How to Troubleshoot Homebrew at Your Club Meetings

By Drew Beechum

For the first time ever, my homebrew club, the Maltose Falcons, recorded a session of Troubleshooter’s Corner. Troubleshooting is one of my favorite things we do as a club since it’s a direct service to the members.

If you’ve never attended a Maltose Falcons meeting, here’s what happens. The Grand Hydrometer (currently me) gives a talk and tasting based on some general theme. After the talk—which, depending on the number of questions asked and samples poured, can last between 45 and 90 minutes—the club does some business and drinks some homebrew.

When the club breaks for lunch, the Grand Hydrometer and a few experienced club members go into the shop to lead a troubleshooting session. Everyone is welcome to bring beer that they’d like to have evaluated. Sometimes brewers simply want reassurance, and other times they’re seeking specific help on how to improve flaws in their beer. Regardless, we’re there to provide a close, interactive tasting to provide honest yet friendly feedback.

Some months, only one or two beers make it to the Troubleshooter’s Corner—we finish quickly and head back into the main club meeting. In other months, there’s a ton of beer, and it takes us a while to get through all the samples. A great benefit for brewers is the chance to pour for a small crew instead of the large (60 to 80 or more), potentially intimidating group of folks in the main meeting. It’s a really great feature of the club, and I think it has had incredible results for a number of our brewers. I highly encourage clubs to provide that sort of forum if you’re not already!

Watch here to see what Troubleshooter’s is like: Troubleshooters in Action

Tips for Running a Troubleshooter’s Corner Session at Your Club Meeting

  • Make sure to have at least one pair of experienced brewers to troubleshoot. Brewers have a better chance of receiving useful feedback when there’s more than one “expert” opinion on offer.
  • All beers and brewers are welcome, no matter level of experience or brewing style.
  • As a participant, bring enough homebrew for everyone! Also bring your brewing notes to help you remember your recipe and process for the beer under consideration.
  • Tasters should give every beer a fair evaluation:
    • Ask the brewer about his or her goal. Is he or she after a general sensory evaluation, or is there a specific problem that needs attention?
    • Be honest, but be kind. It’s a disservice to the brewer to praise a beer that suffers from major flaws. That said, there are plenty of ways to offer critiques and feedback without being a jerk.
    • Be humble, and don’t assume that what’s obvious to you is also obvious to the brewer. Don’t be afraid to explain even small things. No matter how many times you’ve seen the same problem (Straight use of chlorinated water, for instance, is a common issue.), it’s possible that a new brewer hasn’t.
    • Ask questions. An off-flavor, flaw, or other issue can be have many possible causes, so iteratively ask questions to try and narrow down the possibilities.
    • Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. Offer your best guesses to help explain your observations, but be honest if you’re unsure. Your ego can take saying “I don’t know!”
    • Remember to point out the positive aspects of every beer you evaluate. It’s good for your fellow brewer to know that their beer isn’t a complete disaster and that there’s room to build on. The positivity also helps any other messages to stick. Be honest, of course (no blowing sunshine), but there’s almost always something positive to find: mention it.
    • Have fun with it. It’s beer after all.
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