So far I’ve done two public tastings of Modern Times prototype beers. Both have been exceedingly helpful because they’ve shined the unforgiving glare of public opinion on an otherwise insular process.
When a stranger takes their first sip of a beer at a tasting, they can’t hide their reaction behind a computer screen. That is what has made the tastings so useful, if a bit anxiety inducing. Even though the whole purpose of the tastings is to receive constructive criticism, I can’t help but want people to like the beer. I like the beer, so I want them to like it too.
But that they sometimes don’t is precisely what makes the tastings worth doing. Too often, breweries launch with beers that have received nothing but praise at family barbeques. While that’s substantially less stressful than having a beer geek point out every flaw in your beer to a table full of people you desperately want to like your brewery, it also tends to warp your perception.
It’s a trap to listen only to praise, especially your own. I know I’m inclined to go easy on my own beers. Flaws mean more work, and more work means more time and money spent on something I’d prefer was just fine as it is.
I also don’t put much stock in the opinions of friends and family. They want me to succeed, but the judgment that really matters is from people who don’t care if I fail. It’s much easier to criticize something you’re not emotionally invested in, so the blunt criticism I’ve sometimes received at the tastings—while wince inducing—is also far truer than anything I’d get from my allies.
It’s important to note, though, that the tastings are not focus groups. Part of the task of sorting through feedback is separating the constructive criticism from the preference bias. Simply put: some people won’t like our style, and they don’t have to. I’m not going to change our approach to suit a wider audience, but I will listen closely to the criticism of people who support our direction.
Which is why I’m going to continue putting together the tastings after we launch. Since every beer we brew will be a pilot batch first, we’ll have the opportunity to get feedback on our evolving brewing projects while giving a select group a preview of what’s coming up. My hope is that we can assemble a core group of tasters who can help us hone our recipes, who grasp what makes a beer a Modern Times beer and can help us move it in that direction.
But you can’t sharpen a knife without friction, which is why I look forward many years of listening to people criticize our beer.