Criticism: Generally Good, Personally Painful

Illustration: "Criticism". (Mouth spouting critical jargon.)

The debate about whether bad reviews help or hinder never goes away.

Broadly speaking there are two points of view:

1. Publicly criticising breweries is unhelpful. It plays into the hands of the bad guys by harming struggling independent breweries in particular. And, anyway, it’s more fun to concentrate on writing about things you like — do these miseries who moan constantly actually even like beer?

2. Only writing positively about breweries is unhelpful. It plays into the hands of the bad guys by depressing expectations of the quality of beer from small, independent breweries in particular. And anyway, cheery-beery Everything is Awesome writing is boring — how can you trust someone who apparently never encounters a bad beer?

We linked to posts broadly aligned to each of those arguments in Saturday’s news round up but there are plenty of others. Here’s Jenn at Under the Influence, for example, arguing in favour of emphasising the positive.

We think that the tension comes from the difference between the general and the specific. Brewer X might agree in the abstract that honesty is the best policy, and that consumers ought to be demanding, perhaps on the assumption (subconscious or otherwise) that such a culture will favour their lovingly-made beer over lesser products. By all means, expose those charlatans!

But when Blogger Y states bluntly that, actually, Brewer X’s beer isn’t much good, it’s hard for Brewer X not to respond by kicking the wastebasket. Don’t they know how hard we work? Don’t they know how tough the market is?

If there’s a downside to negative beer reviews beyond that unpleasant thump to the chest for the brewer it’s that they might contribute to some hive-mindery, leading people to mindlessly dismiss a beer they would otherwise have enjoyed. But we think that influence is actually more likely to go the other way, generating positive responses to beers that aren’t really that amazing.

Meanwhile, at their best, what bad reviews can offer is a kick up the bum. We’re certain that, even if they play it cool, there are some breweries out there whose response to a run of criticism has been to review their approach and up their game.

Bad reviews also increase the value of good reviews: if everything is great, then nothing is great.

On balance, we think people should review beer in whichever way they feel comfortable — there are audiences for both approaches after all. We’re going to keep being as honest as we can, which means being disappointed more often than not, but we won’t judge anyone else for doing otherwise.

What really matters, and what really is good for the industry, is the idea that beer is worth thinking, talking and writing about, whether negatively or positively.

16 thoughts on “Criticism: Generally Good, Personally Painful”

  1. Personally, I think reviewers who refuse to ever be critical severely damage their own credibility, and in so doing indirectly damage those they write about. That doesn’t mean I think people should have carte blanche to savage brewers without justification, but frankly I think it’s rather immoral to be less than honest in a review.

  2. Because I mainly write for my own pleasure and not for any good of “the industry” I rarely bother with reviewing poor beer as I write about what interests me. The kicking of the arse is better aimed at the non-brewing end – the pompous marketing, the open avarice of the gaping maw which has been at the heart of beer ever since ale and coin were connected. Also, like booing at a sports team or “hating” a certain boy band, it’s part of the deal. Pop entertainment’s diversion includes the right to complain.

  3. Are you an honest broker? This is basically my central question. Like Alan, I don’t bother commenting on many poor breweries, the newly-born and small fry. There are just too many breweries, so when I turn my attention to a brewery, it’s a selective process.

    But I likewise can’t ignore the bad behavior, failure, or bad beer of major breweries, either. Readers begin to learn to trust or mistrust writers by seeing how they handle any subjective judgment. Are they propagandists, unable to acknowledge any fault? Are they so sour they can never admit the positive? Do they use subtle tricks to convince?

    As writers, the best thing we can do is show our work. Not just, this [beer, brewery, act] sucks/rocks, but: here’s everything I know about the subject at hand; based on this, here are my views. Showing your work gives your reader the ammo to fire back at you. If you are confident in your views, that’s great. It makes for better criticism, productive communication, and fruitful exchanges.

  4. I think it’s generally good for people to post negative reactions as well as positive so long as they don’t make too big a song-and-dance about it. You folks do this fairly well, as does the Beer Nut – “tried this, here are our impressions, overall we weren’t convinced, on to the next thing”. As a drinker, I’m hardly going to skip a brewery entirely on the basis of a writeup like that, and I’d hope that the brewer would be able to take it on the chin, but it’s another data point for both of us.

    I get a lot more leery when people go more full-on – the beer’s flawed and objectively awful, the brewers must be incompetent or dishonest or both, all the people who claim to like this stuff must either be lying or have duff palates. Partly because, y’know, personal insults aren’t cool, but mostly because it looks a lot like they’re indulging a prejudice rather than actually responding honestly to the beer, which makes their opinion a lot less interesting.

    1. The word that you’ve used there is “opinion”, and that is what you are expressing. There is a difference between outright criticism, and saying that it was not to your personal taste. There is also the consideration that a disappointing ale in a pub might be down to poor cellarmanship. Hence, before criticising a draught ale, it is probably necessary to try it in more than one outlet.

      1. ‘The word that you’ve used there is “opinion”, and that is what you are expressing. There is a difference between outright criticism, and saying that it was not to your personal taste.’

        Basically yes, although I wouldn’t insist that people qualify everything with “for my taste” and “in my opinion” and so on – I’m happy to take that as read if it’d be in keeping with the general tone.

  5. I can’t believe this bollocks’s still being discussed, and I find it even harder to believe that there are still brewers who refuse to accept the rules of the game.

    Paying for a product (in this case, a beer) also gives me the right to express my honest opinion in any way, with any words and through any channels I see fit. If I’ve paid for a beer that turned out to be shit, I don’t see any reason why I should refrain from saying in my blog, FB page, Twitter, etc. that the beer is shit. As long as I don’t get personal (one thing is saying “this beer is shit”, and another “this beer is shit and the brewer is an idiot”), and the opinion remains honest, everything is fair game.
    We, consumer (and writers, and bloggers) don’t owe anything to the industry.

    In any case, the solution is simple: don’t make shit beer.

    1. Agree, but.

      Opinions are worthless on their own. “This beer’s shit” is a comment that readers (of blogs, ratings sites, or social media) will immediately tune out. If the beer IS shit, a writer can make the point effectively by saying *why.*

      You show your work, Max, but not everyone does.

      1. “This beer is shit” is still a legitimate opinion. For the reader, it might be of very little use (and the same could be said about “this beer is awesome”), but the person uttering the opinion may have just wanted to get that off their chest. And I’m cool with that.

        1. Speaking as an anon representative of a brewery (albeit an overseas one), it really hurts when someone goes straight to a social media outlet to slag off a beer without letting us know the issue; because more often than not, it’s well past BB stock being flogged by a distributor or retailer without our knowledge. And very few people read down in the comments where we get in touch and ask for the BB from the package, or the outlet it was bought at to do the *right thing* i.e. track the batch and see what the issue is.

          It may be your right to do so, but it doesn’t make it right to do so.

          1. I’m not saying it’s nice, nobody likes to see their work slagged, or even useful toanyone, but that it is legitimate. When you’re putting a product out for sale, you’re exposing to criticism, which may even be unfair or dishonest (because people are cunts), but it’s part of the rules of the game and you either learn to live with that, or find another line of work.

            But how much of a problem (other than hurt feelings) can that be? I am yet to hear of a brewery shutting down due to a “this beer is shit” comment or review every now and again. So, if you make a consistently good product that receives mostly positive reviews.

          2. Well, I can think of two breweries in my region which did go under for bad reviews but they were well earned by the two houses of microbiological mayhem. Infected gak. But on the point about distribution, doesn’t the brewery owe it to both their brand and their customers to not let the beer get so far way from their control that it its earning the bad review? If so, isn’t that bad reviewed earned as well?

  6. I guess I like either useful or interesting writing. “we tried a 100 beers 80 of them were reasonable examples of their style here is a full description of each” isn’t interesting “here are the ten of them that were awesome” is interesting and potentially useful. I’d love to keep it positive but the ten worst list I’d probably also read. In general I guess bad beer isn’t news, well hyped or nationally distributed bad beer (especially if it’s trying to sell as a super premium product) is. A new “craft” range from greenking I want a review, and I’m not expecting positive, a new nano with no hype produces mediocre beer im nodding off even thinking of such an article. The other approach that I’d find interesting is the beer review meets travel writing approach where really its the quality of writing that matters more than quality of beer but within that style I’d expect negative comments about small brewers that in other contexts I’d expect a writer to politely ignore.

    1. Hmmm. I’m looking to be educated by the content, and if I’m entertained by the style of writing that’s a bonus; so those 80 beers that are good examples of a style are more important to me than the outliers, good or bad – although I want to know about them, too.

  7. I’m quite new to beer and beer blogging but I have a long history with whisky and the online commentary it generates. The same issues crop up there, too.
    I had a concerning encounter with one beer that had a foreign body in it. Instead of spouting off on social media, though, I went to the brewery concerned. They explained what the matter was (cellulose and glucose deposits due to the re-fermentation which had been induced in-bottle) and you know what, for my complaint over one bottle they gave me a case of Imperial stout. I call that a good outcome for drinker and brewer – that and I didn’t expose my ignorance to the Twittersphere.
    To pay any sort of attention to a ‘this beer is shit’ review I need to know a) what does the reviewer actually know about beer and/or b) what are their tastes generally. Opinion or criticism, I need context. Social media generates a lot of heat but so seldom any light.

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