Slash-and-Burn Reviewers

Are you a slash-and-burn reviewer?

Are you a slash-and-burn reviewer?

“There’s something about JK I just don’t like. I’m not a fan of sours so that could be it.”-November 4, 2016, 3-star Yelp review of Jester King Brewery, which on December 20, had a total of 325 Yelp reviews, averaging 4½ of 5 stars

“Full disclosure – I don’t drink beer. If I did, I’d probably give an extra star.”-June 3, 2016, 3-star Yelp review of Russian River Brewing Company, which on December 20, had a total of 2239 Yelp reviews, averaging 4 stars.

Craft beer fans, are you shaking your head at these opening lines from actual Yelp reviews? I imagine Jester King owner Jeffery Stuffing and Russian River’s Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo facepalming when they read this stuff.

Today, when we as a nation grapple with solutions to cyberbullying, post-truths and fake news, I really wish some folks who fire off critical reviews of everything from breweries to car mechanics to books would think for a minute or two before hitting the keys.

Take the Jester King critic. The first sentence on JK’s homepage states, “Jester King is an authentic farmhouse brewery committed to making wild ales and spontaneously fermented beers.” Two weeks before the above review, the brewery had celebrated its annual Funk ‘n Sour Fest. I’m sorry, but giving a mediocre review of an outstanding brewery well known for its farmhouse ales because you don’t happen to be a fan of their style comes off as more about you than the brewery. The thing is, some other users will only glance at the star rating before writing off a brewery.

The Russian River customer, who hailed from the East Coast, said the only reason she went to RRBC was because her beer fan husband wanted to go. Her main complaints were the wait time, the crowds, and the noise level. Yes, that’s part of the reality at this mecca for devoted craft beer fans, but hello. It’s an oft-made comment in reviews, so there’s no excuse for not knowing it or for dropping review stars if you choose to go to Russian River. The woman concluded her review saying, “My husband left here a very happy camper though.”

My Beer Year

What got me started on this rant was reading Amazon reviews for Lucy Burningham’s My Beer Year, which came out in October. The single-paragraph synopsis of the book explains that this is one beer writer’s story of wanting to up her beer game and how she did it. She writes of her adventures while studying to take the Certified Cicerone® (beer expert) exam.

As a beer blogger and Cicerone Certified Beer Server, the first level of four in the Cicerone program, I enjoyed the read. Like Burningham, I’ve visited hop farms and processing plants during the harvest and her description of the intense activities were spot-on and well-written. I was more than a little jealous of the people she managed to interview and, especially, of the Belgian breweries she visited. I learned some things along the way, including that Lucy Burningham knows an awful lot about craft beer. For readers who aren’t brewers or beer geeks, she explains terms and brewing procedures with minimal distraction from the story. In short, the dust jacket blurb sums up the book very well.

Lucy Burningham at a book signing

Lucy Burningham at a book signing (Photo by Anna Caitlin Photography)

Yet, here’s an excerpt from one Amazon review:

“I found the author hard to relate to, and her writing style felt dumbed down for the reader which was unnecessary most of the time. I was initially interested in this book a to learn more about the craft and from someone who is from the same area as I am. The book was about so much of everything else that I didn’t care much about.”

-November 15, 2016, 2-star Amazon review of My Beer Year, which has a total of 15 reviews on Amazon, averaging 4 stars of 5 stars

Wow, did we read the same book? Do these slash-and-burn reviewers give any thought to how their comments impact the individuals on the receiving end?

I emailed Burningham and asked what she’d say to this reviewer if they sat down over a beer. Here’s her reply.

“I’d tell them that while I’m sorry they didn’t find what they wanted from my book, I’m not sorry about the depth of information I included or how I told my tale. I’m proud that my book includes mention of things like the pellicle on lambics and anecdotes about hop bales spontaneously combusting in Yakima. I know people will learn new things about beer from my book, which I hope will help them appreciate beer more and be entertained along the way. As I writer, I’d be incredibly satisfied if even just one or two readers had that experience.

I realize I wrote about my personal journey and that approach isn’t for everyone. But I think the book’s title alone is enough to warn people that my book isn’t, say, a guide to making better homebrew or a primer on American ales.

I think the question should be: does my book have merit even if it’s ‘not for you’? As a book lover and author, I wish amateur reviewers would try to answer that question more often.”

The next time you write a review of a book, a restaurant or just about anything, try asking yourself Burningham’s question.

Lucy Burningham

Lucy Burningham (Photo by Anna Caitlin Photography)

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