The Preacher.”  So instead, convince someone to brew, and then brew with the at least three times, preferably on their equipment and at their home/brewery.  Brewing is habit and process more than anything else, and being there to keep them on track for the first few beers will mean a better brewer and one who is more likely to keep at it when you’re not around.  And going back to basics may also remind you of some important things you’ve been letting slide!

2. Stand up for one newbie that is being razzed by an alehole.

Sometimes when we see this shit – new bartender or wait staff being hazed and harassed by a know-it-all (even if he/she doesn’t) alehole – we let it slide.  Even if you don’t confront the alehole, at least have a quiet word with their intended target, and let them know that we’re not all like that, and that (especially if they’re new to the craft beer world) it’s pretty easy to get up to speed.  You might even recommend them to the Certified Beer Server course over at the Cicerone Program – in short, be constructive.  They’ll probably throw you a free beer for it, so do it even if you’re a curmudgeonly, introverted, misanthropic elitist like me.

1. Contribute in a meaningful way to the brewing world – however you can.

And finally, try to find a way to pitch in to our (still quite little) community.  This doesn’t have to be big.  No one’s asking you to organize a 5K.  Or even run in one.  Or even walk in one.  OK, basically, no running unless you’re into that – why do we as a society feel better when we force unwilling people to pay money to run approximately three miles for a cause?  But I digress.  Just try to give something back.  The reason I got so into beer and brewing was that I was so impressed and touched by so many people in the brewing community, and I feel like every year should include a resolution to give back, however and wherever you can.  I think there’s a 5K that is sponsored by a local brewpub that I’ll run in – wait, an 8K???  Well, alright…

Have a wonderful year everyone, and thank you for following Beer: Simple into it.  I’m also resolving to do my best to keep providing what I hope is high-quality writing on relevant beer topics, but if you feel I’m not quite up to the mark, please let me know in the comments or by e-mailing me at [email protected]

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).