I have a friend who started brewing beer about a year ago. He always brings some when he comes over and asks me to tell him what I think. Sometimes he even says, "I want you to be totally honest." If I were totally honest, I would say: "Some of your beer is OK, but some of it tastes really, really bad." Should I take him at his word and tell him the truth?
—Tastes Like Green Slime
Dear Tastes Like Green Slime,
Home-brewers usually brew loads more beer than they can personally consume, so if you are friends with one, you will almost certainly be invited to drink his beer. Just as it's rude to critique a gift or homemade dinner, you shouldn't launch into a laundry list of things you don't like about his beer. On the other hand, home-brewers are typically a collaborative lot, sharing tips and techniques and deconstructing one another's beers. Feedback, when offered in a tactful way, can help your home-brew friend make better beer or, at the very least, understand what some people don't like about his beer.
When giving a brewing buddy your opinion, follow these guidelines:
Mollycoddle novices. I once attended a creative writing workshop where there was a rule that participants first had to say what they liked about someone's work before saying anything negative. Do the same with new brewers, says John Krochune, cocreator of the blog Brew Dudes, even if the only thing you like about the beer is the bottle.
Present your opinion as just that—your opinion. As with wine, taste in beer is subjective. What tastes delightfully fruity to one person might taste like a diacetyl flaw to another. It's polite to leave open the possibility that the problem might just be your personal palate. So if a beer "tastes like dirty diaper," says Michael Tonsmeire, creator of The Mad Fermentationist, you might say, "It's more funky than I would care for."
Ask questions about their "process." A good way to open up a discussion about what the brewer might do differently next time is to say, "Tell me about your process." For instance, Krochune says he recently brewed beer that "tasted a lot like cooked vegetables." After a few questions from a seasoned home-brewer friend, Krochune realized the problem was too high a fermentation temperature. Far from being offended, he was really grateful for the advice.
So if you couch your criticism just right, your friend won't be insulted that you think his beer has an undertone of boiled broccoli. Nor will he think you are an imbecile who knows nothing about beer, and cannot appreciate the finer nuances of his recipe. Either way, he'll want to keep drinking beer with you. And that's the most important thing.