There are ways to to get a helpful critique of your beer, but — as with anything in life — what you get out of the process depends on what you put it in. In addition, being able to accept criticism is a skill some brewers need to learn.
Getting your beer evaluated by a professional brewer can be great. Most pro brewers brew multiple times per week and have encountered all the common problems that can arise in beer production. With a quick sniff and a small taste, an experienced brewer can identify most problems in beer and let you know how to fix them. The biggest problem is convincing them to try your beer.
If you get to know a commercial brewer — for example, by patronizing his or her brewpub frequently — and want him to critique your beer, keep the following things in mind.
First of all, he makes beer for a living, so promising to give him some beer (however good) in exchange for his advice isn’t going to be a huge incentive. Also, as with anyone, he likely will not have the time to drop everything in the middle of a work day and drink beer with you. If he’s amenable to helping, find a time that works for both of you.
If he does agree, bring one beer that is representative of your best brewing efforts and don’t overexplain it. Just say, “Here’s my pale ale, I’m looking for feedback.” If the brewer wants more information, he’ll ask. Then — and this is very important — listen to what he has to say. For example, if he says the beer is contaminated, don’t argue that you are a very clean brewer. He knows what contaminated beer tastes like.
I see this happen all the time, people ask for advice and then ignore it or argue with the person delivering it. Don’t ask for criticism unless you are willing to accept it. (If you’re looking for unconditional acceptance, get a dog.) And remember that receiving negative feedback is never easy, but acting on constructive criticism will improve your beer.
A local, experienced homebrewer can also give your beer an excellent critique. An experienced homebrewer in your area will not only have experience brewing and tasting beer, but will be familiar with homebrewing in general and the limitations on local homebrewers specifically. These might include limitations on what ingredients are available, local water conditions, or conditions related to climate in the area (for example, hot tap water in the summer requiring the need for more effort to be expended during chilling).
Finding an experienced local homebrewer usually only involves finding and attending the meeting of a local homebrew club. At most clubs, all you would need to say is, “I’m looking for some feedback,” and multiple brewers will be willing to help you out. It may take awhile for you to find the best brewers in the club and get their opinions, but just attending homebrewing meetings helps with your brewing in a variety of ways. Being surrounded by brewers gives you new ideas and inspiration to brew that next batch.
With time and practice, the best possible person to critique your beer can be you. If you work to gain knowledge on how to evaluate beer (for example, by becoming a beer judge), if you learn to identify the flaws in beers, if you learn to identify fresh ingredients vs. stale, and if you learn to taste your beers dispassionately, you can critique your own beers and use this knowledge to brew better beer.
Three concrete things you can do to accomplish this are:
1.) Become a beer judge. Contests are always looking for new judges. And new judges are almost always paired with experienced judges. So, jumping in to judging is a great way to start learning to taste beer with eye towards evaluating it. (In a BJCP contest, keep in mind that only some of the evaluation is with regards to beer quality.)
Once you’re somewhat familiar with judging, submit some of your own beers to a contest. Then, before you get the results back, sit down and judge your own entries. Fill out the scoresheet completely, as if you were judging. Then, compare your score and comments to the judges at the contest. If you can predict reasonably well what your own scores are going to be, and the comments you will receive, you are learning to taste critically.
2.) Taste your beer side-by-side with comparable commercial beers. Also, tweak and rebrew beers you wish to improve upon, and taste the (hopefully) improved beer next to the previous batch, as well as comparable commercial examples.
As you taste your beer next to the others, think about what differences there are between the commercial beers in your lineup. Look for malt, hop, and yeast derived aspects of the beer you can pick out. Compare things like body, carbonation, “liveliness,” mouthfeel, and aftertaste. Try to identify characters in each beer not found in others. Then think about your beer stacks up. What aspects of your beer are different from the commercial examples — and is this a good thing?
3.) Accept that constructive criticism makes your beer better. Some brewers have a problem accepting criticism. They may ask for your opinion of their beer, but what they are really looking for is praise. If you do critique their beer (or their process, or anything) honestly, they’ll argue with you. These brewers will never improve. They’re convinced that everything they do, no matter how slapdash, is as good as following the best procedures or taking the most care in brewing a beer. If you want to improve, don’t be like them.
If you want to improve as a brewer, you need to view constructive criticism as a road map to improvement. Nobody likes to hear negative feedback. We all wish our beers were perfect right out of the gate. But they aren’t. However, finding a fault in your beer is the first step towards correcting that fault. Identifying something that would make you beer better is the first step towards making it better. Thus, good constructive criticism is a positive thing.
Finally, know that the path to better beer is probably going to lead you away from what you most enjoy doing on brewday (or during fermentation and conditioning). What’s holding your beer back is something that you aren’t paying enough attention to or something that you can’t do adequately given your setup. Look to the parts of your brewday where you cut steps short or use substandard methods. (And when you do cut corners, don’t kid yourself that what you’re doing is “fine.” If you want to improve, you need to face the facts.) Look at your equipment and identify things that you just can’t do properly (like controlling fermentation temperatures). Brewing better beer is not always easy. If it was, everyone would be cranking out fantastic beer. If you want to be making top notch beer, you’re going to need to make the effort that others aren’t willing to put it.