Why We Do Tastings

On Oct 24, 2012 - 0 Comments - Ideology

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.

Open Source Brewing

On Oct 8, 2012 - 11 Comments - Ideology

In my last post, I mentioned that we’re going to be completely open with our recipes. To that end, I provided links to all of the posts on Mike’s blog detailing what we’ve done so far, and I also mentioned that we’re going to put a bounty on crowdsourced improvements to our recipes. This is what I call “open source brewing”, and I’m going to flesh it out a bit right here and now.

Here’s the Wikipedia (itself something of an open source project) definition of ‘open source’: “In production and development, open source is a philosophy, or pragmatic methodology, that promotes free redistribution and access to an end product’s design and implementation details.”

Open source is most commonly associated with software, but it’s kind of part of the craft beer ethos as well. Some breweries provide homebrew scale recipes for certain beers at the request of magazines or the occasional determined fan. Others treat their recipes as trade secrets, making employees sign non-disclosure agreements, and a few even go to great lengths to hide details like fermentation temperature from their own staff. No brewery that I know of makes a policy of posting all of their recipes. We will.

And we’re not just putting the recipes out there passively; we expect feedback. The real beauty of open source is that it allows for the collective intelligence of a community to create something better than any singular entity could achieve.

Mike is a fantastic brewer and recipe formulator, and I think I’m pretty good at judging beer. But even on our best days, we cannot muster a fraction of the intelligence, experience, and cleverness of the homebrewing hive mind. I also hope commercial brewers will participate, both by giving us feedback and advice and by releasing their own recipes. The more people that participate, the more valuable the collective knowledge becomes.

There are risks, of course. What’s to stop another brewery from simply copying our beer? Nothing and I hope they don’t, but due to some combination of confidence, arrogance, and naiveté, I’m not too worried. Knocking off a competitor’s product is common in other industries, but virtually unheard of it in craft beer. That may change as the industry gets more competitive and more unscrupulous people get into the business, but I think the benefits of open source outweigh the risks.

It’s important to distinguish between plagiarism and influence. No one pretends that musicians are free from influence, or that artists work in a vacuum. Brewers don’t either. The Amber IPA we’re working on was influenced by Troegs Nugget Nectar and Alpine Nelson. It doesn’t quite taste like a cross between the two, but it definitely would never be mistaken for either one. The hoppy wheat was influenced by Three Floyd’s Gumballhead and a general love of Citra hops (which are not found in Gumballhead). To me, this influence is perfectly natural and desirable, and I do in fact hope our recipes influence other brewers. Who doesn’t want to be influential?

(Note: I don’t think we’re yet at the extremely high level of quality found in the above-mentioned commercial beers, although it’s my goal to get us there.)

Aside from helping to build a free and open knowledge bank, what’s the incentive to participate in this scheme by offering us feedback? Modern Times is a commercial operation, so I think it’s valid that contributors would expect something other than just warm fuzzies.

So here’s how I’m thinking it’s going to work. If you contribute an idea in the early stages of recipe formulation (e.g. a hop variety to use, an adjustment in a malt bill, changes to water chemistry, etc…) that we end up adopting, we’ll invite you to participate in one of our tasting panels once we’re up and running. If you can’t make it out to the brewery, we’ll acknowledge your contribution for all to world to see in a suitably awesome way.

Once a recipe is in production, we’ll up the ante. If you bring us a homebrewed version of our beer that we like better than our own and provide details of what you did differently, we’ll invite you to brew the beer with us at the brewery. Suffice it to say, we’ll make sure you have a great time and are crowned king of Modern Times for the day. (Note: ABC rules are complex and greatly limit what we can do in this department, so all of this is subject to change.)

So what do you think? Is there a better way to do this? As always, comments and critiques—on everything—are greatly appreciated.