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The brewery/beer reviewer relationship

It’s messy, but it can work.
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Dubina brewing co. bell road IPAAbout a year and a half ago, while freelancing for a local alt weekly magazine in Phoenix, I reviewed several beers from Dubina Brewing Co. in Glendale, Arizona. I didn’t tell the brewery I was coming; I wanted to taste the brews and take in the ambiance as any customer would. The experience was, we’ll say, spotty. I likened it to judging a homebrew competition: Some beers were decent, others should’ve been sent right down the drain. And I said as much in the article.

The response to the piece was mixed. Some readers agreed with my assessment, having experienced similar inconsistency in the beers they tasted; others lambasted me for unfairly criticizing a small, local, fairly new brewery that needed all the support it could get.

But the most surprising reaction came from the brewery’s owner, Jared Dubina. He was gracious to the fans coming out in his support as well as to those voicing concerns over the quality of his beers. He was thoughtful. He acknowledged the faults mentioned in the article, and he pledged to improve.

For DRAFT’s September/October issue, one of the styles we reviewed was also the most popular in the country: IPA. Now, the reviews section is a little different from the rest of the magazine; the ratings and tasting notes come not from DRAFT editors, but from a panel of experienced homebrewers and beer industry veterans, all of whom are certified or national-level BJCP judges, and they review the beers completely blind, meaning they have no idea who brewed what they’re tasting. They scored Dubina’s Bell Road IPA a 92.

I recently visited Jared at his brewery to chat about the rating—and the old article—and noted improvements galore. Space had been cleared for additional fermentation tanks, and Jared was in the process of painting the Dubina logo on a few dozen shiny new kegs. The brewery will soon be expanding production and distribution, with sights set on moving into a warehouse property in the next couple years. I had a taste of Cosmic Audacity, Dubina’s cloudy Northeast-style IPA. It was great. Obviously, my article hadn’t impacted his business in the slightest.

Or had it? Had any of the changes he’d made around the brewery in the past year come as a result of the article I wrote, or others? Are writers and beer reviewers simply flies biting at the ass of brewers, or can their opinions—if honest and truthful—actually influence the product?

These are the questions I asked Jared. His responses revealed that the relationship between a brewery and its critics, while fraught, can be beneficial for both parties.

What were your thoughts when you first read the article in which I criticized some of your beers?
“Obviously, when you’re talking about the human side of it, I was initially pissed off about the article. But the truth was I didn’t have anybody to be pissed off at but myself. As much as I could blame you or somebody else for publishing that story, I just knew that would be ignoring my own responsibility. I talked to a few brewers and people who carry our beers. Nothing angry; I just wanted to know what their thoughts were. And getting some honest feedback from other people who were saying our beers are hit-or-miss, kind of made me go, ‘Okay, the only person I have to be upset at is myself.’

“At the time, we’d been going through a rotation of brewers. We were still new, and we didn’t have the right equipment. We were using three-barrel plastic fermenters inside this walk-in cooler. So I knew there were a bunch of issues, and the focus needed to be that we were a brewery first. So it became obvious that we needed to get the right equipment in place, to get glycol so we could manage our beer better, and we also knew we needed to pick up somebody who had a lot of experience with not only just brewing—because you can find homebrewers everywhere—but we wanted somebody who’s actually touched commercial equipment.

“Whenever somebody came in and asked me about [the article], I just said, ‘We’re making the right changes, and that’s it.’ I think the biggest thing is just to keep your head down and improve. That was my biggest thing: We had to improve. It wasn’t going to help to be pissed off and come out screaming. People were surprised that I didn’t really say anything or post anything, but when I think about the breweries that have closed in Arizona that maybe didn’t put out the best product, it always felt like when I talked to them, they were in denial of what was really happening.

“I didn’t disagree that the beer we were making at the time wasn’t the best. There were people who were drinking it, but again: It wasn’t the best quality. I knew there were changes that needed to happen.”

As a brewery owner, I imagine you have to deal with criticism a lot. What’s your approach to responding to it?
“Well, take Yelp. On Yelp, there are actually some people who write valuable stuff, and you can take it and understand and learn from it, but you also have to filter out the crap. But if you take every negative comment on Yelp and think it’s crap, you’re never going to improve or learn. You have to be able to take feedback and learn from it, and if everything you hear just goes out the other ear, you’re just going to think you have everything figured out, and you can’t sustain your business that way.

“I pay way too much attention to all that stuff, though. I Google the crap out of our brewery and I read everything: Yelp, TripAdvisor, RateBeer, BeerAdvocate, Untappd. Other brewers even told me, ‘Don’t focus on it, because it’ll keep you up at night.’ And it does sometimes, but again it just comes down to being honest with yourself and filtering out the crap from what’s legitimate.

“I heard somebody say this once and thought it was quite valuable: ‘You can’t say what somebody’s tasting is wrong. Everyone’s palate is different.’ If there’s an off-flavor that I didn’t catch that other people are catching, obviously all my attention needs to go to that to figure out what’s going on.

“I have a recent example of that: I sent some beer up to a reviewer in Washington, and it was from the same pallet—possibly even the same case—as the beers I gave to DRAFT, and he said he got major diacetyl from it. So we started researching. We still don’t have a definitive answer for what happened to those cans, but we found that there’s a possibility that, if a beer is left warm, there’s a certain reaction that can occur between an open beer and oxygen that brings out diacetyl notes. And when the beers got shipped out, he had left them outside overnight. That’s the only thing we could think of that could cause something like that.

“So, it’s that kind of stuff. I could’ve responded to him and called him an idiot because DRAFT had it and said it was great, but instead we said, ‘Okay, what could the problem be?’ It’s just being wise about your business, making sure you adjust and listen to feedback, no matter how harsh it sounds. Just listen; what are they trying to get at? I did that, and I knew exactly what direction we needed to go after that.

“I think part of it, too, comes down to the fact that I want to have great beer. I sat down with a local brewery recently—I’m not going to say any names—but it was obvious they cared more about money than quality. It was: ‘I don’t care, I just want to see how many states I can get into and how far I can get this beer sent.’ That’s not my philosophy. I think if you make the best beer possible, it’ll sell. It’ll take a lot longer, but at least you’ll have credibility behind it.”

One Comment

  • Derek O says:

    I don’t know about this. The last beers I tried from them tasted like stale bathwater. So they made one good batch. Nothing has really changed.

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