We have all been there. You recognize it before it reaches the table. Of the three different IPAs headed for your group you realize the one without a head is yours. The server drops them off and you figure, maybe it’s just a bad pour.
It’s your first time in a new place and you want to give every beer the benefit of the doubt. Time to pull out the old mental checklist, which you usually find varies according to environment, sobriety, level of envy, strength of friendship, and a host of many other unconscious and conscious factors.
A fair judge recognizes their inherent bias, institutional and otherwise.
Appearance (I). No bubbles on the sides of the glasses, no lipstick on the rim. The washing regimen seems to check out. The crystalline vessel of service was pulled out of the refrigerator, not the freezer. No sulfidic chunks of ice or massive nucleation sites.
No time for a laboratory-grade sensory evaluation. Not the time nor place. You still have a cigarette in one hand and burps that taste like spicy shrimp paste. Just keep adjusting for bias. Clink.
Aroma. After a brief glance and a toast, time for that first whiff. A slight citrus note, and then the vaguely floral, faintly rancid scent of popcorn butter. Damn. 2,3-butanedione, AKA Diacetyl. Hateful nemesis of blessed Ninkasi, bringer of fermented goodness.
Oh well, down the hatch.
Upwards of 25% of all people have some form of genetic blindness to diacetyl. Some sweet souls are incapable of detecting even massive doses of it. Presumably this is entirely the fault of the English, as many of their national beer styles allow for presence of these evil Vicinal DiKetones (or VDKs).
Moderate personal bias.
Flavor. The first gulp is cold and bubbly. A trace of that grapefruit and pine that you were hoping for, but only in the background. While a trace of VDKs in an Old Ale or Barleywine might barely be noticed, it is much more difficult to conceal in a modern IPA. Butterscotch and zesty Pacific Northwest do not blend well.
Appearance (II). With the first toast over, it is time for a more thorough inspection. Despite the lack of foam stand, there are no other visual defects or apparent process errors. No streams of carbon dioxide, no chunks, no floaty bits, color is precisely within stated SRM according to the BJCP. At least the best you can tell in the melodically blinking neon glow of a dimly lit bar.
Total for this section is 2.5 out of 5 points. Time to swallow.
Mouthfeel. A quick swish around the palate. The carbonation is right. The body is strangely heavy though. The finish that should be crisp and inviting is flabby. A lingering slickness coats the back of your throat as the final drops vanish. Initial analysis confirmed.
Less than a minute after the server leaves, you spot the brewer making a beeline for your table, giant grin plastered ear-to-ear. Panic. Time for a quick secondary analysis. You quaff another sample, hoping the gods of Alchemy magically reabsorb the errant VDKs and beer is now transcendent. No such luck.
Time for one of the hardest talks that you can have with a brewer, or not - you can always pretend that the beer is fine, it can be easy to write off your experience given your condition. Maybe the brewer is having a rough time and does not need the criticism. Should you proceed? Read the room, and do so as constructively as possible.
There are many approaches that you can take to breach the subject during the course of salutations and initial pleasantries. The more direct route would involve upending the offending liquid atop said brewer, then call his mother a hamster and tell him his beer reeks of popcorn butter and possibly elderberry.
Not your style?
A more gentle route would would meander along the lines of pulling the brewery representative aside for some one-on-one time. Public accusations are best avoided. Particularly, if you expect someone to be receptive to your product critique or general existence.
Once alone, it is time for some physical contact. Depending on your relationship and level of comfort this can range from a handshake or shoulder clasp, to a mild embrace. Eye contact should be deep and meaningful as you utter the fateful words that could alter every future interaction you have with this person. Time to turn that smile upside down.
“Hey buddy, I think you may have an issue with one of your lines…”
By this point, the beer will be warmer. If diacetyl is present, it will become more expressive as the temperature increases. Time to ask the brewer to try it. Chances are that they will either notice immediately and looked concerned or continue smiling and give you a thumbs up.
Assuming the latter case, ask some questions and get quiet confirmation of the off-flavor from any trusted palates nearby. What temperature do you get to at the end of fermentation? Making any additions post-fermentation? Do you perform forced Diacetyl test each product prior to cold crashing?
Diacetyl is commonly caused by inadequate fermentation and/or poor hygiene, but do not assume that you know the cause without some investigation. It can occur in the fermenter or the draught line. If possible, get a tour of the facility, or at least talk through some key process points. For a quick assessment it is best to know beer age, time on tap, line cleaning regimen, if there is more than one affected product, general hygiene, and cold-side process.
If their guard goes up, then back down.
The main point of telling someone about a problem is to remove any defective products from service and prevent their reoccurrence. It is what a quality program is for. You may get lucky and identify the root cause and help dispose of the tainted product. You could also be met with flat rejections and bodily threats. Regardless, you have faithfully executed your honor-bound duty.
Should you ever try one of my beers, please tell me what you think. Be honest. I am more interested in getting criticism than praise. Criticism is actionable. Sometimes it can hurt to say something. However, doing nothing ensures the continuation of subpar product offerings.
Widespread product quality issues will kill a tiny industry that is supposed to pride itself on craftsmanship. A craft beverage is something sculpted by a trained initiate of the alchemical arts. Just because something is made small batch and by hand, does not make it craft. A craft product pays respect to its medium.
Off-flavors are disrespectful.
If craft beverages are going to thrive in Asia, it will be through the education of new consumers AND producers. Stow the ego and try to make the best product that you can. Ask for help when you need it and offer it back when possible.
As an industry professional, I do not expect anyone’s first attempt to be mind-blowing. My first beer was not, neither was my fifth, and so on. The most important thing, both for my liquids and those of others, is seeing improvement over time.
You will never be the master of any trade without continuous practice.
Most importantly, if someone tells you that your beer is off, thank them for saying something. It takes courage to tell someone the truth, especially when the recipient does not want to hear it. It reminds me of a story.
I once asked a conference presenter why he was such a, let us say, “bass pole”. I will never forget his reply, or at least a vague approximation thereof.
“I am a basspole because I care. If I was not concerned for my industry or its success, I would just act like a nice guy and compliment everyone. You make people better by challenging them. In forcing people to confront uncomfortable truths and push them outside of their comfort zone, you enable them to grow. Sometimes they get mad and that is what makes me a basspole.”
Whatever happens, remember to keep the discourse constructive, even if it is not going to be 100% positive.
Dave Byrn is the Managing Director of Crafted Beverage Consulting with extensive brewing experience in the USA and Asia. Based out of Vietnam, when not helping clients fulfil their brewing dreams he is a contributor to SEA Brew