02 May 2012

Commentary/Conversation: Ruminations of the Potable Curmudgeon

For a very long time, some of the best Hoosier Beer Geek content never made its way to the public. We regularly have very lengthy email conversations about any number of topics going on in the world of beer. Here is one such example.

Did anybody read (New Albanian Publican) Roger Baylor's latest musings?

I just did. We're in that same boat. We all know there's bad beer being served, and we're saying nothing.

This isn't a new problem. This is a problem that has been there as long as I've been drinking craft beer - which, admittedly, is only a fraction of the time Roger has been drinking craft beer. I cannot name a single brewery that I've never tasted a flawed beer from. And I mean a "the recipe is off and/or the end product has an issue" flaw, not "I don't like this beer" which happens sometimes too. I'm serious about this. If I've had a decent sampling of the brewery's catalog, I've had at least one beer that I can tell they shipped because they can't afford to dump it.

Much like Roger, I don't choose to write about it. Honestly it's because I don't think it does anyone any good. I certainly won't encourage you to drink that beer, but I'm also not going to rain on your parade and tell you why it's bad if you actually like it. If you approach me and point out that the beer is bad, sure, I'll offer constructive input and commiserate with you. Where it gets difficult is that I truly believe no one is intentionally brewing bad beer. Everyone is creating a product that they're proud of. Maybe you can't afford a Quality Control team. Maybe you can't afford to flush 10 barrels of beer. Maybe by the time you've attempted to save the beer through additional hops and malt you've just created a beer 3x more expensive that you can't afford to dump even more than you couldn't afford to dump the original product. Brewers know that serving bad product results in consumers having a bad opinion of your product and therefore not buying it in the future.

So why waive the red flag and say "Brewery X is selling you bad beer"? Unless you have some sort of personal vendetta against Brewery X, why would you want them to fail? Wouldn't it be more constructive to talk to a brewer with Brewery X and let them know your findings? And even if you do, remember that you're talking about their baby. Just as you probably wouldn't walk up to someone and tell them that their baby looks messed up, you shouldn't walk up to a brewer and tell them that their beer tastes messed up. It's a delicate matter and it needs to be addressed as such. And posting on the internet that Brewery X's baby looks messed up isn't going to fix Brewery X's baby.

I think I see two axes to Roger's post.

When we started writing this blog, we didn't know any brewers or industry people, and we reviewed from strictly the standpoint of "Do I like this beer?", and some beers got less favorable reviews. If folks have been paying attention, they can probably see that it's been a very long time since we torched a beer, and that it only happens in cases where the beer is undeniably bad.

Instead, like Roger, we're guilty of self-censorship, or maybe even sins of omission. But it depends on your definition of omit. If your definition is as straight forward as to leave out, then we're all guilty. If your definition has more to do with something left out, not done, or neglected - have we neglected to insult someone's baby? Is that really a sin?

But at what point do you look at that baby and finally say to the parent, "You know, you should probably have had that rash looked at months ago"?

On the other hand Roger writes "I find myself dreading those occasions when I must stand up in front of people and preach the gospel of craft beer. Why am I being bothered?"

You might think he got there by not believing in the gospel anymore. But I think "Why am I being bothered?" points somewhere else. It's like when we started the website - we were out there waving a flag as hard as we could. And then one day we looked down and realized that someone built a castle under us.

"A castle! They've built us a castle!"

And then we take a tour of the castle and realize that it's not the way we would have built it. Maybe we'll skip a few rooms when we're giving the tour. And the castle has multiple flagpoles already, so why bother climbing a turret to wave ours? And come to think of it, how much of this castle is really ours anyway?

Maybe it's better to just go home and plant your flag there?

Does it do anyone any good to call someone out for making bad beer? What are the repercussions of a place making bad beer? A place can hide behind the moniker of "support local" for only so long, but ultimately it is about the beer in the long run.

I certainly don't want to put words in Roger's mouth, but his musings to me represent something I've been thinking about for quite some time. Craft beer really isn't all that much fun for me anymore. I really want it to come back around, but it just hasn't. The more I put myself on the fringe and then come back into the fold the more that things piss me off. I've only been in the craft beer scene for about 10 years, and so many people have been drinking and making beer for decades longer than me, but I feel we (an entire craft beer collective) are ruining the chance to truly create an amazing beer culture right now. I was one of the worst offenders. I let a brewery get bigger than beer, and I let it stay that way for a very long time, but I've come to the point where I resent much of the beer culture we are building. Places tried to run with the Us vs. Them mentality for so long, but now that we have nearly 2000 breweries online it has become an Us vs. Us issue. I'm a firm believer in a rising tide lifts as ships, and protectionism is a proven way to kill your brand, your market share, and your product. I'm bothered by things like tap takeovers, breweries twitter feeds, RateBeer, BeerAdvocate, Ebay and the constant flow of marketing B.S. that flows from places. So many breweries and craft beer fans rip on BMC's marketing practices, but I don't see much difference than what they are doing than many craft breweries are doing. I don't fault anyone for making a buck and trying to grow their business, but ultimately it must come down to making great beer. That means not pushing shitty beer to the market in the first place. I understand the economics behind that doesn't make sense, but if a new consumer to your brand is behind that sip the economic damage over the life of that consumer is much more painful than dumping a batch of beer. It means not adding ingredients to a terrible batch of beer and then try and pull the wool over your consumers heads by claiming you brewed a new beer. Consumers are more intelligent than that.

I look at a place like Three Floyds. They don't have a marketing budget, and they knock it out of the park on just about every single beer they make. They have built a reputation with me that would take something quite awful to sway. But if they did stop making great beer I wouldn't support them anymore (That had better not happen, but I'm just using that as an example). I've had way too much bad beer in this town from places pushing beer to market. Does that hurt craft brewing or help it? When the numbers come out people all like to point out that craft beer is growing, but they neglect to point out that overall beer consumption is down. What does that mean? BMC people are coming over to craft, but are new drinkers coming into the fold? The numbers for the faux alcho-pops would say no. Is craft still rising, but just setting the stage for its collapse? I don't know, but I do know what we are building as a culture is not the reason I got into great beer. I do indeed lament the days of people just bonding over some great beer. It isn't enough now to just be drinking a beer, but now it matters who you are drinking.

Perhaps I've just got sand in my cheeks lately, but I do know I resent the culture I was part of building. I just want to get back to drinking good beer with my friends. I plan to do just that.


  1. I fully understand the points your making here. I am only 3 years into craft beer drinking so it is still all very new to me. I also hope that this experience doesn't end the same way it did for me with cigars. I was heaving into cigars for years, loved everything about them. Then I got a job at a cigar store and that all ended. Day after day, working and or being around the industry you love so much slowly destroys what it once was for you. I haven't found a good way to middle ground it either. I still can't force myself to be passionate about the culture/industry I was so involved in. I just hope I can keep this one from doing the same.


  2. Loved the exchange between all of you. A theme I picked up here, and in Roger's post, is about 'craft beer' generally. I have a lot of thoughts on the subject - not least of which is my dislike of 'craft beer' as a phrase and ideology - but I won't bore the fine readers of this blog. Frankly, talking about 'craft beer' itself is boring. To Matt's point, I much prefer enjoying great beer with friends and strangers alike. Beer is part of the thing, not *the* thing.

  3. I totally agree with Matt. For me it came to a head while volunteering at this year's BIG Winterfest. After a guy walked by me that looked like a cross between Von Kaiser (Mike Tyson's Punch-Out) and a steam punk character from Gen Con, I looked at my best friend and said "F&$*, the hipsters found us." Craft beer has become the "in" thing for a certain pretentious demographic and they have soured it for the rest of us.

  4. We bore the fine readers of this blog all the time!

  5. Nobody needs to openly bash any particular brewers or their beer. When I am asked what I think about another brewers beer by that brewer, I ask them if they want my honest opinion. If they do, and there is a problem with it, then I'll tell them that is the case. But then I also try to help them solve whatever the problem may be. It probably goes back to working at Great Fermentations for 10 years. If we all try to help fix the bad beer, then that means better beer for all of us.

  6. I don't think we can blame hipsters for this.

    We can blame ourselves as much as anything. Everybody is the new guy at some point, and there's nothing wrong with being the new guy! Hell, I hope this site is a valuable resource for the new guy. We don't own this "thing" any more than anyone else.

    And don't we want better beer to be popular anyway? It leads to more better beer.

    If anything, I'm mourning that fact that we can't keep up with it all anymore. And that I'm not sure that I need to.

  7. WTF? Are you guys serious or is it April Fools Day...wait that was a month ago! I generally disagree with the philosophical musings, other than the part about sending out shitty beer because it's too expensive to dump. The real question I keyed into is this: Do brewers actually accidentally produce swill and then sell it, despite knowing that it's not their best product? I'm sure it happens, but my guess is that they're not proud of it. Is this wrong or just a nuance of the business model?

    Do I like dumping bad beer? Hell no. Have I drank beer that I should've dumped...well, probably (as much as I could stomach anyway). Have I served beer to friends that I didn't particulalry think was as good as it could be? Yes. Do I feel bad about it? Hell no (sometimes, one man's shitty belgian is another woman's favorite beer ;) Bottom line about it is that was one night, one batch, one time...No one aspires to this, for we collectively WOULD be backing away from the excellent craft beer renaissance of which we're a part.

    Whoever thinks they can create perfection 100% of the time, especially with some of the start-ups lacking legitimate institutional experience, is just setting themselves up for a surprise. It happens. The important part is learning something from it and growing stronger.

  8. Interesting read guys. I'm not normally one to post on things like this but you all got my brain going. As a "craft beer" noob, just getting into things over the last 2 years I do look at "experts" on line and at the liquor store as well as rating sites at times to see if the beer I saw at the liquor store is worth my money. I would say that obviously you take other people's ratings/tastings with a grain of salt as not everyone likes the same stuff. However, if you see where enough people are saying bad things about a beer, I'm going to be much less likely to spend my hard earned money on it. Thus, I hope that people that are putting their thoughts out publicly would be doing so in an honest way. There's no need to bash the beer or the brewery, but even a simple "not for me" "too sour" "too boozy" or whatever would work. Hell, even saying we tried beer X and not then saying anything would speak volumes.

    I also feel that keeping a level of honesty and not censoring your opinions could help newer breweries to some extent. If they are just getting into brewing new styles and something is just not "right" with it, an "expert" taster's opinion and constructive criticism could help push them in the right direction. Ulimately for them, poor sales would tell them the most, but a few tips/hints along the way would help them make a product that more people are likely to enjoy.

    Another fear I have is that if bloggers always said great things about a brewery or a beer, it would set up a false sense of awesomeness and hype. This could then falsely up that breweries sales, creating the crazy supply/demand hype that I don't think anyone into craft beers enjoys.

    I'm sure it's tough for you guys to walk the line of not pissing off brewers and being true to your readers but I'd say that tactful honesty should be the key. Like you said, you should treat blogging just like drinking a beer with your friends. Just cyber friends sharing really good beers and warning each other of not great beers.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. I'm impressed and flattered to have inspired this level of discourse. Really. I'm not just doing soft shoe in saying that. Maybe I'm just having a beer-life crisis.

  11. At the end of the day I just try to remind myself its beer. Yes being on the other side of the jockey boy and on the first tier of distribution has changed my perspective dramatically over the last couple of years, but I still love beer.
    I think what Mike wrote about the castle not turning out the way you want it was great, the decision now is to live in the castle because its comfortable and safe and stable, or build a new one that is exactly what you want.

    Either way, I value what you guys do, and appreciate it a lot. I think like Darren said, publicly trashing something isn't a good idea, 99% of the people drinking a beer won't pick up astrigency from sparge issues, or diacytle, but if you do, discussing them with the brewer can't hurt, but as stated above, it takes tact as our beers are like our babies. Just remember that to most people these things won't even be noticed. Almost everyone I have met is in this industry to make great beer and is always looking to improve their products, but many of those same people can be very touchy and have to be handled with kid gloves as not to harm any egos. But remember, its just beer....

  12. I think once you lose the ability to call a spade a spade, you lose a lot of credibility. Sure, you don't want to hurt people's feelings or businesses, and you may have personal relationships with them, but doesn't that make criticism even more important? Any friend that can't handle me calling them an idiot when they deserve it won't be around me for long. And if I know my friend is putting a bad product out to a wider audience, it's really my duty to tell them before they lose face. I stopped writing reviews a long time ago because I don't feel I add anything interesting to the millions of other reviews, but I've taken my complaints directly to brewers in the past. Luckily, I don't feel like I need to say something often.

    But if we want to talk about "losing our religion", I'm on board. I still think the greatest part of the problem is the focus on rare. Waiting lists and secret back room supplies of beer are fucking lame. I shouldn't have to know the secret handshake to get the latest Founders offering. Of course retailers have gotten this way due to assholes hoarding beer instead of being decent human beings and saying "I know the demand on this is crazy, so I'm going to take one and leave plenty for others." Any thing we can do to get these jerks to move on to Vodka or Rum, let's do it now. Keep them away from the Bourbon though, that's already just as stupid.

  13. Maybe he should focus on his own beers. Some bottles of Hoptimus and Bonfire of the Valkyries are infected. Either gushing or exploding on the shelves.

  14. I must be naive - I always think that the bad beers are a result of a bad recipe (or lack of recipe formulation testing) rather than a process failure. I mean, if I can brew batch after batch IN A DIRTY GARAGE WITH A PROPANE BURNER and rarely if ever have any problems with sanitation or fermentation gone awry, I just assume anyone who calls themselves a professional brewer with "real" equipment can do it better. I do, however, question how there are so many beers being produced in Indiana that simply do not taste good. How is it possible that someone has an investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars and they produce beers that range from dull/mundane to downright yucky? Who is telling them that this beer is good? I usually just leave some "constructive criticism" on Yelp. It's sad that you can go buy "Brewing Classic Styles" and make beer that's better than most of the beer being sold in the local market. It's not rocket science, it's just beer, it's hundreds of years old. It's not that hard to make a great beer and put your own unique spin on it. It's much harder to get the business side of it right.

  15. This is the first I've heard of exploding bottles. And is that an infection problem, anyway? That would be overcarbonation, wouldn't it?

    1. It's a problem with there bottling machine. Cavalier knows all about it.

  16. I have been drinking craft beer for a few years. I would consider myself a newb next to any of you. My knowledge of the Hoosier beer scene is one taken in from that of any average Joe. I do not know the brewers, the owners, or the power players. That being said, while I appreciate the honesty of your posts, I don't get it. Why does this have to be a movement? If you are fed up with the scene, then move away from it. Go back to just enjoying a nice beer with friends. Beer doesn't have to be anything more than that.

  17. I really enjoyed reading this conversation as well as all of the previous comments, and it seems that one of the overarching themes is regarding the feedback loop with beer and what purpose it may serve.

    If you think a beer is truly bad, is it constructive to relay that thought to the brewers? How should that be communicated? Reviews? Direct communication? Will that be productive (basically, will anything be done with it)? Essentially, is it possible to give feedback to breweries other than simply sales figures/economic indicators?

    1. I love honest and constructive feedback. Stop by our tasting room and let us know what you think.

      If you would like an example of how not to give feedback to a brewer see the post accusing NABC of having "infected bottles" and then go on to state its an issue with carbonation due to the bottling machine, this just makes you look like an ass. Get your facts straight before making any sort of accusations.

      If you're going to give feedback make sure that it is objective and not subjective or speculation.

      Flat 12

    2. Actually it was part of there bottling machine was not clean. Over carbonation is not the only reason for a bottle to explode. http://www.homebrewtalk.com/wiki/index.php/Can_beer_bottles_explode%3F

  18. "Maybe he should focus on his own beers."

    Obviously, Internet comments do not always reflect intended subtlety and intonation. Choosing my words with more care: I'm refraining from interpreting this comment as snarky, as though suggesting that my focus somehow does not fall on my own beers.

    Rest assured it does. Thank you for bringing this problem to our attention, although we've already spent quite a lot of time investigating what appears to be an infuriatingly random issue, sparing neither brewing process nor bottling technique, and neither bottling machine nor the bottles themselves.

    As noted, albeit belatedly, there are reasons apart from infection and carbonation that can prompt this unwelcome phenomenon. Happily, we have been able to rule out Al Qaeda as the source.