Going Undercover With a Craft Beer Reviewer

A brewery enthusiast becomes a community watchdog
craft beer
Photograph courtesy of Istock.

As a responsible craft beer drinker — by that I mean a person who is even the slightest bit serious about craft beer, or has a rabid passion, in my case — I think of it as my duty to ensure that brewery service and pours are as close to perfection as possible. To that end, last year I joined a small-but-growing nationwide group of people who act as secret shoppers for breweries. Craft breweries across the country enlist undercover reviews from such organizations to ensure their facilities and services are up to par. I’m assigned to the Detroit area, and the assignments come in up to twice a month. 

My latest job was to visit a craft brewery in Detroit, sit down at the bar, order a flight and a pint, and observe. I’m not there to judge or review the quality of the beer itself, but rather the environment, the proficiency of the staff, and the overall interactions one might have in a public drinking establishment. 

There is a profusion of elements to examine in a brewery and all of them combine to enhance or undermine your experience. A few points I focus on in my evaluation include: unrinsed or dirty glassware — it’s unhygienic; chilled or frosted glasses — craft beer is full of flavors, but if it is served too cold, all of the pleasing fragrances and tastes are severely muted; and serving style — if a bartender, for example, dunks the tap faucet into your foam or grazes the side of the glass with it, there is a high chance of bacteria and other germs transferring into your beer. But it’s all important. The odors, the cleanliness of the taproom’s entryway, the artwork on the walls, the state of the restrooms, etc. First impressions are critical, especially in an industry as highly saturated as craft beer. 

I obviously don’t let on that I’m the guy there to perform an undercover review, rather, I try to interact normally, ask informed questions, and observe. It’s only after I quaff my last sip that I complete a detailed report that covers over 25 topics of observation. The breweries expect a thorough report for their money, a process that can take up to two hours to complete.

While I enjoy helping out the brewing community, this is not an altruistic undertaking on my part. The flight (four to six 5-oz. pours) and pint of beer are covered by the “secret drinker” organization that is hired by the brewery. I’ve also been able to attend a couple of beer festivals, with the caveat that I record my observations on my phone while I’m still relatively sober. The finished report is due within 24 hours of my visit.

Secret drinkers are able to help breweries make sure that they’re putting their best foot forward. Brewery owners want to know if they or their staff are making easy-to-correct mistakes or downright underperforming. Our work therefore allows them to concentrate on the important stuff: brewing great beer.