A Matter of Time: Evaluating a New Brewery

Even by "craft beer explosion" standards, there are a lot of new breweries near me.  Forget the ones in the nearby major city: I just mean the ones in my own suburban backyard.  As they open, local beer friends and I invariably stopped in and tried their beers, and as the social media posts began stacking up one of our homebrew club members asked: how do you evaluate a new brewery?

How, indeed?  There's always just tasting the beer, but that's like evaluating the climate of a place by just visiting it on one day.  Maybe that one day isn't typical, or symptomatic of what things are usually like and where they're headed.  My wife, Barbara, and I spent exactly one day in Bergen, Norway.  It was glorious: sun shining, cool breezes, drinking hyper-overpriced Pilsner while sitting on the Bryggen (the historic harbor district, now a retail area and UNESCO World Heritage site) after a wonderful walking tour of the city, including the "oldest street in Norway."  To us, Bergen is sunshine and open-air dining.  Turns out, we just got really lucky: it rains in Bergen 231 days a year, on average (that's worse than Seattle, by a pretty big margin).  

So, long story short (too late): tasting is just one part of the process. Let's make the story longer, though.

Structural Considerations

The first thing you might consider is how many offerings a new brewery has available, and what they are.  You can usually get this information from press releases, the brewery's website, or reviews that might have popped up from soft openings.  

I don't like to see anything more than six beers on offer, to start - maybe eight at the outside.  I know what it takes to start up a brewery (having seen it at close hand on a number of occasions), and a place with a dozen or more beers on in its first couple of months probably hasn't had the time to run them all through test batches, refine recipes and processes, and tune them up.  While every brewery learns by doing, at least in part, jumping in too fast with too many beers is a potential warning sign that they're willing to sell mediocre (or even bad) beer, rather than building slowly and offering high-quality products.

I also like to see signs that you're thinking and/or that your brewery has a focus or personality.  One sign of this not being in evidence was seen at a new brewery I visited a couple of years ago.  They had four core beers (good start!), but they were a Pale Ale (OK), an IPA (a little redundant, but I get it), a coffee porter and a generic medium-strength stout.  It's on those last two that I got my red flag: if you're only making four beers, why those?  Who's going to buy your stout who wouldn't like that coffee porter, and vice versa?  

Anyways, it isn't determinative in any way, but it's something I think about.

First Impressions

Nothing quite like that first taste, though.  There's some luck-of-the-draw here: maybe their best beer is their Pilsner.  If it is, I'll probably hit that before I try the DIPA (just for palate reasons), so I might get a good vibe right off the bat.  If your brewery, though, phones it in on some kind of session Kolsch and it's just OK, then a drinker's first impression might be that you're a little too blah.  Just something to think of for you brewery operators out there!  Don't write off those "crowd pleaser," lighter, low-ABV beers.

As previously noted, I don't like tasters of a beer, and I'm kind of skeptical of flights, so I usually go with a half-pint or better of a couple of their beers in my first visit.  That way I'm getting it as it's initially poured, a little decarbonated and a little warmer as I work my way down the ounces, and then one flat, warm-ish last sip.  I just find it to be a more useful set of perceptions than even a 4-6 ounce short pour, and certainly more so than a one-ounce sip.  

For me, this is just a baseline.  Even my least favorite breweries get more than one visit if they're newly-opened.  But baselines matter.  Take mental notes of what they seem to do well and what needs work (a place I just went to this weekend turned out some great American pale ales but has something really odd going on with their Belgian yeasts/fermentations), and file it away for future reference.

Return of the Beer Geek

After a few weeks, I'll stop in again.  This is primarily to provide a point of comparison: a data point isn't a trend, and two data points isn't something you should hang your analytical hat on, but it's something.  

All I want to see is improvement.  Even a little.  Some of my favorite breweries stumbled out of the gate, but quickly started refining their processes and recipes and you could taste the difference almost immediately.  Breweries that do that will usually, with time, produce killer beer.  Why?  Because those are the breweries that care about feedback and know how to act on it.

I also want to see if they're resolving their focus: is the brand developing in a way that makes sense?  Are they still producing a phone-book-sized list of beers in jack-of-all-styles fashion?  

This initial return trip is usually enough to get a bead on where the brewery's headed.  But just in case...

Beer in the Wild

After this, I'll usually try to find a place's beers on tap somewhere other than the tap house and give them short trials "in the wild."  Believe it or not, sometimes they get better with a little age and/or coming out of a different system.  Just like you shouldn't judge any brewery based on how their beer tastes at any one bar (because that bar might be bad at serving beer), you shouldn't forget that the tap room itself is just one bar!

It also gives you additional data: are they getting better?  Worse?  What's being put on tap out in the market?  Is this just going to be one more on the endless IPA list, or will their cedar-aged Altbier be out there, too?

Last Stop

Somewhere between six months and a year in operation, I'll give any place its last visit before writing it off (assuming it's not coming off well in these evaluations).  Maybe it took a while to learn the system.  Maybe they needed to bring in a lab guy/gal or hire a new brewer, and it took some time to get the new staff up to speed.  Maybe they didn't know how to operate their glycol chilling system at first or a thermometer was mis-calibrated, which made their first beers hot, estery messes.  

Whatever the case, when you're coming up on a year in business, you've had plenty of time to work out the kinks.  I'll give you one last try, and we'll see where we are.  

If there's evidence of improvement, OK, I'll try again in a few months.  If not...

Glutton for Punishment

OK, I know I said that was the last stop, but it really isn't.  Even the worst breweries in my area will get a test drive now and again, even after years of disappointment.  Maybe I'm just an optimist, but I have to believe that bad breweries can't stay in business for years without doing something right.

In those cases, though, I've never been turned around.  Maybe it's just accumulated bias/informational ballast.  Maybe there's a house flavor I just can't get past, like how I love seafood but despise crab in any form.  

Whatever it is, it isn't enough to stop me from giving them another shot.  It's like Charlie Brown and the football.  I just can't help thinking, "maybe this one will be great!"

So, to make a long story long, how do I evaluate a brewery?  Endlessly.

Keep it simple.

JJW

 

Is Craft Beer Demanding Too Much of Service Staff?

Maybe it's just bad luck, but I've run into some deeply challenged wait and bar staff lately:  overwhelmed, overconfident, overwrought and/or undereducated about the products they're serving.

I don't expect every front-of-house employee to be able to give me the rundown on how pH is a much less useful concept in evaluating the sourness of a beer than titratable acidity, but many are just running scared from one pint to the next.  I don't especially mind when folks just don't know something - worse is when they try to completely bullshit me.  Describing a Maibock as being "lagered instead of brewed with a bock yeast to lighten it up" is just nonsensical.  It's worse than a shrug, because it's clearly an attempt to sound competent despite the fact that what you've just said makes almost no sense.*

The Deep End

So, who's to blame here?  

You could blame the staff, but honestly, I can't do that.  For one thing, I used to be in that position, and I'm sure I misrepresented my fair share of information, too.  I'm also confident I did so in an attempt to appear knowledgeable about what I was serving, even if I didn't.  If their worst sin is image-protection, I think we can all understand that one.

No, I think you have to put most of this on bar owners and, to a lesser extent, on craft beer culture itself.  One created the deep end, and the other shoved us all into it.

Moving Targets

Let's say you're a well-meaning, beer-loving businessperson and you're opening a bar or restaurant.  As a beer lover (or, maybe, an opportunist who likes the idea of charging $6-7 a pint for beer), you want your bar to have a deep tap list that includes a wide range of craft beers.  You talk to some distributors and breweries, curate your list, and throw open the doors.  What kind of training do you give your staff?  

Answer: it doesn't really matter, even if you approach it seriously.

Let's say your staff learn, by rote, the details of each beer on the list (and let's further assume that that's even possible and you aren't pushing an absurd 60+ tap list).  Within a few short weeks, that list is changing.  Are they re-learning all of the new beers, or are they all just plugging along and trying to use the names of the beers to guide them (good luck with that)?

Your tap list represents a moving target.  And your staff - if you're like most service industry locations - is in a similar fluctuating state, with new people coming in all the time and institutional memory (such as it is) going out. 

A transient staff and a diverse and near-constantly shifting product selection.  What hope is there that you can get a reasonable answer to almost any question about what's on tap?

Nobody Expects It - But They Should

Then there's the Spanish Inquisition that often occurs when beer people hit the bar; nobody expects it, as the boys of Monty Python told us, but they really should.  I mean, first, when you offer a specialized product lineup you have to expect that beer neophytes might be intimidated by this and ask some questions - that's normal, and it's a problem that they might not be getting great answers.

Worse, though, are the beer geeks (and faux beer geeks) who turn the thing into 20 Questions.  A central feature of alehole behavior is the showing off of (real or imagined) esoteric knowledge of beer arcana, and this often lurks in the guise of asking questions of bar staff.  "So, which strain of Brett is in that pale ale?  Because Brett L can be a bit too piquant..."  

Yes, the very existence of craft beer culture creates the a scenario where a deep-dive/forced-drowning situation is virtually unavoidable, whether it be the newest or hippest people to walk up to the bar.

Information to The Rescue?

I know, I know, some of you are already yelling at the computer that we can all just whip out our smart phones and do our own research.  

And others are accusing me of creating a straw man because the tap list will have descriptions, too.

What I'd say to all of you is this: those have both, arguably, become unreliable narrators in the story of Craft Beer.  Ratings sites exist, but many don't offer descriptions of the beers in question - just reviews written by people who may be no more knowledgeable than you and subject to the same face-saving techno-babbly bias.  You can go right to the brewery's website, but the Maibock description above was also direct from the brewery, so that's certainly no guarantee of accuracy.

Then there's this: why should I have to?  

I've mounted this horse before, and I'm honestly not sure there's a clear answer, but if beer is going to be complicated, and style descriptions are going to be so broad as to be meaningless, and seasonal/one-off/collaboration/specialty beers are going to hit us (by popular demand) at a rapid rate, and bars are going to build out Hydra-like tap systems with a fecundity that rabbits would admire and then abdicate the responsibility to hire staff that know what's going on behind them, then...well, we might prepare for some pushback here.

I know that it's my simple-oriented bias showing itself here, but maybe - just maybe - we should start demanding quality over quantity, and not just in the beer, because the experience of drinking it matters, too.

Keep it simple.

JJW

*So here's what's wrong: this sentence draws distinctions without a difference and doesn't make a whole lot of technical sense.  True, there are "traditional "bock yeasts, so you could reasonably say that "this Maibock is different because it's not brewed with a bock yeast."  I wouldn't put it that way, but OK.  To go on, though, and say it is "lagered instead" draws two different fouls.  First, "lagering" is just cold-storing and can apply to any beer, even one brewed with an ale yeast.  Second, if the implication is that a lager yeast was used instead of bock yeast, there's a problem because bock yeast is lager yeast.  Last, lagering doesn't "lighten up" a beer, in any sense of the word.  It wouldn't lighten the color - color would stay the same or even darken, because oxidation is inevitable and oxidation darkens a beer.  It wouldn't lighten the body through continued fermentation, because by that time fermentation is complete.  And it wouldn't lighten flavor because as beers age the malt tends to come more to the fore since other flavors literally drop out of the beer.  So, yeah, we've got problems there.

A Beer Has No Name: IPA's Existential Crisis

I don't know what IPA is anymore.  And I don't think it knows, either.  Practically speaking, we've reached a point where the designation is largely meaningless.

Appearance: Bone white to jet black.
Bittering: None to teeth-ripping
Flavor: Who the hell knows?
ABV: 3.5-16.5%

Every style has variability - I get that.  I'm not pushing for constriction or mandates or uniformity.  But can we at least acknowledge that the name we put on something should matter, at least a little bit?  

Because at this point, you could call something "beer" instead of "IPA" and probably create as useful an expectation for what's in the bottle.

You Already Know Why

There's no mystery here: IPA sells.  People have come to conflate it with "craft beer that tastes like more than fermented rice syrup."  I've heard lots of folks "explain" that there's "lager and IPA."  I don't mind that, to be perfectly honest, because not everyone's a deep-diving maven on every topic, so they grab on to labels to help organize their knowledge of something, even if it's in a low-information way.  It's like how when I talk about film editing I'll probably misuse the terms "jump cut" and "match cut," because I'm not a professional film editor.  That's normal.  That's rational.  And that's why names matter.  But I've already been down that road.  More than once, apparently.  

So when a brewery slaps "IPA" on something, some large number of them are doing it for marketing purposes.  I'm sure they know that what they made isn't really in the realm of what has traditionally been called IPA, but they'll call it that anyway, either because they're convinced that theirs is a creative interpretation of the style or, more cynically, because they know it'll be easier to get and hold a tap with that label.

I don't care about motive, here, especially.

Bitter

Where things start getting squirrelly for me is when beer geeks start redefining IPA in ways that seem to eliminate its usefulness as a style category.

Let's leave aside most of the "typical" controversies (maybe someday I'll get bored enough to dive into the great haze debate).  I just want to focus on one:

Bitterness.

If there's one thing I could always say about IPA - in all of its varied forms, shapes, colors, strengths, and flavor profiles, it's that it was bitter.  It's a defining feature of the style, and so far as I know it always has been.  But now I'm regularly hearing from folks who are trying to tell me that their "Double IPA" has 20 IBUs.  Or that their standard IPA doesn't have any at all.  

"Nope!  ALL late hopping!" 

Then, forgive me, that's not an IPA.  Or, if it is, then there's nothing defining left of the style.  The name is meaningless.  A beer has no name.  

Hoppy

I can already hear the objections: "No, you don't understand: it's still really hoppy, though, and that's what makes it an IPA."

OK, let's explore that.  What you're saying is that any color, clarity, strength, or bittering level fits as an IPA...so long as the beer has medium-to-high hop flavor and/or aroma?  

Pilsner: IPA (IPL?).
American Pale, Amber, Brown ales: IPA
Altbier: German IPA
English pale ales: Session English IPAs
Kellerbier: Unfiltered IPA
American Porter: Black IPA
American Stout: Also Black IPA
American Wild Ales: Sour IPA

Hell, even the European lagers can feature moderate hop aroma.  

Basically, anything except Belgians are IPAs...unless they're Belgian IPAs.

So you've created a difference without a distinction.

The Appearance and the Reality of a Lack of Choice

If you have something that can include everything, then it arguably means nothing.  Maybe that's just the way we're trending: "IPA" means whatever anyone wants, with a general kind of presumption that it means Americanized or Craft.  If so, it's a bad call. It means that, without doing some reading, you're not going to know if you have a 90-IBU tongue-scraper on your hands or something that's basically a Beermosa.  

It'll sell well, though, I'm sure...for a while.

I'm not predicting the derailment of the IPA Train, quite.  But I'll say this: one of the biggest complaints that craft beer drinkers had in the bad old days was that tap lists were just wall-to-wall light lagers - it was just a question of which one you could tolerate or had identified with.

We're heading back that way, just with IPA instead of macro lager.

On the one hand, this is real.  Go to any "craft beer bar" (or something trying to be) and you'll probably see quite the run of 6-7%, 60-IBU, generally-pale IPAs on offer.  The same also goes for bars that want to carry a couple of "craft" taps: I've virtually never seen one where those 2-3 taps aren't IPAs.  

On the other hand, though, this is illusory - and becoming more so - because of this "catch-all" nomenclature of the IPA.  Even if there's a range of beers on offer, practically, it's hard to know that because everything's labeled "IPA."

And IPA is now, from a communication standpoint, a hollow name.  It doesn't mean anything.  

This has a simple solution, by the way: just call things what they are.  Don't jam them into an ill-fitting "new" nomenclature when they already have a name.  If something is closer to our typical understanding of Porter than our typical understanding of IPA, call it a Porter.  Proximity.  A "spatial" theory of beer style names.  Because, as previously discussed, these names are the single best and easiest tool we have to have some idea of what we're getting when we buy/order beer.

IPA Doesn't Exist Anymore

What's the practical impact of this one-beer-size-fits-all naming approach?  It means IPA doesn't exist anymore.  It's like how "trucks" wouldn't exist anymore if I could sell you a motorcycle and claim it's a "two-wheeled open-air no-cargo light truck."

Trucks can come in all kinds of shapes and configurations.  There are extended cabs, bed-covered things that look more like SUVs, compact trucks, panel trucks, heavy duty and super duty and light duty, and more.  We know what a truck is.

This kind of nominal "death by smothering" is a fascinating way for the IPA to go out: in plain sight, on every tap list, as the best-selling craft beer.  

I honestly wonder if and when we'll actually get around to noticing that it's pulling a "Weekend at Bernie's" and masquerading as alive, when in reality it's been dead for some time.

Keep it simple.

JJW

 

 

Roundup: The Session #123, "CyberBrew"

First, let me thank all of the bloggers who participated in this 123rd edition of The Session!  And, of course, to Jay and Stan for making it happen in the first place.  So, without further ado, we jump into a roundup of what everyone thought of Beer in the Information Age (and if anyone cares, my own brief post on the matter is at the conclusion).

The Brew Site 

Jon Abernathy's take focuses on the interconnection that the internet and social media make possible, and gives a nice rundown of the benefits and costs of this unavoidable linkage mechanism.  On the plus side, small (good) breweries get more attention and have an easier time building a following that can sustain them.  At the same time, the lengthy history of beer (even on the early internet) means that we have a running record of beer and brewery development, attitudes, and history that serves a useful archival function!  

On the negative side of the ledger, however, is one key detriment: especially in a social media age, the internet gives an outsized voice to the more-persistent and louder negative voices.  If 100 people are pleasantly happy with a beer but one is determined to destroy it, that one voice has a motivation to leap online and raise hell, whereas the 100 happy drinkers will simply enjoy their beer and move on.  That the internet is a platform for snobbery and distorted impressions is certainly not a new observation, but it's one that's always worth remembering.

Barrel Aged Leeds

"Do you even blog, Bro?" might be one of my favorite titles of all time.  Pointing out the rapid expansion of the blogging/vlogging/punditry sphere on the internet, we are warned that there is a risk of creating a beer blogosphere that is far too focused on cheerleading in an attempt to garner more likes and shares.  While we have less of a profit motive (ahem...some of us have none at all!) than the breweries themselves (or their PR departments), there's still some incentive to avoid rocking the boat.

We are rightly encouraged to think of the dogs that don't bark - a plethora of positive reviews of a brewery doesn't make it good.  I would concur and add that the same is true for the negatives we hear.  And, of course, as beer writers we might be best served by voluntarily adopting a degree of journalistic detachment and obejctivity.

The Aposition

Tom Bedell provides two recent beer interactions as vignettes on the impact of the internet on the beer community.  First, the near-"miraculous" (despite its now-commonplace nature) phenomenon of being able to gather the beer-interested from around the world via social media to discuss and share beer news and opinions.  The fact that we can now, easily, harness ideas and thoughts from brewers all over the world, instantaneously, is an astonishing thing, whatever its effects.

Second, we're all now also benefitting (and, again, we ignore the revolutionary nature of this) from advanced knowledge of what beer is available where, which means less time hunting and more time enjoying, and fewer disappointing tap lists even in places like airports and sporting stadiums.  It's like when someone finally get a DVR and sees what life is like without the down-time of commercials and the shackles of airing schedules.  It's remarkably liberating!

Kaedrin Beer Blog

Mark delves into this question with abandon, and I couldn't possibly summarize it all here (but I strongly urge you to read it all for yourself - great stuff!), but one point that jumped out at me was the incredible diversity of kinds of beer communities online.  Like a lot of these points, it was something I had observed but never remarked upon.  Trying to nail down online "beer culture" can be challenging because it reflects so many different approaches, concerns, and attitudes.  

With increasing levels of transparency are coming increasing levels of trust online, Mark notes, which is almost certainly a good thing, regardless of the topic or area.

A Better Beer Blog

Alan didn't seem to think much of my question, I regret to report, suggesting that it was "short-sighted" (or, if I'm reading it correctly, failing to appreciate the lengthy internet history of beer).  In my own defense, I don't think I was suggesting that beer is new to the internet - rather that recent changes in both scope and scale of the internet audience, in addition to its transition to an active space rather than a passive resource, might merit a review of how the internet today affects beer.  But I digress...

Alan seems to espouse a radically different view of many of the others in this week's roundup: he suggests that the interconnectedness and dynamic shrinking of the world that the internet and social media provide is merely the "presumption…no, the illusion of nearness."  The interactions found online are artificial.  "All beer is, as a result, properly understood as local and personal."  

It's an interesting perspective, but I can't say that I subscribe to it.  While these interactions may begin superficially and artificially, they often yield real relationships and benefits.  How many visit NHC or GABF and take active steps to meet and spend time with those who were previously only bits of data on a social media feed?  The end result certainly meets the "local and personal" standard, and if what starts that chain of events are the artificial virtual interactions of social media and internet activity, then doesn't that end result add a degree of "realness" to its beginning?  And are we really saying that IRL beer interactions can't be equally fleeting and artificial?  It's certainly a fascinating topic for discussion - more another day...

Ramblings of a Beer Runner

Derrick makes a wonderfully simple case for craft beer on the internet: everyone can and is getting something beneficial out of it.  Breweries get low cost-of-access publicity and direct contact with consumers.  Drinkers get information about beer and breweries and events.  Traders get a wildly expanded universe in which to offer and receive exotic beers.

All of this comes with a caveat, though: there's a lot of noise out there.  And as Derrick notes: "If you want to be heard above the rising beery noise on the Internet, you need to find a way to say something worth listening to."  I couldn't agree more!

The Tale of the Ale

Dublin-based blogger Reuben Gray stakes out a simple and compelling argument for the modern internet as a craft beer engine.  Information often fuels interest, and the fact the "global explosion in craft beer would be much slower and have far less of an impact without the rise of the internet and specifically smartphones/social media."  I find this to be especially true given the nature of craft beer's position and image in the marketplace: a swarm of "little guys" trying to take down the macro behemoths.  It's the perfect marketing medium for a David v. Goliath narrative.

Reuben also notes, though, that this sword cuts both ways: before everyone and their mother was on social media, and before internet news became ubiquitous, only the most-dedicated of beer people (or the most thorough of newspaper Business Section readers) would have noticed the full buyout of Lagunitas by Heineken.  Now, that information whips around the world (literally) at the speed of light.  Whether it actually helps or hurts the brewery is a question of case and context, but the idea that it could do either is a significant change in the beer world's ecology.

The Beer Nut

Also out of Dublin, The Beer Nut makes a fittingly novel argument: the novelty that pervades the beer world (one-offs, collaboration beers, 20 seasonals to 4 year-round offerings) is a direct result of the ramped-up communications (especially mobile) technology that breweries can now utilize.  When communication with customers was both costly and required firing a marketing shotgun into a crowd of potential beer drinkers, focus was key: serve only a few beers, and preferably have your brand identified by just one.  

With microtargeting, direct messaging, and a market segment constantly on the hunt for new and creative beer, the incentive structure changes, probably permanently.  Sure, you can have a range of really good "everyday" beers, but breweries can now choose to leave that model behind and brew an ever-evolving range of beers and make a living doing it.  An interesting illustration of one way that technology that has nothing to do with brewing changes beer.

Boak & Bailey

Boak and Bailey make a broader cultural argument that seems quite on-target: online and offline are no longer distinct spaces.  The integration of internet-based technology into practical everyday living is, if not complete, then damned near there.  

They follow up with a great question: what is the impact on the local when the global shows up in your pocket?  Certainly there are benefits to each, and just as we should be open to the idea of the exotic and the far-flung we should also take care to nurture and maintain the nearby and the familiar.  How?  That's a much longer discussion for another day.

Beer Simple

My take?  I agree with almost all of what my colleagues have written in the past week on the subject.  I concur that the Information Age (with the addition of social media) has changed the beer world by bringing all of us closer together, enabling interactions that would have been logistically challenging and probably impossible even a few years ago.  And I disagree that these interactions are immaterial or ineffectual or artificial.  

These interactions are real.  Nurture them, and they'll pay dividends.  

Keep it simple.

JJW

 

 

 

Sending Beer Back: Walking the Customer-Alehole Tightrope

"Don't like that beer?  Send it back.  You're the customer - you should get something you like."

Oh, if only it were that simple (especially around here - right?).  

Maybe it's a desire to avoid conflict.  Maybe we don't want to look like beer snobs.  Maybe it's that there seem to be a lot of introverts in/around craft beer and homebrewing.  Whatever the reason, though, this is one of the topics in which I find a lot of anxiety, disagreement, and tension: when, and how, do/should we send beer back?

I know that some of you out there are brazenly demanding new pints left and right and think the rest of us just need to get more assertive, but for those who don't fall into that category, let's get into this a bit.

First, When?

Right out of the gate, I gravitate towards trying to sort out the situations when it's OK to send a beer back and those in which it's more of a questionable move.  

Probably Not OK: The one time when I'm reasonably sure it's unreasonable to send a beer back is when I simply don't like it.  If what I ordered is basically what I got (as in, I ordered a Pilsner and it's lighter than amber and has some hop character/bitterness), then whether I think it's good or not doesn't factor into whether I should send it back or not.  The bar's under no obligation to only serve me beers that I would rate highly.

Almost Certainly OK: A seriously dirty or chipped glass, a beer that's flat, obvious off-flavors of a fecal variety, something that's demonstrably not the beer I ordered ("say, this beer's pretty haze and pale for a Russian Imperial Stout...") - these all seem like perfectly good reasons to send a beer back.

In Between: The trouble I run into is when there's not a patently obvious justification.  What do you do when there's lots of bubbles on the beer glass (not "beer clean")?  Diacetyl, DMS, other minor flavor faults?  Slightly stale flavors/oxidation?  Temperature issue?  I guess there's never going to be a commonly-accepted rubric for what does and doesn't qualify, and even if we agreed on one there's a lot of subjectivity in beer evaluation.

This is what I mean when I say we're walking the Customer-Alehole tightrope.  One person's reasonable complaint is another person's eye-rolling "get over yourself" self-indulgence.

For these "tweeners," I like to go with the "Two Beer" rule.  If there's one beer with that problem, fine.  But if my second has it, too, then I'm either going to leave and not come back OR bring it to someone's attention.  

What you say v. What they hear

"When," it turns out, might be the easy part.  "How" is a much bigger challenge, because now you're treading on more-dangerous ground.  

Sending a beer back could trigger all kinds of weird responses, few of them good.

On the one hand, you could be at a place that is really committed to customer service, trains up their staff well, and genuinely cares that you have a great experience.  That, though...isn't everywhere.  Many don't want or need your feedback, and may not care whether you're happy or not.  

It's really kind of understandable.  I mean, you're just sending a beer back.  But to the bar, you might be saying any/all of the following:

  • "You're losing $6 because I'm not paying for this."
  • "You run a dirty bar.  Clean a beer line, just once, for the novelty of it."
  • "You don't know what you're serving - that's NOT a stout, idiot."
  • "You're an idiot who served this in a chilled mug."
  • "I'm a super-entitled beer geek and beer judge and homebrewer and YOU WILL LISTEN TO EVERY DAMN WORD I HAVE TO SAY!"

So...you know, maybe we should approach this cautiously.  

The "How"

Well, I suppose it should go without saying that you should be polite and courteous (and even complimentary - "we love it here, and we know you guys care about your beer, it's just that this one is [fill in the concern]").  I've been burned by "goes without saying" before, though, so it can't hurt to repeat it here.

Context matters here, too - if it's a bartender/bar owner that you've known for a while, then feel free to be more direct.  Some people I could spit-take the beer across the room without offending, but that's not most folks in most places.

So, how do we politely but firmly register a request to send a beer back?  I like the Triple-A Method (modified from writing on how to engage in challenging political discourse):

  1. Apologize: "I'm so sorry, but I'm afraid I need to ask for a different beer."  Why lead off with an apology?  Because it suggests this isn't a power trip for you.  You don't want to make their lives harder.  You're just someone who wants a good, fair transaction.
  2. Augment: "I have a serious sensitivity to [whatever your beef is], and I'm tasting it in this beer."  Explain your concern in neutral terms.  No need to point fingers.
  3. Advance: "Could I have [new beer, new glass, etc.] instead?  Thanks SO much, and again, I'm sorry about this!"  Don't wait for them to suggest a fix - it can make you seem like you're trawling for more than a replacement, or they might think that you don't want it redressed at all.  

This method can work for all kinds of complaints.  It also makes no appeals to authority ("Look, I'm a homebrewer/beer judge, and I KNOW that's not right...") or normative value judgments.  It's clear, simple, and (unless someone's having a really bad day) pretty benign and non-reactive.

The Wrong Beer Exception

There's one area, though, where I haven't been able to come up with a single "clean" and non-insulting way to call attention: The Wrong Beer Scenario.

I ordered something.  You gave me something - but not what I ordered.

Now, one of two things could be happening here:

  1. It's patently the wrong beer (or Oktoberfest is now super-hoppy and cloudy).
  2. I know it's the wrong beer because I drink a lot of different beers and can tell.

There's no winning here.  If it's obviously the wrong beer, then pointing that out means you're calling the bartender an idiot.  If it's not patently wrong but my experience makes it obvious, then pointing it out makes me look like a smug beer snob.

The only thing that MIGHT work - but the server needs to be hip to what you're trying to do for them - is this face-saving statement: "Sorry, I think this must be for someone else - I ordered the Oktoberfest!  It's so busy, totally understandable..."  

Otherwise, you're on the express train to Awkward Town.  

Say Hi to the Vicar

Finally, a quick word on an under-pour.  I was drinking with an Englishman one fine afternoon, and on receiving his pint asked the waitress, "what about the vicar?"  I had no idea what he was talking about, and said so; apparently, he was referring to the white collar of head at the top of the glass, taking up space where his beer should be, and resembling (I now saw) a clerical collar like a priest or vicar might wear.  

If a place is slow, I might mention it.  Otherwise, I just let it slide.  He didn't - they're serious about a beer being a proper pint, those Englishmen...

Manners Cost Nothing

In any case, let your conscience be your guide, on all of this.  What I will say, though, is that being polite never hurts, usually helps, and costs nothing.  

If you're going to step out onto the Customer-Alehole tightrope, best to err on the side of courtesy.

Keep it simple.

JJW

The Session #123: CyberBrew - Is the Internet Helping or Hurting Craft Beer?

It is my great privilege to host the 123rd rendition of "The Session," the brainchild of Jay Brooks (of Brookston Beer Bulletin fame) and prolific beer writer Stan Hieronymous, coming up on May 5th.

What's "The Session?"

To quote Jay: “The Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts the Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing all of the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry. Over time, it is the hope — of me, at least — that a record will be created with much useful information about various topics on the subject of beer."

Interesting - what's the topic?

This month, we're taking on the internet and craft beer: is it a help, a hinderance, an annoyance, or all of the above?  How is beer drinking/brewing different in the internet age, and how is the internet changing the way brewers and craft beer drinkers do business?  

Topics might include:

  • Marketing beer in the internet age
  • The astounding influence of beer bloggers to make or break breweries (just kidding, but seriously, what's the effect of all of this quasi-journalistic beer commentary on the drinking and brewing public?)
  • How are beer reviews (expert and mass-market) affecting what gets brewed and drank?
  • Are beer apps for tracking and rating overly-"gamifying" beer (or does that make drinkers more adventurous)?
  • Just how fast do aleholes on message boards and elsewhere turn off prospective craft beer enthusiasts?

And, of course, I'm sure that you're all more creative than me and there's a lot I'm missing.

Cool - how do I join in? 

Leave a comment with a link to your post in the comment section of this post, preferably by May 5th (the first Friday of the month, also known as "next Friday").  Even if you're running a little late, leave your comment and I'll catch it.  The roundup will publish in mid-late May (I'd say that the 15th is a likely target), and we'll see what everyone came up with.

Keep it simple.

JJW

 

A Year of Unique Beer - First Quarter Update

I'm a believer in making one's own fun, setting challenges, and turning life into a game whenever possible.  This year's game?  2017 will be a year of unique beer.  I don't mean that I'll try to drink interesting and different beers this year - I mean it literally.  Every beer in 2017 will be singular.  Today's post is the first quarter update, and I'll also lay out the rules.

Getting to Here 

I drank 381 pints of beer last year.  How do I know?  I was tracking it, thanks to a fun conversation I had with my wife.  The question we had was, "do I drink a barrel of beer per year?"  Turns out I do - about 1.54 barrels, to be precise.  

The "roughly one beer per day" average, though, started us down a different track: what if they were all different beers?  A new beer for every new day?  Not that I'd be limited to one per day or would HAVE to drink one a day, but just that there would be no repeats.  

Challenge accepted.  Why?  Well, because it might be interesting, but also because it struck me as a great way to test the depth and breadth of the craft beer world (at least in our area) in 2017.  If this is easy, then it says a lot about the variety of beers we get to choose from.  If not, then it might suggest that there's not as much choice out there as we think (what if bars all have roughly the SAME 25 beers on tap?).  

The Rules

Pretty simple, really - no repeated beers.  I'd better enjoy that one Celebration Ale, because it's the only one I'm getting all year.  Now, inevitably, we need to work out some kinks here, so here's the general setup (if you want to play along at home):

  • All beers will be tracked in Untappd, and checked-in when drank.
  • A "counted" beer is a pour of more than 6 ounces, but not more than 22 (unless poured into a liter mug or boot as part of a festival situation).  As a result, samplers are fine, as is a small pour of a shared bottle, but anything else checks it off the list for the year.
  • This applies to homebrew, too (even my own). 
  • Beers served in different ways (nitro, cask, etc.) ARE distinct, but ONLY if they exist separately in Untappd.
  • Beers that are tied to a specific year or version/batch number (Luponic Distortion, Black Ops, etc.) are distinct, but (again) only if they exist separately in Untappd.  

That's it.  

The Year So Far

BEER COUNT: 108

Bottom line up front?  So far this has been a breeze, with just one notable exception.  Even though (like most people, I imagine) I frequent the same 5-6 drinking establishments most of the time, I've found it to be no challenge at all finding new beers to try at each visit. Surprisingly, to me, this is true even at brewpubs; their seasonal rotations and one-off beers are more than enough to keep me covered, at least for now.  It's also interesting because I find myself ordering more beers from breweries I don't know well, or trying more seasonal beers, or going for that nitro-IPA even though I don't generally go in for that.  It's been a great excuse to drink outside my comfort zone a bit more!

I also found that most of the beer I drink at home tends to be the more unusual or rare beers, anyway.  I don't generally pop open something just to drink it while watching football or to unwind at the end of the day, so that's been no problem, either.

No, the only real problem is when I'm going calling on friends/family who aren't beer people, or when they visit us and there's social drinking going on.  Since we're talking about 12 oz. cans/bottles in most cases, it isn't that hard to check off four or five in a single happy hour/dinner situation.

Do you know how hard it is to keep a supply of single bottles on hand?  I mean, mixed cases usually give at LEAST three of each beer, so that's no solution.  For now I'm getting by with the "mix your own six-pack" option at Wegmans, but those bottles/cans aren't always in the best shape and I'm concerned about how much they rotate.  I've also been making a LITTLE progress with trading my "extra" beers with others, hunting for equitable trades for things I haven't had yet, and asking friends who are traveling to pick up something local and cut me out some single bottles from their haul.

I'm going to see if there's a more-systematic approach to this that I can utilize.  Maybe cut a deal with a local beer distributor for a full case of singles?  But in any case, it's interesting that so far the major challenge isn't variety, but logistics.  

Next update: July.  In the meantime, if you have any suggestions for how to source singles, please feel free to let me know at josh@beer-simple.com!

Keep it simple.

JJW

Beer Yoga Is Stupid (or the "Taking Beer Seriously Equilibrium")

For any thing that anyone cares about, there's someone who cares insultingly little about it and, at the other end of the spectrum, someone who cares way too much about it.  This week, we're going to see if there isn't some kind of "sane middle" that we can agree on.  Because if there's one thing I know, it's this: "beer yoga" is really stupid.

I'll admit that some of us take beer too seriously - me included, probably, since I actually pay money to produce a beer blog that generates virtually no revenue.  But at the same time, I don't think it's out of line to suggest that maybe people shouldn't use craft beer as some kind of artisanal prop, either.

You're Taking It Too Seriously

When I saw an April Fool's joke that suggested Cantillon was soon going to begin distributing in cans, I laughed my ass off - which is a massive warning light that one might be a bit too "into" a certain hobby.  That's a seriously esoteric and geeky joke.  But geekiness, in and of itself, isn't really something to be too concerned about.  If anything, it's a natural pendulum-swing away from a postmodern society that's "so over" almost everything, and where enthusiasm is almost something to be ashamed of.  

That's not what I'm talking about here.

I'm talking about the people who feel the need to treat beer as an almost theological enterprise.  We've talked before about the dogmatists among us (and thanks for the "you're not insane" support from Brulosophy on that one).  Beer, brewing, homebrewing, beer judging, and other cognate/tangential sectors of the beer world are lousy with martinets, sticklers, and pedants and purists who sound off on normative absolutes and generally suck the fun out of this whole thing.  We've talked about them before, and at length, as being great personifications of "aleholes."  These are often people who start from a position of taking beer too seriously.  

When your approach and attitude to beer start to spill over into a desire to dictate to others how or what or when they should be drinking, then you need to take a hard look at what you're asserting to ask if it's reasonable.  

Am I a hypocrite for saying that drinking beer while doing yoga is dumb?  Maybe.  But I think I can defend it reasonably, so I'm still OK with doing it.  Yoga requires significant effort and concentration, so drinking while doing it makes as much sense to me as holding a footrace over an icy parking lot.  I'm not telling you not to do it - I'm saying I think it's a really inconvenient way to drink beer (if that's what you want to do) and a poor way to do yoga (if that's what you want to do).  Why not just go to a yoga class and then go drink beer afterward?

But, for example, if I say that if you're drinking a beer that's a few degrees above or below its optimum serving temperature that therefore you're doing it wrong, then I'm now entering a different arena - that's not just sharing an opinion, it's imposing a standard and actively judging people that don't hew to it.  That's wrong, and when I do it I hope people point it out.

You're Not Taking It Seriously Enough

OK, so what about the people who don't take it seriously enough?  They're out there, too.  Our "beer yoga" people are probably in that category.  

Here's the thing: making good beer is a challenging endeavor undertaken by people who (usually) care a lot about what they do, and they do it knowing that it's almost certainly not going to make them rich.  The Jim Koch's of the world are rare.  Most people in brewing know that the way to make a small fortune in the beer world is simple: start with a large fortune (rimshot).  

When you treat their work as a trendy prop, they might be grateful you bought it in the first place, but it's still kinda disrespectful.  Craft beer has fought long and hard to get to where it is, often against competitors that use ethically (and, sometimes, legally) questionable practices to fend off legitimate competition.  I'm not saying that you shouldn't have a craft beer-themed fundraiser for your nonprofit or host a "beer tasting party" for your non-beery friends - I'm saying that you shouldn't be doing it so that you can make fun of the "hipster in the work shirt and beard" that is your stereotypical image of a craft brewer/drinker.

I used to joke about yoga, that it was just stretching and laying (hell, there's a yoga pose that's literally called corpse pose where you lay flat on your back).  Then I tried it, and it kicked my ass for a little while.  It made me realize that I was being a bit of a dick about it, even if I wasn't making fun of people who did yoga, maliciously and mercilessly mocking their efforts.  I was just being dismissive and (mentally) treating them like dilettantes who were just engaging in a trendy hobby - and while, almost certainly, some were, a lot weren't, and what they're doing deserves our respect even if we don't share their enthusiasm.

The Balance Point

So where's the balance point?  After all, we're talking beer and yoga, both of which care about balance.  

I think it's here: don't let your attitude about beer (or just about anything, really) be either a cudgel or a punchline.  If you're browbeating people with it, you're taking it too seriously.  If you're (even passively) mocking people with it, you're not taking it seriously enough.  

And for those who are (inevitably) going to criticize this as being "obvious," I just have to say that I don't think it is.  Most often, people say something like, "yeah, duh - we know 'too far' when we see it."  Years of experience in/around this world have shown me that those on either side of this divide very, very often do NOT know "too far" when they see it.  

A modest suggestion: be a little more self-critical.  Err to the middle.  We'll all be a bit better off for it, I think.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm literally going to go do yoga before writing an article about becoming a certified beer judge.

Namaste (which is Sanskrit for "Keep it Simple").

JJW