GUY WALKS INTO A BAR...
...and accidentally exposes himself to what appears to be a doctoral-level dissertation on the finer points of fermentation and how "100% Brett-fermented beers aren't actually sour, you know?" even though he didn't bring up Brett beer. He doesn't know what Brett is. He doesn't even know anyone named Brett. All he did was ask the bartender about one of the taps, and the bartender gave a stock answer that was given to him/her by the distributor, who probably misunderstood it when the brewery rep explained it in the first place. Then, our friendly neighborhood alehole, lurking in a dark corner of the bar, overhears the exchange, decides to jump in, and we're off to the races. First, he/she corrects the bartender, which does wonders for over-the-bar relations (expect saliva and/or urine in your next tulip glass of exotic Trappist ale). Second, he/she decides to crack an egg of knowledge on the fellow bar patron who asked the initial question. Said patron might even be stupid/polite enough to ask follow-up questions of the alehole, despite the gleam of hop-fueled mania in the alehole's eyes. We LOOOOOVE beer. And we love talking about it. But this can quickly turn on us. If we're not careful, we're not scoring a victory for beer knowledge: we're being off-putting and (probably) irritating, and also not that helpful. We're being Beer Talk Terrorists.
These situations can be the most treacherous arena of beer-person's life, and if you're conscientious you can make them positives for everyone involved. But you can also wreck them and deprive people from good-beer-fueled happiness for the rest of their said, Aspen Edge-swilling lives.
Four quick vignettes will illustrate what I mean, and hopefully give you some useful guidance on Talking Beer without being an alehole. Let's talk about The Eavesdropper, The Faux Beer Geek, The Casual Questioner, and (my favorite) The Victim.
Look, if you really get into beer and hang around long enough, the day will inevitably come when you overhear a beer server or bar patron say something that is just balls crazy. TRUE STORY: A bartender, on being asked, replies as follows to a query about one offering at his bar. "Dopplebock? It's like regular bock, but less hoppy, like an Amber Ale." I've been pondering that one since June 2004, and I swear to God, I still don't know what it means. What should you do?
NOTHING. DO NOT ENGAGE. I know the impulse to jump in is strong. And I know you're thinking, "but I can be polite and informative to all involved and save the beer day!" No you can't. Gandhi couldn't thread this needle. You're going to have to do a 180-degree correction on the server without wildly embarrassing him/her, while at the same time imparting useful information to the patron without boring him/her to death (see the many iterations in "Airplane"). It can't be done. Sit there, shut up, and hope that someone asks you for your opinion (which almost certainly won't happen). This is NOT the time to "train up" those around you.
The Faux Beer Geek
Your sister tells another attendee at her cookout that you brew your own beer, to which the individual responds, "Oh, I love craft beer!" You think, "nice! This could be fun..." when all of a sudden they follow it up with, "I totally prefer stouts to ales." And your heart sinks. The objection of "stouts ARE ales..." leaps to your lips - but hold it back.
This person is the Faux Beer Geek. They don't drink macro beer (or, possibly, they think that Amstel is "craft" beer because it's imported), and they think because they know what an IPA tastes like (maybe) that they're the second coming of Michael Jackson. DO NOT go all alehole on them. They usually mean well - in other words, they're probably not just saying it to show off - and by putting them in their place with your massive beer knowledge, you may just crush their spirit like a can of fine craft beer (like Shock Top, you know?). So what should you do?
FIND WAYS TO AGREE. Don't talk down to them. Steer clear of technical details and science. Focus on flavors, and maybe make recommendations of things they might like based on what they tell you they like to drink or share the names of breweries you know to be solid that they may like. Encourage their love of beer, and try to get them in the door of a place that has a great beer list - over time, they may develop a more-sophisticated knowledge of beer. Maybe get them to a local homebrew shop to start doing it for themselves! Nudge, don't shove, in the right directions. You know, like cult recruiting, but with more vinyl tubing.
The Casual Questioner
This one is dangerous. Maybe you're at a workplace event, and you notice that the company has sprung for some decent local beer - score! You express your delight at finding a bottle of craft beer instead of the usual aluminum bottles of macro, and a colleague asks casually what makes your ESB-inspired-but-uses-New-Zealand-hops beer better or different. What should you do?
BE BRIEF AND SIMPLE. Hit the high points using language that isn't too jargon-y, and mainly talk up the ingredients and care-in-process aspects. If I told you a bakery made awesome cake - way better than that supermarket cake - because they use fully-emulsified peanut oils and not propeller-expressed palm oil, you'd have no idea what the hell I was talking about. And the longer I talked, the worse it would get. Instead, imagine I just said, "Oh this stuff? Pure Moroccan Vanilla in the icing and the baker is the third generation of her family to make them all by hand! So how about that kickball game later?" Give them something that leaves a positive impression, and don't belabor it. In all likelihood they haven't been waiting for months to have an intense beer talk with someone, but maybe they've been thinking of giving craft beer a try. If it's a good beer they ask you about, recommend they try one or others in the brewery's lineup, and leave it at that. Less is more.
This one is just sad. I've been the perpetrator here a few times: you think you hear real interest in beer from the other person in the conversation, but what you're really hearing is a desperate need to keep a conversation going at all costs. This might be someone who has tremendous fear of silence and pressure of speech. It might be someone who is insanely polite and must constantly ask follow-up questions because you seem so pleased by them. But this person DOES NOT WANT TO TALK ABOUT BEER! You just think they do. So what do you do to prevent this from happening and weighing on your conscience, as it so heavily weighs on mine?
GET THEM TALKING. If they're REALLY interested in beer, it will be obvious when they answer some questions. Ask what they drink and why. Ask if they've ever thought of brewing for themselves. Ask if they've ever visited a brewery or gone to a beer dinner. You'll know right away what you're dealing with: short, vague answers will cue you in to the fact that this is probably just polite conversation, so don't jump in with both feet. If the answers are longer, enthusiastic, specific - and especially if the person in question loves to cook or works as a scientist, two huge tells in the beer community, I've found - then you may have a larval beer geek on your hands. But play it safe; offer them multiple ways out of the conversation, either by bringing up a new topic or apologizing for going on and on about beer. If they want out, that will give them plenty of opportunity.
The ratio of the number of people who REALLY know about/love/want to talk about beer and brewing, versus the number of people who just DRINK beer, is pretty extreme. Be a good beer ambassador. Talk up the culinary, not the technical. Educate, don't correct. Be enthusiastic, not boorish. And always leave them wanting more - the next sip, if you will.
Keep it simple.