Few communities are as supportive and friendly as the craft beer community. There's much back-patting and outward positivity among both brewers and drinkers, making it hard to imagine that our local beer is anything but the best in the world.
But the idealism simply can't match the reality. With so many craft breweries opening in the bay area, each with a portfolio of several different beers, it's an inevitability that many of them will be, well, not that good. The question, then, is whether it's appropriate to criticize another's labor of love; and if so, what makes criticism constructive, rather than purposeless slamming?
I asked Khris Johnson, head brewer at St. Pete's Green Bench Brewing, for his take. When Green Bench opened last year, the public's response was unusually conflicted, with visitors widely praising the brewery itself but expressing some doubt about its beers. Online reviews and word of mouth shared a common theme: the beers were "too hoppy," "not balanced," and even "fell flat." Lately, the reviews have turned decidedly more positive, with visitors praising Johnson's more recent efforts, like his Surrealist IPA and Demens Black IPA.
"I was prepared for our first beers to not be our best," Johnson said. "There were, and there will always be, growing pains. We were very aware that it would take a month, six months or a lot longer before I was consistently brewing our beers as they were meant to be. We have beers now that people can't get enough of, for example, that I know need little changes here and there."
Johnson sees criticism as a vital part of the craft, but it's one that not everyone gets right.
"It is absolutely appropriate for consumers to criticize craft brewers," he said. "The fact is that standards must remain extremely high. People should expect the best and I think they should get it. I don't think that positive or negative criticism is a bad thing. I think that uneducated criticism is.
"A large part of my job is education. I have actually heard criticism of beers made where the consumer literally picks out all of the flavors perfectly and then complains about them, yet those flavors are what makes that style what it is or makes that specific beer unique. I'm paraphrasing, but it went something like this: 'I taste really spicy flavors and some weird oakiness, a little citrus and it's really dry (low number of stars selected, or thumbs down, or whatever indicates bad).' The description was of my Saison de Banc Vert, which is a 100-percent oak fermented farmhouse ale. Because the beer had that character (which I love and intended), the consumer implied that it was a poorly made beer because the beers they've had in the past didn't match up with that one."
Sure enough, an early Yelp review of Green Bench gets right to the point: "Why 3 stars? Because your wheat beer can't be hoppy." Not only does this come as a surprise to brewers of white IPAs and other heavily hopped wheat beers, it also doesn't offer any criticism beyond the fact that the reviewer doesn't like hoppy beers.
To Johnson, this is an opportunity for craft brewers to educate their audience, which will help keep criticism useful.
"My favorite thing about our area right now is that we have three, soon to be four, breweries very close to one another that all do something differently," he said. "We have the perfect area to quickly educate consumers on what beer is, and more importantly, what it can be. I think that's what brewers need to focus on. I would encourage them to remain proactive in educating the consumer on what they're making, how they're making it, and why is it so unique."
We can all be friendly and supportive of each other in the craft beer community, but criticism is necessary to make sure that the beer itself is up to par. As long as consumers offer honest, constructive feedback to brewers who are willing to both listen and educate, then we'll have a much stronger foundation for the continued growth of our local craft-beer scene than we would if everyone just smiled and said, "Yeah, it's pretty good."