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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