Analyze THIS July 12, 2016 10:00
Every now and then, someone hands me a beer - homebrew or professionally made - that makes me truly wonder what might be wrong with the brewer. It doesn’t happen often, but we have all had THAT beer: so astoundingly bad that you question the brewer’s ability to make even the simplest judgment in life. Did he or she really think this is good? Sometimes the root of the problem is easy to identify - skipped the sanitizer, fermented in a joint compound bucket, left the carboy open overnight next to a sewage treatment facility, etc. -, others times… well, you don’t know what to think.
But let’s not be too harsh, too quickly. We have all MADE that beer. I bet even if we just tasted some of our early beers, we would disappoint ourselves. (I’m talking to you, experienced brewers; newbs - just worry about learning the process first, then worry about the other details.) Appreciating beer is a process that takes time, just like anything else worth doing. It takes just as much time and practice as making beer, and hopefully you will find that your knowledge and skill will improve in both departments.
So what exactly am I saying? Your beer sucks? No, because it doesn’t. Can we all improve our beer? Yes. The hard part is that the more you learn, the more you will criticize everyone else’s beer, but probably still give your beer a pass. Personally, I find that beer is in most cases like “The Force Awakens” in that I love it until I start thinking about it too much. As an aside, I choose not to think too much about “TFA” because I can tear it apart and will if people want to read film criticism in a different blog. At least they didn’t put a love story in there. I HATE THAT. EVERY major motion picture has to have a #$**&$#% love story whether it fits the plot or not. SERIOUSLY STOP IT, HOLLYWOOD. Anyway, beer. You should pick apart your own beer before you pick apart anyone else’s.
That sounds simple enough until you factor in your own ego. But don’t take my word for it. I asked a wide array of experienced brewers - homebrewers and professionals - this simple question: how do you criticize your own beer? I received a nearly overwhelming response and have done my best to distill it into a manageable, though heavily annotated, list. So, read what they have to say and then you’ll find my personal advice at the end.
- Be honest with yourself: This is the absolute hardest part but also the most important. Take it personally (your beer is in many ways a reflection of you), but don’t take it personally (allow criticism to roll off your back). We will revisit this idea several times in this list.
- Be your harshest critic! Practice by criticizing your beer before anyone else’s.
- Stay humble. There will always be a better brewer than you. Go out, find them, and try to top their beer.
- Know what you like and dislike. Learn the terminology (“That, you know, ale knock!” is not helpful) and talk to people who deal with beer for a living (including bartenders and employees of specialty beer & wine stores). Read, talk to people, and drink beer. Beware of online forums - use them, but with a discerning eye. Anonymous people on the internet often give bad advice.
- Learn to be honest with friends and other homebrewers, and ask them to be honest - but always constructive - with you.
- Use objective measurements such as ABV, IBU, and color as a starting point. Know the style you are trying to make and what the beer should taste like based on your knowledge of the ingredients. Does your beer look too dark? It probably is. Don’t write it off or look at the glass from every angle until you find one that looks better.
- Use subjective measurements - taste, aroma, etc. - and compare to objective measures as well as intention.
- Research beer!
- Drink many styles. Don’t think you like it? Try it anyway.
- Know the difference between what you like and what is well-made. Don’t like IPAs? Great. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn to appreciate a well-made beer. Maybe you tried a beer that was way past its shelf-life. That will sour anyone on any style.
- Learn off-flavors! You can buy kits to purposefully cause your beer to taste bad. Also, you can just read about these in books like “How to Brew” by John Palmer. You should at least be able to identify the causes and solutions for the major off flavors.
- Learn styles! Styles are great guidelines, though when you know the rules, you are free to stretch, and even break, them. But learn them first. Make a bunch of beers to style before you make a Strong Irish Red IPA with Belgian yeast and the flower from your favorite cactus.
- Study the ingredients. Do small batch SMaSH beers. Make many styles. Think you want a grain bill of 50% 2-row and 50% caramel malts? Probably not.
- Learn the right way to make beer and don’t take shortcuts. The best process is far better than the best equipment. Don’t cheap out on equipment or ingredients; you can get the right equipment without buying the absolute best equipment.
- Clone beers as a way to test knowledge, ability, process. Process can’t be understated.
- Train your palate! Know your olfactory senses and learn to trust them. If you find them to be lacking in significant ways, then learn to compensate for them.
- Be comfortable making mistakes! But LEARN FROM THEM. Does all your beer have a distinct cidery quality? That is not a good thing; fix your fermentation.
- Filter your outside feedback and accept criticism. I have said it here before: all your friends will say they love the free beer you share with them. They will also love any free beer you offer to them. I know I always prefer free beer.
- Identify sources of positive feedback. Is it just the free beer factor?
- Do blind taste tests alone and with your friends. Compare your homebrew, other homebrew, and commercially available beers.
- Have other experienced brewers taste and critique. Not insult. Crapping on each other’s beer gets you nowhere.
- Enter competitions for unbiased feedback. And then pick up your score sheets.
- Listen to others - even the less-experienced. You never know who knows more than you do. You might be talking to an experienced purveyor of fine beers who has just started homebrewing.
- Take other opinions with a grain of salt if they seem consistently negative. Can they explain their opinion? Is it just sensory preference? Does the negative person make beer that you think is bad?
- IT’S REALLY HARD!!! Seriously. This is not an easy thing to develop.
- Wait, wrong list… But definitely sanitize.
- Use the Farmhouse hotline for emotional and technical support! (Seriously, a professional brewer included this in his list.)
Oh, and as for me? I just assume all my beer sucks. Start there and work your way up.
Thanks to Gale (Lubec Brewing), Clay (Marsh Island), and Forrest (Mason’s); plus Wes, Jim, Chris, Brett, Jason, Jared, and Marlon for your thoughtful input!