Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Kiss and Tell

A lot of people reckon you shouldn't tell it how it is, on blogs, even as a snapshot, when commenting on beer or pubs. The arguments for this approach go along a lot of rather tortuous routes, including " It isn't fair to mention a one off experience", "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything", "It was fine when I had it in the Strangler's Arms eight years ago" and "I just had a bottle of it and they are great brewers." There are many more, but you get my drift I reckon. Gazza Prescott, the ticker and now brewer, calls it "Cheery Beery" with more than a little contempt.

What prompted this subject was a note by Tyson on his blog and on Twitter about the beer in the Marble Arch not being on top form and a criticism of Thornbridge Black IPA as a mess of good ingredients. (I can't say on this one, but if I get the chance to try it I will and call it as I see it.)

The brewing industry and the pub trade can be sensitive to even the mildest of criticism, no matter how constructively put or well intended. I can recall falling out with a Head Brewer over bad batches of beer, which I knew for a fact had been pulled from pub cellars by a special dray team. He was offended that I said so and stated that there was nothing wrong with the beer. My reply was that he was treating his customers with contempt, in that he expected them to drink the same beer in the pub night after night and year after year and then, not notice when there was something wrong with it.

Pubs have similar issues when a customer feels a beer isn't right. Too often he or she is told that there is "nothing wrong with it" or the classic "Everyone else is drinking it" and the equally poor response "Well that's how it's meant to taste". Another anecdote illustrates how it can be done much better, though I do admit it was an unusual bit of customer care. Once in the Prince of Wales in Foxfield, we complained about a beer. The landlady said she'd been in a hurry and hadn't tried it. She had some, turned the pumpclip round, picked up the GBG, phoned the brewer and told him the beer was undrinkable. "Action this day" indeed, but while not calling for that, is it too much to expect beer that isn't right never to reach the public?

I have digressed more than a little here, but my point is that bloggers of all people should call it as it is. Didn't we all start blogs to say our piece and offer opinion? Pubs and brewers should be as comfortable with constructive criticism as they are with praise and the beer industry should take a leaf out of the supermarkets book, where a dodgy product is met with horror rather than denial.

The hidden costs of customer dissatisfaction are even more and any bad experience in the pub or with beer costs the customer just as much as a good one, which is a fairly good reason to speak out.

I'm putting a little poll on. Have a go at it.


GS said...

In my experience bloggers and internet reviewers tend to visit pubs at off-peak times. Often that means they fail to see a place properly, as a normal, regular customer would see it. The number of reviews I've read of pubs that start with "Very quiet at 4pm on a Monday afternoon in January!" is astonishing. Instead of acknowledging that their own experience cannot be representative, they go ahead and say the place has no atmosphere. That's just one example of how snapshot impressions based on one experience can be very unfair and shouldn't form the basis of a negative review on a website.

Tandleman said...

That's a fair point up to a point. The offering should be just as good at all times surely, even if the atmosphere isn't? After all it costs the same. Not great if you can only get a good pint at busy times for instance.

Any visit at an unrepresentative time though should be reflected in the comment.

Unknown said...

I agree, Tandy, especially on the pubs bit - I've blogged before about poor service and poor beer and will continue to do so. Bizarrely (some might argue) the only time I've blogged about getting off beer and having service anywhere close to being as good as the great example you describe was in my local Sppons, which just goes to show.

The only exception I make is when a brewer sends me beer to review and it's not very good. I just think it would be a bit churlish to write a bad review when they've gone to all that effort, so that's when i follow the 'If you can't say anything nice' rule.

The Beer Nut said...

"Often that means they fail to see a place properly, as a normal, regular customer would see it"

So what? If the barman took their beer money then their opinion is as valid as anyone else's. If the pub is embarrassed by the service it offers to the 4pm Monday drinker it shouldn't be open on Monday at 4pm or, better yet, improve.

Tandleman, while I think that your point is so bleeding obvious it shouldn't even need to be said, I think there is a certain breed of keyboard warrior who don't do constructive criticism and will be unpleasant if things aren't right. Yes, I expect the beer I buy to not be flawed; yes, I will write about any flaws I spot; but you won't catch me writing "OMFG!! This brewery is a JOKE! What a bunch of clowns!!1!!" on account of it making me, and bloggers generally, look like a dick.

Curmudgeon said...

It's a good point that bloggers and reviewers are likely to visit unfamiliar pubs at quieter times – very often weekend lunchtimes and afternoons – so pubs may be quiet and lacking in atmosphere. But on the other hand, the fact that a pub is quiet is no excuse for offering poor beer, food or service. Some years back, there was a pub in our branch area that got in the Good Beer Guide on the strength of offering an adventurous range of beers that were usually very good at weekends. But early in the week they were undrinkable, and that was something that needed to be exposed and the pub kicked out.

Whether or not I make some kind of formal complaint very much depends on how likely I am to visit the pub again. If it's a one-off visit I might well just write it off to experience and move on. But, on the other hand, I won't tolerate blatantly cloudy beer or inedible food and will always complain about things like that.

Also a lot of complaints are matters of personal taste rather than anything genuinely wrong – for example I may not like the style of food served in a pub, or the way it is laid out, and I might comment on that on the Internet, but it's not something it would be appropriate to raise with the licensee.

Eeyore said...

I have just commented on this on Tyson's blog, with this thought

"Thornbridge are much feted and in some quarters they can do no wrong. Any new beer of theirs will always be "exciting" and "innovative".

The fact that they may (and I say may) have produced a mess of a beer is simply, as Tandleman says, blasphemy in some quarters."

Bloggers shouldn't be afraid to speak out. Any criticism should be set in context, but to my mind there are far too many sacred cows out there. And I can't see what time of day has to do with the pub arguement, frankly.

Meer For Beer said...

The thing I think is sometimes missing from reviews is common sense, I expect pubs to be quiet on certain times of the day and I also expect in some more rural areas that the pub will close for a couple of hours for lunch. There is no point in moaning about these things, it can catch you by surprise but it isn't an issue to complain about.

Everyone can have a bad day, for me usually if it's the first time then I would rather try again another day and if it's just as bad I will then complain about it.
There are exceptions though to every rule, for example; like when I was served a pint that looked like a child's snow globe with flakes falling in the beer and was told thats the way it should be. Of course I complained loud and clear from the first moment and until I ended up walking out.

Zak Avery said...

It's a tricky call. I've had beer from a local brewery that has been consistently bad - it has a brewing process fault - and I've spoken to them about it repeatedly. The flaw is still present, and people still buy the beer on cask (although the bottles of their we sold were among the worst bottled beers I've ever tried). And most of what we sold was returned to us.

If people ask me what I think of this brewery's beers, I tell them straight. But on the priniciple that life's too short to drink bad beer, it's also too short to write about bad beer.

Or should I name, flame and shame them?

Bailey said...

Isn't it a bit ironic that you haven't specified which blogs you think are guilty of cheery beeriness, given the 'tell it how it is and name names' message of the post...?

Anyway, I think it's about balance. A blog with nothing but post after a post about slightly disappointing pubs is going to make pretty dull reading. Yes, constructive criticism is a good thing but, really, I'm more interested in enthusiastic recommendations -- I'd rather know what to try rather than what to avoid.

The question of complaining in pubs is a different one. If you're not happy for a good reason which the landlord or bar staff can do something about, then complain. If they're unhelpful, complain to the brewery (if that's an option). Depending on how rude they were about it (I'm talking about you, the landlady of the Moby Dick in Greenland Quay!) then by all means slag their pub off on the internet...

Cooking Lager said...

It's the risk you take with cask beer. Better of with a can of cooking.

Coxy said...

The Great British Public don't like complaining out loud, and that is where blogs are of great use to the public and hopefully to the owners as well.
Pete, you have to tell it as it is , else every brewer will send you their wares and you won't be able to moan about anything, and anyway an occasional moan is good for the soul.

Whorst said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Dredge said...

If I have a bad beer, and it's actually off, then I will take it back to the bar. If I just don't particularly like it then I will stomach it or order another. The difference is important. There's also a difference between the reaction in a pub and then taking action afterwards, especially as you/we are in a position to reach an audience.

If I get bad customer service then I'm not likely to go back to the place. If I open a bottle at home that is off then I will let the brewer know (and/or the company that supplied the beer). I have no desire to write about these on the blog because I think it would do an unnecessary disservice to publish that fact. I have had beers which I haven't enjoyed and mentioned it in passing, or like last weekend when I discovered I bought an out of date bottle, I mentioned that too. There are very few instances in which I have been negative, but that doesn't bother me (if I wanted to write it, I could). I don’t see who will gain from my vocal negativity if I write that a pub/beer was bad?

Opinion is great, that's important to read in blogs, it adds balance, but it’s also a subjective thing. Personally, I'd rather not mention it than write something bad, even though it's often easier and more fun to write the bad stuff. Just my personal preference though and I know you tend to disagree. But then people call me over-enthusiastic and they call you grumpy ;)

Neville Grundy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neville Grundy said...

If I had a problem with a pint but was happy with the way the pub dealt with it, I'd leave it at that as that's good service. A pub that is consistently bad, or who deals with a reasonable complaint badly, deserves any criticism it receives. So, horses for courses.

Tandleman said...

Bailey. A neat little trap which I won't fall into. I am not looking to improve blogging in this country except by my own efforts, rather pubs and beer. True I do mention bloggers, but in the context of the above.

I think "I'd rather know what to try rather than what to avoid." is somewhat of a haughty piece of tautology. By knowing one, in effect you know the other.

But you are right, it is a question of balance, though knocking copy always has interest. The real truth of craft beer in this country is that there is more bad than good. That should at least be mentioned in blogs.

Zak, "on the principle that life's too short to drink bad beer, it's also too short to write about bad beer."

Maybe that's what Gazza means by "Cheery Beery"?

Tandleman said...

Mark : "But then people call me over-enthusiastic and they call you grumpy ;)"

Haha. Good Lad. There's hope for you yet.

Curmudgeon said...

The real truth of craft beer in this country is that there is more bad than good.

Ooh, that's a bit of an Emperor's new clothes moment - maybe deserving of a post in its own right ;-)

Tandleman said...

Perhaps I should have said "more ordinary" than good?

Leigh said...

I take a pragmatic view -try not to write about a pub on one visit alone, and when it comes to bad beer, give them oppourtunity to rectify it. I agree about telling it like it is, but I try to blog to give praise. Like I said a while back, if it ain't good, then it aint in. Probably not the best way in all fairness, but it suits me. Nice points though, Tandle.

Barm said...

I was just thinking about this today. I visited a relatively new brewery this week and while the atmosphere and surroundings were perfectly welcoming, the beer itself was incredibly boring. Not actually bad, just bland and dull.

Will the beer get better if I write about how shit it is? Will it get better if I don't write about it? I have no way of knowing. I do know that if a young, possibly struggling business collapses, even if it's because their beer is shit, it will be much more difficult in the future for anyone to set up a brewery in the area that might make better beer. I don't want to have contributed to that, which is what it boils down to.

Besides, I'd rather spend my time writing about good beers than crap ones. It's more fun for me.

Barm said...

Darn it, delete that duplicate comment and this one, will you?

Tandleman said...

I doubt if I'd say anything bad in the circumstances you describe either. I might say the beer is still developing or something mild perhaps though. I like to comment honestly, but not gratuitously.

ChrisM said...

It's good to be honest - I'd much rather read the truth about your opinions than a watered down version so you don't hurt peoples' feelings. There's no need for flaming or nastiness, though - careful, considered, constructive criticism is the order of the day I think.

Mark, Real-Ale-Reviews.com said...

Two important things: context and subjectivity. Use wisely and all is well!

As a rule of thumb I try not to say something bad about a brewery based on one experience but sometimes it's useful to make constructive criticism in the right context (which in the first instance is sometimes more appropriate to be in a private forum rather than a public one).

Call it cheery beery or whatever the fuck you want but I'd also much rather read good things that bad things. There's enough shit in the world without having to dissect negative beer words amongst all the other stuff I have to analyse on a daily basis.

I'm all for honesty in blogging but within the realms of context and usefulness to an audience. If it will help and it is based within a reasonable context, say something usefully negative, but if it's your opinion based not very much and you fancy saying something uncomplimentary, what's the point?!

Tandleman said...

I think the key is constructive criticism personally and sometimes telling it how it is has a place. It all depends on context and whether or not there is a reasonable point to be made.

Just good news isn't always a good idea if the actuality is different and going unreported. You end up talking round in circles about the same good things while maintaining an ominous silence about the rest.

Anyway, people can make their own judgement about the reasonableness of what is written and comment on it.

Zak Avery said...

"Maybe that's what Gazza means by "Cheery Beery"?"

Oh well, guilty as charged! :)

Sid Boggle said...

I don't know how to respond to the poll - I'd probably write the first experience off (unless it's a bad pint and the staff won't exchange it) and go again.

In terms of the onus on the blogger, isn't there this whole tension between what's written as reportage and what is op-ed. In the blogosphere the two seem to be intertwined. I guess a rule of thumb might be to write it as it happened and then let the reader take their own positions. Or is that bottling it?

Tandleman said...

I don't think it is bottling it Sid. I said much the same thing above (Anyway, people can make their own judgement about the reasonableness of what is written and comment on it.)

Indeed it could be argued that ignoring the bad is bottling it, though I don't actually agree. It's more a matter of choice. People have the freedom to write as they see fit and to have that commented on whether they are too critical or too "cheery beery".

Baron Orm said...

I think that we should talk about bad experiences, be it bad pubs, bad cask beer or bad bottles.

If it's a one off (or you are not sure as it's your first) I would probably tweet about it, this was how I found out that Midsummer Madness was off due to @BeerReviewsAndy.

If it's consistently bad I would contact the brewer to ask and possibly blog about it (depending on reaction).

In a recent audio rating Chris & I mentioned that a bottles label was letting the beer down and the brewer responded agreeing with us and saying that the label has since been changed.

I think that as long as the news (good or bad) is carefully said then only good can come of it...

Paul Garrard said...

I was given a piece of sagely advice in my youth, “never give more than 9 out of 10”. The justification for this was that there is always room for improvement. I think any business should be constantly asking what they can do better. I try to tell it how it is, although there has been the odd occasion when I’ve just not bothered on the grounds that being a misery-guts too often is not good for one.

Kieran Haslett-Moore said...

I think its easyer for some than others. People like Zak and myself who are working and retailing in the industry (albiet at different ends of the globe) need to take care as we have to do business with brewers and sometimes burning bridges isnt the best course of action. Frank feedback to a brewer is definitly called for, but public denounciation not so wise. I think straight up indie bloggers should shoot straight but fare however.

As for Raven I thought it was a fantastic beer and I suspect the opinion was on the style rather than the technical exercusion of the beer.

Tandleman said...

I agree that those who make a living from brewers and pubs need to tread a fine line. That's obvious sometimes and less so other times.

So, support independent blogging I'd say. (-;

Gazza Prescott said...

I like to consider myself "sneery beery" rather than the cheery variety, although after thousands of bland to crap beers I like to think that being a cynical old bastard generally means you're right a good percentage of the time.

And I like Raven, cracking beer (unlike some other TB beers I could mention) but know that Black IPA isn't for everyone.